Saturday, July 19, 2008


It’s good to be able to walk one block to the Bairnwick Women’s Center here at Sewanee and hear some of the luminaries in the U.S. literary world read from their work during the Sewanee Writers Conference. It’s also a bit intimidating for anyone who writes. Last year, we attended almost every reading and one of the lectures, but this year we’re being somewhat selective, beginning with Jill McCorkle’s reading of one of her wry short stories filled with the pathos of a dysfunctional southern family.

Today, we walked down at 4:15 p.m. to hear the poet Greg Williamson who was here last year and who caused me to laugh aloud with his parodies of life, poets, and poetry. When he walked up to the mike, he wore blue jeans and was chewing gum, and I thought “Oh no, he’s going to be one of those “aw shucks kinda’ guys.” But he wasn’t. He was the genuine bemused, casual kind of poet who seemed to be poking fun at a literary world that can be so serious at times. His poetry is heavy on “punning,” and he likes to entertain himself, as well as his audience. By the time he had finished reading a few poems about DNA and babies, I was laughing aloud again. How refreshing, I thought – someone who heeds the admonition of Louis Auchincloss in THE RECTOR OF JUSTIN, “To take one’s self too seriously is, after all, the highest form of conceit.” Greg performed effortlessly without the pretensions of many poets and reminded me of our present Poet Laureate of the U.S., Kay Ryan, who says she tries to avoid being pretentious in the writing of her minimalist poetry.

Greg Williamson loves words, has great technical control when he plays with language, and is certainly original. He read a paradelle, a modern poetic form which is reputed to be a parody of another form, the villanelle, created by former Poet Laureate of the U.S., Billy Collins. This form was invented as a hoax but has taken on a life of its own, according to Wikipedia. It’s a very complicated form that I wouldn’t attempt to explain but, then, I don’t pretend to be in Greg’s league. As I said, his writing shows great talent with irony, and he has the ability to catapult even non-poetry readers into the realm of preposterous humor.

My own attempts at wit in poetry are pedestrian, by comparison, but perhaps readers will enjoy a bit of fun (not parody!) in this poem I wrote last summer for JUST PASSING THROUGH, published by Border Press:


Daughter Elizabeth owns a purse
that calls me while she’s out and about;

a cell phone within its cavernous depths
that when accidentally pressed,

speed dials my number in Tennessee
and sends me a faint conversation

she’s having with someone in California,
Tennessee time, often near midnight.

I am poised for emergency
while she uh huhs a woman from Israel

who speaks broken English,
or with Joel, my four-year old grandson,

or waiters in restaurants,
and I hold on, afraid to interrupt,

hoping she’ll realize her purse
has connected with her Mom,

a friendly “hello Mom”
would renew our family ties

before the abrupt cessation
of talk that has transpired five minutes or so.

Some weeks I’m grateful to her purse
for letting me know life

is good to her in the desert world,
until she finally intentionally dials me,

and I answer, “it’s you, really you,
so nice to talk to someone

other than your purse.”

Laughter at the image of her purse talking,
“Mom,” she says, you’re too much,”

Yes, I am, and no telling
how many more people you’ve contacted

while you were out and about,
I despair if you ever have your purse stolen,

I’ll probably never hear from you again,
Could you give that purse a name

so I can call her some time?
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