If Not Talking Back to the Muse, At Least Listening to Her a Little More

I’ve  been reading a lot lately, and realizing how much in the last year since Chris and I have lived together that that hasn’t been the case.  When I was single, I read about hour before bed every night–it could be poetry, it could be history or some other non-fiction, it could be memoir, or a murder mystery.  Sometimes I’d read all day on a Saturday, and even if I hadn’t gotten the laundry done, I’d feel like I had accomplished something valuable.  But especially before bed, it was good to do because it has a sedative effect–and the lack of reading plus the incessant snoring (I’m sorry, honey, but you snore really bad) this past year has really frazzled me.  I’m stressed out a lot.

So I’ve been making a concerted effort to read.  And this is also helpful, because in my last post, I mentioned I was starting to stagnate and needed some fresh inspiration.  I’ve read some articles on Shreveport history, including the State Fair and Holiday-in-Dixie, and I also read Goodloe Stuck’s really fantastic (but unfortunately, not academically documented) biography of Annie McCune, who was an Irish immigrant who followed the Confederate soldiers from New Orleans up north to Shreveport, settled, and opened her own bordello.  He writes with humor, and a lot of the research is anonymous quotations from the men who used to go down to the Red Light District and see her or her girls, and some of it’s really funny.

McCune was a real entrepreneur as far as building business; she sold beer for instance, and was in good with the cops so never got harrassed, and she was quite the philanthropist, giving all kinds of monies to charities.  Her house on 900 Fannin Street was one of the three most elegant/ top tier places in the District, and she regularly got her girls checked for “venereal disease.”  Their health was McCune’s priority; men knew they could go there without worry of carrying something home to their wives.

Apparently Shreveport’s District was the largest in the country for a city its size–it was several blocks, and contained all manner of vice, from shotgun shack quickie whorehouses, to saloons, to places to get cocaine and other drugs, to the more palatial bordellos.  It was huge tourist attraction, with people coming in from all over the Ark-La-Tex–kind of, I suppose, the way the riverboats are now, which I wholeheartedly disapprove of.  (Of course, what does it say about me that I feel affection for a Red Light District where women are selling themselves for $3/ trick?  That seems very counter my women’s studies background…)

Shreveport Madam came out in 1981, and it was kind of fun to read the acknowledgments, especially because I knew several of the people in the LSUS Archives Stuck thanked for help.  As I said, I enjoyed it–it was really engaging and interesting, and I could tell that Stuck had a real affinity for McCune.  I just wish that it had demonstrated academic rigor, beyond a few mentions, in passing, of newspaper articles–although it did have some maps and photographs.  Of course, one of Stuck’s points was that there really isn’t much known about her, so he had to rely on eye-witness accounts.  But when there’s no name attached to a quote, it kind of mitigates the authority and veracity of the account.  At least, it does for me.

I actually think we have a copy of Shreveport Madam at our house back home; I want to say that I’ve seen it in my sister’s bedroom, although I can’t imagine how it got there.  I’m sure she’s never read it, and I wouldn’t have either, except that the Archives had multiple copies and sent it (and other books, like Chronicles of Shreveport [which had a print run in the 1890’s of 500, and mine is #470ish], Glimpses of Shreveport, Caddo 1000, and Caddo Was…) to assist me in my Sibley Sisters poems.  Anyway, I’m not sure how I will work Annie McCune or the Shreveport’s Red Light District into the poems, but it’s definitely good background.

And speaking (round-aboutly) of inspiration, tonight is PoetryAtlanta’s program, Talking Back to the Muse, in which poets are invited to read a favorite poem, and then read a response/ answer/ reflection/ something else poem we’ve written so the two, in proximity, can “dialogue.”  There will be a ton of poets there tonight–Karen, Bob, Collin Kelley, Christine Swint, Rupert Fike, Robin Kemp, Megan Volpert, Dan Veech,  Cleo Creech, Kodac Harrison, Ginger Murchison, many others.  And me, of course.  I’ll be reading a poem that was sparked by Jane Kenyon, who has always been one of my favorite poets.

I like to read Jane Kenyon because she is reflective and sees beauty in the smallest things; even though I have no point of reference for the farm life of New England, something about that way of life, as she presents it, comforts me and resonates with me…  I’ve also been reading good ol’ Anne Sexton, whose poems are the antithesis of Jane Kenyon–they burn me, skin me alive.  But I don’t read a lot of her work at one time–she wears me out.

Anyway… if you need something to do tonight at 8 p.m., come out to the Composition Gallery and enjoy poetry, wine, and good company:  1388 McClendon Avenue, Atlanta, 30307, not far from L5P.   Call them for details:  678 982-9764.

April is Poetry Month… & I Haven’t Made a Single Post (Horrors!)

Tuesday the 6th was Chris’s b-day, and instead of traditional birthday things, I dragged him to the DYPS’ reading at the Oglethorpe Museum (he was very amenable, all things considered).  The reading was in tandem with their exhibit, Henri Matisse: a Celebration of French Poets and Poetry. (As opposed to French poets and what, hotdogs???  Like, duh, of course poetry).

