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)