7 Southern Poets on Place

Some corners of the country are blessed with a huge community of poets and writers — particularly Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. But other than Atlanta and Austin, there aren’t many dense clusters of poets in the American South. Instead, our poets are spread across thousands of miles, teaching in college towns like Oxford, Mississippi or working in midsized cities like Charlotte or Tampa.

Regardless of geography, Southern poetry is a cultural dynamo; three of the five finalists for last year’s National Book Award for Poetry were based in the South — including Jericho Brown, who I spoke with below. To signal our dedication to contemporary Southern poetry at the Southern Review of Books, I asked seven poets about their experiences living, writing, and loving in the American South.

Jaswinder Bolina, author of The 44th of July (Florida)
Jericho Brown, author of The Tradition (Georgia)
Adam Clay, author of To Make Room for the Sea (Mississippi)
Faylita Hicks, author of HoodWitch (Texas)
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Oceanic (Mississippi)
Ada Limón, author of The Carrying (Kentucky)
Jon Pineda, author of Let’s No One Get Hurt (Virginia)

7 Southern Poets on Place

What do you love about being a poet in the South?

Jericho Brown: Space enough to run or shout at any given moment and a front row seat to some of the hardest truths of American history.

Ada Limón: To be honest, being from Northern California and having written my first three books in New York City, I wasn’t really sure what the South would bring me in terms of my poetry life. But it turns out it brought me the two things I needed the most: space and time. I think there’s a slower pace in Kentucky, a chance for breath, a slowing down that I didn’t know I was desperate for. It’s changed me and it’s changed my writing for the better.

Faylita Hicks: Texas is full of long stretches, roads that put you right in between the uncluttered sky and the sparse and open fields. Being a writer who lives in close proximity to this sort of experience is something I value. If I leave my small town in San Marcos, less than a half-hour in any direction brings me to a place where I can hear myself think. Or scream. Or laugh. Or cry. While I love visiting other regions and hanging out in big cities, it’s this proximity to the wide-open that I look to the most when I’m writing. I love the diversity of the scenes you can find in this region. From Houston to Austin, Texas to Lousiana, you can find an array of writers with passionate ideas about how the land and its history deeply affects how we live day-to-day.

Jon Pineda: I’m drawn to the diversity of culture. I also love the inherent connection to the land.

Adam Clay: I like living and writing in a place that might not be considered “literary” in the sense that a larger metropolitan area might be. I love visiting those places, but I really like the solitude of living where I do. I also think that living in a smaller town in the city allows for unique forms of community to develop.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I love being outside more, frankly. I spent 15 years in western NY so I’m done with those heavy winters — forever! The flora and fauna here are simply exquisite and in my town (Oxford, MS) there is a huge literary culture here. Our bookstores are teeming with life and energy. 

Jaswinder Bolina: It’s funny that even the Poetry Foundation lists me as a “southern writer” these days. Trouble is, I was born and raised in Chicago and spent the entirety of my life until about seven years ago in the deep north. Maybe more importantly, I don’t really feel like I’m in the South in Miami, at least not in the sense of the American, Dixieland version of it. South Florida is somewhere more southerly than that even, as if a gangplank extended out into the Caribbean and the global south.

Wherever this is, what I love about being a writer here is the multilingual, multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic of the place. That multiplicity feels like it runs entirely counter to the American deep south, and for that reason, I feel very much at home. Unlike in other places, I’m rarely ever regarded as an ethnic or minority writer here. I’m just embedded in the mess of it all.

Better still, all those languages and perspectives have a funny way of shifting the language and perspectives in my own work. I feel empowered to look past the national fixations that have occupied me for so long and consider post-national ones. Just as much, I feel at a healthy editorial distance from the Americana of the U.S., and this permits me to consider and critique it in ways that might not have occurred to me living elsewhere.

What’s challenging about being a poet in the South?

Jericho Brown: Mostly just that people outside of the South think that there will be a challenge.

Ada Limón: One of the things that surprised me was how tight-knit the regional writing community can be in the South. Because I am not from here and because I grew up in California, I still feel like an outsider in many ways. As much as I have embraced Kentucky, I don’t really see myself as a “Kentucky writer,” because there are amazing folks who were born and raised here that own that moniker. I don’t mind that I don’t feel entirely feel that sense of belonging, but it is something that surprised me.

Faylita Hicks: In rural counties like mine, there are still many small but epic stories waiting to be told, either through poetry or nonfiction or something else entirely. Particularly the stories of people of color traversing the historical events that frame their contemporary lives. For example, I learn something new about how my own community is still healing from the presence of the Ku Klux Klan sixty years ago. The impact of their presence influenced everything from the expansion of our county jail to the unrenovated community spaces for Black people here. As a poet, I feel an obligation to tell these stories — as well as I can — through my writing and other creative projects; to not only document what has happened but theorize on how we might rectify ingrained injustices that still affect Black people here decades later.

Jon Pineda: Poets in the South have a responsibility to challenge the past and interrogate it, especially in the face of those who relish its painful history.

Adam Clay: Nothing comes to mind as being challenging, I guess. See response above re: solitude and quiet. Maybe I’d feel different if I wasn’t in my 40s, but there’s something nice about having the place and time to write the poems I want to.

My job also helps facilitate this, as well; the graduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi are writing fascinating work, and they push me to expand how I understand my identity as a writer. Not everyone will move to Mississippi to pursue graduate studies, and our students constantly impress me with their range of poetic approaches. Our undergraduate students are mostly from the region, and I’m always impressed by them, too. Is there something Southern about their work? I’m not sure I’d say that exactly, but I do think they’re grappling with some of the same things poets everywhere grapple with. They’re unassuming and supportive of one another, which creates a classroom community that I learn from every time we meet. I don’t know if these elements are Southern (or not), but I do find the creative writing community here is different from any others I’ve experienced.

Jaswinder Bolina: Even as I feel like I fit in here, I really don’t. The cultural and demographic history of Miami is so singular, and the place has changed so much and so rapidly in recent decades that there are vast narratives at play that I’m not at all part of: neither the narrative of the Floridian born and raised in Florida nor that of the immigrant from Cuba or any other Latin American nation.

I feel this even more acutely when I think of the Southern states to the north of here and their Confederate legacy. I don’t have a clear sense of what it’s like to be a part of that history. Aside from being an immigrant to this part of the country, my parents are immigrants to the country at large, and so, though I was born in the U.S., I have no American heritage to serve as a touchstone except in my own experiences growing up in Chicago. The revelation in living and writing here is how little I understood the chasms of difference between the cultures of the Midwest, New England, and the West, and those that exist south of the Mason-Dixon. There’s opportunity in this for a writer for sure, but if Billy Pilgrim felt unstuck in time, I certainly feel unstuck in place.

How does the South’s sense of place impact your work?

Ada Limón: The connectedness to the land is one of my favorite things about Kentucky. There’s a sense of a rootedness, a legacy of place that is both expansive and inspiring. From the very first year I moved here, the overwhelming green, the horse pastures, the rolling hills, the Red River Gorge, the landscape made its way into my poems.

Faylita Hicks: When I became the editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, which is based in Austin, TX, I thought deeply about what it meant to explore the concept of “borders” and the “borderlands” while living and writing in the South. I knew that it would be important to share the diversity that does exist here but that is not always known to others. I knew I wanted to explore how travel throughout the US has changed over the last several decades, thanks to technological advances and policy reforms. I wanted to examine how contemporary pastoral poetry has found new and ecstatic voices that are not always from cis/white/Judeo-Christian backgrounds.

