A Brush with Literary Excellence

My friend, Lexington poet Barbara Presnell, invited me as her guest, to attend the sixty-sixth meeting of the North Carolina Writers Conference in “Little” Washington on July 24-25, 2015.

This was a summer meeting-of-the-minds for the state’s most dedicated novelists and poets, playwrights and historians, editors and educators. Many are literary hall-of-famers and their works are preserved in the state literary collection at Chapel Hill.

So I might have been intimidated by this brush with literary excellence, but I wasn’t. I was among many guests, and the distinguished members made us feel welcome in the Old Atlantic Coastline Railroad Station of this coastal town. The rafters resounded with their kind words and music, inviting us in.

Where else would I have heard “Wilson” Jim Clark read excerpts from conference honoree Michael Parker’s short story collection, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, peppered with a boom-box mix of tunes? Aretha Franklin singing I Say a Little Prayer for You is still, gloriously, in my head.

Bland Simpson followed him on keyboard at the Friday night opening, performing selections from King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running in tribute to the late Jerry Leath “Jake” Mills, who contributed original lyrics and stories to the musical and, among many other accomplishments, was well loved by many writers and wrote the classic Southern Literary Journal essay, Equine Gothic: the Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature.
Liza and Charles (2)
Liza Wieland and Charles Dodd White

Saturday craft talks included:

• Historical fiction (Valerie Nieman moderating a discussion with Charles Dodd White and Liza Wieland),

• Graphic design (Dana Ezzell Gay, art director for the North Carolina Literary Review, which celebrates 25 years with the 2016 issue),

• Research (Gregg Hecimovich presenting his detective work on The Bondwoman’s Narrative), and

• Memoir (Jim Grimsley moderating Michael White — Travels in Vermeer — and William Price. William, the literary executor for Reynolds Price, shared the afterword he composed for his brother’s posthumous book, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir).

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Dr. James W. Clark

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At lunch, the assembly honored “Raleigh” Jim Clark, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University. Clark was recognized for what I would call “literary farming” – decades of grassroots work to cultivate and nurture the environment for writing in the state. He leads – or has led – many foundations, societies and historical associations. What a natural connector – he not only knew exactly where Pine Level is (most didn’t), he gave me the names of two people, scholars and fans of Thomas Wolfe, who live in my new hometown. Clark teaches “life writing” in his so-called retirement – and encouraged others to do the same. He echoed what Wingate Lassiter told our Johnston County Writers group this past winter; that writers are needed to document their own stories and the everyday stories of people in our community, especially our elders.

The conference-ending banquet – really, an informal barbecue with “pig pickin’ cake” for dessert – was a warm tribute to Michael Parker, a native of Clinton. You can find his seven books online, or read his regular articles in Our State magazine (the current editor is one of the many former students whose lives he has touched). Watching Parker honored by his peers for his significant contributions to North Carolina literature, was very humbling. You can’t walk away from such an experience and not feel changed.

Through all this, my brain was electric with ideas. I filled page after page of my pocket-sized notebook and frequented the book sale tables for Margaret Maron’s Designated Daughters and Ruth Moose’s award-winning Doing It at the Dixie Dew, as well as several copies of the North Carolina Literary Review. Barbara took home Jim Grimsley’s memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.

Barbara
Barbara Presnell

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From left, Janice Sullivan, Ruth Moose, Cindy Brookshire

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From left, Sara Claytor, Susan Laughter Meyers and Sally Logan

I took home things you just can’t pack, sharing a meal at Down on Mainstreet with a round-robin of women writers: Barbara Presnell (Lexington), Sally Logan (formerly Whispering Pines, now Chapel Hill), Susan Laughter Meyers (formerly Albemarle and Greenville, now Summerville, SC), Sara Claytor (Chapel Hill), Janice Sullivan (Greensboro) and Ruth Moose (Pittsboro).

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NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

I liked watching NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson whip out a poem to recite about the ordinary – getting a hunting license – and making it extraordinary. If you haven’t seen this poet traveler as he criss-crosses the state, taking his song-and-verse to as many North Carolinians as possible, consider visiting Manassas, Virginia on Oct. 11, when he gathers with poets laureate from four states at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

I also took home the memory of Barbara and our afternoon stroll on the boardwalk overlooking the Pamlico River. We stretched our legs along the brick pathway to the NC Estuarium, sat in a double swing to track the loud party boats puttering by and leaned over railings to snap iPhone photos of a turtle sunning herself on a rock. Lily pads shook like a hand bell choir with the underwater maneuverings of other turtles. Under tree branches, we spied a brick monument to the former iron forge or foundry, the centerpiece of which was a cast iron furnace door. When I told my husband about it later, he suggested we may have found the gates of hell, teasing me.

I’m back in Pine Level. I’ve come “down from the mountain” even though my return was from the coast. I feel invigorated. I submitted the first two chapters of my fourth book draft to a critique group I joined in Goldsboro, and I’ve started weaving a new short story. Time to get back to work.

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