Friday, September 25, 2015

Trick or Treat!

But... beware if you plan to knock on the door of Kathleen Driskell. She lives next door to the dead and there’s no telling what trickery she and her neighbors will have stirred up for you.

            Often two genres lie bookmarked on my desk simultaneously. Less often do they have a connection. In this case I’ve been reading the work of two teachers of Creative Writing, Kathleen Driskell, and Charles Harper Webb. I was already reading Driskell’s collection of poems, Next Door to the Dead, when the September 2015 Writer’s Chronicle arrived.  Driskell is Professor of Creative Writing and Associate Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville. Webb teaches at California State University, Long Beach. A subtitle of  an article  by Webb on the magazine cover, “In Defense of Less Difficult poetry” with the title, “The Limits of Indeterminacy” enticed me to flip to page 98.

            If Webb’s subtitle baited me, it was the accompanying artwork on the opposite page, two side-by-side mazes, that had the magnetism of a checkout counter magazine that guarantees losing five dress sizes in six weeks. In spite of that mouthful of indeterminacy, the two juxtaposed mazes  made the gist of the article immediately plain: the left maze was dense and dark, but the other one had  more white space, making it doable even for one who isn’t going to waste much of her valuable time with a maze of any stripe. And as soon as I read Webb’s quote on the first page “...poets have replaced traditional development of subjects with non sequiturs, and orchestration-of-effects with randomness,” I knew that I would read Driskell’s book with an eye to the veracity of that comment. I am one, given the choice of a less difficult maze and a simpler one, who would always choose the simpler maze.

            (BTW, LeslieLearns@awpwriter favorited my tweet about these mazes.)

            I am also one who likes to know.

            Turns out, so does Kathleen Driskell. In her latest book she writes epitaphs for folks she never knew. When asked what might her neighbors lying dead in the cemetery write as an epitaph for her, Driskell replies, “Now she knows.”

            What is it Driskell now knows?

            Seed Across Snow had already planted the notion that much about her poetry is Emily-esque with its even lines and tidy stanzas. One tiny poem consists of eighteen words, twenty-five syllables. In her comparison of this book with the new one, Driskell herself says, “I have to admit that unlike many of today’s writers who are taking on more global subjects, I seem to be completely obsessed with a mere square mile around my home...the buzz that our church-home is haunted comes mainly from our proximity to graveyard and the train trestle where the famous Goat Man of Pope Lick is said to lurk. I dismissed that matter as silly but in a period of a few years, our neighbor was struck by a car when coming across the road to her mailbox which sat right next to ours, two teen-aged boys were drowned in nearby Floyd’s Fork, other neighbors discovered a young woman who was nearly mortally wounded and thrown from a car into a ditch, a nearby house burned to the ground and on and on...and Next Door to the Death, if anything, seems to narrow my real estate.”

            This limited milieu and other Dickinson-like details of Kathleen Driskell’s  Next Door to the Dead swarm about as warm and  fuzzy as the occasional hummingbirds sipping on Ginger Lilies and Bleeding Hearts outside my window. Brevity, irony, humor and more: it’s all here in Driskell’s newest collection from the The University Press of Kentucky. 
            After reading the Webb article I was impressed with the idea of how much “less difficult” poems appeal to me. I like reading Driskell’s poems set in this simple cemetery because that setting holds an entire community of varied individuals with their twisted, or haloed, or ordinary lives. Each reader will have his own set of imagery and symbolism to add to whatever I feel.
            I emailed Driskell a few questions to include this one:
KT: Name at least one well-known poet whom you consider difficult and one whom you consider less difficult. Which poet would you choose to emulate? Why?
KD: This changes for me as I read through my life but I can say that I still have trouble with Wallace Stevens. I feel I understand a number of his poems—and they are important to me, such as “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” those early poems, but most do not connect with me. I did study Stevens during my MFA at Greensboro, and I understand the main thought-currents of his writing, still...a goal of mine is to immerse myself in poems, biography, criticism of Stevens’ one summer...
On the flip side, though I would never say he is an easy poet, Robert Frost has always been extremely important to me. His poems are accessible to most, at least on the surface, but there are also undercurrents and cave rivers running discovered with subsequent readings... that’s the sort of poem [“Fences”] I usually want to make—not one that deceives, but a poem that can be read and understood on the surface, then intrigues enough to call for revisiting, and once revisited rewards the reader with something new.
            Several such poems populate Driskell’s Next Door to the Dead. Any time I say/read the word cemetery, my mind pictures the hillside in the northwest county of Alabama where my daddy was known as the area’s best gravedigger. I was told after his death that he could always get the ledge for the casket carved out of that red dirt perfectly straight and level, his only instrument, a shovel. A black and white snapshot in Mama’s pictures has her kneeling at a short grave with an overcoat on and her square head scarf tied under the chin in the manner of European women. Daddy is standing at her side with his overalls and work boots on, which I’m nearly certain he wore to dig the grave. He dug four graves for their babies. The pain on both their faces is gut-wrenching.
            I languish with Driskell over the exacting boot of her gravedigger in “Grave of the Mathematician.” Webb points out in his article that the “difficult poem” is often easier to write, easier to make sound new, and may also shield the poet’s psyche. I like Driskell’s true voice in her “less difficult” poems. This poem soars from the specificity of the mathematical details and signs to the ethereal: the metaphor of a grieving man as a slash against the wind; and the tracks of a wagon carrying an infant, an equals mark.
            And for the first time ever as I revisit Driskell’s poem to write this blog, I consider the digging of the graves of my mama and daddy, by  machines. Oh, sweet duplicity of progress and poetry.
Treat yourself to Driskell’s new book for Halloween! And, do remember that I like to know. What is your fave and why?  

