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Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going?

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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

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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.

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“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.

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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?


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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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