Kelly Whiddon of Macon, Georgia
Southerners thrive on stories and hold fast to their myths. Many of these myths stem from folk and fairy tales, and women are a significant part of the mythic South. One such example is the “Southern belle,” an extension of the damsel in a fairy tale castle. The mythic “Southern belle” may have persisted for the survival of social and economical elites and the fabled aristocracy of the South. Sayings like “the Southern way of life” still stand tall, but what does this mean for Southern poetry? This week I’m featuring Kelly Whiddon’s poetry, which often employs the mythic traditions of the fairy tale as viewed through Southern life.
Kelly Whiddon is a poet, writer, and professor residing in Macon, Georgia with her husband and two children. She grew up in the small town of Adel in South Georgia. In 2002, she received her PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Her poetry is published in Crab Orchard Review, Poetry International, Meridian, Spoon River Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Slipstream. She received the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry in 2011 for her collection, The House Began to Pitch. She’s also a featured poet in Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club: An Anthology of Poets Writing in Macon, as well as the recently released The Southern Poetry Anthology: Volume V: Georgia.
I got to interview Kelly Whiddon this week about her views on Southern poetry and its changing context in light of the digital age:
SHANNA DIXON, BLOGGER:
Your poems often draw from expectations and dissemination of the roles of women, as viewed through fairy tale lenses. I find we cling to these lenses as Southerners and as women. The juxtaposition of the mythic to the intimate revelations of death you employ are useful in reevaluating where Southern poetry is headed. In your opinion, does the mythic South give us a means to conserve the genre of Southern poetry, or does it provide a window to redefining the conventions of Southern poetry?
KELLY WHIDDON, POET:
I wish I had such lofty aspirations when I wrote the poems in my book. Both would be lovely byproducts of using fairy tales as a lens in poems. I don’t know if I feel the use of myth and fairy tale is a means to conserve the genre of Southern poetry, though.
While myth and fairy tale have always been popular and seem to be particularly so now, I think writing about Southern culture has always been popular, as well. I see the two ideas (fairy tales and “southerness”) as closely related in my own mind, I guess because of the “folk” quality in each, but mostly I used fairy tales as a lens for these poems for several other reasons, including the sadness inherent in any fairy tale. There is always the downtrodden one but a downtrodden one with the highest aspirations, and appropriately (and perhaps because of this), the tales are often filled with tragedy. And then, many of the poems in The House Began to Pitch address a specific time in the south, the fifties and sixties, a time and place when traditional male and female roles, which are popularized in fairy tales, were so important.
Where women are concerned, fairy tales seem especially appropriate and have often been used as a lens because of the inaccuracy in the traditionally feminine concepts of living a “fairy tale,” of marrying a rich “prince” of a man and living happily ever after. I am certainly not original in playing on the irony there, and the 1970s in particular seemed to produce a lot of creative work and criticism that addressed this idea.
And then, fairy tales represent a connection to childhood and the idea that tragedy matures us and shapes us into whom we will become and with whom we will choose to share our lives. Many of the poems in my book are based on experiences that my mother and father had when they were young, and reimagining the experiences through fairy tales, to me, emphasizes their youthful innocence in the face of horrible life events.
How do you feel Southern culture is being affected by the digital age? Is Southern writing becoming diluted by the globalizing effects of the Internet?
The bigger question is whether or not Southern culture is becoming diluted by the globalizing effects of the Internet, and I think the answer is yes. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, though. There are, of course, parts of Southern culture many of us will not be sorry to see the tail end of, even if they do make good fodder for poetry and fiction. I suppose technology and globalization may someday cause all regions and countries and cultures to be indistinguishable, but I’m not worried about it. I think the representation of Southern culture in poetry will evolve, as it should, but I don’t see it going away any time soon.
Do you consider yourself a Southern poet? And could you share with my readers the three most influential Southern women poets that have inspired you?
I do consider myself a Southern poet. I also consider myself a poet. I’m happy to be identified either way. Southern women poets influence me now, but I can’t say that they influence most of the poems in The House Began to Pitch because I did much of it in graduate school and hadn’t been exposed to many Southern women poets. Southern women had certainly made a big splash in fiction, and these were the Southern women writers I was introduced to then, the common names like Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor. I was also inspired by the work of non-Southern women poets like Anne Sexton and Olga Broumas. Sadly, contemporary poets and students really have to seek out Southern women poets if they want to read them, but there are some great ones out there. Now, I love the work of Ellen Bryant Voigt, Natasha Trethewey, and Kathryn Stripling Byer.
For those in the Central Georgia area, Kelly Whiddon is scheduled to read at Theatre Macon on April 16th. Theatre Macon is located at 438 Cherry St. in downtown Macon. The Georgia Poet Laureate, Judson Mitcham is organizing the event.
My Aunt Ella lives at the river’s edge
and when waters rise, she wades through her kitchen,
skirts the snakes, and makes her breakfast of oatmeal
She’s seen everything
that floats by and remembers it all—
tires and fishing poles, clothing
and boat gear. At times she waddles down to the sandbar
and picks up treasures: a chopstick, a condom, a soggy chapter
on the art of blowing glass.
Once she found a body
under the bridge, and she remembers the arm’s position
lying over the eyes like some third rate Scarlet.
The false innocence reminded her of her youth, her beaus,
the way they listened to her laughter,
mesmerized, or her congregation, trust and hunger in their eyes,
or her fourth husband, who worshiped
by calling her “Reverend” in bed.
They’re all gone now, even the dead girl—not there to note
that she sits at the edge of a river and sees all that is washed up.