Texas poet returns to Lamar roots
Dave Oliphant, a 1963 Lamar graduate, author, and an accomplished poet and scholar, returned to Lamar on Feb 11 to speak to students about his memories of the school where his writing career began.
“I had such wonderful teachers at Lamar,” said Oliphant, who was born in Fort Worth but moved to Beaumont in 1953.
The poet told students, professors and others gathered in the lobby of the Mary and John Gray Library – which has created an exhibit displaying Oliphant memorabilia – of his admiration for Lamar.
“I transferred to the University of Texas, and I got up there and discovered that I had had better professors at Lamar. They gave me the grounding. It’s a thrill to come back to Lamar and remember all these people that were so important to my life.”
One of the educators that helped Oliphant discover his love for literature was Lamar’s Francis E. Abernethy. Oliphant wrote a poem in his book, “Memories of Texas Towns & Cities” titled “Professor Francis E. Abernethy” to honor his freshman English professor.
nothing in your office
ever quite matching
a Beowulf drawing beside
rattlesnakes curled in glass
Oliphant said that Abernethy was not your average professor.
“I couldn’t have been luckier to have a man like him,” he said. “He was very eclectic — he was like a renaissance man; he was interested in everything. He would bring his guitar and sing and play folk songs for us; plus he really knew literature.”
The first sonnet Oliphant wrote was actually meant to woo a young lady named Cary who he played in the Lamar band with.
“I wrote the poem, but I didn’t put my name on it,” he said. “I put it in her horn case. She thought a clarinet player instead of me had written it, and she talked to me about it. I didn’t say anything at the time, but she eventually figured out that I was actually the one that had written it.”
Oliphant said that he didn’t receive the response he had hoped for.
“She didn’t find me romantic, but I enjoyed doing it so much that from then on I began writing poetry on all kinds of things,” he said.
Besides Cary, Oliphant hadn’t shown his poetry to anyone else. That is, until he asked his American Literature teacher, William Whipple, for advice one day.
“I went to Whipple because he was a writer of poetry,” he said.
Whipple encouraged Oliphant to keep writing and in 1959, he was published in the first edition of the Lamar Tech student magazine, Pulse.
The first edition of Pulse was stapled together by Lamar Tech basketball players in exchange for a free meal, Jim Sanderson, department chair of English and Modern Languages, told the audience at Oliphant’s address.
“Jim Mellard took over the creation of the first issue,” Oliphant said. “Jim was a star player on the Lamar basketball team; he got the other members of the unit to help him put together the first Pulse.”
In 1965, while attending UT, Oliphant served as editor of another student magazine, Riata. From that experience, Oliphant was selected to represent the school as part of an exchange program between UT and the University of Chile. It was on that trip to Chile that he met and developed a friendship with world-renowned anti-poet Nicanor Parra. His love of the Hispanic culture blossomed and on his next Chilean trip, a year later, he met and married his wife of 46 years, Maria. He published many translations of poetry by Chilean poets, one for which he was awarded the poetry prize at the 2007 New York Book Festival for his translation of “Love Hound” by Oliver Welden. Oliphant went on to publish 28 books, including four books on the history of Texas jazz and three edited anthologies of Texas poetry.
Before Oliphant became a poet, he was first a musician. Oliphant played trumpet in a Lamar student band cleverly named the Technicians. He later would combine his love of jazz and classical music with his passion for poetry.
“In the book that was published in 2012, I wrote a verse biography of a Texas Jazz musician, and it’s all in rhyming quatrains,” Oliphant said. “I worked on that about six or seven years to get every quatrain to rhyme.”
The book is a 190-page poem and a biography about Texas jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham and traces the story of the Texan’s career performing with the greatest musicians of the bop and hard bop eras in jazz history — including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, Oliphant said.
Oliphant, who graduated from South Park High School in 1957, said that he and other students like him attended Lamar Tech because it was close to where they lived and the tuition was affordable.
“Lamar was a welcoming school,” he said. “It had high standards and people could afford it. I walked to campus from my house. One of the great things about South Park was that there were community leaders who had a vision. They wanted to have a school system that would go through high school and then they would have a junior college. They established a junior college and then a four-year (college). Within walking distance, a person could start in the first grade and go all the way through a master’s degree. They were cultivating local talent, believed it was here, and they supported it.”
“I think it’s wonderful anytime you have someone who is so enthusiastic about their Lamar experience,” said Penny Clark, Lamar University archivist. “It’s inspirational to students today that here’s someone who grew up in the community, who went to Lamar and who has gone on to do so many great things.”
Clark said that Lamar hopes to welcome back other accomplished authors, poets and scholars who graduated from the university back to the school in the near future.
The Oliphant exhibit, titled “South Park and Lamar Nurture Writer: The Education, Life, and Writing Career of Dave Oliphant,” will be on display in the Mary and Gray Library lobby until Lamar commencement in May, Clark said. The exhibit includes a display of his memorabilia. Some of the items include his diploma from Lamar, a copy of the first Pulse, which Oliphant dedicated to the university, and a manual typewriter he used to type his early manuscripts.
For more information about the exhibit, contact Penny Clark at (409) 880-7787.
Kevin King can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 225, or by e-mail at kevin [at] theexaminer [dot] com.