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Brockport Writers Forum season wraps with memoir

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The Brockport Writers Forum is an annual author spotlight series co-organized by The College at Brockport professors Anne Panning and Ralph Black, and it includes all genres: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The Forum benefits SUNY Brockport's creative writing students in particular, who read the works of the visiting writers as part of a course called The Writer's Craft. During class time, students have the opportunity to do a more intimate Q&A with visiting writers before the public readings.

The current fall season so far has showcased four writers. Earlier this month, award-winning poet and Rochester native Cornelius Eady performed and sang live with three other musicians in addition to giving a poetry reading. The forum also brought novelists Weike Wang and Stephanie Powell Watts and essayist Elena Passarello to campus earlier in the fall. A final event on Wednesday, November 28, will feature Anne Panning reading from her memoir, "Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss."

Anne Panning. - PHOTO BY MICHELLE ASHLEE
  • PHOTO BY MICHELLE ASHLEE
  • Anne Panning.

Panning spent eight years writing the memoir about the loss of her mother. "Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss" (Stillhouse Press, September 2018) is written in brief fragments in which dragonflies serve as not only a symbol of Panning's mother, but operate as a vehicle that takes the reader through different places and moments in time. The book maps an extensive geography, pulling the reader to Minnesota, to Brockport, New York, and to Vietnam, and readers are reminded that every adventure presupposes a risk.

The memoir also brings to light the difficulty children face in humanizing their mothers, as women with identities that exceed their roles as protectors and caretakers.

The imagery Panning paints of her mother is that of a woman behind a sewing machine with fabric draped over her and "...pins held between her teeth, measuring tape hung around her neck." The reader hears the clicking of her mother's knitting needles and envisions her through the scenes in which she is creating myriad forms of soft arts: a quilt, a dress.

"Girls and their moms have really contentious relationships," Panning said during a recent phone interview with CITY. "But no one will ever love you like your mother."

Likewise, the reader feels the absence of Panning's mother in later moments when the book jumps forward in time, after her death. Here we experience the quiet moments in the absence of those clicking needles, and the feeling that something is amiss. Panning said that she felt she should not express emotion in the memoir, rather, this was an opportunity for her mother to finally be heard and seen.

PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED

Panning has lived in the Rochester area for twenty-one years, and her writing is filled with many of Brockport's most beloved icons such as the Eerie Canal and Lift Bridge Books. In addition to co-organizing The Writers Forum and writing her own stories, she teaches creative writing at SUNY Brockport.

When asked what she thought about renowned Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard's ethos that, "Writing cannot be taught, you have to learn it yourself, like playing," Panning replied: "I actually met him at a conference in Iceland. I can teach a lot about craft -- points of view, writing dialogue -- but what I've done is shift how I teach my workshop. I try to go back a few steps and ask: What is creativity? You have to be curious and tell your students to just go!"

At the moment, Panning is writing another memoir about her father, one she says won't take nearly as long to complete as "Dragonfly Notes."

Panning says that diversity is a major consideration in the Writers Forum. "We're trying to bring intersectional authors in," she said, adding that she looks forward to hosting Morgan Jerkins through the program this spring semester. Jerkins recently published a New York Times best-selling essay collection, "This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America."

Jerkins "focuses on race, gender, and class," Panning said. "Her essays are political as hell." Jerkins, as well as several award-winning poets, essayists, and novelists will be visiting the SUNY Brockport campus for the Spring Semester.

Panning's reading takes place Wednesday, November 28, at 7 p.m., in Cooper Hall, NY Room, at The College at Brockport. Free. For more information, visit brockport.edu/academics/english/writers_forum.

SPRING SEMESTER LINE-UP:

February 13: Andre Dubus III, fiction writer

February 27: Morgan Jerkins, creative nonfiction writer

March 13: Ralph Black, poet

April 17: Christine Kitano, poet

May 1: Art of Fact Award, Leslie Jamison, author of "The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath" and "The Empathy Exams." REOC SUNY building, downtown Rochester

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