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The past is with us: Tobias Seamon.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

His Old Haunts

Local author Tobias Seamon finds inspiration in tangled history of Henry Hudson’s river By John Rodat

In 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.

Tobias 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.

“We’re 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 hangman:

Perhaps 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.”


Paul Krugman; Bottom: Mario Cuomo and William Kennedy at the birth of the New York State Writers Institute in 1984.

Literary Lions

It’s 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.

“The 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 out.”

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.)

“For 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.

“I 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 comes easily.

“I 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 Writers Institute.

“He just wanted people to come to Albany . . . for literary conversations,” he says.

Of course, this only works if an organization has good word-of-mouth: “We have a reputation in the writers’ community for being good hosts.”

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.

“We 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 stuff.”

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?

“This 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.”

“We 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 site.”

The Web address is albany.edu/ writers-inst/.

“Not 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.

Paul 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.

Bards Behind Bars

Inmates find their voice through one volunteer’s prison poetry class By Josh Potter

It 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 charges.

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 closed door.

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.

“The 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.

“People 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.

“It 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.

“[Benson’s 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.”

For more information on Cara Benson’s personal work, visit necessetics.com, and for info on the PEN Prison Writing Contest visit pen.org.

Walking Around

By 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,

locks turn,

and the shuffling from both sides begins:

“the other prisoners”: a duty or chance to release someone

else’s beliefs,

the prisoners: an ease, a breathing backwards stance of courage,

of life;

a scattered, rushed breech of confidence stolen

from some false idol’s sermon.

I scatter the images and check if my heart is still

in place.

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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