Summer reading: poems rough & ready

HARD LINES: ROUGH SOUTH POETRY. Edited by Daniel Cross Turner and William Wright. University of South Carolina Press. 295 pages. $49.99 (hardcover); $29.99 (paper).

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Summer is a ripe season for reading poetry. You can nibble a few in between trips to the pool or tennis courts, wander through several poems before nodding off in the hammock, and not have to worry about losing a narrative thread if your summer is full of starts and stops, the comings and goings of visitors, the packing and unpacking of vacation.

“Hard Lines,” a new anthology of southern poetry published by the University of South Carolina Press, offers just such welcomed sips for those of us who feel the South’s adored sweet tea might have gotten a little too sweet of late.

In this thorough and balanced collection, one finds neither the mint-julep landscape nor the polished-silver “new South” that preens from the close-ups in Garden & Gun or the perky pages of Southern Living.

Rather, here are our homegrown literary masters, from James Dickey to Charles Wright to Ellen Bryant Voigt to Natasha Trethewey as well as perhaps lesser known but no less talented poets like Kwame Dawes and Columbia’s Ed Madden. These writers are well versed in red clay reality and racism’s engraved shadows, telling it like it is.

Ain’t no gloss, no photo-shopping. Reading this collection is more like listening to Howlin Wolf or Johnny Cash than Darius Rucker, which is no diss to Rucker, just an acknowledgement that an unvarnished edge has its place.

Here, James Dickey delivers the sex-soaked truths that seep out of a rusted Chevy graveyard off Cherrylog Road. In “Sawdust Pile” Paul Ruffin reminds us how hatred simmers down to the “fierce core.” Janise Ray riffs on the many hues of milk and honey: “meringue on a frothy creek” (milk); “poplar hand-hewn into table, axe-handle and bowl” (honey).

Coleman Barks offers an ode to Luke, “master of small fixing,” the shop sweeper and dutiful counter clerk at every country store. Kate Daniels’ “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South” had me nodding my head in searing recognition.

The themes in “Hard Lines” are hard. They’re thick and dank, freighted with tensions and longings we all know, regardless whence we come. Reading it, you feel like a mangy old yard dog is somewhere behind you snarling. But it also feels real and true and beautiful, the way rust brings a hidden elegance to light.

“These poems do not stew in the sweet-rotten effluence of magnolia in the moonlight,” writes co-editor William Wright. Instead, they offer a lyrical reminder that we southerners inhabit of land of “brutal grace,” where righteousness and decay are ever present.

This is not a beach read. It’s a book for a summer thunderstorm or a purpled night when you’re far enough from the tourists to hear bullfrogs and crickets and howls in the dark. Keep it on your porch’s wicker table, by the bottle of craft bourbon you bought at a pop-up shop and the blue hydrangeas arranged just so in your grandmother’s silver bowl.

Read them in moderation, maybe mix in some Billy Collins or verse from Charleston’s just-announced first poet laureate, Marcus Amaker, because you don’t want too much sugar in your tea or too much grit in your, well, grits.

These poems do, however, offer a sober tonic to the faux-washing of Southernness into a collection of Billy Reid shirts and decorator hunting cabins. They let diesel rigs and chainsaws and black-eyed peas have their say, too, for the rough South ain’t yonder, it’s still right here, and it’s still pretty rough.

Printed in the Post & Courier


Love Letters and Tongues Aflame


“We are animals of language. All the words that were, and all the words that will be, are asleep inside our bodies.”  

