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"Art is the impression left upon the mind when all writing has been effaced." -Dr. Phil Brady

Insights from Etruscan Executive Director Phil Brady

Proud, joyful, tender, valorous. These are the words that pass through the mind of Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” as Gabriel descends the staircase from his successful speech at his aunts’ Christmas dinner. With his beautiful wife Gretta on his arm, he looks forward to the night at the Gresham Hotel, where his literary labors will be rewarded.

And so we may feel today: proud of our accomplishment, joyful in our abilities, valorous in our hopes, and tender toward our own literary labors. Like Gabriel, we hope that our work as writers—the planning, drafting, shaping and revising—are rewarded by friends, by readers, by publishers and reviewers—by, might we dare to dream—the world.

But, as you may recall, when Gabriel’s carriage arrives at his hotel and he and Gretta enter the well-appointed Georgian room, and he signals the porter to snuff the candle, and he calls softly “Gretta dear,” his thoughts of love and conquest are suddenly dashed and he is confronted by a specter—Gretta’s memory of a lover from her past, a boy named Michael Furey, who died long ago at the age of seventeen for love of her. Conjured by a lamenting Irish ballad, “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the festive party, the ghost of Michael Furey now stands between Gabriel and his triumph. His hopes are thwarted, but with this ending, a new story—one in which we ourselves are invited to partake—now opens.

Pride, joy, tenderness, valor—success is wonderful. But ultimately, it’s predictable. All happy families, Tolstoy tells us, are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Great writing never ends in triumph. In fact, great writing doesn’t begin until our original intention has been snuffed out and we are confronted with the ineffable specter of the other, the unintended, as Gabriel is confronted with the presence of the dead. 

This year we have witnessed in our presidential election the thwarting of expected success on a global scale. Whatever your political views, it’s hard not to think about the personal consequences of failing so grandly in public. I think we know what Donald Trump is feeling—but what about Hillary? For writers, failure is just so much more interesting than success.
Yeats puts it this way in a poem called, “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”

Amazing how Yeats unearthed the theme in the rhyme— “exult” and “difficult.” I imagine him strolling the fields of Coole Park and Ballylee, his boots rhythmically rustling the grass that glistened under the slanting Galway sun, and tuning, in his mind’s ear, this sound allegiance. “Exult/Difficult.” Poems (and all writing) don’t come out of intention, but out of surrendering to the felicities of language: what Finn MacCumhal, the mythic Irish hero, calls, “the music of what happens.” 

The difficult thing that Gabriel Conroy must accomplish is to put aside pride, joy, valor, even perhaps tenderness, and exult secretly in deep soul. When I say that writing begins with failure, I mean only that it begins there—what happens next is what counts. Most people give up. I think that those who make writing a life’s vocation aren’t necessarily the most talented, they are merely the most willing to experience profound and continuous defeat. As W.D. Snodgrass used to say, when asked if someone should become a poet, “Not if he can be happy doing anything else.”

The prevailing response to failure is resistance. And our response to that response is also tinged with resistance. As teachers, coaches, parents, bosses, what do we say?

“Try harder,”
“Pick yourself up by your bootstraps,”
“Push, push, push.”

But, confronted with a specter of adolescent love from long ago, Gabriel doesn’t resist. He doesn’t rage against his wife or against fate. Instead Joyce tells us that “Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes.” Thinking of Michael Furey’s passion, he says, “He had never felt like that for any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”

Today, I do not praise resistance. I say we must immerse ourselves in failure.  We must drown in failure. We must fail exultantly, extravagantly, repeatedly.

Writing does not aspire to mere success. We cannot write our way into deep soul. There is always a yearning space between our feelings and the alphabet that encodes thought. For me, walking like Gabriel Conroy into the suburbs of old age, the irony is that Gabriel’s confession of failure is the most refined and intense feeling: his life-long love for Gretta is far deeper than Michael Furey’s youthful passion.

In fact, great writing may not be passionate at all. It may be that for all our pride and joy and valor and tenderness, we create only rough drafts, and it is not until they pass through the phantasmagoria of the revenant that they are fully realized. For all our labors, I’m here to say, at the pinnacle of success, that writing is not a personal activity, it is a soulful receptivity. Art is the impression left upon the mind when all writing has been effaced.

As darkness falls, Gabriel does not turn toward Dublin’s lamp light.  He yields his pride, joy, valor and tenderness to the ghost of Michael Furey standing under a dripping tree. “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast host of the dead….”

