Tigerlilies & Valentines

Mentioning the Tigerlily poems in the last posts got me thinking about them, both as long, narrative poems, and as Southern poems.  I remember that Karen and Grace both liked them, as well as a few others in that class, but I haven’t read them in years.  But I dug around and found the one that Karen was especially fond of, “Tigerlily Agnew Beaumont Recalls Her Coming-Out.”  That one, “TAB Spends Another Day in Bed with Convenient Vapors,” and “TAB’s Rejected Valedictory Address,” were always my favorites.

Rereading them, I have to laugh at my own hilarity and slyness.  They are funny–and terrible–poems.  Well, dramatic monlogues, really.  Tigerlily says despicable things, impugning people’s honor and heritage, nicely calling them whores or worse, but she says them with such aplomb and with such a charming Southern-lady attitude, you can’t help enjoying how she gets away with it.  I suppose all this sounds vain and self-glorifying–I don’t mean to.  But re-reading them is like finding an old friend and picking up just where you left off–I can’t help thinking that had I gone to Catholic high school with her in the 1950’s, I would have been one of the people she would have disliked, but I would have secretly been pleased at all the mean things she said about other the other girls.

Unfortunately, these poems were never a favorite with the editors I sent them to, and I eventually gave up hoping ever to publish them.  For one thing, they are unwieldy long–2 and sometimes 3 pages.  Not at all journal-friendly, where they’d probably be 4-5 pages long, and no journal is going to give up that kind of space to one poem.  For another, dramatic monologues went out with Browning (or maybe Donald Davidson). They are simply not done.

In some ways, you might think these poems would work as short-shorts, and I’ve taken out the line breaks and sent them out as fiction, but they don’t seem to work that way either.  (Maybe she needs her own novel.  But I wouldn’t know how to write one.)  So, as much as I believed that Tigerlily needed to be shared with the world so that everyone could adore her (you could say, she’s my Valentine to the Southern Poetry world), she’s been hanging around in a folder on my computer.  Until today, that is.

I’ve heard about an anthology looking for persona poems and DM’s, so I’m going to send a few.  I don’t have a lot of hope that she will find a home there, but I thought I’d try. Wish me (and Tigerlily!) luck!

And, if any of you are remotely interested in reading one of those poems, drop me a line, and I’ll e-mail one to you.  I’d post one here on my blog, but I wouldn’t want anyone to say “tldr.”  (And for some of you old fogeys who don’t know what that stands for, it means “too long, didn’t read.”)

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.



But You Can’t Take the South Out of the Girl

Ok, so “tomorrow” came a few days later.  Sue me.

It’s weird.  My head is full of ideas–places I want to go in these poems, lives I want to explore.  I’ve been reading Southern history and articles about Northwest Louisiana, and I just joined the North Louisiana Historical Association and am looking forward to receiving their journal and reading things about where I’ve come from.

And I feel all of it’s enriching me, giving me insight into a place that’s always been home, but that is also “unknown country” as it were.  What do I really know about my home state?  What do I know about Shreveport?  I mean, in the 8th grade, everyone takes Louisiana History, but a) that was 100 years ago, and b) I was a kid, and didn’t give a crap.  (And c) everyone cheated like murder in that class, so I’m not even sure how much I actually wound up reading.  I might just have copied answers–I know, it’s a scandal.)  I don’t know why, but I just feel poetically rejuvenated.  Like I’ve been looking for something to inspire me, and something about poetry and Louisiana and now… well, it’s all clicking.  Of course, at some point I need to put the books aside and do some writing… I’ve been reading too much lately.  (Not like that’s a terrible thing.)

Something that just occurred to me:   Karen and I once talked about needing to be out of the South in order to see it properly.  Being in Nebraska was that lens for us.  And I think that’s really true, because until this recent kick, all of the “Southern” poems I wrote were when I was away from Louisiana.  It’s as if being in the milieu, I’m just too close to really have any kind of poetic vision about it.  Now plenty of Southern writers might not have that issue, but I did.  (And maybe do… we’ll have to see what the DYPS think of the poems I’m writing before I can see if my Southern myopia is corrected.)

We are reading R.T. Smith’s Brightwood in class.  Initially I wasn’t too keen on it–it seemed a little too deliberate.  Karen’s Colin’s word for it was “mannered.”  To me, there is just a bit of him trying to be overly studied in “down homeness.”  (Speaking of a put-on.)  This is not to take away from some fine poems and the very wonderful interconnections between poems (including the repetition of words/ ideas that operate as leitmotifs), or to discredit the craft that’s gone into them.  But the problem is the craft is obvious, when it should be invisible and organic.  You don’t want to feel, as a reader, that you’re being manipulated, especially not by a poet.

But the book has grown on me, the further I got into it.  I think what I do like is that Smith is a good story teller, as Southern writers ought to be.   You see these people he’s writing about, and the language that he uses to describe them, the scene, the time, the place, etc., is always on target.

