Poet of the Week Archive: October, 2006
October 2 - 8, 2006: Tara Powell & Judy Williams
My favorite young Southern female poet is Tara Powell.
I'm biased, I admit. I've had the great pleasure of reading Tara's poetry for a decade now, first as her teacher at UNC-Chapel Hill. Even in that undergraduate Honors workshop, I could tell I was in the presence of a most original writer and verbal thinker. I couldn't wait to see what her next poem would be like. Many years and many poems later, I still can't.
Tara's work is invigorating, feisty, fresh, and intense. It's often funny, sometimes unsettling, frequently heartbreaking, and always tenaciously sharp in image and diction, in line and stanza. These are not passive poems, flat on the page, indifferent to the world: they prickle, they ache, they keen, they search, they scorch. The right reader will be jolted awake by her language.
Tara Powell strikes a wonderful balance between lucid intelligence and rich sensuousness: her poetry has a uniquely passionate thoughtfulness about it, and it deserves the widest possible readership.
Michael McFee's most recent collection of poems,Shinemaster, was featured on this web site in April.
Teaching the Writing Life
Asked if school stifled young writers, Flannery O'Connor asserted that it didn't stifle nearly enough of them. Certainly my teachers have not stifled me. Many of them have been writers themselves, and in their generosity to me and my words has been a writerly sense that there are still things to be said about the world, that you or anyone sitting next to you just might be that sayer. The words of two of these teachers are on this page with mine: Michael McFee and Judy (Boyer) Williams.
I knew who Judy Boyer was before I walked into her creative writing workshop as a high school freshman. Everyone knew "Mrs. B," as many affectionately called her. (Not me. I burned to address her so familiarly, but was too shy to dare. She's Mrs. Williams now, and it's too late to ask.) She had us stand on chairs and write. She had us sit on the floor, on grass, on our hands. She would ask my opinion and actually seem to wonder what I'd answer. She made us read, read, read classics alongside regional voices, proposed that living people who talked like us could write great things. She was a writer, fierce and feminine, a word warrior who made mystery happen. She sashayed in as Emily Dickinson one day, all white lace and talking in verse. Another day, she was a gypsy lady; her skirts chimed. And sometimes, a hovering student just might hear her bellow in a teacher's meeting. Yes, I listened for her voice not just in the classroom but around doors, studied the way she dressed, spoke, and twirled in her swivel chair, peered to see what books peeped from her handbag. I ate her assignments with a spoon and asked for more. I inflicted reams of bad poems on her. She read them all, every rotten one; she read them and helped me love all that teenage angst into better and better shapes. I've kept those comments 17 years and counting. Cut line here, rethink approach there, read this. My favorite, in curling black ink as delicious as a fortune, promises that I "have the delight and dilemma and passion necessary." And always, everywhere, the word "again" -- as in, try again, you'll make it yet.
Long before I met Michael McFee my senior year of college, I knew I would like him because I had once heard him read a poem aloud about a brother and sister holding their breaths in a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was funny and real and broke my heart. Like Judy Williams, he wanted me to read, to consider what poetry can do, to have the courage to participate in its life. He loved Carolina landscapes and sounds, too, in person and in print -- our mountains, our people, our basketball. He knew more about North Carolina writers than I had imagined there was to know, was certain that the writers of our place could stand up to anywhere's. And he talked to me as though I were one of those writers already. As much as I learned from his comments on my own poems and the writers he gave me to read, I learned also from watching Michael how to live a teaching writer's life -- never to stop reading, observing, and writing down, also never to stop giving back. I loved the way he'd scribble notes for poems on napkins in loopy blue lines while he went on talking in class just as if magic weren't happening in his hands right in front of us. I craved his habit of attention to what was being written around him, went around quoting his playful comments on poetry and other writers. He talked in present tense then about his students from years past just as he does now -- because he keeps up with us, exhorting doctors, teachers, and insurance salesmen all to remember that we are poets, too, and to keep living the dream. On an assignment from the first week of our class in 1996, he wrote, "I feel like we've started what should be a long lively conversation!" And to his credit and my great privilege, it has been both.
Judy and Michael have never met, so far as I know, but they and my other teachers hover just outside the door of all my poems -- and outside my classroom, too, now that I'm a teacher myself and trying hard to find my way. Sometimes I hear them talking clearly in the hallway of how I got to where I am, and sometimes it's hard to make them out, but they're always there: the glowing mystery of their personalities and their faith in the power of language and in the glorious birthright of the place we're all from. Teaching a class on Whitman recently, I asked my students what they thought Walt meant by a "charge of the soul." One of them asked me did he mean like an electric charge or like telling someone to do something. I say a true charge of the soul is both -- a command that electrifies rather than stifles. And that's what the best teachers do, what Judy Williams and Michael McFee have done for me.
