Thursday Dec 07

hoppenthaler From 1985 until I graduated with an MFA in 1988, I was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.  My thesis advisor was the important Southern poet, Dave Smith.  On more than one occasion in class, Dave made it clear that James Applewhite was a poet to be admired and studied, an essential poet in the constellation of poets from the South.  I, a born and raised New Yorker, I’m afraid, was less interested in these poets (with the possible exception of James Dickey) than were many of my classmates.  And though poets like Richard Hugo, Maxine Kumin, and Galway Kinnell were among my favorites, I’d recently discovered galaxies of poets engaged in expression that seemed different from what I then perceived as straightforward narrative poetry.  I had just enough of a concept of what postmodernity might be about to be curious, and so my reading of poets like Frank O’Hara, Paul Muldoon, Jean Valentine, David St. John and others began to influence my writing at the time.  But this is not to say that I didn’t remember the lessons about Southern writers I’d learned from Dave Smith and other VCU professors; indeed, years later, as my muse started to take me back to the narrative, I began to wonder how a confluence of ideas and tropes I’d learned from the more experimental poets might be applied to the narrative impulse in useful and exciting ways.  At this time, I began to look at the work of a variety of poets who write largely in the narrative mode: Phil Levine, Larry Levis, Dave Smith, and Dean Young among them.  I wish then that James Applewhite had been among these poets, but he was not.  Time went on, and the work of many new and exciting poets kept insisting itself.  I never did get back to Applewhite.

Like many schools, East Carolina University, where I now teach, has been severely affected by the economic woes of our time.  Culture—where the true history and heart of a people resides—is usually the first area to be gutted in tough financial times, and so it has been for us in some ways.  One victim of the shortfall here has been the departmental reading series.  Our budget for literary readings, not more than a token to begin with, has been lost, and so faculty members have done the best we can to find ways to bring literary writers to campus for our students.  It hasn’t been easy, and I often feel tawdry to ask, but my students deserve what I had—access to writers and their work.  When my colleague, Margaret Bauer (Rives Chair of Southern Literature and editor of the North Carolina Literary Review) contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in having Jim Applewhite visit my advanced poetry class, I was thrilled and grateful.

In preparation, I bought several volumes of Jim Applewhite’s poetry and began to read.  I’m sorry now that it’s taken me so long to discover his work in earnest.  As someone who now lives in eastern North Carolina, the very landscape of which Applewhite’s poetry sings, these poems are proving of great value to me as I continue to acclimate myself to my surroundings.  As Dave Smith points out in his appreciation of Applewhite’s poetry below, Jim’s poetry gives voice and meaning to this very special and unique place.  The last stanza of his poem “The Language of Space and Time” I’ve taken to heart, and it tells me that it’s good to be here in this place where I still feel like a foreigner, that the landscape and the poetry can be transformative.  What more can we ask of poetry?

I’d like to thank Jim Applewhite for his kindness.  I’d like to thank, as well, Dave Smith for responding to my plea for a piece on Applewhite at the last minute with graciousness and with care.  At ECU, I wish to thank Margaret Bauer for making it happen, as well as Diane Rodman, Donna Kain, Jeffrey Gilbert, Susan Howard, Kevin Dublin, and anyone else I may have forgotten for their roles.