by Mary Popham (Contributor)
While not all readers are writers, all writers read. It’s part of every interview to ask, “Whose work has influenced you? Which books do you read as guides for your own writing? What authors do you admire?”
During Spalding University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program, I had assignments—opportunities—to study the writings of those who had successfully put their words onto the page and into libraries. Surely I have by now—through the program, and with years of reading before and after those semesters—gathered to mind my literary heroes; those whose work stands out, that I hold in high esteem, and from whom I continue to learn.
Sena Jeter Naslund, co-founded and is the program director of Spalding’s brief-residency program from which I graduated in 2003. She has recently retired as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville, where she also taught me fiction in the ‘70s.
For many years I have been taught by Sena, and I’ve written articles and book reviews about her and her work for various publications. I have considerable admiration for her as a person, for her work habits, and talent, especially her goal of effecting change where she sees it’s needed. She also guides others to their own successful careers.
Sena describes a moment in her childhood when she discovered how writing can transport a reader. In her essay, “A Life in Literature,” from the book This I Believe: Kentucky, edited by Dan Gediman and Mary Jo Gediman, copyright ©2013 by This I Believe, Inc., she says, “One very hot summer day in Birmingham (no air conditioning), while reading, I realized I was shivering with cold. I had become caught up in a Laura Ingalls Wilder description of a blizzard. How is this possible? I asked myself, and the answer came immediately. It’s these words. Just these words have made me feel cold. Full of wonder and admiration for Laura’s writing, I thought, I’d like to be able to do that someday.”
Sena draws on that early lesson and teaches it in class and by example. Noting that the literary canon has few female heroines for young girls to emulate, she created Uma, the wife of the great whale hunter in Ahab’s Wife. In the companion book to Moby Dick, Uma is an adventurous, courageous woman, who is not only a comparable helpmeet for the whaler, she also influences our culture with her actions for racial justice, as shown in sections of her assisting a runaway slave. Sena supports other feminine accomplishments as she writes of Uma’s friendships with astronomer Maria Mitchell, and the American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement, Margaret Fuller.
In Four Spirits, Sena examines the lives of whites, blacks, racists, and civil rights activists to illuminate the social turbulence during the 1963 bombing deaths of four little girls in Birmingham. Her extensive research led to the story of a queen in Abundance: a Novel of Marie Antoinette. This novel illustrates that sometimes history does not have a clear picture of the truth, and therefore leads to misinformation about certain figures—as surely happened with the Queen of France during the French Revolution. Adam & Eve gives the reader an inclusive look at many forms of religion, and Sena’s latest book, The Fountain of St. James Court; or Portrait of the Artist as An Old Woman, parallels the lives of two artistic women: a modern day writer who lives in St. James Court in Louisville, and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun—famous portrait artist who lived in the time of the French Revolution. Sena explores the questions of aging, how it affects creativity and general awareness of and satisfaction with life goals.
Sena also has literary heroes. From an early age she found Dickens to be a transporting writer with word rhythm—she “relished the roll of his sentences, his many clauses.” Virginia Woolf— and her writing in stream of consciousness, especially in To the Lighthouse—is a liberating influence, so is Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O’Connor—and her “ . . . humor and sense of dialogue.” Sena is also impacted by Faulkner and contemporary writers like Jane Smiley, especially her Ordinary Love and Goodwill; Maura Stanton; Stewart Dybek; and Richard Yates.
In Sena’s short stories, novels, lectures, workshops and reading tours, she lives the lessons she teaches.
Another literary hero of mine is a fascinating teacher who devotes her talents not only to putting her own thoughts, memories, and conclusions on paper, she also takes her methods into the world of teaching—George Ella Lyon. I have studied much of her work and it would be an accomplishment to ever read it all as she has an amazing list of more than forty titles!
George Ella’s book of poetry, “Many-Storied House,” is a teaching tool. She proposed to one of her classes to jump-start their writing by concentrating on a particular memory inspired from a spot in a home where they’ve once lived. She suggested that they draw a floor plan of the house and mentally go through each room, making note of the thoughts that come to them.
