Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dennis Powell, Reporter & Photographer

Dennis, age 11, learning from Andy Koukoulis at Ross Allen's Reptile
Institute in Florida how to milk a rattlesnake. Knowing how to milk a
rattlesnake is a skill important to reporters.

Dennis Powell is a gift to Southeast Ohio. He is a columnist for The Athens News, the better option in my geographic for news. His column, The View from Mudsock Heights, is a favorite. He is a connoisseur of words, an award-winning reporter, and a talented photographer.  It is a great honor to have Dennis here; I think we can all learn from his wisdom and advice…

At what age did you aspire to become a writer?
Fact is, I never planned on being a writer and I spent a good part of my life trying to avoid it. My father was a reporter and I went along much of the time when I was a kid, so I had a kind of involuntary apprenticeship. My real love was making pictures. When my Dad grew ill – I was 10 at the time – he continued an outdoor picture feature he had had for years, from his hospital room and sickbed. And it fell to me to make the pictures much of the time. I also shot other pictures for the paper in my hometown, Columbia, Missouri.

In due course, the paper made me write; ultimately I inherited much of my father’s old beat. Thereafter, at papers in Florida and New York, and in magazines all over the place, I had to write the stories to get the pictures that illustrated them into the paper. It left me the embittered, sorry specimen you see before you. But now I’m making lots of pictures for The Athens News, so I’m recovering my photographic dignity.

So I never planned to be a writer. For many years I never admitted that I didn’t much like writing, but then I learned from my late friend William F. Buckley, Jr., that he hated writing, too. Which led me to realize that a writing career did not have as a prerequisite a love of the act of writing.

As an award-winning reporter from New York and elsewhere, what enticed you to Southeast Ohio?
Pure, random chance. I’d been doing some publicity writing in New York, and among the clients were Fur Peace Ranch (in nearby Darwin, Ohio, in Meigs County). A little more than 10 years ago I’d decided to leave the northeast – the place sucks your soul right out of you – but had no idea where I was going. At about the same time I was at a Christmas party where someone mentioned a desire to return to the guitar playing he had loved when he was younger. I said I knew of a place that could help him out and would send him the link. Next day I went to the Fur Peace Ranch website and saw that one of the employees was selling her cabin. I checked it out, checked out other real estate prices in the region, and realized that this was a place I could afford to buy a home without incurring a lot of debt. A couple weeks later I came for a visit and found a house on a ridge, with enough land to make me happy, and made a bid. After a very brief negotiation, I bought the place and moved in on Feb. 1, 2005. I’ve said it was like going to the store and buying a house. Which it really was.

What amenities do you frequent in the Appalachia area?
I’m not a very sociable guy, and I live far enough out in the country that it’s not wise for me to go to bars and such. I love walking around making pictures, of course. I love the historical society and the special collections at the Ohio University library. Since moving here I converted to Roman Catholicism, which I find enormously rewarding, so I spend time at Church and Church-related activities. I’ve come to know some very good and holy people, and am especially impressed by some of the young people, Ohio University students who manage to put their religion first – which isn’t an easy thing to do in this day and age.

Of course, two seconds after this appears I will think of a dozen more places and activities.

What is the key to being a great journalist?
I don’t know. I know some of them, so I’ll try to remember to ask next time we speak. I don’t think I’m either great or a journalist; the former speaks for itself, which the latter requires a little explanation. Except in explicit opinion pieces (and to some extent even in those), I was raised to be a reporter, not a journalist. The distinction is important. Journalists know how to hold their teacup with two fingers and tend to make themselves the heroes of their stories. Reporters are driven by a desire to go see stuff, then come back and tell everyone else what they saw. That’s why news photographers and reporters aren’t all that different – photographers want to see stuff, then come back and show everyone else what they saw.

