About Marla Akin

Senior Program Coordinator, UT Michener Center for Writers

The Heart and Soul of Our Poetry Community

smDYcolorOn Friday, April 8, poets from across the country will read at Austin Museum of Art downtown in a benefit honoring The University of Texas at Austin’s  Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry Dean Young, beloved poet and teacher who faces a heart transplant.

Nationally acclaimed poets Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, Dobby Gibson, Barbara Ras, Stuart Dischell, David Rivard and Joe Di Prisco are volunteering their time to fly in for the free event and will read along with a raft of local poets, including visiting professors Tomaz Salamun and Mary Ruefle, and members of the University community Kurt Heinzelman, Judith Kroll, Roger Reeves and Malachi Black. Each reader will read a favorite poem by Dean and a piece of their own.

Dean joined the university’s permanent faculty in 2008 as the first of two distinguished chairs created by the Michener Center for Writers and Office of Graduate Studies.  A professor in the Department of English, he teaches poetry workshops and seminars in both creative writing programs.  Among one of the most prolific poets of his generation, celebrated for his energetic and inventive style—a mercurial blend of  tragedy and joy, the surreal and the minutely observed—he has more than a dozen books of poetry and prose to his credit, including “Fall Higher,” forthcoming this year; “Primitive Mentor,” shortlisted for the 2009 Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy on Toy Piano,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Embryoyo,” as well as a critical work on poetry, “The Art of Recklessness.”

Dean’s imprint on the poetry program in English and the Michener Center has been immediate and distinctive.  English chair Elizabeth Cullingford calls him a “consummate teacher who’s brought dynamism and new ideas to our Creative Writing program.”   Leanna Petronella, a poet in her second year at the Michener Center, says that Dean uses “an odd and brilliant metaphorical language to get at what poetry does.”  MFA candidate Zebadiah Taylor, whose thesis Dean is supervising in absentia this spring, says “No other person I’ve encountered understands poetry as deeply.”

But the heart Dean Young puts into his teaching and mentoring is in trouble.  For the last dozen years or so, he has lived with congestive heart heartimageDYfailure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease of the heart muscle.  Naturally spry and athletic, he was, until last year, able to spring back from periodic episodes of weakness.  Last fall, his condition worsened dramatically, until this spring he required surgery to place external mechanical pumps to take over the work of his heart.  He’s spent much of the last several months hospitalized, fighting infection and setbacks, and still he has kept up with his students, texting and answering emails, and meeting in person, when his health allows, to discuss their poetry.  He is at the highest priority on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center at Austin, and awaits only a suitable donor.  Despite his health insurance, out of pocket expenses are enormous.

Among Friday night’s readers is Joe DiPrisco, Dean’s longtime friend who chairs a fund-raising campaign through the National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.  The organization will have information available at the reading about how supporters can help with Dean’s medical needs.

Donations are welcome, but the reading is free at AMOA Downtown, 9th and Congress and begins at 6 p.m.

Michener Alumna Tells a Story Worth Telling in her Fourth Novel: “Maxine Banks is Getting Married”

MaxineBanksLori Aurelia Williams, a 1996 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s masters program in Creative Writing/English and one of the first distinguished Michener fellows on campus, has just published her fourth novel, “Maxine Banks is Getting Married,” with Macmillian’s Roaring Brook Press.

Since the 2001 release of her debut novel from Simon and Schuster, “When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune,Williams has been recognized as one of the freshest and most powerful voices in young adult literature.  Her books, all set in the Houston’s 5th Ward where Williams grew up, tell the stories of young people caught up in circumstances that propel them too early into adulthood.  “Kambia” is narrated by 12-year-old Shayla, an aspiring writer whose sharp-eyed account of her runaway sister Tia and their tragically abused neighbor Kambia captivated readers. Its first printing sold out immediately, and it was voted #1 Young Adult Book by Amazon.com and received the Best Book Award of the American Library Association.  “Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues,” a continuation of Shayla’s story, followed in 2003. “Broken China, whose protagonist gives birth to and loses a child by age 14, came out in 2005, supported by a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Alan Cheuse selected it that year for his NPR summer reading list.

