NOTES ON THE STATE OF POETRY, Part One
by Diann Blakely
While Thomas Jefferson may never have predicted the emergence of musical groups like the Dave Matthews Band, Pavement, and the Silver Jews from the Palladian halls and arches of the University of Virginia, he regarded its founding and architectural design, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as his life’s three greatest achievements. Painstaking craft and beauty coupled with freedom of thought--of what else is poetry made, and thus where else might some of American’s best poets find a better home, for several years or for life, than the campus and its environs? Consequently, Charlottesville seems the right place to begin this National Poetry Month. As teachers there, Charles Wright and Rita Dove have received the most acclaimed national recognition, and I’ve written about both in the recent years (http://www.nashvillescene.com/2006-12-07/arts/proud-flesh/) and (http://www.bookpage.com/books-10011637-Sonata+Mulattica), as well as a reminiscence of Eleanor Ross Taylor (http://www.nashvillescene.com/2009-12-17/arts/poet-diann-blakely-considers-the-lasting-influence-of-eleanor-ross-taylor), whose husband Peter was a mainstay of the fiction department for many years. Wright and Ross Taylor have been publishing their work since the 1960s, and in October were awarded the prestigious Weinstein Prize by the Library of Virginia, the first time two poets have shared the honor since its inception twelve years ago. Another faculty member is the redoubtable Ted Genoways, who has won awards not only for his work as a poet (his most recent book is Anna, Washing) and scholarship (Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America's Poet during the Lost Years of 1860-1862), published in 2008 and 2009, but also for his superlative revamping of the Virginia Quarterly Review and for his incendiary two-part blog about the threatened closing of LSU Press, which sparked outrage in the general literary community and, from what I hear, a letter-writing campaign that threatened to overwhelm the office of the university president, an agricultural economist.
Yet it's the work of lesser-known poets on which I plan to focus in these forums; and I can think of no better person with whom to begin than another Library of Virginia winner, Lisa Russ Spaar, for her most recent collection, Satin Cash (Persea Books). Indeed, the Library of Virginia and I are hardly the first to take note of Spaar. An online publication which cheers me everytime I see it in my Inbox, Poetry Daily, selflessly and tirelessly helmed by Charlottesvillians Diane Boller and Don Selby, ask various poets, as part of the celebration of NPM, to select a favorite poem and write a commentary. IN PY 2009, my two favorites were by Sarah Kennedy (who teaches just down the road at Mary Baldwin College) and Spaar, whose piece centered on one of the most beautiful passages in Shakespeare. So gorgeous in itself, and written with such integrity, exactness, and concision that excerpting seems an impossibility, Spaar’s song to Caliban, and to Shakespeare himself, are available at the Poetry Daily site (http://poems.com/Poets%20Picks/Lisa_Russ_Spaar.html. Spaar, who moved to Charlottesville as a first-year student at the University of Virginia in 1974, subsequently earned a Master of Fine Arts at UVA in 1982. After earning her MFA, she taught at James Madison University and at the University of North Texas, but she returned to Charlottesville in 1989 and has been teaching at UVA since 1993. In the past year alone, and in addition to the Library of Virginia Prize, she has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education. The latter seems particularly well deserved, and evidence of Spaar’s commitment to what increasingly seem to me the two halves of a poet’s vocation: service to one’s own art as well as service to the larger world of poetry itself. Or, to circle back to the beginning, it’s not enough simply to write songs, as Dave Matthews or David Berman or Stephen Malkmus would be the first to say: songs become living, fully fleshed works of art only when sung, whether in a studio or on a stage. In Spaar’s case, the latter half of her vocation is manifest in some of the poetry programs she’s started at UVA, chief among them the Area Program in Poetry Writing, an undergraduate area concentration in the Department of English that allows talented students to focus their studies in poetics and in the making of poems, now in its tenth year. She also founded an undergraduate poetry and fiction reading series, now in its 17th year, and is faculty sponsor of several student literary magazines and UVArt & Poetry in Motion, a program that puts student art and poetry on campus buses. Spaar has been involved in several interdisciplinary projects, including a team-taught print-making and poetry writing workshop.
I asked Spaar how she managed to write, teach, and do both--not to mention being a wife and mother--so well that she received some of the country's top prizes in both fields.
The prizes are an unlooked for blessing. I’ve always just tried to do the best I can to be as fully present and engaged as possible, whether it’s been talking with my now-grown children when I was chauffeuring them around, or designing and discovering a class with students, or taking my own work in new directions. Some weeks I feel lucky if I find time to wash my hair! All of these activities are related for me – visiting with my sick mother, errand-running, teaching, private moments with a notebook, say, outside my daughter’s orthodontist office (I try not to write while driving!), and of course everything I’m reading, including student work – all of this is my practice and constitutes my devotion to poetry.
