March 2014 Featured Writer of the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective

By Robert Laurence
For the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective

Rodney Wilhite

Rodney Wilhite

Rodney Wilhite writes of home. A native of Westville, Okla., just across the border in Adair County, and a 2013 recipient of a University of Arkansas master of fine arts degree in creative writing, his poetry is largely of the places he knows best.

Rodney Wilhite will be the Featured Writer at the next meeting of the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective: Tuesday, March 25, 7 pm, at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street in Fayetteville.

There is no charge for admission, refreshments are available at Nightbird, and the public is invited.

Wilhite is a 2009 graduate of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where he had an interdisciplinary major, with emphasis on art history and creative writing. His wife, Erika, was chasing an M.F.A. in acting from UCF, which is what drew him from the hills and woods of eastern Oklahoma to the swamps and theme parks of central Florida. But the U of A’s well-known and respected M.F.A. with poetry emphasis brought him back closer to home.

He, Erika and 10-month-old Vivian are now well-settled in Fayetteville, close to family and both charmed and stimulated by our little town. (The baby recently puked into Wilhite’s phone.) Twice weekly he commutes to Fort Smith to teach freshman composition and creative writing at UA’s Fort Smith campus. He has also taught in the Arkansas Writers in the Schools program, as well as creative fiction and non-fiction at the U of A.

Wilhite’s M.F.A. thesis is a collection of 50-some poems, several of which have been published in poetry journals such as 14 Hills, The Puritan, Splash of Red and Pleiades. The collection as a whole — which is now out for publication in book form — is called Goingsnake.

The name Goingsnake (I-na-du-na-I, in Cherokee) is the district of Cherokee country in which Adair County lies, and it becomes the name of a fictitious small Oklahoma town in which Wilhite sets the poems.

The poems themselves can be earthy and sometimes violent: The narrator’s father bleeds out a hog (“Slaughtering Day”); the neighbor girl points an empty rifle at her sleeping uncle’s head (“Theft”); an older woman drops her gallstones — “those ossified artifacts of her body’s transience” — into a child’s hand (“Sarira”).

And in “Diaper,” the mother (perhaps) of a drowned child finds the object of the poem’s title, and “… One night she stole her uncle’s smokes and drank / warm Busch Light in the yard. Dim houselights flecked / the hillside across the valley. Distant dogs / barked at her presence. Other dogs answered / causing the restive horse to shy in the dark.”

Wilhite enjoys the challenges of the imagery and what he calls “the compression of language” that he finds in poetry, but he lately is trying his hand at writing dialogue for the stage and screen. (It’s “playwright,” but “screenwriter.” Go figure.) And he has taught in WordPlay, Theater Squared’s playwright curriculum. Here, as well as with his poetry, one senses that Wilhite is a writer (or wrighter) on the rise (or wrise).

Please join the OPWC on Tuesday, March 25 at 7 at Nightbird to hear Rodney Wilhite read from his collection of poems. Before and after, the microphone will be open for writers to each share four minutes of prose, poetry, memoir or what-have-you with a supportive and encouraging audience.

As always, the OPWC does not censor, the themes may be adult and the language a little rough. Do drop by.