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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Creative Contests  >  Creative Writing Contest
25th Annual Creative Writing Contest, 2006  -  About Martin Palmer - 2006 Grand Prize winner
By Cinthia Ritchie « Prev   Page 2 of 3   Next »

A Time for Reflection

Anchorage Daily News

"People would talk about (my mother), and sometimes they would cry. I always had a longing to know her -- just a terrible longing." Martin Palmer sits in the living room of his Wasilla duplex, his black poodle, Martine, curled cozily on his lap. The chair is covered with '70s-style upholstery, orange and yellow flowers swirling in faded glory. The arms are worn, their off-white stuffing drifting to the floor.

"Bowser," Palmer says somewhat sheepishly, referring to his hefty cat. "Can't get him to leave the furniture alone."

Palmer, 79, won this year's University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest grand prize for his story "The Rose Arbor." While categorized as fiction, the piece closely mirrors true life. Palmer's mother died shortly after his birth in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1927. He grew up with his father, brothers and sisters in a large house with a "wonderfully large" porch and lots of books.

"I was a lively child," he says, throwing a small stuffed toy for Martine to chase. "Our old house was filled with books. I was a bookworm but also mischievous."

Palmer's house of today is filled with memories. Paintings and photographs line the walls: his great-grandfather; his father as an earnest young man; his brothers and sisters, looking chubby and happy; a great-uncle who worked as a Civil War surgeon.

And the rose arbor photograph, dated 1913, the black and white faded to a dusty rose. The bushes rise in graceful arches, sweeping over the land, while Palmer's mother stands beside her sister wearing a white dress. She looks very young and small.

The photograph, he says, has haunted him for years.

"Growing up, I fantasized a lot about her, and these fantasies just kept with me. They just hung in there with me."

Last winter, as he was musing about the photograph, he suddenly decided to write about it.

"I thought, 'Who writes from the standpoint of old people these days?' And I realized, not many."

It was the fantasy that captured him, the idea of writing about his own life within the context of fiction. He could change what he wanted, take liberties, dive down inside the past.

Which he does. Toward the end of the story, in one of the most powerful scenes, he walks inside the rose arbor photograph and meets his mother. Since he hasn't been born yet, she doesn't know who he is. He stands in the background listening as his mother and sister talk. The dialogue is commonplace and ordinary, the kind of things we say to each other every day.

This scene, which Palmer anticipated might give him trouble, flowed out of him "like it had been there all of my life." The story, in fact, turned out to be one of the easiest things he has ever written, he says. It took him less than 10 days.

"I've imagined time and time again talking to and seeing my mother," he says. "People would talk about her, and sometimes they would cry. I always had a longing to know her -- just a terrible longing."

Palmer isn't new to writing. He has had essays published in the anthologies "A Member of the Family," "Men on Men" and "Hometowns" and poetry in The New York Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review and Gay Sunshine.

For most of his life he worked as a doctor, until he surrendered his license in 2005. He set up practice in New Orleans in the late '50s and early '60s, which he describes as a wild and reckless time filled with parties and goings-on and watermelon ice cream, which "tastes like old ladies' face powder." He has a hundred stories to tell about servants dragging drunken mistresses back to the Garden District to his friend Clay Shaw, accused by district attorney Jim Garrison of plotting to kill John F. Kennedy.

"Oh, those were the days," Palmer says. "It was wild. Everyone was corrupt."

Palmer drove to Alaska in 1968 with his two dogs. In the Yukon, he hit a patch of winter road and flipped his car. Locals duct-taped heavy plastic over the window and sent him on his way.

"That's how I drove the last 700 miles," Palmer says, chuckling and scratching Martine's ears. "I glimpsed Anchorage through old, muddy plastic."

Once settled, he practiced internal medicine and took classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Poet Tom Sexton urged him to get a master's degree in creative writing, which Palmer did. He stuck around as an adjunct professor, teaching everything from English composition to British literature.

Palmer writes autobiographical slices of his life, stories about family and racial prejudice, about being gay and the '80s experience that he refers to as the "AIDS holocaust." And about his partner, Bobby Smith. When they met, Smith was singing gospel on New Orleans street corners and was "very Baptist." That quickly changed, and the couple was together 21 years. After Smith's death, Palmer wrote a series of poems in his honor, but he has never tried to get them published.

"I released his ashes in a salmon stream, and I hope mine go there too," he says. "Salmon come up, they spawn and they die. Then the cycle begins again. To me, that's very beautiful."

Palmer remembers meeting T.S. Elliot at the Edinburgh Festival, an international celebration of classical music, opera, theater and dance held every August in Scotland's capital city.

In one notable performance, he remembers, "Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sang the lead, and it was so elegant and crisp. And oh, those rich ladies in their narrow skirts, remember those? One was so tight she had to be carried to her box."

Palmer has written bookends to "The Rose Arbor." One of these describes a childhood memory of a relative laid out in her casket in the family's living room.

"It was a still, hot morning," he says. "And her mouth had fallen open. When I got closer, I saw that there was cotton inside and a little line of red ants crawling up her ear. I reached up and picked them off -- I still remember this. I was 6 at the time."

Last February, Palmer had open-heart surgery. He took two books to the hospital with him: Constantine P. Cavafy's "Collected Poems" and the new translation of "Empire of Marcus Aurelius."

"I wasn't sure if I would survive," he says, lifting Martine back up on his lap, "and I thought, 'Please don't let anything happen to my intellect.' Then I woke up in the ER, and the first thing I saw were those ugly curtains. And I was so happy."

Getting old, Palmer says, is a strange and interesting experience. You learn new things, but you also have to give up old ones. Much of what you've known and loved is behind you, and it's impossible to know what's ahead.

"I'm working on a new story, and I call it the 'old geezer story,' " he says with a laugh. "See my hands, how they tremble? I'm deteriorating. Sometimes it bothers me. Other times I think, 'F it!' "

The quote he lives by comes from Edith Wharton, an American novelist who died in 1937:

"In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways."

Old age may have slowed Palmer, but the pace has granted him time to reflect on his life -- and mingle with ghosts.

"The other day I remembered the exact moment I learned to read," he says. "I was at my aunt's house in the Gulf of Mexico -- I was maybe 6 -- and I looked down at the page and said, 'I can read.'

"That's the marvelous thing about my old age. Things come to me unexpectedly. An obscure incident comes out of nowhere, and suddenly it fills my mind. And I think, oh gosh, remember those days?"

About the Author: Cinthia Ritchie is a writer for the Anchorage Daily News.
Next page:   Kahlin Blees - 2006 Editor's Choice Pages:  1  2  3 

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