Aging authors, eager freshmen connect over literature at ‘Three Books’ event

Steve Castillo “Three Books” discussion

Kenneth Fields, far left, moderated the “Three Books” discussion Sept. 19 featuring Lucille Clifton, N. Scott Momaday and Nancy Huddleston Packer.

Steve Castillo Students in audience

Students treated the authors to rounds of loud applause, laughter and a standing ovation.

It was a scene that would have warmed a parent's heart: The freshman Class of '11 treated the three elderly writers—the youngest was 73—like rock stars.

The event was this year's "Three Books" program for incoming freshmen, held in a packed Memorial Auditorium on the evening of Sept. 19. Stanford mailed the books—The Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday; Jealous-Hearted Me, by Nancy Huddleston Packer; and Good Woman, by Lucille Clifton—to students for summer reading.

The three authors—two of whom have strong Stanford connections—received rounds of enthusiastic applause, laughter and a standing ovation following their onstage conversation with English Professor Kenneth Fields—no spring chicken himself. Fields is a poet whose most recent collection, Classic Rough News, was published in 2005; he selected this year's books.

Perhaps some of the enthusiasm for the three books—most universities with similar programs assign freshmen only one—could be that all were short. "I am not heartless," Fields said, adding that with short books "you get down to business quicker." Each illustrated "the classical maxim of much in little," he added.

In any case, Fields didn't succumb to the temptation of finding writers who were young, hip and "relevant," instead settling on established, if somewhat off-the-beaten-track, storytellers. The Way to Rainy Mountain is told in three voices, comparing historical commentary, Kiowa oral tradition and personal reminiscence.

Momaday earned a PhD in English from Stanford in 1963 under the guidance of poet and critic Yvor Winters. (Fields also was a student of Winters.)

Jealous-Hearted Me is a collection of humorous and poignant stories about resentment, rivalry and misplaced pride in an Alabama family. The author, Packer, is the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, and a former director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program.

Finally, Clifton's Pulitzer-nominated Good Woman, a volume of poetry and memoir, is infused with her family's memory of her great-great-grandmother Caroline, a woman who was "born free in Africa" in 1822 and "died free in America" in 1910. Clifton is this year's recipient of the Poetry Foundation's prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She received a National Book Award in 1999.

When a student asked how the three authors expected to be perceived by these children of the iPod age, Packer replied, without blinking, "I think all of us would like to be perceived as Shakespeare."

"It's important for us to look beyond the very moment and find what is lasting," she added, after the laughter subsided.

But most of the questions, whether from Fields or from the audience, boiled down to the following: Where do their stories come from? Why do they want to tell them? And why do they move us?

Fields recalled Momaday telling a story to young kids in East Palo Alto with his characteristic "mixture of formality and casualness." Momaday referred to a tale that happened long ago, "back in the days when dogs could talk."

"A boy said, 'Yeah! Those were the days!'" Fields said. "People are moved by different things in different ways, but that boy was right on the money."

Momaday said the Kiowa stories he told had never been written down prior to his own efforts. Over the years, he has come to realize "how fragile some of these stories are—and how important they are."

"I believe they need to be told," he said, responding to a query about the need to continue telling stories even after they are already in print. "Poetry needs to be told and it needs to be heard. I have lived with certain poems all my life, and I still haven't come to the end of them." The page is just "one way of getting them out," and not necessarily the most interesting, he said.

Momaday noted that some critics had called Rainy Mountain his "spiritual autobiography." He added, "The more I think about it, there's something to it." The stories "made me who I am, and will make my children who they are."

One student found Momaday's approach difficult and fragmented, and claimed he had a hard time understanding Kiowa culture from it. He asked what Momaday's purpose was. The author answered, "I wanted to tell the story of the coming of a people to the full realization of their destiny."

Responding to a question about how he knew when his story was coming to an end, Momaday answered, "I didn't have a sense of it coming to an end. It's a wheel: Myth becomes history becomes reminiscence becomes myth. All stories are contained in other stories."

Like Momaday, Clifton said she felt "there was a time when these stories would not have been told."

"They come from an oral tradition," she said. "There's a vacancy in the story of Americans—and if I could fill that vacancy, I thought I ought to do it."

Asked where their ideas and characters came from, Clifton said hers came from observation. "I believe what I have done in life is pay attention, close attention, to people," she said. "I think I write out of being human—and I pay attention to humans. What they are, what they do and what they feel.

"I think white people think they don't have a culture. I notice. And if you don't notice—check yourself out," she challenged the audience. "I know you better than you know me, I assure you. And Scott knows you better than you know you. Probably Nancy, too." Such knowledge, she said, comes from a writer's observations.

As they proved several times during the evening, this year's freshmen were prepared with their citations. One asked Clifton about her untitled poem on page 25 of Good Woman—and even began reading it to her. It described a man seeing her naked in the window of her house.

Clifton said the poem was "about other people dictating to you what you are to be." She noted that she had survived four bouts of cancer—at one point fighting off cancer in two primary sites of her body at once. She noted that she had endured losses, including the death of two children, and was "not broken by it," trying instead "to bear it with grace and courage." Given her background and uneven education—she admitted she felt like a "spy in the camp" of academia—"people are amazed I know anything at all."

"I am myself. Under great duress and great odds, I will be me," she said.

Another student referred Clifton to page 245 of Good Woman and asked what she meant by writing, "In history, even the lies are true."

"How do you experience that in the context of your work?" asked Andrew Hiller of Fortuna, Calif.

"You can experience it in the context of the New York Times," Clifton answered silkily. As an example, she recalled the descendents of a 200-acre plantation in southern Maryland insisting their ancestors had not been slave owners. They said the slaves had been freed the same day that Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. "Thomas Jefferson never freed his slaves," Clifton said. "He did free some of his children, but that's another story."

Perhaps inevitably, a freshman asked the question about how the authors had developed their "voice," a question dear to young writers. Packer noted that, like most novelists, "in fact I'm trying to develop someone else's voice." Toward that end, she said, "I get in front of the mirror and say things aloud. If I can say things without laughing, maybe the character can, too."

Momaday repeated advice he had heard as a young writer: "When you read something you really like and appreciate, don't be afraid to imitate it. It's not necessarily bad." Such imitation gives young people a chance to experience the writing they admire from the inside, "and eventually, you find your own voice."

A final questioner, Kiana Shelton of Atlanta, asked Packer about the meaning of the word "vim" in the final chapter of Jealous-Hearted Me. "I'm out of the habit of thinking about … this vim business," the elderly widowed mother says in the book's final pages, as she is about to embark on a late-life romance.

"Vim is a euphemism," Packer said. "It's a euphemism for 'sexy.'"

Shelton seemed pleased with the answer. "I think I got a little bit of 'vim' myself," she said, with a thrust of her hips, to everyone's applause—including Packer's.