August 3, 2010KR BlogKRWriting

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference: Dig Yourself

The 2010 Sewanee Writers’ Conference ended just over a week ago; I’m back in Ann Arbor, having Honda’d my way through Kentucky and Ohio. Still, I have all of these Tennessee moments knocking about in my brain. The stunning readings — by Randall Kenan, Mary Jo Salter, Cheryl Strayed, and more! Jill McCorkle’s craft talk! (McCorkle: “I had a student who said he was afraid for me to read his story because it would shock me. I said, ‘Oh, dear God, I hope so.'”) The twenty million katydids, mad-chorusing at midnight! L’alcool ? la maison fran??aise! If I list only a dozen or so more, please understand that I could keep going, and going, and going. Fodder for future posts, perhaps.

* Here’s Padgett Powell, after reading several pages’ worth of mostly unconnected questions (“Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople?”) from The Interrogative Mood: “At the risk of losing the narrative thread, I’m going to jump ahead.” And then again from the book: “Do you miss Tab and do you fully understand its disappearance?” [Audience laughter; long pause.] “It never occurred to me that that’s funny.”

* Questions of a different sort: Did you know that Poetry receives 90,000 submissions a year, of which only 300 or so make it into the magazine? And that it has 30,000 subscribers, half of whom don’t have degrees beyond high school? (Senior Editor Don Share provided this second statistic as evidence that a general, as opposed to a purely academic, readership for poetry exists.) On the same panel of editors, David Yezzi encouraged poets to take up the work of criticism, calling it “a vital part of one’s process as a writer.” Eliot and Baudelaire nodded from their respective graves.

* After reading “And Another Thing about the Leaves” (from his brilliant second book, Errors in the Script), Greg Williamson mentioned that a certain critic had objected to the poem’s rhyme scheme. “But whatever,” Williamson shrugged. “I burned his house.” [Laughter.] “Just a part of it.” (No one does deadpan quite like Williamson.) He concluded with the much-requested “Yard of Constant Sorrow” (a bit of “creative non-poetry”), which I pray someone will soon put on the Web so that I can provide a link. The saga features (and this is hardly the worst of it) bullet ants.

* As I told anyone at Sewanee who would listen, Williamson has long seemed to me the funniest writer alive. And then I met David Roby, and now I don’t know what to think. Roby welcomed us to “the era of pleasure and bread” with an excerpt from his remarkable short play, the title of which deserves the fully indented treatment:

I Invented the Sandwich out of Necessity or Convenience or Both
When My Stomach was Ravenous and Both My Hands Were Preoccupied
When a Fork and a Knife Would Simply Not Do
When I had a Girl on Each Knee and a Game of Cards High at Stake
When Nothing Seemed Like it Could Scratch this Itch that I had
For a Slab of Beef and Some Stinky Cheese and a Crust of Bread and Some Purple Grapes
That’s When I Did it
I Take Full Credit
John Montagu
in Need of a Very Very Very Quick Supper
Invented the Sandwich

(a play about excess).

Track Roby down, and make him read it to you.

* From excess, then, to concision. Here’s a quick glint from Padgett Powell’s craft talk: “Writing is controlled whimsy.” Powell also called on the wisdom of Debbie Harry: “Learn to play your instruments; then get sexy.”


* Another highlight from Camp Fun-Time: Rachel Hadas reading from her new poetry collection, The Ache of Appetite. Hadas recently co-edited a fabulous anthology called The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present; she shared several selections from the anthology during her Sewanee reading, including this memorable jab:

To a Poet

How much better if an ox were to sit on your tongue
than for your poems to plod like oxen over fields.

– Christophoros of Mytilene (trans. by Peter Constantine)

* In my earlier Sewanee report, I mentioned the tremendous readings by the Fellows and staff members. That trend continued. After hearing excerpts at the podium, I can’t wait to delve further into James Magruder’s Sugarless, Matthew Pitt’s Attention Please Now (a title that makes me smile every time I recall it), Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magic, and more (more, more). And while I’m hardly impartial when it comes to this poet, I loved that Catherine Wing resurrected her Dylan-inspired version of “The Pitch.” Shouldn’t this performance exist in some wormhole of YouTube? Searching for such a thing, I found this video (also inspired) instead:

* Have I mentioned how much we all ate? After forty consecutive buffet-style meals, I thought I might fast for several days in the company of Kafka‘s “A Hunger Artist.” I did reread the story (with its terrifying ending), but my fast only lasted from dinner to breakfast. Now I’ve lowered my expectations, and I’ve swapped Kafka for A.J. Liebling. From the final lines of Liebling’s essay “Light Lunch”:

I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hors d’oeuvre and possibly the tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.)

* Robert Hass gave the final — and perhaps most wide-ranging — craft talk of the conference. He quoted Dickens, who, when asked how he wrote The Pickwick Papers, replied, “I thought of Pickwick.” He quoted Frank O’Connor, who recognized only one rule of writing: “You can’t revise nothing.” After repeatedly swatting away a mosquito (and then coughing), Hass departed from his prepared text: “I solved the problem of that mosquito by just swallowing it.” Near the talk’s end, he sighed: “We’re verbs until we die. Then we become nouns, maybe.”