Artist Leslie Dill

If you are a lover of letters, of language, if you’ve got a thing for words, if you’re hot for font and a fool for the mesmerizing voluptuousness of phrases writ large and draped about, as if an old monkish scribe got manic, then get thee to the Halsey. thumbs_img_4256_g

Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, Leslie Dill’s wordy and wondrous exhibition at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, is one good read. And its the perfect cheap date for Valentine’s Day, especially since Valentine’s falls right at the start of Lent. Dill conveys the spiritual mania of New Orleans street preacher, Sister Gertrude Morgan, with a hyper-graphia reminiscent of folk artist Howard Finster, but she also demonstrates tender and fierce reverence for the Word. This exhibit is a visual ode to the power of language. Dill revels in the graceful architecture of letters. She creates a wall of shimmering wire that all emanates from wire-scrolled words. I’m not even sure what they say, but maybe there’s meaning in that mystery alone. There’s a bride, too, if you want a little more Valentine’s tie-in.

To further celebrate Dill’s artistic vision, for which, she says, poetry is the “touchstone” and language is “the pivot point”  the Halsey is hosting a poetry series throughout the exhibition (on display through March 9). Tomorrow night is the second in the “Tongues Aflame” series, and will feature the College of Charleston’s brightest talent.  Last week’s inaugural reading featured local poetry heavy-weights Marjory Wentworth, Katherine Williams, Richard Garcia, Kit Loney and Susan Finch Stevens, and it was as fabulous as the art surrounding it. For those who missed it, I’m pleased to share poet Susan Finch Steven’s prose poem, “How to See Visions at the Halsey.”

thumbs_all-seeing-eye-13337300How to See Visions at the Halsey

by Susan Finch Stevens

Enter the gallery as though entering a book. Come alone so as not to be distracted by someone reading over your shoulder. That shoulder, the one draped with the superfluous sweater, which will unravel here to hang from you like threads, like the words that habitually spin from the dark cave of your mouth. Books change. Marvel at the strange architecture of a child’s pop-up but prepare to be regaled by apocalypse. Turn to the page that shimmers, that becomes a wall like a waterfall, like strands of hair you long to run your fingers through, to braid, to be raised up by like the prince in another book you read long ago. Remain lucid here so you will resist the longing to touch out of fear of waking in a gallery. Perhaps you can stem the urge by becoming the maiden with no hands from that long-ago book. Turn a page with your stump and Allegorical Figures bring memories of the metal hands the king once made for you. Or were they made for someone else? You will not find THE END in this book. You will find an EXIT. And when you exit you will take something that gets lost inside you like your words that have not yet found air.  It is wise to remember that the maiden had to venture out on her own before her hands became flesh.


An Early Trick-or-Treat ~ Andre Dubus III

Tomorrow night, on the eve of Halloween, I’ll have the plastic pumpkin bucket of my mind open and ready for sweet offerings. I’ll come wearing the costume of a writer (jeans, v-neck sweater, boots, pen and moleskin notebook) and hope that morsels of wisdom drop in my bucket from that rarest of hyphenated creatures — an award-winning, best-selling, Oprah-endorsed writer, Andre Dubus III. But truthfully, I’ll be paying homage to his father and namesake, the short story writer and essayist Andre Dubus.

I’ve actually not read House of Sand and Fog, nor seen the movie, nor read any other fiction by the handsome and celebrated son, but I have read, and loved, Dubus Senior’s short stories and especially his reflections and meditations on life as a “cripple” as he dubbed himself after being crushed by a car that struck him after he stopped to help two disabled motorists outside of Boston on dark night in 1986. Dubus, with his Ernest Hemingway-rugged good looks, writes with a hard won gravitas and humble wisdom, and my copy of Meditations from a Moveable Chair is dog-eared and pockmarked with marginalia.

From the elder Dubus, in an essay titled “First Books” I’ve underlined this:

“But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness and hatred; strive to be a better human being than a writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single work, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and reliance to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”

Andre the father was largely absent to his son while young Andre was growing up, according to Dubus III, who writes of their relationship in his memoir Townie. He was a mystery, a vacuum, a hurt. I know what that’s like. And yet father and son shared this DNA of creativity, a writer’s heart, and it shows through for the son. I hope to hear more about that when he speaks tomorrow night as part of Ashley Hall’s Visiting Writers Series.

