Friday, June 14, 2013

Catching Waaaay Up: Converse Low-Residency MFA and Asheville, NC

Hmmm…I can barely remember the beginning of this most recent road trip to the Converse MFA program in South Carolina (and I’m already thinking ahead to the next venture, The Hambidge Center in Georgia in July), but surely I can scrape together a few quick notes:

--It all started with an amazing artisan pizza in Durham, NC, at Pizzeria Toro with my sister and her partner, Tanya Olson, celebrating the publication of her new book of poetry, Boyishly, which opens with one of the most haunting poems I’ve ever read.  I also had a great drink: a spicy mix of rye and the infamous hot ginger ale made by Blenheim’s.  

--And it seems impossible for me to spend the night in Durham without stopping at Biscuitville.  I was lured in by the new pimento-cheese & bacon biscuit, but I would recommend sticking with the basics:  sausage biscuit, hash browns, sweet tea.

--Despite the fortification of that excellent breakfast, I had to stop for lunch at Jimmy’s in Lexington, NC, for a “tiny” plate of chopped barbecue.  “Only give me a few hush puppies,” I begged, and luckily they translated a “few” to mean five, all of which I ate.  Oh, and that vinegar-based cole slaw didn’t stand a chance either.

--Working some health into the picture, I stopped at Abbott’s in Gaffney for a bag of peaches.  Inhaling the overwhelming perfume, I couldn’t help but sigh, “Ohhhhh, this smells so fabulous,” which inspired the teenage boy behind the counter to note, “First peaches of the season, ma’am,” and they were INCREDIBLE! Lovely to start each morning with peach juice dribbling down my arms into the dorm sink…and then walk to the cafeteria for more breakfast (biscuits and gravy day the definite highlight!).

--Okay, I was in Spartanburg to teach, not only to eat, and I was very pleased with the fiction workshop.  My co-teacher, Marlin (Bart) Barton, was as brilliant as ever, and with our class composed entirely of third and fourth semester students, I felt we discussed the work under review with a great deal of perception and insight.  I was pleased to introduce them to my collage exercises, and the results from their homework collages were really artful and surprising.  So—smart students and a very smart class!  I was sad to say goodbye on the last day, especially knowing that for many of them, this was their last workshop at Converse.

--My craft lecture was about the difference between writing short stories and novels, and I used The Great Gatsby as my model of the well-structured novel, and it’s always a joy to talk about that book.  I had seen the movie two days before heading to SC, so I felt prepared for all questions! 

--So many stunning readings, so I hate to single any out in particular, but I’m afraid I must note that our visiting poets/editors (and husband/wife) Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph set a new standard for what one might expect from a reading.  It’s a cliché, but truly: I laughed, I cried.  I think everyone in the room felt as though we were at An Event.  Jon and Allison shared new work and old favorites; the between-poem-patter was illuminating rather than distracting; the flow of work crescendoed beautifully; both were excellent readers; and both exuded personal intimacy and affection—for each other, for writing, for the audience—that I found moving.  Oh, and lots and lots of poems about food!  A wonderful evening.

--Two of our fabulous faculty read from new, hot-off-the-presses books:  Susan Tekulve from her novel, In the Garden of Stone, and Denise Duhamel from a book of poems, Blowout.  I’ve already read most of Blowout, which is amazing (you can read a sample here), and In the Garden of Stone will be my treat when I’m on residency in Georgia next month.

--I have a 40-page story that I spent more than a year working on, that I’m very proud of.  On the other hand, what can one do with a 40-page story?  So I decided to read from it at my reading.  How happy I was to share at least that little bit of it with a corner of the world and a wonderful audience.  And such an honor for me to read with the director of the MFA program, Rick Mulkey, who shared some exciting new poems he wrote while on sabbatical last fall.

--No cornbread salad in the dining hall, but we had lemon squares on more than one occasion.  And the key lime pie was excellent, too!  (Someone in the kitchen really understands “tart.”)

--Our visiting agent, Melissa Sarver from Folio Literary Management, was smart and generous with her time and offered interesting observations on the publishing biz.  She was also hopeful, mentioning a resurgence of interest in short story collections!

--After the residency, I met up with Steve in Asheville, NC, where he was at the tail end of a business meeting.  This will sound like such a hard life, but I joined him at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate, which is, simply put, a beautiful hotel in a beautiful setting.  We had a gorgeous view of the mountains; I was entranced, and spent more time than usual staring out the window. I walked around the grounds, finding various spots to sit in and read poetry when I could tear my eyes away from the mountains.  There was a casual buffet dinner that night where we were treated to truly excellent fried chicken—yes, in a hotel buffet!!!  Yes, really!  I would drive many miles for that chicken.  (Topped off with great mixed berry cobbler for dessert.)

--In Asheville, Steve and I toured Thomas Wolfe’s house, a rambling boarding house still containing many of the Wolfe’s family possessions, despite a fire in the late 1990s that did significant damage.  Sadly, the arsonist was never caught, though the woman leading the tour floated a theory that the fire was set by a descendant of one of the townspeople who were p.o.ed by Wolfe’s portrayal of the citizens and town.  We’ll see what happens, but at least I was inspired to buy Look Homeward, Angel. 

--Foodwise, we found some goodies in Asheville:  12 Bones Smokehouse, along the river, for pulled pork with jalapeno cheese grits, cole slaw, smoked potato salad, and buttered green beans—all of which were amazing, even the “buttered green beans” which were about as rich as dessert.  Oh, and for dessert:  a homemade strawberry pop-tart.  And for brunch, we went to Chestnut in the downtown area:  chicken and waffles!!!  Perfect balance of carbs and grease and salt and molassey sweetness—and a couple dabs of sausage gravy.  (Who invented such a clever combination?)

--Then it was off to the Grove Park Inn for the night where we stayed in THE VERY ROOM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD STAYED IN.  Yes, for real--!!!!!  In 1936 he stayed at the Inn to try to write while Zelda was in Highland Hospital there.  So, perhaps not the happiest time of his life—there was a misguided suicide threat while there—but we still felt the vibe in the room as we watched part of the Redford Gatsby movie, and I read out loud these fascinating Fitzgerald facts.  (He asked for a room that overlooked the entrance so he could check out the young women as they arrived…I sort of wish he had wanted a mountain view, but oh well.)

--And on home, finding another Biscuitville and introducing Steve to the joys of the burgers and the 40 flavors of milkshakes at Cook-Out!


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