Category Archives: Residency Reviews

Ragdale Residency: A Review

By Deborah Derrickson Kossmann

On the Autumnal Equinox of 2004, a visual artist, a poet and I (a poet and essayist) lined up raw eggs on their ends without any salt underneath on the front step of the Ragdale House. It was the end of my first visit to The Ragdale Foundation (, and we were testing out whether the eggs would stand upright and unbroken. The experiment was the result of a spirited discussion at dinner the night before about whether this would actually work. It did, to the applause of the residents who came out to watch.

I’ve been to The Ragdale Foundation five times since that first visit (most recently in November, 2015), and I’ve found myself in an artist’s studio chatting and using her colored pencils to make ornaments for the Ragdale holiday tree, playing Bananagrams until 2 a.m. with four other residents and a bottle of wine, participating in a bird banding study on the prairie during two weeks of spring migration, visiting a modern art show in Chicago, and reading a section of a now published and well-known novel for descriptive accuracy about a character’s breakdown (I’m a psychologist in my non-writing life).

My husband jokes that Ragdale sounds more like “writer’s camp.” Maybe that’s a little true. You have time and space to create, a beautiful setting on a five-acre campus which includes the house, studios and gardens. There’s a staff, including a resident assistant on site. On this most recent visit, that position was filled by Eddie Morfin, a visual artist who helps out with problems or resident needs. He works with staff member Amy Sinclair who handles admissions. All of the staff take good care of your day-to-day needs and maintain an environment that rejuvenates your playful spirit. Most of us come to residencies hungry for the time to work intensely and find community. I’ve produced more quality writing during my two or four week residencies here than I have during a year of work at home. In addition, like a good camp experience, I’ve made lasting friendships with talented and wonderful artists from around the country. During my last stay, the residents featured in this video were at Ragdale with me and you can get a taste of the setting and experience from watching:

Ragdale House (built in 1897 and recently restored to it’s former glory) was noted Arts and Craft architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s (1869-1926) summer retreat in Lake Forest, IL. Ragdale’s mission is to support writers and artists and to make the arts more accessible to the public. In addition to the residency program, there are community programs and preservation of the historic site (the main house and gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are among the few surviving intact examples of the Arts and Crafts movement in the country).

Chicago is just 30 miles south of Ragdale (and easily accessible by train). Lake Michigan is a brisk 45-minute walk from the property. Behind the house are paths through 50 acres of preserved prairie land (bring footwear that can stand mud and wet, you’ll need waterproof boots to roam pretty much any time of year). Deer, herons and other birds, as well as a wide variety of flora and fauna provide a respite from long hours in front of your computer. The prairie provides a haven in good weather to sit with a notebook and contemplate. There’s something magical about this place that generates and nurtures creative energy. Each time you walk the prairie it reveals something different—a bluebird, a butterfly in the milkweed, the color of a leaf, or flowers in the prairie grass towering higher than your head. It becomes a kind of meditative practice to go outside and observe as you let your mind wander. And it helps to soothe and solve those thorny writing problems that trouble you. I’ve been there in the spring when the prairie begins blooming and the birds come back, in the fall when the leaves turn and the grasses slowly wither into the ground, and in the dark December when snow blankets the paths and the wind howls through the bare branches. No matter what the season, the landscape here is part of what makes this place so special.

Ragdale is my favorite of all the residencies I’ve attended (I’ve been to Vermont Studio Center once and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts three times). There are quirky historic rooms with private bathrooms located in the Ragdale House. There are also rumors of a ghost in Ragdale House, and I’ll confess I was skeptical until I heard it one visit at 3 a.m (and no, it wasn’t the time with the wine and Bananagrams). The Ragdale House has a full kitchen and a living room, sunroom filled with geraniums, and a dining room where you’re welcome to work. The rooms in the Barnhouse (all have shared bathrooms) are also unique. Poets often are given the studio called the “Playroom” with the round window and stairs that go up to a little private sitting area at the top of the building. There are three visual artist studios in a separate building. Two of these include sleeping lofts, and the third, The Meadow studio, is located out on the prairie. The visual artist who works there has a small bedroom in the Barnhouse. There is a wheelchair accessible studio on the first floor of the Barnhouse for either a visual artist or writer.

Each weeknight, a communal and delicious dinner is served by Chef Linda Williams in the Barnhouse dining room. She makes sure there are plenty of leftovers for lunch and also for weekend eating (although I strongly recommend going out on the weekend for deep dish Chicago pizza or ordering it in). Lake Forest is about a fifteen-minute walk from the house. The town has upscale shops, restaurants and several very good thrift stores (it’s quite a well-to-do suburb) and a wonderful independent bookstore which gives Ragdale residents 10% off purchases. You can get a temporary library card for the Lake Forest Library. Lake Forest College is a short drive or bicycle ride (Ragdale has some loaner bikes for your use) where there is a gym free to residents. There is also a massage therapist/acupuncturist who will come visit if there are enough people interested in getting bodywork and her cost is very reasonable.

Unlike some other residencies, your room functions as your studio as well as your bedroom, but you’re free to roam and work in any area of the property or living spaces, and the staff is extremely accommodating. As long as you check that there’s not a meeting going on, you are welcome to use the conference room to spread out your poetry manuscript or lounge around in front of the fireplace in either Ragdale House or the Barnhouse. Daytime hours are quiet and the rule is not to disturb other residents. There is a large lending library of Ragdale writers and you are free to borrow and read books as long as they are returned at the end of your stay. Some residents may gather in the Barnhouse or Ragdale House kitchen and have lunch together or you can work to your own rhythm and just grab food and go back to your studio (this is true for dinner as well. Just let Chef Linda know beforehand that you won’t be coming). Often residents will arrange to go to the gym together (to share rides) or walk together in the afternoons to Lake Michigan and back (in the warmer months there’s a beach for swimming).

Ragdale only hosts 13 artists at a time, so it’s smaller than many residencies. There are pros and cons to that, but personally I’ve found it to be a great size for really getting to know people, to share work informally, or just hang out. Often residents gather for readings (staff often likes to come to these as well). The visual artists have open studios toward the end of a residency period. Ragdale also skews female and more middle aged than other places I’ve attended (and I say this as a middle-aged female), and it can’t be beat for the comfort of the rooms and the quality of the food. Unlike many residencies, you have a well-stocked kitchen for the rest of your meals as well as the dinner leftovers. Chef Linda takes pride in nurturing your health through her creative cookery and tries to accommodate your dietary needs so that you can have a healthy, well-nourished stay. There’s coffee and tea always available (and equipment to make your own if you want to bring your favorite brand). My only complaint from my recent stay was that the office chair in my room was old and uncomfortable. I had back and seat cushions that I’d brought with me, but even with those modifications, it wasn’t particularly workable. This was my first visit where that was a real problem, and hopefully the issue will be addressed for the writers who attend in the future.

Ragdale accepts 150 artists per year and applications are accepted through Submittable ( once a year for the following year. Depending on the schedule offered by Ragdale, your residency may be 18 or 25 days in length. For 2017, the application is due by midnight May 15, 2016. There is a $40 application fee and you will need a work sample, artist statement, work plan, and references. Notification is late July/August. There is some financial aid based on need and there is a daily $35 fee for your stay (you’ll need to send a deposit to hold the space once you are accepted). Ragdale does offer Creative Sabbaticals for $1,500 a week and those applications are reviewed by a separate process. My first stay at Ragdale was on a Creative Sabbatical because I had been awarded a state grant after the application process had ended. If you are there on a Creative Sabbatical you are part of the resident community, but you may have a different length of time that you stay.

During my stay in November, I finished a nonfiction book proposal including initial chapters that a literary agent had requested. We’ll see if the Ragdale magic works. What I do know is that “writer’s camp” this time around was productive and enjoyable. And I’ll be applying again. I have a lot more to write. And I miss the prairie and the great food already.


Deborah Derrickson Kossmann’s recent essay “Tale of Two Primates” appeared as a Menagerie column in the New York Times Opinionator section in October, 2014. She won the Short Memoir Competition at the 2007 First Person Arts Festival in Philadelphia and her essay, “Why We Needed a Prenup With Our Contractor” was published as a “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. “Taking a Step Forward” was also published as a “Modern Love” column in December, 2011. Her other essays have appeared in journals and magazines including Tiferet, A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Psychotherapy Networker, and Families, Systems, & Health. In 2004, Deb received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Poetry Fellowship and her poetry has appeared various literary journals. Along with her memoir WHAT WE HOLD ON TO, Deb is currently working on a book of poetry. When she’s not writing, Deb is a clinical psychologist in private practice with offices in Langhorne and Havertown, Pennsylvania. She is married and a devoted servant to two geriatric cats.

Morning Garden Artist Retreat

Editor’s note: This is post is one of a series on writers’ residencies. Have you been to a writing residency and would like to write about it? If so, Drunken Boat is looking for reviews of writing residencies, which can be anonymous, that we will post on our blog. Reviews should be a minimum of 300 words and include objective information such as such as cost, location, and application requirements as well as a subjective evaluation of your experience. Please contact if you are interested in writing about a residency experience.

The Morning Garden Artist Retreat

190 Western Avenue, Gloucester, MA

The sun is rising over Gloucester Harbor: I can see it through the small leaded panes. I can hear the first birds, too, and the boats leaving from America’s oldest working waterfront. Think: Olson’s I, Maximus of Gloucester to You. Think: Marsden Hartley’s wild Dogtown paintings. Think: George Clooney in The Perfect Storm. I’m tucked in my bed, quiet so I don’t wake my roommate (a good friend and editor of my chapbook). Today, I might walk The Boulevard to Main Street and check out the used book store before I begin re-organizing my full-length manuscript. Or, I’ll re-organize my manuscript first, then walk along Fresh Water Cove to Stage Fort Park. I’m trying to decide while looking out the window in this 1846 Tudor-style mansion. If you were to drive here past the harbor on Route 127, you might miss it because of the high bushes and end up down the road, at Hammond Castle. You’ve missed the first mansion on this road: The Morning Garden Artist Retreat.

The Morning Garden Artist Retreat is the creation of poet Jennifer Jean and her husband, the musician/composer, Sebastian Jean. They wanted a space where artists–poets, prose writers at first, later, musicians and visual artists–could carve out a sacred bit of time to create. Morning Garden offers this in a small but gorgeous package. The retreat spans a weekend, which was perfect for me: I have two kids and two cats, so it’s hard to be away for weeks at a time. Morning Garden encompasses the closeness of an artistic group within the confines of a sprawling mansion. The history of the house is fascinating: first a mansion built by the man who invented the remote control (this story was told by the wonderful caretakers), then used by the Catholic Church as a home for retired clergy, then as a religious retreat center. Though definitely dated by some 1960’s touches (let’s call it “retro kitsch”) like the wall-to-wall carpeting, MG offers big bedrooms (2 per room) with private baths, and large spaces to work: a sprawling common room, a rec room with a pool table, a paneled study. The mansion accommodates up to twenty-five people (with limited room for visual artists and folks needing instrument and practice space). My friend was able to spread her manuscript (all 61 pages) out on the floor of the rec room and re-arrange it like a giant card game! I went to this retreat with a purpose: to re-order my poems and to generate new ones for another manuscript. This is where the camaraderie came in handy: there were pockets of conversations throughout the mansion, folks who would listen to a quirky line, read a few pages of my work, trade poems. Throughout the day, some of us would break away to one of the multi-windowed nooks to have a quick workshop.

On Friday, the first night, we gathered in the common room, to meet Jennifer and Seb, who presented their mission statements, and then the caretakers, Silvia and Manuel Quesada, who told the story of the home and really went out of their way to be gracious. There is a shy cat who remains hidden: it is my goal to have this cat love me by the end of one of these retreats. The first night was devoted to introductions and stating our goals: generating work, organizing, finalizing, fine-tuning, or simply being in this space of artists. Saturday was a full work day. Many of us utilized the common room: long dining tables allowed us to spread out pages of writing; plus, the coffee maker is there! Jennifer checked in mid-day, but really, Saturday was our oyster. There is a glorious stone tower, “The Tower of Inspiration,” on the grounds where Seb set up a music studio for composition and performance. On Saturday night, most of us went into town for dinner and to celebrate. The last evening, Sunday at twilight, the group entered The Tower of Inspiration and sat around a fire, reading our work, sharing what we’d accomplished: a sweet closing to the weekend. The view from the top of the tower is magnificent: past the Harbor, beyond to Wingaersheek Beach, and farther, Rockport.

MG is the perfect weekend residency to get in touch with—or to re-invigorate–your art and, more important, to be among artists. It takes very little planning, and the application is simple: email Jennifer Jean your intention to attend, then pay the retreat fee via Paypal three weeks prior to the date (the retreats are held in May and October). If you are in eastern Massachusetts, you can reach the retreat by the commuter rail: the purple line takes you right to downtown Gloucester. I’d say it’s best to go if you have a project in mind, but I don’t know how true that is. The brevity of the stay condenses the creativity, makes the stay intense: seventy-two hours of community with poets, writers, musicians, so even without “a goal,” much can be gained.

The cost of Morning Garden Artist Retreat is $160.00 and includes 2-person bedroom with bath, coffee and tea, free wifi, gorgeous places to write, and 10% discount if you want to hire Jennifer for manuscript consultation. You are responsible for your own food. Most of us brought our favorite supplies. There is a huge, fully equipped kitchen (restaurant quality) with a giant freezer. I brought my own coffee (I make a great cup of coffee) and my breakfast food to the retreat; I ate out Friday and Saturday nights (Gloucester has amazing seafood restaurants, most reasonably priced). The light in Gloucester at Morning Garden Artist Retreat is like no other place in May and in October. Please go to their website for more information and photographs (you’ll see me with a notebook and globe): or email Jennifer Jean at


Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011. Most recently, her poetry has appeared in Wherewithal, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Rogue Agent, and The Yellow Chair Review. Her reviews have appeared in Glint, Arsenic Lobster and The Mom Egg. She is a recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, a Pushcart and Best of the Net Nominee and works as an associate editor for The Compassion Project. She lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her family and her cats.







Residency Review: Sundress Academy for the Arts

On my first morning as a resident at the Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) artist’ retreat of Firefly Farms just outside of Knoxville, TN, I was up at 7:15am getting ready to learn how to feed the six sheep, goat, and donkey that were waiting eagerly in the pasture that backed up to the farmhouse where I would be living and writing for the next three weeks. Before the morning was over, I’d also been given a run through on how to feed and water the twenty chickens and five geese whose coop was perched on the hillside directly above the farmhouse. By noon, I was firmly entrenched on one of the comfortable brown couches editing a chapbook manuscript, and I already knew that I would have an amazing three weeks at Firefly Farms.

A unique factor of the SAFTA residency is that it takes place on a 45-acre farm. Each resident is responsible for feeding either the flock or the herd every morning. I really enjoyed the getting to know the animals, and their voracious appetites ensured I was always awake bright and early to get started with my day. For me, this residency was the perfect combination of intense creative work and, when I needed a mental pause, physical activity. If you think learning to drive a tractor or watching chickens scramble for leftover bok choi sound like refreshing breaks focusing on your creative project, this residency would be a great fit for you.

