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June 22, 2012

MFA in writing residency brings author readings to Pacific University. One more reading is available tonight. 

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Today marks the final day of the summer residency of Pacific’s master of fine arts (MFA) in writing program, which has brought more than 100 aspiring poets and authors, along with a host of published writers serving as faculty members, to the Forest Grove campus.

The students and teachers have spent the 10 (reportedly-feels-like-40) days engaged in craft talks, classes, discussions and writing exercises. And, as a fabulous side benefit for the rest of us, throughout the last week and a half, the faculty authors also have been presenting public readings of their work. Most of the readings have been in the evenings, precluding my attendance, but I lucked out and caught an afternoon event today.

There’s one more reading this evening at 7:30 p.m. in the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center, so if you have a chance, stop by to hear Claire Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

For my part, I heard Kellie Wells, Sandra Alcosser and Debra Gwartney read today.

Wells read—unexpectedly—from her forthcoming novel Fat Girl, Terrestrial, which releases in September. She shared the first chapter of the story, which is a first-person account of Wallace Armstrong, a giantess measuring 8-foot-11-1/2-inches and 490 pounds. She’s a crime scene miniaturizer—that part is based on a real woman—who longs to be vulnerable, as perhaps a woman of more average size might be.

The opening chapter finds Wallace post-mugging, in which she discovers that the pepper-spray she used to defend herself has killed her asthmatic attacker. (“What kind of felonious future can there be for a man who can’t leave home without his inhaler,” Wallace wonders, upon learning of the mugger’s death.) She turns herself in and deals with the skeptical almost-mockery of a Kansas cop, who craves an edgier underbelly in his quiet community. (“The same of the nation rarely comes to Kansas.”)

Wallace is a bit sarcastic, on the surface shrugging off the world’s view of her as less than feminine, but still suffering an undercurrent of wishing to be someone else. Wells’ voice in reading the parts added a bonus to the early introductions of the characters, but I doubt they would be necessary—the words alone seem to convey clear images of these folks. I look forward to picking up the novel and seeing where the story goes this fall.

Poet Alcosser, next, said that she asked to read between the two novelists as “the sorbet, the palette-cleanser, the cream cheese, between these two.”

Though I think sorbet might have melted in proximity to her sultry language.

Alcosser’s tempo and cadence imbibed passion into her poems; poems that ranged, on their surface, from odes to winter firewood, a visit to New Orleans, cymbals of the Turkish empire or the rescue of ducks.

I admit, I hadn’t read Alcosser’s work before—I’m probably incredibly spoiled to be introduced to it with her own interpretation—but I have no doubt that her poetry would be as provocative on paper as in person. This line, from the poem Café Dolce and referring to Vincent Van Gogh, stuck with me particularly (though I apologize because, having listened to and not read it, I’m not sure how to punctuate it): “He tried to flame our hair with halos for this wilderness we wear like hope.”

Finally, Debra Gwartney (who I have read and whose memoir I wrote about here) read some of her as-of-yet unpublished writing. She wrote of her emotionally-distant father’s accident on a horse, and of her own struggles to come to grips with their stilted relationship as he lay in the ICU.

Gwartney is a master of unveiling her own mind and heart, of seeping her emotions into the page to leak into the reader’s skin. Periodically painful, it’s that evocation that will have me picking up her next book.

While Live Through This weighed heavily on my shoulders and ended with only a sliver of closure, though, today’s story came with a poignant and satisfying ending: her father survives and she learns.

If her father was the man she sometimes wished he could be, a man who said “I love you” easily or took her to lunch “just because,” he may not have been the man with the fortitude to survive an accident that, literally, crushed him.

My eyes—and, I think, Gwartney’s too—were misty by the time she read the closing line: “Each of us only gets one father, and this man who’d survived the impossible is mine."