In my own work, I praise the desert. I praise the heat and the long, long night. For me, Texas is the perfect metaphor for my experience as a nonbinary femme, as a Black/multi-racial person loving on my Black/multi-racial body, in spite of the ignorance or aggressions that it is faced with. My new manuscript in progress, Arco, is all about my journey from the West Coast to this region as a child, my journey from girl to womxn, discovering my mixed-race through a DNA test, and questioning how climate change may have a direct impact on the carceral system. Texas alone is big enough for you to move through several different topographies, snow showing up in one area and drought in the other. I think Arco will do that too. You can see elements of this journey in my book, HoodWitch, which highlights different places I’ve lived through photos. The mode of the poem changes slightly depending on where I am located in the “photo.” It seems natural to me that the form a poem takes would mimic, in some ways, the place that it speaking about.

Jon Pineda: I wouldn’t be a poet without the way the landscapes remain woven within me. I was born in South Carolina and raised in Virginia, and my childhood memories are a mosaic of creeks and rivers, of time spent on barrier islands and in mountain streams. My mother’s family were farmers and watermen in North Carolina. The landscape has always factored heavily in my imagination.

Adam Clay: The South is a place filled with juxtapositions, and (at least for me) juxtaposition is the fundamental building block of poetry.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: My poems and now essays tend to focus outward and here in a landscape with so much fecundity, there are so many birds and native plants I’m learning about and again, since I write plenty about the outdoors and the environment, just being able to be outdoors and do field work and observations more than I ever have in my writing life is a huge bonus.

Jaswinder Bolina: The greatest impact on my work is in the clear, present, and looming consequences of climate change on this southernmost corner of the South. My sense of place living here is one of impending doom. I don’t mean the hyperbolic stuff of disaster flicks. I don’t fret for my immediate health and safety day to day, but we live with and think daily about rising sea levels, intensifying storms, and the real societal impacts of modernity’s disastrous excesses.

I certainly don’t believe that this spells out the end of the world, that society will collapse and humanity will be left clinging to tribal encampments in the hot, barren wastelands of future Manitoba, but I do know that this world is ending and a new one is brusquely taking its place, one far beyond the control or imaginations of willfully ignorant conservatives in Tallahassee, Washington, and the world over. When you constantly think this way about long-term consequences, your writerly perspective gets altered. Things aren’t so theoretical or figurative anymore. The future is arriving with Wednesday’s high tide. I’m here to witness it, and in this sense, the perspective in the work stops being so romantic about the past or the present. The past and the present are the problem, and it’s the future I come to care about more than anything else.

My son’s going to be living in that future. I wonder every day what he’ll find when he gets there. I wonder how badly we fucked him and his friends and his loved ones up. If ever he has kids of his own, they may well need goggles and a snorkel to see the place where he grew up.

What Southern poets (past or present) or literary institutions have made an influence on you?

Ada Limón: Nikky Finney has always been an inspiration to me, bell hooks of course, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Wendell Barry to name just a few.

Faylita Hicks: My most current obsession is, of course, Borderlands: TPR. I am constantly wondering about how we can expand on the concept of “borders” in the journal. I am a fan of all of my Southern poetry slams, but especially the Blah Poetry Spot in San Antonio, which is also a nonprofit developing emerging writers and working in local schools to advance poetry through community action. Houston’s poetry scene also has several thriving literary programs including Inprint and Gulf Coast Journal. Poets from Texas I can’t get enough of: Octavio Quintanilla, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Eddie Vega, Vanessa Angelica Villareal, Naomi Shihab-Nye, Ayokunle Falomo — I could go on.

Jon Pineda: Natasha Trethewey, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Claudia Emerson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Nikky Finney, Rodney Jones, Donald Justice, Terrance Hayes, Richard Katrovas, Dave Smith, James Dickey, R.T. Smith, Steve Scafidi, T.R. Hummer, Robert Penn Warren, Kelly Cherry, Kevin Young, Betty Adcock, Margaret Gibson — I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton. Early on, LSU Press, the Southern Review, Ecotone, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review introduced me to a number of wonderful poets and writers.

