Orlando Montoya has navigated Savannah audiences through narrative journeys on the radio, in local magazines and publications, and on the streets during tours for over 20 years.
He knows the particulars of many local historical anecdotes and characters. About five or six years ago, however, he realized that as well-versed as he was in the legacies of Flannery O’Connor or Johnny Mercer, he lacked a similar familiarity with the bibliography and life of Conrad Aiken.
“I decided to pick up a book of his at the library… and I just loved his writing,” he said.
In a recent city of Savannah Hungry For History lecture (available online via Youtube), Montoya described Aiken’s works as “psychological, philosophical, and very much engaged with the matters of the human mind.”
According to Montoya, “Ushant,” Aiken’s magnum opus, represents the author’s “deepest and most profound exploration of human consciousness.” Aiken’s own consciousness, that is. “Ushant” has been described as genre-defying and beyond categorization. Is it memoir? Poetry? Confessional? Transcribed fever dream? Perhaps it is all of the above.
“It is disjointed, self-absorbed, and even naughty,” said Montoya, though he admitted naughty by mid-20th century standards. “But,” he added with sly enthusiasm, “so are our minds.” He conceded that “Ushant” should be no one’s first introduction to Aiken, which is why Montoya offers recommendations of more approachable pieces by the Poet of White Horse Vale: short stories like “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” or “Mr. Arcularis,” for instance. Why “Ushant” for the remembrance then? “So others don’t have to read it,” joked Montoya.
Since the remembrance began four years ago, its goal has been to introduce, or reintroduce, the public to Aiken’s writings. Montoya also seeks to elevate awareness of Aiken’s influences, such as the teachings of his grandfather, a Unitarian minister. “He read his grandfather voraciously and saw his work as continuing that of his grandfather,” said Montoya.
Having covered Aiken’s poetry and the aforementioned short stories during the previous three remembrances, Montoya thought the time had come to tackle “Ushant.” He recalled pondering, however, “What can you do with this?” when he first sat down to configure the program.
He did the only thing he believed he could. He embraced Aiken’s call to dive into the depths of one’s mind. Suffice it to say that the Aug. 16 event will defy typical literary reading expectations.
The show will feature local actor Chase Anderson performing five dramatized readings selected from within the pages of “Ushant.” Original responses penned by Montoya in the style and cadence of the prose of “Ushant” follow each reading.
“I looked at key dramatic moments in Conrad’s life and used those as inspiration to write my own reflections,” Montoya said. “He wanted people to explore their consciousness, so that’s what I’ve done. I’ll be sharing some things I’ve never shared before, which is kind of scary.”
He hopes the event will ultimately stir others to (as Aiken once wrote) “lay bare their own inner workings” through writing. What better way to take such a voyage than by following the lead of the Cosmos Mariner to a port unknown, yet well worth the cruise.