National Poetry Month, April 30, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

I was in Bethlehem, North Carolina last night at the Bethlehem Branch Library, featured in its fifth annual “Night with the Authors,” hosted most amply and graciously by the library (managed by Chris Lee) and Bud Caywood. It was a wonderful occasion, soup to nuts: a warm, smart, engaged audience, unabashed in its delight in poetry, and many of the attendees practicing poets. The library also had displayed a wonderful exhibition of photography by Micah Henry, the Managing Editor of The Taylorsville Times.

Bud Caywood

Bud Caywood

Bud also publishes, twice a year, Bloodshot: A Journal of Contemporary Culture. It’s a beautiful little magazine, a little smaller, a little thinner than City Light Pocket Poets Series, themed and packed with fine poems and accompanying visual art. Folks unacquainted with the liveliness and wherewithal of little communities like Bethlehem (though that name does have mythic valence) might call them the middle of nowhere. Joan and I have abided in a number of these towns, and raised our children in them. That library I visited last night is emblematic of the concerted, often heroic, collaborative efforts among vibrant libraries and conscionable imaginative citizens in tiny communities across the sate of North Carolina to keep the Arts and Humanities, reading, writing and literacy at all times on the front burner. This is perhaps most noticeable in April, National Poetry Month, though spreading the good news about poetry and how it dovetails into education and life-long learning is hardly confined, among these partners, to the month of April.

John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom

And enormous gratitude to libraries everywhere in this state – and the school systems, arts councils, colleges, community colleges, universities, hospitals and other agencies. It’s staggering, and beyond gratifying, to contemplate the activities generated in North Carolina where so many of our state’s citizens gather in small and large towns, in small and large rooms, to spread the news and celebrate poetry in April. Today is the birthday of John Crowe Ransom. Here’s “Winter Remembered.” Annie Dillard, born in my hometown of Pittsburgh, also celebrates a birthday today. We rarely think of Dillard as a poet, but here are two convincing poems of hers: “Quatrain of the Body’s Sleep” and“Mayakovsky In New York: A Found Poem.”

Lee Smith, Annie Dillard and Colin Wilson at Hollins College in the mid 60s

Lee Smith, Annie Dillard and Colin Wilson at Hollins College in the mid 60s

I mentioned Lee Smith in yesterday’s post, and her appearance at Appalachian State today. It’s mind-blowing that Lee and Annie Dillard not only attended Hollins College at the same time, but were also roommates. I could be imaging the latter, but I’m certain Lee told me this face to face. I do know that they remain very close friends to this day.  Here’s a review of Nancy C. Parrish’s 1998 Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers that I hope you’ll find intriguing – maybe even enough so to get your hands on the book. The review mentions Ransom who was of course keenly influential among the Fugitive Poets. It’s fascinating and mysterious when writers and artists come together at a given time under a declared, or even coined, banner that continues to not only chart a literary movement, but to also identify them for their entire careers.

Morri Creech

Morri Creech

Colossal congratulations to Morri Creech of Charlotte. His book, The Sleep of Reason, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Today concludes National Poetry Month and thus I shall conclude blogging. It’s been an eye-opening adventure and I’ve learned so very much. It was even fun – in a masochistic sort of way. Thanks to all of you who checked it out. It’s Half of Whatreally been my pleasure and great honor. I want to thank especially David Potorti, Literature and Theater Director at the North Carolina Arts Council. David has been my guide and advocate; and, without him, this blog would not have been possible. If it looks good, it’s because of David’s artistic and aesthetic sensibilities. He is affable, kind, generous, broadly talented; and a huge benefit of being Poet Laureate has been getting to know him so well, being in constant contact and, more than anything, counting him among my dear friends.

And, of course, my proverbial cloak across every puddle in North Carolina for my beloved wife, Joan, the Muse Laureate, who accompanied me faithfully and in good cheer on my many treks this April and over the past 22 months or so. She left her own shimmering stamp of poetry among the people she met. I promised Joan I would mention Piggy Bear, the legendary dog she had when we first met back in 1976 as VISTA Volunteers. Piggy’s birthday is April 23, the same as Shakespeare’s. I decided not to feature Piggy that day, fearing he would crowd out The Bard.

So, in reparation for that slight, and to make good belatedly on my promise to Joan, I’m offering the following tribute to Piggy Bear. It will appear in an essay called “The Turf of Hankering,” from my forthcoming book of essays called Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, due out in June of 2014 from Mercer University Press in Macon Georgia.

Piggy Bear, Joan and Joseph Bathanti

Piggy Bear, Joan and Joseph Bathanti

Joan … packed a .22 pistol and her own set of tools. There was the ’66 two-door Ford Fairlane, with its brazen red interior. She liked to camp along the Broad River, in Clarke County outside Athens, Georgia, with her dog, Piggy Bear, a fourteen pound long-legged prognathous dervish with velvety ears, a teased mohair pelt, and metronomic tail the size of a half-smoked stogie. Half bulldog, half French poodle, son of Spud and Croquette, he ate charcoal and cigarette butts and was insanely, possessively, in love with Joan and murderously jealous. Fugitive from a fairy tale, he waited for that one foretold kiss from Princess Joan that would turn him into the handsome prince he knew himself to be – though if kisses from her could’ve worked that magic, he would have been a prince a million times over.

Happy Birthday, a little late, to Piggy Bear.

Okay. Let’s kiss this glorious 2014 National Poetry Month goodbye with a little Jazz Praise Song – keeping in mind that April is also a month-long National celebration of Jazz – from Louis Armstrong. This number makes me think of Piggy Bear.

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National Poetry Month, April 29, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

I visited the Ridgeview Branch of the Hickory Library System in Catawba County last evening, and taught a poetry workshop for eight middle school girls and one young adult. The session was spearheaded by librarian Carole Dennis, truly an advocate for the library and libraries, and

George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon

especially for those young women with whom I sat around the table. I employed yet again George Ella Lyon’s fabulous “Where I’m From” exercise and, as usual, it yielded extraordinary results. In the main, the girls talked about place – quite literally where they are from. But that place was not merely the geography they traverse on a given day, but their interior geography as well, and the projected geography of their dreams. Libraries, like the Ridgeview Branch, function as community centers, safe free zones to dream and read and write and be accepted – churches, if you will. As one girl put it in her poem: “The library is my favorite place.” See this post of April 17 for more on “Where I’m From.”

In yesterday’s post I went into some detail about the various luminaries who found their ways to Tryon, North Carolina, in Polk County. I stated that Ernest Hemingway had been a guest at Pine Crest Inn. I’d actually read on Pinecrest’s website that the Inn had “captivated & inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald & Ernest Hemingway.” From that I extrapolated that both of those famous authors had stayed there. However, while they might have both been “captivated” by Pine Crest, only Fitzgerald actually entered the place. After reading yesterday’s entry, Mike McCue, also featured prominently in yesterday’s blog, pointed out that it’s mere “apocryphal about Hemingway staying at Pine Crest …” and that it’s “one of the legends [Mike spends] spend time stamping out.”

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

Tomorrow, Lee Smith, a writer to whom North Carolinians – and, actually, readers everywhere – need no introduction, will be at Appalachian State University.

Today is the birthday of Yusef Komunyakaa, a Vietnam War veteran, one of our nation’s knockout poets.  Here’s his poem “Camouflaging the Chimera.”

C.P.Cavafy

C.P.Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy, generally acknowledged as the preeminent poet of Greece in the 20th Century, was also born on this day. Here’s his poem, “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” translated by Avi Sharon. Happy birthday, as well, to Duke Ellington, born April 29, 1899. Check out Ellington and his orchestra performing “Take the A Train.”

