Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Long Distance Writer

THE LONG DISTANCE WRITER
(first published in Outlook)

If the United Arts Council sponsored a Poet Laureate for the Catawba County area, an idea well worth considering, it would have to be Tim Peeler. Raised in Catawba County, no one has nor probably ever will write more about the people and places, only sometimes veiled behind poetic masks, of this region than Peeler. And no one has done more to bring poetry into the area or bring it out of those who live and learn here. The power of Peeler’s poetry speaks for itself. And I can speak personally of his influence, having identified him in a recent interview as the most influential Southern writer on my own work.

In his younger days, Peeler was a long-distance runner, and throughout his career he has approached his writing with the same discipline, patience, perseverance, humility, and consistency that such running requires. Now 56, he recently sent me a copy of his 7501st poem. Here it is, ironically titled “7501,” and still demonstrating the humility that marks the man and his work:

7501

I’ve written around 4500 poems since 1998,
3000 or so before the year
I got the needle in the groove,
And like my friend Charlie says,
I’ll die with a chest high stack of poems
Leaning like a mountain goat
In a half-painted closet.
My youngest son has promised
To burn them at the fire pit, one at a time,
But I know how he is;
He’ll throw them all in at once.

We think of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 2000 poems as a great achievement, and of Rumi’s roughly 4000 poems as virtually impossible. What, then, can we say about anything approaching 8000? Even more amazing, though I won’t pretend to have read all of Peeler’s poems, of the hundreds I have read, very few don’t qualify as good, and an enviable abundance qualify as very good.

After receiving this poem, I asked him why anyone would write that many poems. His answer was simply, “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” I also asked him when he wrote his first good poem, and to illustrate his previous reply, he said, with a straight face, “I’m not sure I’ve written it yet.”

In this time of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame having become a reality, there is as much to be admired in Peeler’s attitude towards life and work as there is in the work he produces.

I asked Peeler what advice he would have for young writers in the area, and he replied: “You have to be a voracious reader, but you can only read so many books in your lifetime, so pick something that is either great or helpful to you on your journey.” He also added that they “are lucky to be in Catawba County where they can find support for what they do, the companionship of other writers, and free access to a local college writing series that regularly engages the services of world class writers.”

Peeler’s collections of poetry are as follows:
Touching All the Bases (McFarland, 1999), out of print but available from used Amazon book dealers.
Waiting for Godot’s First Pitch (McFarland, 2001)
Blood River: Selected Poems 1983-2005 (Rank Stranger Press, 2005)
Fresh Horses (Rank Stranger Press, 2007)
Checking Out (Hub City Press, 2010)
Waiting for Charlie Brown, a collaboration with Ted Pope (Rank Stranger Press, 2011)

I know that he is working on yet another series of poems, this one based on the abandoned Henry River Mill Village; I hope he is also putting the best of his work together in a collection that will inevitably portray a world populated by the most amazing people as perceived by one of our time’s most amazing writers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Weight of Teaching

The Weight of Teaching

I love teaching. And I love teaching my Writing about Literature class at Catawba Valley Community College. In 20+ years of teaching, I have had a lot of good days in the classroom, and this year, I have had a lot of good days in this particular class. Today was one of the best.

Today we read the poem “Acts of Defiance” in which a young boy has to reach inside the back end of a cow to help a calf be born. The poem says,

I simply did as I was told
and reached my hands,
my forearms, long and thin,
even up to the elbows,
into the bloody back end
of a moaning cow
to grasp what I felt there
and pull,
and pull harder
when it wouldn’t come
until something appeared,
and pull harder still
until something became
a wet mess of calf
spilling into my lap.

One student saw in this struggle to bring about life a metaphor for life itself and for the process we go through to extract meaning from our own lives. “It’s difficult,” he said; “It’s messy. We often don’t know what we’re doing or what we’ve got a hold of, but if we keep pulling, we’ll eventually get it out, and have something of significance.” Throughout this course we have occasionally discussed existentialism and the process of making meaning.

Another student noticed how the boy in the poem is surrounded by his uncles and his grandfather but not his father and suggested the poem expresses the difficulty of learning life lessons in the absence of a parent and the importance of others filling the void left by an absent parent. Throughout this semester we have used reader-response journals to help the students explore how the poems and stories we read relate to their own lives and experiences. This student’s own father has been incarcerated since the student was a young boy.

