By Joseph Bathanti
From Thursday to Saturday, I taught at The Tennessee Mountain Writers Annual Writers’ Conference in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I’ve always been intrigued by Oak Ridge, The Secret City, established in 1942 as the site for the Manhattan Project, the United States (in tandem with Canada and the United Kingdom) government project that produced the atom bomb. Of course, you can Google Oak Ridge for yourselves, but here’s an extra interesting site. Thursday night at dinner, the youngwoman who waited on Joan and I related the story of her grandmother who worked on the project as a Calutron Girl. It’s worth your while to click, as well, on this fascinating site.
Other folks teaching at the conference were Helen Hemphill – Writing for Young People; Scott Huler (former staff writer for theRaleigh News & Observer and whose
work is included in Georgann Eubanks’ Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont) – Nonfiction; Kate Larken – Editing & Publishing, and a Specialty Session on Songwriting; Lisa Soland – Playwriting; Kory Wells – Blogging; Kathy Womack – Marketing Your Self-published Books; and Darnell Arnoult – Memoir.
Darnell is no stranger to North Carolina writers. She’s lived here half of her life and is a frequent literary visitor. I certainly number her prominently among the ranks of North Carolina’s finest writers. Currently Writer-in-Residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, she received an MA from North Carolina State. Author of the prize-winning collection What Travels With Us: Poems and the novel Sufficient Grace, she regularly teaches at Table Rock Writers Workshop at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland and at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown.
Crystal Wilkinson was the keynote Banquet Speaker on Saturday night. She is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Journal in which Wilkinson and her work has appeared.
Over the years, I have been unstinting in my praise, in my decided love, for my fellow North Carolina writers. Many of those North Carolina writers are Appalachian writers (and artists), and, especially since living in Vilas, just outside of Boone, a mere nine miles from the Tennessee line, I’ve come to love this community of Appalachian writers (scholars and artists) that often spills across state borders, and I now number myself among them. Never have I seen writing and activism so organically paired. The league of Appalachian writers, regardless from which state its practitioners hail, is united, it seems apparent, in its activism and advocacy. It constitutes a Union, a sacred trust. The language and subject matter of those writers – the land, its people, forebears, children and their futures, its mountains and rivers, its every word – is its Union card.
North Carolina claims Tennessee native, Randall Jarrell, and rightly so. Jarrell, born in Nashville, had a long, distinguished career at Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, our current UNC-Greensboro and, except for occasional leaves, remained there the rest of his life. When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher, Greg Lehane, had us listen to and study as texts Tommy, the Rock Opera; Let it Bleed; Volunteers; The White Album; and others. He signed my yearbook, “Let it be.” One day, he recited aloud Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Its last line, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose,” haunts me to this day; and at the time, though I didn’t clearly understand it, made me “feel physically as if the top of my head [had been] taken off,” a sensation Emily Dickinson cited as proof that a poem had hit its mark.
Heather Ross Miller’s new poetry volume, Celestial Navigator: Writing Poems With Randall Jarrell, which will appear hopefully this month, from Louisiana Literature Press, pays tribute to Jarrell. Born in Stanly County, where she now resides after a long, distinguished teaching career, herself, Heather is the recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature, and author of over twenty books, across all genres. She is one of North Carolina’s great writers.
She has this to say about Jarrell and Celestial Navigator: “Randall Jarrell was a long-time friend of my ‘writing Rosses’ family, especially my dear Uncle Peter Taylor and my dear aunt Eleanor Ross Taylor. I grew up listening to funny stories about Jarrell they shared. When I got to WCUNC, I understood everything: the best and most enlightening and encouraging teacher I ever had. He was my mentor and my good friend. He was encouraging not only about my writing but also about my marriage and young family living in the deep dark woods – we seemed something out of a fairytale to him! Witches and trolls and bears on every side! Jarrell taught me to trust myself and my poems. I hope I taught that to the students I had later. This new book is dedicated to my late lovely aunt Eleanor Ross Taylor.”
The following poem is from Celestial Navigator, printed here with permission from the author:
Schools put him among girls.
Seemed to flourish him, actually,
nourishing their sweet night-singing voices,
scent like honeysuckle, such honeysuckle,
those vines could kill you. He’d seen
them in Tennessee, small vines
prized for their beauty. Then they
turned to blight you, to suck the life
right out of you.
the girls gathered to him,
listened to him praise their
songs and stories, raising
their voices in his. He shivered
a bit handing back the pieces
of paper on which they’d
Said how things could curl
into many little parts, tendrils
of stars or petals shocking
the world and him and the girls,
a terrible gentle attack,
the binding of honeysuckle,
the sucking of dew.
And now for some jazz. Today is jazz great Gerry Mulligan’s birthday. Here’s Gerry and his band performing “Satin Doll.”