How do you see Satin Cash, I continued, in relation to the rest of your oeuvre, which includes four books of original poems and two anthologies, one devoted to London and one to insomniacs like the two of us--or at least wannabes who write poems on the subject?
Satin Cash extends the preoccupations of my earliest poems – God-hunger, the conflation of Beloved and beloved, a desire to find in landscape and the natural world occasion for musings on matters of real concern to me: what is the soul? How can we know? How can language articulate the ineffable? My anthologies are ways of throwing big parties – bringing together, across vast distances of time, culture, language, and space, poets I love who are confronting big questions in different ways. The key with poetry anthologies, I think, is to find a universal subject that also relates to poetry. With insomnia, for example, I think there’s a clear connection between the insomniac – who wants to be awake while others sleep, who confronts at night the “big sleep” that our nocturnal little sleep tropes – and the poet. In the London book, besides indulging my obvious love affair with the place itself, I was hoping to address what [Seamus] Heaney says about poetry’s function of “writ[ing] place into existence.” That book came about because I was teaching a course on the poetry of London and couldn’t find a text that wasn’t full of dead white men and old chestnuts. I wanted to put together a book that reflected London’s manifold cultural complexity, across language, time, and place. These anthologies always relate to my own preoccupations as a poet, and the worlds – criticism, anthologizing, editing, poem-making, teaching, reading -- are always exchanging their secrets.
Where do you see yourself as headed now?
I hope to keep writing poems, essays, and other texts that take risks, keep pace with my desires, reveal to me what I cannot better understand in any other way, and to do so in tandem with a life of continually refreshed practice of teaching, making, and learning.
Also published this year is the witchy and bewitching Under The Quick (Parlor Press), by Molly Bendall. The much-belaureled and anthologized author of four books of poems, as well as translations of the French surrealist Joyce Mansour, has studied, as have an astonishing number of this country’s best poets, with Charles Wright. And yet she’s lived in Venice, California, for twenty-two years. Why does this book, Bendall’s fourth, feel so filled with Southern juju, with charms and incantations learned not beside the Pacific but by the swampy Tidewater, where the presence of Nat Turner’s ghost still feels so palpable?
As I worked on this recent book, Under The Quick, I realized I was more and more interested in oral modes of poetry and poetic gestures with incantatory aspects, such as charms, chants, warnings, and directives.
I found myself reaching back to my own personal history of growing up in Virginia. I wanted to capture the sounds and contours in some of these poetic devices as well as colloquialisms I had heard from my past.
I latched onto these features more than meanings in the language. In addition to this I was hearing contemporary idioms with which I'm saturated living in Los Angeles with a teenage daughter. I also went backto my earliest serious reading experience which was Southern literature, including Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Truman Capote. And I credit some of my inspirational teachers who are all amazing poets--in addition to Charles Wright, Rodney Jones and Greg Orr.
Yet no one can teach a person to write poems like “If on a Boat You Might Find Clytemnestra”--a figure more revered by certain Southern women than Scarlett O’Hara--or “Her South, Its Noir.” Bendall’s teasing, elusive poems, which, as T. S. Eliot remarked, communicate before they are understood. Their music is both their meaning and their means of communicating that meaning, and not without the simultaneously lissome and dangerous hint of a drawl. The next time you’re a room away from a group of Southern women talking, listen carefully without trying to parse the language and I suspect you’ll discover you hear the murmurs and magic of Bendall’s work.
In the late, pollen-swirling days of Spring 2000 in Nashville, Virginia native Kate Daniels, a UVA grad who has also enjoyed a teaching career at Duke and LSU--where she continues to publish as part of the Southern Messenger Series, established by her fellow Virginian, the monumental but still, somehow, energetically youthful, Dave Smith--assembled something extraordinary. Called the “Millennial Gathering of Southern Writers,” Daniels gathered a humorously fractious plethora of fiction and creative nonfiction writers, poets, journalists, and general figures in the field of Southern letters. She, with colleagues Mark Jarman and Tony Earley, have established a program that offers an advanced degree in creative writing, but it was at the Millennial Gathering, now almost ten years ago, that I first met Brian Teare.
A native of Athens, GA who spent nineteen years in Alabama, went to graduate school in Indiana, and now lives in the Bay Area, Teare, who describes himself as “a baby poet” at the time of our meeting, has justifiably reaped a number of awards in the decade since. We re-encountered each other on the page when I read a poem from his stand-out new book, Sight Map (University of California Press), during PY 2009 on the Academy of American Poets website. (Go to http://www.poets.org for a free poem and brief biography of the poet each day this month; Teare was also featured online, with remarkable commentary, as the Poet of the Month--http://www.poetrynet.org/month/archive2/teare/index.htm--in a venue founded by John Canaday and now under the editorship of Terri Witek).
