Tag Archives: Bobbie Ann Mason

Arts

Guy Mendes: Unframed Play

If you know Guy Mendes, you may know some of the things I am about to share. If you are familiar with one of his three publications – Local Light: an anthology of 100 years of photographs made in Kentucky, (1976), Light at Hand (1986), or 40/40  40 Years, 40 Portraits (2010), the same might be true.

You also may have run across reference to the man’s genius in Yale University Press’ new catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Cincinnati Art Museum: Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 (2016). Guy Mendes’ life’s work is being framed in many ways.

But the life of a creative person is never static and we who publish stories about them are always limited by the confines of our medium. Whether it be an essay, a book, a catalog, a video, or even an exhibition, we know too well that singular frames often cut short the contributions of artists who work in multiple disciplines as did Guy and many of his colleagues while working as members of the Lexington Camera Club.

When that frame is broken, when no preconceived notions are placed around creative thought and experimentation is encouraged, that’s when things start to happen. Guy Mendes admits that he learned this from his mentors, particularly Ralph Eugene Meatyard, in the Lexington Camera Club. Play. Search. Make something new.

This free-wheeling mindset was a far cry from Guy’s work as a journalist for both the Kentucky Kernel and later the underground paper known as the blue-tail fly (1969-71). Both publications were deeply immersed in the issues surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and covering campus protests against the Vietnam War. The deaths of student protestors at Kent State in Ohio occurred during this period. Not playful stuff.

Guy Mendes has had work published in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Playboy, Smithsonian Magazine, Aperture, and Newsweek. His photographs are in collections that include The International Center for Photography, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the High Museum, and Aperture Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, and many other local institutions. His career includes the production of numerous documentaries while working for nearly thirty-five years at KET. His life’s work needs nothing more than a straightening on the nail every now and then. Right?

Wrong. He still loves hours of play in the dark room. So, within the confines of this frame and along with Part I: For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See, it is our hope that UnderMain is able to introduce a little something new, then ‘get it souped, get it dried, and print it’ – a phrase Guy uses for the reportorial mode of production. We have invited Guy to play with us and send along a couple of new images before the end of the show at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Something that we can add here for your enjoyment.

Kentucky Renaissance, The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 is on view through the end of December.  If you have not seen this show, we encourage you to go. Also, see Hunter Kissel’s new narrative titled, Kentucky Insurgence.

What intrigues me most about the exhibition and catalog – both authored by Brian Sholis, then Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum – is Brian’s observation about what happens when creatives work closely together as they did during the years of The Lexington Camera Club. Brian calls it genius that emerged in that time. Not only did photographers encourage and challenge one another, but they also played with new ideas, ideas that came often from writers in the region such as Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Thomas Merton, and James Baker Hall.

Such collaboration was of particular interest to Guy Mendes as a very young photographer and writer. Falling into the soup that birthed the Camera Club altered his vision forever – the talent and ideology of not only photographers and writers, but of sculptors, printmakers and multiple small presses like Gravesend Press, Gnomon Press, and The Jargon Society. Numerous contributions merged ‘words with pictures’ in a way that jelled for Mendes as a young photographer and writer.

Here are a couple of clips with Guy discussing what he refers to as the ‘cross-pollination,’ particularly with writers in the region, what was going on between members of the Lexington Camera Club.

Guy Mendes learned a great deal from his mentors, beginning with his introduction to Wendell Berry (see Part I) while he was working as a journalist for the Kentucky Kernel. Later, in 1971, Guy served as an apprentice to James Baker Hall and was thereby connected to writers like Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Bobbie Ann Mason, all of whom benefitted from a strong literary presence in Lexington, Kentucky at the time.

A keen awareness of what was taking place on the national level in photography grew, much of which was learned by attending lectures and visiting national exhibitions in New York and Chicago. According to Guy, photography was just coming into its own with movement in earlier decades prompted by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard.

Mendes also recalls the influence of Jonathan Williams, who had attended Black Mountain College and studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind –  ‘a hotbed of modern art in the hills of North Carolina.’ Williams was highly influential in connecting club members to this national scene in photography.

Today, with all the years of experience behind him, Guy Mendes recalls with great fondness the years of 1968-70 when he drove the countryside with Meatyard and Bob May – it was a time when he learned the value of play. He learned to search, but never with preconceived notions and while that play may have revealed the ‘uncanny’ or things that for some may even seem ‘dark’, that play was freeing. His recollection of that time is here:

UnderMain would like to thank Guy and KET for assisting us with presentation of a special insight into those times. In 1974, Guy Mendes, Martha Chute, and Stanley Maya created this film on Ralph Eugene Meatyard 1925-1972. The voices are those of Guy Davenport, Bob May, and Minor White.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

Arts

The Mason Star

If you are an avid reader and love good stories, especially those spun by Kentucky writers, the name Bobbie Ann Mason should be familiar. For over 35 years Mason has developed into a strong literary and cultural presence. Known for her ability to weave a strong tale and to accurately describe the characters and ways of the folk in the Bluegrass neck-of-the-woods, she has reached into imaginations, imprinting minds with indelible pictures that linger long after the last page.

We wondered to what sort of star Bobbie Ann Mason hitches her literary wagon. Every writer has their own writing process. For some, it’s always a matter of following a step-by-step guide. For others, the process is a routine that comes naturally.

Writing for me,” said Mason, “is like solving a mystery, doing a puzzle and arranging all of the pieces together, finding and fitting the different parts.”

The ongoing themes of solving puzzles, intricate relationships, and war pervade her works. Originating ideas, cultivating them, and bringing them to a level that has proved worthy of her many awards is part of a process that has been developed and refined through many short stories, novels, a biography, an autobiography, and an upcoming novella.

Born May 1, 1940, close to Mayfield, Kentucky, Bobbie Ann spent much of her time on the family farm, reading. The tranquility and isolation of her parents’ dairy farm ignited a curiosity about lifestyles that seemed as though they must be happening in some parallel universe. “It was an isolated corner of Kentucky, far from any city. My parents encouraged me to read, but there were few books available, certainly nothing called literature,” she said in a recent interview with Transatlantica.

This began Mason’s adventures into the popular young adult literature of the time that eventually led her to all things literary: the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries, now-classics that were on the bedside table of every young girl in 1950s America.

It was perhaps her early experiences with mysteries and the awakening of her inquisitive nature that informed this ongoing theme in her work.

“A concrete detail will hit my imagination,” she said. “For instance, I may see a man wearing a carnation and wonder ‘why a carnation?’ Or perhaps the man appears drunk and I ask, ‘what is he drunk on?’ Maybe there’s something else going on. Once I have established that image, it seems to unfold from there. Sometimes it could be a word or a detail, maybe just a sound.”

As a student at the University of Kentucky Mason discovered Hemingway, Salinger, and Fitzgerald, delivering Bobbie Ann into a whole new world of literary possibilities.

Her process began to develop, always starting with key images that initially set it in motion, seemingly random pieces that eventually coalesce.. “Then the images start to get translated into words and the words lead me, often surprise me, with where they go and what they do. Very often it is an image of some sort that sparks the inspiration for a story. That stick of dynamite found in a box of letters may very well have been the trigger for a new yarn. In the opening of Shiloh, Norma Jean is lifting weights. The novel In Country was initially inspired by the sight of a couple of teenagers selling flowers on a street corner.”

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“I’ve always been fascinated with mysteries,” she explained. “It was this, perhaps, that led me to Vladimir Nabokov, whose Ada was the subject of my dissertation. In graduate school I read quite a bit of him and was thrilled with the way he wrote. His life story was fascinating as well, being exiled from Russia and then becoming one of the foremost prose stylist in English.”

By her late-thirties, Bobbie Ann was writing short stories. The New Yorker published her first in 1980. “It took me a long time to discover my material,” she said. “It wasn’t a matter of developing writing skills, it was a matter of knowing how to see things. And it took me a very long time to grow up. I’d been writing for a long time, but was never able to see what there was to write about. I always aspired to things away from home, so it took me a long time to look back at home and realize that that’s where the center of my thought was.”

Mason doesn’t search for material. Instead, she relies on serendipity. ”It can be scary. A novel can bubble up in the space of a minute. It just kind of erupts. Then in five minutes you realize you’ve just committed the next five years of your life.”

At first, as she began writing In Country, Mason didn’t know that it would become a story about Viet Nam. “It backed into that eventually. It’s ultimately about Sam, the main character, not that particular war. It could have just as easily been set during World War II.”

