Mara Leverit is the 2014 recipient of the Porter Prize
Established in 1984, the Porter Fund Literary Prize is a non-profit organization supporting Arkansas writers and poets. The Porter Prize was founded in honor of Dr. Ben Kimpel.
The following is Mara’s Porter Prize acceptance speech.
October 16, 2014
Thank you, Philip.
One of the unexpected pleasures of learning I was to receive the Porter Prize was the opportunity it presented for me to reflect on my writing life—something I had not done before. As I thought back over thousands of words I’ve written that have made it into print, part of me kept being drawn, not to the ink on pages, but to those overlooked parts of periodicals and books: the margins. I think that may be because the margins were where I grew up.
After being born on the south side of Chicago, I was whisked at five to an army post on the east edge of Denver. The years that followed brought my family and me to Ft. Hood, Texas (a tragic couple of weeks after Elvis Presley left); then, during our tense standoff with the USSR, to a suburb of Colorado Springs (home of the North American Air Defense Command) that was reassuringly called Security Village. Finally my family settled on the far west side of Denver near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Between my father’s military career, my mom’s commitment to Catholic schools whenever a seat opened up, and my own brief stay in a convent at sixteen—I’d managed to attend 12 schools by the time I got out of high school.
I always say “got out” because, despite everyone’s best efforts, by graduation I’d obtained what might best be called a marginal education. Systematic it was not. Coherent? No. Standards may be more uniform now, but back when I could have used something other than chaos, the most amazing thing I learned was that every school taught every subject at different times, in different ways.
If I was hanging onto the edges academically, my social life was off the page. I made friends. I left friends. Again and again. I survived by virtue of a strong family, a few extraordinary teachers, and books. As I tried to recollect the path that brought me here tonight, starting with my earliest reading, I felt again the grief of my six-year-old self, curled up on the stairs, crying my heart out after learning that Beth, one of the LITTLE WOMEN had died. How could a book—a thing of ink on paper, reach in and do that to you?
But another book knocked more insistently on my brain, a book that had come a bit later and touched a different nerve. All I could remember about it was a blue willow plate and a sense that the author had written it deliberately, so it would someday reach me. When I Googled “BLUE WILLOW,” I learned that, sure enough, a librarian named Doris Gates, who lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley, had published a book by that title a few years before I was born.
It told the story of a shy girl in a migrant family who longed for a permanent home. Her most treasured possession was a willow-patterned plate that depicted a stream, a bridge and a little house. The plate had once belonged to her great-great grandmother and represented her dreams of home.
School libraries became my refuge, the one place besides my home, where I felt truly connected. Writers became my friends.
Since rediscovering BLUE WILLOW, I’ve learned that this Newbury Honor book was considered ground-breaking at the time. Reviewers called it the “juvenile GRAPES OF WRATH” and “the first social- or realistic-problem novel for children.”
Someone—a teacher, a librarian, someone who cared—put that book in my hands. Having rediscovered BLUE WILLOW more than fifty years after first reading it, I can see the light it shed on what I would later write—and how Doris Gates and another kind librarian helped guide me to tonight.
In another library, when I was in fifth grade, I discovered a slim volume called 101 FAMOUS POEMS, a basic anthology. We had only a few books in my home, but I begged my parents to buy this one for me. They did, and I was thrilled. But when I opened it, I was disappointed to see that they had not inscribed it.
So I rectified that situation, dating it and writing on the title page myself: “To our young poet. Love, Mommy and Daddy.”
Suffice it to say that my youthful poetic aspirations proved far beyond my reach. Thus, I am enormously proud to be among some truly estimable poets who have also received this award.
After high school, I attended UCLA. That’s what we called the satellite campus of the University of Colorado at Lawrence and Arapahoe streets in Denver. Two years later, I married and moved to a town where the Chisholm Trail passed through Oklahoma, and two years after that, now with two babes in arms, my salesman husband and I left that windy plain for his new job in Little Rock.