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National Poetry Month, April 28, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

In yesterday’s entry, I wrote about my visit to Tryon and the Lanier Library Poetry Festival. Today I’d like to follow-up with some additional notes on Tryon and its rather astonishing literary and fine arts legacy.

Harriet Monroe

Harriet Monroe

Prior to visiting Tryon for the Festival, I stumbled upon the poem, “April – North Carolina” by Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry and its first editor – which amazingly references Tryon in its very first line. I was thunderstruck and more than gratified. April is of course National Poetry Month and, miraculously, I was to be in Tryon on April 26 (two days ago) – not to mention such a find was absolutely perfect fodder for a blog entry.

Based on that find, I decided to check in with Mike McCue, a one-man clearinghouse archivist for everything literary/fine arts in Tryon. Mike and I became friends through the North Carolina Humanities Council. We’re both Council Trustees. Mike’s email subject line responses to me were titledTryon Research, a Vortex of the Literary Universe.

Mike McCue

Mike McCue

What follows is a synthesis of everything Mike related to me in a series of fascinating emails during our exchanges. He deserves all the credit for this wealth of information and I haven’t included even a fourth of all he dispensed. He has my triple gratitude and affection for so graciously permitting the ensuing act of licensed plagiarism. If you spy quotation marks, it’s because paraphrase could not approximate what Mike said so inimitably. On to the vortex.

Madeline Yale Wynne

Madeline Yale Wynne

In all likelihood, Harriet Monroe came to Tryon because of  Madeline Yale Wynne, a Chicago writer who wrote “The Little Room.” You can read the entirety of “The Little Room” in an embedded link in the link above. In fact, the famous literary club in Chicago took its name after Wynne’s story. Wynne and her partner Annie Cabot Putnam owned a home in Tryon. Mike mentioned that he’s pored through a biography of Monroe, and Tryon is barely mentioned. But Mike does go on to say that while Monroe was in Tryon, so was Edward Waldo Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo EmersonWilliam Dean Howells may have celebrated his 80th birthday in Tryon, and his sojourn in the town may have intersected with Monroe’s.

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells

Mike maintains a file on Harriet Monroe and it’s a rather extraordinary trove. It contains, for instance, a photocopy of the title as well as front-endpapers to Monroe’s The New Poetry, a groundbreaking anthology. Mike’s copy is signed by Elizabeth Howland Webster, of Tryon, a patron of Lanier Library, who knew Monroe personally. The file also contains a review by Monroe – dated February 1, 1914, from the Chicago Sunday Tribune – of landscape paintings by Lawrence Mazzanovich of Chicago, a renowned Impressionist painter, who became a permanent resident of Tryon. Mike is also in possession of “a holographic poem, possibly written by Monroe,” titled “Grief.” The poem is written on “tissue paper” and “slipped out of” Mike’s copy of New Poetry.

Mike started his archive fifteen years ago as vertical files for pre-1945 Tryon Artists. It then “morphed into vertical files of published authors pre-1950. Then it morphed into other interesting personalities of the Tryon colony of any time, even living figures. Then [he] completely lost control and there are living, dead, famous, infamous, and obscure personalities associated with Tryon.” He’s recently added Jasper Johns because Johns travelled to Tryon to visit an old art teacher of his who lived in a Tryon nursing home.

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns

Tryon has a few famous hotels that hosted famous writers: but, as Mike points out, “all the hotel guest registers are lost, [including] the one from Pine Crest Inn (which would have had F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example) …. By the way, the last meeting between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe took place at the old Oak Hall Hotel across from Lanier Library, where the Oak Hall condos are now … Their afternoon encounter is in Mabel Wolfe’s book Thomas Wolfe and His Family.” Apparently Ernest Hemingway also stayed at the Pine Crest, but I’ll hold off declaring this with any certainty, since I didn’t hear it first from Mike.

