Memories of UA educator live in new book :: Northwest Arkansas' News Source.

Memories of University of Arkansas educator live in new book

Posted on Sunday, July 12, 2009

They sat in boxes, an army of them, waiting for a phone call. The heiress to the hundreds of yellow legal pads and other forms of tablature does not recall the exact day in December 2005.

She can confirm, though, that it was before Christmas and a couple weeks after marrying former University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles.

Gen Broyles took the call from Michael Burns, a former UA undergraduate and graduate student who taught English at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., at the time. Like several students before and after him, Burns' education in Fayetteville included several classes with Jim Whitehead, a revered English professor who helped found the university's creative writing program in 1965 and went on to teach for 34 years. When Whitehead died in 2003 from an aortic dissection at the age of 67, Gen, his widow, was left with a treasure trove of unpublished poems and prose.

"I was thrilled that [Burns] called me and asked if he could do this because I was sitting here thinking, 'I have all these things that belong to Jim and I don't know what to do with them,'" Broyles said.

Burns wanted to come down to Fayetteville to excavate around Whitehead's old study and the basement closets where most of the stash was kept. Burns' original plan - what he referred to as "a less ambitious project" - was to create a book that contained the work of his former teacher combined with graduates and friends of the UA creative writing program in time for the 40th anniversary of the program in 2008.

"I knew I had plenty of material to work from that was his," Burns said.

The result of that initial trip turned out to be much bigger than either Burns or Broyles could have hoped for: "For, From, About James T. Whitehead: Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections." The book was released in May by Missouri State University's Moon City Press through the University of Arkansas Press as part of a consortium agreement hashed out a year ago. A portion of the proceeds will go directly to the creative writing program at Arkansas.

A different concept

The book is divided into three parts: recollections, poems and writings of Whitehead and poems and other literary pieces in honor of the 6-foot-5 man who most knew as "Big Jim." The book's 24 contributors include Bill Harrison, who co-founded the creative writing program with Whitehead; Miller Williams, a fellow award-winning poet who has published 32 books of varying genres; and even former President Jimmy Carter, who was taught poetry as a long-distance student by Whitehead and Williams in the early '80s.

Jim Baumlin, an English professor at Missouri State University and the founder and editor of Moon City Press, called the book "a hybrid."

"That became the concept we were both going for as we realized we had more time and more material," Burns added. "We had the potential for a book that was a little different than the other things that were out there."

The time came partly as a result of some health issues that Burns faced, which delayed the process. The material turned out to be an overwhelming amount, far too much for Burns to sift through by himself. Graduate students from a research class Baumlin taught at Missouri State were soon enlisted to sort and organize all of the writings once the more than 9 cubic feet of materials were brought up to the Springfield school. Eventually the students formed a 100-page finding aid as well as an electronic word search database.

"It made them scholars," Baumlin said.

Burns expected to find a healthy amount of neverseen-before poetry, but he did not expect all of the legal pads containing chapters of two books, "Coldstream" and "Bergeron," that he toiled with as sequels to his popular 1971 novel "Joiner." Both endeavors, which include tons of edits and rewrites written out in longhand, never were quite finished.

"I learned that all those years we hoped he was working on a sequel to 'Joiner,' he was," Burns said of "Coldstream." "He was giving [his] blood and tears to that book."

The new book includes a passage from "Coldstream" as well as the opening to "Getting an Altamira," a commissioned project in which Whitehead flew to Brazil to do a piece for Oui magazine in 1973 about a budding public works project that was being conducted in the Amazon. The essay was never published.

'A wonderful compliment'

One of the poems of Whitehead's in the book is "For Miller Williams."

"Of course it means a great deal to me," Williams said of the poem. "Jim was like both a son and brother to me."

Two of Williams' poems, "The Alphabet as Part of What We Are" and "An Unrhymed Sonnet," are included in the book. Williams first met Whitehead in 1957 when he worked as a biology teacher at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Whitehead, who was enrolled in some summer school classes while still a 21-year-old student at Vanderbilt University from Jackson, also met his 19-yearold future wife from Yazoo City, Miss., there the same year while she was taking classes to knock out some required courses to graduate from the Mississippi State College for Women in three years.

"When he showed me his poetry, I was truly impressed by the way he could handle the language without trying to be highfalutin about it," recalled Williams. "He wrote comfortable poems that anybody could read or understand without looking up the words in the dictionary, and that's not always true today."

So far, the book has been seen mainly by family and friends, many of whom should be on hand Sept. 9 at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville to read poems and other writings by Whitehead during "A Celebration of Jim Whitehead: Readings from his Works." All of the feedback has been positive, including that from those who knew the man the best.

"I was very pleased," Williams said. "I don't think Jim has been remembered as well as he ought to, and I think the book helps."

"They think it's very good and a wonderful compliment to Jim," said Gen Broyles, who provided a number of photos for the book. "I just had no idea that anything like this could or would ever happen, so it was completely unexpected. It's like getting a present you had no idea you were going to have."

July 14, 2009 in Admirers, Articles, Books, Events, Friends, Memories of Jim, Students | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation: Arkansas Festival of Writers

Link: The Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation: Arkansas Festival of Writers.

The 2008 Arkansas Festival of Writers will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation with readings by Susan Perabo, Leon Stokesbury, and other alumni. The festival will be held April 9 & 10 on the UA campus in Fayetteville. Information on travel and lodging is available at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. A full schedule of events is below.

