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Speaking of Flannery: Over the Rhine, Julie Lee, and More

I’ve known Katy Bowser for several years, and am always struck by her brightness of disposition. She’s got this classy, Golden Age kind of quality to her, and the music she makes with her husband Kenny Hutson is the same.  At a retreat with Charlie Peacock several years ago Katy told me she had written a book of poetry. I immediately had a long list of questions for her: How did she find a publisher? How long had she been writing? What kind of poetry? Does she have copies of her book with her? Will she sell me one?

When she gave me her book, I was humbled to discover that she wasn’t one of those writers who writes just for the dream of publication, or for notoriety, or for money. Her little book, you see, was handmade. The pages were lovingly bound in a strip of patterned fabric. This was a collection of poems written by someone compelled to decorate the world with beautiful things. And that’s just what Katy does.

I’m glad she agreed to write a piece for the Rabbit Room, and I hope it’s not her last.

–The Proprietor


I ran into Andrew Peterson at Vanderbilt Divinity School the other day.  We were there to hear a panel discussion on Flannery O’Connor by a group of artists who had performed a benefit the evening before for Andalusia, Flannery’s homeplace in Milledgeville, GA.

It’s always pleasant to run into Andrew, particularly as it often feels that he’s a couple of steps ahead of where I’d like to be on a few projects.  Any time a person I know personally finishes writing an entire book, let alone a series, they develop a certain mythical quality to me. I’m forty-odd pages and a rough outline into one, and am just amazed at the notion of somebody finishing that particular race.  When I went to my first marathon (at twenty five years old) I couldn’t help but yell “YOU’RE AMAZING” at the runners until I was hoarse.  If I were to do that while Andrew was writing, it might break his concentration.  I did tell him that I was enjoying the Rabbit Room, and he offered me the immediate assignment of writing about the panel discussion–it seems there’s a perceived shortage of female contributors in the bunch?

Some of my favorites were present at the panel.  I knew half of them, which made for a fun time, as they chatted and consider some favorite things.  Minton Sparks, storyteller extraordinaire.  Julie Lee, songwriter and visual artist- my husband Kenny and I were in her band for a couple of years.   Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler from Over the Rhine, with whom my husband Kenny currently plays.  Mary Gauthier rounded out the group.  She’s one of my new favorites to listen to, whether singing or talking.  The show at Mercy Lounge the night before meant that all of the artists had been palling around and having a good time, there was potential for a well-oiled existing conversation.

The difficulty in writing about the discussion is that it didn’t much develop as a discussion. Had these artists been left alone in the corner of Rumours Wine Bar for a couple of hours, the discussion would have been more natural–especially with such a thoughtful group of artists.  The medium of conversation served to stunt the flow of thought.  Of course a moderator has to have a prepared set of questions–what if the panelists aren’t talking?  The difficulty is that there were no such difficulties, and little direction was really needed–these panelists interacted so naturally.  Things felt stilted at times, and we made ninety degree turns away from roads we were happily meandering down.

The talk began with a comment about Flannery’s dark themes and use of violence.   There was some wondering on the moderator’s part about why dark things can make people laugh in Flannery’s stories. Minton Sparks (a storyteller with a dark streak) answered.  The night before she had performed stories about adultery, gossip, suicide and murder in such a way that we were all howling.  Who can listen to a story about the local gossiping “hens” as Minton struts and cackles and pecks and scratches without seeing the humor in it? Minton pointed out that if you tell a dark story over and over, it develops a mythic quality and allows people to laugh.

Karin added an observation that joy and suffering occupy the same part of the brain.  I thought, what a mercy.  If they were farther from each other…  My own experience confirms the thought–it’s so kind that sweet joy lingers near the edges of hard sorrow.

Along these lines, Mary Gauthier brought out one of my favorite thoughts of the afternoon. (She did that a few times.) Mary likes to go dark–as she said, she “goes for the spook.  Swamp air and poisonous snakes”.  She warned, though, that we don’t go to the dark places gratuitously.  We go there because the dark places make us see the light shine brighter.   Adding wonderful to wonderful, Mary quoted Woody Guthrie.  Our job, she said, is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.  Silly Katy, thinking that her pastor made that up himself when he prayed that.

