The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve
By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015
I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.
Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”
Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.
Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.
Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room
In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
“Dad (Wilson L. Driver) took me and my sister up to New York after my grandmother died. He said, ostensibly, you know, for us to have freedom,” explained Sanchez.
“I took care of him the last six years of his life although I was teaching at Temple [University] all that time. He lived in a house in Harlem…. His friends would bring fruit, water, and juice…. And they would bring dirty jokes,” she reflected, laughing. “And I pretended I didn’t hear the dirty jokes sitting in the dining room.
“Dad was initiated into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame because he was a drummer; he was part of that group that Fess Whatley taught at Parker High.
“The joy about my father is that I’m glad he did bring us to New York City because I couldn’t have gotten the free education that I got [being a resident], and we got a bloody good one being in New York City,” she said. “When my father was very ill, one day he asked me, ‘Do you think we’ll ever have a black president?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Dad, it’s going to happen in my time.’ He said, ‘Oh no, no, no… it’ll never happen.’ But I think it’s because my father [lived in] a Southern landscape for so many years…. He was not a young man when he went to New York City. He was in his forties. As a consequence he couldn’t see beyond it. We were raised in New York City and it was a different kind of expanse for me. I taught for years in the university system. I had black, white, green, purple, blue, and brown students. I taught them to be very respectful of each other, to understand that we were part of a new generation, a new change.”
Sanchez continued, “I taught them and I could see what their eyes could see but what my father’s eyes could not see because the majority of his life was spent in the South. And he still walked on what I call a Southern landscape in the North. Whereas we—my sister and I—were on a Northern landscape. So that’s how I could do my early poetry that was really New York poetry; we were rough, we cursed. We didn’t kill anyone. We slaughtered people with our words. We said, ‘Back down!’ And it was simply because at some point we discovered that we’d been enslaved and no one had told us. There was no big sign in Times Square that read, ‘Oh, by the way, you Negroes, you black folks were enslaved.’ And when we got something about slavery in school—and this is New York City—it was never discussed. It was like we saw a picture of a would-be slave eating a watermelon.”
Sanchez’s primary joy in life has been discovering people and being with people. Early in her professional writing journey she came face to face with Northern prejudice in the offices of The New York Times.
“I answered an ad in The New York Times advertising for a writer and they responded with a telegram that informed me that I was hired because of the writing samples I sent the paper,” she said. “So I went down there all dressed up in my blue suit, my blue hat, my heels, my blue purse, and my white gloves. They said to report at 9:00. I got there at 8:30 because I wasn’t on ‘CP time.’ Lo and behold, here comes this [white] woman clicking down the hall in her heels, and she asked what I wanted. So I went into in my purse and showed her the telegram they’d sent to tell me to report for work. She disappeared and two [white] guys walked in and [immediately] disappeared. Finally another [white] guy appeared, and I showed him the telegram telling me to show up for work. He stared at me and said, ‘Well, the job is taken.’ So I used my New York humor and said, ‘Oh, I got you. I came too early. The telegram said to show up at 9:00. I’m going to go outside and wait until 9:00 and then I’ll come back and everything will be OK.’ And he did not laugh. He reiterated, ‘I said the job is taken.’ So I said, ‘I’ve got your discrimination. I’m going to report you to the Urban League.’ He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.”
When asked how she felt about being regarded as the queen of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez noted, “I was the only female with all of those men. That was an amazing thing when you look back on it. You had a whole slew of men and there I was on stage with them. They talk about BAM—Black Arts Movement—being sexist. But what was great about BAM was that they didn’t say, ‘Sonia, you’re the only female. You go first.’ I usually was some place in the program where I went right before Baraka. (Amari Baraka was one of the leading African-American poets and writers who carved his name into literary history beginning in the 1960s.) Isn’t that amazing?” Sanchez surmised with wonder and pride. “We were very much equals on the stage. Being in the civil rights movement, men and women were equal. I was from New York and we thought we were the baddest thing (laughs) on the planet Earth. Or the most radical, at least.”
Andrew Glaze, who was appointed Alabama’s poet laureate by Governor Robert Bentley in 2012, was present to receive his induction medal. Glaze worked for nine years at The Birmingham Post-Herald. Covering a beat inspired one of his most famous poems, “I Am the Jefferson County Courthouse.”
Elizabeth Glaze edited her aging father’s upcoming book Overheard in a Drugstore. She flew in from Philadelphia to help celebrate her father’s induction. Elizabeth spoke for the elder Glaze, who at age ninety-five is largely confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty communicating verbally after suffering a stroke.
