Swamp Skirts

Women of Contemporary Southern Poetry

Diann Blakely of Brunswick, Georgia

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I carry a talisman in my pocket—sometimes around my neck. I have a locket that, when opened, contains an egg-shaped pressed penny from Tennessee. The pressed penny from Tennessee acts as a shield or a hidden door to a crisply folded corner piece of common copy paper. The pressed penny is imprinted with the Ten Commandments, the words are so tiny that they are meaningless, but its function is the same. It protects. The Southern mind uses countless talismans, many revolving around religion. My hidden paper means nothing to anyone, but me. It’s a source of order. My sister placed that paper there. She has a gift of placement, and her choice to place something or change something changes the people around her, a sort of order among chaos. I do small things to worship her: I fold a towel in a tri-fold for her, I listen to Sinéad O’Connor for her, I have my locket and the Ten Commandments double protecting her written words.

imgres-1 Diann Blakely carries a similar talisman; her’s began in a perfume jar—a gift from Frannie Levine, Philip Levine‘s wife. Blakely placed the dirt from the Crossroads and two other spots made famous by Robert Johnson into the perfume jar and now carries a little grit from this jar in two lockets that she wears along with other charms and amulets, “because no one can have too many” she says, paraphrasing Jim Dickinson.

Commodification as an economic religion can be a barrier to the furthering of art, and in our case, Southern art; this is a concern of many poets of the South today. A mix of economics, digital reproduction, and the role of the artist exposes issues of gentrification on poetic standards. Where the poet should stand in accordance to commodification is quite different than where they should stand as a poet or writer, especially on Southern subjects.

No doubt—as Walter Benjamin pointed out long ago—”[m]echanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art[,]” and digital reproduction has its own implications on what Southern poetry is and is becoming. But the democratizing effects of the Internet on poetry are hopefully providing loopholes to readers, that is, minus the gatekeeper’s control over the commodification of the Southern brand. With this in mind, the blurring lines of “southerness” could be seen as a good thing.
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This week I interviewed Diann Blakely of Bruswick, Georgia. Blakely is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is the author of three books of poetry: Hurricane Walk, Farewell, My Lovelies, and Cities of Flesh and the Dead. Blakely has taught at Belmont University, Harvard University, and Vanderbilt University, among others. Her many recognitions include the Pushcart Prize (1994,1995) and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award (1999). Blakely’s extensive knowledge on Southern poetry complements the focus of this blog wonderfully; she’s spent three years writing on the subject in a compilation of essays titled Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry. She’s currently working on two books of poetry, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson and Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems.

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Shanna Dixon, blogger:

Digital writing brings many new conventions with it. One of the most dominant conventions is immediacy, or writing it now and fast to be published first. Writing for the web requires succinctness, directness, abruptness, and no-nonsense. Though you yourself do not claim to be a digital diva, you have embraced technology in many ways to connect with a community of artists and fans. In terms of immediacy’s influence on women’s writing, especially poetry, would you say the directness that is required for digital writing is strengthening women’s writing? I remember once hearing from an English student that her professor believed women’s writing, in general, was weaker because of indirectness. This statement weighed heavy on me. Also, have you found women poets are employing this abrupt or succinct tone more today in contemporary poetry?

Diann Blakely, poet:

I don’t write quickly or with anything one might term “succinctness.” Just ask anyone who receives my often unwelcome emails, for I’m among the last epistolarians, never having learned to form the Post-It-sized version that people expect these days, thus I am often met with annoyance.

Dixon:

Your current project, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson is steeped in Southern soil. The “Southern” label comes to mind. The ghettoization that comes with the label of Southern writer is something you touched on in our first email correspondence. Of course, the goal for poets is to reconstruct our world and labels, so stepping outside of southerness, while writing on southerness is interesting to me. Observing the observer is something Norman Mailer practiced that comes to mind. Pertaining to quality work, is it a sin to be Southern? Does the label of “Southern” writer or poet distract from good poetry, is it a hindrance to the standards of high art?

Blakely:

While it’s certainly no sin to be born in the South, or California, for that matter, I’ve been appalled by the number of Southern poets I met during my tenure as Mother Hen of [the Facebook group, Notes on the State of Southern Poetry], a supplement from which I resigned on the same date as the memorial service for Eleanor Ross Taylor, who was my poetic mother and grandmother. I knew then that I’d been spending entirely too much time on extra-poetic activities and needed to withdraw, finish the Southern poetry series itself, and free myself  whatever constraints “southerness” hold, while at the same time clutching what’s the best of that label, which, for me, is language.

