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ODU Literary Festival: Words still matter to 91-year-old writer

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Norton Girault was at Louisiana State University when he met Professor Robert Penn Warren, the author and critic. “His idea of writing is you’re exploring and you’re trying to get to some significant meaning,’’ Girault said of Warren, with whom he became lifelong friends. (Stephanie Oberlander | The Virginian-Pilot)

Want to go?

Several well-known writers, photographers and artists will appear at the ODU Literary Festival, Tuesday through Friday. The festival – “Writers in Peace and War” – aims to bring together the arts and military communities and to start a conversation, organizers say.

7 each evening, Diehn center atrium
Music: by Al Arater
Parking: Free
Details: More online at;
also (757) 683-3929; bloggers will post live at

Festival schedule


11 a.m. Norton Girault, Navy veteran of WWII and Korean War. Essays, poems, short stories. University Village bookstore, 45th Street and Monarch Way.

2 p.m. Veterans’ stories, part of the Writers in Community effort to encourage newer writers. Bookstore.

4 p.m. Dalia Sofer, “Septembers of Shiraz”; fled Iran at age 10. Bookstore.

7:30 p.m. Jane Mayer, “The Dark Side.” Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn center, 49th Street and Elkhorn Avenue.


11 a.m. Panel: Torture in the Age of Terrorism. Moderator Joyce Hoffmann, ODU, author of “On Their Own,” a Vietnam War journalism history. With Brian Turner, poet (“Here, Bullet”) and Army veteran; Nick Turse, “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives” (2008) and “Kill Anything That Moves,” forthcoming, documenting atrocities during the Vietnam War; Jacob Weisberg of Slate, “The Bush Tragedy” (2008), co-author, ”In an Uncertain World,” 2003. Bookstore.

2 p.m. Jim Sheeler, “Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives,” on notifying families of fallen Marines and what ensued (2008; Sheeler won a Pulitzer Prize for the stories on which the book was based). Bookstore.

4 p.m. Brian Turner, Army veteran of Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina; poetry, “Here, Bullet.” Bookstore.

7:30 p.m. Farah Nosh, documentary photographer who has worked in nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. In Iraq, focused on civilian impact of war. Chandler Recital Hall.


12:30 p.m. Lesléa Newman, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” “Heather Has Two Mommies” many others. Virginia Beach Higher Education Center, Lecture Hall 244, 1881 University Drive.

2 p.m. David Poyer, Eastern Shore author of military thrillers; “The Crisis” is due in November. Bookstore.

7:30 p.m. Mark Bowden, “Black Hawk Down.” President’s Lecture Series, North Cafeteria, Webb Center.


11 a.m. Jon Pineda, poet, teacher; “The Translator’s Diary,” “Sleep in Me” (forthcoming). Bookstore.

2 p.m. Luisa Igloria, poet, teacher at ODU; “Juan Luna’s Revolver,” others. Bookstore.

4 p.m. Lesléa Newman. Bookstore.

7:30 p.m. Steve Almond, “My Life in Heavy Metal,” “(Not That You Asked.)” Short stories and nonfiction. Chandler Recital Hall.

The Virginian-Pilot
© October 5, 2009

By Bill Ruehlmann
The Virginian-Pilot

At 91, Norton Girault – veteran, teacher, poet – has cut back on the writing a bit.

Once it was mornings and afternoons. Then it was mornings. Now he’s down to two hours, every day.

“It comes,” Girault says, “from a sense of writing being important and giving meaning to what is going on all around us.”

Even hell.

As when that night in Kula Gulf
We glided along in column, no moon,
And took them by surprise, and went to rapid fire. ...

The theme of the 32nd Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival this week is “Writers in Peace and War.” Girault, Capt. USN (ret.),  of Norfolk saw both. He was a communications officer in combat aboard ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific during World War II; served in the Korean conflict and later became Project Mercury recovery officer with NASA, reclaiming from the sea the first American manned orbital spacecraft and its pilot, John Glenn; and taught English composition and literature for 15 years at Norfolk State University.

He will read a short story and three poems. He will then take questions. He hopes some will be asked.

“I don’t want to imply I’m making a big deal of this,” Girault said.

He spoke over coffee on the porch of Fair Grounds in Ghent. Spare at middle height, white hair swept straight back and curling at the collar, Girault provided an eagle’s intensity behind his spectacles. But when he smiled, the author turned owlish.

“I’ve been writing for a hundred years.  I’ve been to so many writing workshops you wouldn’t believe it. But I’ve never published a book.”

He is not a self-promoter. In fact, the printed list of his published work and the literary prizes it has earned runs to three pages. Short fiction like “Wonder Waits in the Wings” (Contempora), “Dragon in the Box” (Webster Review), “How We Stopped Old Hitler’s Clock” (Roberts Writing Awards Annual). Poetry like “Dreaming Blind” (Key West Review), “Iwo Jima Love Story” (Dominion Review), “Ars Poetica: Kikusui” (Pendragon).

Essays like “The Narrator’s Mind as Symbol” (Accent).

Said Sarah Pishko, the owner of Prince Books in Norfolk who has known Girault for 25 years, “I am always so impressed with how dedicated he is to his avocation.”

