Poets Who Are Women and Southern

by Tara Powell


Like our folks, poetry here is hillbilly and gentry, down-home and intellectual, neighborly and reclusive, generous and vengeful—like folks everywhere, I guess—but with a more colorful vernacular and hand-rubbed vowels.
                —Wendy Carlisle


Southern women who write poems don’t corner a niche market the way southern women’s fiction has done, and most anthologies of southern poetry continue to be dominated by men. When readers think about southern literature, most of the great poets whose names rise up from our regional past belong to men, too: Edgar Allan Poe, Sidney Lanier, James Weldon Johnson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, A. R. Ammons, and so on. Women poets have not penetrated that list the way they have done southern fiction and memoir; Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and others stand head-to-head with Warren, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and the other male literary voices in our regional memory. Southern fiction and memoir have a character—a changing one as what it means to be “southern” changes and has ever less to do with the long-Lost Cause, but a character that readers can still identify. Themes of faith, class, gender, history, the age-old and still evolving issues surrounding race in the South, and place, always that steamy green place, combine with a basically conservative approach to form and technique to make a lot of prose by writers inspired by the American South recognizable.

Few of us have asked the question of what makes poetry inspired by southernness recognizable, and fewer still have wondered, where are the women’s voices in all this? Open any contemporary regional or even national literary magazine, and the biographical notes at the close will reveal poets who are both southern and women. Their poems, on the other hand, sometimes reveal that fact outright, and sometimes they do not. And I wonder all the time, if I were to sit down and read their work together, if something about these poems might resonate with a special poetic energy drawn from the home the poets have in common? What might I learn about poetry and place? About women, the South, and even myself? That question gave birth to this project, which links together the voices of six southern women from all corners of the South—from Wendy Carlisle down in Texarkana to Cathryn Hankla in Appalachian Virginia. Two poets are one book into their poetic careers, several are approaching half a dozen or more. Two are southern expatriates casting a long glance home, several are lifers casting a long glance abroad. Most in some way reflect on the personality and history of the place from which they sprang, though Carlisle calls it a “milky gaze,” and Marly Youmans says the southern birthright is a “conviction of myth” that may or may not have anything at all to do with the reality of the South. Each of these poets, to the extent their voices and subjects speak to or remain silent about what the South is, has been, or may be, seem to stir those waters.

The twenty-four poems collected here vary in form, style, and voice. They range from the mystical formal lyrics of Youmans to the dense, psychological narratives of Kate Daniels to the eclectic, witty conversational meditations of Hankla. And if each poet demonstrates a regional compass in at least one of the poems selected, for some poets that compass is as oblique as the empty barbecue pit in Hankla’s “Erasure,” and for others such as Honorée Jeffers, writing her sequence of “Migration Cantos” from exile in the North, her work springs expressly from “memory’s long-lived, pointing finger.” Hankla acknowledges that her “original landscape turned me sensitive to the natural world and its features wherever they are,” but claims a “larger geography” than the South that her work collected here and elsewhere bears out. That is true for many of these poets. Many of Daniels’ narratives seem to fit in the gaps of what she calls “the awful / unexplained silences of the South,” but she also turns her eye elsewhere, as in “The Polack." Perhaps as Youmans suggests in “Southern to the Bone,” “Don’t ask her any more / What Southern means. . . .” Mostly these poets are tired of the question, change their answers all the time.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, who has often written poems from the voice of southern mountain women, writes the four poems selected here from the vantage of “Sweet Home” also, and with a strong sense of the gendered experience of place. She observes, “I do think it’s possible to claim that poetry by southern women is distinct from other poetry. The pressures of family, religion, inheritance, still resonate strongly with southern women poets.” Her own poetic geography of place and voice goes hand-in-hand with the experience of being a wife and mother in that place. Youmans agrees, claiming that “being a mother is . . . relevant to my heart and soul,” whereas Carlisle rather hopes the influence of gender on her writing process is limited to “being the one who has to stop writing to cook dinner for my family.”

The most important thing about collecting this project for me has been reading good poems, and I have read scores of them by poets who happen to be female and southern, and whose poems speak to those subjects, among others. The poets selected here, as well as the many other southern women who are writing and publishing out in the wide blue yonder, all draw energy from region and culture, but it is an energy that transmutes itself to the page through the lens of their unique personalities and concerns. You’ll find their differences right alongside their commonalities in the place-drenched political underpinnings of Carlisle’s musical prayer for New Orleans in “Prayer (9th Ward)” and Jeffers’ “Giving Thanks for Water,” or in meditations on family such as Byer’s “Chicago Bound” or Hankla’s “Slavish Devotion.” All of these poets, to borrow Byer’s description from “Night Fishing,” “wade into the lazy black water / and stand all night long / in its leavetaking . . . .” I hope you will enjoy the images and cadences of these women’s Souths, past and present, as much as I have.