Anna Lena Phillips Bell on Making New Songs from Old

Poet, editor, and printer Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, winner of the Vassar Miller Prize, explores the landscape and the traditional music of the Southern piedmont. In a review of the book in the Old-Time Herald, Rus Bradburd wrote, “Like the best fiddle and banjo duets, Bell’s poems are both simple and complex, breezy and profound, powerful and authentic.” Raised in upstate South Carolina, Bell now lives in New Hanover County, North Carolina, where she teaches at UNC Wilmington and is editor of Ecotone. The 2019–2021 Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for eastern North Carolina, she also calls ungendered square dances around the Southeast.

In fall 2020, St Brigid Press released Bell’s chapbook Smaller Songs, a collection of poems in conversation with a book of ballads edited by Robert Graves in 1957. The book is letterpress printed, with original woodcut illustrations by visual artist and old-time fiddler Molly Stouten. Smaller Songs harvests, disassembles, and re-sows the footnotes of English and Scottish Ballads to grow a wild crop of new poems that are rooted to the past and yearning forward into the present, as all the best folk songs do. Through Bell’s blend of ethnological care and poetic vibrancy, Smaller Songs employs Graves’s words to explore the labors of women, of refugees, and, ultimately, of hope. 

First off, this book is entering the world in such uncommon times. Has the shifting world changed your relationship with these poems? With your poetic practice? How are you doing?

The production of Smaller Songs was an anchor and a bright spot this past year. Emily Hancock, of St Brigid Press, made it a really collaborative process — she’d call me up and we’d talk about paper choice, trim size, typography, and binding. It was so much fun. I’ve loved the slow and small version of publishing for a long time, and even more now, when slow and small feels like a good way of being in the world.

As for my practice, after the pandemic began, I found myself writing poems in a kind of shorthand, as if anything longer than a two-beat line was more than I could bear telling. I’m lucky to be teaching from home, and I had imagined I would make room for more writing. Instead I proceed at my usual slow place, but feeling more thankful than usual to be able to.

In Smaller Songs, you scavenge language from the footnotes of English and Scottish Ballads edited by Robert Graves and use these words and phrases to build new poems. It’s a firm restriction, almost seeming to mirror the restricted choices available to the women who occupied the original ballads — either married, or murdered, or left to the fields. Yet by limiting language, Smaller Songs grants freedom to these balladic women. How did your relationship to these linguistic restrictions develop and wriggle and shift through the writing process?

When I began making the book I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. The poems — maybe like some ballads — were born out of a hard winter. I’d picked up Graves’s English and Scottish Ballads on a whim at a used bookshop, probably on account of the bright pink dust jacket. Reading it, I noticed how often Graves interjected with footnotes meant to gloss words a reader in 1957 might not understand. Some of those words seemed much in need of a footnote to my ear; others felt very familiar. I was fascinated by what he’d picked out, and how he had chosen to write the notes.

I began, in the evenings, to transcribe the footnotes. I had some little cards — offcuts from another project — about one inch by three inches, and on one side of the card I wrote the word or phrase being glossed, and on the other I wrote Graves’s footnote about it. I kept them in a teacup on my nightstand. I think I turned to this practice out of the need to work with something, the way in other times I’ve done knitting or other handwork. To be comforted by my capacity to make something, even if it wasn’t clear what, and to be distracted by the mystery and strangeness of these other languages: the language of the ballads themselves, and of the footnotes, which assumed they were the end authority and, in that, revealed things about the subjectivity of their maker.

As I transcribed, the words and phrases began to talk to each other. Little bits of them would get stuck in my head, and I realized they were going to be poems. I knew that I would use only the language of the footnotes. But I’d been working on a project that involves a great deal of constraint — anagrammatic poems made out of terms of endearment, for which I set the conditions super strictly — so I decided not to fuss too much about other constraints.