Easy-peasy. Order through these links:


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Open Letter: The Tongue of the Wise

Dear Wade and Charles,

Although the page counter for my blog indicates otherwise, it would seem that only you two have read my comments regarding Go Set a Watchman. And you may not know each other, but both of you have an interest in all things Harper Lee as do I. So as Joan Rivers was fond of saying, “Let’s talk.”

Neither of you will be surprised to know that I’m making this public or that I dare borrow scripture for the title. After all, aren’t we about to discuss a novel with a similar genesis?

My first disclaimer is that I haven’t read a single review by anyone who has read the book except that of Nancy Anderson. Anderson, retired professor of English, is a scholar of the work of Harper Lee and other southern writers who asserted long ago that Lee had written more. Know, Wade and Charles, that I was intentional about this so that I wouldn’t allow the opinion of others to color mine. I’m addressing, not you specifically here, but offering my opinions about those dubious, questioning folks, quick to accuse or criticize in any way either the subject matter or craft of Go Set A Watchman, i.e., I’m setting myself up as Watchwoman for Watchman. (That won’t surprise you either!)

Before granting such ones even the courtesy of conversation, I will pose a few questions of them: Have you ever written a novel? Have you ever started a novel and written as much as 200 pages of it? Have you written as many as two novels? How old are you? Come back to me with your first 200 pages and I’ll be happy to discuss any or all criticisms you may have.

reading does count as your license to critique to some degree, if you read in several genres and if you read within the novel genre both literary novels and what I term page-turners, the single-shot plot-laden novels.

Still with me, guys? To start our discussion, let’s consider both the subject matter/theme and the craft—the larger picture before we start a magnified look.

Subject and my say on it: Jean Louise Finch, the grownup Scout, mulls over a sentence from her learned, aging Uncle Jack in which he has quoted three authors in one sentence. She’s a bit surprised that it actually makes sense to her. I hope that what I think about this book’s themes at this point will make a little sense written in a similar sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t go home again; yet no man is an island.

On craft: Voice is not always evident and rarely consistent in an early draft. Newly-drawn characters may not be distinguishable from one another in dialogue because their speech patterns are so similar. It is in the refining of that character based on her interaction with others that the character takes on singularity.

It has been said, in fact, that there is no good writing, but only good re-writing. I’m not clear on just how much time there was between the surfacing of Watchman and its actual publication. That it was there for years and had been forgotten or misplaced is so easy to understand. Anybody who’s been a writer for any length of time will have boxes of manuscripts at various stages of revision. That, too, is a universally known truth. Another such truth is that poor health can impede, scotch, or totally squelch creativity. Survival at some point becomes utmost.

Sena Jeter Naslund, Director of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University and author of nine novels and two collections of stories, said in a July meeting of  Alabama Writers’ Conclave in Fairhope that voice is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience, and himself. She related the story of how during the writing of Ahab’s Wife, she “heard” her protagonist Una speak what became the very first engaging sentence of the novel: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Time was required to develop a voice as clear and inimitable as Naslund’s Una.

