Diann Blakely's Blog: Abacus: Lines Drawn in Sand

July 12, 2014

Note to potential readers: I apologize for the fact that this column, scheduled for December, appears what seems to me very late; on the other hand, after being hospitalized four times, including a stint that encompassed both Christmas and New Year’s and a furlough that resulted in two broken ribs, I feel it’s a miracle that it’s appearing at all.  Enjoy!—I hope.


Tell the Truth Until They BleedBackbeat Books delivered a slew of interesting new titles this year.  Tell the Truth Until They Bleed, Josh Alan Friedman’s follow-up to When Sex Was Dirty, begins with the unlikely alliance of members of the Jewish and African-American populations who began the business of what we call R&B, a term coined by the late and much-lamented Jerry Wexler, who used it to replace what he felt—rightly—was the offensive sobriquet of “race records.” Plentiful anecdotes from Wexler color, so to speak, the first part of Friedman’s book and make a fitting, if not entirely even, memorial.  Chapters on equally mythical figures like Doc Pomus follow. Friedman’s style entertains as well as instructs and makes for a collection of compulsively (for me) readable essays on the dirty business of music. I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly and the Family Stone, by Jeff Kaliss, tells the story—with the first interview from the reclusive bandmeister himself in twenty years—of one of the most brilliant and influential musicians of the last half-century.  The cheering, anthemic segue from the band’s early work, which got everybody (I mean the last part of that word literally) shaking his or her booty to songs that praised integrity, human potential, and tolerance, were something of a miracle, while There’s a Riot Goin’ On was surely the moodiest and righteously disturbing follow-ups in history. (For more details, buy the fifth and newest edition of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with its—of course—informative, erudite, wry, and at times lusciously scathing expanded notes and discographies, even if an earlier copy of the book is already on your bookshelf. There’d be more about Marcus, but, alas, he generously includes both my husband and me in these pages, so to go on at greater length seems tacky.) The only minor disappointment among these Backbeat titles comes as The Jazz Singers, by the esteeemed Scott Yanow. Though nonetheless encyclopedic and a useful source, it lists Mel Tormé’s son (who? the sometime cab driver?) but fails to take note of Percy Mayfield, to give an example of a single strange omission.


Hard-core jazz fans should also try spreading their mental and musical wings and reading Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Time of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, published by Norton. Gioia, long- and well-known as a jazz critic, has seemingly made use—if at times ploddingly—not only of his original musical background, but also of every iota of new material that has come to light in his chapters on the early blues associated with Dockery Plantation and Parchman Prison, as well as those on Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, and the blues revival. Quirkier, but much more enlivening, is Mary Beth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues, issued by Basic Books, about the collectors, field recorders, and folklorists who gave us the music as we know it today. Hamilton’s work belongs to a genre I didn’t think I liked—“meta-blues” writing—and yet Hamilton does more than present us with some unforgettable characters, whom Sean Wilentz compares to Schlieman at Troy and Marcus to Columbus at San Salvador. Through these characters, including, of course, John Lomax, as well as those heretofore lesser-known, she tells us why we have the music as we know it today.


While not volumes about the blues, or even music, strictly speaking, two collections of photographs appeared this year that emanate the keening, gut-bucket, sometimes menacing, and often humorous sounds we associate with them from every page. Democratic Camera, the catalog for the Whitney’s retrospective exhibit of William Eggleston’s work is stunning, and includes essays by Stanley Booth, Donna DaSalvo, and Tina Kulkielski. I became acquainted with Jane Rule Burdine’s photographs in another museum catalog, this one from the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis and called Visualizing the Blues. Represented by a masterful, mysterious work that depicts a hanging dress caught in mid-waft by a rural breeze, this photograph unfortunately doesn’t appear in Burdine’s first published collection, Delta Deep Down, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Instead, children hugging each other (in one picture, with a furious, about-to-attack cat between them), long shots of the humid flat landscape . . . buy the book, put on some Son House or Robert Johnson, and I’ll bet you a dollar to a Delta Donut (located at Clarksdale’s intersection of 49 and 61, one of the many places the latter was said to have made his pact with the devil) that you’ll hear echoes and chords that previously escaped your notice. As well as see things in the photographs you missed upon first viewing.


Da Capo, of course, each year publishes a volume of the year’s best music criticism, and even though the press made the mistake a few years ago giving the editorship to J T Leroy, who turned out not to be a post-teenage truckstop hustler who appeared at readings wearing sunglasses and a blond wig, but a fortysomething woman living in San Francisco, the collection is always worthwhile, though the variety and density of the pieces make the book a necessarily pick-it-up-and-put-it-down read. This year’s editor, the inestimably more solid and reputable Nelson George, states in the introduction, “God in the Vinyl,” that through the aforementioned  Mystery Train, along with Leroi Jones’s Blues People, he “found two very different, very brilliant kindred spirits, [not to mention his] calling.” His anthology’s selection of essays contains several of particular interest to Swampland.com readers, but it omits, except by name as honorable mentions, two of the most interesting such pieces I read this year.  Bill Friskics-Warren’s “Adding Notes to a Folklorist’s Tunes” reviews Recording Black Culture, a recently released CD that presents the acetates originally made by John Work III, the most prominent of the three African-American folklorists who, though heretofore invisible, were relied upon by the previously cited Lomax when he made “some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s.” Work was no mere “acolyte,” as Friskics-Warren puts it, of Lomax,  who “tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation”; his fellow folklorist “sought to document it as it was unfolding.” Thus “instead of spirituals hearkening back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what would soon become rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll.” (Look up the article in the New York Times, its original site of publication, and you’ll be rewarded with three wonderful MP3s, one by the Fairfield Four.) “Deliciously febrile,” when coupled with “really damn smart,” are good adjectives to describe the writing of Kandia Crazy Horse. In 2004 Crazy Horse published with Palgrave Macmillan the way too-little-known Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock ’N’ Roll, a study that begins with the Stones’ gig with Ike and Tina Turner at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 and veers, over the course of its learned but clever pages, from Jimi Hendrix to Prince to punkers Bad Brains, not to mention including interviews with Little Richard and Lenny Kravitz. Crazy Horse’s honorable mention Da Capo essay, “Digital Venuses,” is a fascinating, provocative criticism of the “mummery” of singers such as Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone. What a relief to read a critic who is far more interested in what she sees as cultural rip-offs rather than the former’s eyeliner, hairdo, or addiction problems.


To continue with Da Capo’s offerings for 2008, you have to be pretty damn cool to toss your collected lyrics, otherwise known as Pass Thru Fire,Pass Thru Fire into the fray with a December pub date.  At a time when traditional newspapers and even alt-weeklies, which assign titles weeks if not months in advance, assuming they cover them at all, they tend, after all, make do with end-of-the-year lists much briefer than this one, which strives for inclusiveness, and who’s to say what the reviewer’s taste will be? It helps if you’re Lou Reed, whose early combination of shock treatments, study with poet Delmore Schwartz, and Brill Building expertise resulted in some of pop/proto-punk’s greatest works stretching over three decades. Think back, just for a moment, to the deftly terrifying lyrics of “Walk on the Wild Side” and the laidback melody, punctuated with horns. Or “Femme Fatale,” or “Sweet Jane,” or any other of Reed’s signature work with the Velvet Underground. Perhaps Reed says it best himself: on a Turner Network interview back in the day when such encounters were more than promo for a forthcoming movie or album, he was asked, if he couldn’t be Lou Reed, who he’d rather be. “Well, if I couldn’t be Lou Reed,” he answered with his trademark world-weariness, “which, let’s face it, is pretty cool, I guess I’d rather be Dirty Harry.” I felt lucky when Pass Thru Fire arrived at my door. It made my day.


The university presses of Georgia, Louisiana, the already mentioned Mississippi, and, more recently, Tennessee remain some of this country’s best for books about music, and I’m going to give myself a bit of temporal leeway in discussing them. (Interjection: as a native of Alabama, when I was growing up, we always used to say “thank God for Mississippi” when it came to national statistics regarding education, general literacy, the economy, and so on; but when is the University of Alabama Press going to decide to keep pace with those of its next door neighbors, not to mention Louisiana, my state’s last real knockout being Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story by Richard Younger, published way back in 2000?) Issued two years ago in paperback, both Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South by Mark Kemp, and Real Punks Don’t Wear Black: Music Writing by Frank Kogan, and also the 2005 Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis: Conversations with the Blues edited by Fred J. Hay, demand a place on the shelves of any Swampland.com reader. And for something truly rich and strange, try this year’s Winners Have Yet To Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, a series of prose poems by Ed Pavlic. The Great Olympia Band is among the highlights of LSU’s list this year. Late author Mick Burns, a jazz musician himself, dates the origins of the African-American brass bands to the 1870s  and asserts that they “still provide a crucible for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of creative fire that is New Orleans music.” One of the great strengths of Burns’s book lies in its interwoven personal interviews in the section called “Band Call,” which focuses on the last thirty years of the brass band tradition in NOLA and culminates in the astronomical popularity of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the ’80s, which sparked an interest that continues today. How poignant that the book focuses on this particular New Orleans tradition as it was given birth in garages (most of them no longer existing) and led forward by charismatic local heroes in the years before Katrina, leaving the reader to wonder if the brass band is one more New Orleans institution that will ever be reborn. Burns died, however, in Spilsby, England, the same year this work was published, making me hope that someone else will pick up the project and add an afterword that will bring this 2007 title—which, like the others mentioned, seems to demand a place on this list even if not published during the last calendar year—fully up to date. Turning again to the University Press of Mississippi, one of its 2008 shining prides is 78 Blues: Folksongs and 78 BluesPhonographs in the American South, by John Minton. The author tells the story of how “hillbilly” and “race” records released between the 1920s and World War II brought about the dissemination of work by artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Charlie Poole, and Blind Lemon Jefferson and the resultant revolution that began within the American recording industry and its public. (For the second chapter in this story, read Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation, by Marc Fisher, which was serialized in The New Yorker and published by Random House.) Shining most brightly is a work by the inestimable, invaluable blues pioneer Samuel Charters, who joins Minton on the Mississippi list with A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz. Charters has been studying his subject for almost fifty years; perhaps more important, his name is the most frequently mentioned when today’s most important music writers—Peter Guralnick, to name just one—are asked about the first blues writer they ever encountered. Author of The Roots of the Blues and many other titles on the subject, Charters is truly an éminence grise, having been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994. In A Trumpet Around the Corner, he takes on a century of music and its African-American, white, and Creole influences, as well as those of the Italian immigrants—a muffaletta, anyone?—who gave their own flavor to the emerging genre. Another LSU title and one of 2005’s (and 2007′s, in paper) most fascinating music studies, Conjure in African-American Society, by Jeffrey E. Anderson, which examines the multi-million dollar business of voodoo and the way music, while perhaps not taking center stage, exercises its influence through inarguable and mysterious means; the book regrettably received absurdly little attention and thus has rights to discussion with the other titles here. This year’s follow-up by Anderson, Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Hoodoo, Voodoo, and ConjureConjure, from Greenwood Press, is indispensable reading for those interested in the topic, especially since the trio plays a central part in recent works by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed. It feels similarly fitting to mention a University of Tennessee back title, Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York by Adam Gussow, published in 2007 and a delightful compendium of personal memoir, travelogue, advice columns, and heartfelt scholarship. Gussow is also the author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues MemoirLike Conjure in African-American Society, Highway 61: Heart of the Delta by Randall Norris and French photographer Jean-Phillipe Cyprés may look at the subject of the blues in sidelong fashion, but not only is the foreword by Morgan Freeman, which explains his return to Mississippi and foundation of the Ground Zero Blues Club worth the price of the entire book, the occasional essays collected in this volume, by locals from school superintendants to painters, shed light on the land from which the blues continues—anybody heard T-Model Ford lately?—to come.


Often, “the year’s best books” in any category are meant to make for easy Christmas shopping, but while it’s too late for that, Richard Carlin’s Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways, the motherwell of American blues, folk, and jazz recordings, founded by Moses Asch, makes for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift—for yourself. A CD including various Folkways Records tracks accompanies the dazzling photos—some color, some black-and-white—and tells the story of how Asch and his assemblage of producers travelled the world in search of music from African and Asian islands, animal sounds, the noises of cities and rural areas (yes, the latter make them too). Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie were the triumvirate upon which Folkways rested, but even though Asch’s coffers were thinly lined, he provided the opportunity for new talent to record. The Smithsonian Museum purchased Asch’s catalog in 1987, hence the volume’s title.


Shot in the HeartIf I had a “ten-best” list of memoirs, near the top would surely be Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, his searing account of growing up as Gary Gilmore’s brother. The two siblings lived parallel existences in the “blood-atonement” culture of the Mormon west, raised by two violent and abusive parents who seemed to hate not only each other, but at times, their own children. Gary Gilmore went on to gain notoriety as the first man to be executed after the reinstatement of the death penalty in this country; his brother led a life that saw him chasing darkness through music and then writing about it, most prominently for Rolling Stone. His first collection, the 1998 Night Beat, though still less well known than the earlier memoir, which won the National Book Award, was a more-than-memorable group of essays about the noir side of rock’n’roll, and his new work, Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and its Discontents (much of which appeared in the magazine) dances in the shadows that lined the rainbow-hued 1960s. No, we don’t necessarily need another book about that much-storied decade, but Gilmore’s take is new, finding “hard limits and bad faith” in the soi-disant Summer of Love, especially at its epicenter, a Haight-Ashbury which he saw full of tourists and stoned-out runaways, a danger zone where confrontations with police were merely a foreboding of worse things to come, from Tet to Altamont to the 1970 death of Jimi Hendrix, which is my way of interpolating the publication of an updated edition of David Henderson’s biography, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, which Marcus, then of Rolling Stone, called “[t]he strongest and most ambitious biography yet written about any rock and roll performer.”


Hendrix’s, of course, was one of many deaths of the era and the years following. “He blew his mind out in a car” and the single chord underscoring it are the end of the decade’s real motto, Gilmore writes in a chapter about the Beatles; another discusses, in depth, George Harrison’s depression. Leonard Cohen and Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976, were likewise afflicted. If melancholy is one theme that threads its ways through Gilmore’s book, what Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times Review calls “the confluence between an artist’s private emotions and larger, public events; the ways in which certain musicians or writers, making art out of their own fears or longings, can come to articulate a generation’s experiences — this is a leitmotif that runs through Gilmore’s profiles in this volume.” Further ones include Bob Marley, Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead, Hunter Thompson, Bob Dylan and even Led Zeppelin. But the gloom emanating from some of the company Gilmore keeps in this collection of essays, plus the fact that most were written during the reign of George III, makes me wonder if Stories Done would be a different book had it been written in a different time. After this year, would he agree with Sam Cooke that “a change is gonna come,” or feel that he had been right all along as robber barons continue to be bailed out by the federal government?


(originally published on Swampland)


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Published on July 12, 2014 02:31 • 70 views

April 14, 2014

Having just turned in “Viciousness in the Kitchen,” the next installment of my poet’s memoir for Plath Profiles, which takes as its topic the poetry of Plath and UnknownEleanor Ross Taylor, I came across the following on YouTube, wherein Carol Muske-Dukes, introduced by Michael Braziller, leads us through “our life in six lyric poems.”


 



 


 


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Published on April 14, 2014 21:55 • 56 views

November 6, 2013

Now we are embarked on the fifth part of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences.” Fifth? What happened to Parts One-Four? Never mind. Or rather, do! And I’ll try to explain: but first, for the rest of this essay to approach any kind of sense, a familiarity with those originating “controversies” is required and can easily be located by following the embedded links: Tulane, but, in terms of more fractiousness, Emory (the “Poets of the American South” and “The Future of Southern Poetry” panels). A thorough and thoughtful familiarity of both events is our starting place: I’ve had a couple of years to ponder the reactions and questions provoked, which led me to others. Since these may not reflect your own, please consider forming some as “Homework.”


Both the Tulane and Emory events occured during the PSA’s centennial year, meaning the organization lavished three precious days of its calendar on our region; but eerily, I discovered theSwampland disappearance only in August, when I learned that Dan Albergotti, recipient of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize for BOA Editions, Ltd. with The Boatloads, had vanished too!—only from the (Swampland) site, however. He’d recently been selected by Rodney Jones as winner of SIU’s Crab Orchard Review Open Competition. But Millennial Teeth won’t be appearing until next August, so why not sharpen your appetite, so to speak, with The Use of the World, published this year by Unicorn Press? See a terrific interview atstorySouth for more on Albergotti and the words he puts to use with such terse beauty.


Albergotti also edits the journal Waccamaw, and for a preview of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences: Part Five,” “A Formal Feeling Comes . . . and Stays?,” take a look at the author of Big-Eyed Afraid, Erica Dawson, a formalist, and Traci Brimhall—another SIU winner!— who wrote the intelligently feral Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton) and was awarded both the Barnard Prize, chosen by Carolyn Forché, and the Ole Miss Summer Poet in Residence position. A “transplant!” just like Miss Kudzu, a/k/a Beth Ann Fennelly, Brimhall appears with Dawson in “Nine More Gates,” which also refers back to Camille T. Dungy in “CCC, Part Four.”


If this chain of events appears confusing—not to mention the boatloads, so to speak, of material to which they’re inextricably linked—try to imagine my own state of mind as I’ve thought about the Emory gatherings and tried to stay on the watery path I’d established from the beginning.


What was the primary significance of these activities, which took place on the weekend of 7 October 2010? The question of who does and who doesn’t merit inclusion in “The Southern Poetic Canon” isn’t a question of particular interest to me, since others have already argued about its members ad infinitum, and if such arguments bore me . . . well, I had a proleptic vision of yawning readers. My best strategem seemed already in place: while I hadn’t consciously returned to the principles I established at the very beginning of “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry” almost three years ago, I eventually realized that midcourse through “Down—But Not Out—in Mississippi and Elsewhere,” I’d returned to the format of brief interviews and solicited commentaries from poets who were both “under the radar” and not necessarily considered “Southern.” Re-reading the material for the four parts of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences,” the grande finale to “Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry,” I also noticed that I’d chosen—again, intuitively, without forethought or general scheme—the role of devil’s advocate with regard to the Emory gathering in particular. There’s no way of avoiding race as a central topic when the South is under discussion, but are there others easily as explosive? I’d seen and heard with my own eyes and ears ten years earlier at Vanderbilt’s Millennial Gathering of Writers of the New South, helmed by Kate Daniels, a woman on board with the PWT (Po’ White Trash) panel burst into tears because she felt the invitation had been extended because she was PWT herself. Race, class, and gender—what about “the aesthetics of Southern poetry”? Does such a thing exist? What are its subgenres? Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own to say that I’m attracted to extremes: formal poetry, blues structure and various spin-offs, and prose poetry. But why was there no talk of these at Emory? Or was there indeed, just beneath the surface . . . Another likely topic might have been the realtor’s screed: “Location, location, location!”—i.e., which cities below the Mason-Dixon hang onto bragging rights about being More (or Less) Southern Than Thou?