Toward the end of making the book, a poem emerged in the section “Songs of the Knife,” and I realized that I needed to break a rule. The poem is

Teach a person to prevent

an armed bully,

a humorous old fellow in the chimney-corner —

Tomorrow, none

It was originally “Teach a woman,” because I was thinking about #metoo, about the resourcefulness demanded of people raised as women, in the face of both armed bullies and more insidious kinds of creepiness from men. I was talking about this with April Gray Wilder, the editor of Flock, who published “Songs of the Knife,” and I said, shouldn’t there be some responsibility beyond women’s learning to repel unwelcome advances? I mean, of course. Thinking it through with April, I decided to make everyone responsible for learning those skills, being aware of those dynamics. Graves hadn’t used the word person, but in his world there were only two genders, and one of them bore the brunt of all this. We’ve changed; our songs can change too.

What drew you to the balladic form in the first place? What do you see as the power of the ballad? And perhaps, the weaknesses which Smaller Songs seeks to confront?

I’ve loved ballads since I found out about old-time music in college, in what’s now called North Carolina. I’d been raised on Mississippi John Hurt and Jean Ritchie and Pete Seeger, but where I grew up in South Carolina, one county south of what’s officially considered Appalachia, the only traditional music I knew people were making was bluegrass, and I wasn’t interested in that. To find out that, alongside the Piedmont blues and the folk music I loved, there was this whole world of oldtime Appalachian music — not the dressed-up, smoothed-out version from sixties folk, not the standardized, sentimentalized version from what I knew of bluegrass — I felt like somebody had been keeping a secret.

I got ahold of the album High Atmosphere, from Folkways. On it, Dillard Chandler, a ballad singer from Madison County, North Carolina, sings a ballad called “The Carolina Lady.” I loved how it sounded, and I loved that the eponymous lady, “most handsome and gay,” is shown, unusually, to take control of her own fate. There is definitely class stuff at work in her ability to do so — the lady has a coach and horses; she has a fan, which she throws in a lions’ den for her suitors to retrieve; she’s imperious in a way that feels very traceable to British aristocracy. But she doesn’t get murdered, and she gets what she wants! The English antecedent of that ballad did not make it into Graves’s book, though it could have — “The Lady of Carlisle.”

My first book, Ornament, draws on songs and tunes in the old-time tradition. Part of the impetus for this new project was a paired fascination and irritation — the weird delight of Graves’s phrasing in his footnotes to these ballads, and irritation at the way his interpretations of that world, already a past one, felt so retrograde. His introduction (and, well, his body of work overall) made that feeling stronger. He wrote inside a long, oppressive tradition of assumptions about gender, class, and race, ones that are embedded in the ways traditional music has been preserved (or not). The ways we see this music are shaped by what we get to see of it (or not), and how gatekeepers, like Graves, see the world. Ballads themselves are often problematic in similar ways, but they have shift in them by nature. More openness, more room for possibility.

I remember learning that Virgil Anderson, a white oldtime musician whose tunes I love, learned from the Bertram Brothers, a well-known Black string band, early in his life — but their name is generally all that’s mentioned, and I’ve never found a recording of their music (though I hope one exists). Anderson’s music and story have been lovingly preserved, but there’s scant attention to the people who helped make that music what it is, not to mention their own music! A criminal, ongoing erasure. I think too of Elizabeth Disavino’s work on Katherine Jackson French, who collected ballads in Kentucky in the early twentieth century. French tried to publish a collection of them in 1910, well before now-famous collectors like Cecil Sharp brought out their ballad books. She was stymied because of her gender, among other complexities, says Disavino in Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector, which she published last year.

The lasting power of ballads is that we hear in them things we need to hear, as well as things that need changing, and both of those things change to meet the time we hear them in — overtly, with additions or deletions to verses or lines, and subjectively, in the ways we interpret them.

In “Songs of the Knife” you write, “The handmill must be turned: / grass to straw, / moon to lawn, / borderland to bridge.” Your speakers find a sort of escape through liminal spaces and the act of transformation. Menial labors of womanhood become something freer and shimmering. Can you speak to the themes of transformation and escape within the work? In what ways do these figures escape the ballads in which they were caged? The roles in which they had been placed?

When that poem happened I was thinking of the US–Mexico border, the violence this country was and still is doing to to refugees there. The poem tries to transform that border, and others like it, into a bridge people can freely cross.