I’m guessing the same was true for Lee’s development of her renowned and revered Scout. It is my understanding that Watchman was what was left of the anatomy of a novel with its younger ribs of Jean Louise stripped away and revised to create Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird. Time and health have both been obstacles in Lee’s bringing forth this long-undisclosed treasure of the voice of Jean Louise.

Not to be ignored are the truths in this gift to the world, albeit belated. To excerpt Proverbs 12: 18. “...the tongue of the wise brings healing/Truthful lips endure forever/....”

Your turn, fellows.

With anticipation,

Watchwoman Kathleen


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My Say: The Second Book

In the south I know, everybody has a say. You talk. I listen. I talk. You listen. And so on until all are heard. Never mind that we don’t agree. Or that what we have to say is just another version of what has already been said.  We still listen. Now I’d like my say.

The staggering news of Harper Lee’s second book was hinted about by a scholar as early as the 1980s at a meeting of the Prattville Creative Writers. The content was not mentioned, although the certainty of its existence bespoke the confidence of one who could only have laid eyes on it. And, certainly nothing more about the manuscript was divulged, because if you were a confidante of Harper Lee’s and wanted to remain so, you respected her privacy. No questions asked. The recent announcement of the public debut date of Go Set a Watchman has unhinged every tongue of anybody who has ever read a book of any kind. This chatter about Watchman may come to rival our lifetime of ruminations on THE second coming.

Harper Lee and all things Mockingbird are being discussed by bunched up wads of readers and scholars and writers that have burgeoned this week. Lovers of books and reading will read and savor every word of the new book; writers and literary critics will scramble and skim  for quotations to support sketchy comparisons of Watchman to her Mockingbird with  either praise or condemnation. 

Some are saying, “I told you so.” Those claim to knowing about Lee’s Mockingbird prequel or knowing some other little private parts of her life that the rest of us aren’t privy to: close friends of a very close friend of a friend. 

Others still wonder. They want it to be so. But the what if’s present these niggling worries. So there is an existing manuscript—very easy to accept. But what if Lee hasn’t approved what is about to be published? Is this a first draft? Who helped her revise it? Will critics try to disclaim her primacy in the newly formed Alabama Literary Hall of Fame?
  Ever since I heard that scholar say so in the 80s, I have always believed that Harper Lee had written more than had been published. And I believe it now more than ever. My own lowly files attest to it. They are spilling over into cardboard boxes with various versions of two novels in manuscript, two collections of short stories, and a hefty group of personal essays with at least 999 versions of each. It is unimaginable to think that any writer would cease the writing process totally after such a phenomenal success as Lee’s first novel.  No. Never. Most writers I know write because they must. They must write just as they must eat, or breathe.
  I’ve had the stellar experience of getting to know Harper Lee somewhat personally, if on a limited basis. Lee had heard about my son’s book, A Gift Before Dying, which follows the 1999-2000 University of Alabama basketball season and the death that year of one of the coaches. Lee asked my daughter-in-law about it.  My son Stephen informed me that she is quite a sports fan. 

My daughter-in-law called. “I’m giving Harper Lee one of Stephen’s books. Would you like for me to give her one of your chapbooks?”

After I’d temporarily stopped breathing, I answered, sputtering something like, “Would  I? Yes, are you serious, of course I do. But what if she hates poetry, and how will I sign it or will it be too brazen to sign it at all?”

And that’s how Harper Lee came to read my first book of poetry, Searching for Ambergris. Some weeks later, my daughter-in-law called again.

“I received a note from Harper Lee.” 

I had to think again how to breathe. This effusive note from “Nelle” praised both my son’s book and mine beyond anything we had heard or have heard since.

In October, 2002, I came face-to-face with this literary icon as I waited in a roomful of her admirers at a fund raiser at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. She stopped to greet the guests at the full table next to me. My breath caught in my throat. She was about to pass me. I never guessed that I would be close enough to stand up for an eye-to-eye greeting, that she would look up into Wayne Greenhaw’s face and in loving schoolteacher fashion scold Wayne with her question,” Have you read this woman’s poetry?” and that we would fold into each other’s arms hugging. Of course, Wayne had never to my knowledge read a word of mine, but he nodded and smiled. What’s any man to do in the face of a question like that from Harper Lee?

