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Awakening 101

January 10, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

"The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The man at the podium rhapsodizes in his melodious Texas drawl, "I could stay on this chapter for the rest of the semester." He's Dale Edmonds, dressed in a sweater vest and perfectly looking the role of associate professor of English as he teaches a freshman writing seminar of his own design--"The Big Easy Crescent City That Care Forgot: New Orleans as Literary Festival."


Dale Edmonds chalks up experience at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, taking his students along for a consciousness-changing adventure.

Edmonds is parsing Chapter VI of The Awakening where the sensational Edna Pontellier begins to "realize her position in the universe as a human being" while she ominously is pulled toward taking a swim in Louisiana's Grand Isle waters.

At Edmonds' request, the students in this first-year writing course that has convened in Norman Mayer Building have signed an acknowledgement of a Warning About Potentially Objectionable Material in the Required Reading. He asks them to cultivate an expansive mind. "We will not be evasive, and we will not bowdlerize the text," he says.

It's spring and the students' second semester at Tulane. By this time, they think they have a handle on the good things about New Orleans--music and food--and the bad--poverty, racism and mediocre public education.

But, young and green, they don't know it all. There's more to New Orleans--the city's rich literary culture--that Edmonds strives for them to understand.

He's bent on opening up avenues of discovery for them. He teaches them: Take notes. Read broadly. Open your eyes. "Everyone knows that New Orleans is a great place to eat, drink, have fun, listen to music and all that. But it is an intellectually inspiriting place, too. Look at all the writers who've lived here and have taken something from it. Tennessee Williams, for example, would always come back here and recharge his batteries."

In the course, the 15 students must write papers analyzing the famous 1899 novel by Kate Chopin and other literary works inextricably linked to New Orleans--A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The students also are required to volunteer at least 10 hours at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

"The festival can be whatever you make of it," Edmonds tells the class.

His goal for the students: "One hopes that they will go and get involved in the life of the mind."

"Who wants language at 6:46 a.m.? Maybe you, reader, hungry for something more or else why are you here, so many claims on your attention superior to mine, in better color, clearer print, superior soundtrack, longer memory, more megabytes than mine. This is just a poem, ruthlessly heterodox in its appeal, rather conventional in technique. I believe in dealing with the stuff we've got for poetry, not what we haven't."
- Peter Cooley, from the poem "Aubade with Son and Sun" in A Place Made of Starlight

Edmonds, professor Peter Cooley and assistant professor Josh Russell are the creative writing faculty members in Tulane's English department. Altogether, they teach more than 100 creative writing students--from beginning to advanced--every semester. Three years ago Tulane added a creative writing track for English majors.

But this seminar is not creative writing; it fulfills the English 101 requirement. These students may or may not take creative writing later. Several are planning to switch from Newcomb and Tulane colleges to the A. B. Freeman School of Business in their junior year. Others will stick with the liberal arts and sciences, but major in art history, environmental studies or some discipline far afield of English.

Edmonds, who has been teaching at Tulane since 1965, likes the excitement of teaching students finding their place at the university. And the students catch on to his enthusiasm. A first-year student in another year wrote on a course evaluation: "Professor Edmonds thinks like an undergraduate." (Edmonds still is not sure if that was a positive or negative remark.)


Student Adam Balasiano ponders his first poetry slam.

During the class discussion of A Confederacy of Dunces--a book the students find hilarious--Edmonds shares personal reminiscences about his encounters with Thelma Toole, John Kennedy Toole's mother, who doggedly pursued a publisher for her son's book after his suicide death.

"It's a sad story," says Edmonds. "We'll never know exactly why he killed himself." The book, of course, became a publishing sensation, won a Pulitzer Prize and has been reprinted in many languages.

The students easily respond to the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, of A Confederacy of Dunces. When they discuss Ignatius' stint selling hot dogs from a cart on the street, Edmonds relates that he ate his own first Lucky Dog when he came to New Orleans to visit the French Quarter as a Texas college freshman--more than 40 years ago.

The Moviegoer, with its heavy Kierkegaard philosophical undertones, is a more difficult and melancholy read for the students. Edmonds also has insider information about this book. In the end, the main character, Binx Bolling, after much angst, has married the well-connected but highly neurotic Kate and has decided to enroll in medical school--to go into "research" and give up stockbrokering. Edmonds clues the class into the ending Walker Percy once said he wished he'd written for the last scene of the book. In Percy's never-published revision, when Kate boards the streetcar, she says, "I am afraid." And Binx replies, "I know."

Edmonds tells the class that Chapter III of The Moviegoer is his favorite. He says it has "Percy's finest writing." In it, Binx takes a spin along the Gulf Coast in his sports car with his secretary Sharon at his side--and then they swim at a beach. Edmonds reads to the class Binx's thoughts about Sharon: "She is beautiful and brave and chipper as a sparrow. My throat catches at the sadness of her beauty."

Edmonds' obvious love of literature rubs off on the students. They heatedly discuss Binx, his romances and his prejudices.

"In the French Quarter, I learned how to imagine the past. The past is still here."
- Josh Russell

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is in full swing on March 26-30, 2003. Students have signed up for their duties at festival sites--theaters, museums and restaurants--scattered throughout the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans.

A five-day whirlwind extravaganza, the festival includes discussion panels, master classes, plays, poetry and dramatic readings, food, wine-tasting, music and book selling, capped off by a Stella/Stanley shouting contest underneath a Pontalba Apartments balcony in Jackson Square on Sunday, the last day of the festival.

Male and female contestants are judged for their dramatic yelling in the shouting contest, a homage to actor Marlon Brando's playing Stanley Kowalski and his tortured pleading to his wife, Stella, in the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams adapted the film screenplay from his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play centered on Stella's anguished sister Blanche DuBois, a quintessential Southern heroine.

The shouting contest, panel discussions of Williams' work, plus theatrical presentations of his plays are all part of the festival. This year the festival presented Williams' plays Vieux Carré (directed by Aimée Michel, artistic director of the Tulane Shakespeare Festival), The Rose Tattoo (with Tulane alumnus Michael Arata, A&S '89, L '92, a featured actor) and Small Craft Warnings as well as Lament for the Moths: The Lost Poems of Tennessee Williams.


Literature lovers line up at Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter, waiting for a festival event.

The festival closes with tea, ice cream and cake in Williams' honor. And Dakin Williams, brother of Tennessee (known as Tom to family and friends), always makes a festival appearance.

Beyond the commemoration of the spirit of Tennessee Williams, the festival celebrates literature, especially if it is connected to New Orleans.

Josh Russell is the author of Yellow Jack, a novel about daguerrotypist Claude Marchand in yellow-fever-plagued 1840s New Orleans. Russell was a shoo-in for a spot on a festival panel because Edmonds has a powerful role at the festival this year. He is vice president for programming.

Edmonds arranges for his English department colleagues to be drawn into the festival, just as he does for his students.

Russell is on the festival's "French Quarter Fiction" panel, talking about New Orleans eccentricities with Poppy Z. Brite, author of Lost Souls; Josh Clark, editor and publisher of a new collection of short stories, French Quarter Fiction; and Julie Smith, author of several detective novels. The panel is moderated by Tulane alumnus Allain Andry (A&S '56, L '58).

Russell contributes his take on New Orleans: "Any city where you live below sea level--and people laugh about it"--is bound to be peculiar.

Peter Cooley, poet and professor, moderates the panel "What Do They Do There? The Mysteries of Writers' Retreats Laid Bare."

Other festival presenters with Tulane connections this year are adjunct professors Berthe Amoss (NC '46, G '86), who is a children's book author and publisher, and Christina Vella (G '90), author of Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba.

The festival is "fun and intellectually stimulating," says Edmonds. It's a great opportunity to interact with writers, who can serve as role models, and agents and editors, who can offer insights into the publishing world.

In his role as the main man for literary programming, Edmonds contacts authors, meets with committees, writes event descriptions and plans the literary panels and master classes. And he's responsible for many of the quirkier session titles.

Edmonds has attended every Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival since it began in 1987. For the first few years, he went as a visitor, going to panel discussions, listening to the writers. "I thought, hey, this is great," he says.

In 1991, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a major supporter of the festival, asked Edmonds to be an independent evaluator of festival programs. Paid to go to sessions, with passes to everything, he wrote reports about the festival, which is an independent, non-profit entity. "I was wined, dined and catered to," he says. "It was the world's greatest job."

After that gig, Edmonds became a member of the festival's advisory committee and then a board member, having a say in the literary programming. And this year, he's the top literary dog for programming.

Edmonds sees his involvement with the festival as "doing my part in terms of community outreach, which the university wants us to do. I see it as an opportunity to get Tulane involved in the community in a way that is good for the local intellectual climate. It's an opportunity for me to have a hand in something that I think is good for the city."

Edmonds has prevailed upon the university and the Tulane Alumni New Orleans Club to financially support the festival in a small way.

And Edmonds is already looking ahead to next year's festival. He's put out feelers to Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Schieffer has a book out--This Just in: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV--and it's a best seller. Schieffer is an old friend--and fraternity brother--of Edmonds from their Texas college days. Edmonds has e-mailed Schieffer asking him to participate in the festival. Schieffer says he'd love to do it, if the dates can be worked out.

