Poetry and Politics

This has been another busy week, which is to be expected, since it’s the last full week before finals. What I didn’t expect (until recently) was the news of Governor Barbour’s proposal to merge MUW with MSU. This has put everyone in high gear to respond and keep up with classes!

I’ve laid down the poetry pen and picked up the letter-writing pen this week, with a couple of letters to the editor of our local paper. The first was in response to an editorial on “denialism” and the second to several letters pronouncing the death of MUW and an editorial about how Grandma needs to get out of the kitchen. This has me thinking about the connections between politics and poetry.

I haven’t written a poem about the merger yet, and I don’t know if I will. Sometimes letters are the most poetic form for the message that needs to be said, though if the occasion arose (a demonstration or other public event where a poem might be fitting), then I might see the point of writing a poem. I have written political poems, though, and some have even made it into my books. “Reflections on Tora Bora” is one, and I kept it because, though the initial situation that inspired it was long over by the time the book came together, I felt it spoke to bigger issues that the book also addressed: what it means to be an American, how we use language to name our weaponry, and our history of violence and war. Maybe I haven’t written a poem on the university merger proposals because I haven’t connected them to a larger issue yet — or maybe it’s just because I’ve been too busy with other forms of writing to process it as poetry.

I did get a chance to read poetry in a political context this week, however. I had already been asked to speak to the Lowndes County Chapter of MUW’s Alumnae Association, which I was happy to do. Their meeting was this week, a few short days after the Governor announced his budget, and after I’d published one letter to the paper and submitted the second. Reading poems in this politically charged environment automatically became a political act, so I chose to read “Spring Beauty,” written about another completely different political situation (or several on both the world and the local stages). It ends with the image of spring beauties, wildflowers, as a symbol of resistance to oppressive forces in the world. Several other poems that I read, which I don’t think of as overtly political, can be seen in the same light. The natural cycles of death in winter and renewal in spring inspire resistance to the destructive forces around us, even as winter poems can inspire an acceptance of the things that can’t be changed. Death can’t be avoided forever, but college mergers can be resisted right now.

What I’m getting at is that any poem or any strong statement is political in the right context. The beautiful poem that is simply beautiful when ensconced in a literature anthology, may have begun its journey with a more political intent, and regardless of the original intent, when taken out of that context and placed in the real world, it can have a political effect. The act of writing poetry is in some historical situations a political act, and I would argue in any situation it can be political. That is why I’ve never bought the artificial distinction between poetry (supposedly apolitical, disinterested, neutral, more than likely masculine) and political poetry (which is somehow deemed inferior, as if the desire to have an effect with what you write is somehow a flaw). If poetry is powerful language, then it must by definition have the power to move and therefore must be political.

But sometimes letters are what is called for (or Declarations, Constitutions, or Addresses — I heard on the Writer’s Almanac that yesterday was the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a political prose poem of the highest order). But now I’ll probably have to write a political poem after all…

Just say No (to merger)

First a bit of history…. a little over 15 years ago in June, when I was a relatively young grad student who had just defended his dissertation and was out on a job interview, I awoke to the public radio station reporting news of a planned merger for the school where I was about to interview. This was a little unsettling, to say the least. The school was MUW, where I’ve been teaching ever since.

At my interview with the division head (we had 8 divisions then, instead of 4 colleges), I timidly asked about the news. “Oh, that will never happen,” Ginger Hitt reassured me. And she was right. Then, as now, the alums of Mississippi University for Women went to bat for their alma mater. Then, as now, they wrote letters, made phone calls, made personal visits, and made it clear that the first state supported university for women should not be closed or merged.

Today we face the same threat, this time ostensibly due to the current budget crisis, though there is little evidence that merging MUW (and merging Alcorn, Valley, and Jackson State) will have much of an effect on the budget. When there are financial or other difficulties, someone always seems to call for closing the traditionally African American universities and the women’s university. It just so happens that we are also the smallest universities in the state. Never mind that many students are better served in a small, teaching university than in a large research university. Some will always believe that bigger is better, but for many students who need a more personal education, it is not. Our successes can be witnessed by the passion and political savvy of our many alums, who have already begun to mobilize in our support.

Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed I would still be here and would be facing the same threats again. But I have grown to love the W and to respect what it stands for. I have worked hard over those years to be a part of what makes this university great, and I have seen the tireless efforts of many others. I would hate to see that legacy lost if MUW were merged with Mississippi State, as Governor Barbour proposed in his budget today. We would lose our identity and many of our core faculty, if that happens. Our students would lose the opportunity to learn in the environment that best fits them (if it didn’t, they would have chosen one of the larger schools). I have heard from many of my students and from many alums who have told why MUW was the right place for them at that point in their lives.

That is why they support us — because we offer an educational opportunity that can not be matched or duplicated, and it has made a difference in their lives. They have already organized two meetings, on in Jackson yesterday and one in Columbus next Sunday. My hat is off to the long blue line!

Afterglow (or is it sleep deprivation?)

Well, the 21st Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium has come and gone. Each author’s reading was great, and my only regret was that I couldn’t be two people: one listening calmly and hanging on every word and another who could run after batteries for the failing sound system (we did get it replaced, thanks to Mack who came in on the weekend to rescue us!), pick up the picnic lunch (we had a beautiful day for this and a great time with a group of alumnae who stopped by), take credit card receipts to the comptroller, deliver the Dilettanti/Ephemera/Oh Lady! Retrospective, and take care of all the other little details that invariably come up during an event like this.

Now it’s time to get back to reality and catch up on sleep and grading. Yesterday I counted the cash from the book table; this morning, I’ll go in and count the books. There’s always plenty to do after the fact. But a little of the magic remains in the memories of the weekend and the comments people send.

My favorite times, besides the moments during the readings when I wasn’t thinking about the next thing that had to be done, were the meals — not just because of the food, but because they gave me a chance to relax a little and converse. Taking Becky Gould Gibson to the Kountry Kitchen was great, and we both enjoyed and want to replicate the squash dressing we had. Lunch at the Back Door was great as always, and we had a relaxing hour at Dr. Limbert’s house before going to a really excellent series of one act plays put on by MUW’s Theatre department (which will be in full production this weekend — don’t miss it, if you’re in the Columbus area). The picnic was grand, and would have been more relaxing if the local TV news hadn’t shown up and wanted to interview me — for which I am grateful!

Saturday night was really the best for us, since we could finally relax. Dinner at Profitt’s Porch with Becky Gould Gibson, Ken Wells, Jack Riggs, and Tony Earley was lots of fun — great food and a quiet setting. We even saw deer, a fox, and an armadillo on the way to and from the restaurant out in the woods. And then the party back at our house with the authors and a few students and recent alums all gathered around the fire pit on our patio. The weather was just right for a fire and we had a great time.

Now that it’s all over and I can soon start planning for next year (and the Southern Literary Festival this spring), I can also get back to the regular subjects of this blog — poetry, nature, food, travel, etc. — normal life in other words. It will be great to have life get back to normal, but I wouldn’t miss a weekend like this for the world.

T Minus 6 and Counting

Six days from now, the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium will begin. In the meantime, I’ll have lots to keep me busy, but the main tasks are taken care of. Now it’s down to tying up loose ends and getting everything ready. The perfect time for a little preview or two. I’ll be giving one, a reading of my poems, on Sunday, October 18, at the Tennessee Williams Birthplace and Welcome Center on Main Street in Columbus. I promise not to repeat myself, so don’t be shy about coming out! The reading starts at 2:00 p.m. and lasts until 4:00 with plenty of time for questions and refreshments.

This morning, I had coffee with Melissa Delbridge, who is in town for the Common Reading Initiative and the Welty Symposium. She is as delightful in person as you might expect from reading her memoir, Family Bible. We talked about writing and publishing, and I learned her book was picked up by the University of Iowa Press after their editor spotted three of her essays in Southern Humanities Review. We agreed that the old adage that you need to publish in little magazines first still is true. I’m looking forward to having more time to spend with her this week, and I know our students in the Honors College and UN 101 will enjoy meeting and talking with her.

In my poetry class we were reading Frank X Walker last week. Walker was a revelation for them, I think. They responded well to his declamatory style in some of the poems and his ability to pull the reader in and take them along for a ride. We discussed voice in his poems and were awed by the different voices he could take on. Some had read his Buffalo Dance in another class and talked about how he took on the voice of York from the Lewis and Clark expedition. We are looking forward to hearing him read his poems aloud next week.

Busy Week

It’s been a busy week around here, what with trying to get lots of details wrapped up for the Eudora Welty Writer’s Symposium. Our press release is now out, flyers are printed and distributed around town, the last of the authors’ travel arrangements are taken care of, and I”m nearly done ordering books.

Oh yes, and then there is the food (check!), the arrangements of tables and chairs at our location (next week), the online program (check!), and the printed program (nearly complete). Then there’s the little detail of a retrospective issue of the Dilettanti, Ephemera and Oh Lady!–student literary magazines MUW has produced over the past 102 years. Thanks to the scanning marathon conducted by Bridget Pieschel, we have plenty of text to work with. My job this week (extending well into the weekend) is to enter that text in our publishing program (InDesign) and get it to our printer in time to have it back by Oct. 23. Should be fun…

I shouldn’t forget those pesky classes and grading. Keeping up can be a challenge that makes you sympathize with your students around midterm time. In Poetry Workshop we were talking about personal poems and whether a poem should be about the poet. Not surprisingly, most of my students felt it should be. Maybe I’ve convinced some of them that it doesn’t have to be and that when it is, the choice is not so simple as it seems. There are so many ways a poet can include him or herself in a poem — as the subject, as the mind behind the poem, as a ‘persona’-like character in his or her own work, as a barely present observer whose personality is hardly important, though it informs the way the observed world is portrayed. Undoubtedly there are more ways to do it or there are combinations of the above. I don’t mind how students write, as long as they are conscious of their choices and struggle with them somewhat.

Our son, Aidan, has also been busy, working on the National Anthem, which a group from his school will sing at the high school football game soon, auditioning for a play, and going to 3 soccer practices (thank goodness the rain finally stopped!), violin lesson, fiddle lesson (the first one of the fall), and orchestra. Thursday we were dashing to three activities in one afternoon. From what we understand, it will only get worse as he grows up…

Muscadines and Peanuts

It’s another Farmer’s Market Saturday. I was glad not to get wet, as we’re still in the deluge cycle, and I walked without an umbrella (too much to carry with one). It was fine on the way down, then poured cats and dogs while I was there — glad they have a roof over ours — but let up after awhile, and I made it home in a drizzle.

I bought a gallon of muscadines for $5.00 — now I have to figure out what to do with them all. It may be more than we can just eat! This morning I made some muscadine, quince syrup for our pancakes. This is the kind of fresh fruit syrup I try to make whenever we run out of real maple syrup (another gallon is on its way, but wasn’t delivered in time for our weekly pancakes). This is a ‘recipe’ I’ve adapted from my Mom’s:

1 cup or so of water (depending on how much you want to make)
1 table spoon or so of corn starch (depending on how much water)
1 cup or so of sugar (to taste)
Fruit — I used two generous handfuls of muscadine grapes (seeds removed) and two small quince from our quince bush (cored and seeds removed)

Boil the water and sugar. Mix the corn starch in a little cold water before mixing with boiling water. Cut up fruit and add to boiling water. Boil until syrupy. If the fruit doesn’t break down enough for your tastes, puree in the blender for a few seconds. Serve piping hot on pancakes. Leftovers make good cold syrup for over ice cream.

The pancakes and syrup turned out great. My trip to the market also yielded red and green peppers, Thai eggplant, honey, and eggs. Earlier in the week, I had picked up 2 lbs of raw peanuts in the shell, which Kim is now boiling in the crock pot with 3 tbsp of salt, water to cover, and a jalepeno. You could use other hot peppers — we hope this doesn’t get too hot! We made these last week with cajun spice, and they were great, but not quite hot enough. So we’ll see how this goes.

All the rain we’ve gotten in the past two weeks hasn’t helped our farmers much, but we’re thankful they can still bring some things in to the market. It sure beats mass-produced food from the grocery store, though we’re glad to have Kroger for the things we can’t get at the market. We’re glad to get organic produce there, and to have one farmer who’s certified organic at our market, too!

Thoughts on narrative poetry

I taught a class on narrative versus non-narrative, associative or dissociative poetry today, and had the joyous realization that most of the class prefers narrative poems. That’s great. I love narrative as well, and often find myself writing poems that tell stories in one way or another. I’ve taught other essays that argue any poem with a sentence structure is inherently narrative because language is. The non-narrative poems try not to make sense with language, to challenge our belief in the sense language can make.

The reason I’m happy my class privileges narrative isn’t because I prefer it, too, though. I’ve had classes that preferred nonsense poems because they felt they could write anything in that mode and it would have to be ‘good.’ It’s hard to argue for narrative in that situation. Famous poets write nonsense poems, why can’t students? (Sometimes I’ve had to resort to the lame excuse: if you can explain it using literary theory, then you can write it.)

It’s much more fun to work with a group of students who essentially believe in narrative and to get them to loosen up a bit. There are narratives, and then there are narratives, after all. And in poetry we can get too hung up on telling the story. There’s something to be said for a lyrical, non-(or minimalist)-narrative mode. There’s something to be said for associative, irrational, intuitive thinking. In fact, a lot of what underlies my favorite poems relies on this kind of thinking, even if the surface has something to do with a minimal story.

Where do I come down on this, then? Is there meaning? Yes, though there are multiple ways of interpreting it. Does language and narrative involve power relationships? Yes, but that’s not always a bad thing. Is communication possible? I hope so. Can communication happen using associative thinking? I hope so. Should poets try every trick in the book (and then some) before deciding whether they want to write narrative poetry (or what kind)? You bet. Will I have fun with our exercises this week? Will they? I hope so.

Today’s essay, for those who are curious and aren’t in my class, was Tony Hoagland’s “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poems of Our Moment.” We read it after several essays on the more formal aspects of poetry, so it may have come as a relief to some in the class.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Spider Lilies

Spider Lilies
Spider Lilies
My favorite late summer flower has started to bloom. Soon they’ll be everywhere in Columbus — at least everywhere that people don’t mow them. They are also known as Hurricane Lilies or Surprise Lilies. They are the Suprise Lilies in the poem of that title in Time Capsules, though I opted for the more general term for the poem. There are other kinds of Surprise Lilies in the South, including a more lily-like pink one that usually shows up in our yard in early August.

I like Spider Lilies best, though, in part because they always start blooming around my birthday, and in part because they are so alien looking. I had never seen them before moving to Mississippi, and I’m always fascinated with plants that are endemic to a region. This interest probably started when I lived in Austin, Texas, and learned about Bluebonnets. Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Center was a big influence at the time, as well.

This Spider Lily (I see there are other flowers with that name as well) sprouts a single stalk that then puts out the very fringed petals from several sepals that radiate from the central stem. Only later, after the blossom has died back does the bulb sprout green leaves. I try to mow around these to encourage new growth, so we usually have quite a few in our yard. It is always fun to see where they will come up and how many we’ll have each year.

Spider Lily from above
Spider Lily from above

The Spider Lily is a sign of cooler weather to come, and they usually sprout after a rain, like the thunderstorms we’ve had this week. I took these pictures this morning out by the pond beside our back patio. There are a few more coming up in the side yard, and I hope in week or two there will be many more in the front yard as well. One house on our street usually has a whole row of them all along their property between the sidewalk and the street. Can you tell I’m a little jealous? But theirs haven’t started to bloom yet, so at least we have some of ours first!

Literary Influence

More fun with computers and grading have kept me quiet this week. (Back up your data! I was glad I had when trouble hit.) I am figuring out the new book ordering procedures and getting caught up on my grading, too. I also experienced some of the fun of directing a literary event when one of last year’s authors, Hillary Jordan (her novel is Mudbound), wrote with some questions about Columbus for the new novel she’s working on. A character passes through our town, and she wanted to know the color of our grass, what flowers bloom in winter, and a few other fact-checking details. I wonder how many other Welty Symposium authors have been influenced by their visit to Columbus to include it in their work?

I remember when I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, there were many Dutch and German visiting writers who lived in town. It was fun to learn what a big influence this had on Dutch literature, especially. Many more stories or poems were set in Texas than ever would have been the case without the program. Besides New York and Berkeley, Austin may be the best-known American city in the Dutch -speaking world.

You never know what will bring a place literary fame or how far the influence of one good program will spread. At the very least this literary exchange brightened up my week, and for that I was grateful.