Today, as for Gabriel, the time has come for us to set out on our journey westward. Gabriel’s journey takes him toward the wild Atlantic surf, towards his wife’s secret past, toward the poor and forgotten and oppressed, toward sleep, toward death. Our journey is a soul-nurturing voyage, one that cannot be forecast or controlled. It demands that we allow every detail and nuance and feature of the world to pass before our eyes, and at the same time allow the chimera to fade to a snowdrift.  It requires us to attend, beneath the markings we make on page or screen, to the thrum of sleep, of death, of community, of wonder.

“Yes, the snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.”

Today, I invoke the ghost of Michael Furey to touch us all, softly murmuring every particular note, whispering into being each minute shard, casting every shade and nuance, and at the same time sinking beneath, by the agency of rhythmic utterance, to the powerful unity without which our writing is mere words.  

“It was falling too on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly failing, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”  

Dr. Phil Brady delivered this commencement address at the conclusion of the Wilkes University Graduate Creative Writing Program Weekender in Mesa, Arizona (June 2016).

New Releases from Etruscan

Luz Bones by Myrna Stone

We’re pleased to publish another poetry collection from Myrna Stone, two-time Ohioana Poetry Book Award Finalist. Stone has received praise from Bruce Bond, author of The Other Sky, naming Luz Bones as “a deeply moving and masterful book.” Luz Bones is a collection of forty-six formal poems, including sonnets, triolets, and other rhymed poems that run chronologically to tell the narratives of real people through time and history. Among them are the famous—such as Martin Luther, Hans Christian Andersen, John James Audubon, the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, and Mae West, as well as the more obscure such as Annie C. and H. L., who relate the joy, sadness, and terror of their “near-death” experiences and their aftermath. Jeff Gundy, author of Abandoned Homeland and Somewhere Near Defiance says, “In Stone’s skilled hands, the dramatic monologue takes us into many unexpected minds, bodies, and places…as true as they are real.” The wild, intense, and fiercely crafted sonnets and other poems in Luz Bones taken together read like an epic, a journey through time and the psyche that is both novelistic and lyrical.

Outreach in Youngstown, OH

Tim Seibles reads from One Turn Around the Sun at the ACTION Fellowship Breakfast on March 28.
From March 27 to 29, Tim Seibles, Poet Laureate of Virginia and author of the collection One Turn Around the Sun visited Youngstown, OH as part of a three-day outreach program coordinated by The YSU Poetry Center and Etruscan Press. The Etruscan Outreach Program, in partnership with the YSU Poetry Center, brings acclaimed authors to work with under-served students in area high schools, increasing the literacy of the students and offering a general appreciation for the literary arts.

During Seibles’ stay in Youngstown, he visited East High School, Choffin Career & Technical Center, Youngstown Early College, and Austintown Fitch High School. Students at all four schools received copies of One Turn Around the Sun, and a study guide corresponding with the book. At East High School, Seibles awarded three cash prizes for a one-page writing contest. Winners were presented with an Etruscan Press tote bag containing Etruscan titles, while honorable mentions were awarded Barnes & Noble gift cards.
Seibles reads from One Turn Around the Sun at East High School in Youngstown, OH on March 27.
Monday morning, Seibles was interviewed by Tim Francisco of WYSU, Youngstown State University's public radio station, in which he discussed his motivations as a poet. This interview occurred on campus before his meeting with students at Youngstown Early College.

Seibles also participated in two public readings in Youngstown. The first, held at 7 p.m. on March 27 at the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center, was co-sponsored by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and Etruscan Press, and was titled “Morning Where You Are: The Poetry of Tim Seibles.” Monday’s program featured entertainment by the Youngstown Connection, a singing and dancing group comprising local high school students that has toured internationally.

On Tuesday March 28, Seibles conducted a public reading at the annual ACTION Fellowship Breakfast at St. Edward Catholic Church, and was joined by local poet and rapper Adrian Orlando Watson and treated to a performance by local saxophonist Minister Sandra Miles. (ACTION stands for Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, which focuses on a range of social issues, including crime prevention, education, immigration, and health and wellness.) The breakfast concluded a weeklong commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which the United Nations proclaimed in 1966 to memorialize the Sharpsville massacre, in which 59 people were killed and hundreds injured while demonstrating against South Africa’s Apartheid regime on March 21, 1960. Following his reading, Seibles signed copies of One Turn Around the Sun for the community.
Seibles signs copies of One Turn Around the Sun at the ACTION Fellowship Breakfast on March 28. 
For more information about the Etruscan Press/ Youngstown State University Poetry Center outreach program, please visit our website.

About Etruscan Press:

Housed at Wilkes University and partnering with Youngstown State University, Etruscan is a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.

For the latest Etruscan events, please visit our website.
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