November 4, 2005

Poet McFee Returns to Cornell

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In 1986, the “North Carolina Poetry Mafia” ran Goldwin Smith.

Its senior members – immigrants from Whiteville, Hendersonville and Asheville – were notorious. They had inimitable accents. Their work was award-winning.

The late Archie R. Ammons, Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry emeritus, was Capo di Tutti Capi, and Robert R. Morgan, Kappa Alpha Professor of English, and Michael A. McFee, now Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor of English at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), were his consiglieri.

They conducted business in The Temple of Zeus, often over soup, and although the Tompkins County Family might not be as strong as it once was, its legacy continues: Morgan holds down the Ithaca fort, and Prof. Roger Gilbert, English, an honorary member, is at work on a critical biography of Don Ammons.

Yesterday afternoon, McFee, who moved from Ithaca to his patria in 1987, read several of his poems to a capacity audience in the English Department Lounge. Morgan, who delivered a kind, eloquent introduction, welcomed McFee back to Cornell “in triumph.”

“Michael McFee is possibly the best teacher of poetry workshops I know of,” Morgan said. “He shows a special devotion to poetry and is somewhat of a legend at UNC.”

McFee politely and earnestly returned the compliment.

“It is a particular thrill to be introduced by my poetic hero,” McFee said.

The poet, who selected several paired poems, began with “Solo” and “Rings of Fire,” two pieces in which music is an important theme.

In “Solo,” McFee’s speaker remembers how, when he was younger and unable to afford a guitar, he used plywood to make his own “homemade Fender.” With a guitar strap fashioned from his father’s leather belt, he belted out Beatles standards in front of his bathroom mirror. In “Rings of Fire,” McFee invokes Johnny Cash’s lyrics and Floyd Cramer’s famous, seminal Nashville sound.

McFee directed his next two poems, “To Work” and “Workshop Poem,” to the MFA students in attendance, many of whom joined him for breakfast yesterday. They wondered if work experience, especially in advance of graduate training, made for better writers.

“To Work,” which takes place at Walker Manufacturing, a muffler and tailpipe factory, is about tough, tiresome labor and a character who finds it gratifying.

“To work is to get dirty and then get paid,” McFee read.

“Workshop Poem,” which elicited knowing laughter from students and faculty, is a poem in nine parts. In workshops, which are central to undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing programs, students read their writing aloud and subject it to their peers’ and professors’ critique and praise. In his poem, McFee deconstructs the experience entertainingly and insightfully.

McFee read three poems about upstate New York. “Speak,” which is addressed to Ammons, moved many in the audience, especially long-time members of the English department’s faculty and staff.

“It is a confession I never shared with Archie about something I did or didn’t do with him,” McFee said in his introduction to the piece.

McFee wrote the poem after Ammons passed away in 2001. It is a poignant, heartrending reflection on the last time McFee saw his friend, mentor and former colleague. Ammons was crossing the Arts Quad toward Goldwin Smith, and McFee did not approach. He stood and watched reverently. In the poem, McFee wonders why he stayed silent that day.

In a short question-and-answer session that followed the reading, Prof. Stephanie Vaughn, English, asked McFee if he knew why North Carolina poets have been so successful in Ithaca.

McFee and Morgan exchanged a quick, arguably knowing glance.

“Is it energizing to be away from the voices you know?” Vaughn asked.

“There is something rejuvenating about being away,” McFee said. “I never felt more Southern than when I was at Cornell. I felt phenomenally Southern.”

Earlier in the reading, McFee mentioned that “writers love to read.”

“My first question to ask a writer is, ‘What are you reading?'”

Jackie E. Reitzes grad dutifully followed McFee’s suggestion, and asked him the question.

He has just finished Lolita, which his son, “a talented fiction writer and a serious reader,” recommended he tackle.

At a wine-and-cheese reception that followed the reading, Ezra D. Feldman grad analogized McFee’s reading to “sitting in front of a fire and listening to stories.”

“His style is immensely warm and conversational,” Feldman said.

Kenneth A. McClane ’73, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of English, commended McFee’s work and reading.

“It was one of the most eloquent readings I’ve ever been at,” McClane said. “His poetry is so in the world and transcendent at the same time.”

McFee has authored seven volumes of poetry. Carnegie Mellon University Press will publish Shinemaster, his newest, later this year.

Archived article by David Austin Gura
Sun Senior Writer