While working on that assignment herself, George Ella realized how many incidents were coming back from her family’s lives in the sixty-eight-year story of the house that her grandfather built and where her mother had died.
A particular favorite of mine in this book is a poem from the section “Library.” It is specific with small, simple details, gives insight into her parents’ relationship, and makes it clear how easy it is to write a worthy poem from the memory of a room.
My mother decided
my father never noticed
anything in the house.
To prove her point, she
bought a packet of the plastic
clay you use to hang posters
and stuck a few items
on the library wall
above the couch: a match
box, Wite-Out, a Kleenex
things. He said nothing.
“See?” she told me, and stuck
up an artificial rose
and nail scissors. No
she said, adding Scotch Tape,
pipe cleaners, brush rollers,
one of the coin purses
the cleaners gave away.
Daddy just walked to his chair
every night, dozing off
halfway through the news.
Finally, when the wall looked
as though the plaster had
broken out in junk, Mother
took it all down. “It’s
hopeless,” she told me.
But that night, Daddy said,
“You know, I usually
like the way you decorate
but that didn’t look
From the book Many-Storied House copyright ©2013 by George Ella Lyon. Published by the University Press of Kentucky.
As an award-winning and much published author, George Ella remains an activist for the rights of women, children, and minorities, and for the conservation of our land. She gives of herself in her actions, especially in mountaintop removal protest, as well as in her writing, portraying characters from the inside out. Her generosity of letting others know how she performs this miracle makes her a literary hero of mine.
Another poet who writes story poems and who seems to channel his characters is a fellow alumnus in the first class of Spalding’s MFA in Writing program, Frank X Walker. Before that, but soon after my retirement from the G. E. Company after thirty years of mostly customer service, I signed up for a poetry seminar just to meet Frank. While he was already a published poet, I was still pursuing dreams of writing fiction. To date, a summary of his work, accomplishments and awards is staggering: publications, lectures, teaching, editing, arts administration, and a multitude of duties as current Kentucky Poet Laureate.
Two of Frank’s books published by the University Press of Kentucky are about a slave who was the body servant of William Clark, and was taken on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804. With an otherworldly ability to enter the mind of his protagonist, Frank wrote Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York, 2004, and its sequel When Winter Come: the Ascension of York, 2008. In preparation, Frank did historical research by digging into archives for anything relating to York; making his own northwest excursion following the Lewis and Clark Trail; visiting and interviewing members of the Nez Perce nation; and even sat in their sweat lodge. He managed to immerse himself into his characters “to re-enter the space these poems come from.” The poems range from the points of view of several.
York speaks in “Role Call”
To hear hero makers tell it
on the great expedition but captains.
An them always mentions Seaman
Capt. Lewis’s dog
before them remembers me.
In “Art of Seduction,” York’s Nez Perce wife says, “I know a hungry man’s eye can undress a woman/ from across a smoldering fire, because York did it.
York’s slave wife speaks in “Unwelcome Guest.” When her husband returns, she has to confront or accept what has happened.
I don’t think York knowed
I could see hur too.
Da furst time was in da corna a his eye
while he look far off but stare at
da plate right in front a him.
Frank’s poems also go into the heads of Sacagawea, the river, York’s hunting shirt, his hatchet, as well as the psyches of other people and objects. His talent, accompanied by research and work, renders the raw honesty onto the page in words his characters would have spoken.
It is through reading talented writers like Sena, George Ella and Frank that a writer gauges her own efforts. I have many literary heroes whose path I long to follow. I see their publications, their teachings, and their sharing of talents with others and it gives me new incentive to search their work and bios so that I may in some way do the same.
Mary Popham’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and book reviews have appeared in the Courier-Journal; Appalachian Heritage and The Louisville Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University. In November, 2013 her essay “The Kindnesses We Give Each Other” was published in This I Believe: Kentucky; and in October 2013, her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks. She is currently writing a collection of short fiction.