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What resonates: Skidmore, part 1

July 22, 2009

I’m a terrible note-taker now, although I used to be a diligent student, the one whose notes you coveted after class. I used to capture it all. These days, I only jot down what resonates with me, and when nothing seduces me, I doodle — or make notes about poems I’d like to write. And I fidget. It’s difficult for me to sit still.

It’s amazing I get anything at all out of readings and lectures.

While Jill waits patiently (?) for me to type up my notes from Tin House, I am going to report, first, in a most un-academic way, on my listening experiences at Skidmore College, which hosts the June-July New York State Summer Writers Institute.

One of the most delightful traditions of the public readings offered through the Summer Writers Institute (I’ve lived here for 15 years: why is this the first time I’ve attended?) is that authors read primarily works-in-progress or new work that hasn’t been released yet. One of the most exciting parts of the series is that the lecture hall fills beyond its capacity most evenings.

July 21 / Last night, Jill and I had the pleasure of hearing William Kennedy (a Pulitzer Prize-winning author local to our area and the founder of the NYS Writers Institute) read this tribute to Frank McCourt, whom he knew as a friend for many years. The two men met at “The First Friday Club,” a literary gathering in Albany, which Kennedy says “had been formed to promote mid-day drinking.”

The featured poet was Chase Twichell, author of many collections (most recently Dog Language). Who couldn’t love a poet with such a devotion to dogs, who admits her forthcoming book (a “new and selected” collection from which she read some of the “new”) was so overrun with dog poems that she had to take some out?

It’s easy to imagine Twichell more comfortable lying on the floor with a dog (as she was in a poem she read) than standing behind a microphone at a podium. Sometimes awkward (though tall, thin and beautiful) and reserved, she was able still to convey through her poems a fascination with how experiences transport her body and mind. While no single poem blew me away (I get the sense that they require a slower, more meditative and private reading, as when one gets lost with a book while snuggling with her dog), several lines and images knocked me over: “Poetry’s absurd, like building a bird cage out of birds” and “proof that even a kiss disintegrates,” for example.

The featured fiction writer was Russell Banks who read to us from a novel-in-progress, The Lost Memory of Skin, which he said he was reading aloud for the first time. He also said we were the novel’s first-ever audience, that even his wife hadn’t read it yet.

His wife, by the way, is Chase Twichell.

I didn’t know this fact last night. Prior to reading, Twichell sat with her arm around a handsome white-haired gentleman I assumed to be her husband (I didn’t know the man was Russell Banks). While she read, he watched her so adoringly and with such pleasure. I pointed out to Jill how Twichell’s husband seemed to love her words unabashedly. It’s not a surprise that Jill and I would be moved by this; we fantasize often (all the time) about men who might lust after our poetry.

When Twichell finished reading, the MC introduced Russell Banks, and the man who’d been listening so intently to Twichell took the podium. I decided the man couldn’t be her husband. They were just fellow readers extending to one another the courtesy of good listening. I explained her arm around his shoulder as an expression of the affection (worship, exuberance, etc.) we writers have for one another.

Only today, researching links for this post, did I discover Twichell and Banks are, in fact, husband and wife. Overshadowing the fact that I am a boob, ignorant of literary things I should know, is an intense envy. Sharing a house, a bed, a writing life with another writer! There are famous instances, of course, where writer couples can’t tolerate each other for long and the marriages implode, but last night at Skidmore, it was clear the admiration between these two thrives.

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2 Comments
  1. July 22, 2009 1:32 pm

    You got to see Twichell? Christ, I have such a crush on her 🙂

    (A chaste, literary crush on her poetry, I mean, of course. Being the ethereal sort I am.)

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