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.