Jim Powell’s ONLY WITNESS: The Intellectual and Liar That Reconstructed My Literary Life

This past Friday evening at the Indiana Writers Center marked the official launch of Jim Powell’s inaugural collection of short stories, Only Witness, an event which functioned as both a highly-anticipated release party and pilgrimage for the local literati.

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In attendance, it was easy to spot Dan Wakefield, long-time Indianapolis Star columnist, Dan Carpenter—Barb Shoup (novelist and Executive Director of the IWC); I was able to briefly catch up with Terry Kirts (senior creative writing lecturer at IUPUI), and gave a nod to Robert Rebein (novelist and interim Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI).  Susan Neville was also mentioned to be in the crowd; and of course present was Jim’s wife, former Indiana Poet Laureate, Karen Kovacik—his companion and ally, his “muse.”

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But there were many in attendance, from a spectrum of creative crafts, who packed the space to applaud not only Jim’s creative accomplishment in the form of Only Witness, but his influential vision as founder of the Indiana Writers Center in 1979.

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Only Witness release party:  March 8, 2019

To give Jim an errant, social-media “shoutout” would be an exercise in indolence; yet, on the other hand, I feel as though I could write in meandering, marathon-fashion about the man—about how he sobered my from my own indolent tendencies (read: lazy writing habits) as an apprentice, and provided guidance in how to develop into the thing that compels the more important thing into existence:  the writer producing the writing.  (There is, of course, a separate discussion here about whether or not writing—or any artistic discipline—can be taught:  about whether or not someone can teach another human being how to become a creative entity.  My answer is complicated, but I believe we have inherent traits which, if honed, can be calibrated to align with the frequencies of specific creative mediums.)

More than scribbling stories, Jim inadvertently guided me into how to become a more dependable husband and father.  Jim was my mentor during a particularly formative phase when I was desperately trying to grow up.  Those themes came out in my fiction, and Jim identified certain “pings,” suggesting how to negotiate and renegotiate (often through relentless revisions) the terrain of what I was trying to say—what I was trying to be.

Going back to the late-90s, my time on the campus of IUPUI (and along the landscapes of academes) was erratic.  But as the turbulence began to wane and my life began to gain some semblance of dimension (this was after I returned from my stint in both Chicago and “The Region” of northwest Indiana), so too did my devotion to the discipline of writing.  At some point, I began pursuing a degree in English.

I happened to be acquainted with (though various creative clicks) a number of local poets and writers, many of whom provided wisdom on how to navigate this venture—This is who you want for poetry…This is who you want for creative fiction…If you can, try to get David Schanker for his “Novel” class…This is who you don’t want for editing…

Jim Powell (who at that time was still acting as lecturer and advisor in the English Department) had somewhat a legendary reputation, mostly for his prowess in the literary arena, but he was also purported to be somewhat of a hardass.

Indeed, I would pass Professor Powell crossing campus, snatching covert, sideling glances at the man:  An ostensibly preoccupied individual, walking with an intent gait, toting a use-worn leather briefcase, surely filled with doomed manuscripts which had been mauled and executed with Powell’s red pen.  Poor, hapless bastards.  (Side note:  Jim used blue ink, not red; and that leather briefcase:  it’s a Coach from 1982, and has only once, in these thirty-seven years, required repair at a shoe shop.)  Thus, in pursuit of an English degree, it was statistically certain that the initiate’s meandering path would eventually intersect with that of one James E. Powell.

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What I would come to understand is that most of these misguided savants making caricaturist claims about Jim were rather flimsy when it came to being challenged by both their peers and instructors—yes, I refer to the micro-Coloseum of close readings and roundtable story analysis, but I’m also citing something more intrinsic:  they didn’t want to commit to the menial, solitary, and (sometimes painfully) private work of becoming a writer.

This didn’t appeal to their sensibilities, and so the calculus was that Jim was tough.  He is.  And he produces a durable product.

