Issue III, Volume VI : January 2015
Her work as editor and publisher of the literary journal Negative Capability journal was recognized by Writer’s Digest where it was declared the 3rd most prestigious literary journal in United States in the 1990s. She has eight published books of poetry, has edited four national literary anthologies, had work published in more than fifteen anthologies, published more than forty critical articles, and is known for her critical work on Southern writers, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and James Dickey. Dr. Walker has won the Hackney Literary Award for fiction and has published poetry and fiction in more than sixty national journals. Dr. Walker has won the Alabama-Writer’s Conclave Play-Writing competition for her one-woman, one-act play based on the life of Mobile’s Madame Octavia LeVert.
Included among Dr. Walker’s awards is the William Crawford Gorgas Award from the Alabama Medical Association for significant work by a lay person in the medical field for Life on the Line: Selections on Words and Healing. This book also received the Book of the Century Award from the Alabama State Poetry Society. Dr. Walker has received the Mobile YWCA Woman of Achievement Award and the Mobile Arts Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. Dr. Walker publishes in the field of Medical Humanities and has served on the University of South Alabama Medical Admissions Committee. She has served as Chair of the Disabilities Committee for the National Modern Language Association.
Dr. Walker has been a recipient of an Alabama Council on the Arts Individual Writers Fellowship. Dr. Walker has received a citation from the city of Birmingham for her literary achievements and been honored by Sue Walker Day in Foley, Alabama, has served as President of the Alabama State Poetry Society and the State President of the Alabama National League of American Pen Women, President of the Mobile Chapter of the National League of American Pen Woman, and The Pensters.
Faulkner Suite, a collection of poems about William Faulkner was published by Oeonoco Press in 2008. Whatever Remembers Us: An Anthology of Alabama Poetry, was a Southern Booksellers Best Poetry Book finalist in 2008. She is completing a critical book on James Dickey and Deep Ecology, and working on a novel on the yellow fever epidemic in Mobile in 1878. A book on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta came out in early 2004 from NewSouth Press.
Dr. Walker is a graduate of the University of Alabama where she received a B.S. degree in Education and Tulane University where she received M.Ed, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.
Sue Brannan Walker Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
It seems to me that at least part of the goal of “Tracing Old Dactyls: Declining the Irish Tongue” is to hash out what it means to belong; what belongs to you, what you belong to, what you can adopt or deny, what can adopt or deny you, and the huge complexity of those relationships. Another goal of the poem also seems be to show that you need to hash this out in the form of poetry, partly because poetry deals with many of the same relationship issues people do—what it includes, who it includes, how it connects people, etc. For example, this poem shows that writing poetry intertwines you with a rich tradition of female Irish poets, although the title includes the phrase “Declining the Irish Tongue,” another indicator of the complexity of relationships, given that the poem itself seems to embrace Irish poets (and, therefore, the Irish tongue). The style of a poem can also symbolize the way a person is made up of many different influences and histories, personal and cultural. For example, “Tracing Old Dactyls,” in hashing out these relationships, appropriately uses a complex style including, among other devices, a number of voices, a pantoum, and an acrostic section. Can you speak to these ideas about belonging, relationships, and histories, as well as your goals for this poem, both in terms of content and style?
What am I doing with the Irish tongue when I am “Declining” it? No, I am not refusing it at all. I am examining it gender, number, person, case, and syntax—taking in the full range of its possibilities. When I was in college, I took a course called “Fundamentals of Compositions” from a woman named Miss Coleman. We spent an entire semester “Declining.” We had to diagram sentences—and if that weren’t enough, we had to give the gender, person, case, and syntax of every noun. I think Miss. Coleman told me once that I didn’t think along “these lines.” I’m not quite sure what she meant, but I can still diagram better than anybody I know—maybe even the Irish tongue, my way of thinking about language, place, belonging, and poetry. I heard Eavan Boland read poetry one cold winter at the 20th Century Lit Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I subsequently read as much work of hers as I could. I was interested in how she depicted the role of women in Irish history and culture. Boland said that she wrote in Ireland when the word “woman” and “poet” were antithetical. I loved how she wrote about family, about such seeming small, yet memorable things as her mother’s black lace fan. The title of my poem was influenced by these lines from “Mise Eire”: “my nation displaced / into old dactyls.” Since I became a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, I only teach creative writing but I am, because of the disastrous oil spill on our coast, going to teach a course in the spring 2011 called: Writing the Environment. I hope in some way, my students and I address our concerns and fears about the impact of this environmental disaster.
