Monday, December 6, 2010
Growing up in Monroe, Louisiana, the power company was Louisiana Power & Light or LP&L (now Entergy), and LP&L trucks and billboards were commonplace. So when I first went to college all the way across the country in Moscow, Idaho, I was more than a little surprised to spot this book called Louisiana Power & Light by John Dufresne (Norton, 1994) in a used bookstore. Young and far from home, I was struck and intrigued by a title so familiar it was almost comforting. I should have bought it, but for whatever reason didn't, and yet I kept thinking about it and finally went back to get it, only to find it was gone.
What I didn't know at the time was that it was a novel set in Monroe and that our church secretary and her husband even made an appearance in its Prologue: "You should read this story with your eyes closed. You're out on Herb and Marilea Bryant's front porch, let's say, and it's dusk." I later ended up working for Herb Bryant* one semester (in 1997, I think) as a student worker in the English Department at the University of Louisiana Monroe, during which time John Dufresne visited (from Florida International University) and gave a lecture and Q&A that I attended with excitement. I asked him whether it was more difficult to write short stories or novels, and he said short stories, because you still have to have everything all worked out in your head - characters, place, plot, etc - but you don't have pages and pages to develop it.
At the time, I read his collection of stories, The Way That Water Enters Stone (Norton, 1991), but I never really read Louisiana Power & Light until now, living in Fayetteville, Arkansas - where he happened to do his MFA in creative writing here at the University of Arkansas (graduating in 1984). What led me to revisit Dufresne now was a friend in Monroe who mentioned on Facebook "two great weeks in the winding-down of [his] last semester. Highlights: a poetry reading by Jack Heflin (Local Hope) and another poetry reading by Davis McCombs (Dismal Rock)." I audited a creative writing course taught by Heflin back in the day, so I was naturally interested in his new book and, looking it up, saw a blurb for it by John Dufresne. (And strangely enough on the other poetry reading my friend mentioned by Davis McCombs... he currently directs the creative writing program here at Arkansas.)
A few weeks ago, another friend (whom I got to know in Idaho and who now lives in Florida, where he teaches high school and writes fiction) asked on Facebook, "What is the most generous, life-affirming poem of all time?" My first thought was Donne's "Death be not proud," but I knew there had to be a better answer, and I Googled generous+life-affirming+poem for more ideas, which led me to a volume of poetry called Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (edited by Neil Astley; Bloodaxe, 2002; Miramax, 2003). Reading through its table of contents and looking for poems that jumped out at me, a couple poem titles by R.S. Thomas caught my eye. I looked up R.S. Thomas and learned that he was not only a celebrated Welsh poet (1913-2000) but also an Anglican priest, and what little of his work I found online made me want to read more. So I searched for him in the public library last week and found one volume, Poems of R. S. Thomas, published - of all places - by the University of Arkansas Press (1985) here in Fayetteville.
* Incidentally, Herb Bryant was also a Lay Eucharistic Minister and Lay Reader at St Thomas Episcopal Church, which I later attended for a bit in 2005, with spiritual direction from Father Errol Montgomery (now Pastor Errol, having returned to his Lutheran-Missouri Synod roots).
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