Saturday, October 28, 2006

Brad Kessler @ the University

Brad Kessler's Visit
Birds In FallFiction writer, essayist and goat farmer* Brad Kessler was the visiting fiction-writer in residence at the university this past week. Kessler is the author of several books, including the novels The Woodcutter's Christmas, Lick Creek and Birds In Fall, as well as several highly-regarded books for children. As per usual custom, he spent a week in the undergraduate Writing Major Program, reading and speaking with the senior-year students, talking to the upper level class, and giving both a reading and a talk. His reading on Thursday night was one of the highlights of his visit; he read from the first chapter of Birds In Fall, and I would suggest to any fiction writers that close study of the opening chapter of this book could serve as an instructional unit, particularly given the precision of his prose, his skillful ordering and placement of imagery, figuration and incident, and his masterful juxtaposition of lyrical first-person narration and dramatic action (to put it mildly). On Friday he delivered a talk on poetry's consolatory power, and explored how John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" worked, in his opinion, its particular magic for him. He placed it in part in the incantatory, musical aspects of the poetry, and how its logic and statement at times work against, or in tensive relation to, the various deft aesthetic choices (such as the succession of assonant "ow" sounds, to evoke a howl, etc.). During a downtime chat earlier in the week, we'd spoken earlier about turning to poetry at times of crisis and consolation, and I'd mentioned how both abstruse, seeming nonsensical but very musical and lyrical poems, as well as specific content-heavy works, sometimes did the trick for me, but I also recalled how at one point I found myself turning and returning to a poem I find both inordinately beautiful and painful, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," whose insistent music and statement both seize your attention. (Reggie H. of course recalls the time I walked around the area behind the monastery at Esopus, memorizing this poem for Michael Harper's and my own satisfaction--and I'm glad I did!) The ending of that poem is one of the finest in literature: "What did I know, what did I know, of love's austere and lonely offices?" Who has not felt that more than once in life? At any rate, it was great to spend time with Brad, who's funny, knows his stuff, loves fiction and poetry, has a New Yorker's sense of strolling, and seems like he'd be a great person to study with. I highly recommend his work, especially Birds In Fall.
*He also makes his own goat-milk based cheese; I could not find a fancy word for this profession, though I know there is one. I even came across it once in a dictionary and once online. Does anyone else know this term?

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