“Maxine Banks” picks up threads from her first two novels:  Maxine is Tia’s best friend and follows her example of marrying at 17 to escape the parade of sorry men her mother brings into their lives, only to have her plan backfire. But as troubled and difficult as the lives of all Williams’ characters are, their stories are told with lyricism and verve. A sense of family and community is always strong, and even their most desperate situations are graced with humor.

Lori Aurelia Williams

Lori Aurelia Williams

Williams continues to call Austin home.  When she is not writing, she supervises an after school program at a local high school.  She answered a few questions for ShelfLife @Texas recently about the new book and her work.

Did you set out to write Young Adult fiction as a deliberate career choice, or was it more a case that the stories you were drawn to tell found their natural expression in books for young readers?

I don’t sit down to write books that specifically target a group. YA fiction is actually fiction written for younger adults and teens, and because my characters are youthful they just naturally fit into that category. To be honest when I write I consider only one thing, will my work make a real difference to anyone, young or old? If I think I have a story worth telling, I tell it, and let the publishers decide how to market it.

To be clear with readers who don’t know your work:  you address very mature themes of sexual abuse and exploitation, violence, unplanned pregnancy, infidelity.  Have you ever faced any censure from your editors or publishers?

I have definitely been censured. My first book, “When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune,” was on a list of the most banned books in Texas a few years back, and I’ve shown up to readings only to have school personnel ask me not to read, but simply talk about the book. I have to admit, I get upset when this happens, because I write about things that many young girls have gone through, and I don’t believe we can stop our children from experiencing the ugliness of the world by simply forbidding them to read about it.

You’ve used the neighborhood of your own childhood, Houston’s tough 5th Ward, as the setting of all of your novels so far.  How did growing up there shape your fiction?

I loved the neighborhood that I lived in, and was really unaware of how other people saw it until I grew up and settled into another town miles away. To me the poverty and the violence was a normal way of life, and it was offset by the strong sense of kinship that I felt with the other families who lived around me. Today those families have also moved on, and the shacks that most of us lived in have been torn down. When I write I incorporate bits and pieces of my childhood neighborhood into my work, and try my best to make it something that readers in my old and new life can be proud of.

Nearly all your reviews praise your wonderful talent for dialogue, for capturing the rhythms and speech of your characters. How do you feel you developed that particular gift?

Even as a little girl I loved to hear people talk, and you have to have that love of the spoken word in order to create good dialogue. If you can hear the beauty in Southern drawls, mispronounced words, broken speech, urban slang, and just about anything that can come out of a person’s mouth you can write good dialog. After I’ve written a very talk heavy scene, I read it aloud for clarity and sound. This helps me create characters that sound like people you might meet shopping at a grocery store or walking down a busy street.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the first draft of my fifth book and shipped it off to my agent, so right now I’m just enjoying a little free time to catch up on my reading.  It’s a new book, set in a new place.

Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

To Build My Shadow A Fire

David Wevill

David Wevill

On November 10, our community will get a rare chance to hear the work of one of our most beloved yet enigmatic poets.  David Wevill has spent the last 40 years in Austin as a teacher, translator and editor.  He retired in 2007 from the University, where he was the heart and soul of the poetry programs of the Department of English and, later, the Michener Center for Writers.

Over the decades, Wevill has mentored scores of students who have gone on win some of the country’s most visible awards for young poets: Lilly Fellowships, the National Poetry Series, Stegner Fellowships, and the like.  Famously soft-spoken and self-effacing, though, he has not been one to call attention to his own distinguished career, which includes seminal works of translation and more than a dozen volumes of poetry.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1935 to Canadian parents, Wevill graduated from Cambridge University in England in 1957 and over the next decade was part of a groundbreaking collective of young poets in London known as The Group.  His first two books established him as an important new voice, already weaving together his distinctive mix of dark introspection and image-rich attention to the natural world. Wevill moved to Texas in 1970 to pursue his interest in translation — and stayed to join the University of Texas faculty — but British and Canadian presses continued to bring out the lion’s share of his published work, and he has become known as one of the best-kept secrets of our national literary landscape.