It was around this time of year, in 1969, that we rolled through Fort Smith in our maroon ’64 Ford Galaxy sedan. We knew not a soul in this state and very little about it. But from my first sight of it, I embraced Arkansas with a great, exuberant “Yes!” The hills, rivers and pleasant size of Little Rock all appealed to me.
I visited libraries and read everything I could about the state, which I’m sorry to say, wasn’t much at the time. I joined the Ozark Society, which introduced me to streams in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains—and to the likes of Jimmy Driftwood and George Fisher. Having seen the building that houses the Arkansas Democrat, I went in one expecting to register to vote. The woman at the business desk got a good laugh from that. (And so did David Pryor, when I later told the story to him.) Yes, it was a naïve mistake—but when you think about it, was it really that much stranger than voting in a Baptist church?
When, I began to feel I was getting the hang of this strange place, I enrolled at UALR to complete my degree. I’d chosen journalism for my major after reading an article about coon hunting that appeared, I believe, on the front page of the Arkansas Gazette. The piece was written by a fellow named Roy Reed and it showed me that, even though I would never be a poet, and fiction was out of the question, there was a place for fine writing in newspapers. Maybe I could produce some of that.
While at UALR, I had the good fortune to meet Alan Leveritt, a renegade journalism student who had publishing aspirations and a love of Arkansas too. By the time I’d earned my degree, he’d started the Arkansas Times, the alternative news source that, I’m happy to note, celebrated its fortieth anniversary.
I have been associated with that paper throughout its history, while also folding in stints at the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette. And so it’s been that here, in Arkansas journalism, I found the home I wanted.
I got to go to places with names like Seven Devils Swamp and Dairy Hollow Farm, to meet people who mined quartz and who played with Count Basie, and to work for editors who honored this work as the craft it is.
Along the way, through my jobs and plain good fortune, I got to meet—if only briefly sometimes—many of the writers who have already been honored with the Porter Prize: Leon Stokesbury, Donald Harington, Hope Coulter, Crescent Dragonwagon, Andrea Hollander Budy, David Jauss, Grif Stockley, Jo McDougall, Judge Morris Arnold, Kevin Brockmeier, Shirley Abbott, Trenton Lee Stewart, the aforementioned Roy Reed, Bob Ford, Margaret Jones Bolsterli, and last year’s winner Pat Carr. I admired—and envied—every one of them.
Being a reporter was lovely—a low-pay, deadline-bound privilege. It served me Arkansas on a plate. Still, there was always this central truth: I could live here, play here, work here and, yes, I could even vote here, but I would never, ever be from here. And that brings me back to margins.
Childhood had made me an observer, since participant status was rarely an option. Moving through all those schools, I’d become attuned to the workings of power: to seeing the cliques and the popular, the wounded and the doomed. Now, as a reporter, having encountered state fairs, school boards, murders and many amazing people, I realized that I was drawn, not to the drama of power, but to the lives of the men and women shuffling along on the edges of our short parade through time.
I saw thousands of stories going untold, there on the margins, because, sadly, for all that is wonderful about Arkansas, we have pushed too many of our own to the side. We did it with the word “race.” We have done it with “drugs.”
Whereas the writers who helped me grow up, and who help me still, passed on the best that culture can offer, I came to see how my adopted state’s grit had been cheapened with preachments of fear. We marginalize whom we fear, then fear whom we’ve marginalized.
As it happened, my career overlapped the calamitous war on drugs and the corresponding growth of prisons. Just as we finally emerged from the shame of our school desegregation days, we embarked on segregation by prison: more people pushed to the margins, more families set adrift, more cages built for humans across this beautiful landscape. And, as always accompanies such mass shunnings, more murmured rationalizations.
Where I had once found words holy—as in, “and the word was made flesh,”—I began to see how devilish they could be when misused. As one who’d longed for integration, I began to understand how words used recklessly—or deliberately, with menace—birthed the opposite: disintegration, collapse—unwholesomeness.
