Monday marked the publication of a new collection of poetry by the late Thomas McAfee, who taught at the University of Missouri in Columbia for almost 30 years.
The book, “There Is Not Fashion to It,” represents a return to print for many of the poems included.
“Before his work was lost, we wanted a chance to get it all together in one place, to make it accessible and remind people what an outstanding writer he was,” said Greg Michalson, a Columbia writer and editor and one of several former McAfee students to collaborate on the effort.
They selected poems from McAfee’s several published collections as well as from McAfee’s papers held at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.
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Several times Michalson and his colleagues gathered to pass around McAfee’s poems or read them aloud.
“That was one of the most rewarding experiences for all of us, sitting down together and reading all of those poems, sometimes for the first time in years, and just reaffirming how good they really were,” Michalson said.
McAfee died in 1982 at the age of 54. Born and reared in Winston County, Ala., which — as McAfee often told the story — was home to many who had resented the state’s 1861 secession from the Union, McAfee earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Missouri before serving two years in the Army. He then returned to Columbia to begin his teaching and writing career.
He placed a short story in Esquire magazine in 1959 before publishing an initial collection of poetry and short fiction the next year.
One of the poems included is “Certain as the Mare My Father Gave Me.”
The first stanza describes how the author’s father would, each night, visit him for a brief moment of quiet before bedtime. The second stanza describes how, while riding his mare over a rural bridge, the author saw the top of a car peeking out of the surface of the stream below.
The third stanza reads:
After I had put the mare away,
Had eaten supper and undressed for bed,
My father came to me and then I told
About the car. And he made certainty
That hour, and let me sleep with his goodnight.
I’ve long admired the solace suggested by those last lines invoking a father who, presumably, had eased a son’s concerns after he had glimpsed such a random and jarring sight.
The solace found in McAfee’s classroom, alas, could be humbling.
Long and lanky, McAfee would fold himself into a steel-and-plastic classroom chair behind an equally utilitarian desk. After a few introductory remarks, students would read their work.
McAfee’s usual response after each poem would be not to pass judgment but allow a classroom consensus to emerge, in a slow and sometimes excruciating — especially for the author — pace. Only then might he offer a gentle remark that would prove painful but instructive.
And then the next student would read.
“He was quiet and didn’t say a lot, but when he said something it really rang true,” Michalson said. “It’s amazing how often even today, more than 30 years after his death, I will think of him.”
In that regard he’s not alone. Michalson helped organize a panel discussion devoted to McAfee at the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. The panel attracted about 40 writers, many of whom considered McAfee a mentor.
“Two of them even said they have photos of Tom on their writing desks,” Michalson said.
BkMk Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City published the book. For more info, go to UMKC.edu/bkmk.
Writing conference starts Friday
Michalson, meanwhile, will be a guest speaker at this summer’s New Letters Writing Conference, which begins Friday.
Katherine Karlin, who teaches creative writing and literature at Kansas State University, will serve as keynote speaker. Presenters will include playwright Frank Higgins, screenwriter Mitch Brian and Linda Rodriguez, poet and mystery novelist.
The conference will be at the Diastole Scholars’ Center, 2501 Holmes St.
To register, call the University of Missouri-Kansas City Continuing Education office at 816-235-2736.