BEYOND GEOGRAPHY: WHY I’M A SOUTHERN POET
Not to be glib, but I have to at least acknowledge the obvious: I’m a Southern poet because I was born in the South—specifically, in Edgefield County, South Carolina, where I spent most of my childhood, with a few stints in Iredell County, North Carolina, and frequent visits to Augusta, Georgia. And now, as an editor of a series of anthologies of Southern poetry, I’ve quickly learned that there is no definable element that makes a Southern poet Southern, other than the geography he or she claims—and even then we get into issues, for a lot of these poets wish to disclaim and escape their territory. In fact, I know a few poets whose careers depend on this “escape from the South” theme. I understand and can respect that need to slough off the region as though it were an old snake skin, to move on, renewed, to bigger pastures.
A bit strange, then, that I welcome both the labels “Southern” and “nature” poet, labels that are often applied to my work, as my poems are preoccupied with landscape, gothic imagery, wilderness, time, family ancestry, death, and other motifs often associated with Southern writing.
However, these elements are not what made me a Southern poet. Beyond the freak chance that I was born in the South, and beyond the fact that I’ll most likely live the rest of my life somewhere in or near the South, what made me a Southern poet are elements irrelevant to geography. Essentially, I am a Southern poet for four reasons (there are other reasons, too, but these are the main ones):
1) My parents got a divorce in 1998, when I was nineteen.
2) I lucked up and found a couple of like-minded friends.
3) I stole a copy of a certain book from a creative arts institution.
4) I had an honest-to-goodness epiphany/existential moment.
I wrote a lot as a young teenager—mostly fiction, and mostly short fables. And when familial dysfunction got really bad, I wrote horror stories, my language arts equivalent to rebellion, a rebellion that climaxed with a novella about the end of the world when my mom and dad finally called it quits after twenty years of marriage. As a child—since about five or six—I fancied myself the mediator of my parents’ arguments (to be clear, they never imposed this position on me), and, over time, I came to consider myself partly responsible for the strength of their relationship. When they finally parted, I did not handle it well emotionally, because my family—my mother, father, sister, and I—were, at our best moments, a warm, loving, and convivial family. And when my mom moved out, I felt like part of me had turned ghost, that I had somehow failed them.
Long before their divorce in 1998, I encountered a couple of other guys—namely Brandon Wicks and Paul Chesser—now both fiction writers, who became very close friends very quickly, during eighth grade. Through middle school and high school, our idea of a good time was walking rural roads at night, coming up with fictional “what-if” scenarios (usually apocalyptic), and sharing—in embellished, fantasist detail—the dreams we had had the night before. We did not want to party or hang out with other kids our age—at least not early on. We were escapists, and in the little stories we wrote—essentially for one another—we created a sort of immature habit out of escapism. We were often very serious, but we joked a lot too. However, our jokes were tortuous, baroque, completely absurd. Paul and Brandon lived in suburban sections of Aiken, South Carolina, while I lived near a peach orchard in Johnston, and my dad had a small pond set up on a berm of mica-flecked grass in his backyard, so my house quickly became the most mythic ground, the landscape catalyst to sometimes all-night conversations about writing, dreams, aspirations, fears. We’d trudge those orchards and that countryside together—a slight sense of danger always freighting us—whisper conspiratorially about matters far larger than we had a right to even entertain. We knew nothing, but we yearned to know something, something that school and parents, and even our own night walks, simply couldn’t impart. We genuinely yearned for something unutterable.
Later on in high school, I wrote a story called “Mikomo’s Crane,” a fable set in modern-day Japan, that won me a spot in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts, an esteemed six-week arts summer program at Furman University for high school students. One prerequisite was that all students accepted into the creative writing section of the school had to participate in both genres: Fiction writers had to study poetry and vice versa. One of the books furnished to us was The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, edited by Leon Stokesbury and published by the University of Arkansas Press. Long part of this story, short: I turned immediately to poetry after coming into possession of this book. After reading poems by Robert Penn Warren, Charles Wright, Jack Butler, Betty Adcock, and especially James Dickey, I felt as though the poems were written to me—that they were a kind of literary summons, an invitation, a challenge, even. Though we were to return the books at the end of the session, I took mine home with me with no intention of returning it, and—unusual for me—with no guilt. The book still sits on my shelf, now signed by approximately half its contributors, the spine broken, the pages dog-eared, and some sections referenced so many times that they’ve unlatched from the casing of the book and precariously sit loose in the volume.
Finally, with this book in tow, in the winter of 1999, my parents now split up for good, I decided to trek out alone into the orchard. It was a bitterly cold January night. The trees were like little scrawls of ink branching out into the air, and the sky was so clear that the long veil of the Milky Way was clearly visible, the starlight casting the ground in a blue snow-like glow. Every few seconds I saw a shooting star, and even the distant radio tower to the west and the silent jets high up, their red lights pulsing, intensified the beauty. I was so cold that my hands were numb even in my pockets, and, when I reached mid-field, I looked back through the woods toward my house. I could see the distant window lights flickering, and they looked exactly like dying embers in a hearth. I stared at them for a long time. Out of the north I heard the grinding shunt and howl of a train clacking toward some northern county, and I imagined it moving through small towns I knew, and eventually on into ones I didn’t. This experience—as uneventful as it might seem—truly made me love the world. It made me love the world with a sort of joyful sadness, mixed with the urgency mortality freights us with; it made me know I had to do something about the feeling—to record it, to try to recreate it or re-experience it as much as possible. And so I became a poet for life, a Southern poet.
It was only months after this experience that I discovered James Dickey’s poem “The Strength of Fields,” wherein his narrator describes a man walking alone at night and something akin to my own epiphany—“Tell me, train-sound,/ With all your long-lost grief,/ what I can give./ Dear Lord of all the fields/ what am I going to do?” Later in the poem, Dickey answers for me, for a great many of us: “What difference is there?/ We can all be saved/ By a secret blooming.” The poem seemed, if anything, a permission to search, to at least try. It had nothing to do with heritage, with South as a banner to wear—it was just the template, it was simply the landscape that supplied the tools to ignite the imagination.
—from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
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