Wednesday, April 9
* 5:30 pm, Giffels Auditorium - Reading by Susan Perabo and Leon Stokesbury
* 7 pm, Garden Room on Dickson Street - Formal dinner and reception

Thursday, April 10
* 5 pm, Giffels Auditorium - Screening of "Fighting Mad," featuring Peter Fonda, James Whitehead, Bill Harrison, and Miller Williams
* 7 pm, Giffels Auditorium - 40th Anniversary Celebration and Reading
* 9 pm - Reception, hosted by Bill and Merlee Harrison


perabo Susan Perabo is the writer in residence and associate professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She is the author of a collection of stories, "Who I Was Supposed to Be" (Simon&Schuster, 1999), which was named a Book of the Year by The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and The St. Louis Post Dispatch, and a novel, "The Broken Places" (Simon&Schuster, 2001). Recently her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, and Creative Non-Fiction. Two of her new stories were shortlisted in this year's "Best American Short Stories." She is currently finishing a second collection of short fiction.

authorLeon Stokesbury received his MA and MFA from the University of Arkansas in 1972, and his PhD from Florida State University in 1984. He has taught creative writing at several colleges and universities, including serving as visiting poet-in-residence at North Texas University, Hollins College, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. For the past 20 years he has taught in the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Stokesbury's first book, Often in Different Landscapes, was selected as a co-winner of the first annual Associated Writing Programs Poetry Competition in 1975. His collection Autumn Rhythm: New and Selected Poems, published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1996, was awarded The Poets' Prize as the best book of poems published by an American for that year. His poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Partisan Review, the New Yorker, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, the New England Review, and numerous other journals. Stokesbury was selected as the first recipient of The Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence, has been awarded the Robert Frost Fellowship at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and is a recipient of an NEA fellowship in poetry.


March 11, 2008 in Events | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Call for participants: AWP conference memorial for Jim

Posted on behalf of Michael Downs

I'd like to let visitors to this site know a bit more about the panel planned for the upcoming AWP conference that's noted here on this site. Last summer, after Jim died and after his memorial service, Susan Perabo and I talked about the need to make sure AWP acknowledged Jim's death at its upcoming conference. Jim was one of the founders of AWP, and we thought the organization needed to remember him. AWP's conference organizers agreed, and though we had missed the deadline for panel proposals by more than a month, they welcomed the addition of this panel honoring Jim.

To help draw people to the panel, I sent out the following paragraphs as an e-mail to as many writers as I could. If you'd like, please forward them to anyone you know who may attend AWP and be interested in attending the panel.

Jim Whitehead was a poet and novelist and former offensive lineman at Vanderbilt. He also was one of the founders of the creative writing program at Arkansas and of AWP. He taught fiction (to Barry Hannah and Ellen Gilchrist) and poetry (to Leon Stokesbury, R.S. Gwynn, C.D. Wright and others). He loved the sonnet, and Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin. He was a giant, with voracious intellectual tastes that ranged from Biblical scholarship to Amazonian culture and SEC football. He once went on tour with Tom T. Hall.

His novel, JOINER, was a New York Times notable book of the year, and his volumes of poetry were published by the University of Missouri Press and the University of Illinois Press.

Which is all a kind of bloodless way of saying that I loved him, as did so many of his students. His death was sudden and hurt us deeply. This panel is an effort to pay him tribute.

The panel is titled "A Local Man Exits: A tribute to James Whitehead." If you go to the AWP site ( and see "A Local Man Exists," well, that's an unfortunate typo they've yet to fix.

I hope I see some of you there (and if any of you guys are looking for a room at the Palmer House, I've got one with two beds and two bathrooms I'm willing to share -- $60 a night).


Michael Downs

P.S. Here's one of Jim's poems that's a particular favorite of mine.


I shot the chicken in the tree above
Where Herbert stood howling after I'd shot.
Bitterly he cried so loud of feather Love
Itself became involved. Lord, lord, the fit
He threw was terrible. He said his head -
His sacred head - was daubed for poetry -
He said my cruelty would make him mad -
He said it was a ritual catastrophe.

Herbert was splattered with old chicken blood
And pink feathers from eyes to knees. He said
Later, twelve years later, that he was sad
He'd frightened me. Within a month he died.
On his deathbed he reached out for my hand
And he said we come from where we get the wound.

February 5, 2004 in Events | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A Local Man Exits: An appreciation of James Whitehead

2004 Annual Conference and Bookfair

AWP 2004 Conference Schedule

March 24 - 27, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 2004
Parlor A

A Local Man Exits: An appreciation of James Whitehead

An appreciation of James Whitehead. Michael Downs, Beth Ann Fennelly, R.S. Gwynn, Leon Stokesbury, William Harrison, Margaret McMullan, Steve Yarbrough. He was a lineman at Vanderbilt, and a poet whose sonnets sometimes growl with a Mississippi voice. His novel "Joiner" won acclaim as a New York Times Noteworthy Book of the Year. He was a co-founder of the Graduate Programs in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, and he served as president of AWP and as one of its founding lights. James Whitehead died last summer at age 67. Students, colleagues, and friends will gather to read and discuss his work, and talk about his legacy.

February 3, 2004 in Events | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack