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Whitehead died in 2003 from an aortic dissection at the age of 67, Gen, his widow, was left with a treasure trove of unpublished poems and prose.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

State of Arkansas House Memorial Resolution

1 84th General Assembly
2 Second Extraordinary Session, 2003 HMR 1001
4 By: Representative Edwards
11 Subtitle

17 WHEREAS, the accomplished writer, poet, and teacher, James T. Whitehead
18 of Fayetteville, Arkansas died Friday, August 15, 2003, at the age of sixty-
19 seven (67); and
21 WHEREAS, Mr. Whitehead was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 15,
22 1936, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and stood six feet five inches (6'5")
23 tall by the time he went to Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship,
24 where he met William Harrison, the budding writer who became his life-long
25 friend and associate; and
27 WHEREAS, as a student Mr. Whitehead had a keen intellect, a firm sense
28 of justice on the race issue that was roiling the South at the time, and a
29 fully formed ferocity on a broad range of thought from the painting of
30 Vermeer to the theology of St. Augustine; and
32 WHEREAS, Mr. Whitehead left Vanderbilt with a bachelor's degree in
33 philosophy and a master's degree in English, graduated from the Creative
34 Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and then joined William Harrison
35 to found a similar program at the University of Arkansas; and

12-11-2003 15:53 DLP VJF985
1 WHEREAS, at the University of Arkansas Mr. Whitehead began a love
2 affair with all things "Razorback" and was one of the most ardent supporters
3 of both men and women's athletic programs; and
5 WHEREAS, the Master of Fine Arts Program Mr. Whitehead established at
6 the University of Arkansas in conjunction with his friend and poet, Miller
7 Williams, became one of the nation's most acclaimed, with students including
8 Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist, and others who have made their mark in
9 fiction, poetry, translation, and film; and
11 WHEREAS, in 1971, Mr. Whitehead, then a poet and teacher at the
12 University of Arkansas, published the story of Sonny Joiner, an oversized
13 former football player and a man of excesses, intellectual and otherwise,
14 passionate about history, theological discourse, painting, politics,
15 quarreling, literature, and sports -- much like himself; and
17 WHEREAS, this coming-of-age novel "Joiner", Mr. Whitehead's only
18 published novel, about segregationist Mississippi has received critical
19 acclaim; and
21 WHEREAS, Mr. Whitehead, known as a skilled sonneteer favoring a
22 conversational style that drew on his affection for the country Southerner,
23 also published four (4) books of poetry, namely "Domains", "Local Men",
24 "Actual Size", and "Near Hand",
30 THAT the House of Representatives mourns the passing of James T.
31 Whitehead, and honors his years of service to the state and community as a
32 writer, poet, teacher, and champion of education.

February 2, 2004 in Memories of Jim | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My best memories of Jim


photo by Chris Boese, Copyright 2003-2005

This shot reminds me most of the glare Jim used to give me when I'd say something absurd that drove him up the wall. I didn't do it the day of this shoot, but Jim remembered giving me the look often enough, he had to do one goofing off when I was taking his portrait. He'd like to want to strangle me when I said mouthy things about Wallace Stevens or suggested that Emily Dickinson's "look of agony" came from Victorian "little death." Half the time I just did it to set him off.

He was a great poet, teacher, and friend. Every student I've ever taught has gotten some of Jim bleeding through. His house was the first place I went in 1987 after finishing my very first teaching job, creative writing, in the woods for 2 weeks with gifted and talented kids. He encouraged me and gave me confidence. He also helped me get my first tenure-track teaching position at Valdosta State in Georgia.

He's one of the main reasons I was ever a poet, and the one who made me memorize nearly the entire Norton Anthology of Poetry, while daring us to create our own canons. He let me work off an incomplete for an entire summer, writing a paper on Emily Dickinson that stretched to 60, then 70 pages while I also tried to memorize as many of those 1,789 poems as I could.

Nobody encounters Jim Whitehead and comes away the same. After I left Fayetteville, I still could drop by any time and we'd go into this intense, vulcan mind meld thing, I don't know what else you would call it. After about an hour of it, you'd go around the rest of the day a bit dazed. The last time I spoke with him was in 1998 or 1999, when I was getting settled in at Clemson.

Damn, I'm going to miss him.


September 22, 2003 in Memories of Jim | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack