A most prolific retirement
Nearly four decades worth of aspiring fiction writers at Furman got their first meaningful feedback from Gil Allen, Ph.D. Nearly as often, it probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
“What I would usually tell students is regardless of the quality of the manuscripts that you are producing now, if you decide that you want to make writing a real part of your life you will look back at your work five or 10 or 15 years from now and not regard it as your best stuff,” Allen said. “So although you want to make your poems and stories as good as you can make them now, realize that they’re ultimately more important as part of a learning process. Try to enjoy that process as much as you can, and just keep writing and keep reading as long as it gives you pleasure to do so.”
Allen spoke from the Travelers Rest home he has shared with his wife, Barbara, from nearly the moment Allen arrived at Furman in 1977 as a fresh-faced Cornell graduate. For 38 years this wasn’t a place he was often found on a Friday afternoon smack dab in the middle of fall semester, but since retiring in May he’s had the luxury of having lunch in his sunroom at his leisure. No papers to grade, no classes to lead—only a cat to lift off prize chair real estate.
Undeterred by the number autumn has done to the leaves once on the trees in the backyard, a row of zinnias mounts a spirited resistance against the encroaching winter as the conversation veers toward what makes a writer. Measured, thoughtful, and intimidatingly intelligent, it just seems like Allen would know—and many an English major has assumed as much.
“This is a question a lot of students have asked me over the years … ‘Dr. Allen, do I have enough talent to be a poet or a fiction writer or whatever?’ And that’s a very difficult question to answer,” he said.
That’s because being the Bennette E. Geer Professor of Literature doesn’t mean he has preternatural abilities.
“I’ve asked myself … a good many times over the years: What is the difference between a student who goes on to make writing a significant part of his or her life and one who doesn’t? And there’s only a modest positive correlation between the amount of ability or promise a student shows as an undergraduate and that later result,” Allen said. “I’ve found that the best predictor is how much the student wants to write. There are some students in your classes, regardless of their level of proficiency at that moment, who can’t not write, and they continue through life with that mindset. And those are the ones who go on to do something.”
Intentionally or not, Allen described himself. He became a dedicated writer in high school in Long Island, N.Y., and never stopped putting words on paper as he earned Bachelor of Arts, Masters of Fine Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Cornell.
A fiction writer as an undergraduate, he found his stories “getting shorter and shorter and more language intensive,” making a switch to poetry unavoidable, and from 1973 until the late 1980s Allen did nothing else. In 1982 his first collection of poems, In Everything, was published, followed by Second Chances in 1991.
His third, Commandments at Eleven, was chosen as one of the year’s five most outstanding books by Columbia’s The State newspaper in 1994, cementing Allen’s status as a literary icon as well as providing him with unassailable street cred with his students. Driving to Distraction (2003) was featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and Catma became his sixth book when it was released in 2014.
“One of the things about his poetry that I always found interesting was he wrote very thoughtful poems but also often injected a good bit of humor. You were sometimes surprised, and you would laugh and sometimes laugh at yourself,” Furman English department chair David Bost, who has been a member of the faculty since 1981, said. “It’s very strange for us. It’s the first time in my life here at Furman that I haven’t had him as a colleague. We miss him a lot.”
Intertwined with his books were numerous poems, short stories, and essays that appeared in a variety of publications, creating a body of work that has landed Allen enough awards to fill a shelf or 10. Two of his most noteworthy career accomplishments came recently when his short story “Trash” received a Special Mention for a Pushcart Prize in 2013, the year before he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
“He’s one of the people who in some ways put Furman on the map,” Bost said.
Allen has done his part to give back to a writing community that has long embraced him, founding Ninety-Six Press in 1991 with Furman colleague Bill Rogers and editing it until his retirement. Ninety-Six Press has published more than 20 books of poetry written by South Carolina writers, and Allen spent most of his first summer off moving mountains of material from his office in Furman Hall to the Duke Library in preparation for “Celebrating South Carolina Poetry: An Exhibition to Mark the Acquisition of the Ninety-Six Press Archive,” which opened on Sept. 15 and will run until Jan. 15, 2016.
“Then we took a trip to Yellowstone. We’d never been before,” Allen said. “That was a lot of fun.”
Their social calendar has already started filling up, Barbara said, but it would be a mistake to think Allen is content to sail off into the sunset. His seventh book, The Final Days of Great American Shopping, is due out in April of 2016, and it marks a beginning as his first book of short stories.
“When you’re writing poetry and publishing books of poetry you’re really dealing with a niche audience. There aren’t that many folks besides poets themselves that are interested in those things,” he said. “But with prose fiction, you do have a fairly substantial general readership out there, and it’s nice to think you have a possibility of making connections with that group of people.”
Another group he may soon reach is long-fiction readers, and fans of his poetry need not fear neglect. A novel manuscript is nearing completion, and he has enough previously published poems and short stories for two more books of each.
“That’s five books there, plus I’m trying to write some new stuff too. I’ve managed to write a few poems and one substantial short story since I’ve retired,” Allen said. “I don’t have any trouble finding things to do.”
Allen seldom starts a sentence that isn’t preceded by a pause, but when asked if he ever marveled at his own success as a writer he took an extra moment.
“(Being published) is not a divine pronouncement. When I’m writing, I do not initially think of trying to please an audience,” he said. “I think a lot of young people have the notion that if you ask someone ‘are you a writer’ and the person says yes, the next question is, well, what have you published? And if the answer is nothing, then a lot of folks will think, well, you’re not really a writer. But I don’t think that’s true. I certainly don’t measure my success as a teacher by the number of published writers who have enrolled in my classes.”
For more on Allen or to read some of his work, click here.