DB--The Memphis native and graduate of Sewanee and Harvard, Richard Tillinghast (an actual student of Lowell’s on the latter campus), wrote a moving essay in which he argues that Southerners are not so much affected by "one dear perpetual place," to crib from Yeats (which seems appropriate, as Tillinghast now lives in Ireland) as they are by places, possessing a set of finely honed antennae for them that seems missing in poets from the rest of the country). Sight Map, your latest collection, would seem to lend credence to his statement.
BT--Until I found myself at the "Millenial Gathering of the Writers of the New South" in Nashville that Spring of 2000, I'd never thought of myself as a "Southern Writer"--probably because I hadn't yet gotten enough distance from my upbringing to think of it from the outside, as context, to see just how much it had formed me and my relationship to language. On the one hand, though I was born in Georgia and raised in Alabama, my parents were neither Southern nor Protestant, and so I grew up with a double remove from the culture around me, in it but not of it. On the other, by 2000, myself three years into a glad homesick Northern exile, I carried around the image of Quentin Compson "panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark" at the end of Absalom, Absalom!: "I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!" [knowing Faulkner he didn’t add apostrophes, but just to make sure…]
Two aspects of the conference changed my thinking and allowed me to find a way to identify with the South while remaining ambivalent about it:
I) Ellen Bryant Voigt gave a talk in which she argued for a kind of "linguistic genetics" shared by the work of Southern writers. The first two traits I remember with real clarity, probably because they felt so true to my own work: 1) the music and syntax of the King James Bible and 2) an emphasis on the centrality of vowels to the ear. Though I remember it less clearly, I want to say that 3) had something to do with the heritage of growing up in an oral culture, of inheriting both a penchant for telling stories and a love of the grain of spoken language.
II) Voigt's talk was revelatory to me because it defined Southern writing apart from its content. Voigt allowed a Southern aesthetic sensibility to emerge from the language of the place, but she didn't insist on defining that sensibility exclusively in terms of narrative content and setting. Given that at the time I was interested in language first and narrative second, I would argue that it was her talk that allowed me to think of myself as a Southern writer while following a path that would eventually lead me away from writing poems centered on narrative. It was the kind of argument that would later allow me to read C.D. Wright's work with so much enthusiasm--because it was her language--her diction and tone--that seemed essentially Southern to me, whether the poems took place there or told stories or did neither of those things.
2) What did you take of the South--and what did it take from you--as you have moved to the West Coast?
As a social and political experience, "The Millenial Gathering" replicated everything I never liked about "The Old South," but which was calling itself "The New South" in a nod to the "changing times." In several talks, this sounded largely like a narrative byproduct of racial and class privilege, middle class white writers having to get used to Latino or Asian immigrants being in food service alongside African-Americans. Thus despite a strong desire and design to "integrate" the proceedings of the conference, it still seemed largely segregated--perhaps only socially, but enough to communicate some anxiety around the issue. And despite the salutary feminist influence of Kate Daniels and other strong women, there were still a whole lot of Old Boys and aspiring Old Boys around--usually the most conservative folks at the "Gathering." Which, by the way, was also painfully heterosexual. [perhaps attach this sentence to previous one?] It seems fitting to me now that the conference was my goodbye to the South: I moved to California only three months later, and I wouldn't return to the South for nine years.
The social and political aspect of the "Gathering" is the kind of stuff that triggered--and still triggers--strong Quentin Compson moods in me, and it largely remains the reason why I've never felt much desire to return to the South to live. But it's also why Voigt's talk remains with me even now: because though it's been thirteen years since I left Alabama, and this summer will mark a decade of my having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, my work as a poet still carries the ineradicable mark of having grown up immersed in the Christian Bible, surrounded by Southern speech. No matter how "experimental" my recent work may look to a reader of Dave Smith's or Natasha Tretheway's, I'd argue that it still sounds Southern. Mine remains a Bible-inflected, God-haunted, vowel-heavy poetry--and it wouldn't be so without my having been born and raised in the South.
And now, ten years later, Daniels and Jarman find that they have been the principal architects of an MFA program that has been ranked 18th in the country by Poets & Writers. Beth Bachmann, one of their colleagues, has just been awarded the highly prestigious Kingsley Tufts Awards, easily the most remunerative in the country for individual volumes, for her first collection, Temper, published by the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt brought Daniels’s first books, and it has been home to many other Southern poets, like Barbara Hamby, whom Swamplanders will meet and greet--if they haven’t already--in this series.