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residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

movie: Sherman’s March (1986)

Sherman’s March is the third movie assigned for that one seminar (see also The True Meaning of Pictures and Deliverance).

I don’t know. Perhaps it will be illuminated for me in seminar; but this movie didn’t hold much value for me. Ross gets a grant to make a documentary about the lasting impact of General Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. He sets out with camera in hand to visit his family and meet women, traveling the Carolinas and Georgia. His love life is suffering, and everyone he meets is either a potential partner or a matchmaker. He lolls about, bemoaning his single fate and feeling sorry for himself. He occasionally opines about General Sherman or visits a monument. Look for lines like, “Why aren’t you in love with me?” and “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know her, Ross.” (Two and a half hours of this.)

Woe is Ross. The end.


Rating: 3 hours of my day lost.

movie: The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002)

This movie was assigned viewing for school, for the same seminar on “the documentary imaginary” that assigned Deliverance. It won’t surprise you to know then that I was comparing them as I watched this one.

The True Meaning of Pictures is a documentary, examining the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and examining his portrayal of his home region of Appalachia. In a major departure from Deliverance, then, this movie explicitly questions how Appalachia is seen and viewed artistically, and asks if its portrayal is fair, or stereotypical, or exploitative. This is a nice answer to that other movie, and I’m so glad I watched them in this order.

Shelby Lee Adams is from Appalachia, so he “owns” it, it is his place. But the argument goes that he has chosen to photograph the stereotyped version of that place, a place he’s mostly left behind in his own day-to-day; and he has to some extent staged those images. Can you exploit the place you’re from? Or is what you see what you picture, and that’s that? The people whose lives he photographs (many of whom are close friends, who he stays with and visits for extended periods) generally appear (at least in this film) unbothered by the pictures he makes. The one woman interviewed here who was really offended by his work was the relative of one of his subjects. She had left her roots behind and didn’t like how he’d portrayed then. It makes an interesting juxtaposition, for me.

I enjoyed this documentary. I found it thoughtful, and informative. It offered me a view into a handful of people I found interesting to meet. I’m a little reluctant to make conclusions as to my own opinions about Appalachia and its portrayal; I’m an outsider to that region, which is an intriguing position to be in just now, studying it with a student body (and instructors) who are mostly insiders. I thought this movie was pretty fair in its examinations. But I’ll be interested to hear what my classmates think.

Next up is Sherman’s March, a 1986 documentary offering “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.” So that sounds… interesting.


Rating: 8 holes in the screen door.

movie: Deliverance (1972)

Content warning: rape. Not discussed here in detail, but rather more graphic in the movie.


Assigned for Rebecca Gayle Howell’s seminar on “The Documentary Imaginary: One Way It Means To Be an Appalachian Writer,” and I have never seen this iconic movie before, so bring it on.

I am reminded of Urban Cowboy, how I recognized the moment in time, the cultural marker the movie made, felt nostalgic for some of its imagery, felt drawn to its presumptions, at the same time that I bridled against its crimes: stereotypes, misogyny, a casual good humor towards domestic violence. I gave it some slack for its datedness and enjoyed it some but still gave it 5 rides. And in many of the same ways, I meet Deliverance.

Four city boys take a weekend canoe trip down a backwoods Georgia river about to be dammed, which in the words of one of them, will “rape this whole goddamned landscape.” They take a decidedly nasty attitude towards the local hillbillies, who are short on teeth and don’t talk like the city boys–although it’s interesting to note that from my perspective the city boys sound pretty country, too. They have some small-scale internal conflict among them, but it’s mostly an idyllic float down the fictional Cahulawassee River. Until it isn’t.

I find myself unhappy writing about what follows, and geez, this is an awfully well-known movie. If you don’t know the plot, a simple web-search will fix you right up.

The cultural markers Deliverance has left behind are the dueling banjos, and the rape scene. The movie, it’s true, is so about more than that; but I found the rape scene quite disturbing, and didn’t realize how much so til I started trying to write about it. These are interesting observations that I imagine will be relevant to the discussion we’ll have in class, of “the documentary imaginary.”

