At Second “Harlem in the Woods” Retreat, MFA Students Connect their Creativity to Nature

For the second semester, students from the City College of New York’s MFA and MA program participated in a weekend artists residency at the Stephen & Betsy Corman Harriman Outdoor Center. As it was in the first semester, the retreat was designed to both offer our students an escape from the city and deepen their connection to the natural environment while honing their craft as writers. Branded as “Harlem in the Woods,” this retreat has demonstrated nature’s capacity for connection and inspiration. This opportunity was provided at no cost to students, thanks to the generous support of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the CCNY Outdoor Initiative and the Office of the President through the College’s “Democratizing the Outdoors” Initiative.

Twelve students participated in this semesters’ four-day retreat, drawn from Professor Emily Raboteau’s Climate Writing course and Michelle Valladares’ poetry writing Prosody course. (Both courses are in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.) We were joined by Professor Ana Carnaval, a biologist whose research primarily focuses on coastal forests. Professor Carnaval delivered a lecture to participants about sugar maples on the first day of the retreat, and led everyone on a nature walk on the second day, where she offered her insights on the senescence of tree leaves in fall, the symbiosis that comprises lichen, the poison glands of a frog that crossed her path, and so much more.

Framing the retreat was the concept of delight, inspired by this years’ Common Read, Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Participants read Gay’s book, and spent the weekend contemplating and exercising delight, both in their writing and in the various nature hikes, kayaking excursions and moments around the campfire.

This retreat has once again proved to be a highlight of our students’ graduate experience.

“Harlem in the Woods was one of the most powerful experiences the school has offered,” one student wrote, “a retreat that offers connection with nature, one another, and ourselves. I left with a full notebook and spirit.”  was a sense of having connected to a community through CCNY that they had missed while remote-learning during the pandemic. “I have loved my experience in the MFA program over the past two years,” another student wrote, “but between the isolation of Covid/remote classes and working full-time, it has been difficult to get involved with the MFA community and my fellow students. The retreat was an incredible opportunity to connect with my classmates on a deeper level.”

Now that our program is back to being in-person, we look forward to building and continuing these retreats, and creating more opportunities for our MFA students to find community and connect with each other, our city, and the planet.

Learn more about Harlem in the Woods.