Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Huddleston Packer’

Nancy Huddleston Packer: under no one’s shadow

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Left to right: Kenneth Fields, Lucille Clifton, N. Scott Momaday and Nancy Huddleston Packer. (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Five years ago, I covered a Stanford event featuring Lucille Clifton, Kenneth Fields, N. Scott Momaday, and Nancy Huddleston Packer.  As so often happens when writing on deadline, the voices played out differently on the keyboard than they did at the event or in my head.

Crackerjack writer

All four were strong presences that night, but Clifton somehow began to dominate the final article, and Packer’s wry voice somehow got short shrift, which I regretted.

When a student asked how the three authors expected to be perceived by these children of the iPod age, Packer replied, without blinking, “I think all of us would like to be perceived as Shakespeare.”

“It’s important for us to look beyond the very moment and find what is lasting,” she added, after the laughter subsided.

Packer is coming to the fore again now, however, with her newly published collection of short stories, Old Ladies.

In an interview today in Palo Alto Online, the professor who headed Stanford’s Creative Writing Department described the effects of beginning her career in the era of Ernest Hemingway:

“It took me five years to be able to use an adjective. It had to be absolutely bare. I’m still not very good with adjectives and adverbs, but I know that it’s OK to use one when you need it,” she said, adding that over time her writing has become richer while retaining a relatively bare style, what she calls “no fancy dancing.”

What does writing look like for an 87-year-old? Pretty much like it always did:

Today her writing schedule isn’t so different from when she was teaching. Her mornings are spent in her study, writing mainly short stories. It can take her anywhere from two months to many years to complete a story.

“I mull over them for a long time. I’m an inveterate rewriter: I rewrite and rewrite. I change ‘a’ to ‘the’ and then to ‘an’ then back to ‘the’ again — just constant tinkering,” she said. Occasionally, she’d like to return to an earlier version, but once she switched to using a computer she lost the ability to retrieve the wadded-up ball from the trash.

There’s another chance to see her:  Try her at a reading and signing at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at the Stanford Bookstore.


Lucille Clifton: “Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Fields, Clifton, Momaday, and Packer nattering (Photo: Steve Castillo)

NPR lists eight new poetry collections to look for this year, and the late Lucille Clifton comes out on top:

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

I missed Clifton’s death in February 2010 in the pitiless onslaught of daily news events.  I had never been particularly drawn to her poems, but I was drawn to her person during her 2007 appearance at Stanford – I wrote about it here.  She appeared with a formidable team of aging writers, including N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Nancy Huddleston Packer (Jealous-Hearted Me), and poet Ken Fields (Classic Rough News).

As a journalist covering a panelist of speakers, it’s always a mystery how a story “happens” when you return to your computer and begin to tap on the keys. The best analogy is the old-time darkrooms, where you would watch the underwater film develop, and the object that had looked so prominent to your vision almost vanishes into the background, and something you hadn’t even noticed at the moment begins to appear under your fingertips.

So it was with that story.  One tries to be fair to everyone – but the person who spoke least may take the lead, and strong personalities sometimes fade precisely because their comments were a little off the dominant current of thought.  As the article begins to orient around themes, Clifton, who had been very impressive, began to disappear.  I stubbornly inserted a block of her quotes towards the end of the story, trying to reflect her powerful, uncompromising presence onstage.

Clifton had just described a poem that was “about other people dictating to you what you are to be.”

She said that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was “not broken by it,” trying instead “to bear it with grace and courage.” Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a “spy in the camp” of academia—”people are amazed I know anything at all.”

Then the line I have never forgotten:  “I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me.”

The New York Times characterized her poetry as “moral intensity leavened by humor.” Her poetry “combined an intense, sometimes earthy voice with a streamlined economy of language. (She frequently did away with punctuation and capitalization as so much unwanted baggage.)”

Not greatly drawn to it, for the most part – just a matter of personal taste – except for this lyrical, enigmatic poem, which I found in her Pulitzer-nominated collection Good Woman, and I found myself returning to again and again:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god.
i agree with the leaves.