Hall of Fame writers share insights at literary salon
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Visitors to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame at the University of Georgia on Thursday got to see books, manuscripts and other items connected with some of Georgia’s best known authors.
They also got to hear thoughts on the art and craft of writing – and the meaning of literature – from five living Hall of Fame members. Dr. Coleman Barks, Dr. David Bottoms, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Terry Kay and Philip Lee Williams took part in a writers’ salon and literary discussion down the hallway from the Hall of Fame exhibit in the new Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.
The five reflected on the spiritual aspect of literature. Ortiz Cofer said the words “spirit” and “grace” kept recurring when her mother died. Ortiz Cofer described herself as a lapsed Catholic, while her mother’s faith deepened with the years.
“As my mother kept growing older, she kept pursuing the definition of what a spiritual life is,” Ortiz Cofer said. That experience has flavored Ortiz Cofer’s writing.
Bottoms, who teaches at Georgia State, said he urges his students to “learn now to use language to get at what is is important to you.”
Bottoms – named Georgia’s poet laureate in 2000 – also talked about “how poems operate mystically” and spoke of “using language to make art.” A writer is in some sense “a seeker after significance” whose writings will inevitably reveal “a spiritual significance in things,” he said.
Williams said writing is spiritual in the sense of connecting ideas and people. “By spiritual, I don’t mean religion, and I don’t mean spiritually dealing with a specific set of beliefs,” he said.
Writing can offer “an attempt to see behind the reality of things to see a different meaning,” Williams said.
Kay said he does not set out to put spiritual flavor into a story, but sometimes finds that readers have found it. He also recalled a college professor “who talked extensively about qualities beyond the written page.”
Reflecting on how authors can delve into deep spiritual places, Kay said, “Sometimes you don’t know it as a writer.”
The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame members also talked about what makes writing literature. “The proof is not in the numbers you sell but whether it touches somebody,” Ortiz Cofer postulated.
For a piece of writing to reach the level of art, “a least one other person has to be moved,” she explained.
“What I try to do with writing is take language and make it correspond somehow to consciousness – my own consciousness and the world out there, which is another consciousness,” said Barks, a poet and renowned translator of Near Eastern poets.
“I’m not sure how they affect people,” Barks said of his work. “I can’t know that. I may be talking to myself.”
Kay said that learning is part of reading – noting serious writers do lots of research even when writing fiction. Ortiz Cofer said entertainment and the imparting of wisdom are part of good written work.
“For it to be literature, for it to be art, it has to have a bit of wisdom,” she said.
Williams talked about his focus on people whose beliefs set them apart from their neighbors. He said he for years was interested in “Southerners who were against the South’s participation in the Civil War.”
He reflected that he had “spent my entire life as a proud liberal in the South” – even serving as a county campaign manager for George McGovern, which he described as “suicidally stupid.”
Williams said there is a tendency to think of the South as “this big homogenous community.” There have been voices of dissent, however, “during Georgia’s vote for secession” and continuing to the current presidential race.
“What I really did want to write about his how people who have really different opinions from their neighbors survive in a time of peril,” Williams said.
Williams also talked about his ability from early childhood to spend long periods of time in quiet observation, which has influenced his writing.
“It’s not something I chose. It’s what I was given. It’s how I’m geared,” he said.
Kay and Ortiz Cofer both said the business end of writing is particularly difficult for them. Kay talked about the tension of dealing with an agent.
“They don’t usually like what you like. They want to force you to do something you don’t want to do. They’re putting bread on your table so you have to listen to them sometimes, but that compromise is difficult,” Kay said.
Ortiz Cofer expressed similar feelings about “business people making decisions about the outpouring of my soul.”
She also talked about the joy of writing something worthwhile. She teaches writing at UGA and spoke of the excitement in a student’s eye when he or she “has created something that did not exist before.”