Last evening I noticed a Facebook post, in which my fellow blog contributor, David Dominé, announced that he was joining with friends at Eddie Merlot’s restaurant, in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, for a dinner celebrating his birthday.
I was thrilled to see David’s post, and it brought to mind numerous personal experiences at this very eatery—including my own fiftieth birthday celebration, and, for that matter, my forty-eighth and forty-ninth as well. Eddie Merlot’s, located at the intersection of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, is one of a host of places I frequented during the five ten-day residencies I spent in the city as a student in Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program.
Of course, I’d like to state for the record that a mere fifty days does not a Louisville aficionado make. Be advised: This is not a travel article. In fact I can only comment, and then with limited authority, on just a tiny section of town; namely, the area surrounding the Spalding campus and our residential “dormitory,” the beautiful Brown Hotel, which stands—towers, really—several blocks to the north, at Fourth and Broadway. Nevertheless, this urban neighborhood resonates tremendously for me, and now feels as familiar as any physical space in my hometown here in Wisconsin. With every subsequent return, I am reminded of those days, not so very long ago, when this middle-aged, perpetual student spent an intense and “formative” two years honing, and in many ways discovering, the skills of a serious writer.
Like all brief-residency MFA programs, the bulk of one’s academic work is accomplished at home, under the guidance of a faculty mentor who is available for consultation by email, phone, or snail-mail. Distance learning is an educational environment requiring a self-starter’s commitment and poise. You feel the sense of personal responsibility more acutely, simply because you operate with far greater independence than would be the case in a more traditional, on-campus program.
It is at the residencies, however, that students immerse themselves in a community of fellow writers—and what magnificent, intensive experiences these can be! Program schedules differ between institutions; but at Spalding University, students on the regular, four-semester track come to Louisville for ten days at the beginning of every semester, then once again for their graduation residency.
People remember things in different ways. For some reason, I always forge acute associations between physical spaces and episodes of academic learning—especially when the learning experience is intense. For example, during my first graduate experience as a history student at UW-Milwaukee, I studied at myriad locales around the metropolitan area: at my apartment on the east side; in the student union; at Golda Meir Library on campus; and also at various scattered bookstores, cafés, and restaurants. I haven’t yet tested myself on this, but I am reasonably certain that I could peruse the syllabus of every seminar or colloquium I took at the time and identify where I was physically when I read a given article, book, or chapter. And I’d bet that I could do it with better than 90-percent accuracy.
So it’s not surprising that much of what I recall from my Spalding residencies is connected, mnemonically, with a physical location somewhere in that urban Louisville neighborhood. While most of my interactions with fellow students went down in various closed-door workshops, our common lectures and sessions generally took place in a comfortable, modern lecture hall known as the “Lectorium.” The Lectorium is actually the place where the Spalding experience begins for a student—the site of the first plenary lecture of each residency—when the program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, approaches the podium and begins her recitation with the simple phrase: “Welcome home.”
The significance of Sena’s peculiar greeting is often lost on new-coming students, but its poignancy increases in magnitude with each subsequent residency. And for those of us program alumni who make return journeys to Louisville after graduation, hearing those treasured words once again can actually bring tears to the eyes.
If the Lectorium is the energy center of Spalding University proper, then the lobby of the Brown Hotel most definitely merits the off-campus title. The hotel, built in the early 1920s, is at once resplendent and eminently tasteful in its décor and overall character. The high-ceilinged lobby is expansive in scale; yet the arrangement of sofas and overstuffed chairs throughout provides intimate enclaves for socializing. It is the perfect place for Spalding MFA candidates to unwind at the end of each day of their residency—to enjoy drinks and fellowship; compare notes or gossip; to talk about writing, or, on some days, about anything but writing.
So many other spots in that area of Louisville became important touching points for me during my tenure as a Spalding student, physical locations that are now inextricably linked to the intellectual experience I was fortunate to have garnered at the time. A favorite haunt was the Marketplace restaurant on Fourth Street, one of several between-session locations where David, Julia, Kelly, and I made our initial bonds as friends and colleagues—and bonded as well with so many more dedicated creative souls in the MFA program. (You’ve met a good number of them here at Literary Labors, as guest contributors.)
There was the Starbucks café at the far end of the neighborhood, to which I walked every morning of residency for my first cup of coffee, and a breakfast consisting only of oatmeal and a bottle of Green Machine fruit juice. Starbucks was also the place where I revised most of my workshop writing exercises; the other habitual space for this activity was in the solitude of my room at the Brown Hotel. I cannot recall ever doing schoolwork in the lobby. That space was for social activity only.
There was also a short stretch of sidewalk between the hotel and Starbucks where, daily, I would amble past the studios of three different local radio stations. Each station played the day’s programing from a public address speaker near the entrances. Walking past them in succession, I would first hear classic rock, which would fade gradually, only to be replaced by the sounds of the country music station. At the same time, though on the other side of the street, a talk radio station played. Combined with the other street sounds—footsteps, automobiles, and snippets of conversation among pedestrians—it was almost like listening to a late-1960s avant-garde recording.
And, of course, just kitty-corner from Starbucks, there was Eddie Merlot’s, that fabulous restaurant where David and his friends met last night for his birthday, and where I made a point of visiting at least twice every Spalding residency. Sometimes I would go there with friends, but more often this was a solitary treat for me. I always enjoy visiting elegant eateries, and I don’t mind doing so alone; it’s a big part of my introverted mode of living. So I often went there, typically at the beginning and end of each residency, to feast on the most tender filet mignon I have ever encountered; a pricey but well-worth-it Waldorf side salad; a pot of French-press coffee; and—a huge selling point for me—the round, crusty loaf of bread that arrives early in the meal, accompanied by a generous amount of whipped butter. I could probably eat twelve of those loaves at a sitting, they are so delicious, but I marshal what meager self-control I possess and keep it to one. Usually.
So thank you for accompanying me on my memory trip to Louisville. And a special thanks to David as well, for posting mention of his evening to Facebook yesterday. He not only awakened my own memories of life in that wonderful city, brief and geographically-limited though they are, but he inspired today’s Literary Labors essay as well.
Incidentally, David, happy birthday too!