I’m on my way to teach a workshop for student veterans (in hopes of launching an ongoing writers group among them) and to give a reading at the Sensoria Festival at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, one of the truly great annual literary festivals in North Carolina – and there are many in this state. Sensoria kicked off on April 4 and runs until April 12.
My first job teaching was at Central Piedmont Community College. I was so green that I one day in 1977 waltzed into the office of then-chair of the English Department,
Mitchell Hagler, and asked – as one might a foreman on a construction site – if he had any work. Mitchell – a kind man, now an old friend, someone who literally gave me my first break as a teacher – patiently and good-naturedly explained how one sets about snagging a job as a college teacher: the realities of CVs, letters of application, recommendations, etc., not to mention scheduling an appointment with one’s prospective employer.
I left his office chastened, yet enlightened. That night, or perhaps I’m imagining it was that quickly, he phoned and offered me a job. Someone in the English Department had had a family crisis and had to take an instant leave and, boom, I was hired to do something that, at the time, I did not know how to do. I like to say that like Sartre, I pretended to be a writer until I became a writer. Likewise, I pretended to be a teacher until I became a teacher; and, 37 years-plus, I’m still at it and still, in truth, loving it. I can never thank Mitchell, my first academic foreman, enough. What’s more, I loved that English Department at CPCC. They were such dedicated, brilliant teachers and they welcomed me instantly into their ranks.
Likewise, I owe quite a debt to Irene Honeycutt. When I showed up in Charlotte and on the campus of CPCC, Irene was an established poet, a beloved force, a decided presence in creative writing – not just on campus, but throughout Charlotte and Mecklenburg County and beyond. She has influenced, molded and mentored countless writers in her classrooms and outside the classroom. This is not just sentiment talking – though there’s a good bit of that as well. Ask any writer, in Charlotte especially, who it was that lit the flame of poetry in her and Irene’s name will make the short list, if not top it. At any rate, Irene put an arm around me and allowed me to teach, among my other courses, creative writing, and she also supported and encouraged my early work. Her faith in me simply meant everything. Period.
Without Irene, there would be no Sensoria. It was her vision and drive, her vast acumen in the world of arts and letters, that created in 1973 CPCC’s original Spring Literary Festival, the precursor of Sensoria. Each year, since 1973, it got bigger. Each year, the writers invited to campus were more renowned – writers like Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Kay Ryan, Natasha Trethewey (the last two United States Poets Laureate) and more all-stars than I can name here – yet Irene always kept it grounded, inviting into the mix local and regional writers just as important to the integrity of the Festival as the bigger well-known names. Over more than 15,000 people attend the Festival annually. I would hazard that no community college in America boasts a literary event – replete with music, visual and performing arts – of such importance and magnitude.
The following is a brand new poem by Irene that I’m honored to post here today:
A Way into the Trees
Today we celebrate
the loveliest of trees
and sit beneath
the cherry’s boughs
at Freedom Park
in the house
a path from all
finding a way
into the trees
that do not long
hold their splendor
but spend freely
such rich flurry
Irene has won awards for her poetry and teaching. Her most recent poetry manuscript, Before the Light Changes (Main Street Rag Publishing), was one of two finalists in the 2009 Brockman-Campbell Book Award Contest. She founded and subsequently directed for 14 years Central Piedmont Community College’s annual Spring Literary Festival in Charlotte, NC, which expanded into Sensoria. While teaching at the college, she received the Award for Excellence in Teaching; and upon her retirement, the college established the Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Lectureship which each year brings to the campus one of the nation’s leading writers. Also given annually in her honor is The Irene Blair Honeycutt Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. Her work has been published by journals that include Nimrod, Southern Poetry Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her love of writing and traveling are often combined. She has studied in the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Iceland. Her next big adventure will be in Mexico as a member of the faculty for the February 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference.
Best birthday wishes to Barbara Presnell. Her poem, “Ellie’s War,” was initially published in Connotation Press, September 2013.
Little River, 1862
This one, Josiah, on the floor at her feet.
At the table, that one scribbling on a slate.
Curtis at the Meeting House with the others,
deciding, and her in this dark candle-thick house
with the children, pondering for herself his choices:
Does he join up? If not, he runs or takes his gun
to the woods to live till this is over. Who’ll then
be left to papa these girls? These boys?
That one, stirring gravy in the kitchen?
That one, stacking sticks at the hearth?
Curtis says he won’t go, conscript or no.
No money to buy his way out like some others,
not with these younguns and so little rain.
Won’t go to jail, won’t run like a rabbit.
If they come for him, well, we’ll see, by God.
Not our war, he says. Then why, she wants to know,
are blue coats camped out in our field,
are gray boys killing neighbors like dogs?
A shuffle out the window, leaves unsettling
but there’s no wind tonight. She’s got the rifle, has
an eagle eye. This one on the floor, hungry, starts to cry.
Barbara Presnell lives in Lexington and is the author of a number of books of poems, including Piece Work, winner of the 2006 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. She is the recipient of the 2004 Linda Flowers Prize from the North Carolina Humanities Council.
Today is also Hertford, North Carolina native Catfish Hunter’s birthday. James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter (April 8, 1946 – September 9, 1999) had a star-studded fifteen year career as a pitcher in Major League Baseball from 1965 to 1979 for both the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in1987. Next time you’re in Hertford, in Perquimans County, head for the Catfish Hunter Museum.You can also see the black marble monument to Hunter on the Perquimans County Courthouse lawn. I have a great photograph of my sons, Jacob and Beckett, when they were just little boys, posed in front of it.
Listen to this rare track, “Catfish,” from the vaults of Bob Dylan.