This is supposed to be about the excitement of a book signing t Mr. K's bookstore in Johnson City, Tennessee. It's scheduled for Saturday, September 24, from noon till three. I'm so excited. It's such an honor to be on the shelves with such writers as Wilma Dykeman and Abraham Verghese. Mr. K's is a used book store, with lots of wonderful books I didn't even know about, but there's a local author section, too. If you haven't read Dykeman's The Tall Woman you have missed a treat. The same is true for Mine Own Country by Verghese, a doctor in Johnson City who treated AIDS patients in the 1980s, when we didn't know much about that horrible disease.
I say maybe--
Because I too have a horrible disease--cancer. Let me tell you my story.
I retired in May 2010 from Tennessee Wesleyan College. I am so proud of my years at Wesleyan, having the honor of knowing so many students. Before that I was at Roane State Community College, having been one of the "dirty dozen" who taught that first year in a six room abandoned elementary school building in Harriman, Tennessee. So many freshmen over the years, I did not know there could be so many. I experienced the revolution in the teaching of first year composition, beginning with Myna Shaughnessy's lecture at the 1975 lecture at the MLA convention, the lecture that anticipated her ground breaking book, Errors and Expections.
Sorry, I had to brag a bit. I hope I was as helpful to my English students as she was to hers.
Anyway, in the fall of 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer. Here I am, three years later, still surviving, but for how long?
My husband had a stroke in January 2011, even as I began my first chemo. Suddenly, I was his caregiver.
I'm so grateful for these three years. Flame Dancer was edited as I sat getting chemo treatments. As a character in Laurence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartets says:"We want to be loved for our poems, not ourselves."
I hope to see you in Johnson City on September 14. Maybe.
On Thursday, July 18, President Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House press room and startled evferyone with candid and personal remarks about the George Zimmerman case. That "could have been me 35 years ago," he said.
I feel I must respond.
I have just finished reading The Gods in Everyjman by Jean Bolen. I wanted to do this month's blod on that book. The Goddesses in Everywoman made a profound impression on me years ago, but the Greek male gods I had a harder time with. As with the goddesses, Bolen sees these as psychological forces competing in the male psyche. There are the father figures, notably Zeus, and the sons--Apollo, Dionysius, Hermes, Ares.
It is Ares I wish to consider---warrior, son of Hera a Zeus. "In mythology, Ares represents the uncontrolled, irrational frenzy of battle." Whatever happened between Zimmerman and the young teenage boy, it involves the psyche of Ares for both parties. Bolen continues: "In our culture, Ares is equally devalued and rejected. The black man has become the carrier of Ares attributes and the recipient of the denigration and contempt Ares received from his father. Sexuality, violence, even the dancer aspects of Ares (in racist stereotypes) are attributes of the 'inferior' son." "A prudent person wouold not attach anyone related to Ares, for to do so invited immediate retribution."
In the spring of 1970, I was teaching at Coppin State College in Baltimore when the crisis at Kent State occurred. At the time, there was little reaction on our campus, but when events at Jackson State came on the scene, there was immediate reaction. There was no violence on our campus, only fierce rhetorical debates. I was pleased to see my students--my students--make the rational arguments. The school did shut down, but basically, the voice of Apollo (Reason) prevailed. That was forty some years ago.
And so it should now. If you haven't read The Dreams from my Fahter and The Audacity of Hope, find them at your local library and read the compelling stories that are told by this wise and prudent man who is our president.
The May issue of Poetry has a review of the new Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, entitled Angles of Ascent, edited by Charles Henry Rowell. It is a tirade against the book: "My God, what imbecilic garbage." Baraka sees Rowell's interpretation as rejection of the Black Arts Movement in order to present a more literary and artful Black poetry.
I can remember my first reading of LeRoi Jones' "An Agony. As Now."
"I am inside someone who hates me.
. . .
It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams."
It was painful to read.
I waited to write this blog till I could lay my hands on a copy of this anthology. My own favorite was Cavalcade, with Dark Symphany a close second. Only in my first year of teaching did I discover the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Countee Cullen, whose work does offer the grace that Baraka would reject as too literary. He too rejects Yusef Komunyakaa's work as "dull and academic."