What a reporter may not do, though, is peddle an agenda in the news columns. This most fundamental rule is all but lost; indeed, at our great news institutions is so far back on the dust-covered shelf that objectivity doesn’t even fit into the assumptions. People do not go out with a blank piece of paper – the page is already filled with institutional matters of course. As a result, people would rather get their news from blogs and tweets and such. The media have failed and now it’s costing them. If they were more reliably objective, their product would be so much better than whatever floats by on the Internet that the Internet would be no threat to them.

Who is your favorite writer/author, etc.?
Any American interested in writing, even one who hates doing it, pretty much has to begin and end with Mark Twain. Among contemporary writers, Tom Wolfe is unsurpassed. I also read G.K. Chesterton, because he could say more in a sentence than most writers can say in a chapter, and C.S. Lewis. And Msgr. Ronald Knox, the most brilliant writer of the 20th   century you’ve never heard of. He did the best religious writing in town, yes, but also great mysteries; he started the trend of dissecting Sherlock Holmes – as a joke – and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote a response. He also was responsible for the first truly great radio hoax, a decade before Orson Welles.

What are you currently reading?
The Public Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the essential two-volume set by Archbishop Alban Goodier, who died in 1939. It is long out of print, but entirely fascinating. I’ve been chipping away at it for close to two years now. At the current rate, I’ll have completed it by my 200th birthday. And, along with it, the superb translation of the Bible done by – can you guess? -- Msgr. Ronald Knox who, yes, translated the entire Bible, all by himself, from the Vulgate. In the light of such writers – and of course of their subjects – one may take a deep draught of humility.

What are you currently writing?
I’m in the early stages of a piece that, if it goes together as I hope, will gain some national attention. I won’t say more about it than that because once I’ve told the story I lose interest, so I try to tell the story only when I write it. It’s pretty cool.

Of all the articles that you have written, which one stands out?
The one that would be mentioned in my obituary is my piece in The Miami Herald’s TROPIC magazine about the aftermath of the crash of the space shuttle Challenger, which appeared in 1988. It’s hosted on The Athens News website because there wasn’t a clean copy elsewhere on the Internet – The Herald’s online archives don’t go back that far. The story made some noise when it appeared – I was even called back from an assignment at Guantanamo in Cuba to be interviewed on CBS by Charlie Rose.

Another piece I did later, on President Bush’s plan for a more robust space program, led the Drudge Report for a few hours and was the lead story in a lot of papers the next day, and caused me to be on the Today Show.

Is an autobiography, novel, or anthology in your future?
I wrote a bit of a memoir, about growing up in the country in Missouri, about 20 years ago. The few people who read it liked it, with one exception, which was my agent (who was, as it would turn out, Barack Obama’s agent, too; his memoirs did much better, but we differ in part because I felt constrained by the truth – also, I never ate a dog, though I had possum once). As to anything further along those lines, I throw myself to the mercy of a decades-distant, terribly misguided grad student or something.

Do you write poetry?
I do not write poetry; I have been offered substantial stipends by great literary societies to continue my practice of not writing poetry, but I am a charitable fellow and am happy to not write poetry for free.

What drives you; inspires, motivates?
I have no idea. I really don’t. No idea where it comes from, though occasionally some very random thing will spark a passion. Last summer, it was photographing insects and other tiny things.

Mudsock Heights. Is it the flora, fauna, or quiet noise that embraces you?
First, I should note that Mudsock Heights isn’t actually a real place. After I’d bought my house I realized that I knew something about the pig but nothing about the poke, so I undertook a little research and found among other things Richard Dean’s informative page about Mudsock, which, with the romance that comes of such ventures as moving to a place you know little about, I immediately thought of as the Athens County version of Brigadoon. In due course I realized that I live only a few miles from the site of Mudsock, and I am on a ridge, so I decided I would for literary purposes call my place “Mudsock Heights.” It is the tonier section of a town that doesn’t exist.

Do you have advice for novice writers?
Yes. Run. Keep running until you get it out of your system and resolve to do something useful. Do this every day. It might do the trick, but if it doesn’t it will strengthen your legs and increase your speed, which are valuable skills for writers, who often encounter debt collectors.

Connect with Dennis…


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