April 7, 2013

Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, April 4, Afternoon Readings

There were 4 afternoon sessions of readings, 2 each running concurrently so one had to make hard choices. For the first of the 2 readings I headed to the North Lounge.

The first reader was Carol Hamilton with a series of train poems & more broadly, poems of travel in general. The poems were drawn from her own travel experiences, traveling alone or with a companion. Her poem "Voice from the Darkened Plains" combined trains & the memory of a childhood flip-book. "Getting Small" evoked the experience of a child on a plane but became a metaphor for the way we see things, while the poem "Trail of Crumbs" was about following blazes while mountain hiking, like Hansel & Gretel. There were poems about being on a boat in the North Sea & on buses in Mexico ("Walls in Mexico"), walling ourselves out or in.

Joey Brown had us laughing through her essay about re-habing a house on her Sabbatical with her husband, "We Got a Guy for That…" taking us through a string of disasters, near-disasters, & the etiquette & politics of hiring a friend's handyman, of finding "a guy." Strangely enough, she had to later leave the conference early to get back to Missouri because she got a call that there had been a flood in the upstairs bathroom in her house -- talk about Life mimicking Art.

Jim Wilson was more serious, began with a personal essay, "A Study in Grey" about observing sandhill cranes at a sanctuary on the Platte River. He also read a chapter, "Beirut Spring," from his memoir about a 2011 trip back to Lebanon after 20 years -- pensive & meditative.

Clarence Wolfshohl had been the publisher of Timberline Press for 35 years until the end of 2010. He read from his book of poems, a collaboration with Mark Vinz (who could not be here), In Harm's Way: Poems of Childhood (El Grito del Lobo Press, 2013). But he began with a poem not in the book inspired by a compliment he got last year from a woman at the festival that brought up the memory of a girl from long ago, "Shoe Shine." He read Mark Vinz's poem "Saturday Matinee" then his own paired poem "Gunfight at the RKO Corral." Also poems about grade-school vaccination, about his mother & his uncle, & about having dinner at a friend's house, "Starved in the Barrio."

For the second afternoon session I headed back across to the Estep Auditorium in the Cole Campus Center to hear poet & activist Dorothy Alexander, whom I'd met a few years back at the Oklahoma Labor Fest, then we became FaceBook friends. Before the reading she told me about a long anti-fracking poem she has written, but too long to read here. She began with a tribute to Oklahoma artists, "State of the Arts in a Red State," then poems about her mother & father, & reading before electricity ("Lamplight & Literature"). She read a couple poems about typing, & "Early Ambitions" & "Leaving Cheyenne," about factory work, being in a movie, & being the first woman attorney in a rural county, "Undo Process." She is one of the Elders, still going strong in her red fedora & peace-sign necklace.

Brent Newsom's work stood out in contrast to Dorothy Alexanders's "non-fiction narcissistic narratives", his being fictive poems about a made-up town, Smyrna, in Louisiana. He called them "empathetic imaginations," a phrase that was repeated later in other sessions. Some, such as "Esther Green Plans a Funeral," were dramatic monologues. Others told parts of linked narratives, such as "Floyd & Patty" & "The Pecan Pie Takes a Week to Eat," about a womanizing auto mechanic. He ended with an interlocking "crown of sonnets" in the voice of the preacher's wife, the character Claudia Blackwood.

A.J. Tierney stunned us all with a non-fiction narrative she said "was 18 years in the writing," about her life as a high school senior in a home with her siblings & a bankrupt mother constantly scheming ways to get get out of debt. The section she read was about when she came down with Ball's Palsy while working a summer job in a law office, & defying her mother's attempts to get her to go for a job as a stripper.  Powerful stuff.

Phil Morgan, from Chickasaw Press, a last minute fill-in, read poems with powerful political & historical messages, such as "Today's History Lessons" about using profits from gambling to finance Social Security, & "Two Lane Highway" based on reading Washington Irving's biography of Mohammad. But by far the most moving piece was a series of linked poems based on Christmas Cards he sent to his brothers & his son, "Indian Man's Christmas Cards."

As the session ended & I headed out to rest & get dinner I was able to identify why I like this Scissortail Festival so much: there is no pretension, the poems are straight from the heart, from the gut, from the breath (& no big egos, as another poet pointed out), even when the work is clearly not directly autobiographical, it is still based on real people, on real emotions. As Ken Hada said later, "it's all about creativity, not competition." Amen.

Full bios of the authors can be found here at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival Blog.

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