*

Here you have, in rough outline, the course “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences” will follow. First, since the South remains, in all aspects, a bastion of conservatism—a word which, let’s not forget, has its good connotations, as the otherwise unlikely quartet of Keith Richards; Yusef Komunyakaa; Emory organizer Kevin Young, editor of Blues Poems; and Natasha Trethewey, our current Poet Laureate and an accomplished writer of sonnets, villanelles, and ghazals, would be the first to remind you—does the future of Southern poetry contain room for the use of received forms? If so, why wasn’t there more emphasis placed on versification in the panel devoted to the subject? Or more poets known for their virtuosity with meter and rhyme in attendance?


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Published on November 06, 2013 13:18 • 87 views

October 25, 2013



mysteryandmanners_sm
In April 2010, “Notes on the State of Poetry,” a series of four essays centered around interviews and solicited commentary with “under the radar” poets, began running on the “Mystery and Manners” section of the regional—and largely defunct—site Swampland. The selection process? “By ear,” I’d now say, i.e. trusting my “auditory imagination”: in many cases, I picked writers after reading a single poem or bit of commentary on this our sullen, etc. Personal friends, as well as self-designated “Southern” poets, in the vast majority of cases, were at a definite disadvantage; and the poets, once contacted—which sometimes proved difficult and required the help of third parties—had to be amenable to working collaboratively.


Even if the Swampland items can no longer be read, I’ll list the various poets included in each, but those given most focus, you’ll notice, have their names in bold type:


Part One (Virginia and Tennessee)—Rita Dove, Charles Wright, R. T. Smith, Sarah Kennedy, Diane Boller, Don Selby, Lisa Russ Spaar, Joyce Mansour, Molly Bendall, Rodney Jones, Gregory Orr, Kate Daniels, Mark Jarman, Tony Earley, Brian Teare, Ellen Bryant Voigt


Part Two (North and South Carolina)—Betty Adcock, Malcolm Jones, Mark Kemp, Al Maginnes, Dan Albergotti


Part Three (Louisiana and Arkansas)—Eleanor Ross Taylor, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Barbara HambyJulie Kane, Alison bricksPelegrin, Sheryl St. Germain, Robin Kemp, Katie Cappello, Patricia Smith, Miller and Lucinda Williams, Enid Shomer, C. D. Wright, Forrest Gander,Patricia Spears JonesRachel Richardson


Part Four (Mississippi and Texas)—Mary Robison, Frederick and Steven Barthelme, Julia Mae Johnson, Angela Ball, George Garrett, Donald Hall, William Faulkner, Richard Howorth and Square Books, Beth Ann FennellyAnn Fisher-Wirth, R. L. Burnside, Otha Turner, Lonnie Pitchford, Fat Possum, Matthew Johnson, J. E. Pitts, Marc Smirnoff and Oxford American, Barry Hannah, Maude Schuyler Clay, William Ferris, Catherine Bowman, Mark Doty, Bin Ramke, Anna Journey, Ashley Capps, Kara Candito


I interrupted the series at the end of August, having wholly failed to foresee the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall and the various commemorative events that would take place. These were marked in a duo of advance overview pieces called, respectively, “When the Saints Went Marching Out” and “Interim,” which appeared on Swampland‘s “RiverVue” (as of this writing, the former essay can still be found at the provided link). The cursory treatment, however, that seems innate to panoramic, future tense essays makes such bolding de trop, so you won’t see any associated with the following links and casts of characters in the Katrina items, the lists being respective:


—Spike Lee, Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, Anderson Cooper, Douglas Brinkley, Tom Piazza, Treme, Ned Sublette, Sean Penn, Robert Pinsky, Bruce Springsteen, Everette Maddox, Lee Barclay, Christopher Porché West, Peter Cooley, Nicole Cooley, the Poetry Society of America, Megan Burns


—Alex Chilton, the Poetry Foundation, Don Share, Abe Louise Young, Raymond McDaniel; also see, on the Poetry Society of America’s website, “Remembering Katrina,” Peter Cooley’s brief description of the event and a list of the poets he chose to read


*

When another online venue, Option, asked to provide me with a new home the following summer, I was happy to pack up my boxes of books: if its core readership, like Swampland’s, was comprised of music fans, Option, decidedly national, also invited a retitling. Having been given some time to consider matters, “Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry” seemed more appropriate, for, by using brackets, I could get farther away from that “regional” label I wished to avoid. Had I had even more time, who knows what I would have conjured to indicate a gradual broadening of genre that “Crossings,” a three-part essay, represented? To name only a dozen, those appearing included Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Sue Brannan Walker, Carson McCullers, Kathryn Krotzer LaBorde, Deborah Luster, Nancy Schoenberger, Alfred Corn, Melanie Thernstrom, Nick Reding, Lucinda Roy, and Carol Muske-Dukes.


*


“Down—But Not Out—in Mississippi and Elsewhere” (Summer 2012), the successor to “Crossings,” remains on my website, albeit in truncated form. The original consists of nine sections and works like a double diptych, with Frederick Barthelme and the late Barry Hannah providing the two central figures, while the King James Bible and the blues offer the duo of themes. “The Mississippi Essay,” as it came to be known, culminates in a benediction by Bruce Smith, most recently the author of Devotions, which won the William Carlos Williams Award from the PSA; and a review of Jerry W. Ward’s The Katrina Papers by Claude Wilkinson, included in two sections. Both pieces can still be found, in full, here.


What poets and writers in other genres came between Barthelme and Ward? Larry Brown, Harold Bloom, William Styron, Mary Gaitskill, Sylvia Plath, Meghan O’Rourke, Camille T. Dungy, Major Jackson, Randall Kenan, Claude Wilkinson, James Thomas Miller, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hilbert, Ashley Anna McHugh, Donald Justice, Quincy R. Lehr, Anna M. Evans, David St. John, and Charles Baudelaire—again, an incomplete list, but interested readers can find more. And more.


*



Now we are embarked on the fifth part of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences.” Fifth? What happened to Parts One-Four? Never mind. Or rather, do! And I’ll try to explain: but first, for the rest of this essay to approach any kind of sense, a familiarity with those originating “controversies” is required and can easily be located by following the embedded links: Tulane, but, in terms of more fractiousness, Emory (the “Poets of the American South” and “The Future of Southern Poetry” panels). A thorough and thoughtful familiarity of both events is our starting place: I’ve had a couple of years to ponder the reactions and questions provoked, which led me to others. Since these may not reflect your own, please consider forming some as “Homework.”


Both the Tulane and Emory events occured during the PSA’s centennial year, meaning the organization lavished three precious days of its calendar on our region; but eerily, I discovered the Swampland disappearance only in August, when I learned that Dan Albergotti, recipient of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize for BOA Editions, Ltd. with The Boatloads, had vanished too!—only from the (Swampland) site, however. He’d recently been selected by Rodney Jones as winner of SIU’s Crab Orchard Review Open Competition. But Millennial Teeth won’t be appearing until next August, so why not sharpen your appetite, so to speak, with The Use of the World, published this year by Unicorn Press? See a terrific interview at storySouth for more on Albergotti and the words he puts to use with such terse beauty.


Albergotti also edits the journal Waccamaw, and for a preview of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences: Part Five,” “A Formal Feeling Comes . . . and Stays?,” take a look at the author of Big-Eyed Afraid, Erica Dawson, a formalist, and Traci Brimhall—another SIU winner!— who wrote the intelligently feral Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton) and was awarded both the Barnard Prize, chosen by Carolyn Forché, and the Ole Miss Summer Poet in Residence position. A “transplant!” just like Miss Kudzu, a/k/a Beth Ann Fennelly, Brimhall appears with Dawson in “Nine More Gates,” which also refers back to Camille T. Dungy in “CCC, Part Four.”


If this chain of events appears confusing—not to mention the boatloads, so to speak, of material to which they’re inextricably linked—try to imagine my own state of mind as I’ve thought about the Emory gatherings and tried to stay on the watery path I’d established from the beginning.


What was the primary significance of these activities, which took place on the weekend of 7 October 2010? The question of who does and who doesn’t merit inclusion in “The Southern Poetic Canon” isn’t a question of particular interest to me, since others have already argued about its members ad infinitum, and if such arguments bore me . . . well, I had a proleptic vision of yawning readers. My best strategem seemed already in place: while I hadn’t consciously returned to the principles I established at the very beginning of “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry” almost three years ago, I eventually realized that midcourse through “Down—But Not Out—in Mississippi and Elsewhere,” I’d returned to the format of brief interviews and solicited commentaries from poets who were both “under the radar” and not necessarily considered “Southern.” Re-reading the material for the four parts of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences,” the grande finale to “Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry,” I also noticed that I’d chosen—again, intuitively, without forethought or general scheme—the role of devil’s advocate with regard to the Emory gathering in particular. There’s no way of avoiding race as a central topic when the South is under discussion, but are there others easily as explosive? I’d seen and heard with my own eyes and ears ten years earlier at Vanderbilt’s Millennial Gathering of Writers of the New South, helmed by Kate Daniels, a woman on board with the PWT (Po’ White Trash) panel burst into tears because she felt the invitation had been extended because she was PWT herself. Race, class, and gender—what about “the aesthetics of Southern poetry”? Does such a thing exist? What are its subgenres? Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own to say that I’m attracted to extremes: formal poetry, blues structure and various spin-offs, and prose poetry. But why was there no talk of these at Emory? Or was there indeed, just beneath the surface . . . Another likely topic might have been the realtor’s screed: “Location, location, location!”—i.e., which cities below the Mason-Dixon hang onto bragging rights about being More (or Less) Southern Than Thou?




*

Here you have, in rough outline, the course “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences” will follow. First, since the South remains, in all aspects, a bastion of conservatism—a word which, let’s not forget, has its good connotations, as the otherwise unlikely quartet of Keith Richards; Yusef Komunyakaa; Emory organizer Kevin Young, editor of Blues Poems; and Natasha Trethewey, our current Poet Laureate and an accomplished writer of sonnets, villanelles, and ghazals, would be the first to remind you—does the future of Southern poetry contain room for the use of received forms? If so, why wasn’t there more emphasis placed on versification in the panel devoted to the subject? Or more poets known for their virtuosity with meter and rhyme in attendance?



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Published on October 25, 2013 14:56 • 48 views

October 17, 2013

Middlin' SistersMiddlin’ Sisters is a sui generis CD that draws on the best of the three genres–balladry, spoken-word poetry, and alternative country–to create an individual, appealing testament of the rural Southern female experience.  Sparks, the author, has garnered praise from folk as disparate as author Will D. Campbell and Waylon Jennings. The latter makes a rare a cappella contribution to the CD, which features instrumental backing by Nashville’s own Darrell Scott, Rob Jackson, and Marcus Hummon.


(originally published in the Nashville Scene / Village Voice Media, 2001)



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Published on October 17, 2013 00:42 • 96 views

October 3, 2013

Gwynth-Paltrow




As a 1979 graduate of the University of the South, a/k/a Sewanee, I receive the college newsletter a few times yearly, and in the most recent issue my attention was compelled by an obiturarial notice about Bertram Wyatt-Brown, who returned as a visiting professor during my own tenure there. Had he announced the titles of his two best known books, fully described in the New York Times last November, or his pervasive themes—violence, honor, depression in the family of William Alexander Percy (Lanterns on the Levee), who inaugurated the Yale Series of Young Poets, and his cousin’s orphaned children, including Walker—I’d have signed up on the spot.


I’d always thought it was Lucas Myers, whose memoir of Plath and Hughes I’ve drawn upon for several pieces published in Plath Profiles—most recently a review of Heather Clark’s Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: The Grief of Influence, and the second installment of my “poet’s memoir,” “Bee-Stung in October.” Myers didn’t much care for Plath.


A strange distinction for which to vie, nevertheless. Why does it seem inevitable that Brown was drawn to subjects that permeate both poets’ work, while Myers became a Buddhist?






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Published on October 03, 2013 19:36 • 92 views

August 11, 2013

****NOTE: "Abacus: Lines Drawn in Sand," has a new address: http://diannblakely.wordpress.com*****
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Published on August 11, 2013 02:35 • 83 views

May 23, 2013

Let’s reprise: when “The Future of Southern Poetry,” co-sponsored by the PSA, took place at Emory in 2010, why was race the overweening topic? While unavoidable in any discussion about the South, aren’t there others worth our attention? For example, since the South remains, in all aspects, a bastion of conservatism—a word which, let’s not forget, has its good connotations, as the otherwise unlikely quartet Keith Richardsof Keith Richards; Yusef Komunyakaa; Emory organizer Kevin Young, editor of Blues Poems; and current Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, an accomplished writer of sonnets, villanelles, and ghazals, would be the first to remind you—does the future of Southern poetry contain room for the use of received forms? If so, why wasn’t there more emphasis placed on versification in the panel devoted to the subject? Or more poets known for their virtuosity with meter and rhyme present?


A quick list would include DC native Kim Addonizio , Geoffrey Brock, and Erica Dawson, who has a new collection, The Small Blades Hurt, forthcoming from Measure Press; also A. E. Stallings from which you may read selections, including translations of Lucretius, on Verse Daily. For more regarding her NBCC-nominated Olives and other essays, see the Poetry Foundation and the Kenyon Review sites (“On Ruinability: ‘Momentary’ by A. E. Stallings” and “The Reconquest of the Long Form,” by Amit Majmudar), among other places; and, with her husband, a recent appearance on PBS. Nor should we forget about the MacArthur “genius grant” awarded to Miss “Athens-to-Athens,” meaning Georgia and Greece, not to mention the interview justly chosen for republication in Poetry Daily with Atlanta’s Beth Gylys. Where were they when Emory Beth Gylysassembled its gathering? While Stallings might have had a long trip ahead of her, there’s no such excuse for the exclusion of Gylys, who teaches at Georgia State University and whom I first met through that consummate NYC-er David Lehman in the Boston Review, unless—to return to Bill Lavender’s “crackling remarks”—it’s because GSU is a “poor woman’s school” on the less well-heeled side of Atlanta. Or perhaps the true reason is that her husband lives in Pennsylvania. How long has she been Down Here, anyway? Hmph. Gylys has not only been interviewed by Florida State University’s Southeast Review, but furthermore, she was taught by Andrew Hudgins, so there!


Beth Gylys frequently writes about sex, but the sex isn’t lurid or juvenile. Instead she is as interested in what’s behind sex as she is in sex itself—love and love’s failure, desire and desire’s losses. She examines sex with a mature intellectual and emotional intelligence that is very appealing, and with an intelligence that has absorbed and assimilated modern and contemporary theorizing about sex into felt experience. And even all that intelligence embodied in it, her poems remain sexy and a delight to read. 


Yes! And for a sample, here’s “Rubenesque,” a poem from one of her new manuscripts, based on an extra-literary (?) form she loves, the personal ad:


There’s lots of me to love, and I’ll share it all

with Mr. Right.  He wants a buxom, in charge

kind of gal who likes to eat.  He’ll splurge

on dining out, adore my curves, be tall

(I’m five foot ten), and love to wrap his arms

and legs around the whole of me and squeeze.

My ideal mate is one whose laugh comes easy

as sun against a rooftop, a man who charms

a room each time he smiles.  I’m forty-four,

voracious and voluptuous, and know

some ways to make a man feel good.  The more

we have, the more we have to use.  I’ll show

you how.  Tired of women built like planks? 

Come take a taste of my hips, breasts and flanks.  


Gylys aside, however, I wonder if there’s anything intrinsically “Southern” about the attraction to received forms, and whether teachers of Southern origin tend to pass a love for tradition onto their students. For example, although Carrie Jerrell is a Midwesterner by origin, she is the former student of plenty of Southerners—Andrew Hudgins, Dave Smith, and Greg Williamson—aside from the fact that she teaches at Murray State in Kentucky; and her After the Revival won the After the RevivalAnthony Hecht Prize from Waywiser Press, coming into the world with a foreword by the University of North Carolina’s Alan Shapiro, a brief excerpt from which states:


Carrie Jerrell is a poised, mature and brilliant poet. Her distinctive genius, what makes her unlike anybody else I know, is her ability to bring together such a heterogeneous mix of worlds and influences—to be open to everything formal and informal, profane and sacred, foreign and home grown.


Some brief quotations will give readers some idea of the source of such praise, to which I can add from both Shapiro’s sister Carolinian, Dorianne Laux—“After the Revival is a book of rich, tightly-packed poems suffused with the grit, rueful humor and pain of American country music”—and the co-founder of VIDA, Erin Belieu, who now teaches at Florida State University, which should be familiar to those who remember New Orleans’s Barbara Hamby from the original “Notes on the State of Poetry” on Swampland: “The poems in this book are full of idiosyncratic wit, keen Black Boxsocial intelligence and a kind of sass that makes great use of both the honey and the sting. That’s pleasure enough to encounter, but add to this Jerrell’s enviable formal assuredness and you have a book that announces a bright new voice to contemporary American poetry.” “Sass”? The author of Infanta and, most recently, Black Box should know!


Nocturne


for Matthew


Twenty-two, come from the underground,

you’re through with the mine’s night-shift and wear coal dust

like vernix while playing Clair de Lune.  Moths crowd

the porch-lit screen door, and you’ve come to trust


your ear for every chord.  Dark note by note,

how many hours you’ve searched for songs that burn

like lustrous rock—your damp neck creased with soot,

your hands unclean—only to be spurned


by stars repeating, Time, Time, Time.

My only brother, in the pitch of sleep, may hymns

resolve for you.  May your dreams be more than ash.


May you climb to a house of light and blind

yourself at its windows, breathe its music in,

and beat your wings like prayers against the mesh.


The Country-Western Singer’s Ex-Wife,

Sober in Mendocino County, California 


Somewhere back East my late love’s all coked up,

another cowgirl wannabe lying

at his feet while he plucks a Willie Nelson song

from his beer-soaked six-string and complains nobody

understands a rebel’s broken heart.

I’ve played her part, the star struck blonde in boots


and denim mini, pert boobs, and brains to boot.

Whiskey fed, dreamy, how I talked him up,

a sequined Tammy to his George, my heart

a backstage bed I wanted him to lie in.

It proved too hard, and when a harder body

came along, he said, The party’s over,


and left me listening to “Sad Songs and Waltzes,”

Waylon, steel guitars that struck like a boot

to the face.  But that’s good country, right?  A body

enamored with its bruises, praising its screw-ups,

the blood still wet in its wounds?  Memory lies

as still a rattlesnake until my heart


comes begging for its venom.  Sink ’em in, my heart

says, I’ve been traveling on a horse called Music,

and he’s brought me here to die.  I’d be lying

if I said I didn’t want to fill my ex’s boots

with spit the night I caught him with that up-

start starlet at the bar, when everybody


tried to hide in their shot glasses; when nobody

but a Broadway street preacher had the heart

to hold my hair off my face while I threw up

outside; when all the songs I loved—”Crazy,”

“Golden Ring,” “Jolene”—became like boots

too busted to put on, bent-pitch ballads of his lies,


my shame sung loud in the key of C.  He’s lying

from the stage, in the bar or bed, when he says nobody

understands him.  I do.  I’ve burned my boots,

moved west to wine and water because his heart

was a dry bottle, cold as the black rose

rotting in his lapel, and I still wake up


to his tunes: the beer, blow, boots and love, the lies

they tell and don’t.  Once, I was a good-hearted woman.

