This title is a little misleading. Last year one of my resolutions was to finish a book of poems on the Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. As is so often the case, it didn’t quite work out the way I planned. It worked out better.
While I didn’t finish the manuscript of “Barrier Island Suite,” I did make some good progress on planning and writing some of the poems that would go in the added sections, on researching the biographical details I would need to complete those sections, on making initial contacts with the family, and finally on working out an agreement with my publisher, Texas Review Press. Paul Ruffin and I started talking about the project in November. He asked to see the manuscript, and in January, he wrote to say he was interested in publishing the collection in 2016 and was on board with the additions that I had outlined in my proposal. Now I’m hard at work and making good progress on those poems I’ve been working on for the past year, and I need to get back in touch with Anderson’s family to work out the details of the book, since we’d like to use some of the artwork, along with the poems.
For those who don’t know Walter Anderson, he lived in the first half of the 20th century in Ocean Springs, MS. He’s best known for his watercolors of the flora and fauna on the Mississippi gulf barrier islands, though he also did numerous drawings and sketches, sculptures, block prints, and three major murals — two that were in public spaces (the Ocean Springs high school and community center) and one that was very private (in his cottage) but is now on display at the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. He also wrote logs of his travels to the islands and elsewhere, some of which were published as The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson.
I originally began these poems as a single poem, inspired by a talk given by Christopher Mauer at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Mauer had written Fortune’s Favorite Child, a biography of Anderson, and it won our Welty Prize. I knew a little of Anderson’s work and was taken by his story, his bouts with mental illness and his many long visits to the islands that inspired him and seemed to help him manage his mental state. That poem led to a couple more on the barrier islands themselves, and I thought I ought to write some more. So I got a copy of the logs and started reading (while on sabbatical). A couple more turned into twenty, and I knew I had something, but wasn’t sure if it was a chapbook, a section of a book, or a book on its own.
Gradually over the years, I came to the decision that these poems were too different from my others to be part of a collection, and that they were a little too much for a chapbook, but not quite enough for a full-length collection. My initial idea for the book had been to focus only on the time on the barrier islands, not on the time on shore, but as I’ve considered expanding it, I’ve realized that some of the shore life needed to be included. So that is where I’m working now. Those poems will take different forms than the island sections, giving the suite a more varied tempo, and they will provide contrast and increase the tension in the work as a whole. At least that is the goal.
It’s exciting to return to this material, and it’s exciting to have something a little more concrete than a New Year’s resolution to keep me going.