Thursday, December 21, 2006

Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture

The December 25/January 1 fiction issue of The New Yorker reprinted Orhan Pamuk's recent Nobel Prize lecture (curiously leaving out the final paragraph). The full text is available at It is essentially a narrative about his father, his father's unpublished personal writing coupled with his remoteness, and ultimately his father's support for and appreciation of his son's work. EXCERPTS (translation from Turkish by Maureen Freely):

This suitcase [containing his father's unpublished writing] was a familiar friend, a powerful reminder of my childhood, my past, but now I couldn't even touch it. Why? No doubt it was because of the mysterious weight of its contents.

I am now going to speak of this weight's meaning. It is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and retires to a corner to express his thoughts – that is, the meaning of literature.

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words.


The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind.


But once we shut ourselves away, we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other peoples' stories, other people's books, other people's words, the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors, and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signals that dark and improvident times are upon us.


All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.


As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tough Choices

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued its report (Tough Choices for Tough Times) on December 14. The executive summary is available here. This builds on and modifies the report of the original commission issued in 1990. Now, the New Commission notes that 16 years ago it was clear that unskilled work would increasingly be outsourced, performed by workers in developing countries, but that few anticipated that even skilled jobs would be performed efficiently and for lower pay in other countries such as India and China. Currently, an Indian engineer earns $7,500 annually as compared to $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. The increasing prevalence of digitized work makes it possible for the Indian engineer to do the required work from overseas. At the same time, the digital revolution is increasing the number of unskilled jobs that can be automated.

The New Commission makes the case that creativity will increasingly be as important to the American worker as technological skill. It notes, "This is a world in which a very high level of preparedness in reading, writing, speaking, math, science, literature, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce." This sounds to me like an argument for a liberal education, an education in critical thinking and communicating, as well as in technical proficiencies.

The study group makes a series of recommendations, including the following:

  • A system of exams given at the end of 10th grade that would determine what path students take--to a community college, to further accelerated high school study via AP or International Baccalaureate course, or to a trade school.

  • Universal early childhood education beginning at age 3.

  • Recruitment of the best high school students to become teachers.

  • More open-ended, less multiple-choice testing.

  • More schools operated by independent contractors.

  • More state (vs. district) oversight of school financing, etc.

  • Easier access to adult education.

  • "Personal Competitiveness Accounts" for everyone to start at birth and to be available to use for educational expenses.

Monday, December 18, 2006

1776 and Christmas Trees

David McCullough
I've just finished listening to the tape of David McCullough's 1776, a gripping account of the events in that pivotal year (read by the author). As Commander-in-Chief, Washington made several major blunders in his attempt to defend New York, and had the British generals managed their strategy better, the war might have been over before it started. By December 1776, hope was dim, and the Continental Army was in sorry condition. Many soldiers had completed their terms of duty and were on the verge of returning home, but the promise of a bonus coupled with Washington's pleading persuaded most of them to stick it out a little longer. Against all odds, Washington's decision to cross the Delaware and surprise the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day during a miserable spell of cold, snowy weather turned the tide and lifted the spirits of the country. Some stories claim that the Hessians were vulnerable because of their drunken partying, although McCullough points out that few contemporary accounts bear this out. Whatever the case, undoubtedly the Hessians had erected Christmas trees, transplanting that German tradition to U.S. soil. And it is possible that their carousing and inattention as they huddled at their trees were in part responsible for the rebel victory that turned the tide of the American Revolution.

This Year's Tree, a Douglas Fir
  • Many cultures, including the Egyptians and Romans, treasured evergreens as symbols of everlasting life or the promise of spring renewal. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at winter solstice, decorating with greens and exchanging gifts.
  • Druids used evergreens in winter solstice celebrations, placing mistletoe and evergreen branches above their doors for good luck.
  • Legend has it that 1,000 years ago St. Boniface, who converted Germany to Christianity, came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. He angrily cut it down, whereupon a fir tree sprang up in its place. He took this as a sign of the Christian faith.
  • From the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreens indoors to show hope for spring. Martin Luther began decorated indoor trees with candles around 1500. The candles supposedly represented the light of Christ or the star of Bethlehem.
  • In New England, the Puritans banned not only Christmas trees but Christmas itself. So if the Hessians erected trees at Christmas in 1776, that was still an alien custom.
  • Queen Victoria visited relatives in Germany, where she met Albert, whom she eventually married. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree tradition from Germany to England, and the custom, including the practice of hanging blown glass balls from the branches, caught on.
  • In 1851 Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. The Christmas tree tradition had begun to catch on. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and within 20 years, the custom was widespread.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Fran Mancuso and John Burrows

Fran and Steve
I've known Steve Jonas since 1969 when we both taught at Roosevelt Junior High School in Syracuse. He continued on as a teacher and school administrator in Syracuse and Fulton until he retired several years ago. He and Fran Mancuso lived briefly in Saranac Lake, and upon her retirement, they moved to Sciacca, Sicily. Janne and I last saw them in 2004 during our usual summer stay in the Adirondack Mountains near Tupper Lake (where Fran taught high school Spanish for many years). Early today, Steve sent email to tell us that Fran died on Tuesday following hospitalization for acute leukemia. It all happened very fast. We'll miss her and will do our best to stay in close touch with Steve. Fran kept a wonderful blog about their life in Sicily (Sicilianmama). Her incredible photos posted on Flickr are accessible at Sicilianmama.