For now, these nuggets (think of them as Candy Corn for the Writer’s Soul) will hopefully tide you over. Wisdom for writers from Andre Dubus III, as published in Writer’s Digest:

“I really think that if there’s any one enemy to human creativity, especially creative writing, its self-consciousness. And if you have one eye on the mirror to see how you’re doing, you’re not doing it as well as you can. Don’t think about publishing, don’t think about editors, don’t think about marketplace.”

“I think the deeper you go into questions, the deeper or more interesting the questions get. And I think that’s the job of art.”

“I still have my truck, and I still have my carpentry tools, and if this writing thing dries up on a publishing level—it’s never gonna dry up for me on an artistic level because I’m never going to quit—but if all the sudden I were out in the cold in the publishing world, them I’m gonna build you a kitchen. I’m gonna do your roof. I would rather do that than sell my soul to the publishing devil. I just won’t do it.”

“Even a day writing badly for me is 10 times better than a day where I don’t write at all.”

Ashley Hall, Tues Oct 30, 7:00 P.M.
Sottile Thompson Recital Hall

Andre Dubus III is the author of five books: The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, Bluesman, and the New York Times bestsellers,House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and his memoir,Townie, a #4 New York Times bestseller and a New York Times “Editors Choice.” It is named on many “Top Non-fiction Books of 2011” lists, including The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Library journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Esquire magazine. His work has been included in The Best American Essays of 1994 and The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for fiction, The Pushcart Prize, and was a Finalist for the National Book Award, the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

For more information about tomorrow night’s event, contact Dr. Nick Bozanic at 843-720-2855.

For more head to the source at

Semi-Charmed, and Highly-Inspiring (and funny)

I can’t wait to meet Nora Zelevansky.

Not only is she hilarious, accomplished and incredibly courteous in her spunky and prompt replies to my emails, she’s ventured into the vast and daunting territory that I and so many non-fiction writers  say we’d like to explore one day. She’s embraced the f-word — fiction. And had her first effort, Semi-Charmed Life, published. By a real publishing house. She’s semi-charmed, or rather, very charmed, indeed.

Nora Zelevansky is not a novice –  she’s a working freelance journalist whose articles appear in notable outlets like Elle, Self, InStyle, the Los Angeles Times and, but for her first foray into fiction, she needed a little nudge, a support system, a boost. And so she tapped, or typed, her charms through NaNoWriMo.


Sound like an “abracadabra” incantation for writers? It may be, but NaNoWriMo is also shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, an annual fiction frenzy in which the month of November becomes “30 days and nights of literary abandon.” NaNoWriMoers commit to cranking out 50,000 words in one month, or about 1,700 words a day in Nora’s case (during November 2009), and at the end, voila, a novel. That beats thawing the Thanksgiving turkey, if you ask me.


“I was nervous, but I just sort of launched into it and, as with a lot of things in life, the anticipation was more stressful than the actuality,” says Zelevansky, who wove her familiarity with fashion, style and Manhattan celebrity culture into her story but otherwise, did not do any plot outlining or story-mapping. She just sketched out a few of the major characters (Upper West Sider/ college student Beatrice Bernstein and Veruca Pfeffernoose, her “famous-for-nothing socialite” dorm room neighbor), scheduled her writing time, stocked up on Cherry Coke Zero, then dove in.


Granted, 99 percent of NaNoWriMo finished products are more like 50,000 words of valiant effort than anything remotely publishable, but Zelevansky’s satiric comedic mystery and delightfully quirky romp through coming-of-age dramas caught the eye of St. Martin’s Press and garnered her a two-book contract. Semi-Charmed Life hit bookstores this July, and she’s been off to the races ever since, with excellent reviews including those from Publishers Weekly and Elle. On Monday at 5 p.m., she gives a reading at Blue Bicycle Books.


