In a few more days, Spring Semester 2008 will just be memories. And what a semester it has been. Not only have I been to the AWP smorgasbord of writers in NYC this semester, the Alabama Book Festival treated us to seventy writers from all over the country. Yet if I could have traveled only a few blocks from my front door, the last three months have brought a surprising parade of interesting minds to town.
Billy Bob Thornton came to our area partly because he remembered traveling to Muscle Shoals when he was seventeen to record with his band (all black except for him) at the famous sound studios there. I was in the 'standing room only' section for Billy Bob's kickoff presentation for UNA's annual film festival, but I didn't mind standing one bit as we watched clips of movies he had written or in which he had acted. Billy Bob says he weighs 140 but I swear he looks like a trim 125, and he claims he's too old now to gain weight to play roles, as he did earlier in his career for Slingblade. He said when he first went to LA, he worked as a stand-up comic who was regularly heckled for his hick Southern accent, so he began going out on stage and instantly telling his audience that he was Southern and they'd best get used to it because the South had given the country a good percentage of its literature and virtually all of its original music. Billy Bob has attitude. Gotta love a man who has hung out with Robert Duvall as much as Billy Bob has.
Having Eve Ensler visit was nothing less than a lucky fluke-----and a lot of hard work by a handful of women students who had seen her in Atlanta last year and begged her to visit our small campus where Violence Against Women and Girls has been such a focus issue for many years. The fact that this woman has raised more than $50 million to combat worldwide violence against women and girls with the help of celebrities and ordinary people such as UNA students is testament to the fact that one person can make a huge difference in the world. Yes, our campus has participated in V-Day for quite some time, but Eve was here partly because of V 10, V to the 10th power that was held in the Super Dome in New Orleans to benefit women who were pushed from their homes by Katrina and who either experienced or witnessed unspeakable violence toward women and girls during the ordeal.
Three days after Eve's visit, the Pulitzer prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey read to a full auditorium twice, from her first and second collections but also from NATIVE GUARD, her latest collection. Our students were well prepared for her visit since we had shared her work in classes. The essays I received about her reading represented some of the very best, most original writing I read from students all semester.
Then just last Thursday night Rheta Grimsley Johnson, the syndicated columnist, read at the downtown library from her recent book, POOR MAN'S PROVENCE, a collection of tales written from her experiences living on a one-room houseboat in bayou country in Louisiana which served as her 'vacation home'. Rheta is as humble and unassuming a writer as you would ever want to come across. She is a kind person who was genuinely pleased her book was selling well as people stood in line with copies, waiting to get them signed. "I'm glad y'all are buying these," she said from the podium. "I need a new roof."
I thought of all of these writers yesterday as I stood out amongst the plants at the Lowe's Home Improvement Center and picked out a couple of knock-out roses (what a name!) to plant by my front door and loaded up on bale after bale of pine straw, all that my old dilapidated station wagon would hold. The semester has ground to a halt and all I want to do is clean up my house and tend to my yard in a way that will convince my neighbors that perhaps we do still live there. Thoughts of these writers play back in my mind as I tend my roses and water the ferns and pull weeds and trim back the ivy. Maybe Voltaire had it right in "Candide." There is definitely a time in the season to tend one's own garden and ponder one's experiences.