Michael McGriff

Michael McGriff

One former student of his, Michael McGriff, decided to remedy that situation. Through McGriff’s efforts as editor and with Wevill’s collaboration, a new edition of

Wevill’s selected works came out from Truman State University Press last spring, “To Build My Shadow a Fire.” “This is a wonderful book — a rare harvest of a lifetime’s truth-telling,” poet Eavan Boland says of the book.

A 2006 MFA graduate of the Michener Center, editor McGriff has already chalked up one remarkable accolade after another — the Lilly, a Stegner, a prize-winning debut “Dismantling the Hills,” a second collection forthcoming from the esteemed Copper Canyon Press, a book of translations, and now his own small press — Tavern Books — made possible in part by a generous 2010 Lannan Foundation Fellowship.

The Michener Center for Writers and Department of English will host a reading by Wevill and McGriff on Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ransom Center’s Prothro Theatre.   They’ll also discuss the process of collaborating on the book, about which we recently spoke with both of them:

WevillCollHow did this project come into being and what was the process like?

MM: The roots of it are pretty simple:  I wanted — and wanted to share with others — a sort of “essential” Wevill anthology, and I asked David if he’d be willing to let me take it on. Once he agreed, I began selecting the representative work, including his books of translations and prose poems.  We agreed on a table of contents pretty quickly . . . after a few vetoes on David’s part.  Then I set out to transcribe the 300-odd page manuscript.  It became clear that this volume would be suggestive and not comprehensive, because so much had to be left out.

David, how did it feel to have your former student as your editor?

DW: I have a profound respect for Mike’s talent and intelligence.  I was grateful that he’d take the time to do this.  There was no resistance on my part, but a friendly caution that the effort might prove hard.

Mike, what was your chief motivation?

MM: Most poetry goes out of print as quickly as it’s published.  If you’re not an avid book collector, you’re going to miss out on some of the greatest books of poetry ever written.  I felt an ethical call to arms, and decided to make the book that I wanted to read.

The work collected in the volume wasn’t previously published — or therefore widely available — in the United States?

DW: The work came from British and Canadian collections, so there was no U.S. collection until this.  And now Mike has, with his fellow poet Carl Adamshick, started a new small press, Tavern Books.  They’re reissuing an earlier book of mine, “Casual Ties.”

MM: The spirit of Tavern Books and the spirit of editing “Shadow” are one in the same.  I feel a responsibility to the books that I love, to do my part to get them into the hands of other readers. When I was editing”Shadow,” I was yearning to include the entire text of “Casual Ties,” a book of linked prose poems. It’s utterly brilliant, experimental, and shape-shifting — I’ve never read another book like it.  So, “Casual Ties” became the obvious choice for Tavern’s first full-length book. Our forthcoming books include works by Charles Simic, Yannis Ritsos, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Gwyneth Lewis.

What did you each learn about the other in the process?  What surprised you?

DW: I learnt what I already recognized:  Mike’s extraordinary diligence, judgment, imagination and practical ability.  It’s the degree to which he took this that is surprising. I’ve dedicated to the book to Mike, and to Britta his wife, as a small gesture of astonishment.

MM: What surprised me most is just how incredible David’s career as a poet has been so far. I had read all of his books before taking on the project, but I’d never read them one after the other in chronological order. The more I read, then more I kept thinking to myself, “it’s a crime that there’s no selected edition of David’s poetry and translations here in the U.S.” We have such an artistic short-attention span.  It’s amazing what people don’t read, and what publishers let fall out of print.

David, do you miss teaching?  Has being away from the classroom altered your approach to your own writing or changed your routine since retirement?

DW: I do miss the imaginative interactions of teaching, and have been a slow writer these last couple of years, not because I’m not teaching but from self-questioning, weighing the value of what I write. That’s perhaps nothing new, but more so.