Now I pray, Lord, please, somebody, shut him up.


How widespread is the soi-disant tendency to which I point, and does it have anything to do with the historical sense that does, in fact, exist more predominantly than in any other region in which I’ve lived with the exception of New England? Two poets seem to have the best A Witness in Exileanswer here: Brian Spears, in (guess what?) a work titled “Recursive Villanelle,” from his début collection A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press), one of whose répétons reads “Every poem I write is a history poem”; and Brock, the former student of Sidney Wade at the University of Florida.


DB: Geoffrey, what does “Southern” mean, anyway?


GB: I suppose it means that you occupy a certain position with relation to our country’s past and also its present, a position that changes over time as our country changes. It certainly means something different, for example, for my parents, who both grew up poor in the rural deep south (south Georgia and east Texas), than it does for me, who grew up middle-class in college-town Tallahassee. And it will mean something still different for my kids, who are growing up in Arkansas in a multi-national, multi-lingual, biracial household. It still means something, but I think it means less and less, and I think that’s a good thing.


DB: “Trip Hop” seems to me one of your most inventive but somehow tragic poems: there’s no clear destination and no real home except for Purell. Does this mean you want to wash your hands of some kind of business, and if so, could you be more specific?


It’s one of several of my poems (along with “ Homeland Security ,” “ Lauds ,” “ The Nights ,” “Dispatches from the Interior,” and others) about parenthood in which non-utopic images and language from the world at large impinge on or bleed into non-utopic domestic scenes. I don’t know what it means, Geoffrey Brock specifically, except that I seem to want to insist on a relation between the two worlds, an inextricability. Beyond that, I suppose I’m inclined simply to let the poems speak for themselves.   


DB: I’ve been known to state that Southerners are more superstitious and susceptible to incidents of synchronicity, i.e. coincidences, than those from other regions. Going through various new poems of yours, I came upon “Sinkholes,” and given events two weeks ago in Florida, plus a long explanatory essay in The New Yorker, it scared me out of my mind, living not far from there. Any comment?


GB: Not except to say that I’ve always been fascinated by sinkholes, having grown up among them and, often, in the summer, in them. The New Yorker article opens with an account of the sudden draining of Lake Jackson, an event I remember vividly, and the entire landscape of my childhood is pocked with dry sinks and sinks that have filled with water to become ponds or swimming holes: Big Dismal, Blue Sink, Cherokee Sink. My poem was inspired, incidentally, by Auden’s “Bucolics,” a sequence of varied landscapes that seemed incomplete to me without sinkholes.  


DB: How about “Exercitia Spiritualia”?


GB: This sonnet was inspired by my fondness for trompe-l’oeil ceilings, particularly Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling at Sant’Ignazio in Rome, which is a wonderful example both of the mundane need to make do (the Jesuits ran out of money before they could build a dome on their new church but still wanted something to inspire higher thoughts) and also of what might be called the spiritual need to add a dimension to our existence 32 POEMSthat, while not physically there, may exist once we have imagined it. Is the illusion of depth (in painting, in love . . .) a lie or a spiritual exercise? 


And the “trompe l’oreille” rhymes that provide the poem’s inaudible music are, of course, my attempt to play Pozzo’s game in verse.


As for any connection between Southernness and traditional poetic forms, I’m really not sure. I’ve heard this too, and perhaps there’s something to it, but I’m certainly not consciously aware of any connection in my case. The fact is that in most other countries whose traditions I’m familiar with, the level of interest in traditional poetic forms is as high as or higher than it is in the American South. Perhaps then it would be better to flip the question around and ask what it is about the rest of the country that has caused poets to be less interested in traditional poetic forms (if indeed they are) than poets elsewhere? 


Do “transplants” like Thomas Lux, Gylys, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Sidney Wade “count”? If you’ve done your homework, you’ve heard Lux’s point of view on the subject; but I wouldn’t have asked Fennelly to participate in a dual interview—in the original Swampland series—about Mississippi poets if I hadn’t read “Kudzu” and believed her fully qualified. Likewise with Wade, a longtime faculty member at the University of Florida. Most recently the author of Straits and Narrows (Persea), Wade is a poet I’ve long admired, and while you may read more about her later from Randall Mann, a self-described “mutt,” that must wait, for a splendid introduction to Wade can be found in this interview with Christina Cook, whose most recent work is Lake Effect, issued, “coincidentally,” by Kentucky’s FINISHING LINE PRESSexcellent Finishing Line Press.


Furthermore, Brock, whose father, Van Brock, taught for many years at Florida State University in Tallahassee, was born in Atlanta itself, and he recently published a “splendid translation” of work from the Italian; while Alfred Corn spent last spring translating Rilke as well as publishing a new book, Transatlantic Bridge.  Both poets, like Jennifer Reeser in an earlier part of this essay, consider translation an integral part of their vocations, but the very act raises still more issues. If the initial duo—“I didn’t know Brock was born in Atlanta; I guess the family moved around,” and “I don’t think of Corn as Southern, though of course he is”—is only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry in the Dog Days, surely they should add their voices to the argument for poets of any region immersing themselves in those of another language.


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Published on May 23, 2013 13:15 • 84 views

May 17, 2013

mysteryandmanners_sm


In April 2010, “Notes on the State of Poetry,” a series of four essays centered around interviews and solicited commentary with “under the radar” poets, began running on the “Mystery and Manners” section of the regional—and largely defunct—site Swampland. The selection process? “By ear,” I’d now say, i.e. trusting my “auditory imagination”: in many cases, I picked writers after reading a single poem or bit of commentary on this our sullen, etc. Personal friends, as well as self-designated “Southern” poets, in the vast majority of cases, were at a definite disadvantage; and the poets, once contacted—which sometimes proved difficult and required the help of third parties—had to be amenable to working collaboratively.