I don’t like that most of the poems are too long–for someone who’s an editor, he shows a surprising lack of judiciousness when it comes to editing his own work (isn’t that always the way?)–his poems are routinely more than a page, when a page would suffice.  That’s what I mean about the issue of craft; it’s as if the attitude is, “Well, my words and technique are so good, I’m going to beat you over the head with them, and write 60 line poems when only 42 of them are great.  (But you won’t notice, because I’m so good at it.)”  Ok, ok, maybe that is being unfair.  I like the book more than I dislike it, but it has problems.  We are looking at Brightwood again on Thursday.  It will be interesting to see how my feelings about the book evolve as the class discusses it more.

Bye for now.

You Can Take the Girl Out of the South…

Taking Karen’s Southern Poetry class has rekindled in me some Southern connection in my writing that has been dormant for a while.  One of the first questions she posed was, of course, what is Southern poetry?  Is it simply poetry written by a person living in the South or a person born in the South?  Must it have a Southern perspective or advance Southern ideology-mythology-philosophy?  (It’s always sticky when you delve into essentialism.)

I’ve always thought that a Southern writer is a person who was (at least) raised in the South and writes about the South in such a way that place becomes a character in the literature, that notion of “spirit of place” that D.H. Lawrence (and later Lawrence Durrell) spoke of–you know, the way the South is a character in Flannery O’ Connor or William Faulkner (and notice, I didn’t mention poets).

And, because that was my definition of a Southern writer, I’ve never quite felt like a true Southern poet–in the sense that a goodly bit of my writing isn’t Southern at all.  I mean, La Petite Mort doesn’t have a lick of Southern-ness in it.  If someone picks it up in the future, the only way they’ll know it’s by a “Southern” writer is because the author blurb on the back mentions that I’m from Louisiana.  And even some of my poems which are about family experiences in Louisiana don’t really have any specific Louisiana flavor.

That said, when I do write as a Louisiana poet (as I think of myself more “Louisianian” than “Southern”), I still feel a bit fraudulent, as if I’m taking on a persona.  And I wonder if that has to do with the fact that while Louisiana is my home, I’ve lived lots of different places which has tempered some of my Southern aesthetic.  And it’s not that I’ve even lived in the “good part” of Louisiana–I mean, Shreveport?  I love it, but it’s pretty generic “South,” not very charismatic at all.  Certainly not a place whose spirit can infuse one’s writing.  (Not much, at any rate.)  So again, when I write “Southern,” it always feels just a little like a put-on.

But let’s consider some of the Louisiana poems I’ve written–not that there really are many of them.  First, there was the “Tigerlily” series of dramatic monologues that I wrote in the early 2000’s–they were all written from the perspective of  Tigerlily Agnew Beaumont, a spoiled Southern debutante who, frankly, still wished she was living in Antebellum Louisiana.  She was someone for whom the War of Northern Aggression was still a real issue and who was just a little too preoccupied with everyone else’s business.  I remember Grace Bauer (a fine poet and my thesis advisor at Nebraska) said they demonstrated the “Southern grotesque” well–which was high praise.

These “Tigerlily” poems are quintessentially Southern in that respect–that whole Glory of the South B.S. that has kept the South coasting on nostalgia and arrayed in its tattered laurels.  And yet, despite her flaws, Tigerlily is very likable.  And funny.  Very much like me if I were rich, spoiled, and ignorant.  In some ways, also very much thematically like the poems written by the Fugitive poets that we just read in Karen’s class–even though I hadn’t actually read much by the Fugitives before January, except the little bits you might get in an American poetry survey class.

And then there was the title poem from my Dissertation–When Jesus Came to Shreveport. While the 14 poems in this sequence are about Shreveport in the present day, and every poem features some kind of Shreveport landmark, I’m not so sure the sensibility is 100% Louisianian/ Southern.  (Although I wouldn’t know how to characterize what other sensibility they have.) It’s true they’re about a kind of “Jesus witnessing” (as Jesus is on a bus tour of the U.S. and makes a stop in Shreveport and finds the I who shows up in poem 6), and everyone knows that religion often places a huge role in Southern writing.  But are they Southern poems just because they’re set in Shreveport?  If you use my definition, I suppose they are.  But I can’t escape this bit of “alien” that seems lodged inside of me, that affects my perspective and warps it away from me feeling like a Southern writer.  (This makes me wonder if Karen’s My Paris Year poems make her feel any less a Southern poet–or if she feels any of this alien-ness/ division that I do?)

But then there are other poems that I’ve written that seem totally-duh-Southern, like “Big Buddha on McIllhenney Plantation” (Avery Island, LA) or “Melon Stand South of Many” (Many, LA),  or “Kisatchie” (Kisatchie National Forest between Leesville & Natchitoches, LA) or “Old Kook” (St. Francisville, LA) or “Canal Street Look-Out” (New Orleans).  To me, Place is indeed a character in the poems, and the writing of these poems never felt like me pretending to be from the South.  They seemed as natural to write as the non-Southern poems I’ve written.  When you read them, you’d never think anyone but a true Southern poet could have written them.  But that puts me back in essentialist hell.

Anyway, all this leads me back to the rekindled Southern connection that I mentioned earlier.  As in, I’ve started a new sequence of poems that are very Shreveport-of-the-past, very, very Southern in attitude and purpose.  And while I am still feeling a bit alien, I also feel paradoxically in tune with my own Southernness as I have not felt in a long time.  I don’t know where these poems will go, or what I’ll end up with, but I am quite excited about them.

More tomorrow.