Steven Ford Brown
in conversation with Y. T. Wong
Recently, the American Association of University Professors and the University Press Books Committee chose Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry (University of Virginia Press, 2001), edited by David Rigsbee and Steven Ford Brown, as one of the ‘Best of the Best from the University Presses.’ In the summer of 2001, a dialogue began between Brown and Y.T. Wong. Y.T. would like to thank Mr. Brown for his generosity in sharing drafts of the anthology as well as his updates on the progress of the book from idea to print to publication. She also extends her gratitude to Victoria A. Slingerland for her editorial suggestions. This interview was conducted during the autumn of 2001.
Q: In casual conversation, you mentioned that Invited Guest was a reaction to Leon Stokesbury’s anthology The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 1999). Please explain what the reaction was and how the former anthology may succeed where the latter might miss the target.
A: Invited Guest is a reaction to the general unawareness of the evolution of poetry in the American South in the twentieth century. I don’t think there have been many attempts — if any — to look at the evolution of Southern poetry in this way. The Made Thing anthology is an uncomfortable interpretation of history that bows to political and personal affiliations. A number of poets in the anthology are marginal in terms of talent. The inclusion of Texas as a part of the anthology is not a bow to history or reality but something else. Texas culture is western. Although there is an element of Southernness in its culture, it’s really the American West.
Q: As a follow-up to the previous question, what do you think this anthology does that its predecessors were unsuccessful at or unable to accomplish?
A: After reading some of the anthologies we discussed, I was often left wondering why the editors never acknowledged the blues, gospel music, and the working men and women and farmers. I’ve never seen a Southern poetry anthology place James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown and John Beecher next to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. The special circumstances of Southern history seemed to be ignored. There was no connection between poetry and history, economics, or class structure. Why would an anthology include one favored group and omit others?
Q: Could you discuss the title of the book, Invited Guest, as well as the cover art?
A: I was thinking of the formality of manners. In the old American South manners were taught and expected. It’s something you grew up with. I also wanted to inject the idea that poetry — Southern poetry — could now sit at the table as an equal with Southern fiction and drama.
Q: A good portion of your previous work has dealt with translations. How do you consider translation as a departure for you?
A: I’ve always been interested in translations of poetry. The first book I read in translation from the Spanish was by Pablo Neruda. I eventually learned that in order to translate properly you have to figure out the context of the culture from which the poetry springs. You have to do background work on Ecuador or Spain or Chile to understand your poet. You have to use your imaginary passport to visit the place where your poet lived.
Q: How is this anthology a departure for you in terms of the development of text and structure? What was the enjoyment for you in compiling Invited Guest ?
A: I think the enjoyment of this book came from the puzzle of history, from tracking down the men and women who once uniquely inhabited a landscape and created art in response to their situations. I began with Southern poets no one remembers today: James Agee (as a poet and not a fiction writer or prose stylist), John Beecher, John Peale Bishop, James Still, Jesse Stuart. Then there was a natural curiosity about the political, cultural and social events that created the communities from which these poets emerged.
Q: The criteria for inclusion in the book are pretty clear in the preface, but is there anything you would like to add about the selection process?
A: I firmly believe that anthologists have a responsibility to be canon makers. On my book shelf I have a dozen anthologies I hold dear to my heart. They tell a story and populate it with the unique and important characters that were important in the evolution of their cultural literature. They establish a watermark.
Q: Which poets would you draw attention to for those familiar with, as well as for those readers who are new to, Southern poetry? What is the influence of James Weldon Johnson, John Peale Bishop, and John Beecher?
A: John Beecher is an American hero. He challenged the system. He said, ‘Listen here America, live up to the promises you made to your people.’ I would say the same about James Weldon Johnson. I am very fond of Sterling Brown because he was brave and innovative in his poetry. His poetry is often dismissed by critics as black dialect posing as poetry, but there are undercurrents in his poems from all of American poetry, including Whitman and the Imagists. He was sophisticated and uncompromising about what he was doing. I treasure Sterling Brown’s poems the same way I treasure my music recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, an authentic low country bluesman who never found a popular audience during his lifetime. I like the elegance, the shy retiring nature of Southern aristocrat John Peale Bishop. He is an underrated writer. Rodney Jones is among the very best of the poets born after 1950.
Q: Do you think this book challenges canon and orthodoxy or does it serve to inject a neglected few into the current establishments of academia as well as general readership?
A: I am not sure what the canon currently is for Southern poetry. It may be completely fractured now from the jangle of so many voices. Even today when one thinks of Southern poetry, it is generally first of the Agrarians, James Dickey and Randall Jarrell.
Q: Please expound on the book’s decision to not depict the South as an image, thereby choosing to present it as an ongoing historical identity.
A: The South has always been an image, both high and low. There’s the cavalier tradition of Gone With the Wind and then there’s the low: the white trash and carpetbaggers of Tobacco Road. All these cultural byproducts–plays, novels, films, and music — have created varying images of the South. There was one image in Porgy and Bess, another in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, another in All the King’s Men, another in Deliverance, and still another in The Color Purple. They’re all true, and yet each image is only one part of the complex society that we have in the South.
Q: What are the earmarks of Southern poetry? What, in your estimation, came out of Southern literature, poetry in the case of our conversation, that no other region could have offered, accomplished, or assumed responsibility for?
A: I think it varies from poet to poet. The primary issue for poets like Johnson, Knight, Sanchez, Walker, Brown, and Toomer is ethnicity. There is also religion. History is omnipresent in the South. We look at history differently because we are defined by our history more than other regions of the United States. We have always been a defeated nation within a nation. The South was devastated by the American Civil War and there was the subsequent exploitation of the lower classes — both black and white— by northern interlopers, politicians, and moneymen. There have been a lot of complicated feelings to work out about our communities and each other in relation to these issues.
