Jim Powell as Witness

Jim Powell, the longtime IUPUI professor and founder of The Indiana Writers Center, has published a book of short stories with a very fitting title: Only Witness.

That is the true calling of the writer – to be a witness to the people and the world around him or her – not to judge, not to praise or condemn or flatter or berate –only witness. It is a noble calling and Powell serves it well.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Night Train to Vienna,” in which a woman is with a man who doesn’t really see her, doesn’t see that she has needs of her own, but seems to feel her job is to fill his needs (sound familiar?) They are sharing a tiny room on a train with two bunks.

“They had become so. . .static, their boundaries, like the two bunks in the same room but unaligned.”

By chance she encounters a dark man who gives a greeting in Arabic; it’s obvious he is a refugee and she helps him avert a confrontation with police at a border crossing. At another stop, police escort him from the train. The woman feels a kinship with the man, and hoping for his escape, she begins to imagine her own escape from an unfulfilling relationship.

“Her chance would come.”

The story is so nuanced, so layered with meaning, it has the feel and weight of a condensed novel.

Powell gives us swift, telling portraits of a range of men, women and children, as they balance lives in the midwest, make brief escapes to try to lose their familiar selves in Mexico or Europe; a son contends delicately with a mother losing ground to dementia, a woman returns from California to pit old boyfriends against one another in an Indiana bar, a married couple tries to negotiate “the middle of the journey” of their married life.

Most of all, I treasure “Tigerville” – not a place, but a state of mind and heart, where a man comes to settle himself in the newly-found territory of life with a woman and her cats, her presence. The story teller watches her “puzzling over words at her desk, leaning back in the chair she chose for its uncomfortable uprightness. You wonder at her focus, her distance. She is near, but her self-absorption is power. . .”

Reading this quiet, attentive story, I think of the poet Mary Oliver’s line “I don’t know how to pray, but I know how to pay attention.”

In these true, insightful stories, Jim Powell knows how to pay attention.

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Richard Lugar: A Friend Until the End

I had the honor of writing a feature story in Indianapolis Monthly on my dear friend Dick Lugar:

Lugar’s honesty came to the fore again in one of our class’s final activities. It was Shortridge tradition that the graduation dance was put on by 30 senior boys (chosen by the previous year’s seniors) who formed the prestigious “Club Thirty.” It was our job to select the band to play, the site of the dance, set the ticket price, and sell the tickets—in brief, make all the arrangements. At our last meeting, to divide up the spoils—a minor profit divided among us—all were ready to close the meeting and go out for burgers and maybe some under-the-counter beer, when Lugar stood to say that our business wasn’t over. He explained that we needed to report our profits to the I.R.S. and pay whatever tax was required by the government. None of us were trying to do an end run around our responsibility—such an adult duty had simply not occurred to anyone. Lugar made sure it was all carried out according to the letter of the law. My immediate thought was that Dick was making sure that no future muckraking reporter would dig back into his history when he ran for president and find an illegal flaw in his high school past. He was an Eagle Scout, in character as well as achievement, and he never broke a pledge.

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“Kurt’s Karass: Dan Wakefield” Premiering at Shortridge High School

Tuesday, May 21st, 7:15 pm

This event is free and open to the public. Kurt’s Karass: Dan Wakefield, a 35 minute short documentary about Kurt Vonnegut Jr, will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the star of the film segment, Indiana’s own Dan Wakefield.

In the film, Wakefield reminisces about Kurt, a 1940 graduate of Shortridge and editor of the school’s daily paper, The Echo. Wakefield, also an Echo writer, graduated a decade later. Wakefield traces his friendship with Kurt from his first meeting with Vonnegut in 1963 to the year before Vonnegut died, when Wakefield gave a talk in New York that Vonnegut attended and then warmly took his old friend out to dinner so they could catch up.

Vonnegut reviewed Wakefield’s first novel Going All The Way, in Life magazine, and wrote “Having written this novel, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.” It took about forty years for Wakefield to move back to Indy. Going All The Way was later made as a movie starring Ben Affleck, Rachel Weiss and Rose McGowan. Wakefield’s memoir New York in the Fifties was produced as a documentary film by his friend Betsy Blankenbaker, another Indianapolis native, and is available on Netflix.

Commissioned by the Vonnegut Estate, Wakefield has edited compilations and written introductions to the books Kurt Vonnegut LettersIf This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: The Graduation Speeches, and Kurt Vonnegut Complete Stories, with Jerome Klinkowitz.

Former WFYI radio personality and longtime Indianapolis resident, Travis DiNicola, returns to Indy to emcee the event. DiNicola, founder of Indy Reads Books, is thrilled to return to the stage with Dan Wakefield and host the evening’s panel discussion, “Sitting down and talking with Uncle Dan about writing, and his memories of authors he has known, is one of my favorite things, and perhaps what I miss most about living in Indy. I’m so excited to be given this opportunity to come back to Indy and share a conversation with Dan and the audience.”

After the screening the panel discussion, including Wakefield and emcee Travis DiNicola, will feature Shortridge student Shaun’Tae Swanson, Shortridge teacher Michael Gawdzik, and Max Goller, who conducts courses for teachers who want to use Vonnegut’s work in their classrooms.

The Charles Bruce Foundation, a Pennsylvania based non-profit that supports Writers, Artists and Musicians (WAM!), in conjunction with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has devoted the past three years to interviewing some of the Vonnegut’s dearest friends. The film team – headed by Tim Hashko of Steaming Kettle Films – has produced a series of short documentaries in hopes of preserving fond memories of this American Icon as shared first hand by his closest companions. Earlier productions featured artists Joe Petro III and the infamous Ralph Steadman.

Special thanks to the folks at Shortridge High. None of this would be possible without Shortridge educators, Mike Gadzick – who will be participating in the panel discussion – and Charles Langley who coordinated the event for the high school.

 

Panelist information:

Michael Gawdzik is a language and literature teacher at Shortridge High School. For the last two years, he has strengthened the connection between Shortridge High School and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library by incorporating Kurt Vonnegut focused curriculum at every grade level. His hope for every student at Shortridge is to read at least one book by the beloved Hoosier author.

Max Goller is the Director of Education at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. Goller works with educators across the U.S. promoting classroom teaching of ideas related to Kurt Vonnegut. He retired with 20 years of service from the United States Navy in 2001 having served as an electronics technician, instructor, and recruiter. Max currently teaches 8th grade English at Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate Junior High School in Fishers, Indiana.

Shaun’tae Swanson is an African American girl that has seen the scary side of this world: the side we think is normally hidden from children. She is an artist that seeks to put her trauma to use, painting vivid imagery with her words. She is a poet, writer, but most importantly a reader. Reading is a part of who she is, and has taught her how to become the writer she dreams to be.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield