I’ve been getting excited about Athens Word of Mouth this week, as our featured reader will be Cris Mattingly. On his last visit, he read his poem “A'int” which described the word as a “hillbilly ohm.” That settled it for me. I was sold.
It’s hard to describe the cell-deep pleasure of having disowned language claimed and even exalted. As a teen, I hate to admit how much of a self-loathing southerner I was. I tried to lose my accent. While I still cringe a little to hear myself in recordings, I try to adopt C.D. Wright’s stance, “I have a terrible accent. I see no reason to lose it.”
A friend recently described being prompted to defend The South (whatever that means) at a dinner party, as another guest sighed that it was too bad, in effect, that the region even existed. My friend launched her defense, acquired an apology in return. But the stigma remains for many. Some of us live the tension.
One weekend I watched Junebug, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. All three films searched as goads and tonics. Through them I kept thinking about specifically the artist from and in the south, and the weight of depicting images about it. How much do you describe, especially if the depiction might resonate with a stereotype? Do you edit that stuff out and lie? Amplify and market it, cash in on the redneck/hillbilly trend as the freak du jour? Ignore anything but the noble and beautiful of a culture and risk sentimentality? Add to that reductionism: See Barry Hannah, below.
My accent and my writing are made up of contradictions and the exuberant mess of where I grew up. I might say a fifty cent word, but it’ll sound a bit off, the stress on the wrong syllable, the vowels stretched like taffy. I aim to keep the words like “favor” used differently in my poems. I hope to keep the contradictions alive and tense.
There’s a story that floated around about the late, great Vic Chesnutt that I hope is true and exemplifies this tension. At a party, someone was asking him about his music and when he heard the title “Isadora Duncan” made some crack, thinking it was just some girl he was pursuing. Supposedly, Vic finished his beer, smushed the empty can on his forehead and said, “Isadora Duncan was an American pioneer of dance and choreography at the turn of the century…” then proceeded to expound in his own terrible accent.
So maybe I'll just let the twang fall where it will. I hope to keep ‘em interested, or at least guessing, ala Ms. Badu.
Happy Monday, y’all!
" Remember that the South—and this is what people forget—the South is sixteen states and it’s the biggest region. It and the West are enormous country. Of the sixteen states, from Texas on up to Virginia, there is a stamp that means love of language and stories. But that might be the extent of the similarities. Texas lit is nothing like Virginia lit. The Tidelands is nothing like Appalachian. We’re talking about an enormous nation." - Barry Hannah