Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wordcraft -- SMU: Thanks, more please, with signs

I had trouble finding SMU’s DeGolyer Library for the final session of this year‘s SMU Literary Festival. “There’s a festival?” a helpful student asked, directing me to the library, its front innocent of so much as a sign outside to announce the festival. Fortunately, the readings by Amina Gautier and Martha Rhodes made forgoing an hour or two of Saturday’s sunshine worthwhile.

Ms. Gautier read two stories from her Flannery O’Connor Award winning collection, At-Risk. Who wouldn’t be pulled in, with sentences like this from the story “Push”, a tale of a mean girl from her own perspective: “These are the days when everyone has a pass to beat up kids”?

And if everyone picks on kids, why shouldn’t kids pick on kids, too? “What it really comes down to is the rightness of the push,” the anonymous protagonist decides, while serving a detention for her behavior.

I won’t reveal the story’s ending -- get it for yourself from or others -- but it’s as logical as it is surprising.

Not that Ms. Gautier is the mean girl of “Push,” she assured her audience. Or the in-group wannabe of her other reading, from “Dance for Me.”

Of the ten stories, “All the girls are completely different and none of them are me. The experiences don’t necessarily have to happen to me.”

What they all are about are her experiences of growing up as a scholarship student in Brooklyn in the late 1980’s, when “there was always this expectation that if we were good -- if we were smart -- we would escape.”

Poet Martha Rhodes, following Ms. Gautier, commented wryly, “I would like to write fiction. But my fiction sounds like a really bad translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. It’s very stiff.”

Her poetry, however, is anything but stiff. Her latest collection, The Beds, began as a reaction to the events of 9-11, she told the audience, but evolved into a more personal inquiry about the nature of grief. And sometimes it’s fierce grief, angry grief, even grief with a sense of humor.

“I found myself going to form, going to rondelet a lot,” she told her listeners, responding to questions about the sequence of the poems. “The poems just came out feeling related to each other. . . They’re not ordered chronologically. I really go by tone more than by theme.”

I felt sorry for the young woman who guided me so courteously -- and left, without hearing any of this. After the literary festival was revived in 2009 following a hiatus, a student blogger mused about earlier days, when world-famous authors gathered at the university to read and party. Maybe it’s time to revive a little of that feeling. Or at least post signs saying to students, and the public -- here it is. Come in. It’s worth it.

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