Adam Clay: I always come back to the work of Frank Stanford. Stanford was born not far from where I was born; though Arkansas claims him, it’s hard not to think about his roots here in southern Mississippi as I’m driving down Highway 98. C.D. Wright is another important poet to me. I’ve always valued how her work reconsiders what it means to be “Southern” through the way she blurs the line between narrative and lyric. I also appreciate how she did so many different types of things in her work, refuting the idea that there’s one kind of “Southern” poem.

Jaswinder Bolina: I really don’t have much relation to many Southern poets or historical literary institutions, but I will put in my plugs here for the O, Miami Poetry Festival and Books & Books, two of the most dynamic literary institutions on earth at the moment.

A lot of people up north warned me that I’d be bored to tears living in “the literary and cultural wasteland of Miami” — that’s an actual quote from someone I met at a friend’s book launch several years ago in Providence, Rhode Island. Quite the contrary, I have nowhere near enough time to attend all of the readings and events put on by the folks at Books & Books; O, Miami; FIU (Florida International University); Miami-Dade College; and the program I teach in at the University of Miami.

The influence, then, is that I’m constantly reminded that literary citizenship is a living part of the art, that writers get a chance to do what we do because people care and work hard to support us. When I’m feeling most dejected or cynical about the relevance and importance of poetry, I simply need to check my inbox, and the literary community here in Miami has something on offer to straighten my collar.

What do people misunderstand about your corner of the South in 2020?

Ada Limón: I am always disheartened when people get a certain look about them when I mention that I live in Kentucky. They think Kentucky is full of uneducated people who don’t even read, let alone write poetry. And yet the legacy of Kentucky literature is deep and wide. It makes me fiercely want to defend Kentucky and its artists.

Faylita Hicks: Good question! We love both boom bap hip hop and the tacos from the mom & pop food truck over by the corner store down the street. We get hype for the poet–whether they have six books or no books. We appreciate a good story more than we do a great pedigree. We like it raw and authentic, with a good cheap beer on the side. Our poets and writers are not “uncultured” or “uneducated” — they are activists and organizers who work day and night to make their community better — without asking for the public praise. They are seasoned storytellers and experts of the underground. At any given time, somewhere in Texas, there is a poet actively writing as a way to heal themselves or to heal others. Their work has intent and purpose — to rebel or change someone’s mind or to reveal a hard truth about the way America treats anyone who is different. They are the literary first-responders and lyric journalists at the edge of the country, documenting what has really happened here. They are The Witnesses this country will need in the coming years.

Jon Pineda: I struggle with this question, because I don’t want to presume what others understand or misunderstand about this part of the South. I would just add that my hope would be that people find a way to embrace a sense of inclusion for all. There’s space in this world, and I’ve always felt that poems were, more than anything, about communion.

Adam Clay: Most of what I read online is from people who haven’t spent any substantial time in the South. Like any place, the south is a complicated place, one that can’t be summed up in generalizations or stereotypes. I’d say the same about Southern literature, too. The poems that come out of the South defy simple definitions or descriptions.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I think many people don’t fully understand the calm I feel here in the South as an Asian American woman. Mostly, I’m not the only brown person I see when I go to the grocery store, for example, and when I pick up my kids from school I see them gamboling about with a whole rainbow set of friends from a variety of economic and racial backgrounds. I’ve felt out of place or stared at my whole life since my family growing up was almost always the only (or one of a few) non-white families in town, but Oxford, Mississippi is the only place so far where people don’t have the gall to just blurt out and ask me my least favorite question, “WHAT are you?” My students, my colleagues, my church, my neighbors have all been so welcoming to my entire family and so embracing and celebratory about my writing. Of course it is also a place that is still reckoning with painful racial legacies of injustice and I never forget that, but most days I feel heartened by so much progressive and inclusive thinking by so many beautiful spirits in this town.