it certain that a true poet occupies a place? Is the
poet not that which, in the eminent sense of the
term, loses place, ceases occupation, precisely,
and is thus the very opening of space . . .
— Emmanuel Levinas
“There is a tie that
binds us to our Homes”
— slogan on Squeezers Playing Cards
Identifying Southern women poets of innovative
persuasion and showcasing their work in HOW2 has been full
of pleasures and surprises. It was exciting to receive contributions
from poets whose work I’ve admired for years, as well as to come
to know the work of so many accomplished poets previously unknown
to me. In one of the more delightful twists in the editorial process,
I knew some of the poets from various websites — but because cyberspace
sometimes obscures places of origin, I hadn’t a clue that these
poets were fellow Southerners living in neighboring states. She’s
one of us! I’d think, feeling a warm glow of regional solidarity.
I limited the collection to poets currently
living in the South. This excluded poets who spent their formative
years here, or even produced mature work here, but who have since
moved to other parts of the country. For example, Lee Ann Brown
and Harryette Mullen grew up in Southern states, but are now living
and writing in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Perhaps some
day there will be a collection of experimental Southern expatriate
poets. In the meantime, part of my purpose here is to identify women
experimental poets who are living in relatively close proximity
to one another. I hope that the process of introducing them to each
other — as well as to a larger audience — will encourage communication
and generate collaborations, readings, and publications.
Because of the efforts of New Orleans poet
and publisher Bill Lavender in finding and gathering cutting-edge
Southern poets, we are eagerly anticipating the appearance of our
first anthology, Another South: Experimental Writing of the South
(University of Alabama Press, 2002). This collection features the
work of poets living in flourishing poetry communities, as well
as those writing in more isolated pockets of vibrant activity.
For example, communities of innovative poets
have during the past decade or so been coalescing in places such
as Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, and Pensacola. Poets in these cities
are organizing readings such as the Back Door Poets series in Pensacola,
Lit City in New Orleans, and the series organized by Hoa Nguyen
and Dale Smith in Austin. The Atlanta Poetry Group has for years
gathered on a weekly basis to share work and plan collaborative
projects, and it recently launched a reading series. Longstanding
and new publishers regularly featuring innovative poetry include
presses such as Lavender Ink, Skanky Possum and Runaway Spoon, and
magazines such as Brown Box, Skanky Possum, Fell
Swoop, Baddog, Holy Tomato, Exquisite Corpse,
Mundane Egg, Verse, Lit City Broadside Series,
Mudlark, Veer, Mesechabe, and 108. This
incomplete list indicates an abundance of publishing and reading
projects among Southern avant-garde poets.
I love living in the South, but as an innovative
poet I have sometimes felt remote from the meccas of experimental
poetry in the West and Northeast. But to whom are “outlying districts”
(to borrow a title from Anselm Hollo) “outlying”? Not to ourselves,
who make our lives in a place and create our poetry from experience,
and who know intimately the “tie that binds us to our homes,” notwithstanding
all the poststructuralist theory in the world. For some poets in
the present collection, place has marked their work with relatively
few, if any, giveaway accents or landscapes. But to conclude that
their work doesn’t partake in the local is perhaps to succumb to
stereotypes of place, for these poets are as keenly aware of their
experience on a local level as those poets whose Southernness is
more recognizable. The poets in this collection who pointedly address
Southern experience acknowledge place as a daily, lived experience
and also complicate it so as to empty it of its worn, nostalgic
and harmful categories. They explore the rich fluidities and open
boundaries of their local experience. Their poetry is no mere exercise
in updated local color and mythology, but rather an astute interrogation
of the local in order to expose its solidities, its pluralities,
and its absurdities. The South has no identity. It also has many
identities, all provisional.
Lastly, I want to ponder the extent to which
the poets assembled here are part of a community of Southern poets
with something in common besides our nominal home. After all, the
South is, from the start, an extraordinarily diverse region geographically
and culturally. Are our only discernible commonalities our increasingly
distant Confederate past and our eternal heat and humidity? In what
ways are we still haunted by the specter of the Mason-Dixon line?
If we consider ourselves to be Southern poets in an other-than-geographical
sense, in what ways? Sometimes it takes an indigenous Southerner
like Evie Shockley to reveal the linguistic richness as well as
the dangerous mindsets that arise from Southern cultures. And sometimes
it takes a transplant to make us see afresh the peculiarly neurotic
or eccentric voices and social relations around us, as in California
native Jessica Freeman’s sharply satirical exposés of Southern denizens.
The work of Southern experimental poets needs
to be seen as both an internally diverse phenomenon in its own right
and also part of a larger movement within national and international
poetry communities. In this sense, “The South” is a borderless region,
a shape-shifting state of mind and mythology. Its innovative poets
are, in their otherness, “dug in”; they are simultaneously native
and exiled in their own homeland, whether they were born to that
homeland or chose it. Sometimes they mimick and borrow in order
to celebrate or scandalize. And for Southern poets who carry to
other parts of the world a pinch of red, black or beige soil under
their nails, “Southern” is a movable and malleable accent.
Coexisting alongside the dialogue with place
and experience among the featured poets is the ongoing and vital
dialogue with innovative poetry of other regions and nationalities.
We have both our Mina Loys, quintessentially cosmopolitan yet writing
trenchantly about the places they inhabit, and our Lorine Niedeckers,
living in relative isolation, yet acutely cognizant of their contemporaries.
I’m delighted to present to HOW2 readers
these eleven poets in all their plurality of approaches and voices.
I hope you’ll find here, as I did, many surprises and much pleasure
in the grittiness, humor, lyricism, edginess, and native otherness
of these poets.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Cynthia Hogue for suggesting to me the idea for this undertaking.
Thanks to the HOW2 editors, and especially to Ann Vickery
for her support and help at every stage. Also, I’d like to acknowledge
Bruce Andrews, Bill Lavender, and Hoa Nguyen for bringing particular
Southern women poets in this collection to my attention. For directing
me to the words of Levinas in the epigraph, I’m grateful to Michael
Heller. And thanks to my companion John Clark for making suggestions
to improve this essay.
Bio: Camille Martin is a poet and translator
who lives in New Orleans. Her collections of poetry include sesame
kiosk (Potes & Poets, 2001), rogue embryo (Lavender
Ink, 1999), magnus loop (Chax Press, 1999), and Plastic
Heaven (Fell Swoop, 1996). She recently completed a new collection,
codes of public sleep. Her work has been published in such
magazines as Perspektive (also in German translation), Kiosk,
Fiddlehead, Cauldron & Net, Unarmed, Moria,
Poethia, and VeRT, and in the anthology Another
South: Experimental Writing in the South (University of Alabama
Press, 2002). Martin founded and co-curates the Lit City Poetry
Reading Series in New Orleans. She is completing a PhD in English
Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.