Monday, October 29, 2018


Red clay hills near Brandon, Mississippi

A friend of mine recently told me that I have a migratory spirit, and I have to agree with him. ‘Seems like when I’m in Sewanee, Tennessee, I make at least six visits to sites in surrounding states during my six-month sojourn. When I’m in Louisiana, I search for places to explore in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. I know the old adage, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” but the idea of becoming a mossback has no appeal for me either. Last week, I stopped in Meridian, Mississippi to visit the MAX Arts Center there and had an envee to stay awhile but continued on to Louisiana. Since that visit to the magnolia state, I’ve been yearning to return to the birth site of my maternal great-grandmother in Brandon, Mississippi.

This morning I was reading an old edition of Off the Beaten Path published by the Reader’s Digest, and I discovered a notation about Flora, Mississippi, site of a Mississippi petrified forest. A photograph of what I call “frozen red dirt” had been placed beside the article, and I developed pangs to explore the only petrified forest east of the Rockies created from remains of primeval forests — driftwood buried in and preserved by silt and sand. I looked at the picture “long and long” before putting it on a list that I’d made to satisfy my migratory spirit. The photo showed deeply-eroded cliffs studded with petrified logs. According to the article in Off the Beaten Path, the red sands that identify them to me as “frozen red dirt” were river deposits in which the petrified process had begun —the vivid red dirt fascinated me.

Brown Cotton and Red Dirt by Karen Bourque

In 2017 I asked my friend Karen Bourque, glass artist in Church Point, Louisiana, to create a glass piece that I could photograph for a book of poetry I’d written entitled Sifting Red Dirt, and she gifted me with her version of Mississippi hills around Brandon, Mississippi where my maternal great-grandmother was born. The book contained a collection of poems about my forebears (the red dirt side that balances out my Cajun side).

After seeing the photo of the petrified forest in Flora (near Jackson, Mississippi), I went out on the glass porch where I keep some of Karen’s art and stood before the glass piece she entitled “Brown Cotton and Red Dirt.”

“We have to make a trip to a petrified forest in Mississippi,” I told my traveling companion, Dr. Victoria Sullivan. “The spirits of my Mississippi ancestors must be hovering in that area. The petrified formations are 36 million years old.”

“Your ancestors’ spirits hover everywhere,” she said. “They’re ubiquitous. Where are we going now?”

“Flora, Mississippi. It’s near Jackson.”

“Population under 2000, I’m sure.”

“How did you guess? I know you like cities, but the most interesting places are those less frequented.”

“Your ancestors were country hicks on both sides. They must have been afraid of tall buildings,” she said.

“It’s important to visit places that carry the spirit of your cultural identity,” I retorted.

Dr. Sullivan sighed and went to the computer. As publisher of most of my poetry writings, she keeps a file of photos that appear on the covers of my books, so I knew why she had sought out her computer. 

Pandora C. Runnels Greenlaw

“It’s under Sifting Red Dirt,” I instructed, and before I could continue, she brought up the photo that had been the model for Karen’s glass piece. “Just think about how arresting that frozen red dirt will be on another cover.” I began to recite the first few verses of “Pandora’s Legacy” (That was great-grandmother’s name, but she shortened it to Dora. As far as my family knows, she was pure-dee redneck, but whence the name “Pandora”??)


Great Grandmother Dora Runnels
planted her feet in red dirt,
her happiness, not of this earth;
in barren places among soughing pines
she rode a path to martyrdom,
her boots making snail tracks in dust,
the traveling feet of a missionary,
a pilgrim marching toward Calvary.

The night I was born
she disappeared into earth
leaving me faded photographs,
the promise of another light beckoning.
She was an old woman gone mute,
puffs of red dust sifting into a grave,
the past slipping between her fingers
passing on her love, a bidding to me.

Dora Runnels knew her way
through red clay hills,
remote light guiding her,
narrow rails through empty towns.
Her life, now a silent movie reel
out of focus, slowly unwinds
each time I pass red mounds
and fallen needles…”

There are five more verses to this elegy, and as I re-read it, I pencil in “Flora” on my wander list, knowing that I may not be lingering in New Iberia beyond November before taking a trip. As I quoted in the epigram of Sifting Red Dirt: “As though memory/were a large orchestra/without a repertoire/till it began.” Erratic Facts, Kay Ryan

Saturday, October 20, 2018


A copy of Pinyon Publishing’s latest publication, Between Question and Answer, Selected Poems of Ute von Funcke (translated from the German by Stuart Friebert) was in my mailbox upon my return to New Iberia, Louisiana two days ago. I placed it on my bedside table, knowing that a review of this book of poetry would require quiet reading time as it reflects the author’s deep interest in philosophy, psychology, and mythical writing. I don’t think that I can offer a more profound review than the one Christiane Wyrwa achieves in the Introduction to this volume, but I feel the power of the poetry demands many readers’ voices acknowledging Ute von Funcke’s artistry and Friebert’s expert translations.