Georgann Eubanks, in her extraordinary Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains (the first book of her Literary Trails of North Carolina series, published by the University of North Carolina Press), also expertly holds forth on the literary wonders of Tryon. Georgann’s three volumes are crucial to anyone interested in the literature of North Carolina, to anyone interested in North Carolina. Period.

Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock

I read yesterday at McIntyre’s Bookstore at Fearrington Village, between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill with the elegant Betty Adcock, long one of North Carolina’s great poets, a generous mentor and brilliant teacher. As always, she was a presence at the podium. She and her poems stay with you long after she stops reading. Here are a couple of her poems: “January,” and “Lousiana Line.”

Carolyn Forché

Carolyn Forché

Today is Carolyn Forche’s birthday. Her poem, “The Memory of Elena” is from her stunning The Country Between Us.

Today is also the birthday of Sylvia Freeman. Happy Birthday, Sylvia. Here’s her poem, “You Start with a Vase,” seen here for the first time.

You Start with a Vase

clear glass, preferably green.

fill half way with water.

add three daffodils,

first ones of the season.

posit in morning light.

pour a cup of coffee

as you linger.

wait

watch

designs emerge,

reflect the table, cup,

kitchen window,

objects on the sill,

magnify stems, leaves

zig zag patterns

magically appear

create shapes and forms

you didn’t know were there

or even existed.

what a beautiful way

to usher in the spring

Sylvia Freeman was born into a family of musicians. Her Uncles Basil and Cecil Freeman had a dance band, so she says she was weaned on jazz. She is co-founder of Yoga for Women which meets at Common Ground Theater in Durham.

 

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National Poetry Month, April 27, 2014

 

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

Yesterday, I was in Tryon, North Carolina as one of the presenters at the inaugural Lanier Library Poetry Festival. The Lanier Library, named for Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, who died in 1881, just outside Tryon, justly claims kin with poetry and staged the festival to underscore its poetic legacy and history. I was

Mark Doty

Mark Doty

also the final judge in the sixth annual 2014 Sidney Lanier Poetry Competition, in both Adult and High School Student competitions. As always, the field I looked at was terrifically competitive, and settling on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place and an Honorable Mention in each level of competition involved a good bit of hand-wringing. All the poems were wonderful. I was especially taken with how the student poems approached “adult” themes with such clear-eyed courage, without a lick of sentimentality, and a candor that I simply did not possess and would have never attempted at those young poets’ ages.

Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008, was the keynote speaker. Here’s his poem, “Brian Age Seven.”

Also on the bill was Cathy Smith Bowers, my predecessor, from 2010 to 2012, as North Carolina Poet Laureate. “Peace Lilies” is from Cathy’s A Book of Minutes (Iris Press, Oak Ridge, TN).

Other North Carolina writers teaching at the workshop were Kat AckermanMalaika King Albrecht, and Rhett Iseman Trull.

Warm birthday wishes to Michael Chitwood. The following poem was originally  published in Poor-Mouth Jubilee (Tupelo Press).

Michael Chitwood

Michael Chitwood

Here I Am, Lord

The ribbed black of the umbrella
is an argument for the existence of God,

that little shelter
we carry with us

and may forget
beside a chair

in a committee meeting
we did not especially want to attend.

What a beautiful word, umbrella.
A shade to be opened.

Like a bat’s wing, scalloped.
It shivers.

A drum head
beaten by the silver sticks

of rain
and I do not have mine

and so the rain showers me.

Michael Chitwood lives in Chapel Hill and teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill.  His new book, Living Wages, will be published this year by Tupelo Press.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

The incomparable Nina Simone was born in Tryon in 1933. There’s a magnificent statue of her in Nina Simone Plaza in the middle of downtown. And here she is, “The High Priestess of Soul,” performing “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life.”

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National Poetry Month, April 26, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

Late last week, I was interviewed at UNC TV studios, for an episode of North Carolina Now, by Heather Burgiss, a reporter and producer there. Heather was a masterful interviewer, and also easy to be with on camera and off. While we were waiting to go on, she shared the fact that her husband’s grandfather, Long Grady Burgiss, had once been the Poet Laureate of Yadkin County, North Carolina.