She told of her father’s dedication to his craft. “My father would get up early in the morning and work on poems before he went to work,” she said. “He would bicycle home for lunch and work on poems, then bicycle back to work. He would come home in the evening and he’d usually work for a little while on his poems at night. And he’d also set aside time to work on his poems on weekends. He was very driven and very dedicated, extremely prolific. My father was very good at sending his stuff out and communicating and submitting to magazines, which is why he got published in so many magazines.”
Elizabeth Glaze shared the story of how her father became friends with Robert Frost. “One of the things that I did because I was editing the book was to contact the Robert Frost estate and they gave me permission to reproduce a handwritten note that Frost wrote [to my father], which is in the library at Dartmouth in the Robert Frost Collection,” she said. “It’s from 1954. Frost was on a poetry reading tour, and he came through Birmingham in the mid-1950…. My father’s poetry teacher at Harvard was very close to Robert Frost. The Harvard teacher quietly passed the poem on to Frost for his opinion. Frost replied in a note, ‘I have high hopes for Mr. Glaze.’ Glaze had met Frost many times at Harvard and at writers’ conferences in Massachusetts.”
During that Birmingham visit, Frost asked his host “to contact my father and invite him to join them on an outing to Jasper,” Elizabeth Glaze said.
“My father ended up writing a poem about the outing and that’s in the upcoming book. Between 1960 and 2009 or so, he actually kept working on that poem,” she noted, laughing.
Acclaimed Birmingham poet, novelist, and short story writer Kathleen Thompson accepted Helen Norris Bell’s induction medal. Thompson, who had written a thesis on Bell in 2003 while Thompson attended Spalding University, recalled their friendship. “Helen and I were good friends,” said Thompson. “We had an eating, reading, and writing group when I lived in Prattville and she lived in Montgomery. We would meet at each other’s homes, and I had the distinct privilege of hearing a lot of Helen’s stories before they were in print. The thing that Helen had…is the requirement of every good writer; she has a balance of pathos and humor.”
Thompson marveled at Bell’s curiosity that inspired much of her work. “Do you know how she would get her ideas? She would find some little obscure fact such as that the luster of nice pearls is better when worn than when kept in a safe deposit box,” Thompson explained. “And out of that tiny little fact she wrote a short story called “The Pearl Sitter.”
Dinner Is Served
Many of the dining tables represented an inductee, replete with silver inkwells and feather quills, complemented by books and ornamental displays that heralded the spirit of each inductee’s written work. The table settings for inductees led to the stage, set with oversized posters of each inductee. Printed programs at each seat provided a condensed biography and photo of the authors.
The dinner menu included a salad of spinach leaves and spring lettuce with dried cranberries and crumbled gorgonzola drizzled with whole grain mustard vinaigrette, filet of beef with a red wine port reduction, potatoes Anna, and a Mediterranean vegetable medley crowned with asparagus spears. Desert was lemon cake and chocolate cheesecake with raspberries and whipped cream.
At dinner I was fortunate enough to sit at the table of inductee Helen Norris Bell and to chat with the table’s sponsor, retired circuit judge Sally Greenhaw, to my left. Ms. Greenhaw is the widow of Wayne Greenhaw, who wrote extensively about the civil rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan. He received the Harper Lee Award in 2006. To my right I talked about Bragg’s recent biography on Jerry Lee Lewis with University of Alabama Press director Curtis Clark, who agreed with me that Jerry Lee’s country records surpass his rock and roll recordings.
Edmond Williams—retired Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at UA—served as emcee for the Hall of Fame induction. As the house lights dimmed, Williams took the stage to begin the ceremonies. Selected works from each inductee were read by actors and actresses from Theatre Tuscaloosa, adding a spark of drama and humor to the evening’s program. Although most of the inductees are deceased, the creative talent of Theatre Tuscaloosa resurrected their words—and those of the living—with dynamic voices.
With dinner and the dramatic readings concluded, Jeanie Thompson and Louis Pitschmann, Dean of UA Libraries and director of the Alabama Center for the Book, draped the award medals around the necks of the living inductees and presented the boxed medals to the deceased inductees’ representatives.
I spoke with the final two inductees, Rick Bragg and Sena Jeter Naslund, the day before the induction ceremony. This gave me the opportunity to ask about three potential impediments that often challenge writers: the importance of a muse, writer’s block, and procrastination.
