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The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 161-164

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Southern Poets in Conversation

Robert M. West

Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets. By Ernest Suarez. With T. W. Stanford III and Amy Verner. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1999. 256 pp. $19.95.

There have been several collections of interviews with contemporary southern writers, some of them very fine: William J. Walsh's Speak So I Shall Know Thee (1990) and Dannye Romine Powell's Parting the Curtains (1994) come immediately to mind. But Southbound is, as far as I know, the first such collection to feature poets exclusively. For this alone Ernest Suarez deserves praise: if literary studies in general have come to mirror the marketplace's devotion to prose fiction and memoir, this is certainly true for the study of southern literature in particular. There are plenty of southern poets writing poems at least as remarkable as those of their northeastern or western counterparts, yet receiving far less attention even in their home region. Southbound offers us eleven poets discussing their art and their identities as southern writers.

Interviewed are James Dickey, Dave Smith, Charles Wright, Ellen Bryant Voigt, David Bottoms, T. R. Hummer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Betty Adcock, Rodney Jones, James Seay, and Kate Daniels, in that order. The sequence is worth commenting on. Though Dickey is the oldest of these poets and Daniels the youngest, the poets aren't ordered according to date of birth: Smith and Voigt were born in the 1940s, for instance, whereas Adcock and Seay were born in the 1930s. The organization is obviously not alphabetical either. Instead, the interviews appear to be arranged more or less according to the amount of critical attention the poets have received (as evidenced by T. W. Stanford and Amy Verner's fine selected bibliographies). This gives the somewhat unsavory impression that the "major" poets are in the front of the book, while most of [End Page 161] the "minor" ones are tucked away in the back. Yet the interviews themselves reflect no such bias. Their length seems largely a function of the individual poet's talkativeness, and the questions posed by Suarez and assisting interviewers Verner and Sara Hosey are consistently thoughtful and well-informed.

Dickey's position at the head of this collection is not simply a function of the critical attention he has received; it also reflects a premise of Suarez's own understanding of contemporary southern poetry. As he sees it, southern poets who began writing around 1970 had two major precursors: Dickey and Robert Penn Warren. Had he begun this project earlier, he would doubtless have included an interview with Warren, who died in 1989; as it is, Dickey, who died in 1997, appears here as the last "recognizably dominant figure" of southern poetry. Dickey was of course much younger than Warren; born in 1923, he came from the same generation as two other important southern poets, A. R. Ammons (b.1926) and Donald Justice (b.1925). Yet Ammons (a two-time National Book Award-winner and MacArthur Fellow) is not mentioned even once here, either by interviewer or interviewee, and Justice (a Pulitzer Prize-winner) comes up only during the interviews with his former students Wright and Voigt. In Southbound's version of the history of southern poetry, James Dickey is something like the last Godfather.

Poetic influence is a recurrent topic here. Each of the ten younger poets is asked what Warren and Dickey meant to him or her, a line of questioning that might grow tiresome if it weren't for the wide variety of answers. At one end of the spectrum there is Smith, who admits to having found himself so much under the sway of first Dickey and then Warren that he had to quit reading both; at the other end is Charles Wright, who sees very little connection between his work and either of the older poet's. In between we find Adcock and Bottoms crediting Dickey with giving them a sense that southern life held plenty of material for poetry; Voigt and Daniels tell how Warren's poetry helped...


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