Heather Burgiss and Joseph Bathanti (Photo by Linda Fox)

Heather Burgiss and Joseph Bathanti (Photo by Linda Fox)

The paragraph below this one is a boiled-down paraphrase of a much more substantial article,  “L. Grady Burgiss – Poet Laureate Of Yadkin County, NC,” by Susan Thigpen, from the December 1984 issue of The Mountain Laurel: The Journal of Mountain Life, a rather fascinatingly sprawling compendium. I’m thoroughly in debt to Ms. Thigpen for supplying me with this elusive information. Great gratitude as well to David Potorti, Literature & Theater Director at the North Carolina Arts Council, for pointing me in the right direction and for more things than I can name here.

Long Grady Burgiss, born in 1902 in Yadkin County, near Winsor’s Cross Roads, later moved with his family, to Elkin, where his father became a grocer and his mother operated a hotel. Both businesses failed and, by 1916, Burgiss quit school to assist his family financially. In 1925, he was ordained a minister at the Elkin First Baptist Church. He was stricken in 1926 with TB and was, more or less, an invalid for the next eight years. During those bedridden years, he began his foray into poetry. He recovered – I’d like to think because of poetry – and became an active minister and worked in a number of churches across North Carolina. From what I can deduce from the patchwork of sources available on Burgiss, he was appointed Poet Laureate of Yadkin County in 1983 when he was 81.

Appropriately here’s his poem, “At Eighty-One”:

At Eighty-One

At eighty-one!!-
And not half done
The things I wish to do!
In this grand world
With splendors hurled
Across my dazzled view;
A hundred years
My eyes and ears
Could gleaming goals pursue!

Pursue with might
Some mountain height
Where grandeur stirs my soul-
Pursue with zeal
The sound and feel
Where ocean breakers roll-
Pursue with zest
New Truth, impressed
On Life’s expanding scroll-
Pursue, through Grace,
A secret place
Where life, and Peace are whole.

With heart and mind
Still bent to find
Earth’s secrets one by one,
I shall not grieve
If I must leave
Some trophies never won;
And yet my quest
For Heaven’s best
Still throbs at eighty-one!

Temple of TreesFollowing is an earlier poem, “Retirement,” from his book A Temple Of Trees:

Retirement

My work is done:—Now let me rest.
Let these few years include the best
Of peaceful days, and simple joys,
Enriched by Nature’s living toys:—

The ant that builds his rounded hill;
The spider on my window sill;

The thrush’s song, in sylvan shades;
The rustling corn, with waving blades;

The tall and slender trees, so high
Against the Evening’s painted sky;

The martin’s graceful, soaring flight;
The crickets singing through the night:-

All these, the gifts of Nature’s art,
Are treasures in my aging heart

Which throbs, then rests, and throbs again
To be a blessing to all men.

James Ford

James Ford

Burgiss’s A Temple of Trees and Other Poems – written over a wide span, from the 1920s through 1970 – is illustrated by Lou Todd, and was self- published in 1970 in Hamptonville, North Carolina, in Yadkin County. The book is 32 pages, so it’s actually a chapbook. If you’d like to learn more about Long Grady Burgiss, Special Collections at Appalachian State University houses the Guide to the L. Grady Burgiss, Yadkin County, North Carolina, Papers, 1972-1990.

While I was at the UNC-TV Studios, I also had the great privilege to meet James Ford, from Charlotte’s Garinger High, who was recently named Burroughs Wellcome North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Congratulations to James on this enormous honor and to those lucky students who end up in his classroom.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

In praise of teachers (and students), here’s Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B.”

And to round things out, here’s a little more Langston Hughes from a 1958 reading of “The Weary Blues,” coupled with Jazz arrangements by Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather, and interspersed with illuminating commentary on poetry and Jazz.

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