When the speaker of this poem later witnesses the birth of his own child, he comments “I finally understand / the weight of it all.” Both of these students immediately understood the weight of that line not only in the poem but in their own lives and in their understanding of how meaning is made.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fuquay Varina Article

Acclaimed Poet and Editor Scott Owens Will Read at Lazy Lion

By Nancy Young, from The Fuquay Varina Independent, 21 March 2013

Poetry isn’t religion. No one would die for it or of it. Poet, editor and educator Scott Owens knows these truths. Yet still he writes poetry "religiously," with over 1200 published poems, ten poetry collections, and nine Pushcart nominations. And he’s coming to the Lazy Lion in Fuquay-Varina this Thursday evening to share his work.

Owens’ poetry is at once distressing and transforming. “All of me is the monster here,” he attests in “Persona." He then adds, “Here you’ll see the monster in me is you,” making one wonder if he means the monster is a creation of the judgmental viewer or if the monster is something we share in common. Of course, he probably means both, and Owens faces the monster in himself, in all of us, and in our judgments of each other in poem after poem.

“We all possess the human potential for cruelty," Owens remarks in a recent interview. "Anyone who has seen that cruelty firsthand, carries awareness of that potential with him, fears it in himself and others.” In his collection “The Fractured World,” Owens reveals a causative cruel realm of child abuse and pain, but also the possibility of empathy and redemption.

Poems have redeemed Scott Owens. “I’m a better person when I write poetry,” he explains. His creative process helps him make meaning out of his own life and the world in general. “We all have shadows,” Owens says. “Art is one way to deal with them. Art helps up pay attention, make conscious decisions, keep an open mind, see connections between things, and grant significance to things otherwise devalued.”

His second collection, “Paternity,” rediscovers childhood wonder and the saving grace of parenthood.

His latest collection, “For One Who Knows How to Own the Land,” chronicles his youth in the dirt-poor Piedmont, where his grandfather “broke the earth, broke cows/ in the pasture, chicken-bones/ in his teeth.” It’s a child’s world of slingshots, screen doors, red dirt, carcasses and scuppernongs, a world of poverty and death and regret tempered by the promise of seeds in the ground and the sometimes soft touch of hands made rough by necessity.

Listeners sometimes cry at his readings. Readers sometimes cry on their own.

Scott Owens insists the poetry’s not all about him. But his poems are loosely about the places and people he knows—forts of broom straw, fields dotted with skeletons of tobacco stalks, the gnarled hands that fix fence wire and slaughter cows.

Writing allows him to step outside life and reorder a fragment of it. “There’s a part of me,” he says, “that remains controlling, that likes things in at least a temporary order. It’s a way of fighting off the shadows.”

Words offer possibilities but resist absolutes. Scott Owens embraces possibilities.

The evidence lies in his poems. He sees the benefit and despair of precision in a neatly made bed in “Hospital Corners,” decrying “a bed that disallows/ movement, breath, /rampant possibility.”

Owens doesn’t limit himself to writing alone. He teaches at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, NC, edits “Wild Goose Poetry Review,” serves as Vice-President of the NC Poetry Society, and coordinator of several area reading series. He also gardens, hikes, and spends time with his family.

As an editor, he offers advice to writers just starting out. First, he says, never prioritize publishing over writing. Resist formulaic approaches just because they sell. It’s artistic death.

Next, he says, send poems to publications whose poems you like. Read journals to get an idea of where you’ll fit. “Look at the dart board before you throw darts,” Owens laughs.

Finally, he adds, read ten times as much as you write.

Persona



You don’t know me.

Me I keep locked up inside,

inside walls you have to gain access to

to have any sense of me.



Me you’ll see as smooth as stone,

stone as cold as ice,

ice that is impenetrable,

able only to be melted into.



To melt into me makes it my time,

my time to fall,

fall like any giant,

giant wall falling to reveal what lies inside.



Inside you’ll find a face,

face that mirrors your own.

Own what you see in what you thought,

thought would be the all of me.



All of me is the monster here.

Here is the monster.

The monster has always been here.
Here you’ll see the monster in me is you.

Friday, March 8, 2013

NCLR Publishes Review of Two of My Books

New Review of Two of My Books in North Carolina Literary Review

North Carolina Literary Review has published a review of two of my recent books in their newest issue. Karen K. Mason has reviewed both For One Who Knows How to Own Land and Something Knows the Moment alongside two of Robert Morgan's books in a review called "The Regional Poet and the World." The review can be read in NCLR's new online version of the journal: http://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/nclr2013-online-final-issuu_1_/82#download.

