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
I am fortunate that many of my favorite poets are within earshot of me, at least on the first Wednesday of every month. Jay Morris is one of the fine voices I first heard at Word of Mouth. Like a CPR-kick to the heart, he'll get you going. Just listen.
When asked to introduce himself:
I'm from Athens, GA. I'm studying Health Promotion and Behavior at UGA. I'm 19. I write poetry because it keeps me grounded while at the same time helping me notice the way I deal with life and give it meaning.
Do you have any touchstone poems?
I have so many touchstone poems it's hard to pick! However I guess I would say that After the Bachelor Party by Derrick Brown currently keeps popping up in my head.
Do you have any writing/revising rituals?
I don't know if I necessarily call it a ritual, but it's definitely something I do consciously. I find that I can't write poetry during the daytime. Only at night.
Someone calls you a poet--how do you respond?
I still feel pretty weird when people refer to me as a poet, particularly because people often inject a lot of pretension into that word. I'm becoming more comfortable with being called a poet as I'm more able to define what a poet is. Incidentally you helped me define a poet as "Someone who not only survives life, but does so insisting their heart and soul remain intact."
What inspires you?
A lot of things inspire me creatively. Music inspires me. Other poems inspire me. Books, conversations with friends, walks, runs, social issues. I guess I have myriad sources of inspiration.
How do you deal with creative doubt?
Dealing with creative doubt is the hardest question. Being a more confessional poet I have to be aware that there's a boundary between being moving and inspiring and being depressing and pathetic. When I get to a poem I've written that makes me feel that way I think first "Is this me being as honest as possible?" and second "Is there a way I can make it universal?" and third "Is this poem solutions oriented, or am I just wallowing?"
* * *
To read Jay's poetry (and you should), go to http://archerarrestedbukowski.blogspot.com/
Back home, the name of a road that crosses a railroad track. Here, a place to keep my verbal play-pretties and whatnot.