Mike, how can you best sum up your relationship with David, as his student and his editor, and now publisher?

MM: David’s treated me not as a student, but as a fellow traveler.  We had a sort of ongoing three-year chat about poetry in translation, films, books, you name it.  Despite our age difference, I consider David to be a kind of brother, another guy making his way along all the tortuous pathways poetry has to offer.

An Incurable Talent

SmSkibellJoseph Skibell, a native of the Texas Panhandle, was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter living in Los Angeles when he joined the first-admitted class of UT’s Michener Center for Writers in 1993.  Switching his emphasis to fiction after a year in the program, he graduated in 1996 with a novella submitted as his thesis, which grew into his debut novel, “A Blessing on the Moon,” published by Algonquin in 1997.  Skibell joined the English Department/Creative Writing faculty at Emory University in 1999, where he now serves as the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

We spoke with him about his third novel, A Curable Romantic,” out from Algonquin this fall. O Magazine calls the book “An irresistible romp about a lovelorn 19th century doctor who falls in with Sigmund Freud—and some dangerously attractive women.”   Skibell will read from the book and sign copies on 7 p.m., Thursday, November 4, at BookPeople, located at the corner of West 6th Street and North Lamar.

How does a Texan, exiled to Atlanta, end up immersing himself in turn of the 20th century Vienna, Freud, and Esperanto?

ThumbCurableWell, I grew up in Lubbock, and as the great wealth and diversity of creative people from Lubbock will attest, a 360-degree horizon seems to be good for the imagination.  I guess I was interested in how different the turn of the last century was from the turn of our century.  In the wake of the 1900 World’s Fair, people really seemed to believe that humanity was on the lip of perfecting itself. The great advances in science, underscored by enlightenment philosophy, coupled with the internationalization of railroad systems and Braille and the codes of weights and measurements, really made people think that war and national hatred was a thing of the past. No one would ever have had similar thoughts in the year 2000. So I was interested in the difference between their naivety and our cynicism. And, of course, the terrible answer to their naivety was the carnage of World War I, which may have something to do with our cynicism.

What interests or obsessions or curiosities fueled such a research-intensive novel? The bibliography, available on your website, is enormous. Did you actually learn Esperanto?

Yeah, I tell people it was a bit like taking a bar bet. You know, write a book that includes Sigmund Freud, Dr. Zamenhof and Esperanto—oh, and the Warsaw Ghetto.  It did require a lot of research, much of it in Esperanto, which I did learn. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-learn language. There’s an extensive literature in Esperanto, including some really marvelous stuff.  There’s an Esperantan poet of astounding genius named Kalman Kalocsay.  In answer to someone who charged that Esperanto couldn’t possibly be a real language because it didn’t contain any dirty words, Kalocsy wrote 50 highly erotic—actually, very smutty—sonnets called La Sekretaj Sonetoj (The Secret Sonnets).

Did you worry about “getting it right” as far as period details?  After all, Freud is a nearly mythical personage to turn into a character, and his life and times are so fully documented.

I felt it was only fair to the reader for me to try to get it right. I remember meeting a playwright once who had written a play about Stephen Foster stealing all his tunes from an unknown black composer. I asked him if this was historically accurate and he said, “Well, no, but white artists have always plundered black culture.” I didn’t want to invent anything in “A Curable Romantic” that skewed the historical truth, and fortunately, the truthful things I wanted to write about—like Dr. Zamenhof’s belief that a universal language would create a universal brotherhood, or Dr. Freud’s good friend Dr. Fliess’ belief that the nose is the center of the human soul and that by operating on it, he could cure neurosis, etc., etc.—were in themselves dramatic enough that they didn’t need tweaking.

As for Freud, I was happy to be dealing with only about a year of his life, even less, really.  There’s so much known about him. Between his letters, the autobiographical sections of “Interpretation of Dreams” and his other work, and what other people have written about him, you could probably draft a day-by-day calendar of sixty years of his life. The hard thing was trying to fit as many little gems I learned about him into the novel without retarding the narrative flow.

