A young writer's fingertips tremble with the beauty of expression, the power of an idea. As Joyce Carol Oates began to read her poetry the afternoon of March 22, hundreds of fingertips in Norman James Theatre shared a wavelength that would not diminish until the Sophie Kerr Literary Festival ended the following day.
In his introduction of Oates, professor Robert Mooney provided a biography that illustrated the diversity and breadth of the celebrated author's work, inspiring the visiting prospective students to achieve literary greatness.
Although Oates' written voice has resounded through contemporary literature, her spoken voice was as coy, delicate, and elegant as her demeanor. She spoke of the faith of the writer in pursuit of art, noting how the isolation required of a writer increases her delight in social interactions.
"I get very lonely, and when I get loosed out of my room I get kind of excited," she explained in humor-strummed discourse.
"This is not me speaking. It's certainly not me," she preceded her first work, a short "anti-poem, a signature piece like a block, a lurid dollar sign."
Oates' love of writing began with a general interest in creative things. "I wasn't stifled young enough," she quipped.
Her second poem was fresh from the slate of her imagination: "Sometimes I read new poetry to make myself nervous and excited." The poem showcased a psychiatric patient's hobby of constructing kites, using kinetic imagery and moments of comedy contrasted against the sinister backdrop of the narrator's mental turmoil.
The piece had intonations of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the "oversized books of wonders" that helped shape Oates' style of morbid playfulness. Her other favorites include the works of the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau, who she deems admirable for his "American irreverence."
Her reading delved into black humor with a subsequent poem about removing skin from the dead, harvesting human skin, and the satisfaction of being a skin donor. Then she lightened the mood with a poetic drive along the New Jersey turnpike at night. "It's so beautiful," she remarked of its pollution-scorched vista.
While she writes prolifically from poetry to the nonfiction essay, she feels that the novel provides the greatest creative freedom. "The novel is the most difficult form, I think the novel is the most capacious of the forms."
Like many of her novels, her next poem, "Waiting on Elvis in 1956," was adopted from an article she read in a newspaper. Intrigued by the innocence of American culture at that time, she sought to portray how fame calcified the young King of Rock and Roll.
Looking to the past, Oates maintained that it is impossible to conjecture the next movement in American literature. "Prophecies are futile. Everyone makes prophecies, no one anticipated September 11." She elaborated, "Three or four years ago, e-books were the thing of the future. They didn't catch on."
Of her final piece, a short story titled "The Girl with a Blackened Eye," Oates warned the audience, "The person who is telling the story is not me. Maybe I am the person who the story is being told to."
She then recounted the graphic tale of a fifteen-year-old who was forcibly abducted, raped and tortured for eight days in a cabin in the Sonora Mountains, and granted life by her captor.
"Life is tragic, pain, mystery, bewilderment," Oates remarked about the dark motif that characterizes much of her writing. "There is short-run happiness like a knit sweater," she expounded.
Without any fixed time to write, Oates has assimilated writing into the daily activities of her life. She feels that one of the most potent creative pastimes is running. "Everything is moving like a movie or a stream. When I write I remember what I've seen."
For the aspiring writers at WC, she smiled, "Chestertown seems like a nice place to run."
Oates joined the prospective students for dinner at the Hynson-Ringgold house. She entertained the questions of many promising writers before leaving for a psychoanalytic symposium on the aftereffects of September 11.
After feasting upon the company of Oates, the prospective students spent the night with their student hosts. The following morning they sallied to the literary house to be immersed in their passion: a creative writing workshop, a printing workshop, and an engaging dialogue with alumni writers entitled "Choosing the Write Path."
Since winning the Sophie Kerr Prize in 1997, alumnus Brandon Hopkins explained how he has found a career working in publishing houses and as a freelance copywriter. Lee Ann Chearney '81 founded Amaranth, an independent book producer, after working as an editor and publisher. Since serving as editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine since 1994, Sue DePasquale '87 has brought the publication into journalistic acclaim. David Healey '88 authored the Civil War novel Sharpshooter, teaches journalism at Cecil Community College, and is the managing editor of Cecil County Whig newspaper in Elkton, MD.
With renewed creative vigor, the prospective students left the Sophie Kerr Literary Festival anxious to actualize their potential as writers. The promise of literary success coursed through their bodies, from their hearts to the tips of their fingers.