SAFTA offers short-term residencies throughout the year, ranging from one week to two months in length. The application was very straightforward. In addition to a form with my basic information and availability, the application consisted of a writing sample, CV and a statement about the project that I would be working on during the residency. The project statement was actually a very helpful part of the application for me since it forced me to think ahead to what I wanted to accomplish, rather than being at loose creative ends when I arrived at Firefly Farms.

This residency would be ideal for a writer or artist of any medium who has a particular project or two in mind and works well on their own. Erin Elizabeth Smith, Sundress Publications founder, has absolute trust in her residents’ capabilities and leaves you alone to spend your time as you see fit. This hands-off approach provides residents with a lot of freedom and also the responsibility of maintaining their own productivity. Residents also need to be a little more self-sufficient than at some of the bigger residencies, including providing most of your own meals (although Erin is a fabulous and generous cook and you will inevitably end up being fed at some time during your stay).

While I spent most of my residency working independently, the writing community that Erin has built around Sundress Publications and Firefly Farms was really the highlight of my experience. Sharing the farmhouse with the current long-term resident Emily Capettini was an absolute blast and the weekly workshop group that meets every Friday at a different bar in downtown Knoxville was made up of some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever met. The warmth of their welcome was rivaled only by the strength of their writing, and I know the pieces I brought for critique benefitted tremendously from their feedback.

The cost of a residency is $250 per week, and includes your own bedroom and access to the many features of the remodeled farmhouse including a fully stocked library and office, a letterpress in the basement and admission to any SAFTA workshops or events that take place during your residency. During any given application period SAFTA offers generous scholarships to various groups of writers. Currently, they are offering a 50% and a full scholarship to LGBTQ writers for one-week spring 2016 residencies. I also found them to be very understanding if you do not qualify for their current scholarships but indicate need on your application form. The application and more information about the residency can be found at:
My three weeks at Firefly Farms were enormously productive and also refreshing. I enjoyed the daily ritual of taking care of the animals and then settling down to focus on my own work. Depending on my mood, I could sit on the farmhouse porch, set up a hammock at an idyllic park in the bend of the river just five minutes away, or drive thirty minutes into downtown Knoxville to ensconce myself in one of several lovely coffee shops for the day. My evenings were often full of good food and the gregarious company of the Sundress family and friends. I would wholeheartedly recommend this residency for any artist looking for a quiet haven to focus on their own work and a welcoming community of fellow artists to make it feel like home.

Jasmine An is a queer, third generation Chinese-American who comes from the Midwest. A recent graduate of Kalamazoo College, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, was selected as the winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in February 2016. She has work published or forthcoming in numerous journals such as HEArt Online, Stirring, Heavy Feather Review and Southern Humanities Review. As of 2016, she can be found in Chiang Mai, Thailand continuing her study of the Thai language and urban resiliency to climate change.

A Productive Stay at Rivendell Writers’ Colony By Clifford Garstang

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series on writers’ residencies. Have you been to a writing residency and would like to write about it? If so, Drunken Boat is looking for reviews of writing residencies, which can be anonymous, that we will post on our blog. Reviews should be a minimum of 300 words and include objective information such as such as cost, location, and application requirements as well as a subjective evaluation of your experience. Please contact if you are interested in writing about a residency experience.

Rivendell Writers’ Colony

Sewanee, Tennessee

Apply three months before residency, $25 application fee

Minimum stay is two weeks, maximum is one month

$250/week covers room but not board/Fellowships for first-time residents available

A Productive Stay at Rivendell Writers’ Colony

By Clifford Garstang

Earlier this year, I spent two wonderful, productive weeks at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. Having several times attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (held on the campus of the University of the South in Sewanee), I was familiar with the area, a vast, wooded oasis on the Cumberland Plateau. I had even met Carmen, Rivendell’s charming and gregarious Executive Director at a Sewanee event. The Colony, which opened just a couple of years ago, isn’t formally affiliated with the university or the conference, but bears a physical resemblance to the school’s gothic architecture and is best known to conference participants (when I was there, all but one of the writers-in-residence had attended the conference at least once), with a growing reputation beyond.