Another Irish connection is my friend, Pat Schneider, the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists in Massachusetts. Pat is the author of nine books including Writing Alone & With Others (Oxford University Press), Wake Up Laughing: A Spiritual Autobiography, and five volumes of poems. I agree completely with Peter Elbow, who said she is “the wisest teacher of writing I know.” Pat conducts writing workshops throughout the year. I had the good fortune to accompany Pat on a writing retreat in Sligo, Ireland, and elements of that wonderful experience are reflected in the poem. One memorable moment mentioned in the poem was when Pat and I were having a seaweed bath in Sligo. She was naked in her tub and I in mine when I discovered that I had lost one of my Popeye and Olive Oyl earrings. Popeye was still hanging on my right ear, but Olive Oyl had dived into the “spinach.” Pat climbed out of her tub. I climbed out of mine, and with our bare behinds up in the air, we bent over my tub fishing for Olive Oyl, who must have felt as if she belonged in Ireland, and was not to be found. I think Olive Oyl will have to become a subject of a poem.
As an adopted child, belonging was always an issue with me. My adoptive parents were wonderful, and I couldn’t have loved them more if they had actually given me life. Still, in some ways, I felt that I didn’t quite belong. I didn’t look like my mother or my father. I wondered about that. When I was writing in Ireland with Pat Schneider, I started working on a series of poems that were letters to an imaginary brother named Martin. I had no idea at the time that I would ever find two blood brothers and two blood sisters—and that we all had the same mother and father. Not knowing I would find so much as one brother, I invented one and called him Martin after Martin Heidegger whose On The Way to Language influenced my thoughts about Being and language. Every exercise that we wrote throughout the workshop began for me with: Dear Martin. The sequence later became the first part of my book, Blood Must Bear Your Name.
I am likewise an environmentalist, and believe that I have an obligation to help nurture and preserve our planet. One of my books, In The Realm of Rivers with photographer Dennis Holt is about the history and culture of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. I spent two summers on a photo-safari to Africa with Dennis, and we are working on a book about the African experience.
As for style, I wanted to include several poetic forms in the poem such as the acrostic, sestina, villanelle, and pantoum. I think a grounding in craft, in form, is liberating. It creates a challenge, and the poet finds that [s]he writes something surprising and unexpected.
I love teaching and writing, reading and performing—and the life of poetry, my life in poetry is enriched by my love of language. James Dickey spoke of “unending invention.” I can go with that.
Although I know talking about religion can be walking a fine and sensitive line, it seems that this poem confronts the subject. Going back to my first question about belonging and relationships, the ability writing affords to hash out these ideas is likened (or equated) to religion in “Tracing Old Dactyls,” or at least praying is equated to poetry. The poem also includes quite a number of references to Christianity, often mixed with a kind of worship of writing and language, as in this passage: “God’s grace was plenteous enough / to teach the Christian church / the unconditional love of God / even if most of all, / some worship / the body / seeking linguate jouissance.” One of my favorite descriptions of religion comes from Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, wherein she says, as I understand it, that no matter what you understand god to be, the goal (of religion, of meditation, etc.) is to bring yourself to a place of some peace and, possibly, understanding, and she says it takes ritual to get there. From both the content and the style of “Tracing Old Dactyls,” I would guess that writing poetry is religion, or at least a religion, for you in this way. Can you speak to these ideas?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good." I hope that poetry is the good that I do, and yes, I think poetry can be a way to pray. Like Flannery O’Connor, I grew up in the Christ-haunted South. James Dickey said that he'd always been against traditional religion. He said that he felt that “God and [he had] a very good understanding, and the more that ritualistic services go on, the more God and [he] stand by and laugh.” He said that he didn’t “really believe that the God that created the universe [had] any interest in the dreadful kind of self-abasement that men go through in religious ceremonies.” In the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, there is a hiding tree that you can actually stand in. I think of it as a place of worship—standing in the heart of a tree. Maybe it’s easiest to answer this question, if that’s permissible, with a poem from my latest book, She Said.
Every Day Last Week
she wasn't looking for Him, really,
but on Monday he was in the classroom
reading a poem by Mary Oliver
about building the universe.
she wasn't expecting Him
Tuesday to turn up at 15 Place
where the Homeless
took showers and spoke of the weather.
He sat at a table, ate red beans and rice,
and she ate too, collard greens
she saw Him on Wednesday
in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta;
the sky was full of itself; pines
stood with their backs to the wind;
He told her not to be afraid.
On Thursday, in the afternoon,
He'd been in the hospital
she'd heard he was a physician
been on the battlefields of Iraq,
had tended to broken hearts
that on Friday at the Tattered Cover
she'd found a book
about Him, about the things
He'd done; his parents were poor
and when He was born,
they couldn't afford a hospital,
much less a motel.
He spoke many languages,
excelled at translation,
and she wondered if she could
sign up for a cooking course,
for He could feed a multitude
on a seven loaves of bread
and a few fish
and could turn water into wine.
it was mid-morning Sunday;
she hadn't washed the dishes
or swept the floors; she hadn't
changed the sheets or made the bed,
but when she was buying oysters
at the market, she thought of Him
and asked the nearest stranger
to her home.
Many of the themes in “Tracing Old Dactyls” appear in “Condemned,” as well. For example, Christianity reappears, as well as multiple voices in verse, this time from nursery rhymes. These overlaps make me wonder whether they say something about our interconnectedness, for example, our relationship with even those on death row who are guilty. They also make me think about how much our interpretation of the world relies on our own experiences: our relationships to religion and art, for example, as well as how much love we were shown as children. Both of these ideas—the idea of interconnectedness and the idea of interpreting the world—seem, the way you’ve written them, to argue against capital punishment and for healing and understanding, for everyone to be offered a sense of belonging and justice. Would you say that’s an accurate read of “Condemned”? Do you see this poem and poems like it as a way to point out our interconnectedness and to promote understanding, healing, belonging, and justice?
I once heard Sister Helen Prejean speak against capital punishment. She is the author of the non-fiction book, Dead Man Walking, about Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana's Angola State Prison. Sister Helen is a Roman Catholic nun and one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille or the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Bourg, a Roman Catholic order of women.
Upon Sonnier's request, Sister Helen visited him and served as his spiritual advisor. Her book addresses the Louisiana execution process. Southern Literature is my academic specialty, and I once taught the book Dead Man Walking, showed the film, and played the opera. It was a moving experience to read, to see, and to hear how it is to be condemned. I wondered what it would be like to be a woman on death row and to imagine her as she counted the hours until her execution.
I don’t understand a justice system that says it is wrong to kill and then feels that it is right to kill because killing is wrong. I think that writing about things that are almost unspeakable is a way to try and understand them. I can’t think of a better way to examine life than to read widely and well, to discuss openly and without prejudice, and to actively participate in the world of Nature and human nature.
What are you most proud of doing as Alabama’s Poet Laureate? What does your position entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard?
In Alabama, there are no specific duties assigned to the Poet Laureate position. I feel strongly that as poet laureate, I want to give something to poetry, to my state, so I have tried to promote poets and poetry throughout the state of Alabama. My first effort as Poet Laureate was to ask John Chambers, a publisher-friend of mine to co-edit an Anthology of Alabama Poetry that would be published by Negative Capability Press. That anthology was called: Whatever Remembers Us, and it was a Southern Independent Booksellers Finalist in Poetry, 2008. I also wear the hat of a publisher, so my press, since I became Poet Laureate, has published books by Alabama writers: Irene Latham, Kathleen Thompson, Sue Scalf, Rob Gray, P.T. Paul and Mary Carol Moran. See Negativecapabilitypress.org.
Another hat I wear is that of Professor; I teach poetry writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. I ask students to take poetry out of the classroom and to find a project that will do this. Last year, a group of students and I began teaching poetry every Tuesday at 15 Place, a Homeless Center in downtown Mobile. We would sit with anyone who wanted to attend our hour-and-a-half writing session, and we would all write together to various prompts. We laughed together, cried together, and hugged each other when tears were shed. My students said that the experience changed their lives. At the end of the course, a nearby restaurant owner opened his doors for an evening of poetry. Food was cooked, donated, made and brought in. My students and our Homeless students read together. We had musicians play and sing. Barnes and Noble donated journals to each Homeless student, and a local contributor had each one engraved with the student’s name. One of my poetry students brought a huge bouquet of balloons. To each string was attached a poem. We all went outside, looked up in the starry, starry night, and released our poetry to the air. We compiled a chapbook of the poetry our Homeless students had written, and a local law firm paid for its publication. We donated the money that we made from the sales of the book to 15 Place, the homeless shelter where we taught poetry. The Governor sent someone down to attend one of our writing sessions. They were interested in our project and wanted to publish some of the writings. Statistics don’t really tell about homelessness, but the words of the homeless do.
A couple of students who were mothers put together a booklet called “Flutters of Motherhood,” and gave a copy to each mother who delivered that month at a local hospital. Still other students read their poetry at WHIL, our local radio station. Some students hid little poems in books in the library and in books at various bookstores. One student told me he had slipped a poem into a book at Barnes and Noble, and sat where he could watch for a while. He said a young woman came up, picked up the book, found the poem, read it, looked around, and then slipped the poem in her pocket. I’m eager to see what projects my students will come up with in the fall.
My students and I also work with the National Poetry Out Loud program in our area, and we go into the schools to conduct workshops on how to write and appreciate poetry. We have been fortunate to have students from our area become State Finalists. The teachers have been wonderfully supportive, and I can see an increased interest in poetry because of our efforts with Poetry Out Loud.
I also work with disadvantaged students, those who have been removed from public schools because they have been in trouble. I have on my desk, an inscribed photograph that I treasure. It is a picture of eight students from an Intensive Treatment Placement Center. I offered to sponsor a poetry contest for these students. One boy said he wasn’t going to go to the Award Ceremony; he’d never won anything. His teacher urged him to go, and he won first place. It was amazing how good the poems were. The inscription beneath my photograph reads: “Thank you for all that you did for my class at ITPC. The poetry contest was a great idea and the students loved it! I greatly appreciate the time you spent on the contest. Every student involved is still writing, and a few are even encouraging others to write. You gave my students motivation—a hard thing for a teacher to give. Thank you!” Tears come to my eyes when I read those words. Poetry is for everyone, and if I can show living examples of that, then I feel I fulfilled a mission, one that I set for myself as Poet Laureate of Alabama, to instill in others the desire to write.
In the spring, 2011, I am going to teach a course in Writing The Environment. The oil spill is the greatest disaster we have known along the Gulf Coast, greater than Hurricane Katrina, for the oil, now into its 78th day of contaminating the environment is still flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. We are trying to save the birds whose wings are so covered with oil that they cannot fly. We are trying to save the marshlands, trying to preserve the Mobile Tensaw Delta. I think that we write in order to speak out about a way of life that is endangered. Again I say it: let’s move poetry out of the classroom.
The Hiding Tree: Dennis Holt
The picture of Sue Walker: Ron Walker.