Christian Gerard and Heather Dobbins have a lot in common. As a married couple, they love dancing, traveling, and working in the yard. They love cooking and nearly every type of music. They are also both professors at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith – Gerard an assistant professor of English, Dobbins an adjunct English professor.
And not only are they both published poets, they both recently published poetry collections – “Holdfast” by Gerard and “River Mouth” by Dobbins. The two will be reading from their collections at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Fort Smith Public Library, located at 3201 Rogers Ave.
While the two have their fair share of similarities, their written works draw sharp contrasts to each other. Gerard’s collection is a defense of poetry, a deeply allusive work that also deals with issues of alcoholism and recovery, divorce, and new love.
“I found in my study that poetry’s defenses, both historical and contemporary, often work less to legitimize the art as a whole and more to create space for the way the tradition can incorporate new voices and craft choices as the same human elements are discussed,” Gerard said. “This is why every poem in ‘Holdfast’ borrows at least a line from another poem, song, movie, and the like, because I couldn’t separate my writing from the tradition that surrounds me.”
The book originated as Gerard’s doctoral dissertation. But what started as a research project evolved into something much bigger as Gerard went through changes in his life and began to see poems as “prayers.”
“‘Holdfast’ touches more of the spiritual – not religious, really – elements of living and understanding poetry as a power greater than myself,” Gerard said. “In writing the poems in ‘Holdfast,’ I became willing to be in process, in fact, to give myself over to process and understand myself as process only; the process of an alcoholic, a recovered alcoholic, a divorcee, a father, a son, a new lover, and a poet.”
“‘Holdfast’ was inspired first by responding to other writers and my studies and reading, but I think, especially because of Heather’s encouragement and the energy of my new job at UAFS and all the writing I did in my head and then on the page as I walked to and from campus inspired by my students and colleagues, it became a book about process and hope and the possibility of faith,” Gerard added.
Dobbins’ poems are a collection of lost voices of residents living along the Mississippi River in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The collection was begun after Memphis flooded in 2011, which led Dobbins to begin researching the river. What she found was a fading history that led her to want to chronicle the lives of those forgotten residents.
“There were only sentences here and there about individuals, but I felt an urgency to heed their words, the ones that needed to be said between the lines of the research,” Dobbins said. “There, in the stacks in the main library, were broken families most of us no longer consider. They wanted me to know them, having perspective on the river and life that I lacked.”
The poems are organized into families, a body of what Dobbins said are “narrative persona poems” that are a blend of research, her own family stories, and her background in fiction that provides the details and language of life on the river.
While the book is steeped in historical fact, the stories embedded in Dobbins’ poems are fictional. There are so many worthy stories, in fact, that Dobbins is working on a sequel to the book.
“There are still the showboat musicians, a married river captain couple, and more,” she said.
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