“I would absolutely recommend the NaNo experience, and not just to professional writers.  This is a process, definitely in the vein of starting an exercise regimen, that makes you feel good and accomplished everyday.  It offers an outlet that’s separate from your daily life and, because it’s practically about free-associating, it also offers you a release.  And, it’s only for a month, so it’s doable!” says Zelevansky. “Can you already hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing?  Are you pumped?”


Come join me in meeting Nora and welcoming her to Charleston on Monday. Pick up a copy of Semi-Charmed Life; you’ll laugh out loud at her characters’ antics, and maybe get some encouragement for unleashing your own novel as NaNoWriMo rolls around again in T-minus 71 days.

You can find/follow Nora on Facebook and Twitter: Twitter handle is @missnoraz


Nora is also more than happy to talk to bookclubs, contact her via her website or at



From Place to Place


Our packed-to-the-gills minivan is finally unloaded, our week of family vacation to the Outer Banks officially over. This weekend’s finale nine-hour drive down the two-lane roads of eastern North Carolina, through has-been places like Maysville, past forgotten railroad stops in the middle of tobacco fields, was a trip down memory lane. A flashback to similar roads, even these same ones, I traveled as a child to and from the North Carolina beaches that were our annual summer pilgrimage, trips fortified by James Taylor on 8-track, Orange Crush and Coppertone. The drive also gave me plenty of time to reflect on the wonders of being away, the memory-making value of vacation, and to think about the difference between a touristy “get-away” and travel.

This distiction was explored in a recent New York Times essay, “Reclaiming Travel,” that caught my attention as my husband and I were Expedia-ing and Travelocitying last minute options to gather our troups before our oldest goes back to college (this week!) and the others start school. We had hopes of venturing to an eye-opening landscape, like Zion National Park — lands yet unseen by our notso globe-trotting family, but “no vacancy” deadends and exorbitant airfare re-routed us to Avon, North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in search of elusive surfing swell.

Except for miles of undisturbed dunes and sea oats and the blissfully cooler, clearer water, it was a long haul to a terrain not terribly different from home. So what was the point? Family time beyond the bounds of our normal routine was enough for me — waiting out thunder storms over rounds of gin rummy; reading on the beach with my teenaged daughters; paddleboarding with my husband; an evening trip to the Dairy Queen. It was R&R — lovely, needed, and thoroughly enjoyed — but not real travel, I admit. In the essay, the authors ask, “So what distinguishes meaningful, fruitful travel from mere tourism? What turns travel into a quest rather than self-serving escapism?” and they offer this answer:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism. Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

Interesting stuff to ponder, especially as my city, the nation’s Number One Tourist destination, empties itself of the PGA throngs. Like my minivan, Charleston and Kiawah are a little lighter today than yesterday, but what did those who came here take away? Can you come to Charleston (or leave it, in my case) not as a tourist, but as a traveler?
Well, yes, especially if you cross the path of Vikki Matsis while you are here. I first met Vikki when I was coordinating a “Poetry for the Planet” program, sponsored by the Sophia Institute and the Coastal Conservation League, maybe four or five years ago. Vikki took the stage that night at the City Gallery, with a full moon over Charleston Harbor in the background, and outshone that brilliant moon. Her poetry and her delivery were mezmerizing, and I’ve been a fan ever since. In addition to being a writer and performer, Vikki is the founder of Charleston’s acclaimed NotSo Hostel, where she perfects the art of hospitality, both welcoming and inspiring travelers.
And this Wedsnesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Blue Bicycle Books, Vikki will celebrate the publication of her new book, Inside an American Hostel: A Guidebook for Managers & Aspiring Owners. More than a guidebook, Inside is an ode to wanderlust, an invitation to venture outside our comfort zones. She offers here both a how-to and a poetic journey from the soul of a true traveler.
If you want a taste of Vikki’s well-traveled way with words, checkout the first video on this webpage (sorry, couldn’t embed link here), and then trek on over to Blue Bicycle Books on Wednesday evening. Become a traveler in your own town, or wherever it is your destiny is taking you.

