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Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

By Alicia Dietrich

Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”

 

Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.

 

One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.

 

The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Ransom Center acquires archive of poet Billy Collins

By Jennifer Tisdale

 

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.

 

Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.

 

“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”

 

Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s.  Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.

 

“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.

 

Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.


Related content:

Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

 

Image: Undated photo of Billy Collins. Unknown photographer.

Ransom Center acquires 21 J. D. Salinger letters

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center has acquired 21 previously unrecorded and unpublished letters by author J. D. Salinger. The letters are accessible as part of the Ransom Center’s existing Salinger collection, which includes published and unpublished manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence.

 

Most of the newly acquired letters are written by Salinger to Ruth Smith Maier, a classmate and friend he met at Ursinus College. Salinger attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1938, but he quit midterm and returned to New York City. He and Maier maintained a 40-year correspondence in which Salinger commented on a wide range of topics including his literary ambitions, his writing, and his family life. A number of letters offer insight into his evolving attitude toward public exposure and cast light on his decision to withhold new work from public view.

 

In the earliest letter, the 22-year-old Salinger expresses confidence in his literary gifts: “Oh, but I’m good,” he writes Maier. “It will take time to convince the public, but [it] shall be done.” In later letters Salinger reminisces about his brief time at Ursinus College (“one of the last peaceful or simple or oddly comforting times of my life”) and comments on his second marriage and early fatherhood. Five letters from 1977 and 1978 are written to Ruth Maier’s son, Christopher. In one he offers an explanation for his decision to withhold his writing from the public, explaining “publication tends, for me, at least, to put all work still in progress in dire jeopardy . . . I distrust the finality of publication.”

 

The acquisition also includes copies of Ruth Smith Maier’s letters to Salinger and a draft of the first letter Christopher Maier sent the author.

 

Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss notes the correspondence will be of particular interest to those who wish to understand Salinger’s withdrawal from public life. He adds, “It also humanizes the author, showing him confronting a range of life-changing events from marriage to fatherhood and his own aging.”

 

The Ransom Center’s Salinger collection was established in 1968 and has been augmented with subsequent additions over many years. The Ransom Center is one of a handful of institutions that hold original Salinger manuscripts, including Princeton University, Harvard University, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Morgan Library.

Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

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Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

Artist Ed Ruscha’s archive acquired by Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of artist Edward Ruscha (b. 1937). The materials reveal Ruscha’s creative process and offer a unique perspective of one of the most influential artists working today.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In the years since, he has been widely recognized for his paintings, drawings, photographs, and artist’s books.

 

Ruscha is known for art that often manipulates words and phrases in unconventional ways. Ruscha’s art is deeply influenced by his love of books and language, as reflected by his frequent use of palindromes, unusual word pairings and rhyme. He has often combined the cityscape of Los Angeles with vernacular language, and his early work as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.

 

Ruscha’s archive comprises five personal journals filled with preliminary sketches and notes; materials related to the making of his artist’s book of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (2010); notes, photographs, correspondence and contact sheets relating to the creation and publication of his many other artist’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); and materials relating to his short films Miracle (1975) and Premium (1971); his portfolios; and several art commissions.

 

Once processed and cataloged, the materials will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room to students, researchers and the public.

 

The purchase of the archive was primarily supported by generous donors, including Michael and Jeanne Klein, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Foundation, Mark Wawro, and Melanie Gray. The University provided additional support for the acquisition.

 

Ruscha, who continues to live and work in Los Angeles, donated a substantial portion of the archive to the Ransom Center, including a complete set of his artist’s books, print portfolios, 16 mm reels of his films, and a complete set of exhibition posters.

 

A small selection of materials from the archive will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through December 1.

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside Ed Ruscha’s archive

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Collection of Materials by Robert E. Howard, Creator of Conan the Barbarian, is Donated to Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Robert E. Howard's map of the Hyborian world. © Conan Properties International LLC.
Robert E. Howard's map of the Hyborian world. © Conan Properties International LLC.

The Ransom Center has received a gift of materials related to writer Robert E. Howard (1906–1936), a prominent and prolific writer in the fantasy genre. Though Howard is perhaps best known for creating the character Conan the Barbarian, he wrote more than 100 stories for pulp magazines of his day, though his career spanned only 12 years before he committed suicide at the age of 30.

The collection, which includes more than 15,000 pages of manuscripts, sketches and ephemera, was donated by the estate of Glenn Lord (1931–2011), a Texas literary agent, editor and publisher of Howard’s prose and poetry. Lord is considered the first and most important researcher of Howard’s life and writings.

Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, and he sold his first story at the age of 18 when the magazine Weird Tales published “Spear and Fang” in 1924. Weird Tales would go on to publish many of Howard’s stories during the remainder of his life, including two stories in 1932 that introduced Conan the Barbarian, a character who roams the primitive lands of Earth’s mythical Hyborian Age fighting evil. Howard created other enduring characters such as Puritan duelist Solomon Kane, boxing sailor Steve Costigan, enigmatic Atlantean fugitive King Kull, and great warrior king Bran Mak Morn.

“The Ransom Center has one of the largest collections of classic science fiction novels, as well as the papers of several important science fiction and fantasy writers,” said Richard Oram, associate director and Hobby Foundation Librarian at the Ransom Center. “The Glenn Lord collection of Robert E. Howard will add an additional dimension to these materials.  Everyone is familiar with the Conan the Barbarian books or films, and the franchise originated in Howard’s Underwood No. 5 typewriter. Today, original typescripts of this Texas writer are sought after by collectors around the world, and we are grateful that Mr. Lord decided to place them here.”

Howard maintained a regular correspondence for six years with fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, and the two debated the merits of civilization vs. barbarianism, cities and society vs. the frontier, the mental vs. the physical, and other subjects. Some of this correspondence is preserved in the collection.

Lord became a collector of Howard’s work in the 1950s and amassed the world’s largest collection of Howard’s stories, poems and letters. Lord served as the literary agent for Howard’s heirs for almost 30 years, and his collection was used as the source text for almost every published Howard work appearing in books and magazines between 1965 and 1997.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged. Two cases of Howard materials will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through September 3.

McSweeney’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.
Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin.

The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.

“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”

The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.

The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Read more about the arrival of the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center.

Ransom Center acquires papers of writer Barbara Probst Solomon

By Alicia Dietrich

Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."
Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.

Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.

Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.

Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.

Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.

New David Foster Wallace materials to be on display during Wallace Symposium

By Megan Barnard

Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.
Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.

On Thursday, April 5, the Ransom Center kicks off The David Foster Wallace Symposium with a public event featuring Wallace’s literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, in conversation with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin. The free, public event will take place at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) at Jessen Auditorium, across the plaza from the Ransom Center on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Please note that seating will be limited. Registrants of the symposium will have reserved seating, and Ransom Center members will receive priority entry at 6:20 p.m. Doors will open to the general public at 6:30 p.m. Those unable to attend the event or the symposium can enjoy a live webcast.

Throughout the day on Friday, April 6, the symposium will continue with a series of panel discussions featuring esteemed writers, editors, critics, and journalists who will consider Wallace’s work, his life, and his contribution to contemporary literature. Registration is limited, and only a few spaces remain.

The Ransom Center acquired the David Foster Wallace papers and Wallace’s personal library in late 2009. Since that time, the Center has acquired several smaller collections related to Wallace, including:

  • Photocopies of Wallace’s completed “usage ballots” for the American Heritage Dictionary. Wallace was a member of the company’s board that governs decisions on usage, spelling, and pronunciation.
  • Items related to “Democracy and Commerce at the U. S. Open,” an article Wallace wrote for Tennis magazine in 1995, including correspondence with Jay Jennings, senior editor at Tennis.
  • A photocopy of a typed letter from Wallace to Brandon Hobson in which Wallace gives writing advice to the then-22-year-old Hobson.
  • Nine annotated drafts of “Host,” an essay Wallace published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2005, together with correspondence related to the essay between Wallace and Martha Spaulding of The Atlantic.
  • A small collection of correspondence, primarily from Wallace to recipients including collector Bernard Peyton Watson, who donated the materials.
  • An unpublished typescript essay titled Pearls & Swine by Wallace, written at the request of James Harmon, who wrote to well-known individuals requesting that they respond to the question, “If you could offer the young people of today one piece of advice, what would it be?”
  • A collection of correspondence and manuscripts Wallace sent to editor and literary critic Steven Moore between 1987 and 2004, together with photocopies of correspondence from Wallace to writer David Markson.

A two-case display of select items from these various collections will be on view in the Ransom Center’s lobby April 3–8.

Because of anticipated high demand for the use of the Wallace papers and associated collections during the symposium, all researchers intending to request access to these materials must inform curatorial staff of their research plans in advance of their visit, no later than March 30, 2012. To protect the materials, space and access will be limited. Walk-ins will not have access to the materials during this time.

We look forward to welcoming symposium participants, registrants, and other guests to the Ransom Center during the symposium to celebrate the life and work of one of the most creative and influential writers of our time.