“I wish I could sit down with you and talk,” she lamented, “but I have to speak to others.” She motioned to the crowded room of admirers as she floated on,  away from what now almost seems a dream.

The sweetness of that encounter prompted my letter to the editor of the New Yorker after the 2006 Thomas Mallon review of the biography of Harper Lee that Charles Shields shapeshifted from what others had said about her. All riled up by the review, I mailed Lee a copy of my letter that was never published.

Lee responded in a note to my daughter-in-law, “I am grateful to her [Kathleen]—pure kindness prompted her to write it.” 

Another serendipitous dream of mine would later unexpectedly merge with this one.  I was entrusted with the remaining papers of my friend, the late and beloved Helen Norris, ten years older than Lee. Norris, handpicked by Hudson Strode to study in his writing classes at the University of Alabama, became the first person in the southeast to receive the MFA for a novel in lieu of a thesis. Last year after sorting and sifting through two twenty-pound boxes of the papers of Norris, which proved to be the cream that had risen to the top of a houseful of manuscripts she left behind, I wondered how Helen would have reacted if someone had suggested that one of her several unpublished novels be published. As wonderful as her manuscripts are, someone would still have to do a bit of editing for these manuscripts to be publishable. Who would do it? In Helen’s case I am bound and determined to be the one to zealously guard her voice because I know her work.  But more than that, I know how strictly she herself guarded her own voice with editors. As an independent scholar and a member of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, I nominated Norris this past year to the first class of Alabama’s Literary Hall of Fame. On the evening of June 8, I stood ready to receive her award next to Cathy Randall who was accepting the medal for Harper Lee, a shoo-in from the start.  I felt somewhat bedazzled standing on that stage in front of life-sized photographs of both Norris and Lee. 

Working with Helen’s papers has taught me something simple and profound: writers, even the very best writers,  do not leave perfect manuscripts lying about, waiting for someone to pick them up and publish them after they’re on a retirement farm or in the grave. Someone else has to make a difficult decision: publish the manuscript as it is without much editing and risk the wrath of those who don’t want to see the writer pitied/criticized for out and out errors; or not publish the manuscript and have it rot and crumble inside university archives with few eyes to witness beyond those of a curious scholar or two.  To those eager to become critics of the still unpublished works of Norris,  or Lee’s Watchman, use this rule of thumb: until you can tell a Post Oak from a Live Oak, don’t mess with our oaks. (An alternate version of the plank-in-your-own-eye parable.)

My two first edition, first printing copies of Watchman have arrived in the mail from a local bookseller—one for my son and his wife, and one for me. I fully expect to recognize the southern voices of our collective memories there, warts and all.
  And I can’t wait. Thank you, Miss Nelle, for your gift to the world, to borrow a phrase. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

April's Angst

The inevitable fall? It happened to me on Thursday, March 26, the day after my oldest sister turned 90. That's how I explained it to the Emergency Medics on the ambulance who were quizzing me to see if my brains had been totally scrambled when I hit the bathroom floor face down, and later I learned, was totally unresponsive at first.

I remembered being very lucid but what my grown grandson heard, also in the house that morning, was a muddle of words in answer to their questions. I couldn't see a doctor until this past Tuesday, April 7, but this story is too long to write at the moment… I shall return.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Spinning With Old Music

I had never laid eyes on a record player until my older sister, Ree, finally agreed, after much begging, to take me along with her to spend the night with Gladys Milner. I knew exactly where Gladys lived because our bus to Etteca School picked her up and let her off in front of the red brick house sitting in the middle of an untended corn or cotton field with no other houses close by. That house suggested to me that Gladys was rich even before I went inside. I knew for certain she was rich when she let Ree borrow her record player.

I can’t recall why that record player stayed at our house for a period of time, but it did; the only music I knew coming from vinyl disks as big as oversized pies was the theme song for “The Lone Ranger.” That I was very familiar with (our favorite family radio show), but not by the name of the “William Tell Overture” until I read it on its white label.

The rich are different from you and me. True, true, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first obvious difference was that her family had upholstered chairs. I didn’t know the word then—just that the seats felt very cushy. All we had to sit in at home were wooden chairs with bottoms caned by Mama from strips of white oak. The only electric apparatus we had in the house besides a refrigerator was a radio. 