Between Question and Answer includes selections from four of Ute von Funcke’s books of poetry, as well as new, unpublished poems. A poet who writes with the knowledge that poetry and politics are compatible, she is not shy about expressing man’s inhumanity to man in her work; however, she also voices hope for correcting the injustices that exist in societies worldwide. Between Question and Answer is divided into four sections of vibrant poetry and transposed into American English by Friebert who is described by reviewer Wyrwa as a translator who disproves Robert Frost’s pronouncement that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

In the first section of Between Question and Answer, the poem “Disturbing, Disrupting Incident,” impressed me with the emotional depth in the sensory, household chore of drying clothes in the outdoors. “On the clothes-line between/apple tree and summer house/fluttering forms of man and woman/many-colored almanac of the everyday/in the sun’s energy in overdrive/pants and shirts flying dolphins/memories washed by the sea/revived by drying…I like the smell/of fresh laundry/its tidings in the basket/and your blue shirt.” The poem evokes memories in readers who grew up during the era of outdoor clothes drying through such simple tableaus as the end phrase, “your blue shirt,” a “yesterday” evocation of my own childhood.

Ute von Funcke introduces the second section, “Into the Dark,” with a succinct poem entitled “Nightbook,” taking the reader into a world of terror and violence that prevailed during World War II Berlin: “Night wrote pages/day doesn’t want to read/kiss the early bird and ride/the yellow horse of daybreak/then read day/in the pages of night.” She writes of a childhood during post World War II, a time when her family sustained strict moral values and possessed a strong sense of justice — factors that influenced her postwar experiences in a country that had been under the “black flag of terror.”

In the second section I was also moved by two “homeless” poems; one about “the old man in the dense/hedgerows of the subway-jungle” and another brief one entitled “Isolated Incident": "In the act of night/the last fellow traveler/at the last terminal/I see him run in a straight line/an old fox without a burrow/behind the pillars/no air stirs/his no man’s land.” The metaphorical power in this poem presents a true picture of lost street people anywhere in the world and also elucidates Ute von Funcke’s feelings for marginalized persons.

Literary characters appear in “Other Worlds,” the third section of Between Question and Answer and expand the reader’s knowledge of ancient times; e.g. “Ulysses Returns,” is based on the Greek legend about Ulysses returning home to his wife Penelope after ten years fighting for the city of Troy: “The bed/in the olive tree/her tears on your hand, Ulysses/a bough touches/withering skin/Penelope’s breath/rests heavy on you/fog over/the late field/in the depths/of night/your doubts/lurking hyenas.” I love the stark and simple imagery in this moving poem, particularly the last verse: “your doubts/lurking hyenas.”

The fourth section, “Forget, Darling,” contains love poems, one of which suggests “Omens” that predict separation and departure of two beloveds: “She knows feathers/will grow/out of her old skin/invisible at first/the delicate plumage/wordless omens/he will see them/touch their quills/read them before her flight.” 

Rich phrasing dominates the work of this German poet, and Friebert faithfully translates the striking work of Ute von Funcke in accessible renditions of American English. Ute von Funcke lives in Munich, Germany and has taught languages, ethics, and acting at secondary schools. She has also trained adults in theatre, body work, Quigong and dance, written plays for children and has produced four volumes of poetry in German: Songs from the Furnace, Night Book, Woman Taking Flight, and In the Fissures of Time.

Stuart Friebert is the founder of the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College, Ohio, co-founded Field Magazine, the Field Translation Series, and Oberlin Press. He won the 2015 Ohioana Poetry Award and has published 15 books of poems, as well as 15 volumes of translations, anthologies, and prose.

Another mover and shaker for Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403. Kudoes Gary and Susan! 

