- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

For a poet who likes to fly his own airplane, Wyatt Prunty is a very grounded man indeed.

His poems praise everyday things and, in doing so, give a fresh voice to the familiar: to such things as teaching a daughter how to ride a bicycle or watching a man washing windows, even to ruminations on the children's folk tale "Jack and the Beanstalk." The first of the poems in his latest book, "Unarmed and Dangerous," a collection of old and new works published since 1982, is "The Downtown Bus."

Ultimately, it is Mr. Prunty's language that is so arresting in its ability to increase awareness of the world around us. This isn't the poetry of sentiment. Quite the contrary: His vision is closer to philosophy.

In Washington for a weekend celebration of the 20-year-old PEN/ Faulkner Award for fiction, Mr. Prunty says his interest in family is linked to the question of identity.

"I believe the self is an extensional self, that you are not a single identity. You are a combination of all the relations you have in your life. That is why we have autobiography for the subjective side of the ledger and biography for the objective," he says at the Hotel George, not far from the Folger Shakespeare Library, where the main PEN/Faulkner event was held Saturday night.

"Then there is the other side, which is what everybody else thought that person is or was. What you are experiencing is only part of the truth… . We are not the best judges of ourselves."

The accomplishments of this poet-teacher are equally evident apart from his own work. His initiative in starting the well-known Sewanee Writers' Conference 10 years ago at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., where he teaches, led to the Sewanee Writers' Series, a publishing venture in conjunction with New York's Overlook Press.

Only 1 year old, the "publishing scheme," as he calls it, draws on a community of some thousand people connected to the summer conference and already had produced a finalist for this year's PEN/ Faulkner Award, the most prestigious honor given writers by their peers. Lily Tuck's novel, "SIAM, or the Woman Who Shot a Man," one of four runners-up, resulted, in part, from her participation in the Sewanee conference. The previously announced winner was Ha Jin for his second novel, "Waiting."

"America is a large place, but the community of writers is not that large, so we tend to keep up even though we are spaced out geographically," Mr. Prunty says.

Mingling with local and national literary stars, Mr. Prunty was among those lending support to celebrants at the Saturday evening fete. He flew into Washington on Thursday in his five-seat Maule plane, "like a bush plane," he explains, and landed at College Park.

"Only 3 1/2 hours door-to-door," he boasts.

• • •

At 53, the handsome blue-eyed poet, a native of Georgia, has been married for 27 years to a writer whom he met when both were in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. They are parents of a son who is a high school senior and a daughter who attends Kenyon College.

His wife subsequently got interested in the cognitive abilities of children and teaches music to toddlers as a way of helping develop their brains. He went on to obtain a doctorate from Louisiana State University and to teach at such institutions as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Washington and Lee University. He has produced five books of poems and one book of criticism.

All this followed his graduation from the University of the South and time as a Navy gunnery officer in Vietnam.

"We moved around so often in the 1980s that my son, about age 4, called me in when the movers had set up his room yet again and said: 'This is it, isn't it? No more moving, right?' "

The airplane is both a practical and an inspirational device. There are unmatched perspectives to be gained from on high, he suggests, just as when driving a car he used to carry a legal pad propped against the steering wheel for creative doodling and would pull over on the side when he needed to concentrate. He saves the computer only for "tinkering around" with a finished work.

Poetry, one of mankind's oldest art forms, has, if anything, increased its audience in the age of electronic communication, he believes. The tongue-in-cheek title "Unarmed and Dangerous" is a modern version of the famous line by Percy Bysshe Shelley about poets being "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Poetry uncovers "relations you would otherwise miss," he says. "It ferrets order out of disorder. The succinctness of poetry seems to appeal to people today the idea that a poem has a beginning and an end has a kind of completeness that is closer to music than what a story or novel can do."

Computers, however, he sees as "no more than a typewriter," doing for the present generation what a printing press did for an earlier age: good for reproduction but not necessarily for composition.

"Homer did well enough without a printing press," he says.

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