Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Auburn University Rural Studio

When poet Naomi Nye visited FMU three weeks ago, she found out that I was from Auburn, Alabama, so she asked if I were familiar with the Auburn University Rural Studio, a project run by the School of Architecture that designs and provides innovative housing and public buildings for poor communities.

It was originated by Samuel Mockbee in 1991 when he accepted a faculty position at Auburn. Although Mockbee died in 2001 of leukemia when he was still in his late 50s, his work goes on. Naomi and her photographer husband have long been interested in the project, and she is willing to do a free reading at Auburn in exchange for a tour of the Rural Studio. I'm working on setting that up, perhaps for the spring.

Lucy House, designed by Rural Studio student architects

Monday, November 26, 2007

Simic, Collage, Dada

Little Theatre, 11/25/07

For today's class, I had my English 360 (Literary Nonfiction) class read poet laureate Charles Simic's "The Necessity of Poetry" from his 1995 book The Unemployed Fortune Teller. It's a series of anecdotes, apparently disconnected--an example of what is often called "segmented writing." Common motifs in the 35 or so segments are war, parents, clothing, food/drink, reading/writing, male/female relationships. Most of them convey a little mystery or unknown element. It's a verbal collage. Here he's writing about how his violin teacher would sometimes feed him: "'Poor child,' she'd say, and I thought it had to do with my not practicing enough, my being dim-witted when she tried to explain something to me, but today I'm not sure that's what she meant. In fact, I suspect she had something else entirely in mind. That's why I'm writing this, to find out what it was." It's as though Simic writes poetry to make sense of these enigmatic scenes, to explore and elucidate them.
In the August 10, 2006 New York Review of Books, Simic reviewed an exhibition on Dada at the Museum of Modern Art. Simic reviews the origins of Dada in 1916 Zurich--the art/music/poetry/dance exhibitions of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. He writes, "All forms of imitation, the Italian Futurists had already announced, must be despised; all forms of originality glorified. The idea was to make something no one had ever seen or experienced before."
As Simic notes, Kurt Schwitters figures prominently in the Dada movement, which lasted into the early 1920s. Schwitters' openness to all artistic materials, which he called "Merz," is an attitude I find attractive, and his experimentation with various media and endeavors (painting, collage, poetry, architecture, sculpture, music) is reminiscent of William Morris, another artist and writer I admire who also developed a life philosophy that motivated his art.
Recently, I've gotten back into collage and often find myself turning to Schwitters as well as painter/collagist Estaban Vicente though they work in entirely different ways, Schwitters with orginary, often drab, cramped bits of detritus from everyday life, Vicente with bold swatches of color arranged in dynamic ways.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Robert Service

Robert Service, 1874-1958

On September 21, I mentioned the collection edited by Peter Davis, Poet's Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art. Having met Naomi Shihab Nye, I'm now more interested in her list of influential works, which includes Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Thoreau's Walden Pond, three by William Stafford, and all of W.S. Merwin, as well as several others. Here is my own brief list of poets and books, sometime specific poems, that shaped my art--or at least motivated me to write poetry:

John Donne (The Songs and Sonnets)
John Keats ("Ode on a Grecian Urn")
Emily Dickinson
William Butler Yeats ("Sailing to Byzantium")
William Carlos Williams ("The Yachts")
W.H. Auden ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats")
Robert Service (The Spell of the Yukon)
Dylan Thomas ("Fern Hill")
Richard Wilbur ("Merlin Enthralled")
James Dickey (Poems 1957-1967)
Seamus Heaney (Death of a Naturalist)
Linda Pastan (PM/AM)
B.H. Fairchild (The Art of the Lathe)
Yusef Komunyakaa (Neon Vernacular)

I'm afraid it's a pretty traditional list, mostly white males. These are poems and poets that I'm presumptuous enough to call influences, though there are many others I admire, enjoy, look up to, emulate. Maybe the most unorthodox choice here is Robert Service, the best bad poet I know of. Dad liked him and introduced me to poems like "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" that appeared in a collection Dad had with him in the Navy--along with A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad the only book of poetry Dad owned as far as I recall. In college I had some friends who also liked Service, and one evening we staged a program we called "The Robert Service Service."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pee Dee Fiction and Poetry Festival

Tobias Wolff and Naomi Shihab Nye

Terrance Hayes and Sharyn McCrumb

The second annual Pee Dee Fiction and Poetry Festival took place last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Francis Marion University. Featured writers were Tobias Wolff, Naomi Shihab Nye, Terrance Hayes, and Sharyn McCrumb. Wolff and Nye arrived on the same flight from Atlanta Wednesday night. Ed Eleazer, Beckie Flannagan, and I met them and took them to Victor's for dinner. We talked about field trips, succotash, Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, Nye's essay collection Never in a Hurry, Geoffrey Wolff, Francis Marion, music, and airports. The service was slow, but the talk was fast. There was a buffet breakfast in The Cottage for the two of them, as well as 8 or 10 English faculty members. Wolff's two presentations--an afternoon colloquium on This Boy's Life (which many comp. classes have been reading) and his evening reading--both pretty much filled Lowrimore Auditorium. Among the most interesting questions put to him was "What do you need or want to write about that you haven't yet written about?" His answer was "friendship."
After the reading (at which Wolff read a chapter from TBL that was not included in the movie version) and the book signing, there was a reception at The Cottage. As things wound down, we got guitars out and sang with the two guest writers. Woolf has a good voice and knows plenty of songs, as does Nye, who is a songwriter and agreed to play a couple of her own.
Friday there were two sessions featuring Nye and Terrance Hayes. The poets made a good pair, first talking about inspiration in poetry and later discussing nonfiction. Both were captivating. I especially admired Hayes' participation in the nonfiction session because he has not published much nonfiction; he told a wonderful story about his stepfather and real father and talked about how he's written 50 pages on it. It was sort of a process report on his thinking about the piece and its difficulties and satisfactions. Nye's reading that night was pitch-perfect, a nice combination of poetry and nonfiction with good stories and comments about writing sprinkled throughout. She ended with a wonderful lullaby using my guitar. Afterwards, another reception. I was pleased that all my nonfiction students had a chance to meet her, given that we've been reading her essays.
Saturday the featured speakers were Hayes and Sharyn McCrumb. Hayes gave an outstanding poetry reading to an audience containing his mother and stepfather, as well as 50-60 well-behaved middle school students. McCrumb gave an articulate and feisty lecture on connections between Appalachia and her writing. Her afternoon reading, the festival's final event, featured a reading of one of her NASCAR stories--the spirit of Dale Earnhardt as the object of a pilgrimage.