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.