I’m always grateful for the time and space available to me at an artists’ colony. It’s a remarkable luxury to be able to focus only on work, away from the distractions of daily life. So I’ve had a positive experience at all the retreats I’ve done (with the possible exception of that time years ago when I arrived at a residency with a nasty case of poison ivy and found it extremely hard to concentrate).

While my experience has been good everywhere, a few things distinguish Rivendell from other colonies.

First, it’s only for writers. There’s some possibility that they’ll add space for visual artists in the future, I was told, but for right now all the residents are writers. When I was there, we had a good mix of genres: a poet and several prose writers, both fiction and non-fiction. This has pluses and minuses. I have enjoyed interacting with visual artists and composers during residencies at other colonies, and their work sometimes inspires and informs mine. On the other hand, the writers all speak the same professional language, and it was useful for the purpose of focusing on my on-going writing project to be around other writers exclusively.

Second, the heart of the colony is the historic manor house, an impressive hundred-year old building where most of the residents live and work in dual-purpose studio/bedrooms. (There are also a couple of cabins on the grounds; while I was there, one of those was occupied by a writer we never saw!) This is not unlike Ragdale Foundation, which also is housed in a grand old mansion with some secondary buildings, but very different from, say, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which has a large, relatively modern residence building and separate studios. Like Ragdale, the Rivendell manor house has been thoroughly updated and equipped, though, so it’s no tumbledown relic.

Third, because the colony is small, it does not serve meals. Personally, I like leaving food preparation to others when I’m at a colony. It not only saves time that I’d rather spend on my work and removes a layer of distraction (shopping, food prep, cleanup, etc.), but also it allows for interaction with other residents during meals. On the other hand, without communal meals, your schedule is your own. If you don’t feel like breaking from your work at the precise moment when dinner is ready, you don’t have to. Or you can opt to dine out at one of the restaurants in town. As it turned out, while I was there some of us kept more or less the same schedule and still managed to share mealtimes. The house has two full kitchens, most staples (including coffee!), and two dining rooms and a patio, so there’s ample room for cooking and eating, separately or together, as you wish. On top of that, the director’s husband, Michael, a scholar and writer in his own right, who also serves as the colony’s caretaker, maintains an elaborate vegetable garden that residents are welcome to utilize. Greens! Herbs! Veggies! So the lack of served meals was not, in the end, a hardship.

Fourth, it’s hard to imagine a colony with a more attractive setting. The interior of the mansion is beautifully and comfortably furnished, but its grounds are truly special, alive with towering oak and pine trees. The house is located at the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove, a mysterious canyon that knifes into the plateau (be sure to ask a local about the history of the cove if you go). On a fog-shrouded morning—a fairly common event, apparently—when the cove is nearly invisible, you could easily imagine yourself in Shangri-la, or just about anywhere else. The grounds also are near the famous Perimeter Trail that follows the edge of “The Domain,” the vast land-holdings of the University of the South, providing excellent hiking. And then there are the ponds on the property, a regular stop for me on my afternoon walks. (Walking is part of my writing process; I wasn’t goofing off.) And let’s not forget the many deer and the abundance of birds that also call the grounds home.

I knew I was in for a special experience when I turned into the driveway that winds through the property. On my right I caught a glimpse of one of the ponds, and on the left, closer to the manor house, the vegetable garden. Then the house and lawn came into view along with the vista across the cove. The director emerged to welcome me—the first of the new residents to arrive that day—and give me a tour of the amazing space. Later that afternoon I met the other residents and then settled in to work. The next two weeks were among the most productive I’ve ever had.

I’m looking forward to my return to Rivendell.

Clifford Garstang won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction for his novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know and recently received the Indiana Emerging Author award from the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation. He is the author of a linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country and the editor of an anthology, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series.