(My confession:  In my spring, 2009 semester portfolio submission, I attempted to give a wide berth to a pivotal revision within one of my stories.  Jim quickly noted that it was unacceptable, and that I would receive a grade of “Incomplete” until I made good on making the necessary narrative alterations; otherwise, I would fail the semester.  Inherently, I absorbed these demanding correspondences with a petulant validation for a suspicion I’d harbored all along:  that I had no business on a college campus—check that:  that my writing had no business on a college campus.  I made several attempts to change the dynamic between my characters and their circumstances, but nothing was working; and I would be nifty to simply say that all I would have needed to do was tinker with a few elements to mollify my instructor, but that’s not how it works, is it?  Although the art often requires agile embellishment, there really is no lying in earnest fiction.  Jim knows that, and he wouldn’t let me get away with it.  He never has.)

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2011 genesis release party

But one the most pivotal periods of my life was between 2010 and 2011.  At this time, my modest house had evolved into a home which contained my recently-married wife, a six-year-old, a toddler, and a Golden Retriever approximately the size of Fenrir.  I was not only attempting to finish my English degree with the intent of becoming on English teacher (the former occurred in 2012, while the latter never happened), but I was also still trying to gain some footing with my fiction.

As I closed in on my final classes, viable options—essentially due to the day-long duration of my weekly occupation, and the fact that I had, during my prolonged stay on campus, exhausted all other available classes—were discouragingly sparse.  (It’s entailment, but the other element here was money, or in my case, lack thereof.)

Nearly optionless, I reached out to my coach.  Jim, after some light interrogation (“I will ask the questions!”) about my commitment to the craft, suggested a guided writing class, which was effectively a one-on-one workshop keenly constructed to propel a candidate through the rigors of a specific creative medium.  (In my case:  short fiction.)  His caveat:  The workload would be substantial:  enormous amounts of reading and responding, writing and revision, all of which necessitated sit-down discussions at certain intervals over the course of a both the spring semesters and three, summer months following that.  (Here’s some more entailment:  as opposed to roundtable story analyses, these sit-down discussions would offer no insulation—it was no secret that Jim has, like Hemingway, a built-in shockproof bullshit detector, and he would offer no quarter to a student who wouldn’t take the class seriously.)

The course was, in itself, course correction.  And while I was allowed to calibrate my own compass, Jim was manipulating the ambient magnetic fields.

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While Jim Powell has dozens of publication-ready stories in that proverbial, soft-side leather briefcase, nineteen polished pieces appear in Only Witness.  These tales therein have been refined over the past nine years or so, when Jim devoted less focus on what he could teach young minds as opposed to what he could teach himself.  There are a number of stories I had the honor of glimpsing their “bones” in their nascent days (“Shelter”); and there are more that resonate with peculiar significance (one of the stories contains a character bearing my daughter’s first name—coincidence?).  Still, more profoundly, there are echoes I can identify along my Midwest landscape.  Subtle sensibilities.  Sneaky, static-lashed frequencies.

What’s more, his collection’s title is quietly loaded as a directive:  it operates as, yes, a fitting, adjective-noun union, but it’s also quiet guidance:  that a writer, like a competent anthropologist, should only absorb and record the worldly interactions which they observe.

From Susan Neville:

Jim Powell has long served Indiana literature—both in his support of emerging writers and his knowledge and insight into the historical canon, which he has helped define.  and now in this new collection of short fiction, he adds his own unique voice to the list of writers who bear witness to this particular place.

Pardon the cliché, but it works in a summative sense:  Jim is a writer’s writer, and just as he’s generated his own stories, he has, likewise (though in mitotic fashion) helped to fashion the scaffolding for the lives of other writers.

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In 1977 (the year Star Wars premiered and the year I was born—I’ll let you rate the significance between the two), Jim and some literary comrades opened a bookstore in Santa Monica, California, called Intellectuals and Liars.  Jim is quoted as saying that they’re “two people you can’t trust,” and that, in his estimation, was an apropos description of both writers and poets.
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There are times when I’ve read Jim’s stories and wanted to ask a question—something to clarify, or something that, possessing an unshakable suspicion, I thought might be telling about his “real life.”  Jim is, of course, an intellectual, and, yes, a story-teller; but he is also aware of his audience which, for decades, were young writers.  “The artist acknowledges both the existence and importance of others,” writes Richard Russo in his introduction to 2010’s The Best American Short Stories.  “He starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point realizes he wants to share it, which is why he spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and receiving.”  Many years in the making, Only Witness is a gift which, if read closely, is not only entertaining, but—to the reverent reader—lovingly instructive.

 

 

 

 

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