Arts & Literature

Tipping Over Trashcans

Poet Stephen Dobyns and a quiet day in Brattleboro

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Brattleboro Literary Festival has packed authors and readers into downtown Brattleboro for a decade now. It's clearly a huge undertaking—it's daunting, maybe even frightening, to think of so many writers (nearly 40 this year) in one small area for three days of hobnobbing and reading.

Wade into that fray of scribes, however, and things somehow don't seem chaotic. Last weekend, downtown Brattleboro seemed as drowsy as ever. Besides a sign or two, the only evidence of the literary invasion then underway was the sporadic appearance of some bespectacled, wandering gentleman or lady, armed with the inevitable leather shoulder bag probably full of poems, shamanic paraphernalia and accidentally preserved potato chips. But then again, the literary set is, with its inward nature, permanently in deep cover.

My visit brought me to the Hooker-Dunham Theater, a strangely situated but pleasant venue off the main drag. To get there, you must negotiate a short alleyway that leads to a balcony-like park of sorts and a surprising, suddenly arriving view of the river and the mountain beyond. The theater proper, down some nearby stairs, is as much of a pleasant cave as the downstairs room at Northampton's Pleasant Street Theater. The underground vibe seemed perfect for a poetry reading, and the Hooker-Dunham buzzed with activity, a hive of literati hidden away from the afternoon upstairs on Main Street.

We all shuffled into the rows of theater seats to see one of those gentlemen with a shoulder bag, poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction Stephen Dobyns. As is often true of writers, Dobyns' modest, blue-jeaned appearance belied a monstrous intellect. He's a practitioner of an art that's inextricably linked with academia, and presided over a crowd that was, no doubt, heavy with academics. But his is an unusual position: despite his teaching career, Dobyns doesn't seem to possess a great love for academia. One reason why is readily apparent—Dobyns, as a professor at Syracuse University, was involved in an incident that could easily (but, mercifully, did not) overshadow his masterful poems. He was accused of sexual harassment at Syracuse in the mid-'90s, an accusation which sprang from an ambiguous public incident.

The whole business led Dobyns' friend Francine Prose to castigate the university in The New York Times. Prose went into many of the details of the accusations in her story, concluding, "The allegations all concern language: specifically, what the committee calls 'salty language' used outside the classroom at graduate-student parties."

Prose said Dobyns was guilty only of "bad behavior," and that the proceedings, which she attended as a character witness, recalled Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Dobyns was found guilty. The fallout split opinions among writers, and eventually led to more resignations among Syracuse faculty.

Fortunately, despite the potential albatross of that very public controversy, the only thing on the menu at the Hooker-Dunham that day was remarkable poetry. The spellbound audience (who delivered those creepy moans of approval that one only hears at poetry readings) reveled in Dobyns' poems, even broke into mid-reading applause. Nearly all the questions afterward concerned the craft of writing. It's no overstatement to say he readily accomplishes that which so many poets aspire to: a piecing together of syllables that creates illusory magic, that takes the stuff of the everyday and reconfigures it to reveal truths that defy the easy grasp of words. Dobyns' words are commonplace, his quotidian settings the stuff of many a poet. Yet his leaps from image to image, his wriggling trails of unfettered thought, render the everyday a luminous and revelatory place.

The immense tasks of the organizers who put on the festival, the drive an hour north for a bit of poetry, all of it seems worth it when a plain fall day on Main Street offers a perfect example of what literature is for. From the beginning of Dobyns' essential "How to Like It": "These are the first days of fall./ The wind at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,/ while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns/ is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,/ the desire to get in a car and just keep driving./ A man and a dog descend their front steps./ The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk./ Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find./ This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change."

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