Reader event: Food for Thought

Members of staff at The Reader Organisation share their experiences about ‘Food for Thought’, an event held at the University of Liverpool’s Foresight Centre, at lunchtime today. Sandwiches, cake and tea were all consumed avidly and the conversation flowed with insightful and enthusiastic responses to the featured short story and poems.

____

I have just come back from one of our much loved Food for Thought events and have enjoyed privilege of yet another stimulating couple of hours of lively debate and discussion! Today’s selected short story was Tobias Wolff’s ‘Powder’, which was read along side Elizabeth Jennings‘ moving poem ‘Father to Son’ and Vernon Scannell‘s challenging piece ‘Incendiary’.

What I found most impressive about ‘Powder’ was its creation of a new found movement of discovery within such a short space of time; that is, a short space of time not only within the form of the story, but rather the actual narrative moment of one morning in the life of a somewhat estranged son and his father on Christmas Eve. The son thinks that he knows all there is to know about his father, and appears wearied and tired by what he does know: his is a father who, for all his good intentions, seems to be unable to stop himself from getting caught up in his own enthusiasm for reckless adventure often at the expense of his other commitments which have to do with the ordinary responsibilities and routines of everyday life for parents, children, and the family. Although what is really wonderful about the story is that the son, when compelled to follow his father in a hazardous drive through snow and blizzard, comes to realise a much needed sense of fun and adventure in himself as he rediscovers his father as someone who he can look up to and admire because, rather than in spite of, his “rumpled” nature. The best bit of the day for me was when a lady on my table said that the story had given her hope that relationships between father and son, when strained and paralysed by those awful and seemingly impenetrable silences, do not have to stay that way and can, actually, change.
By Clare Williams

Tobias Wolff, author of ‘Powder’, the story that formed part of today’s reading for Food for Thought, is one of the world’s finest contemporary short fiction writers. From his collection The Night in Question, it tells the tale of a boy’s perception of his father and the changing dynamic of their relationship, or at least the son’s change of attitude. In only five pages and in what is essentially only a ‘drive home’, Wolff portrays an essentially irresponsible and arrogant man, whose incautious behaviour means that he and his son nearly miss making it home for Christmas. Yet as the story progresses, the son begins to accept his father’s behaviour , “I stopped moping and began to enjoy myself”, realising that accepting the circumstance and his father for who he is leads him to acknowledge, “I actually trusted him.” It was remarkable how may different feelings this story prompted in the readers that were sat at the table with me: some believed there was an impending disaster as the father and son drove through the dense snow; some drew on resonances with Wolff’s own memoirs; others were quick to highlight aspects of the relationship between father and son in relation to their own experiences, as parent or as child.

The blankets of white snow and the portrayal of silent moments in the story were echoed in Elizabeth Jenning’s poem ‘Father to Son’, “I know/ Nothing of him”. This poem, which speaks of the lack of understanding between parent and child, identifies how you can yearn to feel a connection to someone but lack the understanding to be able to, “We each put out an empty hand,/ Longing for something to forgive”. Vernon Scannell’s ‘Incendiary’ seemed antithetical in tone to the other texts as it was provocative and volatile, “that one small boy should set/ The sky on fire and choke the stars”. However there is a presiding sense of poignancy towards the poem’s end, “would have been content with one warm kiss/ Had there been anyone to offer this”, that puts the onus on each one of us to ensure that children do not grow up without being shown love. Each of the texts provided a different attitude towards relationships and each person around the table had their own unique insights: it is at events like this that words on the page really do come to life, bringing our own experiences and thoughts to what’s written in front of us and willing to share them with others.
By Jen Tomkins

We sat down to sandwiches, large slices of cake and three pieces of work for discussion: ‘Powder’, a short story by the American writer Tobias Wolff that describes a father and son relationship in which the boy has taken on the role of adult as if to protect himself from his father’s irresponsibility and chaotic lifestyle. ‘Father to Son’, a poem by Elizabeth Jennings which explores a situation in which there is no understanding, or common ground, between father and son and another poem ‘Incendiary’ by Vernon Scannell in which a small boy with no parental love or authority causes massive damage to property.

We began, spontaneously with Elizabeth Jennings’ poem. Everyone found it bleak but knew it to be possible and real:

We speak like strangers, there’s no sign
Of understanding in the air.
This child is built to my design
Yet what he loves I cannot share.

It was the sheer distance between the two with ‘no sign’ of ever being able to close that made it so sad and the incomprehensibilty of how this most fundamental relationship could become so sterile. We spent at least twenty five minutes exploring the complextity of the situation of the poem which ends without resolution:

We each put out an empty hand,
Longing for something to forgive.

Turning to ‘Powder’, we all felt we needed to look for something positive in what seemed to be another broken down relationship between father and son. It is a great and brilliantly written account of a brief moment when, against all odds, the son is able to let go of built up fear and resentment and allow himself to feel pride, trust and love for his Dad.

My father was driving. My father in his forty-eighth year, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honour, flushed with certainty. He was a great driver. All persuasion and no coercion. Such subtlety at the wheel, such tactful pedalwork. I actually trusted him.

The story is only five pages long, but packed with thought and feeling. Much food for thought and discussion. Unfortunately, after this, we didn’t have room for ‘Incendiary’ and left the table feeling fuller than sandwiches and cake alone could account for.
By Angela Macmillan

We spent much of our discussion time thinking about the relationship between the father and son in the short story ‘Powder’. We were all interested in their individual characters, which caused us to sympathise with both of them at different moments in the story. We talked a lot about the apparent ‘distance’ between the them, how the fact that they are very different personalities effects their relationship as much as the damage that has been done through the lack of trust the boy has in his father and the broken promises he remembers. This idea is echoed in the Elizabeth Jennings poem, ‘Father to Son’ where the two “speak like strangers” yet appear to be separated through their difference from each other, “what he loves I cannot share”, rather than a specific, identifiable disagreement. This problem seems much deeper and less temporary somehow, as the aching “Longing for something to forgive” in the final line crushes the hope that talks of “shaping from sorrow a new love” in the previous stanza.
By Katie Peters