“La Femme Nadia”

Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of New York times best seller Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, has recently enriched our school with her spunky and raw words as a part of LR’s visiting writers series. I was not able to attend her talks but in our creative writing class we read an excerpt from Pastrix and I drew many connections to what we were reading in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing concerning memoir and story. Boltz-Weber’s memories of sobering up had to have been difficult to write about, but her words were moving.

Margery, a leather-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on a tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoiding shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand ans said, “Honey, that’ll pass.” She took a drag and went on, “So anyways, prayer is…”

With directness of language, Nadia Boltz-Webber communicated a pivotal moment in her life in a relatable as well as raw way. Using piercing imagery, “avoiding shrapnel”, the anxiety of the moment becomes our own anxiety. The reader hangs on the edge of her seat waiting to know the cause of commotion.  The use of direct quote engages the reader and placates us. This outburst is normal in the process of sobering up. There is resolution. Boltz-Webber artfully crafted her memoir in a form of brutal honesty; we rode the roller coaster of detox with her for a moment. If that is not skillful writing, I don’t know what is.


The Hedgehog and other foreign metaphores

The snail moves like a

Hovercraft, held up by a

Rubber cushion of itself,

Sharing its secret

With the hedgehog. The hedgehog

Shares its secret with no one.

We say, Hedgehog, come out

Of yourself and we will love you.

We mean no harm. We want

Only to listen to what

You have to say. We want

Your answers to our questions.

The hedgehog gives nothing

Away, keeping itself to itself.

We wonder what a hedgehog

Has to hide, why it so distrusts.

We forget the god

under this crown of thorns.

We forget that never again

will a god trust in the world.

Hedgehog” from Poems 1968-1998 by Paul Muldoon. Copyright © 2001 by Paul Muldoon. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com

I feel that I should write in a self-aware manner. This poem has thrown me for quite a loop and I did not even attend the Lenoir Rhyne University Visiting Writers Series. This blog was due last Thursday and I still feel that no response that I write could clearly interpret or even completely contextualize what Muldoon was trying to say here. I attached the poem above so that there can be a type of transparency to any interpretation I could try to take from the Hedgehog.

Some readers may wonder “what’s the big deal about a poem about animals” “A snail and a hedgehog…I don’t see a metaphor here.” but I have had quite a time with this poem. My interest was piqued when Dr. Lucas brought the class’s attention to the mechanistic word choice of the hovercraft-like snail. My initial reaction to this in contrast to the “God-like” description of the secretive hedgehog was that there is a deep sort of paradox between mechanism and older thought (religion?). To further that thought, and it is a thought, I believe that this poem could be read as a spin on the mechanization and technological advances that “share all their secrets” with the world. The purpose of the name of the poem I believe is solidified in the line “The hedgehog gives nothing away, keeping itself to itself” followed by “We forget the God underneath this crown of thorns” “Never again will a god trust in the world”. In application to the idea that the snail is in contrast to the hedgehog and embodying mechanization it seems that the Hedgehog represents (could represent) an older world view lost to our blind push to know the world.

Even as I write this possible critique I see the possibility for other meaning. Over the weekend I took this poem home and let my father read it. He was fascinated by the idea of the Hedgehog and did excessive research. He informed me that the hedgehog actually preceded the groundhog in determining the length of winter for the Romans. Did Paul Muldoon have this knowledge about such things? Could that possibly change the meaning of the poem? I believe it could. Maybe this is why Paul Muldoon is a poet and visiting writer and I am not. If anything this reading has opened my eyes to the many possible interpretations of writing.

Visiting writer / Writer in residence: Katherine Howe

Thursday, February 12th ,New York Times best seller Katherine Howe spoke in the Belk Centrum as a part of the visiting writers series. As a historical fiction writer, she spoke very intelligently about the historical backing of her novels. I was able to very clearly make connections between what we have been learning about in class concerning nonfiction story and historical fiction! The obscure details that Howe researched in order to create her works very closely relates to the details placed in a nonfictional story.

An example of one of those “obscure details” that Katherine Howe researched to put in her novel that I thought was fascinating was how she debated as to weather the newly renovated house on 9th street (I think) ran on gas lighting or whale oil! She said that when she was doing her research, based on the time setting of her novel, some houses ran on gas and others on whale oil. The struggle over minute details as that one are what make her a successful historical fiction writer. I found her dedication to accuracy fascinating. Overall, her presentation was wonderful, and that she is out writer in residence is quite an achievement for our school.

“I chose the word salvage because it sounds so similar to savage”- Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds, and Men we Reaped,  was born in rural Mississippi in 1977.  She attended a private high school paid for by her mothers employer.  While in this majority white private school she was bullied due to her race. She attended and graduated from the University of Michigan. That same year, her younger brother passed away. Ward received her MFA in creative writing in 2005. Not soon after, her family fell victim to hurricane Katrina. After that terrible disaster, Jesmyn’s writing passed through a three year drought.  After seemingly coming to terms with the irrevocable changes to her life, she picked her pen back up and wrote her first novel Where the Line Bleeds.

With a little fear of sounding too informal, any reader who enlightens me enough to read this can just as easily find all the above details of Jesmyn Ward’s life on Wikipedia.  What they will not see is the passion, strength and ease with which Jesmyn Ward spoke this evening in Belk Centrum as part of the visiting writers series. That today was MLK day was no happy coincidence. I believe that the timing of her talk was impeccable and had a great reaction from those in attendance, regardless of race or gender.

Jesmyn Ward spoke bravely this evening about the not so light hearted realities of growing up African American in the south, as she did. One of the first things she talked about in relation to her writing, was that she did not live in “fiction land” as she wrote, but that she let her experiences and her life bleed into her writing, letting her pain be her characters’ pain and her triumphs theirs.

In her talk, she read from both Salvage the Bones as well as Men We Reaped. From Salvage the Bones She read ,maybe, the most intense scene of the book. The moment that Esch’s world was flooded. With the metaphor of a water rush as a wide nosed snake devouring her home and consuming her life, Jesmyn brought to life the undulated fear and panic that comes with the anticipation of drowning.

From Men We Reaped ( her memoir) she recounted experiences shared between her and her brother (the one lost to a car crash) of their childhood together. The excerpts from her memoir were not chosen at random, as she read of her first experience of adult drug abuse at age 9, or that she remembers her first experience with alcohol at 16, followed by weed at 18.  She was not fondly reminiscing about the time she found out that her brother (who lived with their father) had turned to hustling and was selling crack to their neighbors in order to help pay the bills.

With great tact and finesse, Jesmyn Ward pointed to the greater issues that wreak havoc uppon our society, not just her small southern Mississippi town. At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked why she chose Esch as the character to voice the story of Salvage the Bones.  Jesmyn replied that Esch found her, and that the story started as a woman’s experience of a predominately male world. She quotes Esch from after the disaster of Katrina

“And then I get up because it is the only thing I can do. I step out of the ditch and brush the ants off because it’s the only thing I can do; if this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I do.”

When asked if Jesmyn has hope for the future; that things will get better, she says yes! She said this evening that one of the reasons that she chose the word “Salvage” in her title is because of its closeness to the word “savage”. My first reaction was of shock, isn’t to be savage a bad thing? But graceful as ever,  she went on to say that to be savage is to do what ever it takes. To fight, to stand up when one has fallen; to live. “If this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I can do.”