An iconic photographic moment with Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Who was Spalding Gray?

Fans have debated this question for years, as Gray was a pioneer in blurring the line between real life and theater in his autobiographical and often very personal monologues. He left audiences wondering how much of the stage persona was the real Gray and how much was Gray the performer.

Photographer Ann Rhoney captured the real Spalding Gray at home in his Wooster Street loft in New York City on an August day in 1990. He wasn’t wearing his usual plaid shirt. He wasn’t sitting behind a desk with a notebook and props. He was sitting comfortably at home in his grandmother’s chair and having a conversation with a new friend.

***

Rhoney splits her time between New York and the West Coast, and after a photo shoot in San Francisco the previous day, she took a red-eye flight to New York City to meet Gray and photograph him for a portrait assignment related to his forthcoming monologue Monster in a Box.

She described Gray as affable but somewhat meek and reserved when she arrived. He was wearing a shirt with a color somewhere between green and gold. “He may have pressed it himself,” Rhoney notes. “He appeared to be rather dressed up for that hour of the morning.”

As she started chatting with him and asking questions to try to get him to relax and open up for the session, he told her about the piece he was working on—a monologue that would become Gray’s Anatomy, which chronicled Gray’s medical problems with his eyes.

“Then all of the sudden, he started going into character, in a way,” Rhoney noticed. “That’s when a great moment happened.”

Gray dramatically described going to a medicine man in Niagara Falls to seek treatment for his eyes, as if he wanted to impress his new audience. Rhoney’s uncharacteristically blunt response?

“Oh, you fool!”

Rhoney describes Gray’s shock at her response: “His eyes opened in wide surprise and bewilderment. He jumped back, as if ‘What are you saying to me?’”

Then Rhoney explained that she was born and raised in Niagara Falls with a familial heritage of a funeral home in close proximity to an Indian reservation.

“He lit up,” she said.

The ice had been broken, and from then on, Rhoney had Gray’s full attention. Gray peppered her with questions as she did her light meter readings and prepared for the shoot, loading her Hasselblad camera.

Conversation flowed, and the result was 271 frames of Gray in what Rhoney says is, essentially, a still-life movie. “It’s a portrait of a soul with a range of every human emotion in this session of 15 rolls.”

“To get a successful portrait, you have to enter into an honest exchange with the person so that their spirit, their personal landscape emerges. You have to put them at ease and put yourself in their place.”

Rhoney spoke about how people are unable to see themselves, but once in a while—”every once in a blue moon”—a person can look at a photograph and recognize oneself.

“I always try to get that photograph where the person will say, ‘That’s me,’” she said.

The Ransom Center recently acquired two images from that session, one with an animated Gray using his hands for full effect and a second, quieter image of Gray midthought. Gray’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and recently opened for research.

“He completely offered me and my camera—even though at times he thought the camera got in the way of the conversation—an honest openness throughout the session,” she said. “He moved differently than he did on stage. It was as if I had a private performance. Yet it was not a performance at all. He was giving me his spirit.”

As Rhoney studied the images, she kept coming back to the hands in the first image. Though she’s looked at the photo hundreds of times, she made yet another discovery.

“Think about a palm reader, and if you look at the palm on his left, how poignant and beautiful that is. It’s as if he left us with his hand imprint,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “Especially the left palm. The detail on that? If everyone wants a road map to Spalding, there it is.”

As Rhoney studied the second image, she thought more about how he interacted with audiences.

“There’s a stillness. Yet you can see his thought process in motion,” she said.”We know him as talking to an audience, but I believe when he talked to the audience, he talked to everyone individually, even though he couldn’t see their faces. There’s something about this image where he’s talking to me behind the camera. That’s how he really, truly regarded his audiences—as a collective whole of individuals.”

The Gray archive contains no photos, so Rhoney’s portraits give scholars an additional lens through which to view Gray and his work.

“I’d like the photos to be a window into who he was,” Rhoney said. “Hopefully, this leads the scholars into seeing him with fresh eyes. As a photographer, I feel lucky to show him in a form of reality. This is who he was and is. A photograph is the truth and a scholarly document at its finest.”

Rhoney said this photo session led to a strong friendship, and Gray often told her how much he loved the photograph with the hand detail Rhoney loved. As she studied her photos and her contact sheets, she laughed often as she recalled details from the shoot and their conversation.

“The man can really still, in his own way, jump off the contact sheet and make one laugh,” she said. “He’s not here anymore, but they leave us with a whisper, an echo of who he is.”

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.