"This is how it happens," Edmonds explains. "Somebody knows somebody. It's a real network."

"Without black, there ain't no white."
- Lolis Edward Elie, civil rights attorney and member of the panel The Civil Rights Movement in Fact and Fiction, quoting James Baldwin


Student Teresa Eschler checks tickets. She's moved up from volunteer to assistant box office manager.

Teresa Eschler, a senior and English major from upstate New York, took Edmonds' first-year writing seminar when she was a freshman and volunteered at the festival as all the students do. In subsequent years, she served as an intern. Now she's worked her way into a paid position at the festival as assistant box office manager. The shared literary interests of the festivalgoers and organizers keep her coming back. "I like the feeling of community," she says.

For Alexandra Carew from Belmar, N.J., it's her first literary festival--and she's doing her volunteer duties not at a literary event, but at a musical one. She's stationed at the door of the Palm Court Jazz Café, checking festival passes and preventing the door from slamming during "New Orleans Jazz With a Foreign Accent."

The panel members, led by Bruce Raeburn, director of Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive, tell stories about the segregated music scene of 1960s New Orleans. Big Al Carson, a black jazz musician who came of age then, is the panel's star attraction.

The white European musicians on the panel recall their dismay at the color divide of the two, separate--black and white--local musicians' unions of that era. These musicians had moved to New Orleans to play with the best, and when it came time to join a union, the radical and correct choice was clear for Swedish jazz pianist Lars Edegran: "I joined the black union because they were better musicians."

All this history of jazz is "foreign" to Carew. But here it is, alive. She realizes: "One cannot just make jazz; one must feel it."

As Big Al Carson sings and the musicians on clarinet, piano, trumpet and drums perform, "we listeners became part of the music," says Carew. Carson's voice is "full of love, life, wisdom, hardship and humor. The timbre in his song told the story of life in the Big Easy when life was not so easy."

The panel is not exactly the literary event Carew expects, but she discovers that the festival "is about more than writing. It's about the history, culture and lifestyle that created a bohemia for art of all kinds."

"Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise."
- The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Writers are usually "slightly crazy, entertaining people," Edmonds tells the students before the festival. "Watch for them."

On Friday afternoon, Edmonds moderates the panel "Fictions, Addictions and Convictions"--a discussion of "the thin line between addiction and obsession and all that sort of thing." Panel members are Paul Elie, an editor at the New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own; Valerie Martin, whose latest novel is Property (Martin also wrote Italian Fever, Mary Reilly and Salvation. She's almost the hottest author at the festival this year and says things such as "To be loved is to be transformed") and Carol Gelderman, a University of New Orleans professor, who has written about writers who are drugs addicts and alcoholics.

Edmonds knows well the effects of alcoholism on writers. He wrote his dissertation at the University of Texas on Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, a novel about the dissolution of an alcoholic life. And even though he is himself a little zonked from cold and flu medicine, Edmonds keeps the discussion moving at a clip.

Michael Wilkinson from Durham, N.C., later praises Edmonds for the "energy, life and enthusiasm" he brings to the discussion. Wilkinson's volunteer job at the festival is bouncer at the Special Needs entrance of Le Petit Theatre where Edmonds' literary panel and many festival events occur. Wilkinson sits in the pleasant courtyard next to a patio fountain, ready to assist those who need help to enter the theater through the side door and to bar those not in wheelchairs or otherwise disabled from going through the Special Needs entrance. When Edmonds and his panel members start talking, Wilkinson slips into the theater to listen.

Kate Martin from Henderson, Ky., also takes a seat in the audience. She has collected tickets of admission from the able-bodied inside the flagstone-floor theater lobby where musty, maroon and gold-leaf patterned curtains hang, contributing to the moderately decadent and shabby atmosphere.

In the theater, Martin and Wilkinson are rewarded with a discussion of characters in the books they're reading for their class assignments. Elie compares the two film lovers, Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces and Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, who both watch movies in New Orleans neighborhood theaters. Elie says while Ignatius is crude and slovenly and Binx is refined and upper-class, both are "philosophers inquiring into the nature of malaise."

Edmonds pipes up with a comment that a student made to him, "What does Binx have to be unhappy about? He dates his secretaries, he makes money, and he's in a Carnival krewe."

After this panel, Martin takes tickets for "Along the River Road," an afternoon panel discussion led by Eugene Cizek, Tulane professor of architecture. Martin is thrilled with Edmonds' panel and the whole festival. "I went in knowing nothing!" she says. "It's good to hear what writers think behind their writing."

And as for Edmonds' comment about Binx Bolling, Martin is convinced: "Professor Edmonds said that for me."