My ginger lilies incline their throats to sun
It is his body singing what she hears waking,
It gets harder to leave this bed,
She prefers this loving to that breaking,
One morning soon, she will kiss his lips,
All the Helens of my heritage
All the Helens where the rivers run
The Tattered Last of the Hurricane
is winding through the streets
Akhmatova, Collected in Translation
This is the book of poems he gave me
Anna, Anna, these pages silence you,
Standing between us, he joins our hands
My fingers understand, my hand touching the cover
Posture for Prayer
as cold in June as January
In the droughts,
The knees in my jeans are damp,
and I am nothing bending
Tara Powell is assistant professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. Her poems have appeared in a number of journals. Asheville Poetry Reviewpublished "Growing Season." "Laundry" appeared in The Carolina Quarterly (which Ms. Powell edited from May, 2002, to August, 2003). Southern Arts Journal published "Pond." Hidden Oak published "The Tattered Last of the Hurricane." "Akhmatova, Collected in Translation" appeared inPembroke Magazine. South Dakota Review published "Posture for Prayer." Ms. Powell wrote a monthly column for the RaleighNews & Observer from February, 2001, to August, 2002, and recently edited a feature on Southern women poets for storySouth. In 2004 Ms. Powell earned a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American and Southern literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She grew up in Elizabeth City, and in high school there she took three classes with Judy Boyer, whose poems also appear on this page. Her sister, Joon Powell, is a professional photographer and took the picture that appears here. Joon Powell also spent time in Ms. Boyer's classroom.
Judy Williams was the high school teacher who first gave me the gift of Kathryn Stripling Byer's poems. She handed me Wildwood Flower and told me it was something to aspire to. I listened. I aspired. Oddly and wonderfully, it's Kay Byer who gave me back the poems of my teacher by putting together this project.
The people and places in Judy's poems are gifts that feel as real as the ones we know for ourselves, and the vowels of their voices taste of Carolina in the best sense. When I read her work, I recognize the habit of attention that I saw in her as a teacher once upon a time, the delight in language, desire to live with guts, and commitment to writing life as one lives it. And indeed these are living poems, savory, with an elegant range of craft and subject.
Judy's work is muscular with energies of sound and image, and it's characterized by her attention to the way everyday music flourishes in tulips and children, signs and potions, stone and the very skin we're in -- makes the details of life in this world feel anything but ordinary. You can feel it move under your fingers as you read, wanting to be read aloud and taken home with you. She writes the pleasure-pain of family life with grace and dignity so that her poems reinhabit domestic rituals with color, humor, and compassion, the daily task of dreaming and surviving our lives. As always, she is teaching me to pay attention.
Being a Teacher and Loving to Write
I have been writing sappy poems and odd little stories since I can remember, not by any choice but by compulsion. Some people have to sing or paint or compose. I have to fill blank paper with words. When I was twelve I wrote a story about bombs falling and people dying called, "I Saw God." I am quite sure I was influenced by the bomb drills at school during the Cuban missile crisis. My best friend's mother read it and said, "Anybody who could write this can't be all bad." At this moment I first began to understand the power of words. I carried this idea with me throughout my 30 years of teaching. I never really thought I was a great teacher. I rarely had a lesson plan chopped into times and activities. I always taught towards an idea. I simply thought I had great students who showed me, daily, how to guide them to where I wanted them to go. Their influence on me as a professional and as a writer? Immeasurable.
How can I possibly thank such students as Tara Powell who actually "got it," who actually basked in ideas and embraced words and their power? How can I possibly thank the thousands of students with thousands of personalities and views and needs who gave me fodder for my words and ideas? Without teaching and students and ideas, I would not be writing this at all. I would not have met such wondrous writers as Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith, Michael Parker, Kaye Gibbons, or Kay Byer, who have each had a profound influence on me in and out of the classroom. What gift can I give for so much given to me except to say thank you?
The backyard tulips bloom today,
I dream me
The tulips bloom each year
Like a molting snake,
Judy Williams's roots are in Elizabeth City. She says: "I come from a family where lacking an education or getting one was important. My great-grandfather couldn't read or write, but he could tell some whopping good stories. I found a notebook full of essays and stories my grandfather wrote when he attended East Carolina University, my alma mater. My father's love of baseball and the movies led me to my earliest heroes: Lou Gehrig, Audie Murphy, Sergeant York, and Sister Luke (of "The Nun's Story"). When I decided not to be a nun, I went back to filling up blank pages. My mother was a voracious reader and writer herself, buying me books and advising me to get the sap out of my poetry. She would tell me often that, to her, paradise would be some kind of library. Reading and writing and stories were central to my life. My children, Brooks, Keeley, and Josh, as different as they are, all share a passion for stories and for life. My love for literature was always encouraged by my family and by two of my high-school English teachers, Patricia Finch and Wilma Flood. Because of them I became a high-school English teacher, too. I am proud that my daughter is today standing in front of a high- school English class in the mountain town of Bryson City. Now I am retired, with time to read, write, and collaborate with my husband, James, who is also a writer, and to pursue my new passion -- photography -- which I consider poetry in a different form."
