By Judith Toy
You hear her name around town, primarily as the founder/creator of Asheville’s annual literary event, Wordfest. I first heard Laura Hope-Gill read a poem of hers that was included in a chapbook to raise money for a Zen nun to go to Japan. It was a poem about her grandmother’s imprisonment in a Chinese prison camp that contained such excruciating details, I recognized all at once her research abilities, her compassion and her skill.
When I heard she was teaching a course in Asheville, I jumped. Later I learned she has been teaching writing 20 years. I finally had a chance to meet with her, as I am enrolled in her Evolution of Creative Non-Fiction course at the spanking new Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies in Asheville. She exhibits a writer’s mindfulness that sees, hears, feels, smells, touches, and breathes with the world. I had questions.
Judith Toy: How did your childhood inform who you are now?
Laura Hope-Gill: My childhood was adventurous and worldly, packed with guidance from art-loving parents. As I grew up in Toronto, London, Asheville, and Florida, my family took trips. Our summer vacations were six-weeks in Europe or three-weeks in Switzerland, Western Canada or Great Britain. A guard at the Louvre blew his whistle at me when I was four because I was about to lay my dirty little hands on da Vinci’s “Virgin on the Rocks.” Even my disobedience was connected to art, beauty and culture.
As an adult, I’ve witnessed the harsher realities of the world and gone to work teaching in just about every imaginable environment, including a private boarding school for boys and a village school in Jamaica. I’ve taught in basic education programs, jails, prisons and juvenile detention as well as community college and university settings. In each place, I strive to connect my students to their innate sense of beauty.
Toy: How/where did you form your teaching philosophy?
Hope-Gill: My grandfather (followed by my mother) was a teacher, an excellent one. He was quiet — mostly, I now realize, because he, like me, became deaf in adulthood — attentive and nearly mystical in his ability to sum up a situation with a line from Shakespeare or Yeats.
Almost everything I learned about teaching I learned from him. Poppee would hand me a hard-cover book from his bookshelf. He would sit in his mission-style armchair and read. If I wanted to spend time with him, I would have to sit and read as well.
Toy: I consider you a woman who lives in the public eye. Your videos are easily accessible; you are a presence in the social media. You are an author and essayist who has written poetry about our mountains and prose about the architecture of our city. You are the organizer of what is becoming a major annual literary event in Asheville. How does this play out in your daily schedule, to live in such a way that you and your name are recognized?
Hope-Gill: I take leadership seriously. I take creativity very seriously. For me, the two paths have intersected. Creativity is the driving force in my life. I wouldn’t want to be a leader for anything but sharing the value of creativity. Anytime I can move creativity into a spotlight, large or small, I magnify the force that makes me live. I can’t ask for more than that.
Toy: What is the Healing Seed?
Hope-Gill: Oh, I love this question. The Healing Seed is a phrase denoting what I believe the seed imagery of sacred texts holds. I have drafted two books about this, and I have the website – www.thehealingseed.com – where I speak about it in videos. These connect with other work I do in the classroom and in the world, as well as in raising my daughter.
A few years ago I taught a class on Chinese poetry and saw the works of ancient Chinese alchemy, Taoism, at work. I started to research. This led me to a study of imagery across the Tao te Ching, Dhammapada, Qu’ran, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Rig Veda and whatever stories and teachings that shape religions that I could find. There’s a genre other than poetry or prose at work in them, and it is a symbolic language with polyvalent symbols, yet those that are fixed within a system.
Toy: I know exactly what you mean. When I read the King James Bible as a child, I tuned in to the symbolism you refer to. I felt it. Then when I read Allan Watts as a young adult. I could not relate exactly to his meaning, but I located a meaning beneath or between the words, a symbolic depth. It was something like what we call wordless transmission from teacher to student in Zen.
Hope-Gill: That is its power. First it’s intuitive, like “there’s something else going on here.” The “seed” is the philosopher’s stone. Seed motifs suggest we move from earthly to divine through stages of creativity, destruction, patience, loss, recovery, again and again through life.
Toy: And this is what I have experienced in your class, a new ability to allow the threads of my consciousness unravel fully, to get at the depth. To do this, I’ve been employing a different part of my brain. I can feel the new dendrites dancing in my old skull, thanks to you.
Hope-Gill: Thank you. I can’t take credit though. It’s all these wonderful writers we’re reading!
Toy: Now tell us about your connection with Lenoir-Rhyne, how it came about. Do you feel fortunate to be carving out a new graduate writing program in Asheville? What is your vision for this program?
Hope-Gill: I have found a great team to work with. That’s the most exciting part. I am community oriented, and I like to be around people who are already thinking in the next century. When you get a room of professors who “see” a new way, the creativity’s contagious. LRU looked all over the state for the location for a Graduate Center. They chose Asheville and invested $3 million in establishing graduate studies programs here, an investment in Asheville.