Q: Is narrative more vital to Southern poetry than to the works from other places in the United States, and if so, how and why?
A: Just as people do everywhere, Southerners have a need to talk, to tell stories. There was a dearth of cultural institutions early on so we entertained ourselves. It is true that in the era before the Industrial Revolution — which came late to the South — we used to sit on the front porch or in the yard and tell stories and play music. We brought certain folk, music, and literary traditions with us from Europe and turned them into novels, stories, folk tales, songs, and music. The influence and contributions of African Americans brought us jazz, the blues, spirituals, folk tales, and poetry. All of these things were about our connections to our religion and the land, our daily lives and how we felt about things, how things were going in our world.
Q: Do you mourn the trajectory of Southern culture as it becomes more indistinguishable from the rest of the country with the last century’s onset of industrialization, urbanization, economic change, technological advances, and migration? Will the South retain its distinctiveness?
A: I do very much. I left the South because I thought it was backwards. I had a naive idea that New York defined culture in America. I’ve lived in Boston for ten years now. Boston is a beautiful city, but it suffers from all the ills a major American city now has, and so you begin to appreciate the differences in culture between the North and the South. But that also changes as the South has transformed itself with casinos on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast and the establishment of foreign car factories (Mercedes, Toyota, etc.) as primary employers. I hope as the South grows and becomes more prosperous it will not lose its sense of self.
Q: In the section on Jean Toomer, all of the selections are from Cane. Why not include less accessible or less famous passages from his repertoire? Also, you excluded Sanchez’s earlier, vitriolic poems. Did you not find it necessary to display the development of her writing career as it transformed over time into more controlled form and language?
A: Toomer’s best work was in Cane. His later work became more didactic and devoted to ideologies. His brilliant moment passed. We were interested in including the best and most mature work. For Conrad Aiken, I focused on shorter poems that best displayed his craftsmanship. It was impossible to include the long poems or even excerpts from them. Part of the issue with Sonia Sanchez was how much money the publishers wanted (too much) for even the shorter poems. I thought it better to select from the more recent, more accomplished work. Readers can use our bibliography and track down the earlier books.
Q: Is the order in which the poems are presented in each section by chronology or some other standard?
A: We followed the century. My hope is that certain events, the kinds and styles of writing, and the choice of subject matter begin to establish certain themes. Hopefully there are cultural rhythms and themes to the book: the rise of modernism and the jazz age; the world wars and subsequent social and cultural shifts that followed; the Harlem Renaissance and the later renaissance of Southern writers; the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. The arrangement of the book does not reflect all these shifts and events directly, but I hope you can begin to see the development of those themes and ideas. I think you also begin to see the rejection of other themes and ideas.
Q: How much of a conscious and artistic decision was it for the anthology to travel full circle, as it were, by beginning with Johnson’s ‘The Creation’ and culminating with Ellen Bryant Voigt’s ‘Two Trees’ (both of which mimic the beginning of the Bible) and a religiously infused piece such as Rodney Jones’ ‘Letters from the Earth’?
A: No intent at all. It did not occur to me until you pointed it out. I wanted to start the anthology with James Weldon Johnson’s ‘The Creation.’ I learned the poem as a child in Bible school. It was a wonderful story about the Creation based on stories the Southern preachers would tell in their Sunday sermons. Thank you for pointing this out to me.
Q: What poets would you like to see in an anthology of Southern poetry, say, a generation from now?
A: I would like to see an anthology that reflects more accurately the diversity of experience and people in the South today. I don’t mean that as a politically correct response, but there have been too many recent anthologies that pay homage to political and personal affiliations rather than try to have a true encounter with history and the culture it purports to represent.
Q: How do you think academia has transformed poetry, its creation, its development, its acceptance and recognition. Have you any criticisms of the academic poet? You once told me that, ultimately, the writer has much to do with the dissemination of his own work.
A: I think it is easy to pick on academia. It’s true in the United States it’s where most of the writers make their living, but there are always writers who are marginalized because one group of writers or another is in control. The university writers and writing programs by their very nature represent a closed and self-referential culture. But the world is a university too, and in that world one can discover for the self how to be a writer. It’s about finding yourself and connecting to your talent. But in addition to the story you have to tell, you have to create a place for your work. Don’t wait for them to find you. They may never look.
Steven Ford Brown’s feature on Jorge Carrera Andrade is published in Jacket 12. His translations of Jorge Carrera Andrade, Angel Gonzalez, and Pere Gimferrer have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Review, Poetry, Quarterly West, and Verse. Excerpts from his translation of Astonishing World: The Selected Poems of Angel Gonzalez, 1956–1986 (1993) were included in The Vintage Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy (Vintage/Random House, 1996). Steven Ford Brown’s books include Astonishing World: The Selected Poems of Angel Gonzalez, 1956–1986 (Spain) (Milkweed Editions, 1993), Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry (University of Virginia Press, 2001), Edible Amazonia: Twenty-One Poems from God’s Amazonian Recipe Book, translations of the poetry of Nicomedes Suarez-Arauz (Bolivia) (Bitter Oleander Press, 2002), Century of the Death of the Rose: The Selected Poems of Jorge Carrera Andrade (Ecuador) (NewSouth Books, 2002), and One More River to Cross: The Selected Poems of John Beecher (NewSouth Books, 2002). With Victoria A. Slingerland, he is editing an anthology of contemporary poets from Spain for a special issue of The Atlanta Review and translating The Selected Poems of Blas de Otero. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Jacket 18 — August 2002
This material is copyright ©Y. T. Wong and Steven Ford Brown
and Jacket magazine 2002