Further, I imagine that we’ll be talking about the stereotyping of the Appalachian “mountain man” hillbilly. It’s quite ugly. Also ugly is the city boys’ attitude towards the locals when they arrive on the scene; really, they weren’t setting themselves up for any kind of good relations. A good movie in many ways; iconic, yes; musically interesting. But hard to watch, and ugly, despite the beautiful scenery. I did not find it redeemed by its profundity or higher themes or teaching value in the way that perhaps Boys Don’t Cry was. Maybe it’s just the datedness again. But I struggled; and ultimately, this movie gets the same rating as Urban Cowboy, and for similar reasons.

I look forward to being educated.


Rating: 5 missing teeth.

Glorybound by Jessie van Eerden

Disclosure: Jessie is the director of the MFA program I am enrolled in.


And it’s so hard for me to separate this book from the Jessie I know. I felt like I heard the lines read aloud in her measured, careful tones, with attention for each sound within them. Impartial I guess I am not, but I’ll tell you my opinion anyway, that this is a beautiful book.

Aimee and Crystal Lemley are holding it together, a decade after their father Cord, preacher at the Glorybound Holiness Tabernacle, predicted the end of times and then left town after times didn’t end. Their hometown of Cuzzert, West Virginia, population 335, is the kind of place where people stop over and then keep going. The girls take care of their mother Dotte and keep faith to the vows they made when Cord left: Crystal does not speak, and Aimee is celibate. They intend to be woman-prophets–by the rules of Glorybound, they will be able to prophesy but not to lead from up front.

Then a new teacher comes to town, from a volunteer program, sent from Chicago. His name is Aubrey Falls–Aimee calls him “sweet Aubrey Falls,” like an epithet. Aubrey finds the missing patriarch preacher Cord, and hopes to reunite him with his daughters. He uproots the past, which had come to feel well-buried in the drought-ridden, crusted-over, slow-moving Cuzzert; he raises questions and disrupts the Lemleys’ stasis. Unwitting, he becomes part of a swell of change.

This story, in its framing elements–setting in time and place and culture, religious backdrop and markers–is foreign to me. In fact, the Lemleys’ lives and understandings of the world are so caught up in their church that I would normally steer clear of them. In this way I’m like Aubrey. But like Aubrey, I was pulled along by the charm and charisma of Aimee and Crystal and the whole dysfunctional town. I guess in part I trusted in Jessie, whose work I knew to be luminous; but this book is luminous from its first lines, shines from within in a way that marks it as special, so I don’t think it mattered that I knew Jessie was an amazing writer beforehand, at all.

There is a magic beneath the words on the page, which glow and sing with music. These characters are all a mess and not quite decipherable, but they also feel perfectly portrayed, as in perfectly represented in all their weirdness; authentic. Think of entering a dark movie theatre and being transported, coming out with that dazed surprise at the world you live in, after all.

I realize I’m being a bit mystic and vague in my praise–perhaps the tone of this book has rubbed off on me. Here are a few of Glorybound‘s nameable strengths: exquisite detail and description, for example, of the dresses Aimee wears; lyric language, with a clear attention paid to every syllable; characterization through silences, diversions, and body language; tone and atmosphere. I would like to say that the West Virginia portrayed here is a true West Virginia, but that’s something I don’t know from personal experience so much as trust from what I know of Jessie and her background. (She made a lovely contribution to my birth/place project.) As a through-line, for those looking more closely for craft elements, I love the recurring quiet importance of clothing: Aimee’s dresses, Crystal’s worn work clothes, Aubrey’s discomfort with what to wear, Dotte’s seamstress work, the dresses worn by other women, the work of doing laundry. Every word counts.

Jessie has since had two more books published, her second novel My Radio Radio and most recently a collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping. I will read them all.


Rating: 9 pieces of wash on the line.

upcoming semester

It’s nearly residency time again! I’ll be flying out in a few weeks to meet a friend & classmate in Rochester, New York, to join her for the drive down to Buckhannon, West Virginia for the start of winter residency at West Virginian Wesleyan College. You can read about the program I’m enrolled in, if you haven’t already; and you can check out the schedule I’ll be following while I’m there, and read about the seminars I’ll be attending (along with a taste of reading I’m undertaking in the next few weeks – whew!). I am excited to be back in the fold again, with the people who more or less make sense to me and whose weird minds inspire.

Be patient with me during this holiday season, as I travel, read and write. Be patient with each other, always. And stay tuned for reviews of all that reading, and three moves I’m assigned to watch!

What’s new for you in reading and studying as 2017 comes to a close, and what does 2018 hold?

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