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.

Book Juggling

In the background, Chris is listening to something that sounds suspiciously pop-ish, despite denouncing the genre most vociferously on many, many occasions.  Sometimes the music he listens to can be what he calls “down tempo” and sometimes it’s dance.   In any event, it’s never good. 😛

All of this is by way of saying, I was trying to do a little reading out here in the sunroom, which is my favorite room in the house.  Of course, being 9 at night, it’s not sunny at all, but that’s beside the point.  I’m reading Robin Kemp’s This Pagan Heaven, and I confess an affection for the book because she is from New Orleans, and several of the poems are New Orleans-y.  

I just finished reading “Pelican Sonnet,” and laughed out loud when I saw the epigraph:

Who the hell writes a sonnet about a pelican?

The answer, of course, to that question is ” someone from Louisiana.” Pelicans are not just our State Bird; they symbolize Louisiana in a really fundamental and profound way–when you see them in the swamps (even in Northwest Louisiana where I’m from), sitting on old cypress stumps, it’s as iconic an image for my home state as you can get (you know, without being a racist bigot waving the Stars and Bars).  Pelicans make me happy–there’s something unspoiled and old about them–maybe it’s their eyes, which always seem sad.  

But about  Robin’s poem specifically, the first several lines are hard, rhythmically, lots of staccato sounds and hard stresses:

a sky-hung V of brown with kite-webbed feet,

curved grave of neck, slick crest of gold-crown, neat

white mask, fish-crooking  beak, stretched-flesh-fold pouch. . .

which surprise me, because I would expect that kind of soundscape to be in a more jazzy, improvisational piece, not a very traditional sonnet about an animal and personal experience.  But I like the poem a lot, particularly because when the speaker begins speaking about her personal experience, the words speed up, and the rhythm is much different.  Here are the last three lines:

plotting their courses back to bayous cursed

with petrochemicals.  They did not fail:

behold the blessing of each brown wing’s sail.

I love, love, love that last line.

Anyway, I had to stop reading the poems because I agree with my blog-friend Benjamin Dodd who argues that reading poetry in the evening requires too much energy and engagement–which makes falling asleep hard.  If you want to read an excellent review of Robin’s book, check out Collin Kelley’s September 7th blog post.

The other books I’m reading concurrently include Warren St. John’s Outcast United,  Sherry Wolf’s Sexuality and Socialism:  History, Politics, and the Theory of LGBT Liberation, and–speaking of Collin Kelley–his new novel Conquering Venus.   I’m reading St. John’s book for my Freshman Seminar class; he’s coming to campus next week, and I plan to go hear him speak.  I like that book because it’s about immigrant issues here in Georgia, and he really focuses on what a horrible time refugees have, and your heart just breaks–the book is easy to read, but it’s also quite compelling.  

Wolf’s book is interesting, but I don’t feel like I need to say much about it because it’s pretty much “preaching to the choir” material.

Collin’s book is excellent to read before bed because I can lose myself in the characters and their stories–I can laugh at how abrupt and sarcastic Diane is; I can love Irène for being so mysterious; and I can feel CONSTANT SYMPATHY for poor Martin because of his doomed love affair with Peter the Prick and his ill-advised attraction to David the Dumbass.  (And yes, Bob, I did VERY MUCH need to use capitals there.)

But I also know, that when I close the cover and set the book on my bedside table (and watch it invariably fall off because I’ve piled it precariously on top of a plethora of crap), I can fall asleep, and sleep peacefully, because my mind isn’t chewing over the language and images evoked, like it does when I read poetry.

I haven’t juggled multiple books at once since grad school, probably. When I was studying for my comprehensive exams, I was probably reading 4 and 5 books at the same time, which, if you’re a bibliophile, seems a sacrilege, as books ought to be savored and read singly, so that you live with them in your mind.   In general, I believe reading more than one at a time is a kind of philandering.  But I find I rather like reading all these different books at once; the variety is engaging, and the different books are useful to suit different moods.

Anyway, it’s  about time for my nightly dose of Martin’s unending pain; I must read a few pages of Conquering Venus, and call it a night.