Ways of Looking South

by Jake Adam York

It has been four years since Jason Sanford e-mailed inviting me to join in developing an internet journal, four years since we first discussed our initial line-up, ways to gather submissions, ways to attract readers, since we began arguing about presentation and design, four years since I first sat down to think about who I would gather to my own presentation of the South, since I began to think of editing and publishing as another way to answer the call to Tell about the South, since I began to think of storySouth as a way to remain in the South though my second departure was imminent, since I began to live in a different kind of South, a kind of Telebama from which I was always speaking, since I began to consider a new set of tags <drawl>to surround my Southernisms and my arguments</drawl>. And now, we’ve spent four years reading, selecting, arranging, developing, coding, publishing, chatting, posting, conferencing, cataloguing, e-mailing, html-ing, xml-ing, cross-linking, and watching the readership increase.

In this time, the pleasures have been too numerous to count, from the scalp-tightening and –chilling discovery of a new writer to the assuring and still-surprising tenth read of a poem by an established voice, the surprising openness with which our project has been greeted by writers and readers alike, and the tremendous growth of interest. It is a constant surprise to me when I meet someone who already knows me through storySouth. Here I’ve been working fairly quietly, logging the hours in my office, along and often late late at night when no one else wants to talk to me, and the work has gone out in the world, recalling me on occasion.

What is most satisfying and most rewarding to me, however, is the fact that people are reading about the South and, in treating storySouth seriously, are coming seriously to the questions of the South’s regional identity, its place as a section within a union, the quality and future of accent, the meaning and value of being in or from the South, and what it means to still be asked to account for one’s home’s history and present and how to respond.

Ten years ago, I might have thought such questions purely academic. When I was 22 and just preparing for graduate school, I had lived in Alabama all my life, had in all my vacations spent maybe one year’s worth of days beyond its boundaries (and most of those in Florida and Louisiana), and such questions seemed philosophical for I had lived but one narrow life.

In ten years, however, I have but two short years enjoyed an address in my home state, spending four in upstate New York and four (approaching five now) in Colorado. And in this time, these questions about the meaning, value, shape, character, and future of the South have become all the more important to me as I have seen how serious are the answers for so many others. In New York, I was reminded — whether because someone couldn’t understand what I was trying to say or because someone needed a representative of the Old South to interrogate —  that I was Southern, that I was a Southern writer, and that my Southerness and my whiteness, which I had always viewed from within, meant something different to them than it did to me (and often something insidious). Just the same, as I have lived in Colorado, I have been reminded that I am not from Colorado, that I don’t belong, that my presence constitutes an occasional affront to the spirits of the place. My friends have observed, as I take a call from home, that my accent deepens immediately, that my peculiar speechways become more peculiar. My wife reminds me, as well, that we are fromsomewhere else and suggests, as we are anxious over fried chicken on a NASCAR Sunday, that the crown of hills surrounding Talladega provide a horizon perhaps more appopriate for us than the Rockies.

In short, living outside the South for a time has deepened my own consciousness of what’s Southern about my life and self and, more importantly, has put it in conversation in ways that have actually enriched my talk when I go back home. When my family talks now, we seem to talk more articulately —  or I participate more readily in a way that makes me more acutely aware of our articulations —  about those things that trouble us, finding our way more quickly to and from our disagreements. Now, it seems, so much more is open and Gadsden, Alabama doesn’t seem quite as clouded by sleep as it did in high school. Now, we take time to go to the Civil War iron furnace and the history is there before us and we walk about it. Now, we trace a Nineteenth-Century map to find a Creek War battle site. We talk about the town’s most famous lynching (of Bunk Richardson in February 1906) and the sad fact that the last reporter to remark upon the event in The Gadsden Times received so many threatening (and threatened) calls he eventually moved out of town. We are talking and understanding much more than before, even if we can’t solve each of the problems of which we are now aware.

Just so, I have been drawn, in my four years of work on storySouth to those poems that, implicitly or explicitly, keep themselves in a conversation about the South. Sometimes these conversations are held at home, among Southerners. Sometimes they broadcast outward and elsewhere. I feel myself surrounded by familiar landscapes in the work of Forrest Gander and R. T. Smith. I hear the conversations that crowd the margins of Jeanie Tompson’s “Slave Gag.” I relish the lip-thinning challenge to tradition in the prose poems of Cassie Sparkman and Tony Tost, poems that show we’re not all (or even mostly) agrarians at heart, and I delect the technical skill of Beth Bachmann’s poems, drawing from the Fugitive well a water altogether different. I praise the witness to insult and dozens-running in the poems of Kevin Simmonds and Honree Fanonne Jeffers, testimony that must ask us (and all others) to consider the common knowledge about hospitality and its bounds. I cannot stop admiring the way the contemporary and colloquial ease of David Kirby’s poems pulls away from the high formalism of the traditional South and at the same time courts the volume and loquacity of the Baptist preacher to whom we’re all related. I return to the bilingual story in Lisette Garcia’s poem as a reminder that we don’t all speak the same language even if we’re interested in the same thing, a question to the view of the South’s solidity or homogeneity. And I cannot get enough of the almost surreal but assuredly real yet visionary reticulations of Janet McAdams’s or D. Antwan Stewart’s poems, poems that say the South is still a very strange place in many ways.

I’ve liked all the poems we have ever printed in storySouth, and though my collection of 13 Ways of Looking South returns you to read and consider only a fraction of the poems we have presented here, as we mark our fourth anniversary, I want to say to you all, read all of the poems we have presented here and take each, of course, as a poem worthy of your time and attention — but also take each poem as another entry, another exchange in this ongoing conversation about the South.

The questions are always on the table, and the answers are all around. Take what you will. Then pass.

Jake Adam York is the poetry editor of storySouth.