Friday, October 19, 2018


Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience (MAX)

We stopped for an overnight in Meridian, Mississippi, Land of Red Dirt and a city near the place of my Grandfather Greenlaw’s birth in Brandon Mississippi. We were en route from Sewanee, Tennessee to New Iberia, Louisiana, and yesterday we had a mission: to see the world class MAX (Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience) newly opened in April this year. At a cost of $45 million, this center showcases the talents, past and present, of Mississippi artists in the fields of music, dance, visual arts, literature and storytelling, theatre, pottery, and other work in arts and entertainment. The MAX features innovative and interactive exhibits of notables like Willie Morris, Charley Pride, Oprah Winfrey, William Faulkner, Walter Anderson, Eudora Welty, Muddy Waters, Marty Stuart, Craig Claiborne, and many other artists and craftsmen, chefs, writers, and musicians, as well as consummate storytellers born and raised in this rich southern culture. 

As we drove into the parking lot at the MAX, I noticed an old hotel up the street that appeared to be in the stages of reconstruction and wondered if it was the Hotel Meridian where my grandfather had stayed while doing business in the automobile industry during the early 1900’s. At the desk, I asked a docent about the location of the old Hotel Meridian. “You’re standing on it,” she said. “It was demolished and this museum was built on the site.”

Manny and Melanie Mitchell of Meridian had donated the Meridian Hotel to the MAX project, and a board of directors approved the purchase of the Montana building next door to be included in the 58,000 square ft. exhibit space. The Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience contains a broadcast studio, art studio, multi-purpose area, gift shop, and an outdoor performance area and courtyard. 

The 20-yr. MAX project, from conception to completion, began with the Mississippi legislature providing seed money for an ambitious arts museum and gained momentum with major donations from the Phil Hardin Foundation and the Riley Foundation. In 2011, LPK Architects of Meridian, Canizaro Cawthon Davis of Jackson, Mississippi, and the internationally-recognized museum planning and design firm of Gallagher & Associates of Washington, D.C. formed the team that would create the remarkable museum. Other specialists who could add content from their communities in Mississippi became involved. 

The MAX is an inspiring project that has already begun to attract young people from elementary and secondary schools where they may be seen swaying to a juke joint band in an exhibit, or standing transfixed before the screen showing Horn Island and a simulated rowboat in which the artist Walter Anderson (my favorite) rowed out to the island to discover the subjects for his wildlife paintings. In 2019, the Jim Henson Exhibition entitled “Imagination Unlimited” will explore native Mississippian Henson’s work for film and television, including The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and other shows that have delighted young people.

The exhibit of Shearwater Pottery, established by Walter Anderson’s brother, Peter, in business since the 1920’s, features pottery crafted from two clay bodies: a white-bodied clay obtained from Tennessee, and a buff-bodied clay made from local Mississippi and Alabama sources. The pottery is decorated or glazed from one of Shearwater’s distinct glazes. I’ve visited this store, as well as the Walter Anderson Museum numerous times, and my birthday and Christmas gifts have included prints from the Anderson museum.

Meridian, Mississippi may not have been on a tourist’s radar prior to the construction of the MAX, but it’s worth a stopover of two or three hours browsing in this inspiring museum. Tommy Delaney, Board Chair of the MAX, has written that he feels the MAX will become the catalyst for economic growth for Meridian and Lauderdale County, Mississippi, and Meridian is now poised for serious consideration by businesses looking for quality locations.

Sunday, October 14, 2018


During my stay in Sewanee, Tennessee this year, I’ve noticed a lot of signage indicating places that lead to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Yesterday, I read  in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, Sewanee’s newspaper of note, that the TN Chapter, Trail of Tears Association and Franklin County Historical Society is sponsoring their first annual Trail of Tears walk. On October 27, the organizations will commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Bell Trail of Tears Detachment’s passage through Franklin County in 1838. Folks who’re interested in this walk will follow a 0.8 mile path on foot or horseback from the Old Cowan City Park, the original route that the detachment took, to the courthouse square in Winchester, TN.

During the 18th century, the Cherokee roamed the southern Appalachians for many years—Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, upper South Carolina and parts of Alabama, Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. However, during the early 19th century, the federal government began to search for land in the southeastern U.S. that they deemed suitable for expansion and made plans to remove the Cherokee and other so-called “civilized tribes.” The Cherokees opposed this move, and 16,000 tribal members sent a signed petition to Washington, D.C. objecting to the proposed upheaval. The famous poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a personal letter to President Martin Van Buren objecting to the plan, and Davy Crockett of Tennessee fame also voted against the removal plan.

According to Barbara Duncan, author of Living Stories of the Cherokee, the Cherokee nation had a population of 20,000 men, women, and children, boasted of a constitutional government, had its own language, and published a bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. Many members of the tribe were Christians, industrious farmers and plantation owners. No matter, the Cherokee were rounded up at gunpoint, put in stockades for months, and then began a march to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Casualties reached as high as 8,000-10,000, and at least 4,000 Cherokee died on the trail. This tragedy has been documented in the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, staged in Cherokee, North Carolina.