We offer a safe, challenging environment for the study of writing and expression through writing in the MA program; To provide structure and guidance in all genres of writing; To expose students to a global library. We’re rocking our brains. It’s a rush that only comes with either skydiving or scholarship.
Toy: I love the way your mind works. How has your hearing loss helped or hindered you in your writing and in your life?
Hope-Gill: The hearing loss has made my life richer. I was terrified at first. There’s nothing simple about going deaf. It impacts every part of life, and my heart goes out to anyone who is walking this path. We receive messages that the deaf are either superheroes or angry as hell. So, when you are diagnosed with deafness, you have no idea where you fit in. While one identity is impossible, the other is unattractive. I had to delve really deeply, disappear even, in order to piece together “deaf Laura.” I had to let go of “hearing Laura.”
Toy: Tell us about your connection with Beethoven.
Hope-Gill: My mother can play his piano concertos. It always astonished me. There she was back in the 1970’s with her wild permed hair and bell-bottom jeans, pounding out the Pathetique like nobody’s business. There was something heroic in that.
So, when I found out I was going deaf, I turned to Beethoven (and my mom!). Here was the deaf guy who heard music in his head while standing in line at the bank waiting to be rejected again for a loan. Deafness? And yet here I was “losing my hearing.” Beethoven gives us the comfort that we can survive the deepest, darkest moments and even come out shooting cannons of joy. As a hearing person, I’d never been excluded.
Now I know what exclusion feels like.
Toy: As an adult-onset writer, I have always looked for a quiet space in which to write.
Hope-Gill: Clever! Deafness does help in that department. I can take my hearing aids out and have instant ashram. It has also taught me how to listen. I take someone else’s speech very seriously.
Toy: Tell me, what are the banks of your river of creativity?
Hope-Gill: What a fascinating question. I fell through a bridge once. It was night. I was in Interlaken, Switzerland walking around town with another traveler. We stepped onto an old railway bridge over the Aare River, which connected Lake Thun to Lake Brienz, both glacial lakes with ice cold water. My feet cracked through
the wood and I plunged ten feet into the current. And I went under. I will never understand why I could not find the surface. I swam down and felt the rocks. I swam up and there were the rocks again. The current was strong. The water was just this side of ice. After multiple attempts to surface, I gave up.
I was nineteen. I said to myself, “Oh, wow. So this is how I die. I die in a river.” And I let go of my little neck safe with my passport and green card and money. I let go of the waist sack with my camera, my rolls of film and my journal, and relaxed into what I thought would be my death.
Instead, something told me to let the blood flow away from my heart into my limbs and to stay relaxed and swim diagonally with the current. At a moment when I was certain I did not have enough air in my lungs to try for the surface once more, suddenly I felt as though I had a third lung with just enough oxygen to get me back to the surface. From there, I swam as the voice had instructed, swiftly and confidently. I made it to the brick wall at the edge of the river. And I climbed that sucker like I have never climbed anything since. Then I passed out in some Swiss lady’s tomato patch and woke up in a squad car arrested for trespassing.
I still have the police report: “Fraulein Hope-Gill viel von einer bruche in der Aare.” That’s where I write from now—that place underneath that water.
Toy: That must be what you meant the other day when you told us, “When there is nothing more to be said about a thing, I say sing at that door!”
Hope-Gill: Yes! This comes from the myth of Orpheus. He has to find Eurydice in the underworld which has all these doors. He has to sing the correct song in front of the correct door. Joseph Campbell says we “have the courage to follow the echoes of the eloquence within.” Writing is a form of echolocating ourselves in the darkness.
Toy: Tell us about your two current writing projects.
Hope-Gill: Actually, I have three projects in the works at the moment: First, a collection of poems entitled Magnify. These have been in process for the past ten-to-fifteen years. Second, I am revising a memoir of my deafness entitled Cochlea and the Bony Labyrinth. The nouns of the title are parts of the ear. I wrote my way through the terror, and these are my tracks. The third project, one I hope to have completed by the time this goes to press, is Holy Curiosity, named for the thing Einstein says he hopes we never lose. I’ve been working on this one for seven years. It’s my book on alchemy as a way of being in the world.
Toy: Thank you, Laura, for your way of being in the world.
Judith Toy deeply appreciates her experience in the Lenoir-Rhyne master’s writing class with Laura Hope-Gill. Toy will offer a free workshop on forgiveness, based on research for her book, Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness, (www.murderasacalltolove.com) on December 15 at 2 PM at the Asheville Unitarian-Universalist Church in the main hall. She and her husband, Philip Toy, lead mindfulness practice at Cloud Cottage in Black Mountain, www.cloudcottage.org.