For Baraka, "Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled/ on a step." ("Black Art")
It's the fist-in-your-face attitude that I object to in Baraka's stance. For him, if it doesn't speak the language of protest, it doesn't speak true.
Angles of Ascent has lots of familiar names: Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson. Amiri Baraka is included himself; Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Lucile Clifton, too.
When I was teaching at Coppin State, I was in charge of a poetry reading by Llucile Clifton. She was delightful. A student asked her why she didn't use punctuation. She laughed: "I always had trouble knowing where to put the commas, and when I found out I didn't have to in poetry, that was for me." She admitted too, that during the riots of the 1960s, she was as terrified as her white neighbors.
There are many new poets here, younger poets, unfamiliar names, contemporaries of my own children.
I most remember attending a poetry festival in Asheville, NC, especially to see and hear LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. But he didn't come. "Nelson need me." That was his excuse. So much for poetry.
One thing our editor did get right. He quotes Gwendolyn Brooks' poem in his headnotes for the introduction: "First fight. Then fiddle . . . ." I have loved that sonnet since I first found it. Her protest poems don't scream, but they make you shiver. Here in this an, our editor would choose the grace of the violin that is poetry.
Yet I much commend Poetry for including Baraka's review in their pages. Somebody out there is reading.
I fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter when I was in ninth grade. It was slow going initially, two weeks for the first half of the book, but once I got to the scene in the forest, I couldn't put it down till I finished it.
All in all, I probably misread the book, finding romance, love conquers all, and such glorious tragedy.
Subsequently I read The House of Seven Gables, The Blithdale Romance, and even The Marble Fawn, disappointed that they held not the magic of The Scarlet Letter.
Here in May, the Sullivan County library held its book sale, and I found Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Scarlet Letter and the Twayne series biography of Hawthorne. How could the library part with such jewels, but they have now come into my possession, at $1.00 each. They show little signs of wear, a little highlighting, maybe.
I have taught Hawthorne many times, most notably his short stories. My favorites are "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rappaccini's Daughter." Currently I'm reading The Jane Austen Book Club, and I'm reminded how much Hawthorne has influenced my own life. His theme of love and redemption weaves through the complexity of life. Just when you think you know the answers, life throws you new and perplexling challenges. If your guiding principle is love, you're probably doing it right.
There's one interpretation of The Scarlet Letter that I don't find here. Somewhere I read a theory that Chillingsworth was actually poisoning the man he was treating, suspecting the preacher had seduced his young bride. But Hawthorne is certainly not explicit on this point.
Anyway, whatever the critics say, I remember D. H. Lawrence's advide: "Trust the tale, not the teller." Maybe my ninth grade reading will stand muster after all: Love conquers all.
But I can't leave Hawthorne without one further story. I was teaching "Ethan Brand," the story of a man who went in search of the unpardonable sin. He searched the whole world over, but found it finally in his own heart. His heart was a heart of stone. On one quiz, I had asked, "For Hawthorne, what is the unpardonable sin?" It was a simple question, I thought. "There is no unpardonable sin," a student had written. Just as my pen was poised to mark it wrong, I read on: "Because, if you ask forgiveness, you will be forgiven." Of course. The unpardonable sin was Faust's, Dr. Faustus's, PRIDE, the worst of the seven deadly sins. To be too proud to admit your sin and ask forgiveness, that was the unpardonable sin. It was the sin of Goodman Brown, the young man who lost his Faith. And for Hawthorne, that was the sin of the Puritans, to see themselves as superior to their fellow beings. They and they alone were saved, and everybody else was damned to hell. Predestination! Even the Presbyterian church took that belief off its list about 1906, or so a Presbyterian minister told me once. Hawthorne ends "Young Goodman Brown" with this judgment: "And his final hour was gloom."
