The School of One in Ten

by Cathy Agrella, Guest Editor

Cathy Agrella, Jean Cassidy, & Caralyn Davis

Guest Editor Cathy Agrella, left; and Editor's Choice poet Jean Cassidy, at the Clingman Café in West Asheville. Pictured separately is Editor's Choice prose writer Caralyn Davis.

For each issue of The Great Smokies Review, one of our editors, or a guest editor from the Great Smokies writing community, selects a favorite submission and explains why.

I’d like to recognize two Great Smokies writers, Jean Cassidy and Caralyn Davis, who have achieved a rare thing. They have produced work that goes against some prevailing stereotypes about good creative writing. A funny poem for adults about ghosts (Cassidy’s “Arrival”) would normally be suspect. A story about a woman who quits drinking (Davis’ “Salivate”) would be a candidate for a made-for-TV-movie under other circumstances. The fact is—both of these pieces are very, very good, despite the fact that they do things that are risky for fine literature to do.

Many of us, as literary readers, have been a little brainwashed, and it’s time for reprogramming. I remember early English classes, and a voice behind a pointing finger at the front of the room. I was made to understand that “nine times out of ten, a poem that makes you smile a lot is called a greeting card, and a story that has a moral is called a sermon.”

The voice went on to say that we should be careful if we “liked” a story or “got” a poem immediately. If a work was too accessible, especially emotionally, that might mean it lacked substance. Facility made it unworthy of our admiration.

Happily, I am a reformed reader now, and have shaken off those early admonitions. Sometimes you begin a poem or a story and fall into the flow of it from the start. Then, when you are through reading, you realize you didn’t critique it—you just enjoyed it, participated in it, were moved by it, believed it. That is what happened to me with “Arrival,” with “Salivate.” Cassidy and Davis are writers who took chances that paid off.

Forget the nine out of ten. I salute the graduates of the School of One in Ten—the poet with the amusing rhyming word fantasy, the fiction writer who definitely has a soapbox to stand on, a lesson to impart. They don’t worry about the rules, the prevailing wisdom. Think about Emily Dickinson with her funny frog, telling its name the livelong June to an admiring Bog, or Lewis Carroll’s pseudo-scary Jabberwock with eyes of flame. Think about Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful story “Revelation,” where life teaches Mrs. Turpin to recognize her own bigotry (and O’Connor really doesn’t mind if the reader gets religion on the point as well).

I could not stop smiling over Jean Cassidy’s delightful “Arrival.” Since the poem is about the supernatural, of course I wanted to get into it. The writer’s playful arguments about her haunting subjects put me in a wonderful mood, and there is real craftsmanship as well as humor here. Cassidy is as effective as a lawyer in defending her invisible clients. Look at all the things ghosts are accused of: being “slimy, salacious specters,” “lurking on haunches waiting to cudgel,” being “saturnine, savage, and sneaky.”

Now ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, how could you possibly think harm could come from this vivid vocabulary and these fellowships of fun alliterations?

“Arrival” was created as a response to an assignment to write a poem in a single sentence. Ghosts are all air, floating along without stops, right? There could be no better subject for a piece with no punctuation, no “walls,” so to speak. The arc of the poem flows from nothing—a “faint breeze”—to nothing—“a whisper.” In between, however, a clear population takes shape. “Empty space begins to feel occupied,” as you might expect with an oxymoron such as the living dead. I greatly admired the way they showed up, complete with flyaway henna hair, holding spatulas and iPads, on Jean Cassidy’s page.

Then there is Caralyn Davis’ memorable story “Salivate.” She took me to church, and when a story does that I usually run for the door. Yet I was inspired, ready to change my own life after reading it.

This account of how a young woman manages to conquer her drinking problem is never preachy. The narrator matter-of-factly relates how she moved her personal mountain from alcoholism to sobriety, one difficult day of the week at a time. The voice is determined, never self-pitying.

If I wanted to critique “Salivate” on an objective level, it might not pass muster. The issues it touches on are the stuff of prime-time drama. The main character is a little weird, but we like her. She has a hard time in high school and college, but when she tries to get help, things go wrong. (Damn you, Ed the psychiatrist, and any like you who get their patients hooked on antidepressants. And what about healthcare plans that don’t cover mental health? Let’s write our legislators.)

This may be a plot with an agenda, but we don’t feel lectured, and Davis is never trite or run of the mill. This could have been just another tale of struggling with substance abuse, but Olive takes a unique approach that borders on the incredible. (We have to dig the narrator’s name out of the middle of the story, just as she digs herself out of addiction and pain. Maybe Davis is being funny—when the martini is gone the olive is left. But then again, Olive is strictly a wine drinker.) When she starts rocking in her grandmother’s old chair, the stress builds, and we are there too, abstaining and suffering, drinking carbonated water and hoping it will suffice. We know it won’t, but we’re not giving up.

This is a how-to, it’s the telling of a process, but also it’s loaded with suspense. The tight framing of the narrative in seven sections adds to the tension. She might not make it; it might all fall apart on say, Thursday. Davis enables us to be right there with Olive; at first we are rooting for her, but later her journey becomes irresistible, it becomes our own. Monday, then Tuesday. Oh the temptation. Salivate. Salivation. Come on. Will “Salvation” be possible?

Just in case it is, here’s my sermon: resist that old critical training which leads to a reaction of “uh-oh, I loved this poem, this fiction…maybe that was too easy.” Stop yourself if you narrow your eyes and wonder if you are giving the writing too much credit. Davis and Cassidy deserve all the credit in the world. It doesn’t matter if what Davis’s narrator proposes to do—what she says she does—is actually doable. It is irrelevant whether ghosts do or don’t exist. All I know is, I participated in these pieces. I was moved by these writers. I believe what they are telling me, and I am ready to follow them further.

Cathy Agrella, like Caralyn and Jean, is a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program. She is putting the finishing touches on her first novel. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and has taught English at Western Carolina University, UNC Asheville, and elsewhere. She has written book and art reviews for various publications and especially enjoys reviewing emerging writers.