I want to briefly follow up on my visit to Warren County on April 16 and 17 and just mention the wonderful Warren County Library. Library Director, Cheryl Reddish, and her staff warmly and elegantly hosted me for a reading and reception. An event that started at 4 p.m. did not conclude until well after six – simply because the repartee was so animated, so authentic. Joan and I leave those kinds of libraries feeling truly – not just rhetorically – like we’ve made a raft of new friends.
In the audience was E.T. Malone, who lives in Warrenton, and authored, in 1986, along with North Carolina literary great, Richard Walser, Literary North Carolina. Two local poets, Arlene S. Bice and Thomas Haywood Park were also in attendance. They presented me with a beautiful anthology called Sitting with a Drunken Sorceress, which Thomas and Arlene not only compiled from local writers, and then edited, but they contributed their own fine work to it as well. The anthology is dedicated to the Warren Artist Market (WAM), a writer’s collective and after-school creative writing-arts program founded by Thomas. This anthology is a sterling example of the kinds of grass roots initiatives all over North Carolina that keep the Arts and Humanities alive and well even in our smallest communities.
Worth noting: On the way back to Boone – via Chapel Hill – Joan and I passed through the little town of Norlina in Warren County. The famous Hotel Norlina still stands. Famous people, like Randolph Scott and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, quartered there; and, inexplicably, two of The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The old hotel sign still swings awry from its chain. Check out this short, rather priceless, clip.
A poet who has remained important to me over the years is Etheridge Knight. I began reading his work in earnest when I first came to North Carolina in 1976 as a VISTA Volunteer and began working in prisons. Not only was Knight in prison, but he started his writing career there. He’s an important 20th Century American poet and, to my mind, the poet to get his start behind bars. He won the 1987 National Book Award for his volume, The Essential Etheridge Knight. Knight, a combat veteran of the Korean War, testifies on its jacket: I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.
Today is Knight’s birthday. His most famous poem, the first Knight poem I ever encountered – and which led me to investigate more of his work – is “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane.” I’ve taught this poem many times over the years. It embodies a terrible truth about what happens to men and women (the kept as well as their keepers) – and far far too many juveniles – locked in our nation’s prisons and jails.
Today is also Louise Gluck’s birthday. Gluck taught for a number of years In Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing in Swannanoa. She was named the twelfth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Library of Congress in 2003 and won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Wild Iris in 1992. Here’s her poem, “A Fable.”
Wishing Michael White a very Happy Birthday today. The following is a poem from his forthcoming collection, Vermeer in Hell.
Seconds passed. I watched one wave approach,
rolling through waters lit with jellyfish,
rolling obliquely landward till it crashed,
its ghostly aura scrawled across the beach.
And though I’d never seen a night that burned
with such intensity, it was your grace
that filled the room, your sleepy, owl-bright gaze
that followed as I closed the blinds. I turned,
& without thinking, pressed my face between
your breasts, where I could hear each lung draw air,
where I could hear the doors of your heart open
& shut methodically beneath my ear.
And nothing like this happened again. And yet
it happened then. It happened. I was there.
Michael White has taught at UNCW since 1994, where he currently serves as
Chair of the Creative Writing Department. His books are the poetry collections
The Island, Palma Cathedral, Re-entry and the forthcoming Vermeer in Hell.