In the past two months, with the publication of my first book of short stories, I’ve enjoyed the excitement and experienced a bit of anxiety as well:
1. Yea! My book is out!
2. Will anyone buy it or read it?
Since all my books are in some way about telling your story and listening for others’ stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower is part of my larger project, just in a new genre. I remind myself that I'm in this for the long haul, that, like investing, it doesn't pay to get too crazy over any one day's rise or fall. This literary path I've chosen has its ups and downs, and sometimes it has some enjoyable stops along the way, as well.
I’ve been thinking recently about two banquets I attended, one in June, one in September, and the stories that converged on those nights. These banquets, being singular events that I am unlikely to attend again, stand out in memory. They put me in a different setting from my usual haunts, exposed me to new people, and had the added frisson of public performance, something I like but have to get my game face on for.
(Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1911, Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The first, at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, was the 50th annual Georgia Author of Year awards banquet, now sponsored by the Georgia Writers Association. I’d been asked by the University of Alabama Press, my publisher, to represent the Press in accepting a posthumous award for the poet Robert Loveman, a Press author with Alabama affiliations who lived from 1864 to 1923. In addition to being glad to celebrate a poet’s life, I was happy with the coincidence: I was married in the Battle-Friedman House, where Robert Loveman lived with his sister and her family while attending law school at the University of Alabama, and which he visited for extended periods of time.
I was working at Alabama Heritage magazine at the University of Alabama a number of years ago when an article on the Battle-Friedman gardens being restored to historical accuracy was published, and I recall the descriptions of Loveman writing poems in the gazebo in those very gardens. One of his most famous and widely anthologized poems, “Rain Song”—on which the Al Jolson song “April Showers” was based—was apparently written in New York City, but Tuscaloosans like to think that the imagery was inspired by the Battle-Friedman Gardens. Loveman’s niece, Helen Friedman Blackshear, wrote her master’s thesis at the University of Alabama on her famous uncle in 1931, eight years after his death. With that example before her, she went on to become a published poet and fiction writer and served as Alabama’s poet laureate. She published a wonderful collection of work by all the laureates up to her time, titled These I Would Keep, and at the time of her death at age 92 had recently finished a biography of another famous Georgia poet, Sidney Lanier.
This is how we writers encourage and serve as models for each other, passing along the gift of our talents and time, one generation to the next.
Preparing to speak at the banquet, I learned that Robert Loveman chose the path of writing despite family and societal pressures to take up a more conventional career. He loved Nature with a capital N—Helen Blackshear’s book on him was titled Robert Loveman, Belated Romanticist—and, were he alive in our times, his love of beauty in nature might have led him to environmentalism, as with another fine Georgia writer, Janisse Ray. Like William Butler Yeats, he may have stood on a sidewalk, “or on the pavement gray,” but it was “lake water lapping” that he heard in his “deep heart’s core.” Robert Loveman’s work reminds us that cynicism and cleverness are ultimately less satisfying and powerful than the full embrace of beauty and purpose, especially when joined with the poetic skill to convey one’s impressions and ideas to others.
The second banquet was distinctly less writerly, although it did include a poetry contest. The Economic Development Partnership Alliance sponsored the contest, in partnership with the Cultural Alliance of GreaterBirmingham, as part of their Alabama Launchpad conference. Entrants were asked “to submit an original composition on the theme of innovation and creativity in Alabama.”
The three finalists, Irene Latham, Douglas Ray, and I, read our poems to the banquet attendees and then, immediately, everyone with a smart phone picked their favorite poem. I felt a little like I might be voted off the island or out of the house, but I also had a moment of reveling in getting to read a poem in a distinctly nontraditional setting for poetry. It was hardly a poetry illiterate crowd, however: one of my table mates was familiar with Billy Collins’ work, even quoting from Collins’ “Litany” (It begins like a traditional love poem—“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”—and then gets more and more hilarious); I was duly impressed.
Brandon Byrne, Vice President of the gaming company Curse, which moved from California to Huntsville, gave a talk on how north Alabama could become “Silicon Valley South.” Dr. Gwen Fewell won the Outstanding Woman or Minority in Innovation Award for her work in genomics as co-founder and chief commercial officer at TransOMIC in Huntsville. Dr. Emil Jovanov of UAH designed a “Smart Bottle” that reminds people when to take their medicines. A company called BLOX in Bessemer produces modular elements for hospital rooms. I hadn’t known about any of this and felt lucky to have stumbled into it. It changed the way I think about this state.
A press release for the conference stated that Angela Wier of the EDPA “said the organization added a poetry contest to the conference this year as a way to foster collaboration across disciplines that support risk taking and even tolerate failure.” Wier said: “We want the conference to exemplify a microcosm of an innovative community, where one discipline inspires creativity in another.” I was impressed with the EDPA and the Cultural Alliance for including poetry and art in this conference on innovation and creativity in science and entrepreneurship; I hope they continue in this vein.
We got the results of the contest later that evening: Douglas Ray had won, and would be named the “Poet Laureate” of the conference and read his poem the next morning. I never like not winning, but the part of me that didn’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to be in Birmingham at 7:30 a.m. was not the least bit disappointed. My two sides declared a truce.
Two banquets, one lesson: there are so many stories to be told, when our ears are open. Having the chance to briefly step into a couple of other worlds reminded me to pay attention to my own world and to remember what a rich and varied place life can be.