…[Some members that post] seem to be nurtured by reading their brother and sister southerners, no one else. One of my favorite quotations is from Keats’s letters: “I never quite despair, and I read Shakespeare.” Sometimes I wonder why I bother with other writers! And what a cliché! For I’m truly one of those who, if pressed to pack three volumes for an interminable stay on a desert island, would pack along Shakespeare’s collected works—my battered copy from college—as well as the King James Bible and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The second of these provided part of the scaffolding for a nine-piece essay called “Down—But Not Out—In Mississippi and Elsewhere,” I’m turning now to a study by Daniel Swift about the influence of the last on Shakespeare.

Here’s an anecdote some may find amusing, but I take it as biblical truth: after a reading then a long night of drinking, the late genius Christopher Logue began ripping signed books off the shelves of my best and most longstanding friend, who something of a packrat, was horrified as he watched them hurled to the floor. “Why read it if it isn’t great!?” Logue roared. Yet I purge my bookshelves regularly with these words in mind and can’t say I’m surprised to have discovered that a poet’s essential library is small, but certainly not dictated by period or region.

Dixon:

Finally, I always like to guide others to women poets writing on Southern themes. Could you share with my readers three women poets that you find influential to contemporary poetry in terms of Southern subjects?

Blakely:

This is an impossible question! Anna Evans was born in England but publishes many Southern poets in The Raintown Reviewdoes she count? To my mind, yes! Thus, I featured her in the nine-part essay I wrote last summer, “Down—But Not Out—In Mississippi and Elsewhere….” I find multiple sources of delight in Jennifer Reeser‘s Sonnets from the Dark Ladyand Jessie Lendennie is a constant source of inspiration in both her poetry and her work on behalf of so many others at Salmon Poetry… Here is another title I wish were more widely known: Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers.

Otherwise, there are too many to mention: Camille T. Dungy and Kendra Hamilton are the subjects of the dual interview of “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences, Part Four,” and I certainly didn’t feature them because of their race. Throughout this essay, I’m drawing on two sources: the 2010 Celebration of Southern Poetry, co-sponsored by Emory and the PSA; and poets whose work I admire. Thus I’m playing Devil’s Advocate, in a way: why was this person invited and not that one? why was there no representation by this particular group as opposed to another one? why was the celebration held in Atlanta, which many would argue has become the least “Southern” of the cities? I think of JFK, Jr.’s description of D.C.: “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” There’s an excellent essay on this very subject by Fred Hobson, a previous editor of The Southern Review, which says, in essence, that Atlanta is the “city to busy to hate” only because it’s a metropolitan construct based on capitalistic principles, and money, not fellow-feeling, [and this] is the only reason people associate Atlanta with any sign of racial progressivism. (I’ll have to look up the precise essay!)

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The following poem, “Dead Shrimp Blues” is part of Blakely’s forthcoming Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson.

Dead Shrimp Blues

 

And I’ll night-prowl like Maggie the Cat

From porch to bedroom, with my red fingernails

Arched prayerfully inside soon-peeled white gloves;

 

Or, like young Tennessee when shipped to Clarksdale

    For summers with his preacher granddad

    And, craving boys and delta love,

 

Scratch at slammed windows with tears on my breath.

O goggle-eyed perches. O I’ll undress

Down to my humid white-girl slip, like Cat,

 

And we’ll yowl blues for limping, crutched husbands.

    We’ll yowl for lost altars and hearths

    Where, baby, we served our best bait;

 

We’ll yowl like you, in vain, as slouched patrons

Sway past your tears. Past your pale clouded eye

That sees Cat, Tennessee, and arms open

 

Like ours in every neighborhood. O exiles—

    Why do you hear me weep and moan?

    From Jesus-love and baptized children

 

Curled shrimp-like at our breasts, we’ll skip the hymns

To echo your last cry at slammed front doors

That had you posted out. Doors like your in-laws’,

 

Who swore the blues brought stillbirth to their daughter

    And death’s blood on her slip. Like homes

    We craved, but whose sole raised windows

 

Were scratched with crossroad views. If tears still fall

When love slams its front door and our nails shred

The crimson air, should we–the devil’s best bait–

 

Serve jukes where no one’s home? Let’s bow our heads

    And unwind nightly choirs of yowls:

    O torn white slip; o unsheathed tail.

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