by Robert L. Hall
At eight o’clock on Saturday morning, we were in our second day of the Arkansas Writer’s Convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. Seated at the table with my wife and me was a man with a white and carbon beard, bushy eyebrows and the manner of an ex-military man, complete with a commanding voice and husky manner. He introduced himself as Mick Denington. I took note that he had introduced one of the guest speakers the day before. It was evident that he was a hand at this sort of thing.
We took coffee together, conversing and waiting for the read-around—a session, where writers were encouraged to share their prose or poetry with the audience in attendance. As the preliminaries continued, we talked and found that we were all from the Memphis area, my wife and I from Marion, Arkansas (just across the river) and he from Bartlett, Tennessee (a suburb of Memphis.) Mick shared with us how he became interested in writing and his experiences. Then, he said something quite funny:
“I knew that I wanted to write. I was having some success with it. However, I determined that if I did, the last thing in the world I would do is poetry.”
What is it that they say? Never say never, because what you say never to is the very thing that you will wind up doing? This was true in his case, anyway.
Now, I don’t know about you, but at eight in the a.m. I am not much good to anybody, even myself. However, I was there to read an extract from one of my horse book manuscripts. I wanted to see how the other writers would receive it.
Bleary-eyed as I was, I didn’t have much hope that I could pull off a decent reading however and was starting to wish that I had just slept in later that morning.
They called for the first round of presenters and we all sat around the large room at our respective tables staring at each other timidly. I held my story in my sweaty hand, trying to get my nerve up, when Mick raised his hand and was called on by the moderator to recite first. He strode to the front of the room, took the microphone in hand and introduced himself perfunctorily.
He had a wonderful speaking voice (which explains why he was called on to be moderator the day before.) He related quickly of how he had been on a tour of Vicksburg, Mississippi and had been inspired by the aura of the old southern setting to pen the poem that he was about to read. It is entitled (he said) “The Ghosts of Vicksburg.” His voice went to a low, grave tone.
Suddenly, I was glad that I had gotten up early that morning. Now, this was something to hear! Ordinarily, I don’t like a lot of verse, as it tends to the mushy, overtly flowery, or free verse (which never made much sense to me-Don’t poets have a responsibility to make words rhyme? At least that’s been my experience.) But, then avant-garde poetry to me was about the time of the advent of iambic pentameter!
Only, this was good stuff. I even felt emboldened enough to read from my own work. Around the room we went until everyone had read once. Then we took a second turn. After a call for hands, Mick shot his up in the air again and proclaimed:
“I have just a short poem that I might share.”
We waited as he bounded toward the front. I was expectant now. I wondered what this man would pull out of his hat that would beat the first recitation he had given.
From memory he began to speak, his arms windmilling around and his voice now brisk and light. I swear I thought he was going to break out in song any minute as he recited his “The Ballad of Fannye Redd.”
The Ballad of Fannye Redd
After hearing him at the convention, I asked for an interview and met him at his lovely home in Bartlett, Tennessee where he and his wife, Marilyn, reside. I was intensely curious to see what how he became interested in writing verse.
Mick, how do you compose your particular style of poetry?
When the muse is there, it seems like everything that I’ve tried to write just comes out of my fingers and to the keyboard. When that happens, I’ll write a poem in a matter of a couple of hours that will not need much revision. Even years later, I’ll go back and, well, there’s just not much there that I choose to change. They happen like episodes.
How did you get interested in writing in the first place?
I was traveling in Kansas by train in ’66. We pulled into a siding to allow an oncoming freight train to pass. However, our engineer pulled too far forward and the freight train hit us head-on. It was pretty dramatic, but no one was killed. Anyway, I wrote a piece about the incident twenty years later and sent it into the local paper out there. My timing was perfect. They put it on the front of the second section of the paper, taking up almost all the page! We had it framed and I was very proud of the job I did on it. After getting a taste of writing “slice of life” fictional pieces after that, I developed a taste for writing.
Next came poetry. Whereas in fiction, it is hard enough to write interesting and humorous things, in poetry, you have to consider the implications of verse as well.
It is very difficult, especially in the beginning. However, I entered verses in contests and after winning a few prizes, I decided to devote most of my energy to poetry.
I know that you travel broadly in Europe and the Caribbean. What have you seen in your many travels that you bring into your work?
I don’t know what kind of poetry will come of this last European trip. But, for example, we visited the gravesite of Durer and eventually something will come out of that…his artwork and his life. I just never know.
But to answer your question, starting to write poetry does something interesting to your perspective. You begin to see poetry in things. You develop a different attitude. My wife and I went with another couple to Puerto Rico at the San Cristobal Colon Plaza, which is basically just a little place with a fountain, and a U.S. Navy band set up on a stage there and began to play rock and roll music. Well, a crowd started to grow there. We had no idea this was going to happen; we were just out wondering around. Anyway, they started to play and it was beastly hot. People thronged to the place and one guy with baggy white shorts and a red shirt just suddenly appeared out in front of the crowd. The music he was listening to had “gotten into him” and he was just…eyes closed, his head drawn back, his hands out in front of him, and he started rocking and rolling to the band. He was lost, gone, nothing mattered! There he was, just dancing.
He danced up a sweat. Well, people-everybody stopped and watched this guy. Then when the band stopped finally the number, everyone applauded this man. It jarred him out of his revelry and his eyes popped open and he disappeared back into the crowd. It was something that was very vivid that we saw and I wrote a poem about that.
Another time we went down in a submarine, where the colors are filtered out gradually by the water as you go down. The spectrum is lost. A poem resulted from the dive. In that particular case, there was a story about a drunken Captain who sailed his ship into the reef and joined his colorful tales in the deep. The Caribbean hides a lot. You don’t see the beautiful colors of the coral down deep. Only when you bring it to light do you see the lovely color of it. To me there was a connection between that and family secrets. Again, it is all a matter of perspective.
Tell us what you are presently working on.
I’m putting a lot of effort into writing organizations: Poetry Society of Tennessee for one and the Tennessee Writer’s Alliance. They are both volunteer organizations, so much of my energy is going into that. Today I have been putting together entries for the Grandmother Earth Contest; an anthology sponsored every year. With any luck I will have something published by Grandmother Earth. I’m also in the process, or will be in the next few days, entries for the Poetry Society of Tennessee in October. I am also beginning to toy with the idea of putting together a book of poems in the next few years.
What sort of advice would you give a beginning poet?
Learn the craft by reading poetry; read, read, read, read. I read a lot- the Masters. I don’t read enough, but I am going back and looking at classical literature. I have a new copy of Beowulf-a new interpretation of it. It is enlightening to read. Read poets from other areas, especially those who have won awards.
After more than 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, including a stint in Vietnam, Mick retired as a colonel. He subsequently served as a corporate vice president and taught high school math. He has written poetry almost exclusively for the past 7-8 years. He has won numerous prizes in local, regional and national contests, and his poems have appeared in publications at those levels. He is regularly called upon to judge poetry contests, is active in writing organization, as he has served as president of the Mid South Writers’ Association, director of the Mid South Spring Writers’ Festival and Editor-in-Chief of Writers on the River. Currently, he is vice president of the Poetry Society of Tennessee and Chairman of the Board of the Tennessee Writers’ Alliance. In 1997 he was designated a Laureate Man of Letters at the World Congress of Poets which was held at Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe, England.
Recent publication credits include works in: Mississippi Poetry Journal, Writers on the River, The Tennessee Writer, Grandmother Earth, Tennessee Voices, and Voices International. Mick won the Grand Conference Award for prose at the 2001 Arkansas Writers’ Conference.
© 2001 Robert Hall, All Rights Reserved