The entirety of the South doesn’t fit on the truck bumper plastered with Trump 2024 stickers that I parked beside the other night at a pizza place. It can’t.
The pizza place was in rural Tennessee, where I’ve lived for the past year and change. I finished my second poetry collection, No Spare People, in this year of abortion bans and anti-trans laws and “divisive concepts” legislation for our state. Memphis didn’t have power and Jackson, Mississippi, didn’t have water. I won’t tell you what you already know about the Supreme Court or state legislatures, but my poetry practice involves using poems to think through what troubles or compels or surprises me through my day-to-day observations. Since I lived in Arkansas, and then Tennessee, while writing my book, No Spare People ended up being about the South I experienced as a living, breathing refusal of the Miss Ann mold, a queer woman independently raising a daughter. My poems question core beliefs about gender, personal autonomy, and the family that I see replicated around me in the “one man, one woman” version of this place.
By the end of my first year in Tennessee, I found myself hungry to talk about poetry with other poets living nearby. Place shapes my writing so much and I wanted to think about how it forms other people’s. I proposed an interview series of women and genderqueer poets living in the American South, BIPOC and queer poets especially, in order to platform a polyphonous narrative about, of, and for the South. While “Not Abandon, but Abide” can’t encompass all alternatives or all viewpoints, it may widen our dialogue.
The White Christian Monoculture uses up a lot of space and makes a lot of noise. It moves with an incomprehensible defensive posture every time it flexes. WCM is not the only version of the South, but it will swallow you whole if you allow it. News media did (and does) little to dispel notions of the South as patriarchal and white supremacist, because those values result in oppression that takes the form of actual violence against actual Southern people. We have to talk about that oppression and violence to end it. But alongside all of the demands to conform or die, submit or die, quietly at work are people making other choices and living as they wish. The South I know is multiracial, queer, activist, urban, industrial, trans and nonbinary, highly educated, spiritual or atheist, radical, and inclusive. So is its poetry.
For this series, I’ve talked (and am still talking) to poets I know, especially those with new books coming out or who are involved in literary activism. But I also wanted “Not Abandon, but Abide” to be a location of discovery — for me as well as anyone who reads these interviews — so I crowdsourced poets to feature. I can only describe this process as an unravelling, because it seems the more thread I pull on, the more there is to pull. If I have done my work well, it will be hard to read these interviews without growing curious and possibly hopeful. The poets I’ve interviewed so far have fed my hope.
The title of the series, “Not Abandon, but Abide,” comes from something C.D. Wright said in an interview. Poetry, she says “opens the door to a critique without which you have rather boring analytical tools by comparison. To cultivate poetry means to stay with it. Not to abandon hope, but to abide.” This series is dedicated to Southern poets making that critique and abiding by hope in the South. Their poetry actively resists the notion that we all co-sign the actions of the monoculture. Poetry shakes what we thought we knew. A door opens.