On a visit to Sylva, North Carolina, I discovered the aforementioned book, Living Stories of the Cherokee, which contains stories about “The Little People” of the Cherokee nation. I blogged about these tribal members called the Nunnehis whom the Cherokee refer to as “immortals.” According to one of the stories, they’re about two feet high, sometimes smaller, and are mischief making spirits, as well as protectors. Author Duncan includes a story that could spook readers: “As you’re out in the woods/you might hear something,/you might hear some music,/you might hear someone talking, and it’s the Nunnehi,/ and they’re reminding us/that they’re always with us…”

Storytelling is a strong part of the Cherokee culture, and thrives in western North Carolina; it survives in the free verse featured in Duncan’s Living Stories of the Cherokee, which makes the art attractive to me. The eastern band of Cherokee also keep their legends and myths alive by telling them in public schools and churches, at regional festivals like Mountain Heritage Day at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and at powwows throughout the region. I enjoyed the story told by the author of Living Stories who says that the legends are often full of puns and carry a moral. “For example, if a child starts bragging, at some time, either then or maybe later that day, the story about the possum losing his tail will come up,” Duncan writes —sorta’ like Pinocchio and his nose growing longer each time he lies. I wonder if the Winchester trail walkers/riders will hear a few stories or encounter any Little People along the way on October 27.

Author Barbara Duncan won the 1998 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, Western North Carolina Historical Association. She is Education Director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Cover illustration "He Tells the Creation of Our World" by Paula Maney Nelson (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) from cover of Living Stories of the Cherokee and photographed by Barbara Duncan.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


As I walked across a bridge spanning the river in Rome, Georgia recently, I looked down at waters not unlike the Bayou Teche in my hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana — they looked a bit muddy. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised because the silt from not one, but three rivers, flows through the area I crossed. The Oostanaula, Etowah, and Coosa Rivers meet in the area of downtown Rome, once center of a thriving cotton industry.

In its early formation, this town was visited by Hernando DeSoto and was occupied by Cherokee Indians who called it “Enchanted Land.” Early settlers named the city Rome after the Italian city with seven hills on the Tiber River, as the site in Georgia also boasts seven prominent hills above the city.

We had been attracted to this city while searching for a Little Theater production within a few hours’ drive of Sewanee, Tennessee, and had discovered a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland at the DeSoto Theater on Broad Street, Rome’s main thoroughfare. The play, based on Lewis Carroll’s book, was an adaptation that featured an all-youth cast. The youngest actors and actresses were fifth graders, the oldest actress was a dual-enrolled college student, and among them were talented home schoolers.

Lindsey Chambers, director of the production, instructed this group in a master’s class that featured vocal work, diction, volume, character development, and intense script analysis, and the students rehearsed three months for their parts. Rylee Barfield as the Mad Hatter, became my favorite. Prior to the performance, I had read an article about the references to drugs in Alice in Wonderland, purporting that Lewis Carroll had been an opium addict, but I suppose highly imaginative authors who create fantastical characters in other-world settings frequently get bad press. Readers of Carroll’s world who allude to him as a drug user probably wouldn’t have liked the cover of the Rome performance: “We Are All Mad Here.”

Rome’s largest contribution to American education, from the 18th century to present-day, remains Berry College, an institution made famous by Martha Berry, a wealthy planter’s daughter who began to teach indigent children in her playhouse cabin near her home, and whose efforts resulted in a Boys Industrial School and the Martha Berry School for Girls. Later, with contributions from Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, the Berry Junior College was established and expanded into a four year institution. Today, Berry College is the largest landmass college in the world with over 28,000 acres and 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

I was amused at a story in a Rome visitor’s guide about the Captoline Wolf, a bronze statue of a wolf reputed to have been a gift to the City of Rome from Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, which has been correctly identified as a gift from Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, the governor of Rome, Italy. Copies of the original, located in Rome, Italy are also found in Rome, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; Brasilia, Brazil; and other sites around the world.

We photographed a statue of Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Ellen, who spent her childhood in Rome, Georgia and set up a scholarship at Berry College for underprivileged mountain children. During her years as First Lady, Ellen laid out the famous Rose Garden at the White House and wrote a bill to better the living conditions for slum areas around Washington DC. She is buried at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome.

