3rd Annual Literary Festival
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Unews [Old Dominion University]
Sept. 26, 1980
Volume 10, Number 8, page 4

A poet-coordinator's tale

Yin, yang and Associated Writing Programs prove handy in literary festival organization


To some he is "the Columbo of the English department." To others, he is just plain Jim.

Poet, playwright, and scholar, Dr. James McNally is also the organizer of the third annual ODU Literary Festival--and that's all pretty good.

"It's not easy getting a lot of people in different places at different times," he said in a recent interview conducted across piles of paper and books on his desk.

"I tried to organize the festival on the yin and yang theory," he said. "You know, men as light and sun, women as moon and darkness.

"Of course, the fact that the Associated Writing Programs board of directors was coming here for their annual meeting helped a lot," he added. (AWP readers in this year's festival include George Cuomo, Susan Richards Shreve, John Clellon Holmes, Cynthia MacDonald and Al Young.)

"The workshops should be particularly good," he added.

McNally has been a member of the ODU English Department since he came to do a reading himself in the early '60s and more or less never left, relinquishing a promising career as a Christmas Post Office worker.

Asked how long he has been writing, McNally replied, "Since I was 10, roughly."

"'A slight breeze ripples through the trees' came to me after I'd fallen off a bicycle," he explained. "The first lines came easily but the next lines were more difficult-a principle I found held true in later life."

But neither his tales of writer's block nor his characteristic modesty can hide the fact that McNally is a distinguished author. This summer he won first prize in the play category of the 1980 Virginia Highlands Festival Creative Writing Contest. The prize was awarded for The Champagne Commissar, a one-act comedy set in a communist gulag.

"The premise of the play," said McNally, "is that people will overcome systems."

He won an honorable mention in the same contest for his poem "The Development."

McNally's gallery of awards also includes honorable mention in the Irene Leache Literary Contest, the University of Virginia Magazine Short Story Award, the Virginia Spectator Literary Award, and a Virginia Mason Davidge Fellowship.

Still, he does not expect that literary immortality will come easily. "Someone once said," he noted "that sending a poem out for publication is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo."

Meanwhile he is at work on "a couple of novels as well as plays." He has a penchant for the Victorians and has published a great deal of scholarly work, including pieces on his favorites, Browning and Dickinson. "I'm really not a specialist, though," he said. "I'm an enjoyer."

And might he be a private detective too?.'

"I find Falk with that question," McNally said.