Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Miss Welty and Creative Colloquy

I blew the dust off Eudora Welty and pulled her off the shelf one book at a time. I had to get down on my knees, an appropriately worshipful position, to reach her books, because I shelf fiction alphabetically by author in the same order as words on a page, top left to lower right, and that put her right down on floor level.

Some of her writing I had read man years ago, and others had been gathering dust unread on my shelf all those many years—because these old books were books I thought I should read, not the more contemporary stuff I wanted to read. Stupid, huh? Because I had read a few of her short stories and liked them a lot.

My parents were Mississippians of the same age as Miss Welty. She and my mother went to the same college, Mississippi State College for Women, within a year of each other, and she and my uncle, also a writer, were friends, so I thought her stories would be similar to ones I had heard when I was growing up in Mississippi. Combining that with what I had read of and about her, I expected from her stories a strong sense of place and a bit of nostalgia, and I expected to be reminded of colloquialisms I had not heard in years; I expected inventive and spot-on metaphors and similes because a few choice ones from the Welty stories I read in my youth had stuck with me for years. What I had not expected was the range of her style and subject matter, the power of her symbolism, and the multi-layered meanings of some of her stories.

Some, quite frankly, were hard to get. “Old Mr. Marblehall” for instance. To fully appreciate that one I had to go back and read what Ruth M. Vande Kieft wrote about it in her introduction to Thirteen Stories by Eudora Welty. I even Googled the story to see what critics had said about it. It was not an easy story to understand. Or maybe it was and I was just not in the right frame of mind when I read it. At any rate, I’m glad I took the effort to study it more carefully. Old Mr. Marblehall was a boring old man who lived a boring life—a double life with two almost identical wives and two almost identical sons, and nobody, neither wives nor sons nor neighbors, had the slightest notion about the existence of the others. Why would such a dull man go to all the trouble to lead a double life if neither life was more interesting or rewarding than the other?  With this story, Welty presents us with one of the most inventive enigmas ever.

The realism and the quirkiness of Welty’s stories are both intelligent and entertaining. Where else could you possibly find a paragraph like this one from “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies”?
While they rode around the corner Mrs. Carson was going on in her soft voice, soft as the soft noises in a hen house at twilight. “We buried Lily’s poor defenseless mother. We gave Lily all her food and kindling and every stitch she had on. Sent her to Sunday school to learn the Lord’s teachings, had her baptized a Baptist. And when her old father commenced beating her and tried to cut her head off with the butcher knife, why, we went and took her away from him and gave her a place to stay.”

. . .
Last night I attended Creative Colloquy at Traditions Fair Trade in Olympia, Washington. Creative Colloquy is an online literary magazine and public reading created in Tacoma, Washington two years ago by Jackie Cassella and her partner in crime, Joshua Swainston. Every month CC meets at B Sharp Coffee House in Tacoma for public readings by professional and amateur writers alike. I’ve attended probably a dozen of the readings, and considering that anybody can sign up for the open mic second hour, the quality of the readings have been outstanding. They only recently started monthly readings at Traditions in Olympia. The first was hosted by Christian Carvajal, an outstanding novelist, actor and journalist for the Weekly Volcano. Featured readers included local writer Steven Hendricks, author of the novel Little is Left to Tell, and the delightful William Turbyfill reading from his autobiographical collection of stories Field of Turby. The open mic portion was practically a poetry slam with a lot of lively performances including a mind-boggling piece about slavery performed by Mustafa Fowler.

Last night’s event was their second in Olympia. It was not as well attended as the first, and it was not as lively, but there were some nice readings, most noticeably by Ned Hayes reading from his new novel The Eagle Tree, a book about a youth possibly on the autism spectrum who is obsessed with climbing trees. This is a book I highly, highly, highly recommend.

Attending CC after reading Welty’s “A Still Moment,” a strange story about an evangelical preacher, a murderer, and the naturalist James John Audobon meeting on a path in the woods, made me think about the difference between reading out loud in public and silently in private. I suspect that neither Welty’s “A Still Moment” nor “Old Mr. Marblehall” would go over too well in a public reading. They’re too dense, too layered. In reading stories like those, you need to read a line or two, stop and think about it, and then read some more. Maybe you need to pause from time to time simply to let the music of the words wash over you. Perhaps great literature does not belong in performance. Perhaps it needs to be read and contemplated in private from actual pages held between two hands, and discussed in small groups. But there are places also for public performance of short stories, novel excerpts and poetry. What a great treasure the written word is in all its forms, and how lucky we in the South Puget Sound area are to have Creative Colloquy.

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