Even if the Swampland items can no longer be read, I’ll list the various poets included in each, but those given most focus, you’ll notice, have their names in bold type:


Part One (Virginia and Tennessee)—Rita Dove, Charles Wright, R. T. Smith, Sarah Kennedy, Diane Boller, Don Selby, Lisa Russ Spaar, Joyce Mansour, Molly Bendall, Rodney Jones, Gregory Orr, Kate Daniels, Mark Jarman, Tony Earley, Brian Teare, Ellen Bryant Voigt


Part Two (North and South Carolina)—Betty Adcock, Malcolm Jones, Mark Kemp, Al Maginnes, Dan Albergotti


Part Three (Louisiana and Arkansas)—Eleanor Ross Taylor, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Barbara Hamby, Julie Kane, Alison Pelegrin, Sheryl St. Germain, Robin Kemp, Katie Cappello, Patricia Smith, Miller and Lucinda Williams, Enid Shomer, C. D. Wright, Forrest Gander, Patricia Spears Jones, Rachel Richardson


Part Four (Mississippi and Texas)—Mary Robison, Frederick and Steven Barthelme,  Julia Mae Johnson, Angela Ball, George Garrett, Donald Hall, William Faulkner, Richard Howorth and Square Books, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ann Fisher-Wirth, R. L. Burnside, Otha Turner, Lonnie Pitchford, Fat Possum, Matthew Johnson, J. E. Pitts, Marc Smirnoff and Oxford American, Barry Hannah, Maude Schuyler Clay, William Ferris, Catherine Bowman, Mark Doty, Bin Ramke, Anna Journey, Ashley Capps, Kara Candito


rivervue_sm


I interrupted the series at the end of August, having wholly failed to foresee the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall and the various commemorative events that would take place. These were marked in a duo of advance overview pieces called, respectively, “When the Saints Went Marching Out” and “Interim,” which appeared on Swampland‘s “RiverVue” (as of this writing, the former essay can still be found at the provided link). The  cursory treatment, however, that seems innate to panoramic, future tense essays makes such bolding de trop, so you won’t see any associated with the following links and casts of characters in the Katrina items, the lists being respective:


—Spike Lee, Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, Anderson Cooper, Douglas Brinkley, Tom Piazza, Treme, Ned Sublette, Sean Penn, Robert Pinsky, Bruce Springsteen, Everette Maddox, Lee Barclay, Christopher Porché West, Peter Cooley, Nicole Cooley, the Poetry Society of America, Megan Burns


—Alex Chilton, the Poetry Foundation, Don Share, Abe Louise Young, Raymond McDaniel


*


When another online venue, Option, asked to provide me with a new home the following summer, I was happy to pack up my boxes of books: if its core readership, like Swampland’s, was comprised of music fans, Option, decidedly national, also invited a retitling. Having been given some time to consider matters, “Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry” seemed more appropriate, for, by using brackets, I could get farther away from that “regional” label I wished to avoid. Had I had even more time, who knows what I would have conjured to indicate a gradual broadening of genre that “Crossings,” a three-part essay, represented? To name only a dozen, those appearing included Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Sue Brannan Walker, Carson McCullers, Kathryn Krotzer LaBorde, Deborah Luster, Nancy Schoenberger, Alfred Corn, Melanie Thernstrom, Nick Reding, Lucinda Roy, and Carol Muske-Dukes.


*


“Down—But Not Out—in Mississippi and Elsewhere” (Summer 2012), the successor to “Crossings,” remains on my website, albeit in truncated form. The original consists of nine sections and works like a double diptych, with Frederick Barthelme and the late Barry Hannah providing the two central figures, while the King James Bible and the blues offering the duo of themes. “The Mississippi Essay,” as it came to be known, culminates in a benediction by Bruce Smith, most recently the author of Devotions, which won the William Carlos Williams Award from the PSA; and a review of Jerry W. Ward’s The Katrina Papers by Claude Wilkinson, included in two sections. Both pieces can still be found, in full, here.


What poets and writers in other genres came between Barthelme and Ward? Larry Brown, Harold Bloom, William Styron, Mary Gaitskill, Sylvia Plath, Meghan O’Rourke, Camille T. Dungy, Major Jackson, Randall Kenan, Claude Wilkinson, James Thomas Miller, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hilbert, Ashley Anna McHugh, Donald Justice, Quincy R. Lehr, Anna M. Evans, David St. John, and Charles Baudelaire—again, an incomplete list, but interested readers can find more. And more.


*


Now we are embarked on the fifth part of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences.” Fifth? What happened to Parts One-Four? Never mind. Or rather, do! And I’ll try to explain: but first, for the rest of this essay to approach any kind of sense, a familiarity with those originating “controversies” is required and can easily be located by following the embedded links: Tulane, but, in terms of more fractiousness, Emory (the “Poets of the American South“ and “The Future of Southern Poetry” panels). A thorough and thoughtful familiarity of both events is our starting place: I’ve had a couple of years to ponder the reactions and questions provoked, which led me to others. Since these may not reflect your own, please consider forming some as “Homework, Part One.”


“Part One?” Do I mean there’s more? Yes, but only reading a summary of the Introduction—cross my heart!



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Published on May 17, 2013 15:03 • 111 views

April 5, 2013

Unknown


While I haven’t read the following dissertation in full yet, it comes to me from a much-trusted source: Mark Shulgasser. Let’s hope Mr. Armitage’s take isn’t as deferential as Ariel’s Gift, by a British author, Erica Wagner. Here’s a passage from David Kirby’s review in Library Journal:



When poet Ted Hughes offered Birthday Letters for publication in 1997 after an unyielding silence since his wife Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963, those involved were “amazed and somewhat fearful,” writes Wagner, literary editor of the London Times. In this fascinating study, part explication of the poems and part biography of a doomed relationship, Wagner alternates Hughes’s almost diarylike poetry with the journal entries, letters, and poems by Plath that often describe the same people and events. The contrast is stunning and often horrifying: remembering a walk in which the two poets come across some girls pulling up flowers in a park, Hughes writes, “What did they mean to you, the azalea flowers?/ The girls were so happy . . . ,” while Plath’s journal says, “I can kill myself or I know it now even kill another. . . . I gritted to control my hands, but had a flash of bloody stars in my head as I stared that sassy girl down, and a blood-longing to [rush] at her and tear her to bloody beating bits.” With the publication of Birthday Letters, Hughes managed to honor Plath and simultaneously polish his own record as the long-suffering husband of one of our major poets, who was apparently incapable of living with anyone, even herself. 



Honor? I’m not sure. The emphasis on astrological fatalism gives me pause and a means of self-exoneration, yet I return to Fenton’s essay on the same subject:



As for the question of self-justification, it is, it must be, a legitimate aim of poetry. At the very least, the urge to justify ourselves may provide the first impulse for a poem. “Saints will not mind from what angle they are viewed, / Having nothing to hide,” Auden wrote. But the rest of us do mind. Indeed we should mind. How could we go through life with utter indifference to the angle from which we are viewed? What would such indifference imply?


n.b. Financial Times






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Published on April 05, 2013 08:42 • 95 views

Abacus: Lines Drawn in Sand

Diann Blakely
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