October 16 – 22: Robert West
I have the idea that you can teach somebody something somebody taught you, either by repeating what worked or correcting what didn't (more latter than former). That applies to finite matters, like tennis, cornet-playing, ship-handling, all of which I learned from teachers. Like Robert West, I never had a course in creative writing, and a good part of what I know about poetry I taught myself and cannot communicate to others. I know there are secrets and tricks, but nobody believes me when I reveal them, so they are as safe as if they were kept in a vault.
Not what you say but what what you say says -- that turns them off every time. They want emotion and self-expression, deep love for the beauties of nature, simple and direct.
I remember a few things about poetry that benevolent elders bestowed on me: something by way of encouragement from Norman Maclean (my teacher in academic courses in Victorian poetry and modern criticism), a practical tip from George Hitchcock. For some years I tried to teach undergraduate poetry writing, but it was mostly frustration and disappointment (theirs) and bemusement (mine). Robert West was my student in an academic setting, but it was more like complementary co-existence, with him teaching me as much as I taught him, maybe even more. He kept up with contemporaries more than I have cared to do; give me Hardy and Frost, Longfellow and Milton.
So much did I regard Robert as a colleague -- shared horoscope and Tarheelhood, among other things -- that it never occurred to me to tell him to quit calling me "Doctor," but he wouldn't until I told him.
Paradox: I share the doctrine of impersonality of poetry, but I know that poetry has brought me close to poets on a wonderful personal level having to do with our shared experience of trying to write poems -- whatever it is that exercises and exorcises whatever it is. Laura (Riding) Jackson, John Frederick Nims, Robert Morgan, Richard Wilbur, George Hitchcock, George Starbuck, John Hollander, Coleman Barks, A. R. Ammons, Kathleen Norris, Fred Chappell, Grace Schulman, Richard Howard, Bill Knott, Carolyn Kizer -- some have died and some I see little of (and Knott I have never seen), but all count among my most cherished associations. So does Robert West. -William Harmon
William Harmon is James Gordon Hanes Professor in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1970. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Treasury Holiday, winner of the Academy of American Poets' Lamont Prize, and Mutatis Mutandis, winner of the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award. He is also the editor of several notable anthologies, including The Classic Hundred Poems and Classic Writings on Poetry, as well as an edition of Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson's Rational Meaning. A bibliography of work by and about him appears in Pembroke Magazine37 (2005).
What startled me
than the squirrel's
crashing limb by
down the old
catching at last
the lowest was
it gathered its
into an owl
retook the difficult
solely soul --
Not you, O punctuation mark
A Poetry Reviewer's Pocket Manual
Forget the consequences: tell the truth.
Remember, there's a mask on every I.
Robert West is an assistant professor of English at Mississippi State University. He grew up in Henderson County, in western North Carolina; he earned his B.A. at Wake Forest University and his M.A. and Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied under William Harmon. His poems have appeared in journals including Asheville Poetry Review, Cold Mountain Review, Pembroke Magazine, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and The Carolina Quarterly, where "To Apostrophe" first appeared. "A Poetry Reviewer's Pocket Manual" appeared in Blink. Mr. West is also the author of a chapbook, Best Company (Blink Chapbooks, 2005), from which we drew the poems "Presto," "Stumbling Block," and "Rorschach" for this online feature . Recently he edited a special issue on Southern poetry for Mississippi Quarterly (vol. 58, no. 2, spring 2005), as well as a special feature on Mr. Harmon's work for Pembroke Magazine (no. 37, 2005). He lives just outside Starkville with his wife, Laura, and their daughter, Lena.
October 23–29, 2006: Joseph Mills & Valerie Nieman
Press 53 is a small, independent publishing company committed to literary quality. Our office is located in Lewisville, just outside of Winston-Salem, where we publish full-length books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction by both new and established writers. Since Kevin Watson and I began the press last October, we have published nine new titles: five short story collections, two volumes of poetry, one novel, and one memoir. Kevin and I are devoted to finding excellent short fiction, novels, novellas, poetry, memoirs, essays, and other kinds of creative nonfiction. We're interested in both traditional literature and edgy, genre-bending work. We like bringing together disparate kinds of expressive art: original visual art and the written word; memoirs with poetry; screenplays and short stories; writers known for doing one thing doing something new. We like chunky anthologies and slim, stand-alone novellas. Essentially, we love coming across new ways of seeing old things. And the one element that binds together all this interesting variety is narrative. If there isn't a story, or if the story isn't compelling enough, then it isn't right for us.