"Ninety-five percent of students have life-changing experiences at the festival."
- Dale Edmonds

Erin Jones from Chicago has never been to a poetry reading before she attends the festival. Neither have Denise Gass from St. Louis, Ashley Fletcher from Leesville, La., and Adam Balasiano from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The students assist at readings in an upstairs room of O'Flaherty's Irish Pub, the venue for most of the festival poetry events.

Jones says, "Poetry has always taken great interpretation on my behalf. I am able to read the words but I don't always feel as though I truly understand the idea that the author is trying to convey." At a festival poetry reading, despite the raucous noise from the bar below, Jones hears poets speak in their own voices for the first time. Vivid pictures are painted in her mind. The poets' emotions weave their way through Jones' thoughts. She understands the poets' purpose. "Each poet's reading gave me insight into a complete stranger's total being," she says.

Gass digs the reading, too. There's a tiny listening audience, five to 25 people. Before long, Gass rifles through her purse and fishes out paper to jot down the poets' words. Wary at first of the "forced involvement" at the festival, Gass delights in hearing the poets--some accomplished and some "jaded cynics." Now she says she realizes what Edmonds is up to with this festival component of the curriculum: It's "getting out of your collegiate bubble and discovering the cornucopia of opportunities a streetcar ride away."


Student Alisha Murphy gets a kiss from the director.

Before a morning festival poetry reading, Fletcher starts her day in the French Quarter at Café du Monde with a cup of café au lait. Then she takes up her post at O'Flaherty's where "writer types" wander in--a woman wearing a straw bonnet and headphones, a man in a muscle shirt. Fletcher is enthralled by the poets and their poetry.

She says, "No longer was I a mere observer; I too began to see the world as poets experience it." During the day, Fletcher is "infuriated, enchanted, saddened, awakened and transported--transported to a world previously nonexistent to me."

At the nighttime poetry slam at O'Flaherty's, Balasiano is asked to judge the poets but declines the offer because he says he doesn't know enough about poetry. He helps direct people to the event, opening doors and pointing the way to the odd-shaped room with artificial grass wall covering. Then Balasiano stays to listen. He is happy and cannot think of a single better way to spend his time. He is entertained from beginning to end. When the event is over, Balasiano says goodbye to everyone he has met and congratulates every poet he sees on his way out.

At the festival, the students move tables, guard doors, take tickets, run errands--and watch people. Sonia Moshtaghi from Wichita Falls, Texas, enjoys people-watching the most.

Spencer Tracy from near San Antonio, Texas, goes to Douglas Brinkley's interview of George Plimpton, only knowing Plimpton from his role as a psychiatrist in the movie Good Will Hunting. Plimpton's dry wit and the fact that he is the founder and editor of the renowned literary journal The Paris Review and author of several books impress Tracy, who walks away from the festival "enlightened." For the first time in his life, he says, "I actually got to interact with people who shared the same passion for the arts that I possess by experiencing an open forum of literary expression." Tracy feels that he is now on a path of cultural awakening.

On Saturday afternoon of the festival, Alisha Murphy from Lowell, Mass., sells box lunches in the Le Petit Theatre courtyard, within earshot of an interview of Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, by a reporter from a small San Francisco-based literary magazine. But, alas, Murphy has never read any of Allison's work.

"I feel so out of the loop," Murphy says. Christopher Rice, author of the novel Density of Souls and son of Interview With the Vampire author Anne Rice, speaks at a panel discussion. Murphy hasn't read either Rice's work.

"I wish I had!" Murphy laments.

Murphy has read A Confederacy of Dunces. When she sees the cast of actors who wait in the courtyard for the cue to enter the theater for a dramatic reading of the book, she is excited. "I loved that book!" she says.

An elated Murphy gets to meet the Confederacy actors, and the director kisses her hand. Saturday night at the Glitter with the Literati reception--a gathering of authors and festival participants--at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, Ty Siddiqui from Independence, Mo., brings Kory, her boyfriend. Siddiqui claims that Kory "shockingly resembles Ignatius," and she wants to prove it to her classmates. Some see Kory as Ignatius, but Murphy doesn't.

The actor--John McConnell--who portrays Ignatius in the Saturday after- noon festival performance has already captured Murphy's imagination. "He's just like I imagined Ignatius," Murphy says. "It's awesome."

Murphy is transformed by her festival experience, as so many students have been, after they attend it at Edmonds' insistence. She's gained "motivation to become more familiar with current literature," she says. And she's contemplating declaring English as her major.

The life of the mind has captivated her. And Edmonds' wishes come true.

Mary Ann Travis thanks the students in professor Dale Edmonds' class for their cheerful attitudes, perceptive comments--and use of their written festival reports.


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