past is with us: Tobias Seamon.
author Tobias Seamon finds inspiration in tangled history
of Henry Hudson’s river By John Rodat
a sense, every story is a ghost story. If the storyteller’s
greatest gift is imagination, his greatest resource is recollection:
Observation, experience and study provide the material. Whatever
the motivation—whether “happy ever after” or “memento mori”—today’s
stories are made of yesterday. A ghost is just a memory with
an ax to grind.
Seamon, whose work is richly informed by the gnarly, dark
history of the Hudson Valley, knows this connection well.
He is not a writer of ghost stories, per se, but Seamon writes
of a haunted world: a world that cannot slip its own history,
a world populated by characters whose backstories seem not
so much past as plotting. It’s an eerie, foreboding kind of
patience, one that Seamon senses even in the landscape here.
Of the defining physical feature of the region, he says, “The
river holds sway. And though it’s not exactly against us,
it’s not really for us.”
Seamon, who grew up on a dairy farm in the Columbia County
town of Stuyvesant, is alert to the dark and fantastical elements
of regional history and geography. It’s evident in the nonfiction
writing he has done as a contributing writer for the Web site
The Morning News, for whom he wrote a series on the colonial
origins of New York state. The evocatively titled “Deadwood
on the Hudson” more than matches that HBO series debauch for
debauch, depredation for depredation, some two centuries earlier.
The precarious and grand ambition of the colonial is found
in Seamon’s fiction, too. His characters aspire in adversity.
They build and triumph, even. But, whatever their circumstances,
they are never merely present. Seamon’s characters are seeded
with the past.
famously haunted,” Seamon says. And as befits a member of
a literary family (Seamon’s mother, Hollis, is a professor
and fiction writer, as is his wife, Gretchen Ingersoll), he
cites another storyteller: “Washington Irving is the founding
father of the haunted Hudson Valley.”
In one of his earliest published short stories, “Reviewing
the Execution,” (which can be found online at absinthe literaryreview.com/stories/seamon.),
Seamon’s fascination with the complexities of the hinterland
is evident. In it, Daniel Owen Gaff, an executioner, celebrated
for his “panache, flamboyancy, and concern for detail,” takes
on a hanging in a rural hamlet. Much to the dismay of the
reviewer, who critiques the execution as one would a provincial
theatrical performance, the setting has its effect on the
succumbing to the squalid atmosphere that he himself had fashioned,
Gaff leapt up and lent his weight to the flailing Farley.
The idea of Gaff being forced to tender a service so below
his rank was compounded by the livid enjoyment that Gaff displayed
as he yanked and clawed at Farley’s legs, screaming with laughter
the whole time.
In this early work, Seamon has not yet explicitly taken on
the Hudson Valley as setting, but even here there are intimations
of a later theme: You can take the protagonist out of the
valley . . .
Seamon’s 2004 debut novel, The Magician’s Study: A Guided
Tour of the Life, Times and Memorabilia of Robert “The Great”
Rouncival, is—though fewer than 200 pages—a sprawling
and ambitious book. As the title states, the novel’s narration
is ostensibly a docent’s patter during a visit through the
historic Hudson Valley home of Rouncival, a world-famous magician
and showman. The guide, however, has a closer connection to
the story than is first revealed, and the tale told is far
broader, deeper and more mysterious than the typical bullet-point
tour of a musty monument.
The knowledgeable narrator recounts Rouncival’s progress through
the early portion of the 20th century: The son of a Kingston
watch repairman, Rouncival is horribly injured at the hoof
of a Holstein, a wound that likely spares him a muddy death
in the trenches of Europe but also leaves him a freak, of
sorts, to his able-bodied peers. He runs away and joins—as
all wayward, dreamy or misfit children dreamed before rock
& roll—the circus, where he begins to develop the craft
that will consume his life. Over the course of his brief 40
years, Rouncival travels the country and the world, becoming
both celebrated and notorious for his increasingly sophisticated,
macabre and inexplicable illusions. In doing so, he rubs elbows—sometimes
belligerently—with the likes of Harry Houdini, Dutch Schultz,
Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth and other icons of the era.
Ultimately, though, he settles very near his birthplace. For
all his dramatic reinvention, for all his travels, at the
end of his life Rouncival is remarkably unchanged. The woman
who knew him best says, “I think that if he was a Hindu or
belonged to some belief of any kind, Robert would choose to
start over again as Robert every time, forever and ever.”
And the magician’s dying words are addressed to a figure from
his youth, one who never knew him as a celebrity.
The novel’s historical sweep has drawn comparisons to E.L.
Doctorow’s Ragtime and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning
The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; but at its heart,
The Magician’s Study is a focused, local story about
the tangled relationship between self and home.
Seamon has two books scheduled for release in 2011: The U.K.-based
PS Publishing have picked up his story collection, The
Emperor’s Toy Chest, and the novella The Fairgrounds.
He also is currently at work on another novel, A Revenger’s
Tragedy, which he characterizes as a “Hudson Gothic thriller.”
It’s a “long epistolary interview” with a once-famous writer
turned recluse. From his family’s Dutch estate, the writer
unspools his life and the reasons for his reclusivity. With
a slight smile, Seamon says, “It’s dark.”
Which is apropos, given Seamon’s responsiveness to the currents
of the Hudson and its course, his drive to dowse its depths
and tell its tale. It’s a tale of long memory and lingering
hurt, of slights and spirits.
As Seamon says, “The Hudson Valley bears a grudge.”
Krugman; Bottom: Mario Cuomo and William Kennedy at
the birth of the New York State Writers Institute in
impossible to pick a favorite moment from the hundreds of
programs presented by the New York State Writers Institute
over the last quarter-century. Poets, novelists, journalists
and filmmakers of all stripes have graced the stage at the
University at Albany’s Page Hall (most of the year) or at
Skidmore College (in the summer), read from their works, answered
questions, and generally enriched our region’s cultural experience.
Did you miss Saul Bellow? Were you there when Jamaica Kincaid
read from her just-published novel The Autobiography of
My Mother, or John Barth read from The Book of Ten
Nights and a Night, or when Toni Morrison welcomed Spike
Lee to a three-day symposium on black cinema—and Lee brought
his latest film to show, his sophomore feature School Daze?
Certainly you’ve attended one of the programs featuring the
Institute’s executive director, the Pulitzer Prize-winning
novelist (and unofficial Albany historian) William Kennedy.
He’s read from his works, and welcomed his friends (including
the late Hunter S. Thompson).
One indelible moment happened only five years ago, when, in
the thick of the presidential contest between George W. Bush
and John Kerry, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
took the stage. She was there to read from her collection
Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, to a house packed
with people mostly hostile to the president and delighted
with Dowd’s trademark snark. During the Q & A period,
someone asked if John Kerry could still blow it. The hall
fell silent. Of course, replied Dowd.
This provoked a collective sigh of dismay.
Reminded of this night, Writers Institute director Donald
Faulkner laughs. Like all their programs, Dowd’s reading was
free—but Page Hall is a smallish venue, and it was packed
to the top of the balcony.
entire editorial board/staff of the Times Union had
dinner together, then came over,” Faulkner remembers. “The
fire marshal had already locked down the building. The very
people who publish Maureen Dowd in the local paper were shut
To celebrate the anniversary, they’ve put together quite a
lineup of guests. Rita Moreno just gave the annual Burian
Lecture; tomorrow (Friday) night, economist, columnist and
Pulitzer Prize- winner Paul Krugman will speak. Other speakers
will include Lorrie Moore, Richard Russo, Gary Giddins, Rebecca
Wolf, Doris Kearns Goodwin with Mario Cuomo, and Don DeLillo
with Russell Banks. (Apparently Thomas Pynchon wasn’t available.)
the anniversary seasons we sort of went for the blockbuster
approach,” says Faulkner, who’s been here for the last 15-odd
years of the organization’s life.
think we’re going to have a series of turn-away events,” he
added. So that more people than 900-seat Page Hall can hold
will be able to enjoy the programs, they’re planning to tape
them and possibly screen them, C-SPAN style, a few days later.
Asked what he likes best about his job, Faulkner’s answer
think it’s getting paid to hang out with writers, and getting
to find out how they think, and generally finding out that
95 percent of these people are really nice,” he says.
Faulkner has a lot of entertaining anecdotes, and not just
about writers. Such as having to learn the hard way that it’s
not a good idea to run yellow traffic lights, late at night,
in the general vicinity of the UAlbany uptown campus—even
if you’re rushing an author to the airport.
This is all, Faulkner explains, the result of William Kennedy’s
simple but elegant idea at the beginning of the New York State
just wanted people to come to Albany . . . for literary conversations,”
Of course, this only works if an organization has good word-of-mouth:
“We have a reputation in the writers’ community for being
Beginning a decade before Faulkner arrived—when the late,
great Tom Smith was director—the Writers Institute started
making audio recordings of, and then videotaping, its programs.
have this massive archive now of interviews with writers,
videos of readings and craft talks,” Faulkner says. “We’ve
been told that it’s probably the best of its kind in the country.
. . . So we’ve left a record. There’s a lot of really high-quality
When told that this must be a great resource for UAlbany,
Faulkner responds, “Yes, and for the public.”
So the archive will become more widely available?
is one of the things we’re working on now,” he says. “In fact,
it’s sort of our front-burner project. We’re digitizing the
older footage, and creating a platform to make it possible
to make the archive entirely accessible on the Web.”
have a lot of video clips—probably over a hundred of them—that
are sort of teasers of what the whole thing might look like,”
Faulkner says. “You can access them from the Institute Web
The Web address is albany.edu/ writers-inst/.
only did all these wonderful events happen” Faulkner notes,
“but we have a sharable record of them.”
So in this anniversary year, the New York State Writers Institute
is celebrating the past, and building for the future.
Krugman will speak tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 9) at 8 PM at Page
Hall (135 Western Ave., Albany). For more info, call 442-5620.
And be sure to get there early.
find their voice through one volunteer’s prison poetry class
By Josh Potter
was a fittingly poetic revelation. Cara Benson was ap proaching
completion of an MFA in poetics from Goddard College but lacked
the requisite teaching practicum for her degree. For weeks
she’d been asking around at schools and arts organizations
in hopes that there’d be an opening. Tired and frustrated,
she went to bed one night and asked God, the universe, or
whatever, to tell her what she needed to do. In the morning
she sat bolt-upright with a plan. She grabbed the phone, called
a friend who’d been working as a drug and alcohol counselor
at the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton, and said,
“I’m going to teach poetry at your prison.”
Mt. McGregor is a medium-security men’s prison that houses
an inmate population of approximately 550. Although Benson
makes a point of never asking her students what manner of
crime led to their sentence, her impression is that, amid
the full spectrum of murderers and sex-offenders who’ve cycled
down from maximum-security facilities due to good behavior,
a large number of inmates are men of color, in on drug-related
Before Benson approached Mt. McGregor with her idea, the prison
had never offered a class of its kind. “It’s an uphill thing,”
she jokingly admits, “to say, ‘I’m bringing poetry to your
prison.’ It’s not just like something they do there.” Even
so, her counselor friend marveled at how quickly the class
was approved. She was offered a three-month block to teach
one two-hour class every week in a strange purple classroom
in the corner of the building. Participants were screened
on the nature of their offense and level of interest, and
before long, Benson found herself at the head of a small class,
with a correctional officer keeping watch from outside the
She admits that the prospect of teaching poetry to prisoners
was, at first, intimidating. “It was scary,” she says, “but
not because I thought I was going to get hurt. I thought they
were going to call me out as a fraud or a fake. Just hurt
my feelings.” But as spontaneous as the idea was, it was far
from unprecedented, and Benson had been doing her homework.
Until the Clinton years, when PELL funding for prison education
was cut drastically, classes of this nature were abundant.
Skidmore College had a degree program at Mt. McGregor, and
documentation of prison education is readily available.
whole idea was to try and sit at this table with these guys
as their equals,” she says. “It’s not a top-down, bank-deposit
education. I knew that wouldn’t work.” Because the class carried
no academic credit and participants approached the material
with a varying degree of poetic experience, creating a syllabus
was a challenge. She couldn’t, as she says, sit down and demand
they learn iambic pentameter. Instead, she knew she’d have
to cultivate a conversation where the students’ personal interests
guided the material.
make the joke that I have a captive audience,” says Benson,
who’s since gone on to teach in a number of contexts, “but
it’s really far from it.” A prison is a busy place where inmates
balance mandated work duties with drug treatment, parenting
classes, television, and rec yard privileges. Because attendance
can be challenging, Benson found that her students were all
there because of genuine, passionate interest. The class originally
was conducted under the auspices of the drug treatment program,
but Benson never approached it as therapy. Instead, the two-hour
block turned into a forum during which no topic of conversation
was off-limits and the prisoners were allowed to wake an expressive
part of their personalities they’d grown accustomed to guarding.
just seems wild at first,” she says, “with conversation going
a million different directions, and I know the CO is out there
saying, ‘how is that poetry?’ ” After Benson’s three months
expired, the class had proven as valuable to her own life
and writing practice as it had for her students. Now, four
years later, she continues to teach every Tuesday, regardless
of whether she’s wrangled grant money to support the project.
class] was a couple hours when you could mentally leave prison,”
says Dawud Gonzalez, one of Benson’s original students. He
says he found poetry to be a great form of expression, and
a tool for reaching other people. He garnered the nickname
“the Prophet” for the heavy truth he was known to deliver.
“A lot of people got to know me for reciting poetry,” he says,
“and it was normal for someone to stop me on the walkway and
ask me to recite something.”
Having finished his time at Mt. McGregor, Gonzalez now lives
in Brooklyn, where he continues to write poetry and plays.
Gonzalez and Benson recently met for the first time outside
of prison at a reading in Manhattan for the PEN Prison Writing
Contest. Gonzalez cites Benson’s class as having been critical
not only to his time in prison, but to his development as
a person. “I was no longer antisocial. I opened up and spoke
more. If we came in and something was bothering us, Cara would
find a poem that would go along with that and say things like,
‘If you could tell that individual right now what you think,
what would you say?’ We’d write for 15 minutes, talk about
it, and by the end of the day it made everything better.”
Benson admits that she had to get over a common perception
among inmates of poetry as a club of “dead white guys.” So,
rather than starting with the canon, she presented poetry
by Black Arts Movement poets, Latino poets, and other incarcerated
poets. “We’d get so riled up reading this righteous stuff,”
she says, that her students developed an appetite for all
kinds of work. One student once complained that, despite taking
the class, he still couldn’t answer any of the poetry questions
on Jeopardy, so they read Shakespeare’s sonnets, e.e.
cummings, Frost and Yeats. “I’ll bring in anything from a
Language poet to a dead Chinese guy from before the common
era. We’ll look at it and break it down. And they friggin’
love Ginsberg,” she says. “As soon as they hear ‘I saw the
best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .’ it’s
like, OK, we’re going in.”
Most importantly, the class provides an opportunity for prisoners
to constructively work out emotion though writing. “I get
thankfully surprised all the time,” Benson says. “I put this
stuff up against anything that’s happening in poetry.” In
the course of a class, students are allowed to tune out the
hard time ahead, and permitted to reflect on how they’ve come
to this juncture in their lives. As one student told her,
“I’m doing 10 years for what Rush Limbaugh got to apologize
for.” The more they write and workshop each other’s poetry,
Benson says, the more the conversation shifts into poetry’s
ability to communicate between prisoners and with the outside
world. Some students have begun submitting their work to literary
journals and the PEN contest, for which Mt. McGregor inmate
R.C. “Coda” Brown was chosen as a finalist last year.
The reputation of Benson’s class has grown within Mt. McGregor
such that the group’s monthly Speak Out events now generate
attendance of more than 100 inmates and staff, even on nights
when the Giants are on TV. The event is open to the entire
prison, and Gonzalez remembers having been moved to hear a
prison sergeant recite a poem alongside inmates. Benson says
the event even elicits reactions from the normally stoic officers.
Starting this fall, Siena College will be trying out a for-credit
program at Mt. McGregor, working through volunteers like Benson.
In addition to poetry, prisoners will be offered courses in
macroeconomics and theology. Benson applauds the decision
and says she’s eager to expand her class to 25 students. Unlike
the Tuesday afternoon group, however, this class includes
tests, required reading and writing assignments. After surveying
a variety of contemporary forms, the class will pore over
the Best American Poetry series and compile its own
anthology. For their term paper, each student will have to
write an introduction justifying their selections.
If all goes well, the program could become a permanent gig
comparable to Bard College’s celebrated Prison Initiative.
Either way, Benson says she’ll keep spending her Tuesday afternoons
at Mt. McGregor. “It’s a dream job,” she says. “It’s like
that old adage, ‘If you want to learn something, sign up to
teach it.’ I think we’re all growing up in there as artists
and as people. Me too.”
more information on Cara Benson’s personal work, visit necessetics.com,
and for info on the PEN Prison Writing Contest visit pen.org.
Seán M. Dalpiaz
Rounded steel ordering footsteps that grant a thought
to a guard’s lips;
lip service cracks the concrete, the state workers
plow their machines through to fill the cracks
with hot tar;
the masked never walk on hot tar,
one man’s steam is the next man’s melted dream;
these are the days spent hoping
the back door will be open;
a straight-faced silent obsession and compulsion sets in as
the texture of fake wood railings ooze their oils
onto frightened palms,
and the shuffling from both sides begins:
other prisoners”: a duty or chance to release someone
the prisoners: an ease, a breathing backwards stance of courage,
a scattered, rushed breech of confidence stolen
from some false idol’s sermon.
I scatter the images and check if my heart is still
All faces are blurred and stretched:
I smile at its temporary nature.
(In response to Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around.” First
published in Boog City #48)
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