Marshall Chapman At Piccolo; Charleston Library Society, Unleashed!

Anne Cleveland is on a mission. As director of the Charleston Library Society, she’s dusting off the antiquity mustiness and high-brow patina that may have attached itself to the “oldest cultural institution in the South” with its esteemed 274 year history. Witness the 2012 Piccolo Literary Festival, arranged and hosted by the Library Society, which pretty much blows any remaining stiff library stereotypes out of the water.

Sure, there were a few heady lectures in the six program line-up (who says intelligence can’t be hip?) but the Literary Festival finale on Saturday afternoon brought the eight-program offering to a rousing and rockin’ close. With Marshall Chapman’s guitar amp plugged in and her hilarious and heart-felt readings and storytelling about “The Triumph of Rock and Roll over Good Breeding,” there was little room for typical library hush-hushness.

I first came to know Marshall Chapman when I lived in Nashville and waited tables on Music Row, circa 1987 – 89. You couldn’t not know who Chapman was on the music scene back then – a tall, lanky gal with wiry white-blonde hair, an equally tall-drink-of-water southern accent, and a mean guitar lick. Chapman had been a debutante from an upstanding family in Spartanburg, landed in Nashville as a Vandy undergrad, got a quick education in gritty Nashville honky-tonkin, fell under Music City’s sway, and before long had a decidedly undebutante band called Jaded Virgin.

Chapman not only wrote the song, “Rode Hard and Put up Wet,” she’s lived it, and boy, can she swirl a story around the convoluted riffs of growing up as a privileged white girl in small town Jim Crow South and mixing it up with music legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt, Jessi Colter, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few. As Chapman read segments of her memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, the audience laughed and nodded knowingly, the too-true southern vignettes familiar to many.

Her performance on Saturday was in large part an homage to her Spartanburg and Enoree, SC, roots, and to her “best friend in music,” Tim Krekel, who died in 2009 after a quick three month bout with cancer and inspired Chapman’s latest album, Big Lonesome. While the songs were tender, including her version of the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Chapman’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get delivery was riveting. She has a transparency that draws you in, as if you feel the steel strings tight against your fingers and the lyrics catch in your throat.

“Listen to these next four lines, yawl,” she paused and said midway through Williams’ tune, “The best four lines in country music. I’ll put them up against any poet anywhere,” and then she belted out, in pitch-perfect twang:

“The silence of a falling star / lights up the purple sky / and as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

Kudos to Anne Cleveland and the Library Society for showing Charleston and Piccolo that Charleston’s literary scene rocks. And to Marshall Chapman, come on back anytime, ya hear?

Katie and Claire


Here’s a Tax Day tip:  Get your refund’s  worth this Friday at Blue Bicycle Book’s Author Series Lunch (Wine AND yummy Italian fare) featuring Charleston darling, Katie Crouch. I’ve never met Katie, but my good friend Shirley Hendrix thinks she’s tops, and Shirley is almost always right–especially when she’s dishing out book suggestions, worldly wisdom and general get-your-ass-in-gear advice.

If you don’t take my word that Shirley’s word is on target, here’s more bio info (besides the important pedigree that she grew up in Charleston).

Katie Crouch is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Girls in Trucks,Men and Dogsand the Magnolia League series.Her writing has also appeared in The New York Observer, Tin House, Glamour,Slate, the London Guardian, and McSweeney’s. She received her M.F.A. at Columbia University, and was awarded a Sewanee Walter Dakin Fellowship and a MacDowell Fellowship, and her work has been translated into German, Spanish, and Turkish.

I’ll be there (so will Shirley!) and we’re saving you a seat, so  make your reservations now, via the Blue Bicycle Book site.  (She’s also reading/speaking at Wando and Porter Gaud, so tell your teens to tune in!)


And now for something quick and cheery, fitting for Tax Day (and Poetry Month) — a poem by my 11 year old, Claire:


Oh sweet flounder
I will catch you for sure

And then I will eat you my friend