Thursday, June 17, 2010

Report from South Carolina

The MFA residency at Converse College already seems like a million years ago, even though while I was there I pretty much forgot everything about my regular life back here (grocery shopping? what’s that?). Here are a few highlights from my 10 days in Spartanburg, SC:

--The crop of new fiction students. Of course the old crop was pretty darn fine, but it was wonderful to have some new faces and get to see their work. They were all energetic and eager to learn; several of them were brave enough to read at the student reading, doing our genre proud! Our class developed a good vibe, perhaps because we spent the first three days on craft discussions rather than jumping straight into the critiques (“Hi, nice to meet you—now let me tell you everything that’s wrong with your story.”). It was fun to teach with Marlin Barton, too, whose Alabama accent made every comment about writing seem as though it were coming straight from Faulkner. The best class is the one in which I come away inspired, and this was definitely one of those.

--Claudia Emerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was our keynote reader/speaker. Her opening night reading was moving and beautiful and evocative and sad…and to top it off, she and her husband sang a funny, sharp ballad at the end of the reading, proving that poetry literally does equal music. I bought her book Late Wife, and read half of it during our “rest day.” Intense and amazing: poems about a painful marriage and subsequent divorce and poems about the death of her second husband’s first wife (before she knew him).

--Fried oysters. You knew it wouldn’t take long before some food showed up, right? This trip was a little less food-intensive than some, but I do have to make a special plea that if you’re in Greenville, SC, the fried oysters at High Cotton are AMAZING. Even my non-oyster-loving friend writer Susan Tekulve was convinced…I had ordered the appetizer saying, “We can share,” secretly pleased when she said she didn’t much like oysters and would maybe try one…and then after she tried her “one,” we truly did “share.” But that actually made me happy, too, watching someone discover the joy of oysters…probably almost as happy as if I’d eaten the whole plate myself. [Note: There’s a branch of this restaurant in Charleston, SC, too.]

--Fat Tire beer. I don’t typically care about beer, but the crowd was ordering beer, and so I glommed on. This beer from Colorado is worth remembering. (If only I’d known about it way back when at AWP in Denver!)

--Poet Sarah Kennedy’s reading. Sarah is on the Converse College faculty and I have heard her read several times and have been totally impressed. For this reading, though, Sarah read from her earlier books, Consider the Lilies and Double Exposure, incredibly dark and sharp poems about family estrangement that made me want to sob and leave the room and yet also not miss one word. I bought both of these books immediately—honestly, right out of her very hand, with the torn scraps of paper bookmarkers still in them—and read the first half of Consider the Lilies on the “rest day.” Wow.

--Am I allowed to say my own reading? I say that because I got to read with the inspiring Dan Wakefield (whose memoir New York in the Fifties is awesome), and it was a treat to hear a section of his new memoir and a humbling honor for me to listen to him announce to everyone that my craft lecture had inspired his work-in-progress in a specific and dramatic way. Afterwards, a group of us sat around late into the night and swapped those kinds of stories about other writers and ourselves that you would never dare put into writing on a public blog. An amazing night, plus I liked the dress I wore, too!

--The farmer’s market in Durham, NC. I stayed overnight there to visit my sister, and she took me to the Saturday market, where I drooled over beautiful beets and leeks (not even the glamour vegetables, and they were amazing!) and blackberries about the size of golf balls, sold by the bucketful.

Honestly, this is only a teeny-tiny taste of the whole marvelous and overwhelmingly intense experience—as they say, wish you were there!


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