John Burrows Sailing Into the Sunset

I've just heard about the loss of another old friend, John Burrows, who was my colleague at Tougaloo College from when I joined the faculty there until John and Suzie (and son Joey) moved to Miami in 1981, where they lived for a time on a wooden houseboat. John took a job running the Writing Center at Florida International University. We had been out of touch with them in recent years, though we've always exchanged Christmas cards. It was in this year's card that Suzie told us John had died of cancer in October. Earlier this year, his brother Jim had also died of cancer. John was a great friend and fellow poet. He, along with our colleague John Monro, introduced me to the discipline of composition--still in its infancy in the late 70's. We attended CCCC conventions together and talked for hours about the teaching of writing. He had worked with Mina Shaughnessy when he was doing his grad work at the City University of New York. John was a New Yorker, grew up on Long Island. He loved sailing, Ireland, and W.B. Yeats (on whom he wrote his master's thesis--the "Crazy Jane" poems). He could play piano by ear. For a couple years, John, I and our families met for breakfast each Saturday, alternating houses. Joey was Nell's age. John was a smoker, and perhaps that did him in.

Monday, December 11, 2006


This year's holiday photo collage, to be accompanied in the mail by Janne's annual list of extended family members, their locations, and occupations.

Here's Akane Igarashi, our "adopted" Japanese daughter from Sapporo, Japan. She enrolled at Francis Marion University, where I was introduced to her by exchange students from Russia and Ukraine. Akane subsequently transferred to the University of South Carolina, where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in photography. Her parents have visited us twice before and will return for Christmas--followed up by a trip to Orlando and then New York. Akane will graduate in May.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


In addition to the rhetoric and composition journals I subscribe to (College English, College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, and Writing on the Edge), as well as The New Yorker, Newsweek, and The New York Times Book Review (Do I subscribe only to weeklies whose titles start with "New?"), I take various literary journals, altering my choices year to year. My current subscriptions include Southern Poetry Review (edited by my friend Bob Parham), Tar River Poetry, Atlanta Review (which I like for its international flavor), Crazyhorse, and Iron Horse Literary Review.

The current issue of Iron Horse contains a series of "readings," by various well-known poets, fiction writers, and essayists. Each reading consists of a bio, a story/essay/series of poems, and a brief Q and A with the writer. One question to Kelly Cherry is "Have these poems undergone revisions?" She responds, "I started work on the sonnets in 1999 (though there'd been a half-sonnet from 1994 or thereabouts that I'd hung on to) and have rewritten all of them many, many times."

In contrast, Bob Hicok claims of his three poems, "These three were not revised, beyond how they were revised during composition. I tend to revise a great deal as I write, which is why I bow down to the computer.... While I don't believe 'first word, best word,' I trust the intention of that philosophy and want to come as close as I can to capturing my thoughts and emotions in a given moment. There's something lost for me once I rise from a poem into the day, something particular to each poem that I find almost impossible to get back. However long it takes, I try to finish each one on the initial go-round."

After her five poems, each motivated by a different line from a poem in Spanish, Leslie Ullman explains the origin of this series in her reading of a bilingual anthology of 20th-century American poetry edited by Stephen Tapscott. She chose this as a text for a poetry class. Then, she says, "My professionalism gave way to enchantment and then to irresponsibility as the energy in those poems entered me like a tonic and made me itch to write poems of my own rather than think about classes. I was particularly seduced by elements easiest to preserve in translation--swiftness of association, a delicious mixing of the senses, astonishing juxtapositions, and incantatory rhythms."

Reading this makes me want to return to my own free-form translations from poems by Eugenio Montale in Italian, a language I don't know. It also reminds me of the series of poems Melissa Morphew wrote in response to Pablo Neruda's questions in Libro de las preguntas (Book of Questions - 1974).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pat Hoy

Pat Hoy
In an interview with Mel Livatino in the current issue of Writing on the Edge, essayist Pat Hoy says,
I usually start out with a problem. I usually start out with a question I'm trying to answer. I seldom start out knowing what my idea is. I discover that in the process of assembling the stories, or they allow me to discover it because they've already assembled themselves.

The images have already coalesced in my imagination and built up enough energy that they do what the Jungians call breaking the threshold of consciousness. And I have to pay attention to the images. They are presenting me with the thing I need to figure out. So I have to start with the image that's bugging me the most.
And later,
The joy and the value of the familiar essay is that it operates under the requirement that we deliberately see the writer's mind in motion. It is an illusion of the highest artistic order that we are actually seeing in the final form of that essay all of the writer's mind in motion. There are lots of things that get subtracted. There's a lot of shaping that goes on, but the requirement is that we retain the mind's movement, the reflection of it, so that we create the illusion that the listener, the reader, is actually getting to see the mind figuring out whatever it's figuring out. And the mind's got to be trying to figure out something other than itself.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


My friend Bill Sherling, who owns The Gnu's Room used book store in Auburn, Alabama, loaned me Ted Botha's book, Mongo. The term mongo, new to me, refers to any discarded item that is retrieved. Botha, himself something of a mongo hound, profiles people in New York City who regularly cruise the streets looking for useful (or not so useful) discarded objects. He interviews people whose apartments are packed with rescued items, methodical treasure hunters who have unearthed valuable loot in their wanderings, and book scrounger cart pushers who know just where they're likely to locate a pricey first edition or a packet of old magazines at 3 a.m. There's even a chapter on food scroungers, who have learned where the best castoff produce, tofu, or sweets are likely to be found.

This book reminds me of my own modest life as a mongo hunter in Hiroshima, Japan. There were occasional scheduled days in the neighborhood when "oogomi" (large trash) was put out for pickup. If you hit the narrow streets early on those days, you could salvage all sorts of useful stuff. Japanese houses and apartments tend to be small and cramped enough so that no one can afford to keep too much, so some pretty desirable items wind up on the curb. I had arrived for my year in Japan with only several bags,and I rented an unfurnished apartment, so I was a shameless scrounger. I found a bicycle, several useful tables, and a chair or two, all within several blocks of my apartment.
Poets tend to be verbal mongo hunters. I've just read Joel Brouwer's 2001 Whiting Award winner, Exactly What Happened. In it, he gleans poems from news headlines ("Kelly, Ringling Bros. Oldest Elephant, Goes on Rampage"), from the world of magic ("Houdini"), and Russian lore ("Krushchev's Shoe"). One good one is "The Plastic Surgeon's Wife," who
over the years was sculpted lovelier
and lovelier: lips pillowed, buttocks lifted
to a tight split peach. When her body

was flawless, pure leopard, he began
experiments. He tried time-release
injection--vanilla bean, lilac, rose--
Brouwer's second collection, Centuries, is a series of prose poems, each 100 words long. Here's half of one called "N"--showing the poet's mongo-loving lust for words:
So much that's not nice: napalm, nettles, nemesis, noose. Not to mention the basic no. Even the dictionary's blissful path from neck to nectar--a trembling fingertip fliding over her nipple, down around her navel--is choked by morbid vines from the intervening necro-root: -mania, -phagia, -philia. A few pages later, too fractious to define, six single-spaced columns of non-'s.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Memory and Poetry

Galway Kinnell's wonderful poem, Pulling a Nail originally in American Poetry Review
Kinnell says, "There's not a specific something I'm aiming for, but there is something that's almost unspeakable and poems are efforts to speak it bit by bit, like a burden than has to be laid down piece by piece, that can't be just thrown off."
Galway Kinnell Poetry Archive site
From Lincoln, Nebraska comes an article about my friend Ann Cognard's high school English class and how her student Shuquiao Song fell in love with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and entered a national poetry recitation contest. She worked with Ann for three months preparing for the contest.

I require my Advanced Poetry Workshop students to memorize and recite 2 poems, each at least 14 lines, one pre-20th century, one more recent. I'd like to begin making this requirement more of a careful recitation than a fumbling memory exercise. Too often, the memory work is a fight to the finish, a halting plod through the poem. Instead, I'd like it to be a performance that others can appreciate and applaud. I tell them that once they've memorized a poem well, they carry it around with them always, and no one can take it away from them.

I like being able to call to mind Richard Wilbur's "Merlin Enthralled" or John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" or Shakespeare's "That time of year thou mayest in me behold" whenever I want.

I admire poets who can recite their own work at length. I have committed only a couple of my poems to memory but should work on others.

Slate magazine slide show on Joseph Cornell's boxes

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thirteen Moons

Charles Frazier and I received our Ph.D. degrees at the University of South Carolina in the same year, 1986, but I do not remember him. His dissertation was The Geography of Possibility: Man in the Landscape in Recent Western Fiction, 257 pages long and including chapters on Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, James Crumley, Barry Holsten Lopez, Elizabeth Tallent and Douglas Unger. He went on to write Cold Mountain, based on the story of his great-great uncle's trek back home from the battlefields of the Civil War. This tale of W.P. Inman won the National Book Award in 1997.
I've just finished Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, this one based loosely on the life of William Holland Thomas, born in 1805, orphaned, and from an early age a precocious proprietor of a store in the Cherokee Nation. Adopted by the Cherokees, he helped some of them retain their land in the midst of the Trail of Tears removal to Oklahoma. As a Colonel, he led a group of Indian recruits in the Civil War, fighting for the Confederates. Frazier's first-person narrator tells his own story from the perspective of old age. Early on, we hear about the characters Featherstone, Bear, and Charley. Much of the novel is devoted to his quest for Claire, with whom he had a torrid affair, but who then left for Oklahoma with Featherstone. Will Cooper, like William Holland Thomas, falls into debt and misfortune in his old age, but unlike the actual Thomas, he does not lapse into mental illness.
William Holland Thomas
"I cannot decide whether it is an illness or a sin, the need to write things down and fix the flowing world in one rigid form. Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they've been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they've passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time. Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final." (Thirteen Moons, page 20)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Old Masters

Maurice Graham - Robert Altman - Robert Lockwood, Jr.

Obituaries of Maurice Graham, "King of the Hobos," and two influential Roberts (filmmaker Altman and bluesman Lockwood), who died on November 21.


En route from Alexandria to Columbia yesterday morning, I finished listening to the CD version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The reader, Tom Stechschulte, is perhaps the same one who read William Gay's stories, I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down, which I listened to with great pleasure a couple years ago. McCarthy's latest is a picaresque post-apocalyptic father and son novel. Trekking south down a road through a blackened and ravaged landscape, the two scrounge desperately for food and are ever-alert for other survivors likely to kill them for their few sorry possessions which they drag along in a rickety cart. The date, the location, the cause of the holocaust, the number of years they've been on the move--all are unspecified. It's a strangely de-contextualized travelogue. The father and son exist in a vacuum, and there are only vague hints of an earlier life with the wife and mother, now long gone. They have encounters with others, sometimes scary, sometimes pitiful. But there's a singular lack of hope for anyone. For all but the hardiest and most bellicose, starvation seems inevitable in the sterile and already-scavenged landscape they traverse. Some of the sketchy conversations between father and son are touching and endearing, and McCarthy's prose is richer and lusher than one might expect, given the bleak setting, but the novel just doesn't have the depth and dimension of his earlier work. I found his previous novel, No Country for Old Men, grimly entertaining, but his best work remains The Border Trilogy, especially All the Pretty Horses.



Best Books I've Read in the Past Year (since 11/27/05)

Robert Olen Butler, Had a Good Time

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Ken Bain, What the Best college Teachers Do

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Ron Rash, The World Made Straight

Stephen Kuusisto, The Planet of the Blind

Mike Rose, The Mind at Work

Jane Tompkins, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned

J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Edward Docx, The Calligrapher

Tracy Kidder, My Detachment

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Family Thanksgiving

Family Matriarch Vera Autrey in New Chair

Vera, Jan, Ken

Jane Clare Bosher's First Thanksgiving

Nephew J.L. Reppert, Matthew, Jane Clare, Tess
Rounding out a month of heavy travel, lots of road miles, we're in Alexandria, VA with Tess, Matthew, and Jane Clare for Thanksgiving weekend. Last weekend, we drove to Auburn, AL for a visit with Mom, sister Jan, and bro-in-law Joe.
Because of travel on Thursday, we elected to have Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, and the bonus was that nephew J.L. Reppert was able to join us. We collaborated on the meal, with Tess doing the bulk of the cooking. While Tess was cooking turkey and pies, Janne and I took Jane Clare down to Old Town Alexandria, where we located The Torpedo Factory, a three-floor collection of artist's studios and showrooms: pottery, fabrics, painting, prints, glassware. Richie Arenberg had taken us there when we visited him here in the 1970's, and it remains much as I remember it, perhaps somewhat expanded. Our dinner was at 4:30 p.m.
This afternoon we'll take advantage of the beautiful weather to drive down to the Washington Mall and visit the National Gallery of Art. Tonight Janne and I will take Jane Clare to dinner at cousin Sheila Harrison's. She lives only 10 minutes away. We'll leave for home early tomorrow, hoping to avoid the post-holiday I-95 traffic that will surely be oppressive later in the day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

National Book Awards

This year's winners:
Young People's Literature: M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press)
Poetry: Nathaniel Mackay, Splay Anthem (New Directions)
Nonfiction: Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin)
Fiction: Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Other items of note in The State newspaper today:
  • South Carolina's Jim Clyburn will probably be the new Democratic House Whip.
  • O.J. Simpson will publish a book called If I Did It.
  • Thanks to analysis of a 38,00-year-old bone fragment, scientists will soon know the entire Neanderthal DNA sequence.
  • Scientists have grown human heart valves usisng stem cells from the fluid that cushions babies in the womb.
  • According to Kathleen Parker, 1 in 3 homeless men is a vet, and 45% of those are mentally ill. 1 in 4 vets of Afghanistan and Iraq are diagnosed with a mental health problem.
  • According to Thomas Friedman, China's rapid economic growth has led to extreme pollution. The country is "reaching its ecological limits."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Kalnah and Noaf

Kalnah and Noaf, Students from Zayed University, UAE
Ed Freedman, a former FMU faculty member now at Zayed University, United Arab Emirates, brought a group of women students to FMU to visit today and tomorrow. They are visiting various college campuses in the southeast. I had asked for two of them to visit my English Honors class. When Kalnah and Noaf arrived, it didn't take long for them to undermine any stereotypes we held about Middle Eastern Moslem women. They wore no head coverings, and Kalnah looked as though she could have stepped right out of a Rodeo Drive shop. Both of them, Noaf particularly, were equally as fluent in English as many FMU students. They've traveled widely (though not in the U.S.), and they seemed thoroughly familiar with U.S. culture and food, thanks to American TV and movies, as well as a profusion of western fast food joints, the McDonaldization of the world. In short, they know far more about us than we know about them.
In the Fall 2006 issue of Cimarron Review I read an interesting essay by Diane Comer called "The Far Gaze." It evokes one of my favorite travel writers, Bruce Chatwin, in a surprising and somewhat bitter way--to bemoan the difficulty of getting around as a woman in the world. It's available online at the web site. More curious was the essay in the same journal by poet Mark Halliday, "The Tipton Awards--A Judge's Chronicle." It tells about his long and exhausting search for poems published since 1999 by three poets "in some danger of unfair neglect." He was supposedly commissioned to do this by Mercedes Minerva Tipton, who announced in 2005 that she would annually award a million dollars each to three poets who have published great poems of less than 120 lines. Whoa. Wait. How could this be? I can find no reference whatsoever to this anywhere. And besides, why wouldn't one of my poems be selected? He eventually claims to locate the six finalists and settles on these three as the winners:
"The Myth of Contentment" by Paul Guest
"Ago" by Tim Seibles
"Mediterranean" by Rosanna Warren

