By Anne Butler
|West Feliciana Parish Library|
Residents deal daily with this dichotomy, the delicate balance of preservation and progress, recognizing that the present and hopes for a financially stable future are of necessity firmly grounded in the past, built upon history. Town founders had forethought and high hopes, laying out side streets with optimistic names like Prosperity and Progress. As that old Greek proverb proclaimed, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
But how to connect past and present, especially in a meaningful and sensible way? Participants at A Celebration of Literature and Art’s Writers and Readers Symposium on Saturday, February 21, at Hemingbough Convention Center in St. Francisville will get a variety of unique views on the interconnections between past and present as four celebrated authors—mystery writer Abigail Padgett, poet Ava Leavell Haymon, New Orleans novelist and short story writer Moira Crone, photographer Richard Sexton, all with new books-- share their creative processes both individually and in moderated panel discussions with audience participation encouraged.
Abigail Padgett’s latest book is An Unremembered Grave. A resident of San Diego who has visited St. Francisville over many years, Padgett was struck by a 1990s photograph showing excavations through the striated strata of Angola’s Tunica Hills. At the lowest level of a dirt pit cut deep into the loess soil, LSU paleontologists were shown examining mammoth bones, while at the very top ground-level layer, archaeologists and prison staff in the same photograph examined newly uncovered skeletal remains of an unidentified 19th-century burial.
Considering these layered connections, a single photograph linking time periods from prehistoric creatures through Native Americans and antebellum plantations to the present correctional facility, award-winning mystery writer Padgett has woven an imaginative web of intrigue involving a prescient history professor, a spooky Louisiana plantation, an innocent prisoner, an ancient slave-made quilt. And, oh yes, a charming vampire with a plausible explanation for these entwined moments of time, whose slumber under the oppressive weight of history was interrupted atop that loessial bluff on Angola, the vampire whose blood-thirst was essential to pass along the eternal stories, the immutable history of the race and the currents of collective memory coursing through the veins of living creatures.
Gifted writer-photographer Richard Sexton’s most recent book, Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, explores and illustrates with dreamy images the Creole connections between New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean. It’s all in the eye, really---well, maybe the mind too, and the heart and soul. That’s how Sexton, with his strong architecture and art background, spots the elegance amidst the decadence and celebrates the colorful remnants of Creole culture even in the most desolate Caribbean slum or New Orleans housing project. Compelling images reflect the author’s four decades roaming across the Latin Caribbean capturing architectural and urban similarities connecting New Orleans’ Creole heritage with colonial cultures in Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and other historic locales.
Sexton says his Creole book “isn’t about home decorating---or pretty architecture, or even about city planning, although I think it addresses those interests. It’s my attempt to sum up an outlook---and a culture---that feels Creole to me. I’m drawn to places that accept accidents and decay, that put the past to fresh uses, that proceed by trial and error and keep things that work even if they don’t fit the rules.” As Sexton, who has lived in New Orleans since 1991, explains in an interview with Chris Waddington of nola.com, “I don’t just celebrate the past. I’m looking to see how the past can help us get to the future.”
Prestigious LSU Press has published four collections of Louisiana Poet Laureate Ava Haymon’s poetry, and she is editor of the press’ Barataria Poetry Series. A Mississippi native who grew up in Kansas City with a Baptist preacher father who made her memorize ten verses of Scripture each week and recite them perfectly before the television set could be turned on, she attended Baylor University and then moved to Baton Rouge so her husband could go to LSU Law School and she could get a master’s degree in English.
She found Louisiana a poet’s dream, “a wonderful place to write poetry about. It has exotic weather, all sorts of ethnic groups and fabulous music. It’s sensory.” And yet, she finds inspiration in family dynamics across the generations as well. Her most recent book is titled Eldest Daughter, in which LSU Press says the poet combines the sensory and the spiritual in wild verbal fireworks. “Concrete descriptions of a woman’s life in the mid-20th-century American South mix with wider concerns about family lies and truths, and culture that supports or forbids clear speech. Haymon’s poems encourage us to revel in the natural world and enjoy its delights, as well as to confront the hard truths that would keep us from doing so.”
Also inspired by family dynamics in the South is Moira Crone, respected New Orleans novelist and short story writer. Called one of the best American writers, Crone attended University of North Carolina and Smith College, then studied writing at Johns Hopkins. After moving to Louisiana, she directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing at LSU in Baton Rouge before relocating to New Orleans with her husband, writer Rodger Kamenetz.
When she received the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers for the body of her work, it was said that her interest in things spiritual “has led her work to be wittily described as ‘Southern Gnostic.’ In books like What Gets Into Us, Period of Confinement, and Dream State, Crone charts a zone of family resemblance and family claustrophobia. Her work can be hilarious in dealing with contemporary moral relativism. She is a fable maker with a musical ear, a plentitude of nerve, and an epic heart for her beleaguered, if often witty characters.”
Moira Crone’s newest book, published in late fall 2014, is The Ice Garden, called “a story as dazzling and dangerous as ice, a heart stopper. This may just be the most haunting and memorable novel you will ever read.” The book’s narrator is ten years old, daughter of a mother trapped in the suffocating southern culture of the sixties, and only she can save her family. Of all Crone’s prize-winning novels and short stories, reviewers call The Ice Garden her finest book yet.
Tickets to the Writers and Readers Symposium, including lunch with these authors and a juried exhibit of photographs linked to literature, may be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com ( OLLI members can sign up through LSU); January tickets are $40, February $50, at the door $60. Seating is limited. Thanks to the Town of St. Francisville, this program is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, and as administered by the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. Funding has also been provided by Entergy and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
Adjuncts to the program include Ava Hayman teaching a poetry workshop for Bains Elementary School students, and Abigail Padgett, who has taught creative writing at Harvard and other institutions, working with promising upper class students. In addition, Hayman and Padgett will conduct a Writers’ Workshop for aspiring and professional adult authors Saturday, February 28, in a stimulating plantation setting.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and
Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).