The discussion moved to the importance of a writer’s region.  I think most all of the panelists were reluctant to talk on the subject.  Clearly region plays into all of the artists’s work–the South and Appalachia in Julie’s work, the South in Minton and Mary’s, Ohio in Over the Rhine’s. I was mulling over Eudora Welty’s idea in my head, that she could write about either a place she knew intimately or a place she’d never been, nothing in between.   Yet I gathered they all understood there’s more than one answer to that question.

As an example of writing outside of one’s own region, Jewly Height (the moderator) asked Karin to quote a line from their song “Jesus in New Orleans”:  “The last time I saw Jesus I was drinking bloody marys in the south”.   Linford jumped in, pointing out that they were not trying to make a literary point with the line.  The song did in fact start with a good bloody mary in the south, and “the literary stuff came later”.   Good encouragement as writer to live, and see what comes of it.  Jewly asked Over the Rhine about their southern ties, and Linford graciously conceded a bit of south-jealousy.   Karin pointed out with a grin that Cincinnati is southern Ohio.  Gracious guest that she is, she pointed out that the south has a lovely, nurtured tradition of storytelling for working out their issues and “Northerners go to therapy for it”.

Along the lines of “writing regionally,” Julie Lee, a transplant from Maryland with roots in Pennsylvania who lives in Nashville, mentioned that she’s tried on different hats in this respect.  Julie sounded halfway apologetic about this “trying on,” as though perhaps it was inauthentic.  I was in Julie’s band for a couple of years, and know her and her songs pretty well.  I would like to vouch for her in this department.  The reason that Julie can pull this off is that she has such great empathy. She gets inside a character’s head and considers life from their point of view.  Good friends out fishing, a community in Pennsylvania losing two little boys, Maybelle Carter home raising babies while A.P. is on the road.

This empathy of Julie’s strikes me as a case for why a writer who is a Christian ought to have a leg up on writing well, all other things being equal.  (I suddenly feel as though I’ve painted a target on my back.  But I mean it.)  A writer with a basic understanding of the glory and brokenness of the human situation and heart has an awful lot to glean from when considering their subject.

Which leads me to the lack in the conversation.  The massive elephant in Vanderbilt Divinity School’s panel discussion was any direct address of O’Connor’s spirituality.  Her overt Christianity, her Catholicism.  Don’t get me wrong, the conversation was steeped in themes of mercy, mystery, darkness, justice.  Flannery seemed to have little place for abstract discussion of themes, though.  Her notions are thoroughly embodied.   My friend Tish Warren brought up a story she’d heard about Flannery going to a chic party at Mary McCarthy’s house in New York City, where in discussion, Mary said that the Eucharist was a symbol of the Holy Ghost, and a beautiful one.  Flannery famously replied “Well if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”.  Flannery’s respect for incarnation, body, ideas in flesh and blood are the stuff of a great storyteller.  Christianity in person, and distorted Christianity in the person of distorted and ugly people and their actions are the stuffs in which she trades.

How do you have a discussion of Flannery O’Connor and her writing without bringing up her Catholicism, her prophetic eye for the South’s Christ-hauntedness?  The writers nudged it in, happened to be folks whose understanding of life is infused with an understanding of where grace, mystery, justice, brokenness intersect with life. No one’s fault, necessarily, and hindsight’s 20/20.   But to have this discussion at Vanderbilt Divinity School without bringing up Christ in her writings made the whole thing feel off-kilter.

Short of directly confronting the reality of Jesus, Flannery’s work doesn’t have a lot of direction or legs.  She startled and shocked, drew her large figures and freaks so that sightless folks could see.  Like Minton, she mocked what needed mocking, called out fools and evils and gave religious people a mirror.  Like all of the great storytellers on the panel, called a spade a spade and told her stories like they needed telling. I just think she might have had a tantrum at what was missing.  Kind of a Flannery story right there: a discussion of Flannery O’Connor at Vanderbilt Divinity that skirted (or just kinda missed?) the divine.


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