With the eyes of an adult, I began to see, up-close and personally, how the words we use in our culture affect the voiceless ones on our margins. I, who had grown up comforted and counseled by writers whom I would never personally know, saw in daily reporting the cruel effects on real people of words that were sometimes used, not to help, but to hide, to manipulate, to distort or to steal.
In 1996, now with two grown children off on their own and two divorces behind me, I embarked on books that begged to be written because of terrible lies at their hearts: that two boys would be run over by a train because they’d put themselves into a “marijuana-induced stupor;” or that three others would murder younger children as part of Satanic ritual and leave not a shred of evidence.
In all my books I have tried to describe how layer upon layer of official deceit compounded the confusion and heartache suffered by the crimes’ many victims. I also hoped to impart something about how legal machinery used for betrayal ultimately hurts us all.
I still hope that, eventually, some authority in Arkansas will acknowledge the great wrongs done in the cases I’ve explored, and the systemic wrongs these cases represent. But as I wait for that, I myself must acknowledge how fortunate I have been to enjoy the freedom that’s been granted me to write as I have—and, beyond that, the recognition I’ve been given.
I have been granted space, not on the margins, but in the precious text of this life we’ve shared, and I have many to thank for that:
–everyone at every paper for whom I’ve ever worked, especially the gang at the Arkansas Times;
–every person who has granted me an interview or taken the time to explain to me something I might have learned if I’d attended law school;
–every teacher and librarian in my life, particularly those here in Pulaski County, at Laman Library and here at CALS;
–my friends at UALR, who recently made me an honorary “doctor;”
–my brothers, with whom I shared childhood, and my children and grandchildren, who share it with me still;
–my sweet Linda, without whom no book by me would have been written;
–the Worthen Family;
–and mostly, tonight, Phillip McMath and the board of the Porter Literary Fund for this honor.
Finally, although I will never be anyone’s poet, I hope you will allow me to bring this talk full circle and end with a poem. It’s from my recent book DARK SPELL, which I wrote with Jason Baldwin about his time in prison. The poem lets us share one of countless moments he spent there in the margins. It’s called:
The List Nefarious: Contraband
Yellow legal pad full of notes
Polaroid of family
one Speedstick deodorant – dry
a bar of state soap
a white three-inch toothbrush with flayed bristles
a clear tube of Maximum Security Toothpaste – made in China
two Top Ramen – chicken flavor
one coffee cup, coffee stained and plastic
Opening my lockerbox
he is determined to find
you may decide the box
but it is not.
Picking up The Holy Bible
he flips the pages
they go f-l-l-l-l-l-l-i-i-i-p-p-p-p
as he thumbs The Book
a single photo floats
to the ground
a young woman with blonde hair
and three equally blonde boys
the one laughing is me
my arms strain against the chains
as his boot covers the photo
the deodorant and toothbrush
scrape along the bottom metal
of the box as he shoves them
his boots are black
polished to perfection
I can see my brother’s spiky hair
and crooked smile
peeking past the cleats
as if willing me to remember
the days we played
hide and seek
amidst rows and rows
of soybeans and cotton
he doesn’t touch
the state soap
leaving it to congeal in the box’s corner
instead he reaches for
the brown stained plastic
further in the box
he leans in deep
for his prize
his boots grind away
at my mother’s face
something brown and muddy
where her eyes once shined
gone is her smiling mouth
that kissed us good night
“Sweet dreams, sweet dreams,
“Aha! What’s this?”
He asks, twinkling in his eyes
rattling and rolling its contents inside
He empties the cup into his palm
His eyebrow shoots up
“Ooooooooh” he sings in triumph
as a quarter and Motrin
tumble into his hand
Jason Baldwin was sixteen when he heard himself sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Dark Spell illuminates the many ways America’s justice system, once having gone wrong, can fight to sustain that wrong.