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Googling Myself

Tess's Catering: Sweet Jane Desserts
Melissa Morphew's new collection, Fathom
Derek Walcott's The Schooner Flight
It's commonplace these days to Google others to see where they turn up on the web, to learn what you can about them or maybe to locate them after losing track of them. I did just that for Melissa Morphew, whose fabulous new collection, Fathom, I just read. Melissa and I were in a writing group together a few years ago, before she returned to Tennessee and subsequently took a job in Texas at Sam Houston State University, a school that formerly went by the infamous name, Sam Houston Institute of Technology. (Think about it.)
The ultimate act of narcissism these days is to Google yourself. When I type "Ken Autrey" into the search block, I find 280 hits, although many of these are duplicates, and a good number are for other Ken Autreys: the Methodist minister in De Funiak Springs, Florida; the realtor who works for Coldwell Banker in Texarkana, Arkansas, or the Augusta, Georgia deputy sheriff who turns up as an arresting officer in a anecdote.
Someone with my name serves on the Executive Committee of the National Rural Education Association, which met in March 2003 in Kearney, Nebraska. Another Ken Autrey is a contributor to Fireworks, "Britain's only periodical for firework enthusiasts." My cousin Ken Autrey, who died young as a result of a heart problem, appears, sadly, as a resident of Oak Hill Cemetery in Many, Louisiana, where Dad's parents and various other relatives occupy plots.
References to the real me include my Flickr photo page, the FMU Faculty Executive Committee page, and, where I have an "average easiness" rating of 3.1 and an "average helpfulness" rating of 4.1 out of 5. Bob Klein's interview with me about my Peace Corps service is listed with the John F. Kennedy Library. I'm mentioned in an article about Ghana by my former Peace Corps colleague Carolyn Kroll. My forward to the book, In Praise of Pedagogy, comes up, as does my former role as a contributor to the CCCC annual bibliography. One of the oldest references to me is a 1983 ERIC Document, my paper on "The Uses of Student Journals." I'm listed as a contributor to the journal, Postscript, as a reviewer of various books for The State newspaper, and as a former member of the Swamp Fox Writing Project Board. My poem "The Butterfly Tattoo" comes up on the Wadsworth Publishers' page, and my work in the online journal, King Log, also gets a mention. My name surfaces as a contributor to Cimarron Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and The Ninety-Six Sample of South Carolina Poetry. My name appears in as a graduate of Auburn High School. Anyone seeking a Google portrait of me would get a fair sense of my professional interests and my invovement in Friends of Ghana but would learn little about my personal life otherwise.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pee Dee Fiction Festival

Back in the mid-eighties, Ellen Gilchrist did a series of regular commentaries on National Public Radio. Her Mississippi voice had a spacy southern lilt; she drifted lightly and bemusedly through her vivid anecdotes and observations, but the voice held something sturdy and intractable too. When she began to read a story on the first night of the FMU's Pee Dee Fiction Festival, that firmly delicate voice came back to me over the distance of over twenty years. She read well, with humor and a little good-natured profanity.
In the Q and A period, she said that poetry had been a stronger influence on her than fiction, especially the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost. Her first publications in the seventies were books of poems rather than the stories and novels she later became known for. This morning, talking about books that have influenced her, she praised Cormac McCarthy and of his most recent, The Road, said, "I've read so many bad reviews of it, I can't wait to read it." She mentioned Welty as a friend and Faulkner as an intimidating model who is so dominant in his influence that "you can't read him within six weeks of writing anything lest you be unduly swayed by his style."

In a colloquium Thursday afternoon and again at his reading last night, Andre Dubus III proved lively, accessible, and engaging. He stressed just the things I like students to hear from writers: write about what you know, revise mercilessly, be specific, read everything. He loves to quote other writers, like Hemingway ("Get the whats, not the whys.") Students were no doubt most interested in his stories and observations about House of Sand and Fog, which many of them have read this semester. We learned from him that he played a bit part as a cop in the movie, that he modeled Colonel Behrani after the father of an Iranian woman whom he loved, and that the story of the house originated in a new article about a woman whose house was wrongfully repossessed in California. We learned that he wrote much of the novel in his car, parked in a cemetery in Newburyport, MA.
In the early seventies, Janne and I visited Richie Arenberg in Newburyport and made grave rubbings at a cemetery there. When I compared notes with Dubus and mentioned the gravestone of the boy who had drowned in the cemetery pond and the woman whose epitaph said she choked on a pea, he said that was the same cemetery. And he told about a few of his favorite tombstones.
This morning he spoke on books that have most influenced him: The Grapes of Wrath and The Stories of Breece D J'Pancake. Afterwards, we talked a bit about Pancake, and I told him I remembered reading "Trilobytes" in The Atlantic and being blown away by it back in the seventies.