I really enjoyed myself, even if the poems that Blake, Bob, and Karen read were mostly ekphrastic–and both Bob and Blake brought handouts to accompany their poems too, which was thoughtful.  I knew that we, as a group, had discussed the appropriateness of this venue for ekphrastic poetry, and as you know, I’m not a) a huge fan of it, and b) worth a damn when it comes to writing it.  So I had initially tried to get out of the reading, figuring that the few ekphrastic poems I’ve written (and they’re only pseudo-ek, because I think the convention of just describing what’s in the painting is kind of… well… dry) really ought not to be read–or hell, acknowledged–but my demurring went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

So, making my apologies to the audience (which was, surprisingly, not just the DYPS and their significant others), I read poems from La Petite Mort, and from my as-yet-unnamed collection about the Sibley Sisters.  Here’s the set list:

  • Dystopic Love Poem
  • Besame Mucho
  • It Took You Half an Hour to Remember the Words “Wine Cooler”
  • Low Sunday
  • Valediction
  • Ex Somnium
  • Bee
  • They Say
  • Supplication
  • Tallulah Brings Home News

Afterwards, there was an impromptu star party, as the director(?) of the Oglethorpe Museum invited us up on the roof to look at Venus and Mercury.  Sirius was out, as was Orion, and I think I saw the Big Dipper.  It was neat to be up there, although it went on a little longer than I would have liked, and Karen reminded me of the time we were at the observatory at the Sewanee Writers Conference (in 2002), and we saw the shooting star.  (How can that be 8 years ago???)

Anyway… April is a busy month, poetry-wise, for me.  There is PoetryAtlanta’s Talking Back to the Muse program on the 17th, a poetry workshop on the 24th, a reading on the 28th, and possibly another reading sometime at the end of the month.  Well, I hope I can finagle some book orders out of all of this!

Oh, and buy my book already! 😉

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.

xoxox,

Moi

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.

Favors, & Anguish, & Blurbs, Oh My!

It is extremely hard for me to ask favors of people.  I’m not talking about the “Hey, Chris, can you please replace the toilet paper?” kind of favor.  I mean the kind where I ask someone to do something for me that requires a considerable investment in his or her time or energy (even when the person is my friend and probably wouldn’t say no).  Or, that has anything to do with reading my writing who isn’t the DYPS.  My hang-up is that I never want to inconvenience anyone.  It’s actually quite paralyzing sometimes.

All of this is by way of saying, a few weeks ago, when I was lamenting to Karen that I don’t personally know any awesome poets (who aren’t my good friends or former professors) to blurb my book, she suggested Marilyn Kallet and Julie Kane–both of whom are poets I admire, but neither of whom I know.

I was being my usual leery, bleah-y, doubting self, sure that they would be a) too busy, b) too annoyed to be asked by a stranger to do such a favor, and c) too unimpressed by what they read to blurb it.  But Karen, ever patient, said she didn’t think that was the case, and she reminded me that I had worked as the editorial assistant on Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:  Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox, that Julie Kane and Grace Bauer (my diss. director) had edited, so maybe Julie would be more inclined to blurb my chapbook.  And I think she suggested Marilyn because she knew that Marilyn would blurb my book as a favor to Karen, since they are friends.

So, the long and short of it is, I asked both of them, and they said yes!  So now I’m just awaiting their kind words… (I hope they will be kind…)

And Now a Word from She Who Is Soon-to-be Published

I’ve been thinking about cover art and blurbs and such, and I can’t tell you how stressful that is.  I’m beginning to think writing the book was waaaaay easier than all the stuff that comes after.

Karen says I ought to hold a contest and have my students come up with possible cover art.  Which I could do, and maybe give like a giftcard or something to the winner.  However, there’s a little part of me (alright, a BIG part of me) that thinks that rates a 10 on the Gouda Scale.  But what are my options, otherwise?  I can’t take a photo to save my life, and let’s not go into my painting skills.

And then there’s the whole “author picture” thing.  That’s a debacle in waiting.  I’m about as photogenic as roadkill.  (And no, this is NOT a call from my devoted friends to protest otherwise, well-meaning and lying as you would be.)  Ugh.  I don’t even want to think how obnoxious getting a professional-looking photo will be.  It’s not like I can ask Chris to take it.  He takes ghastlier pictures than I do.  Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

And Goddess save me, I have to find people to blurb my book?  If there’s one thing I despise (but secretly crave it anyway) is affirmation and notice from others about my writing.  The thought of approaching anyone and asking them to read La Petite Mort and say how great it is, fills me with absolute blood-freezing dread.  I go out of my way to be unnoticed, quiet, fade-into-the-woodworky.  Asking someone to read my book and hoping they’ll like it enough to say some kind words is like a nightmare to me.  I think I’d rather extract every last tooth from my mouth, sans Novacaine.  I don’t even know who to ask.  Who even really wants to blurb a book?  Isn’t it kind of phony anyway?

Ugh.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking I’m the most ungrateful, idiotic, ridiculous person in the world, who just got her book accepted and ought to be hella grateful, and instead, here is she is bitching about it.  You’re damn right I’m bitching about it.  I am grateful–I’m not a complete moron–but is it wrong to be just a little freaked out about the extra associated crap that goes with the acceptance of the book?  The pictures, the blurbs, feeling like a big bleah-head??

(Not that feeling like a big bleah-head is new for me.  I feel like that quite often.)