Bragg has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence and his memoirs about his family, including All Over But the Shoutin’. He has recently published the aforementioned biography on the life of Jerry Lee Lewis. When asked about the importance of a muse in his writing, Bragg expressed skepticism. “I don’t really believe in muse,” he said. “I’ll get kicked out of writers’ clubs for saying this, but I don’t believe that writing is a gift from the gods. I believe that writing is a craft; it’s like being a carpenter able to sight down a board to see whether it’s true or not or a guy who can stand in a field and look at the dirt and see what will grow in it. My brother Sam, if he sees a guy who is reliable and honest, he won’t say, ‘Look at that honest fellow.’ He’ll say, ‘That guy’s gun-barrel straight.’ It’s not folksy; it’s not Hee Haw and stuff. It’s the way these people talk. So you listen to them and then you read. I’ve read the people being inducted into this Hall of Fame. Harper Lee taught me how to put a human face on a morality play. I’m not a great believer that the muse flits in through the window and whispers words [into your ear]. I think the muse is an invention of the rich folks.”
Regarding procrastination, Bragg is equally dismissive. “I think procrastination is really good if you write for a hobby,” he said. “But if you write for a living, then procrastination has another definition; it’s called unemployment. If I have a contract, if I have a deadline, then that’s probably my muse. Sometimes what you’re writing is just eating away at you and you just have to get it out.”
Bragg was a little easier on the problem of writer’s block. “I don’t really believe in writers block, but I think sometimes you don’t feel good,” he noted. “And this has happened to me as I’ve gotten older. Sometimes your mind’s not clear, sometimes you’re just worried. Sometimes you’re just groping for your story. But I have never been unable to find a way out of that. It’s not that it all flows free and easy but I have found, especially as I have gotten older, that the words kind of know where they want to go.”
Speaking about his induction, Bragg is genuinely moved. “It’s a great honor and it probably means a lot more because it’s close to home,” he said. “And also the company that I’m in. I know that there are a lot of [deserving people] in this state, because it’s so rich in writers. There are a lot of people deserving of this—I don’t know if I am or not—but I’m honored, especially to be in that company of people like Harper Lee, Zora Neale Hurston, and all those folks. So I’m thrilled. I’ve reached the point in my life where I never thought I’d be the ‘whipper snapper’ of that group. I’m not the youngest anything any more. I used to be. But I haven’t been the youngest of anything in a long time.”
Sena Jeter Naslund, whose most popular novel, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star Gazer, was chosen one of the five best novels of 1999 by The New York Times. She could not attend the induction gala because she was traveling in Europe. I spoke to her while she was in Italy. When asked what the induction meant to her, she said, “It is an overwhelming, wonderful honor to be inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. I am surprised and pleased and happy and delighted. I can’t tell you how much it means to me because Alabama gave me my education, gave me my home, and gave me my ambition for becoming a writer.”
When questioned about the notion of a muse in writing, Naslund said, “I think classical music is my muse. It’s inspired me to write in many forms. But also other kinds of beautiful experiences; sometimes just a beautiful day or beautiful flowers, a beautiful garden can inspire me to want to write a story. I have aesthetic sensibility and so when I encounter excellence in beauty in any of the arts, it inspires me to write. I also like to honor the importance of friendship and many of my books show women who are friends with each other, who help each other when one of them is in a difficult time.”
Naslund has her own way of dealing with procrastination. “When I realize that I’m procrastinating what I do is to look at my calendar for the next week and look at the times of day when I don’t have anything scheduled, and I’ll schedule writing sessions then,” she explained. “I like for them now to be about three hours long. When I was younger I could schedule six hours but I don’t have the stamina for that now. So I put a block around those vacant three hours and then I don’t let anything else get in my way. When that time comes I go to my computer—doesn’t matter if I’ve dropped a dirty sock on the floor or if I should take a glass down to the dishwasher. I ignore all those household duties and I sit down. If I’m already in the piece I start by reviewing what I wrote the last time I was sitting there and briefly I’ll lightly revise it. When I get to the end I just keep going without any break in it.
“Now if I’m starting something new, I sit down at the keyboard and type—I write a sentence and then I say, ‘Good for you! You wrote a sentence. Now another.’ I turn off any negativity. I do not say, ‘That sentence stinks; you better tear that up and erase it as soon as you can.’ Instead, I try to be encouraging to myself. So that’s part of my technique. It’s not that I’m going to leave it that way forever but you’ve got to make pages and then once you have something instead of nothing it’s much easier to go back and make it better,” she said, laughing.
Regarding writer’s block, she said she’s never has had to deal with that curse. “I’ve never really experienced writer’s block,” she said with a chuckle. “I have had some students who have had writer’s block. But I’ve never met the person I could not cure of writer’s block.”
The necklace of pearls draping across Helen Norris Bell’s books glimmered in candlelight on her table in front of the stage. The simple pearls of beauty defined an evening of praise for a dozen Alabama Hall of Fame writers.
Ed Reynolds work has appeared in Oxford American, First Draft, and Black & White, where he served as staff writer for sixteen years.