Recalcitrant, stubborn and feisty, Dave Oliphant emerges in his memoir as a one-man bulldozer in the roadblocks of his life, an often-bumbling scholar who is so earnest you can’t help but love him, though sometimes he drives you crazy. In a life spanning seven decades, the noted poet, critic, translator, trumpeter, jazz lover, professor, shoe salesman and publisher of Prickly Pear Press soars as a Renaissance man unique to the Lone Star state.
The prolific Oliphant is author of Texan Jazz and more than 20 other books of music, poetry and Spanish translations. His latest translation, Love Hound, by Chilean poet Oliver Welden, won the 2007 poetry prize at the New York Book Festival. Oliphant retired in 2006 after a 30-year career at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a senior lecturer in English and editor of the scholarly journal The Library Chronicle.
Don’t read Literary Life for uniformity and chronology. It’s not for the flippant; it’s for wannabe scholars, for scholars who study scholars, for writers, poets, and musicians. Fans of his Texan Jazz and Maria’s Poems will appreciate his passion, the torment of creativity, the emotional angst of climbing the academic ladder and the travails of pursuing artistic excellence. “Today, in spite of the many books that I have written, I recognize that at best I am just a passable writer. … Even so, I am satisfied that I have not stood idly by nor hidden my dim little candle under a bushel,” he writes.
The heart of the book is the creative process: how one flickering thought, word, person or incident spawned a poem, and how that led to another and another. He recalls growing up in Fort Worth on May Street and playing with his black friend Terry in an alley. Oliphant is invited to his house, viewing for the first time the inside of a poor, segregated world. As with many experiences, he relates them to a book or author he has read or a melody that inspired him. He associates confronting his own prejudices with reading Ralph Ellison, best known for Invisible Man.
From William Carlos Williams to Socrates, Larry McMurtry, James Dickey and Pablo Neruda, the book’s index reads like a who’s who of authors, musicians and poets. It’s a world of friendships, music and words, a recognition of the people who shaped his life and lit his artistic fire. “Do genes, upbringing, the luck of the draw, fate or choice determine how one turns out?” he writes. “I would like to think the latter, but perhaps there are too many variables to be able to say that one chooses one’s path in life. I do know that once I started down the literary trail, I stuck to it in spite of discouragement and continuing doubt.”
Wings Press publisher Bryce Milligan credits Oliphant as the translator, anthologist and liaison who brought many Latin writers to the Texas fold, most notably the modern Chilean “anti-poet,” Nicanor Parra. Politics—particularly Chile’s at the time of the Pinochet regime—is not his forte, and he skims the subject. Recalling friend Federico, a member of the Chilean police who became Pinochet’s spokesman, Oliphant acknowledges many “will stigmatize him as a human rights violator, but to me he will remain a friend in need and the kindest of hosts.” Chalk it up to Oliphant’s big heart.
As a wayward English student at Lamar Tech during Vietnam, he feels guilty he escaped the draft because he was 2 pounds underweight. His wife wonders aloud how that might have changed him. “Maria has always contended that the service might have done me good, toughened me up and made me less spoiled.” One longs for more information about “the Beauty” librarian he courted breathlessly and married 40 years ago. Oliphant barely spoke Spanish and was perplexed by the rituals of courtly love in Latin America. One wonders how the couple traversed the language barrier, how his muse managed the cultural shock of moving from Santiago, a relatively cultured capital even during political upheaval, to relative dumps in Fort Worth, Denmark and South Carolina, where Oliphant taught at Voorhees College. Perhaps that’s another book.
Literary Life could have used some editorial whacking, say 100 pages, but who cares? It’s a Texan’s literary life, after all, and one that Oliphant relishes.
Susana Hayward is a Texas writer who has covered Latin America for more than 20 years.