John Morgan Interviews Ann Chandonnet

John Morgan Interviews Ann Chandonnet
Vale, NC

My book is "Write Quick": War & a Woman's Life in Letters, 1835-1867, published by the Bethel Historical Society, Bethel, Maine. It is historical non-fiction, 600 pages, with 50 illustrations.

The book is the result of 20 years of genealogical research by my third cousin, Roberta Pevear. When Roberta phoned to say she had completed her work, she added, "You know, there are letters." After I read the more than 100 letters between Eliza Foster, her husband Henry Foster and her brother, Andrew Bean, I knew that they should be preserved in a book. Three of the letters were written by my great-great-great grandmother, Mabelia Foster Fox, Henry's sister and Eliza's sister-in-law. One of my three brothers lives in the same house that Mabelia lived in--and I spent my first 21 years in, and my other two brothers live on the same land grant she and her husband farmed.

I asked Roberta's permission to use these previously unpublished letters (and a wealth of other documents such as grocery lists and rent receipts) in a book. I would give her equal billing, and share with her whatever profits were made from the effort--if we found a publisher. She agreed. Her mother had saved these documents from the fire, literally, in the 1930s when a house was being cleaned out after a death. One of these documents was Eliza's 1863 diary kept in Lowell, MA., while Henry was serving in the Union infantry.

I began writing the book in Juneau. Halfway through the process, my husband and I retired to North Carolina. Now I had the opportunity to visit places mentioned in the letters like Gettysburg and Fort Sumter, and to do research in Civil War archives. In 2007 we made a research trip to Lowell, Massachusetts--my birth place, and the home of textile mills where Eliza worked. We also visited Bethel, Maine, where Eliza and Andrew were born; Roberta was born there as well.

My husband took photos for me along the way.

It took me four years to complete the book. After 16 submissions, I had a publisher.

If the book were made into a movie, I would choose Jude Law to play Andrew; Jennifer Lawrence to play Eliza; Betty Suarez to play Mabelia Fox; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play Henry.

My synopsis: The story of a woman and the two men who loved her, played out against the backdrop of the War Between the States.

It took me two years to write the first draft, but I also garden intensively and quilt. The local libraries (Juneau and Hickory) did not provide sufficient sources, so I purchased some books myself. I also sent out thousands of queries via e-mail.

I decided to make this book a portrait of an ordinary, non-combatant, a Union woman --not a general or someone who led a charge of light horse. More books were written about the sufferings of Confederate women. Books have been written about New England's textile workers, but few follow their days after they leave the mills.

The majority of Union infantry units have histories written by their members. But Henry's unit did not. When putting together a list of his comrades in arms, I found that many of the names were repeated several times (with different spellings). Both armies kept records of officers who died, but no one kept records or ordinary soldiers. I discovered that many men were consigned to unmarked graves and their loved ones never knew what happened to them. Fortunately, in Henry's case, one of his comrades took the time to write to Eliza--even though he was wounded himself and his brother died in that same battle, at Winchester, Virginia. Winchester changed hands 70 times during the war. The book's annotated rosters make it valuable to relatives of other infantrymen.

Part of my inspiration was that I have family living in the exact spot where some of the letters were written. Eliza visited that farm, and her brother-in-law sold her firewood and provisions during the war. Four nieces and three nephews are growing up there, and the book would preserve a part of their family history. I dedicated the book to them.

I did not have an agent to represent the book. I did all the marketing to publishers myself, since I have a background as a publicist for Alaska Northwest Books. The publisher is the place where all the letters and artifacts (such as hair mourning bracelets, ledgers and period photos) are stored, the Bethel Historical Society.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sam Ragan Day

from the NC Poetry Society


Sam Ragan Day Meeting
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, Southern Pines, NC

Poet and novelist Victoria Redel, the 2012–13 McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College and the author of three books of poetry, including Woman Without Umbrella, will lead a generative workshop to help us find the exceptional within the ordinary in our writing. Award-winning humorist, Laura Moore, and acoustic music duo, Katie Oates and Cheryl Hoover, will round out an excellent day of craft and song.

Please mark your calendars with this illuminating day of poetry! To find out more about the program, visit http://www.ncpoetrysociety.org/events.