As a teenager, as a young college student, I saw a lot of hypocricy. I still do. With Hawthorne, I vot
Here's a list of subjects so far, so you can browse, from the beginning:
09-30-2011 First Post 09-18-2012 Frost and Pound
10-08-2011 Roane State Community College Celebration 10-04-2012 Ted Kooser
10-16-2011 Night Writers Guild 12-01-2012 American Poetry Review
10-20-2011 Gatlinburg, Tennessee 01-15-2013 James Dickey
11-03-2011 PMLA 01-26-2013 Sunday Sonnets
11-08-2011 Bubba's Book Swap 02-25-2013 Great Courses
12-07-2011 Thanksgiving at the Danville, VA Goodwill Bookstore
01-21-2012 How to Honor a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks
01-30-2012 Poetry--the Magazine
02-18-2012 Best American Poetry 2011
03-18-2012 "Proof" (Northeast State Community College play)
04-11-2012 Tennessee Mountain Writers conference
05-13-2012 Evelyn Johnson, Flight Instructor
07-19-2012 Vision at Delphi
07-21-2012 Greek Myths
It's April. It's poetry month. What have you done for poetry this month?
Early in April, I celebrated at First Broad Street Methodist Church in Kingsport with Lee Ambrose. Lee is a nurse who is also a writer and a poet. Our impromptu presentation came off nicely, reading from our poetry, sharing our experiences.
Mid-April, I attended the Tennessee Mountain Writers conference in Oak Ridge. That's always a joy. My friend Connie Green led the workshops on poetry. I just listened.
And still to come--on Sunday, April 28, from 2 till 4, Chrissie Anderson Peters, Rose Klix and I will be reading at the public library in Briston, VA. Come and enjoy!
When my husband used to commute, driving long stretches, he would check out tapes from the public library. That is how he first learned of The Great Courses. During summers, when I would be with him, we listened to Bart Ehrman, fascinated by the revelations (pun intended) he made about the "Early Christianities." It was when we tried to play "History of Ancient Egypt" that we had a real shock. "Something's wrong with this tape," Bill said. Turns out, it was a DVD and not a CD. So we watched Bob Brier explain the history. Works well in either format, the advertisements read. And so they do.
Lately, we get catalogues regularly, and we have learned about economics and other delightful subjects. But we didn't make it through quantium mechanics. (Maybe we'll tackle that one again, later.) I've just ordered lectures about Nietzsche. I have read so much by and about that philosopher, but I still don't understand as I want to.
In the middle ages, when books were rare, lectures made up the difference. There's still the excitement of going to a conference versus reading a book. But now, books are cheaper, and the internet provides so much information. Even though I've taught "History of the English Language" myself, I want to hear "Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage" by John McWhorter of Columbia. Somehow, I think he'll be a better teacher than the one I had at Syracuse University in the 1960s, who asked his class, all graduate students in English, if we knew what a "helping verb" was. (But I did learn a lot of linguistics, however reluctantly, enough to know my grandmother had it all wrong, teaching me how to diagram sentences when I was in fourth grade.)
Anyway, let me recommend The Great Courses, if you haven't found them already. You can always ask your librarian to purchase the ones you relish. Visit www.THEGREATCOURSES.com
or call 1-800-2412.
ARAB SPRING. The current issue of Poets and Writers (March/April 2013) has a fascinating article by Stephen Morison about the Arab Spring ("The Revolution"). He begins (and ends) with an interview with Karam Youssef, who runs a bookstore in a suburb just south of Cairo. She and her husband participated in the events of the 2011 Arab Spring, the protests in Tahrir Square which caused the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Interviewing other writers, he sees optimism, even after the more current events.
In 1985, my husband, his mother and I took a tour of Israel and Egypt, which was an unforgetable experience. Arriving in Tel Aviv, I was first startled at the number of armed security personnel. Then again, when we crossed the border into Egypt, we were made aware of the precarious relationship between the two countries. The Israeli tour guides sent us across the border unaccompanied, to meet the Egyptian tour guides on our own. Eqypt was totally unexpected. We experienced the "modernity" of Cairo and then the Egyptian past at Luxor. What most impressed me was the memorial to Sadat, the "Empty Pyramid" I called it in the poem that appears in Flame Dancer (2011). That poem ends on a very optimistic note, one that seemed unjustified when in the next few years, tourists were gunned down at one of the very sites we had visited. So it is with great interest that I read Morison's article.
He discusses a number of Egyptian authors, only one of whom I have read: Naquib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. He was a victim of a personal attach by the fundamentalist Islamists, because of his westernized views.
