April 8, 2015

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival - Afternoon Sessions & Evening Feature, April 2

After an impromptu lunch gathering of about 17 writers & artists, most of whom were reading sometime during the Festival we got back for the first of the afternoon sessions in Estep Auditorium. If there is a “discouraging word” (as the old cowboy song would have it) about the Scissortail Festival it is that there are frequently concurrent readings, so one inevitably will miss some writers. While I’ve certainly experienced this dilemma of having 2 writers I’ve wanted to hear reading at the same time, as my mother once said to a teen-age me with 2 girl friends, “sometimes you just got to make up your mind.” The other side to this issue is that this Festival has 50 some writers reading in the space of 2 & half days & there is plenty of time to get together between sessions, or after, to meet & talk.

That said, by the time I got back to the session I’d picked, Rilla Askew was already into her reading. I missed the introduction but later found her piece “The Tornado that Hit Boggy” in TriQuarterly.  It is a compelling memoir/essay about Thursday, April 12, 1945, the day that President Roosevelt died, weaving what happened in her home town in Oklahoma when the tornado hit to what was happening in the Pacific theater & in Europe as World War II was ending, & on to May 2013 & the tornado that hit Moore Oklahoma. Rilla’s latest novel is Kind of Kin (Ecco). She also has a New York connection, living part of the year in the Catskills, with her husband, New York playwright & poet Paul Austin (more on Paul in a later Blog).

Mark Allen Jenkins mostly read poems about working, but his first poem fell more into the eco-poetry category, about strip mining & the changes to landscapes, the way poems can change a “landscape.” His working poems included “Playground Supervisor,” “Removing Hurricane Debris” (on a relationship), “Disposal” (throwing away plants at a garden center), & “Van Gogh in the Fertilizer & Pesticide Aisle."  He also read a the descriptive poem about Zanesville, Ohio, thinking about why he moved there.

I must confess that Alan Berecka is one of my favorite poets. After I met him here in 2011, I scheduled him to read at Poets in the Park in Albany, when he passed through to a family wedding (he grew up outside Utica). Today he began with “Invested” a poem about being at a Church meeting & thinking about the gone poet Jim Spurr, imagining him dressed like Henry VIII, with a beer in one hand & St. Peter’s keys in the other, then read “Questions of Economy - King Kong (Early Porn Star) Meets Adam Smith” which was a favorite of Jim’s because of its irreverence, from Alan’s 2011 collection Remembering the Body (Mongrel Empire Press). Alan likes to mix theology &/or religious figures & images, as in “Why Theology & Economy Don’t Mix” where he uses a childhood experience of pilfering at restaurants to explain Jesus’ appearance at Emmaus, or when he interprets Jesus as a one-hit wonder in “Jerusalem Idol.” & there is lots of family as well, “Cirrhosis Comes Home” (his mother), “Dinner Out at the Buffalo with Mom & Dad” & the funny & touching “A Father’s Confession.” Alan was struggling with a cold &/or bronchitis which maybe enhanced his reading, lowering his voice a third.

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I stayed at Estep for the 2nd afternoon reading. Gary Worth Moody read from his new book Occoquan (Red Mountain Press, 2014) a series of historical poems about the Occoquan Workhouse (also known as Lorton Reformatory) in Laurel Hill, Virginia. He began with some poems about a couple there, Agnes & Abram, then a graphic piece about the forced feeding of suffragette Lucy Burns in 1917. Then on to a couple poems from his latest book Hazards of Grace, also from Red Mountain Press, about coal mining & the inevitable disasters.

A.J. Tierney is on the Editorial Board of Nimrod: International Journal of Prose & Poetry, out of the University of Tulsa. She read from her novel-in-progress, “The Cell.” She explained that it was inspired by her correspondence with a woman friend in prison. In the excerpt she read the narrator was going through a box of letters & mementos from her mother, finds letters to a friend in prison about their friendship & breakup in high school, about giving up a baby. A rich weave of stories with a touch of mystery in the shadows. I hope by the next time I come to Scissortail The Cell will be on the book table for sale.

Alan Gann is a co-editor of the Red River Review & described himself as a “teaching artist.” Most of his poems had some connection to school, such as his opening free-style performance on words & rapping students. “Detention Ball” as about a Coach Johnson holding detention & making the students learn to waltz. He said his poem “The 4th Day of the 4th Grade” was about what the articles on classroom management don’t tell you, & the poem “Second Base” was drawn from words overheard at an 8th grade sex-education class. His poems were funny without being jokes, which he read in a relaxed style barefoot.
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One of the (many) highlights of the Scissortail Festival are the Featured Readers, whose visages adorn the flyer each year. Unlike the other reading sessions which have 3 or 4 readers sharing their work, the Featured Readers who have the stage all to themselves.

Mary Kay Zuravleff was the Featured Reader on Thursday evening, &, as he has in the past, classical guitarist Jonathan Isaacs entertained us as the crowd gathered. I had seen Mary Kay read here 2 years ago from her second novel The Bowl is Broken (Macmillan, 2006). Today she read chapter 13 from her latest novel Man Alive! (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013). Described as “a family novel for smart people” by the Washington Post the story follows a pediatric psychiatrist who survives a lightning strike that changes how he looks at life, becoming obsessed with barbecuing. The novel explores how we deal - or not - with change within a family. Prose readings can, because of their length, become deadly but Mary Kay’s story & her way of reading kept me awake, even after dinner. & her breezy, smiling manner during the equally deadly Q&A actually had me enjoying the conversation.

A tradition here is that each of the Featured Readers is presented with a sandstone plate bearing the image of a Scissortail. In addition to the presentation to Mary Kay Zuravleff, Ken Hada also presented a Scissortail plate to the retiring Provost of ECU, Dr. Fisher, for his long-time support of the Festival.

From there we walked over to Vintage 22 for drinks & hors d’oeuvres, as well a some music, & a chance to talk with the writers we had been listening to throughout the day.

So, as Uncle Wiggly used to say, “If hail-storms & tornados don’t come through & spill my morning sausage gravy & biscuits, we’ll be back tomorrow when the big-hand is on the 12 & the little hand on the 3 for more readings at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival.”

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