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The meaning of life

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March 8, 2009

Donny Hathaway was young, bleak and beautiful. An American soul singer and composer of extraordinary talents, his apparent suicide at age 33 in 1979 left fans, friends and fellow artists wondering just what happened.

Wondering about such things is the kind of catalyst that keeps Ed Pavlić going as an artist. A slight man with an intense gaze but who is self-effacing and laughs quickly, Pavlić has spent many years as a poet mining the rich intersection between music and words. That intense involvement led him to write Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (University of Georgia Press, 2008), a 180-page tour de force epic poem about the singer's life and death. After coming out in March, the book drew immediate praise from many quarters.

Joy Harjo, an internationally known poet and musician said, "Ed Pavlić's tribute to Donny Hathaway is stunning. Pavlić writes the way Hathaway sang."

Other notable poets and reviewers have been universally enthusiastic. In some ways, it might seem an odd subject for a poet with roots in Croatia. But only if you don't know Ed Pavlić.

As director of the Franklin College of Arts and Science's M.F.A./Ph.D. creative writing program, as well as a busy teaching professor, Pavlić might be forgiven for a smaller literary output than some colleagues. Never happened. In fact, he works all the time, and his stature as a poet of note has been rising steadily.

Before the Hathaway book, his most recent volume was only two years ago. Labors Lost Left Unfinished appeared in 2006 from Sheep Meadow Press.

Perhaps surprisingly, little has been written about Donny Hathaway's life, and so Pavlić's decision to make him the subject of a long poem might be seen as quixotic at best. (While the jacket of the book calls it Poems by Ed Pavlić, it's clearly a single epic poem broken into many sections.) And yet as he found out when he began research Hathaway's life, a great many people are just as obsessed with the extravagantly talented musician who died far too young.

"I think one reason Hathaway has retained such a powerful grip on the imagination is that he lived in such a turbulent place," says Pavlić. "I'd wanted to write a long poem for a while, and when I'd think about him these [imaginary] ‘people' would show up, and I would listen."

While Pavlić calls the book "a work of fiction executed in prose poems," many facts from Hathway's life are mixed with Pavlić's imagination to create a counterpoint that fits with the actual music like the second theme of a Beethoven sonata. While the central figure of the book is, obviously a "historical person," the book is filled with "imagined conversations, monologues, dialogues and third-person accounts that distill and falsify the way the world sounds in Hathaway's music and the way the world has felt while I've been a part of it."

Like all of Pavlić's other work, Winners cuts across genres.

"I write poems to explore options in the world," Pavlić told The Cortland Review. "I hope the book contains invitations to feel new things."