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UMFK Professor Presents Work at Appalachian Writers Association Conference; Helps Plan Honors Seminar on Appalachia

August 7, 2006

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UMFK Professor of English, Geraldine Cannon Becker, recently returned from a trip down south where she presented an academic paper and shared some of her poetry with interested participants at the Appalachian Writers Association Conference, July 7-9, 2006.

Professor Cannon Becker responded to a call for papers, sending "Touched by Faith," a paper that she had written, with help from UMFK student Rebecca Russell, as an assignment for an anthropology class taught by Dr. Mariella Squire in the fall of 2005. The audience seemed very interested in the topic, so Cannon Becker plans to continue research with hopes for publication. "Rebecca and I did a lot of background research for this paper and wrote the majority of it quickly, not thinking of presentations or publications at the time. However, when I saw the call for papers, I was glad we decided to go with faith healing and that I had focused so much on Appalachia."

Cannon Becker, who publishes poetry under her maiden name, presented three of her poems on open-mic night, including: "Sound Sense," a poem about two different fields two generations must work-one with rows of plants, and one with rows of words; "Whisper Will," a poem that plays on naturally different sounds; and "Kudzu and a Question Under Moon Shine," a poem that was recently published in Southern Revival (contact Professor Cannon Becker for details on where to get a copy of the limited edition-only 70 or so are left).

The AWA has held annual conferences for years. As their home page attests: "Founded in 1983, the Appalachian Writers Association established a program of preserving Appalachian literary heritage through promoting the works of new authors and celebrating established writers. The AWA seeks members from throughout Appalachia who write in a wide range of genre and disciplines, from storytellers to lyricists, from academics to popular writers." (http://www.king.edu/awa/)

Shortly after her paper had been accepted, Cannon Becker became aware that the conference offered writing workshops. She volunteered information on her background, but leaders for the workshops had already been selected. Cannon Becker decided to participate in a workshop, and sent in several of her poems that needed more attention.

She requested workshop leader Jane Hicks, who had just published Blood and Bone Remember: Poems from Appalachia (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2005). "It was really wonderful to have my work critiqued again in a workshop format. Since graduating with my M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville, in 1998, I have led the writing workshops. Sometimes, I've participated, but I've been the leader or the guide for the other writers, so this was different and good."

"I get to meet so many fascinating people at conferences," Cannon Becker says. "I had hoped to meet George Brosi, editor (since 2002) of Appalachian Heritage: A Literary Quarterly of the Appalachian South, which has been holding strong since 1973. But I didn't expect to sit with him at dinner on the first night." Cannon Becker hadn't ever seen a picture of Brosi, so she didn't know what he looked like and she couldn't see his name tag otherwise she says she wouldn't have had the nerve to walk up to his table and ask to take a seat.

After talking with her neighbor, who turned out to be Brosi's wife, for a few minutes, Cannon Becker was introduced as a subscriber to the magazine, Appalachian Heritage. After a bit, Brosi said: "So, you subscribe to us," and Cannon Becker nodded. "What could we do that we aren't doing to make the magazine better?" Brosi asked. Cannon Becker didn't miss a beat, saying: "You could put me in it." Everyone at the table laughed.

Many people at the conference were talking about coal mining and mountain top removal. Cannon Becker says, "I miss the mountains when I am away from them for a long time, but there are people who are there every day watching the mountains they love disappear. People have died from the grief of it all-having to move or having the mountains come down around them."

Cannon Becker bought a compilation of works by 35 Kentucky writers who have come together to bring about awareness of the horrible destruction of a sacred place and the ways and means of all those who inhabit it: Missing Mountains (Wind Publications, 2005). "I picked it up after lunch and just the picture on the cover hurt my heart. Readers will find humor inside-ironic humor, as is traditional with people of the mountains, but this is not an easy read. It shouldn't be. Only flat land should be flat."

In his keynote speech the next evening, Cannon Becker says, "[Robert Jack]Higgs spoke about how we may be able to understand the purpose for machines in our lives, and how we may be able to appreciate and even value them for what they are, and how maybe we can understand them-but they can't really understand us. They may make our lives easier or harder, but they definitely make it different. He said machines may be getting more and more human, they may even able to sense emotions of people and respond to them on some level, but he noted that one big difference between a machine and a human is-up to this day and age-a machine still can't sit down and have a beer with a person." Higgs delivered serious content in a humorous and relaxed way.

Poet Jane Hicks invited Cannon Becker to sit with her for dinner that evening. Also at the table was author Sharyn McCrumb. Before the evening was over, both of these writers had left with plaques from AWA for their outstanding work. Hicks had been a student in Higgs' classroom, and she shared a story about how she had just listened to him talk instead of taking notes because the classroom environment was so relaxed. She said after the first test, she tried harder to take notes.

After his fascinating talk on machines, Cannon Becker introduced herself to keynote speaker, "Jack" Higgs, who is editor of Appalachia Inside Out, Vols. I and II-the main texts Professor Cannon Becker and Dr. Terry Murphy plan to use in their Honors Seminar on Appalachia this fall. Cannon Becker told Higgs a little bit about the upcoming course, and he was pleased.

At the conference, book sellers had set up tables, and Jane Hicks let Cannon Becker sell Southern Revival from her own table. George Brosi had a large display and a title on the spine of a huge book got Cannon Becker's attention. She notes: "Blake Library is purchasing the new Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 2006), a comprehensive volume of scholarship and endurance. It is an amazing resource, and must weigh in at close to eight pounds. I didn't want to put it down at the conference, but I had already overspent my book budget for the month, plus my arms were getting tired." This book will be a valuable reference for research on Appalachia.

In the honors seminar on Appalachia, Professor Cannon Becker and Dr. Murphy will assign selected readings from Appalachian Heritage, and will have several works on reserve for students. In addition to these, students will choose three works from a literary genre of their choice, keep a response journal, and prepare a special project and presentation for the class on a topic of their own interest involving/concerning Appalachia.

Cannon Becker says, "I lived in Appalachia most of my life. I grew up in the foothills, in South Carolina. When I earned my M.F.A., I moved out near the Ozarks, in Arkansas, where many Appalachians had ended up years before when they couldn't find work and migrated. I told my husband, Joe, when he was doing his first job search: 'I'll go with you anywhere, but you know I won't be comfortable if I'm not near the mountains.' The hills I see out my windows are not my hills, but they remind me enough of them. I can feel at home here."

Cannon Becker notes: "Wherever I go, Appalachia is with me, in a very real way. I used to see mountains in the clouds above the trees when I went to college as an undergraduate at Winthrop in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I visualized this. There were no mountains there. Some people of this area will know what I mean. They must feel this way about these hills and the Valley."

When Cannon Becker saw a special on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network about Appalachia, she started thinking about creating a course on Appalachia. She says, "Dr. Murphy and I have similar interests. She called to let me know about the special, and I told her that I had seen it, and I thought this would be something for us to talk more about and the course came into being from our discussions."

"Honestly, I had never thought of studying about or teaching about Appalachia before this, but the seminar should be a wonderful learning experience for everyone who participates, and I'm looking forward to it," says Cannon Becker.

There's still room for more people to sign up for the honors seminar, which is scheduled to meet this fall on Tuesday, from 12:00-2:40 PM at UMFK.