Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.”

Miller Williams
The Oxford American magazine has always had a unique twist on its Southern vision, equally at home with arcane politicians and bourbon makers, poets, charlatans and preachers, and the miseries of the disenfranchised. Its online content is always a surprise, too, with worthwhile features not found in the OA's print quarterly.
A recent online interview with Arkansas poet Miller Williams discusses his meeting with Hank Williams before delving into his career as a translator, while making the broader point that for Williams "the music of poetry" is more than a phrase. "I think the kinship is real," he tells Jackson Meazle.   Here's an excerpt from "A Tenth Anniversary Photograph, 1952" (1999):
... People walked alone in parks.
Children slept in their yards at night.
Most every man had a paying job,
and black was black and white was white.
Would you go back? Say that you can,
that all it takes is a wave and a wink
and there you are. So what do you do?
The question is crueler than you think.

Though he entered college as double major in English and foreign languages, an aptitude test revealed “absolutely no aptitude in the handling of words,” Williams has said in interviews. He changed his major to hard sciences to avoid “embarrassing my parents.”  He taught science at the college-level for many years before securing a job in the English department at Louisiana State University, partly with the help of his friend Flannery O’Connor.

“We became dear friends and in 1961, LSU advertised for a poet to teach in their writing program. Though I had only had three hours of freshman English formally, she saw the ad and, without mentioning it to me, wrote them and said the person you want teaches biology at Wesleyan College. They couldn’t believe that, of course, but they couldn’t ignore Flannery O’Connor. So they sent me word that said, ‘Would you send us some of your work?’ And I did.”
Here's a brief excerpt from the online interview.
OA: You have written somewhat extensively in argument for rhyme and meter in poetry. How has music informed your work? Arkansas, like many Southern states, has such a rich musical heritage. Has music always been of interest to you and your work? 
MW: I do believe that poetry is more satisfying when it has a pattern similar to those of songs. I wish that I could sing well, as I'm sure you know my daughter Lucinda does, and writes her own songs. Hank Williams (no kinship there) told me that since he often wrote his lyrics months before he set them to music, they spent those months as sort-of poems. I think the kinship is real. 
OA: Did you ever meet Hank Williams in person? 
MW: Yes, [in 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, "Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I'd be honored to buy you a beer." To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me. When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month. He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I've got is a poem.” Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.” He died the first day of the following year. When Lucinda was born I wanted to tell her about our meeting, but I waited until she was onstage herself. Not very long ago, she was asked to set to music words that he had left to themselves when he died. This almost redefines coincidence. ... 
OA: What has it been like to be a poet in Arkansas? It sometimes seems a bit lonely because poetry is not valued as much as other art forms. Did you ever have a notion that it was impractical to write poems, or does the poem’s strength lie in its impracticality, its mystery? 
MW: I've enjoyed all the years I've lived in Arkansas, and was pleased—once I started writing—at how well my poems are received here. A reviewer said, a few years ago, that "Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry because, though his poems are discussed in classrooms at Princeton and Harvard, they're read, understood, and appreciated by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers." 
OA: One tool the poet likes to keep in her belt is an ear for spoken language. Do you believe that Southern idioms and turns of phrase are an advantage to Southern poets? 
MW: I do, so long as every phrase in the poem is understandable to everyone who speaks English. ...
Williams has edited  a dozen poetry collections, such asHalfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems (1973); Living on the Surface: New and Selected Poems (1989), which received the Poets’ Prize; Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems (1999); and Time and the Tilting Earth (2008). He is also the author ofMaking a Poem: Some Thoughts about Poetry and the People Who Write It (2006).

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