Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Converse MFA Residency Wrap-Up: Poetry and Pork Rinds

I had a wonderful time down in South Carolina teaching in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program. Sadly, it wasn’t much warmer down there than it was up here—it was strange to see people who had been wearing sundresses last time I saw them now swathed in parkas. Here are some of the highlights, starting with, of course, FOOD:

Unfortunately, there weren’t many food highlights in Spartanburg itself. Even the Converse cafeteria wasn’t as memorable as last year’s experience (though I did have pad Thai made to order, and there was a certain charm to “fried ravioli,” which were simply mozzarella sticks in a different shape). The schedule was more condensed than last summer, so I didn’t get the chance to head to the Beacon Drive-In for a fried pimiento cheese a’plenty.

An exception to the scarcity of great food in Spartanburg was the breakfast I got every day at the Inn on Main, the lovely 1904 B&B where the faculty got to stay (better than a dorm room, for sure!). The sideboard groaned with food every morning, and I groaned, too, as I stood up after making my way through such delights as sausage casserole, crème brulee French toast, the best quiche I’ve had, eggs benedict, bacon, muffins, fruit, and, of course, grits. (It was probably fitting that I stayed in the food-related Peach Room!)

And I found some good spots in North Carolina, on the drive back home:

--Cook Out, a small NC-based burger chain that has 40 different flavors of milkshakes and quick burgers that taste like real burgers

--Biscuitville, another NC-based chain that serves amazing biscuits with sausage, gravy, bacon, fried bologna, grits, hash browns, etc. I wasn’t very hungry (see below for reason why), so I tried only the sausage biscuit and highly recommend it.

--Watts Grocery, a fabulous restaurant that my sister selected in Durham. I had a nicely made Sazerac, shrimp and grit-cakes, fried catfish (that was perfectly fried, crisp and hot without a hint of grease). Even though I was stuffed, I couldn’t pass up the caramel cake for dessert: four layers and lots of frosting!

--I also stopped in a regular grocery store in Durham and bought some bulk breakfast sausage to take home for Steve. We haven’t had any yet, but there’s a drawing of an old-fashioned farm on the paper wrapper, so I have high hopes. I was disappointed that there were no regional potato chips in the snack food aisle, though, which was shocking. I also noted the very large mayonnaise section: Five shelves, about six feet wide…all different types of mayo and mayo-like products.

--To compensate for the lack of grocery store potato chips, I stopped at a charming truck stop just over the border in VA and bought some samples of Tom’s Chips, from GA. And I decided it was time to give pork rinds one more try, especially since there was an entire section of them here, about the size of the grocery store mayo section. I haven’t been brave enough to open the (small) bag yet, but I guess it’s a sign of quality that the “rinds” are still “attached.”

The lectures and readings I attended were top-notch, and I hesitate to name names…so I’ll give just a few:

--Albert Goldbarth gave a great talk about adding more poetry to your prose writing, using as an example a lovely essay by Bernard Cooper called “By Any Other Name.” The talk was amazing, and so was the sight of Albert—who won’t even use email!—reading a poem off the internet on someone’s phone.

--Later that day, MFA director Rick Mulkey spoke about the music of poetry and various uses of language, adding to an already exciting day of thinking about my own prose from a new perspective.

--I co-taught the fiction workshop with R.T. Smith, who also gave an excellent lecture about the importance of place in fiction.

--Tim McKee, the managing editor of The Sun magazine, visited and explained what type of writing makes the cut at The Sun. Instead of being discouraging, his list of dos and don’ts was exhilarating, reminding us all of how engaging great work truly is.

I got to catch up with the students I’d been mentoring all semester—who have made excellent progress, thanks to their hard work—and meet the new students for this semester and help them plan their reading lists, which was fun. The student readings were another highlight…some really wonderful stuff!

We had one afternoon free, and my friend and I spontaneously ended up at the mall (where I bought a Jackie Kennedy-style coat that is utterly adorable but not even remotely warm—half-price!). We then went to a middle eastern restaurant for coffee and superb baklava, and two hours later, ensconced in the big, comfy chairs, talked about going to dinner…and realized we were already at a restaurant! So we ordered some dinner food and didn’t leave for another couple of hours.

I was struck by how everyone south of Richmond was SO nice, even when I was complaining about something. Literally, only one person (okay, besides me) was short and rude, and as he drove off, we noticed his New Jersey tags. I will try to take these customs of civility into my own land and see what happens.

And I have to close by citing a few lines from the stanzas that R.T. Smith read at the conclusion of our fiction workshop, Audubon, a Vision, by Robert Penn Warren, which was the most lovely way to head back out into the world (I wish I had the full stanzas and Rod’s distinctive voice to give the full effect):

The name of the story will be Time
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

(This site gives a quick gloss on the book-length poem, which I really want to read.)

I'm already looking forward to June's residency...and June's weather.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.