Southern Women Writers Conference; Rome, GA

I don’t even know what time I left Loxley, but it was late. Somehow, even with twenty minutes of stand-still traffic (an accident) and the temptation to marvel at the statue-still deer feeding on the Berry College green, I still made it to the Natasha Trethewey reading. My hands were trembling slightly from the nerves of the six-plus-hour drive when I slipped into one of the pews of the Berry College Chapel as Trethewey was being introduced. I geekily pulled out pencil and pad to take notes—a habit I mostly frown upon, but here couldn’t resist.

Trethewey is a gracious and graceful reader, generous with her audience and poised. She speaks, with seeming ease, of her family, race, the south, the Renaissance, paintings, and more without ever sounding painfully confessional or overly learned. I think that’s what I mean by her grace. I don’t know how she pulls it off, being so damned good, so smart and emotionally honest, all while seeming like she could offer you a cookie at any moment. She puts her audience at ease while she undoes them with her poems. And her voice! I love her voice and the familiar twang of her laugh. I’m smitten.

All but I think the first poem were from Native Guard, so in a sense I wasn’t “blown away” because they’re poems I’ve read many times and I wrote about more than a few of them in my poetry exam. I was already pre-blown-away. But I savored her commentary on the poems and the music of her reading. I often felt like head banging or singing along, but I resigned my joy to a modest foot tap.

I had no idea that “Pastoral” (a poem I call in my mind “The Fugitive Poets”) was supposed to be funny. She said it was full of inside Southern writer jokes (and yes, we get the Fugitives and Faulkner), but I thought they were more references than jokes. To me the poem is spooky and haunting and self-conscious and anxious. My experience with the south can’t be as complicated as Trethewey’s, but the poem still speaks to that part of me that has a hard time reconciling my love and disgust for my home. Maybe I take it too seriously. Maybe Trethewey’s saying it’s full of jokes downplays the anxieties of the poem (and to put her audience at ease, to say to these other Southern writers, Yes, I like the south, too). And I suppose the poem is full of the funny incongruities of dreams. And yet those incongruities, the juxtapositions and out of place-ness of it all are I think the heart of the poem—the difficult position of Southern black writers. She did say in the question and answer period that it is an attempt to write herself into Southern poetry, to resist the stereotype of black poets as urban or Northern or more black than southern. As wise New York-Ohioan Akhim Cabey once told me, “We’re all from the South, baby.” Ain’t that true!

—————-

Leaving the chapel, walking alone back to my car, I remembered the last time I was here. Or half remembered it. I came here at least once, maybe twice for forensics tournaments. I think maybe it was here that I placed—maybe the only time I ever placed. Whatever trophy I got would be in Reynolds Hall (if not utterly ditched). I definitely remember walking half-dead and hung over from the car to the building one morning with Alan (and everyone else). I think it was here that Chris Reeves shared his last menthol with me. Maybe this is where we partied with the boys from the all-male Christian academy, including a guy that looked like Lou Ferrigno (Me: “you look just like Lou Ferrigno”; Ro: “You know who else you look like? The Incredible Hulk!”). I don’t know. I think back, and there’s a chilly February rain where memories ought to be, maybe the scratch of a silk blouse catching on winter-rough elbows. There’s a feeling, a weight, like the air is heavier, like I am the girl who was here over a decade ago, but how much of her is really left?

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