I first heard of Dianne Johnson when Nell attended the summer Governer's School in Charleston back in 1989. Dianne taught the American Autobiography course Nell was so impressed with. Soon after, Dianne joined the University of South Carolina English faculty, where she has since been teaching courses in children's literature and writing children's books.
This morning I had breakfast with Dianne, Jon Tuttle, and Joe Kennedy at Venus Pancake House in town. I haven't eaten there since the old days when a group of English faculty regularly met there for Friday breakfast after Thursday night poker games. Dianne talked about her daughter Niani, a 12-year-old dancer who went to California to work with Debbie Allen in July. Dianne took her along on a trip to China in August.
Dianne spoke this morning on books that had influenced her to write children's books. She showed us a book she wrote based on the photos of Richard Samuel Roberts, an African American photographer who worked in Columbia. This afternoon, she showed Powerpoint slides from some of her books and talked about how she wrote them. Especially notable: her recent book about her dolls (selected from her collection of 150) and the forthcoming book about her late husband, illustrator Tom Feelings.
I'm about halfway through Tracy Kidder's My Detachment, which is mostly about his Vietnam experience. He attended Andover, where they advertised "complete freedom tempered by expulsion."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

Jane Clare in Columbia

Janne and I spent Saturday overnight in Charleston babysitting granddaughter Jane Clare while Tess and Matthew went to a wedding. The Bosher threesome is now in Columbia for a few days. She toddles, falls gracefully, sits with left leg doubled under her and right leg extended, tastes everything she can get her new teeth on, chases the cat, gnaws at apples, drinks soy formula, sleeps at 9:30, 3:30, and 8:30, hears Good Night Moon each night before bed.
Midterm elections today. South Carolina will not be a part of the Democratic bandwagon, but disillusionment elsewhere in the country will surely lead to a Dem majority in the House, if not the Senate. Inevitably, there's been a slight swing back to the fold by disaffected Republicans. John Kerry's blundered joke and Saddam Hussein's death sentence verdict (announced Sunday) may have helped the Republicans, but anyone swayed by those remote influences is a reed in the wind. Janne left the house at 6:45 to get in line early and vote before work. Her mother always made an effort to be the first to vote in her precinct. At mid-morning I'll make my way up to Westminster Prebyterian Church to vote.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

House of Sand and Fog

Garbo Collage - April 2006

My English 200 Honors class is reading House of Sand and Fog as we anticipate the campus visit of the author, Andre Dubus III, next week. He'll be at Francis Marion as a headliner in our Fiction Festival, which will also feature Ellen Gilchrist and Dinah Johnson. Rereading the novel, I find myself even more sympathetic to the Iranian family that has purchased a house in California that was repossessed by the county but is still claimed by the original owner, who ignored tax bills, thinking she had already paid them. The novel pits Kathy, a down-and-out cleaning woman, against Behrani, a refugee from Iran who was formerly a wealthy Colonel in the Shah's army but is now struggling to make a go of it in the U.S. Things get complicated when Lester Burdon, a deputy sheriff, takes an interest in Kathy's pitiful plight and then falls in love with her while trying to find a way to extricate himself from an unhappy marriage.
My students seem engaged with the book. I've tried to get them to scrutinize the motives of the main characters, influenced as they all are by past events and complexes. In fact, for their next paper, they'll need to select one character to write on, analyzing his or her actions with the help of secondary sources. In Friday's class we puzzled over issues of perspective in the novel. It largely unfolds as a series of chapters alternating first-person points of view from Kathy and Behrani. Then, we begin to get third-person narrative telling Lester's story. I've challenged the students to think about why there is this shift in narrative strategy toward the end of the novel.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Doors of Founders Hall

Eleazer Flannagan Cowles
"Being a writer means having homework for the rest of your life."
-- Lawrence Kasden
"I liked this poem and even began to like it more after reading it."
-- Student
"It's like a ornado come through and just disastered everything."
-- Hurricane Katrina victim
"We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love."
-- Jonathan Swift
"Tattoos: permanent reminders of a temporary feeling."
-- Jimmy Buffett
"Teaching is one of three impossible jobs. The others: to govern and to cure."
-- Freud
"A book is a mirror. If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to peer out."
-- Lichtenberg
"I want to take the reader by the throat, break her heart, and heal it again."
-- Dorothy Allison
"I'm focused on the central yearning of characters."
-- Robert Olen Butler
"If you're not sure whether a line of poetry is working, it ain't."
-- Ron Rash
"The very measure of our creative drive is that we longingly dream of one day being free of it."
--Maria Flook
"Exaggerate in the direction of truth."
-- Henri Matisse
"Their coach is a walking parenthesis without a companion to bracket his stray thoughts."
-- from a New York Times article on Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach
"Rembert, South Carolina is a good place to grow up but a terrible place to grow old."
-- Andrew Dennis, a student