What will happen now under President Morsi is still a work in progress. But Karam Youssef remains hopeful, in spite of the tendencies of the Brotherhood. "This country cannot be ruled by Muslins," she says. "We willl not be Saudi. We will lnot be Pakistan. We have a big diversity." That is the note on which Morison's article ends, quoting Youssef: "We will accomplish our revolution no matter how long it takes." I applaud her optimism.
Sunday Sonnets came out in December 2012, but it wasn't out when I got out my Christmas cards. So let me tell you a little more about this little book. It's a "dialogue" (monologue?) based on the sermons of the Reverend Donald Morris, who was my pastor in Athens, Tennessee several years ago. He was a poetry lover, and he incorporated poetry into almost all of his sermons. T. S. Eliot was his favorite poet (though not mine, mine was Yeats). We even had a poetry group meeting once a week at Trinity Methodist Church, the church next to the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College, where I taught for almost twenty years. But to the sermons: they were engaging, challenging, more than most sermons I have ever heard. I was challlenged to read passages from the New Testament in ways I had never before. When I wrote the first of these, I did not realize how many they would become. At any rate, I present them to the world as one poet's search for spiritual truth. At one poet, Reverend Morris said to his congregation: "I would have you become students of Christ."
Sunday Sonnets is published by Little Creek Books and is available through Amazon.com and Brooks and Noble.com,, even as a Nook book. I hope you find the poems challenging enough to look for your own interpretations of the passages and continue the dialogue. Peach in Christ.
These are my memoreis, my perceptions of a very famous poet.
The first time I saw James Dickey was at a reception at the University of Tennessee. My dissertation director, Dr. Robert Drake, was hosting the affair. As I entered the room, I could see him, his head towering above everyone else in the crowd--an athlete turned poet. That was in the late 1960s.
When I read his poetry, I did not care for it. It was too egotistical.. I dismissed it. Then came Deliverance, that marvelous novel. I looked again at his poetry. Maybe I had missed something.
In the 1970s, when I was teaching at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee, James Dickey was to be presenting at the literary festival in Chattanooga. Off we went, my husband and I, to hear James Dickey.
The auditorium was packed. Mr. Dickey told some very funny stories, one is particular I remember. It seems at one event a group of unsavory characters were siddling across the room toward him. He was fearful, looking for an avenue of escape should they accost him. But when they got nearer, they introduced themselves. They were his kin.
And then he read. The egotism came through again, overpowering the poetry. He even stopped in the middle of a passage to say: "That was a good line."
And it WAS.
I don't remember exactly when I found the two poems that overwhelmed me, poems that Randall Jarrell would have called "hit by lightning." One was "Cherry Log Road," much anthologized. It's about a tryst in a junk yard, a cyclist and his paramour. There is a masculine power there that's hard for any woman to comprehend. But the one that most impressed me was "The Bee," a poem that's harder to find. There is a humility there that is especially appealing, so rare in his poems. The family is on a picnic when his child is stung by a bee and starts running in terror, straight toward the busy highway adjacent to the park. The father, a former football player, aging now, must make the tackle of his life to save his fleeing child. He can hear his coach calling, "Get the lead out," even as his legs seem to fail him.
Yes, James Dickey is worth knowing.
But my last story comes back to the egotism. I don't know whether this tale has made it into the lore yet, so I will share what I remember. I found myself on a SAADE committee. (That's South Atlantic Association of Departments of English.) On the committee was the chair of the English Department of the University of South Carolina, where Dickey was its STAR. George, I think his name was. Will anyone who hasn't been a department chair appreciate this? Anyway, George got it in his head that everybody in the department was going to teach freshman composition. Everybody--full professors, too, not just teaching assistants and adjuncts. He made this announcement in a department meeting. You must understand, the revolution in Englsih Departments was that even freshmen deserve to be taught by accomplished scholars, not just lowly graduate students.
When George got back to his office, the phone was ringing. The president of the university was on the phone.
James Dickey would not be teaching freshman English. Department chairs may come and go, but a star is a star.
Read "Cherry Log Road" and "The Bee." They're good.