One thing we Smiths did have in common with the Milner family was black shoe polish. Why I was polishing my shoes at their home with black liquid polish and why I was sitting in an upholstered chair to do so is not clear to me now. What will always remain lucid is that ugly spidery spot on the armchair when I spilled some of the shoe polish.

Most baby sisters wouldn’t be alive to tell this tale, but Ree has always been an exceptionally kind and wonderful sister. She was, in fact, as fond of my high school sweetheart as I was. He and I had a great time dating for those first four years. A date was comprised of driving up to Walters’ Store on Highway 171 for a Dr. Pepper. He also insisted on bringing his record player to my house so that I could listen to some of his favorite records. “Blue Christmas” was one I remember, probably because I had a very blue Christmas the first semester when I was home from the University of Alabama in possession of a much larger world view, but with a totally different boyfriend, and without a record player. It would have seemed too crass for me to ask to keep the record player as I handed him back his photos.

This year when my darling Tommy asked me what I wanted for Christmas, unlike other years when I have muttered some general remarks about the efficacy of health and happiness, I had a very specific and materialistic request: a record player. He and I had bought various turntables throughout our marriage, but this was our fiftieth Christmas. I wanted more: a record player that would convert all our music from aging vinyl records to DVDs. I had heard that the Crosley Director did just that, but also looked like the other old record players. I found a stack of them quite by chance at Belk’s near an exit door at the Galleria.

As soon as the box was in the house, I opened it and set up the record player. What was the use of having it for Christmas, I reasoned, if we couldn’t hear Jose Feliciano sing “Felice Navidad” and the “Carol of the Cherry Tree” during the holidays? Next step: find our old records. This search took me upstairs where I found a stack of those huge records with their original covers. I couldn’t remember at first what speed to choose: 33, 45, or 78. The performers ranged from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Carol Hensel’s and Jane Fonda’s aerobic workouts, and lots of strange things in between. Anybody remember, “Me and My Arrow”? Rod McKuen narrating and singing his poems? The original sound track from “Dr. Zhivago,” the first movie (and first date) with Tommy? The last record that size we collected was a gift from a business acquaintance of Tommy’s who mailed it to us from old Stockholm, where we had shopped on the narrow streets and enjoyed with him an amazing chateaubriand, my first, in a small restaurant. The recording was a series of songs by C.M. Bellman, well-known poet of Sweden, “To Carl Michael with Love.” 
Better still than all of these, in my search through objects of days gone by, I found a little white rectangular carrying case with all the superhero figures of the 1970s on the outside in color stored in a bin. After the children were older, this bin held the small vinyl records from both the pre-teen selections of my daughter, Teresa, and the bedtime faves of her younger brother, Stephen.

Teresa is six years older than Stephen, just the same age difference as there is between my sister Ree and me. During this past few days of Christmas it has been fun to see the children eager to hear their favorites of this old, old music. Teresa wanted to hear “Felice Navidad” first; Stephen chose “Abracadabra,” one of the preteen selections that his very kind big sister shared with him, dancing while he bobbed up and down, the dance of a toddler.

I wanted to hear all the old music. I wanted the leisure of time to take one record off and put another on—one by one, in between making sugar cookies from The Joy of Cooking, an early edition handed down to me by Ree. I wanted to sing all the Christmas lyrics with Barbara Streisand as I cooked a boiled icing for the coconut cake and thought of my oldest sister, Ann, master cake baker, spending Christmas in a nursing home and my only living brother, J.B., hardly able to leave his home now.  I wanted to think about my bff’s from college, Ivodean, Mary Frances, and Carol, and imagine what they were doing. I wanted to remember other friends, Johnny Bowyer, neighbor at The Marshes in Savannah, and Carolyn Watson, and Katonah Summertree, and Betty Clapper in Prattville—all gone. I wanted to remember Mama and Daddy and those other family members who were still around when I first heard the “William Tell Overture,” when happiness saturated me like a pleasant and familiar melody, when my heart knew little more about sorrow than the regret of spilling black shoe polish. 

Message in a Blog

  About twenty Birmingham language arts teachers endured my holding forth yesterday in my current gig as a Road Scholar ...