Thursday, November 02, 2006

William Styron

William Styron died at 81 yesterday on Martha's Vineyard. The cause of death was pneumonia, although he had been in ill health for several years. I remember reading Lie Down in Darkness and The Long March back in the sixties and, like many, finding in them echoes of Faulkner, although Styron disdained any attempt to mark him as a "southern writer," and in the end his work did defy any such limiting label. I was most impressed with The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1967 and winning the Pulitzer Prize. I was shocked when, after a slew of rave reviews, the book began to draw fire, especially from African-American critics who questioned Styron's right to address the issue of slave rebellion by identifying with Turner. In fact, the book was backed by copious and painstaking research, as was his later novel, Sophie's Choice, a National Book Award winner which was widely praised but like Nat Turner, was criticized. In that case, the beef was that Styron, a non-Jew, wrote about the holocaust by focusing on Sophie--a Polish Catholic rather than a Jew. I have nothing but admiration for his work in both novels. Several years ago I heard Styron speak at the University of South Carolina. To my surprise, he was--some 30 years after the publication of Nat Turner--still defending his decision to write about that topic.

The most recent of his books I've read was Darkness Visible, a wrenching and fascinating description of his intense bouts of depression, which left him utterly immobile. Apparently, this problem commenced when, in 1990 he quit drinking.

Outside his workroom in Connecticut, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a quotation from Flaubert written on it: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

George Plimpton interview with Styron in 1968 following the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Kurt Schwitters
Blauer Vogel (Blue Bird)Collage c. 1922
8 x 7 in. (20.3 x 17.8 cm)
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Murray A. Gribin, Beverly Hills, CA

Asiana Collage - October 2005
Since discovering the collages of Estaban Vincente and Kurt Schwitters while taking art courses in college, I've been interested in this art form. Schwitters' collages were made up of everyday clutter and detritus he collected and then reshaped into what he called "Merz" constructions. He expanded this concept to architecture and created a "Merz haus." For years I've been making collages, experimenting with patching together ticket stubs, colored paper, wrapping paper, stamps, old envelopes, subway passes--anything two-dimensional that comes to hand. I like the idea that artfully connecting objects with other dissimilar artifacts provides a new way of viewing them--and the visual design itself is worth working for. I've filled notebooks with these paste-ups.
A year or so ago Janne and I saw a display of quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama at the art museum in Auburn. These distinctive, highly original quilts by a group of rural African-American women have been exhibited all over the country, along with a video showing them at work. They are essentially cloth collages, made of discarded clothing and found scraps.
Perhaps my interest in the collage form is related to my longstanding fascination with journals and diaries and the patchwork quality many of them have. This blog itself is a sort of miscellany, a collage of ideas and visuals.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Current Reading

I love being surrounded by books. Words in profusion provide both insulation from the mean streets and transport to distant lands. Students sometimes scan the shelves of my office library and ask, "Have you read all of these?" Of course I haven't, though I've read most of them--some of them multiple times. I have referred to every one of them at least once, and I have a familiarity with all of them. My office book collection is dominated by volumes about composition, works of literary nonfiction, textbooks of all types, and books of poetry/about poetry. One shelf contains most of the books and magazines I published in. Another contains 5 or more copies of each issue of Snow Island Review, our student literary magazine, going back to 1991 when David Starkey and I established it. In the photo above, the two shelves below the back issues of journals contain the Steve Jonas collection--the books of poetry Steve sent me when he and Fran were divesting themselves of stuff before moving to Sicily a few years ago.

My current reading is, as usual, diverse. I've recently finished Edward Docx's The Calligrapher, one of the best novels I've read in years. The narrator, Jasper Jackson, is a calligrapher in London painstakingly copying a series of John Donne's poems for a rich buyer in the U.S. Each chapter is keyed to a different poem, and each contains an epigraph from Donne. The book is about Jackson's craft and about his relationships with women--one in particular. It's a stunning book, and one side effect is that it has sent me back to Donne's poems, urging me to read them in a different way. I've also recently read Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do; I liked that one well enough to arrange for all new faculty members to have a copy. I've been dabbling in Ellen Gilchrist's stories because she'll be visiting FMU in a couple weeks, as will Andre Dubus III, which explains my immersion in House of Sand and Fog (assigned for my English 200 Honors students). I'm reading Fathom, a recent collection of poetry by Melissa Morphew, who was in my writing group in Columbia before moving to Texas. Also Chinese Architecture, by Aleda Shirley, a poet Beckie Flannagan has recently introduced me to. The John Ciardi translation of Dante's Inferno is on my desk because I recently brought Dante up in my poetry class as a master of terza rima, a form so difficult in rhyme-poor English, that many translations of Dante (including Ciardi's) do not attempt it. I wanted my poets to hear a little of Dante in translation before experimenting with three-line forms, including the villanelle, on their own.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Children in Ghana

6-Year-Old Slave in Ghana
photo by Joao Silva, New York Times
The above photo accompanied the New York Times article on West African child slavery I mentioned yesterday. As I thought about this wrenching topic, I remembered a young woman, perhaps 14 years old, who worked in the household of my first headmaster in Asamankese, Ghana, where Gretchen and I taught for a year before transferring to New Drobo Secondary School. I think this young woman was related to the headmaster or his wife and was working for them in exchange for room and board--and perhaps a small salary. She did not attend school and had no real prospects for self-improvement. It suddenly dawns on me after nearly 40 years that she was essentially a young slave, though the family would never have referred to her as such. I can picture her dimly: long shabby skirt and bare feet, short hair in the fashion of young women (before they were old enough to have it braided), unexpressive face and resigned demeanor. We visited castles at Cape Coast and Elmina where slaves had been held captive before being shipped across the Atlantic. I recall the small passageway down close to the water line on the outer wall of one castle where slaves were hustled onto ships for the long, agonizing, often deadly trip to the West Indies or the U.S. It never occurred to me that there might still be slaves in the very society that I was working so earnestly and innocently to transform.

