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Film follows poetic journey of Duquesne native

Shirley McMarlin
| Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, 6:30 p.m.
James and Jameson Ragan
St. Vincent College
James and Jameson Ragan
James Ragan
St. Vincent College
James Ragan

How does a boy who grew up speaking Slovak in Duquesne in the 1950s end up sharing a Moscow stage with Bob Dylan and writing poetry on former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel's balcony?

“Flowers and Roots: James Ragan, Ambassador of the Arts,” airing at 9 p.m. Nov. 5 on WQED-TV's Filmmakers Corner, will follow the journey of the poet and playwright from his hometown to the international stage, where he uses his work to speak out against oppression.

Ragan's writing has been translated into 12 languages and his honors include three Fulbright professorships, the Emerson Poetry Prize and eight Pushcart Prize nominations. He also works as a screenwriter, including advising on the iconic Russian Orthodox wedding scene in “The Deer Hunter.”

In 1985, he and fellow Americans Bob Dylan and poet Robert Bly were invited to read at the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow, where Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev sat in the audience.

Ragan says that becoming a citizen of the world through his poetry wasn't as unlikely as it might seem.

Slovak was spoken at home. His Polish, Serbian and other Eastern European neighbors retained many traditions from their homelands. His parents encouraged their 13 children to read literature from other nations. The family returned to the old country for summer vacations.

“I think that's what made me so open to a large universe and its strange peoples and strange languages,” he says.

Ragan entered St. Vincent College near Latrobe as a pre-med major but was convinced by a professor to switch to English. He graduated in 1966 with an English degree and a philosophy minor.

While directing the professional writing program at the University of Southern California, Ragan met Havel. Their friendship formed over their shared roots.

The documentary shows Ragan reading his work on the balcony of the Havel family home, where Ragan often wrote while teaching at Prague's Charles University in the summertime.

Ragan says he was approached about the documentary by representatives of Arinafilms, a Czech production company.

“They said they wanted to do a documentary on my life in the arts, and I said, ‘Why?' ” he recalls. “They went through my biography, listing all these things I had done. But I was a child of the '60s and '70s, and there was Vietnam and the civil rights and women's rights movements. We were supposed to take part. My poetry was never just personal.”

Filmed in the Czech Republic and the United States, the documentary debuted in 2013 at the Bratislava International Film Festival.

“Mr. Ragan came by to visit me one day and told me, ‘Hey, I have this documentary coming out,' '' says Minette Seate, WQED senior producer and host of Filmmakers Corner. “I'd heard of him, but didn't know the depth and breadth of his work as a poet, playwright and screenwriter.

“Then there were the places he'd been and the things he'd done. There was that local boy made good angle, and there was poetry involved, which is rare for our documentaries,” she says. “There's that strong connection with his roots to the area — so many people have that same ethnic background.”

The film opens with Ragan reciting a poem while his son, Jameson, a 2016 St. Vincent grad, accompanies him on the piano.

“That music was made up on the spot,” Ragan says. “The filmmakers liked it and asked him to do the whole soundtrack.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Ragan says he tries to return to Duquesne when he's on the East Coast, or at least for an annual family reunion.

He serves his alma mater as a member of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media advisory board. The documentary shows Ragan during a visit to the Unity campus and quotes board member Joan Rogers and college President Brother Norman Hipps.

“We had the opportunity to view the original version of the film, which was formatted for a Czech audience, at our advisory council meeting,” says Rick Fernandes, the center's executive director. “It was a treat to watch as the camera crew accompanied Jim to one of our meetings. Even though we have a long history with Jim, seeing his story and understanding his roots gave us a deeper cultural perspective of him as a writer and scholar.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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