A list of notables who lived in Rome includes a literary find for me: Calder Willingham, Jr. I was browsing in Dogwood Books and Antiques on Broad Street and discovered a display of this author who lived in Rome and whose father owned a hotel on Broad Street. Willingham was once dubbed the father of contemporary dark comedy and was well-known among postwar novelists such as Norman Mailer, James Jones, Truman Capote who were important in the literary scene of Greenwich Village.

I had never read any of Willingham's work, but I picked up a copy of The Girl in Dogwood Cabin and began to read it. Last night I watched “Rambling Rose,” the movie script Willingham wrote for one of his novels. He was widely recognized for his work on the script for “The Graduate” also, and his novel, Eternal Fire, set in his native Rome, Georgia, established him as a major writer. Shelby Foote hailed him as “the only living American writer qualified to hold Doestoevsky’s coat in a street fight.”  Sadly, Willingham is now regarded as an under-sung American novelist and screen writer whose works are mostly found in rare and second-hand bookstores. 

Rome has also become a mecca for national industries such as Mohawk, Sara Lee, Kellogg, Suzuki and other commercial businesses. It’s another one of Georgia’s small cities that has preserved its heritage, particularly the buildings on Broad Street that are painted the colors of buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana: bright yellow, green, pink, lavender colors that accentuate the beautiful 19th century architecture.

P.S. It’s an ideal sized city with a population that equals my hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana.

Monday, October 1, 2018


Print of Frances Perea painting, The Storyteller

Yesterday afternoon amidst a cloud of family problems, delivered via telephone, I escaped to one of my usual refuges in Cowan, Tennessee — The Artisan Depot Gallery, an arts and crafts center sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Guild. It’s a small gallery facing the highway leading to Winchester, Tennessee and has the kind of atmosphere that uplifts me. The Guild provides artists in Tennessee a venue for their work in downtown Cowan and is run by members who volunteer their time to keep this gallery open. Those members organize shows and work to promote art education, including scholarships for budding artists and workshops for artists of all ages. 

Frances Perea is one of my favorite artists who exhibits her work at the gallery, and I was drawn to a wall where her "Santos" (saints) works hung. Perea was inspired by the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, and creates a variety of art that includes collage, mixed media, folk art, digital art, recycled art, and jewelry. She calls Frida Kahlo her "muse;" and a fellow member of the Artisan Depot says Perea was raised Roman Catholic, and the influence is portrayed through her Santos. She's also inspired by Latin American folk artists. One of her art shows at the Artisan Depot featured Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a traditional Mexican celebration that takes place in November and honors the spirits of the dead by inviting them to visit on that day.

I bought a happier picture, in which Perea "channeled" Kahlo’s spirit entitled "Story Teller." I stood before the work several times, absorbing the fun and light-heartedness of the rendering. It was bright, colorful, and representative of a playful spirit — just the qualities I needed to absorb. Perea keeps the originals of her work and sells only prints, along with pottery and furniture decorated with her designs.

Section of Silk Scarf created by Christi Teasley

I moved through the gallery leisurely and found a wall of silk scarves made by Christi Teasley, a Monteagle, Tennessee artist and textile creator. The scarves were products of a process called contact printing, eco-wrapping, eco-bundling, or eco-printing after an Australian artist, India Flint. The scarf that I purchased was dyed with onion, avocado pit, Japanese maple, string, alum, and iron mordant in which plants and cloth are heated, a fascinating technique also called "natural mark making" with plants on cloth. Teasley is an artist/educator who discovered the process of printing fabric as a high school student at St. Andrews Sewanee school. She continued her studies in textile dyeing at Rhode Island School of Design. She taught art at St. Andrews for many years and now teaches natural mark-making on cloth with plants at Shakerag Workshops (Sewanee) and operates Teasley Textiles, a textile design studio in Monteagle where she specializes in cloth created with ecologically-sustainable methods.

Miniature painted on rock by Diana L. Lamb

Diana L. Lamb, a member of the Artisan Depot Gallery, acted as a docent while I was browsing, and before I left, I couldn’t resist buying one of the rocks with miniature design on it that she creates. "I'm buying this," I told her, "because I admired the miniature art created by Irani artists when I lived in Iran." Lamb calls herself a craftsman, rather than an artist, but I chided her just as she had chided me when I said I wasn’t an artist. "What are you then?" she asked. "I'm a poet." She laughed and declared, "Then you’re an artist." Only one piece of Diana’s rock art had been displayed, or I probably would have bought a boxful. 

By the time I left the Artisan’s Depot, I had three pieces of art in hand, was considerably cheered, and found myself quoting a famous comment by Frida Kahlo that Frances Perea loves: "Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away."