Was there any snippet of serendipity that may have either led you to this story or altered your writing of it in some profound way?

There was nothing but little moments of serendipity throughout the writing of this book. For instance, Freud had this “bromantic” crush on Wilhelm Fliess, a total crank who believed all sorts of weird things. He believed that by removing the left middle turbinate bone of the nose, he could cure Emma Eckstein’s hysteria. She was Freud’s first analytic patient, and she’s a major character in the novel. Well, Freud hands her over to Fliess, and Fliess nearly kills her. He left a meter of surgical gauze inside her nasal cavity.  Dybbuks also play a large role in the book and, at one point, the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn and Dr. Freud believe that Fräulein Eckstein’s hysteria might actually be a dybbuk possession. When I started researching the history of dybbuk possession and exorcism, I discovered an account of a dybbuk being exorcized through the victim’s nose. So in the novel, this forms a credible counter-story to the historical account of how Emma Eckstein’s nose came to be destroyed.

Your publisher has brought out a new paperback edition of your first novel “A Blessing on the Moon,” which you began as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center. How do you feel about that book now, 14 years later?

It feels good to have it back in print. I read it not too long ago, because the composer Andy Teirstein and I were adapting it into the libretto for the opera he’s writing based on it.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I was impressed by how fearless I was as a young novelist.  I don’t think I’d have the courage to write that book now.

Playwright-in-Residence’s Work Featured

MyattBWThe UT Michener Center for Writers will sponsor a reading of the award-winning play The Happy Ones by its current Michener Residency Author,  Julie Marie Myatt, at 7 p.m., Thursday, October 28, at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302 on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway.

Myatt is a Los Angeles-based playwright whose most recent productions include Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, the story of an amputee GI and her difficult return from the war in Iraq; Boats on a River, which deals with Cambodian sex-slave trafficking; and Someday, a piece about reproductive rights, commissioned by Cornerstone Theater for its Justice Cycle.  But Myatt can’t be pigeon-holed as the author of “issue plays”—her work is much subtler than that. “Julie says everything she wants to say . . . without really having to say it,” Cornerstone’s artistic director Michael John Garcés says.

Living the dream life in suburban Orange County, California, in 1975, The Happy One‘s protagonist, appliance salesman Walter Wells, is a man who has it all—until sudden calamity descends on his perfect life.  At the same time, the area is experiencing its first influx of refugees from the fall of Saigon, and an unlikely friendship develops between Walter and Bao Ngo, a refugee who bears his own recent sorrows.  Across a cultural divide, the two look to each other for a way back, if not to happiness, at least to peace.

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

Myatt’s own early life was shaped by the Vietnam War, where her father served two tours of duty during her toddler years. But personal history alone wasn’t the impetus for the play. She became interested in the undercurrents beneath idyllic family lives when she saw the photography of Bill Owens in his seminal book, Suburbia, published in 1973. His was the first major photographic exploration of middle-class lives and the book, according to an LA Times review at the time, “rouses pity, contempt, laughter and self-recognition.” Echoing Owen’s themes, Julie says of her subjects, “I want to write about what is interesting in American life and what is dead about it.”

The Michener Residency Author program brings distinguished writers to campus for three-week stays, during which they mentor students in workshops and manuscript conferences. Myatt is the first playwright to be selected for the program.

The play will be read by five actors, and the event is free and open to the public.

A Weird End Run for the Pulitzer

HardingthumbIt’s the story of the Little Novel That Could.  Paul Harding was an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate with a slim manuscript about a dying new England clock repairman and a drawer full of rejections.  After three years of shopping around his novel Tinkers, he finally sold it to the tiny nonprofit Bellevue Literary Press for an advance the size of a big publisher’s paperclip budget.  They printed 3500 copies.  Still, the struggling author was glad to have his work in print.  Harding and his family were getting by on his wife’s teacher salary and his unemployment, and he was still driving the eighteen-year-old clunker station wagon which had served him since his days as drummer for the rock band Cold Water Flat in the 90s.

