I got two wonderful surprises at last weekend’s annual Southern Methodist University literary festival. The only bad thing about the SMU LitFest is not being able to clear enough time in my schedule to attend all three days. Still, I was more than pleasantly surprised to learn the university, under director of creative writing David Haynes, now offers courses in speculative fiction -- as in, genre writing.
That was the first nice surprise. The second was to find Saturday’s impeccably literary pair of writers -- a poet and a writer of short stories -- paying homage to one of my favorite genres, historical fiction. And in each case, in book length works.
Okay, maybe Natalie Serber, short listed for Best American Short Stories, didn’t consider her collection of linked stories, Shout Her Lovely Name, to be historical fiction. One listener, in fact, questioned whether a Serber story referencing TV’s Laugh-In, 1960’s talk show host Phil Donohue (note to those under age 30, not Dr. Phil!), and the Rolling Stones song “Ruby Tuesday” was set in the present day or the past.
Just take that as an indication that the mother-daughter relationships in Serber’s work are ageless. (She explained that she intended the continuing story of mom Ruby and daughter Nora, to take place before single parents and latchkey kids became commonplace.)
Poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, a Los Angeles Time Book finalist, is more overt about the historical grounding of her work, both in her latest book, Apocalyptic Swing, and in her work in progress, a long poem set during the Vietnam War.
Much of Apocalyptic Swing deals with boxing -- a continuing obsession with writers. “I think (the attraction of boxing) is a fascination with form,“ Calvocoressi said, “and with the body’s ability to get up, even if it’s smarter to stay down.”
The sport’s place in American history is also a factor, as she noted in one of Apocalyptic Swing’s longer poems, “Training Camp, Deer Lake, PA,” referring to Muhammad Ali’s former training camp. “You don’t like to see a man get knocked out/ cold?” the poem asks. “Then you’ve never lived in Hartford/ or any town of boarded windows.”
“I think about American history a lot,“ Calvocoressi said. “History is something people living through it don’t understand. I wanted to try something for myself that could fail.”
Why the long story arcs for both writers, listeners asked. Why, for instance, not write a novel instead of a book of linked stories for Serber, and a book length poem for Calvocoressi.
“I love Ruby," a listener said to Serber, “and I’m wondering why you didn’t write a novel instead of short stories.“
“I was afraid of writing a novel,” Serber answered diffidently, to laughter from her audience, admitting, as she warmed to the subject, “but I love the gaps between stories,” the short form affords.
And for Calvocoressi, “Pretty much my hope was that (the poem) would be one long story. I thought of this as a large scale poem.”
Readers earlier in the week at the 2013 SMU LitFest were Matthew Dolman, Debra Spark, Alix Ohlin, Alan Michael Parker, Vievee Francis and Tatjana Soli. For the second consecutive year, Dallas-Fort Worth area high school students opened the LitFest with public readings and presentation of prizes and scholarships. This year’s festival also honored the Dallas Writer’s Garret, co-founded by late SMU faculty member Jack Myers and his wife, Thea Temple.