The story found its way to the big screen in 1989 as a film produced and directed by Norman Jewison, starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd. The screenplay by Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre was based on Mason’s novel.

Her biggest challenge? “The hardest part is the beginning. Working toward getting enough to go with. For example, writing a novel. It may take me a year to develop enough material to motivate me to go further. Then when I have a draft I’ve got something to work with. At that point it gets easier and it gets fun. The hardest part’s the blank page. The words reveal things. It’s all about language, which is music, the rhythm of it, the sound of it. The visual imagery: I try to find some way to put it all together, and then maybe I’ll have a story.”

Like many writers, Bobbie Ann goes through a lot of drafts, going back over the material, honing, shaping, reworking. “The coalescing doesn’t just come along. It’s hard work. It’s hard getting a perspective on it and being critical of what it means. I flash back and forth between a creative process of not thinking, just writing, and a critical process where I stand back and look and say ‘what have I done? Does this work?’ I may have more feeling for this passage with notes to myself for how I can improve it for the next draft.”

Mason said her stories are stitched together from the tiny details she has learned to look for in daily life. “I’m an observer of detail. I notice what people have in their shopping carts at the grocery, what they are saying when I overhear them, what they’re wearing, what kinds of jobs they have.”

And then it becomes a matter of allowing herself to be carried along by the momentum of the emerging story. “You’re absorbed in this thing you’re watching and writing about.”

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Bobbie Ann’s other works include The Girl in the Blue Beret; Elvis Presley; Feather Crowns; and Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, the last two winners of the Southern Book Critics Circle Awards. 

Among the finest contemporary Southern writers, Mason has been the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Arts and Letters Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the National Endowment for the Arts grant. She is also a former writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky.

Check out Bobbie Ann’s website, where you will find a complete list of works, a wonderful video with Mason and Wendell Berry, and information about events.

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Arts

Writers Hall of Fame Honors, Encourages

I arrived fifteen minutes early before the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony began. The annual event was held at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. It was first held at the Center in 2012 and this was my first time attending. As I glanced around the room, I observed that the mood of this night was convivial and one of joy. Attendees smiled and hugged each other as they sipped on wine and snacked on hors d’oeuvres. This was to be a celebration of the craft of writing that has distinguished Kentucky and put it unmistakably on the literary map.

As a writer and poet, I was impressed that so many had come to pay homage to some of the state’s finest writers. I was later told later that 225 people were in attendance.

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(Photo by Doug Begley) – Left to right: poet Maurice Manning, author Silas House and Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen

“The Writers Hall of Fame was initiated as a way to support established writers and encourage young writers to take up the craft,” explained Neil Chethik, the executive director of the Carnegie Center and the evening’s emcee. “It has served as a rallying point for Kentucky writers, and has brought added attention to the great legacy of writing that we have in Kentucky. I think writers feel more respected, and some feel more motivated knowing that the Hall of Fame exists. I’ve heard numerous young writers say, ‘my goal is to be in this hall one day,’” he added.

The room filled quickly and I was grateful that the Carnegie Center had reserved a seat for me. After introductory remarks, some of Kentucky’s most well known writers, including the present and past state poet laureates, came forward and read excerpts from the inductees’ work. The fondness for the craft of writing was clearly evident as the hushed crowd listened to the readings.     

The first writer to be inducted was James Lane Allen (1849 – 1925) who was born in Lexington. 

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Allen has been called Kentucky’s first important novelist and his work garnered international appeal. He had a successful career writing fiction, travel writing, and drama spanning 34 years.  Allen published 20 books and contributed to some of the most prominent magazines of his era.

Next was Harlan Hubbard (1900 – 1988). He was born in Bellevue in northern Kentucky and lived at Payne Hollow in Trimble County. Hubbard was well-known for living on the river in Thoreau-like simplicity removed from modern times.

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Hubbard published 12 books, including journals, travel essays, and various woodcuts and paintings. Louisville-based producer Morgan Atkinson documented the Hubbards’ life in the film, Wonder, featuring passages voiced by author Wendell Berry. Only last year, Berry himself was honored as the first living author inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

Alice Hegan Rice (1870  – 1942) was inducted next. Famous for her bestselling novel, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Rice lived her entire life in Louisville.

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Rice was inspired to write the book after her involvement with Louisville’s underprivileged children in the slum area known as the Cabbage Patch district. The novel has been translated into many languages, and was the basis for many stage, radio, and film versions. Rice published over 20 books in her lifetime.

The following inductee was Jean Ritchie (1922 – 2015).The youngest of 14 children — 10 of them girls – she was born in Viper, Kentucky, and is the first singer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  She was an iconic figure in American folk music who performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

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Ritchie‘s songs have been recorded by such artists as Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Judy Collins. She recorded 33 albums and published 10 books.

The final writer and only living one to be inducted into the 2016 Hall of Fame was Bobbie Ann Mason (1940). Mason was born on a dairy farm outside of Mayfield in western Kentucky. She has published 5 novels, 7 short fiction collections, a memoir, a biography, and 2 works of literary criticism.  She has been published by Harper and Row, HarperCollins and Random House.

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Mason’s first collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), brought critical acclaim, and she has been lauded as a master of the short story. Her stories have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. In 1985 she wrote her first novel, In Country, which was made into a Hollywood film. Mason professed to be inadequate as a speaker, but proved to be eloquent as she addressed the crowd. Her demeanor was one of utter humility—graciously thanking those who were assembled, and she proclaimed the importance of fiction readers.   

I asked Bobbie Ann if she has a writing goal she has yet to accomplish and she replied, ”A new book of stories! I’m experimenting a little with flash fiction, and I’d like to gather up some of those and see what happens.”

Mason’s major awards include the PEN/Hemingway Award, National Book Award finalist, The Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, The National Endowment for the Arts Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, and Southern Book Award for fiction.

I asked Bobbie Ann, given her many prestigious accolades, which she was most proud to have received. She replied, “I would have to say the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame is tops.” 

"The End" message typed by vintage typewriter.

  

Arts

AUTHOR PROFILE: Charles L. Roe

Charles L. Roe is a prolific Appalachian writer, having penned nine novels and one short story collection set in eastern Kentucky. He was born in 1934 in Harrison County, Kentucky. He worked as a cryptanalyst for the FBI from 1953 to 1957 where he broke diplomatic codes. He worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory from 1957 to 2000 as a project manager for U.S. Navy and NATO programs where he worked on combat issues. Mr. Roe lived in Washington D.C. from 1953 to 2000 before he retired and returned to Kentucky. Mr. Roe and I are friends, belonging to the same writers’ group, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him about his writing career.

“Charlie Roe practices a subtle magic in his work, writing with a direct style that creates a natural sense of immediacy. The reader feels present in his stories, firmly located amid unfolding characters and events, which generates a sympathy that reflects the deep current of compassion found in all his writing.” – Jennifer Barricklow, Lexington editor and poet.

UM: Given your extensive writing about Appalachia, what was your initial inspiration for writing novels based in eastern Kentucky? You are from central Kentucky. Do you have any family there?

CR: Being away from Kentucky (Washington DC) I was a little homesick and read the stories of Jesse Stuart and John Fox Jr. who set their stories in eastern Kentucky. The eastern Kentucky feuds, mountain schoolteachers, Frontier Nursing Service, mountain moonshining, etc. caught my fancy. And those people didn’t seem much removed from the people I grew up around. I consider myself to be primarily a writer of Appalachian fiction.

UM: What Kentucky writers, if any, have been an influence on you? What specific books by these writers have influenced you the most?

CR: John Fox Jr. “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come”, and “Heart of the Hills”; Elizabeth Maddox Roberts “The Time of Man” and “The Great Meadow”; Robert Penn Warren “All the King’s Men” and “World Enough and Time”; and Jesse Stuart “Taps for Private Tussie”, “Men of the Mountains”, and “Daughter of the Legend.”

UM: Have you traveled extensively to eastern Kentucky to do research for your work? When and where have you traveled?

CR: I have been up into eastern Kentucky many times. But prior to publication, when I was still working on “A Season for Healing” in 2009, I paid a couple of visits to the Frontier Nursing Headquarters in Hyden and visited some of the nursing outposts.

UM: Are there any current Kentucky authors whose work you read and admire?

CR: Silas House and Barbara Kingsolver who is from my home county of Nicholas. I also admire Sharyn McCrumb, an Appalachian mystery writer who lives over in Virginia.

UM: You recently chose to break away from using Appalachia as a setting. Will this be a permanent break from Appalachian writing for you?

CR: No, I have those books off my chest and will return to Appalachian fiction.

UM: I’d like to find out about your working methods as a writer. Since you’re a novelist, do you like to work from an outline, or do you have a good idea where a story is headed when you begin writing and let it develop?

CR: I think you have to have a good detailed outline before you start with a good idea of where the story will take you. I usually take seven or eight months researching the idea and putting together an outline. With everything in hand I can usually sit down and write it in three or four months.

UM: Some prominent Kentucky writers like Bobbie Ann Mason and Silas House have come out against mountain top removal. Another perennial issue is the state of education in eastern Kentucky. Do you have an opinion you would like to share about these subjects? Are there any other topics concerning eastern Kentucky you would like to comment on?

CR: Anyone who has flown over the eastern Kentucky mountains and seen the destruction of those imposing peaks must be outraged at mountaintop removal. And much of the wealth never goes into the pockets of Kentuckians. As far as educating the children, I wish we could convince them to forego drugs and tobacco.

UM: What education would you recommend for the aspiring writer? Do you have any advice for someone who has chosen writing as a career?

CR: I don’t think you can educate a writer. It has to be something burning inside you. I had a 47 year career with the FBI and Johns Hopkins U. Applied Physics Laboratory, but I never gave up the urge to write. I was surprised that with my best writing years behind me when I retired that I could still create. And my writing has improved even into my seventies and eighties.

UM: The publishing world has changed dramatically in your lifetime with the popularity of self-publishing and the advent of e-books. What is your opinion on this?

CR: When I was younger I despaired of ever getting published. Now with self-publishing it is easy to do. It is getting a bad name as more and more people who have a few hundred dollars to indulge themselves are putting some bad books up for sale. But be selective. There are a lot of good things getting into print that wouldn’t have during the days before computer- aided publishing.

UM: Are you currently writing another book? What future projects do you have in mind?

CR: I am preparing a second memoir covering my early years in Washington D.C. I will entitle it, “A Town on the Potomac.” After that I plan to collect all my short stories (about 60 in all) under the title, “The Place Your Heart Calls Home.”

 Most of these stories were written when the world was a happier place. When I could pause from a day at work in another town and remember the folks at home and in the mountains and reflect back on tales I had heard or that maybe I had misheard and embroidered a bit. The lives of these eastern Kentucky people seemed important and vital even if it was mostly to keep me running level and to remind me that the world where I was (mostly Washington, D.C.) was not where the real people lived.

I have always felt that a man will fall back on his blood and background. Of the stories in this volume I wrote most of them when I was far from the locale of their happening. Maybe I was homesick and wanted to cheer myself up, and in the telling I was finding a bit of home.

The people of eastern Kentucky and my own home counties of Nicholas and Bourbon and Fayette are very wonderful. They may drink a bit too much and smoke too much and I regret these tendencies, not because they offend me in any way, but because they are detrimental to the health of many that I love and cherish. Life in the hills is hard and many of the children of these “hillbillies” are leaving. The day of the rugged and sturdy mountaineer is rapidly passing – maybe is gone already. But I hope to have captured some of their best virtues (courage, patience, truthfulness, steadfastness, and humor) in these stories.

“No one likes to write, but everyone loves to have written,” I read somewhere. Putting these stories down on paper never seemed like an onerous chore to me. For a few hours I stole away from my sterile office and fished with my brother beside a Quiet Shaded Lake, watched Hemp Wagoner run off a batch of moonshine Under the Juniper Tree, and celebrated Old Christmas on a snowy night in the mountains. Enjoy.

            –  an excerpt from the Charles Roe’s short story collection.

The following are books by Charles L. Roe in the order they were published.

Moonbeams and Mistflowers (2005), Cumberland (2006), My Native Home (short stories (2006), Thistles (2007), Barren River (2008), Adrift (memoir – 2009), A Fort on the Chenoa (2010), Greenup Time (2010), A Season for Healing (2011), Big Sandy River (2012), Bourbon County (2013), Death on the Zurich Express (locked room mystery – 2014), A Little Gray Spy (spy novel – 2015) All of Charles Roe’s books are available on Amazon.com. Several are also available locally at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.