Of course that’s not in the poem overtly, and there are all kinds of borders that might ought to be — or in fact are — bridges. Ones keeping refugees from safety all over the world. Less literal ones, like the one between masculinity and femininity. The one between what possibilities exist for people socialized as women, and what ought to.

I hope the people in the ballads do escape — or just make the ballads’ world big enough to include them. I love the woodcut Molly Stouten made for the book’s third section, “Songs of the Inner Room.” In it two figures that might be ladies are flying upward. No ladies in the ballads, or in these poems, actually fly, but the cut perfectly captures what I was hoping for.

In working with St Brigid Press, Smaller Songs has taken the form of a beautiful hand-stitched book, complete with original woodcut illustrations. It evokes the look of an old broadside — the original means of sharing ballads, nailed to a pub wall. An artifact and a talisman. Can you tell us about the power of poetry as a physical object?

I was ecstatic when St Brigid Press accepted the manuscript for publication. Emily is deep into the traditions of letterpress printing — she uses metal and wood type and magnesium plates, no photopolymer for her — and her practice is rooted in social justice. Her sensibility was a perfect match for the book. She suggested we might include illustrations. Around that time I happened to be talking with my friend Molly Stouten, a fine old-time fiddler and a visual artist, and she offered to make woodcuts for the book.

I tried, as you’ve suggested, to transform the ballads in writing these poems, and they were transformed again when Emily set them and Molly illustrated them — the book makes the poems more true. It comes back to the slow and small, doing something particular, with care, that will have a physical presence in the world. I really like your chapbook Liana Fled the Cranberry Bog for that reason — telling a story with fold-up fortune tellers is brilliant, for one; and it asks the reader to interact with the book as a presence, an object, a being in the world.

Unlike literate culture, ballads are part of the folkloric process — meaning they are often multi-authored, orally passed down, and are twisted and changed in each storyteller’s mouth. This adaptability allows folklore to endure, adapting to whatever location and time period in which it finds itself, with each storyteller another link in a long chain. How do you view your role in this process? How do you hope Smaller Songs subverts or contributes to these ballads’ history and future?

In making music I’ve mostly stuck to playing traditional tunes, just occasionally writing a song. There’s so much there already, it feels like. But I hope Smaller Songs is part of a larger movement of feeling, toward recognizing the agency of marginalized people — one that leaves what’s not useful to us now to the historical record, and lifts up what is still vibrant with life.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now? Any recommendations?

I’m reading Anna Maria Hong’s new book Fablesque, which plays with fairy tales and fables, reclaiming and transfiguring them. It’s a marvel. As is Lesley Wheeler’s The State She’s In, which uses poems as spells, both to tell some of the history of Virginia, where she lives, and to transform that history and the poet’s present. And at the Sonnets from the American symposium last fall, Patricia Smith read her sonnet crown “Salutations in Search Of,” first published last in Lit Hub in summer 2020. It’s amazing on the page, but I wish I could share her performance of it too. Those of us on Zoom were lucky to witness that reading.

I’ve been listening to Molly Tenenbaum’s album Goose and Gander. As for watching: I still miss Tuca & Bertie.

What’s next for you? Are there other projects we can look forward to on the horizon?

I’m at work on a manuscript, BELEAVE, that thinks about and with the plant world, particularly the ways plants are threatened by climate crisis, development, capitalism — and the ways they support other kinds of life, including human life. The series at the heart of the project is a set of charms for tree species affected by introduced species — like American chestnut, decimated in the late nineteenth century by chestnut blight, and hemlock, now threatened by the woolly adelgid. The charms are meant to be recited for trees, or thinking about them or in their presence.

I thought this would be a project that moved away from music, but when Asheville Bookworks invited me to print a broadside for their Vandercooked Poetry Nights series, I ended up setting and printing a very short book, just four pages enclosed in a cover. It displays the two charms I wrote for hemlock trees on facing pages, to allow for group recitations. A hemlock hymnal. So the music sneaks in there too.

Smaller Songs
By Anna Lena Phillips Bell
St Brigid Press
Published September 22, 2020