They came burning down toward us, those ships,
and I saw, across the fire-lit water,
Japanese sailors running down the decks,
Sprouting flame, jumping into the sea,
while our five-inch kept pumping projectiles into those burning hulls
Until their ammunition blew and showered debris and bodies and fireballs
into the water just astern of us. ...

“The so-called Greatest Generation has been romanticized too much,” Girault said. “The generation was great, but not the greatest. We had our draft dodgers and black marketeers.
“I saw action, but I was always scared.”

Born in New Orleans the son of a dock laborer who “had a hard time with emotions,” Girault treasures the memory of two crucial gifts from his dad: a punching bag and a typewriter. The bag gave the boy a way to use his hands. The typewriter gave him a way to use his head.

“I pounded out this cornball story about a kid captured by gypsies,” he said. “My father would get me to read it out loud when we had guests. He embarrassed the hell out of me.”

Girault thought about pursuing journalism at Louisiana State University, but a sophomore course on Shakespeare’s history plays changed his life. The professor was author and critic Robert Penn Warren, an enchanter in the classroom.

“And yet, with all his intensity,” Girault would write in a tribute, “Warren somehow managed always to communicate a genuine gentlemanliness, warmth and concern, not only to students, but to everyone he came in contact with, on campus and off.”

Warren brought literature alive and contributed importantly to it. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “All the King’s Men” and two more for his poetry. He and his wife, novelist Eleanor Clark, became lifelong friends and often shared their Vermont summer home with Girault years later, on his way back from annual writers’ conferences at Bread Loaf.

Girault saw a future in academe, but the war intervened.

“Repeated operations at sea taught us you’re always going to face situations in which you’re vulnerable,” he said. “So whatever it is, get through it. The attitude I adopted was live for the present.

“Seize the day.”

For a while after the war, then-Lt. Girault was a graduate fellow at the University of Minnesota, where Warren had relocated. Girault shared an office there with a “very intellectual, very hyper” Saul Bellow, who, decades later, would win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

But reserve officer Girault was offered a commission in the regular Navy and took it to become executive officer on the destroyer-minesweeper Carmick, half a world away.

Over the years, he composed a lot of operations orders for which the stakes were considerably higher than for professional fiction.

But upon military retirement in 1969, Girault sought work in pursuit of his first passion, teaching English, at Norfolk State.

He also appeared in NSU dramatic productions.

Like his famous mentor, Girault was devoted to the printed word and his students.

“Forty years ago I was Ghent Quarterly poetry editor,” said Jane Ellen Glasser, longtime Norfolk poet and educator. “We published one of Norton’s poems in our first issue. He’s always there, whenever anything literary is happening, a wonderful writer and a very generous man.”

Girault spoke memorably to one of her classes at Norview High on structure in the short story. His advice to them in 1990 remains the same for the person of any age who would publish: “Read and read and read. You can’t read enough. And then write and write and write.”

Anything else?

“Be prepared to revise, revise, revise.”

It’s solitary work, which is why there are writers’ conferences and literary festivals.

“If you can find a community of writers,” Girault said, “it helps a lot to just talk with them and know there are other people doing the same things you are, having the same problems, and that consider writing important.”

Beautiful! The Gun Boss said.
I hated him for saying that,
Those sailors running down the deck on fire,
As if it were a painting, highly prized.

At 91, Norton Girault – veteran, teacher, poet –  remains driven to make art of life, every day.
That, he would tell you, is part of the point.
But not all of it.

Bill Ruehlmann is a journalism/mass communications professor at Virginia Wesleyan College.

Thoughts from two speakers

Two of the most well-known authors on the schedule are Jane Mayer and Mark Bowden:

Jane Mayer, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday:   Reading, Q&A.

Political and investigative reporter for The New Yorker whose most recent book, “The Dark Side,” was a narrative of how torture became a U.S. strategy.

Mayer said by e-mail that after “The Dark Side” she had hoped “to put the debate over torture behind me,” but “the story still hasn’t reached its end. So, I am still writing about America’s effort to defeat terrorism, without losing our own values and liberties.” Recent work includes a profile of Leon Panetta, new CIA head, and “the dilemma he faces about whether to hold anyone accountable for the torture program. These are tough calls that go to the heart of our society.”

As for what has changed since she finished “The Dark Side” in mid-2008: “Obama’s victory has ushered in a new era on many fronts. … Perhaps the most important change Obama has made has been to argue openly, and repeatedly, that our system of justice – including due process for terror suspects – doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us stronger.”

Mark Bowden, 7:30 p.m. Thursday: President’s Lecture Series.

 A national correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly, Bowden writes for other major magazines and teaches at Loyola College. His books include “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War” (1999) and “Our Finest Day: D-Day, June 6, 1944” (2002).

Bowden said in an e-mail that in writing “Black Hawk Down,” “without consciously deciding to do so, I broke with what had become the generally anti-military tone of popular writing since Vietnam. I think that break accounts in part for the success of the book and the movie.”

Online, a 2007 piece in The Atlantic is about how interrogators cracked a leading terrorist’s inner circle, without torture, leading to his death in an Iraq airstrike. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was head of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, “the gloating, murderous author of assassinations, roadside bombings, and suicide attacks.” The interrogators were part of Task Force 145, “the clandestine unit of Delta Force operators and Navy SEALs who hunt down America’s most-wanted terrorists.” 

– Erica Smith, Books editor