Mother and Children in Ghana - October 1968

Sunday, October 29, 2006


An article by Sharon LaFreniere in today's New York Times documents the prevalence of slave labor in West Africa. Her focus is on Ghana, where destitute parents sometimes sell their young children into bondage for a pittance. The children work long hours on little nourishment and may seldom--or never--see their parents. They are often mistreated and abused. According to LaFreniere, "Ghana, an Oregon-size nation of 21 million people, has yet to prosecute anyone under the new antitrafficking law it adopted last December. But the government has taken other steps — including eliminating school fees that forced youngsters out of classrooms, increasing birth registrations so that children have legal identities and extending small loans to about 1,200 mothers to give them alternatives to leasing out their children."
I served as a Peace Corps secondary school English teacher 1967-69. In 1995, I founded Friends of Ghana, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association (a group for returned PC volunteers), and became its first president. Currently, I edit Talking Drum, our quarterly newsletter. Despite severe economic and political disruption, especially in the 1980s, Ghana has been relatively stable, and since 1961 the Peace Corps has had a strong presence there. Friends of Ghana contributes to worthy projects and scholarship funds in Ghana, but when I read articles such as the one on slave labor in a country where many live on less than $1 per day, I realize our efforts are feeble. Perhaps after retirement in a few years, I'll be able to return to Ghana with my wife Janne and teach for a while.
The rack, the screw,
the hook with pointed end and eye,
smoldering sticks, cloth in oil,
the jag of an old man's tooth,
the stake, an arm of rope,
the crushing hammer and the claw,
the wooden yolk, horses
sent in different directions,
rocks dashed to the head and some to the sky,
recitation of saints most would not remember,
skin stripped from the body,
public inquisition,
the strong man and his pick, fire:
these are what little girls are made of.
-- from "Jeanne in the Presence of Instruments" by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett in Roam

Saturday, October 28, 2006

On the Road

Steps at Machu Picchu - May 2005

Twice a week I drive from Columbia to Florence: east on I-20 to I-95 and then south on 327 to Francis Marion University. It takes about 90 minutes door to door. Thursday the blue sky was furled with rippling clouds, formations in giant Vs narrowing eastward. In this season the route takes me past vast stretches of unpicked cotton, boles exagerratedly bright against the brown shriveled stalks, seemingly reflected in the bleached sky. I wore a black shirt over a white undershirt. I listened to Uncle Tom's Cabin, the section in which Tom, in shackles is being taken down the river by the cruel slave trader Haley, who sells a young child belonging to the slave Lucy. Just before I reach campus, the despairing Lucy hurls herself overboard in the early morning. Meanwhile, Eliza and her child are for now safe in Ohio, having crossed the icy river to at least temporary freedom.
"Forget all the posturing--the poetry industry is made of regular folks like you and me. Get your poems off the page and in the mouth, ear, and body. Know your voice will change and that this is no cause for embarrassment. Support your fellow poets in any way you can. Wait. Know that persistence is the truest form of art."
-- Susan B. A. Sommers-Willett, author of Roam, quoted in Poets and Writers (Nov-Dec 2006)

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Friday, October 27, 2006


Peppers from Ted Whisnant
I am sitting at my desk in my office, 124 Founders Hall, Francis Marion University, Florence, SC. This is Advising Week, when students visit their advisors to preregister for spring semester. In English, we have few advisees per person in comparison to the more populated majors such as Political Science, Biology, and Business. We typically spend hours each week grading compositions and conferring with students about their writing, but this is one week when our colleagues in other disciplines outwork us. A young, bright-eyed woman bounces in as though she belongs here and asks, "Are you the undecided advisor?"
I try to place her and realize she's probably a first-semester freshman reporting to me for preregistration for the first time. I get her name, and she says, "I'm tired of being undecided."
"Shall I sign you up to be an English major?"
"No. I just don't want to be undecided any more."
"Do you have a major in mind?"
"No. Not really. Maybe Education."
I ask her to sit down, suggest that she needn't be in a hurry to select a major, and get her to sign up for a conference next week on a day when freshman are allowed to preregister. She shakes my hand before leaving.
Top 40 Magazine Covers Ever
Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a short play a day for a year. Starting Nov. 13, the project she calls "365 Days/365 Plays" will begin, a series of productions involving about 700 theatres in 30 cities.
"When you wake up, and look at your lover or husband, or whatever, that's a way of honoring your commitment. But then you get out of bed and say another kind of prayer when you sit down at your desk. I wake up every day and say, 'Yes! I'm a writer!' When you make that commitment, all sorts of things move toward you."
-- Suzan-Lori Parks in "The Show-Woman," Hilton Als, The New Yorker (10/30/06)