Bellevue is a curious hybrid, a literary press housed in the infamous eponymous hospital, a part of New York University’s School of Medicine.  Created by doctors, the press seeks to illuminate “the human experience in medicine,” and they bring out one fiction title a year alongside titles exploring the intersections of science and the arts.

TinkersBut Bellevue editorial director Erika Goldman utterly believed in Harding’s book.  “I found myself,” she says, “weeping for the beauty of the prose.”  Goldman passed a galley to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who likewise couldn’t put it down and gave it a coveted starred review.  Sales reps and staff of independent bookstores on both coasts who read the novel got behind it and began word of mouth campaigns.  There were no press kits, no media blitzes, no book tours.  Reading groups formed around dinner tables in friends’ houses, where Harding was invited to read.  Rave reviews came in from the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and an NPR story got the attention of Random House, who offered Harding a deal on his next two books. Bellevue printed more copies.

So, naturally, as Tinkers went on to win its ultimate recognition, the story had more strangely homespun twists.  The Pulitzer Prize committee waived the $50 submission fee from Bellevue in consideration of their nonprofit status.  Astounded enough at his book’s inclusion by the prize jury, Harding says things became entirely surreal when, as announcement time drew near, he got online to check the Pulitzer website and found his own name there as winner.  No thrilling phone call.  No crisp letter or telegram as in olden days.  Not even an e-mail.  He calls the whole experience “this weird end run from noble obscurity to a Pulitzer.”

Tinkers is the first such end run since John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, published by LSU Press, won the fiction Pulitzer in 1981.  In a time when book sales are dominated by powerhouse sellers and shaped by the bottom line, a win for a fledgling author and a nonprofit press is heartening news.  Critics praise the book’s quiet lyricism, the powerful evocation of family history and memory, and Harding’s stunning sentences. “There are few perfect debut American novels,” says NPR’s John Freeman. “Walter Percy’s The Moviegoer and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.  To this list ought to be added Paul Harding’s devastating first book, Tinkers. . . . Harding has written a masterpiece.”

There are a quarter of a million copies of Tinkers in print now, and Austinites will get the chance to hear Harding as part of the Michener Center for Writers’ annual reading series on Thursday, September 30 at 7:30 pm on campus in the Avaya Auditorium. ACE 2.302. Parking is available in the nearby UT garage at 24th and San Jacinto.

National Poetry Series Winner Launches First Book

BurnLakethumbFountainCarrie Fountain, an alumna of the University’s Michener Center for Writers’ MFA program, will celebrate the publication of her first poetry collection, Burn Lake, at a reading and signing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 27, 2010 at the Off Shoot, located at the Off Center theatre space at 2211 Hildago Street in Austin.

Fountain—who hails from Las Cruces and did her undergraduate work in theatre arts at New Mexico State—completed her graduate degree at UT in 2004 and now teaches at St. Edwards University.  Her poetry manuscript was selected in 2009 by Natasha Tretheway for the National Poetry Series, a literary awards program began in 1978 to heighten the visibility of good poetry in American publishing.  Curiously, MCW benefactor James A. Michener was one of its earliest supporters. When the proposal to start such a program was put before the Library of Congress, Michener read of it and was immediately moved to contribute.  He released a statement to the press explaining his decision:

I thought it deplorable that…the poet was at such a disadvantage. I also suspected that while I was writing my long books of prose, there might be some gifted young woman…who was saying it all in some eight-line verse, and saying it much better. There was a real chance that her verse might live a hell of lot longer than my eight hundred pages, and I deemed it deplorable that I could get published while she could not.

Fountain is just that gifted young woman.  Set in southern New Mexico, the poems in Burn Lake take as their setting the rapidly changing American Southwest—where the Fountain family settled in the 19th century—and weave together the region’s rich history with her own, exploring issues of violence, sexuality, and the self.  Tretheway, in her citation of the book for the National Poetry Series, said of it, “Reading Burn Lake, I was reminded of Heraclitus’ axiom ‘Geography is fate.’ With grace and a keen attention to the implications of history, the poems in Burn Lake grapple with what it means to be tied to a place, knowing that our own losses are not only what is taken from us, but also what we take from others.”

