Posts Tagged ‘Barrier Island Suite’

Poetry as Creative Nonfiction

This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to read poems as the keynote speaker at the Mississippi Philological Association annual conference held at Mississippi Valley State University. For those who are unfamiliar with this fine organization, it is a group of English and Languages faculty and students (graduates and undergraduates) from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, as well as a few who come from further afield (Illinois and Missouri were represented this year) to read creative work and scholarship on language and literature.

My talk was a reading from Barrier Island Suite and new poems from my fourth collection. It was fun to read what I’ve been working on recently with the poems on Walter Inglis Anderson from BIS and explore some of the cross-fertilization that went on. After all, while researching and writing the poems for BIS, I was also writing poems that would end up in Time Capsules and in my fourth book (title still to be determined, though I have a couple of working titles). The poems I read are newer, but I can still see the connections in theme that grew out of the work on Anderson.

That’s what got me thinking about poetry as creative nonfiction. Well, that did, along working on my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s CraftIn the textbook, the chapter on creative nonfiction was one of the harder ones to write until I realized that I write nonfiction all the time: I just format it as poetry. I discuss the fact that nonfiction is a misnomer; it could as easily been called non-poetry (thanks to Jocelyn Bartkevicius for making this argument in The Fourth Genre).

Barrier Island Suite is my book that is most obviously like creative nonfiction. I researched Walter Anderson’s life, read his Horn Island Logs, read his wife Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour, viewed his art and read art criticism on his work. All of this informed the poems, which were definitely not poems about me, but  poems on a subject. They move away from biography by functioning as poems. Though the annotiations bring some of that biography back in, the poems focus on a moment, on an emotion, on one kernel of his life without attempting to put the whole picture together in a narrative. They function as lyric, though the collection as a whole provides glimpses into the narrative, and I hope it provides a deeper understanding than biography could.

Barrier Island Suite is also filled with references to me and my own concerns. As much as it is about Walter Anderson, I also weave in references from my experience, such as allusions to Sumerian and Chinese literature that I have no way of knowing whether Anderson was aware of, and others that he refers to in his logs that are also favorites of mine. In this way, and by incorporating some of Anderson’s language from the logs into the poems, I felt that the collection became a conversation with Anderson across distance and across time.

That conversation continues in the next collection, though there are no poems on Walter Anderson. Instead they are largely poems drawn from my own experience, meditative poems like the sequence “Tombigbee River Haiku” or observations like the poems about our family’s maple tree that had to be cut down after it lost some big branches in a storm. Hardly confessional, these are poems that are both personal and about something beyond the writer. I’m interested in the same relationships between the human and the natural world as I was in Barrier Island Suite, and I’m interested in the life cycle and the cycles of the seasons as metaphor. These themes could just as easily be worked out in an essay (or blog post), but my chosen form is poetry. If creative nonfiction can have the lyric essay, it is time to recognize that poetry can have the essay-poem. There are many ways that poetry and creative nonfiction overlap and cross-polinate, as there are many hypbrids between all the genres of creative writing.

I might have said more of this on Friday night, but dinner was ready and smelled delicious, so I mostly read poems and let them do the talking.

Clarion Ledger Review

Barrier Island Suite front cover imageI am incredibly honored that today’s Clarion Ledger includes a review of Barrier Island Suite, and I’m grateful for the meticulous reading that Lisa McMurtray gives of these poems. I’m also thankful to Steve Yates who organizes these reviews, which is such a great service to writers and readers in Mississippi.

I do need to make one small correction — my reading at Delta State is on Friday, Sept. 30.

Isle of Caprice

2-24-700x460This morning, I ran across an interesting article about the Isle of Caprice, which included this postcard and 5 historic pictures from the island, which was cut in half by a hurricane and eventually washed away entirely. I was glad to hear confirmation of the story I first heard from Christopher Mauer, when he came to The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium to talk about Walter Inglis Anderson. That story led to the poem, “Isle of Caprice,” which started my on my journey into the life and art of Walter Anderson. Though I knew of Anderson’s art when I heard the story, the image of the artist drinking fresh water from a pipe rising out of the waves of the gulf inspired me to explore his artistic vision further and led to my book, Barrier Island Suite.

Here are a couple of interesting facts, I learned from the article today:

The original name of the island was Dog Keys. Walter Anderson speaks of Dog Keys Pass in his logs (I titled another poem after it), and I’d never been able to identify which island or keys it referred to. Now I know that he was referring to the place where Isle of Caprice was located.

The article also confirms that name of the island during its heyday as a resort as Isle of Caprice — some have questioned whether it was Isle of Capris or some other spelling. I’m glad to know that detail is historically accurate!

The article also confirms what I’d always suspected, that the island was just outside of federal jurisdiction, so it was legal during prohibition to sell alcohol there. Unfortunately, the resort only existed for about 3 years before the Great Depression hit and tourism was dramatically reduced.

For more details and especially to see photographs of the island that once thrived off the coast of Mississippi, go to Only In Your State

Follow-Up to “Adapting Traditional Form”

When Christie Collins asked me to write a micro essay on craft of 500 words for her blog feature “Craft of Literary,” I decided to write about my process of adapting the Japanese form renga for my book Barrier Island Suite. In order to stay within the word limit, I kept my focus on that form, but now I thought I’d add a little on my own blog about how the form and the book developed.

The variations of the renga stanza (that I discuss in the original article) became the dominant form for the first 20 poems I wrote for Barrier Island Suite. However, whenever I tried to explain that the form was based on either renga or on tanka stanzas, people would invariably take issue. Tanka magazines, for instance, didn’t want the poems because to them, a tanka, like a haiku should be a single stanza. There didn’t seem to be a place for longer tanka-influenced poems. In the end, I stopped explaining the stanza (until now) and simply let it be. Yet I had considerable success placing the poems in mainstream literary magazines when I didn’t mention the source of the form.

On the other hand, working in this form led me to try my hand at haiku, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally written some that really fit the form and have been published in Valley Voices as “Tombigbee River.” There are times when adherence to existing forms ought to be valued, in other words, just as there are times when the form may be adapted, even bent out of shape until it is nearly unrecognizable to all but the poet.

Later, when I returned to Barrier Island Suite with the idea of including more of Walter Anderson’s life on shore, I realized I wanted a different form for this part of his life. The book’s title suggests a musical suite, so I also realized I wanted each section to have its own tempo the way the pieces in a suite wold. So upon returning to the project as I expanded it from a 20-poem cycle to book-length manuscript, I also returned to free verse.

Nonetheless, I knew I wanted there to be some sense of form, so I worked with different, yet regular stanza lengths: couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintets, or sestets, depending on the poem. Only in the final section did I take on longer stanzas with a more flowing form in “The Great Spirit Road,” modeled after the meandering Mississippi river, and “The Little Room,” modeled after the “Great Hymn to Aten,” since Psalm 104 (which is based on the “Hymn”) is a likely source for the murals in Anderson’s cottage.

In the end, then, the sections of the book alternate between the renga-inspired original stanza forms and more traditional Western stanzas and free verse. For me, the alternating form fits well with the different modes of life that Anderson describes in his logs.

I started the original essay thinking about form in free verse, the subject of a graduate class I was teaching in Forms of Poetry, and that is where I will end. Whether using an adapted traditional form from another culture, working with traditional European stanza forms, or writing free verse, the form of the poem and the content are always in a dynamic relationship. Form isn’t left to chance, in other words, as most of the poets we read in the class argued one way or another.

Barrier Island Suite Arrives

imageYesterday, I received advance copies of my new book, Barrier Island Suite: poems inspired by the life and art of Walter Inglis Anderson. What I nice thing to discover on my return from spring break in Chicago. While we were there, I read a couple of poems at the Green Mill Lounge, and talked to Marc Smith and Cin Salach about possibly coming back for the 30 year poetry slam reunion Marc is planning this summer. At the Mill, I could only read from my typed manuscript, but having hard copies of the book is just that much more satisfying!

While I was waiting for it to arrive, I’ve been busy planning a few events to celebrate its arrival. March 29, we will mark the official book launch on campus with a reading and signing in Puckett House from 5:00-6:30, and on April 1 (no fool), I will join alumnae authors at The W’s Homecoming Author Garden Party in the patio behind The W Room of Hogarth. I also have bookstore appearances lined up for Bay Books on April 9 and Square Books on April 25. See my new Calendar page for details on these and other events as I confirm those arrangements!

 

New Year’s Resolution: A New Book of Poems

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.