Marie Howe, a visiting poet Fountain worked with during her MFA at the Michener Center says, “I sat down to take a quick look at Carrie Fountain’s book and suddenly an hour had passed. Then I noticed I’d dog-eared almost every page I’d read.  I’m stunned by the power of these poems.  Here’s all the real trouble we’re in: death and time and pain – held in a clear crisp collection that seems made of joy.”

Copies of the book, released by Penguin this month, will be available for purchase at the event from Austin’s BookWoman.

Poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly Reads April 1

B.P. KellyHer poems are like no one else’s—hard and luminous, weird in the sense of making a thing strange that we at last might see it. —AMERICAN POET

Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who is a visiting professor at the Michener Center for Writers this spring, will give a reading of her work at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 1, in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on campus at 24th and Speedway.

The author of three acclaimed volumes, Kelly has won some of the most prestigious honors in American poetry.  Her first book, “To the Place of Trumpets was selected by James Merrill in 1987 for the esteemed Yale Series of Younger Poets.  “Song,” which followed in 1994, was winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American PoetsThe Orchard” was a finalist for not only the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, but the National Book Critics Circle Award and the LA Times Book Award in Poetry.  Other honors include a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, the Cecil Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, and a Whiting Writers Award, as well as fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.  In 2008, she received the distinguished Academy of American Poets Fellowship.

Recognized as well for her excellence in teaching, Kelly has taught creative writing at Purdue, UC Irvine, Warren Wilson, and many conferences and colonies nationwide and in Ireland, and is on the permanent faculty of the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign.  In addition to her graduate workshop in poetry, Kelly is teaching a seminar on the New York School of poets.  Seminar student Caroline Ebeid says of her classroom approach:  “Brigit’s pedagogic style is like that of a curator: she brings a set of varied texts before us—poems, paintings, art movements, films, theories—and asks us to  discern how they are in conversation with one another. At the heart of each discussion is [the question]: how are my quiet lyric poems interacting with the spirit of this time? I leave class each week with an ardent ambition to reclaim a dramatic territory that poetry has conceded  to the other genres.”

The reading is free and open to the public.  Parking is available in the nearby garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Irish Author Colm Tóibín Reads on Campus

Colm-HBAcclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín is on campus as a guest of the Michener Center for Writers and will read at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25 in the Avaya Auditorium, ACES 2.302.

Tóibín, a former visiting professor of the Michener Center’s master’s of fine arts program, began his career in journalism before turning to novel writing.  His first novel “The South” was published in 1990, followed by “The Heather Blazing,” “The Story of the Night” and “The Blackwater Lightship,” which was shortlisted for the distinguished Booker Prize in Fiction.

His most lauded novel to date “The Master was again shortlisted for the Booker in 2004 and won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year.  The novel builds upon biographical research and speculation about Henry James to re-imagine the author’s interior life.  Reviewing “The Master,” writer Michael Cunningham said “Tóibín takes us almost shockingly close to the mystery of art itself. A remarkable, utterly original book.”

Tóibín’s most recent books include a collection of stories: “Mothers and Sons,” and the novel “Brooklyn,” a sparely written account of a young woman’s emigration from Ireland to the United States in the 1950s.  The novel recently won out over Booker-winning author Hilary Mantel’s much-lauded “Wolf Hall” for the 2009 Costa Prize for the Novel.  He has continued to publish widely as a journalist, literary critic and essayist.

While at UT, Tóibín will also visit with Professor Brian Doherty’s Plan II freshman world literature students, who are reading his short stories, and graduate fiction students in the Michener Center’s master’s of fine arts program and the Department of English’s master’s of arts  in Creative Writing program.

The reading is free and open to the public.  The ACES building is located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus and parking is available in the nearby garage on San Jacinto.