Poetically Speaking

Beth Ann Fennelly: in Oxford, for good.




I love to read fiction, especially novels. But I don't like to write fiction," Beth Ann Fennelly says. "I joke with Tommy: 'I would never stoop so low.'"

And she hasn't. Fennelly is the award-winning poet in the family. Her husband, Tom Franklin, is the award-winning short-story writer and novelist. And both teach at the University of Mississippi in Oxford — a town Fennelly has come to think of as home in a state that's a far cry from her native Illinois. How far? See Fennelly's "The Kudzu Chronicles," a series of poems in her latest collection of poems, Unmentionables (W.W. Norton), where she writes in all seriousness but with a touch of self-mockery: >>>

". . . Sorrow/ hasn't managed to track me here./ Strict, honest Illinois: no more./ Let me grow misty/ in mindless Mississippi,/ where, Barry Hannah writes, It is difficult to achieve a vista./ You betcha."

Note, though: It's not impossible to achieve a vista (or vistas). Start — Fennelly does in her opening poem, "First Warm Day in a College Town" — with the sight of male students bare-chested and jogging. Then move in later poems to memories of "cow tipping," of a brush with possible breast cancer, and of an overnight train ride to Rome. Then share in the working life of an Impressionist painter (in Fennelly's series of poems called "Berthe Morisot: Retrospective") and enter into the "dream songs" of a fellow poet (in a cycle inspired by John Berryman). But return now and again home — whether it's Fennelly's parental home near Chicago or her own home, as a wife and mother of two, in "mindless" Mississippi — as "mindless" (but fruitful) as the countryside's kudzu.

"When I moved to Mississippi [after earning an MFA at the University of Arkansas and after teaching posts in Wisconsin and Illinois], I immediately felt at home, that I'd found a home," Fennelly says. "That made me question what is a home? Why does a landscape speak to us? Why did I never feel that the prairie and the plains spoke to my soul? What was it about the lusciousness of Mississippi?

"I thought of kudzu. On the one hand, it's a cliché. Everyone in the South writes about it. On the other hand, kudzu was imported from Japan, but it grows better in the South. It's thriving. And I thought of how it's like me . . . to be a transplant, to bloom in a new location."

You can read of that self-questioning in Fennelly's "The Kudzu Chronicles." You can hear it too in an animated film of the same title, narrated by Fennelly and available on YouTube (just search under the author's name). But no mistaking, in Unmentionables, Mississippi's sometimes dark history or Fennelly's own family history. It's what put her in mind of John Berryman, a poet whose wordplay and twisted syntax she's long admired. But there's something else about Berryman.

According to Fennelly, "I was thinking about the notion of inheritance. How can we choose what to inherit and choose not to inherit?

"Berryman grew up Irish Catholic, and his father was an alcoholic who committed suicide. Berryman struggled with Cathol- icism. He was an alcoholic. And he com-mitted suicide. I grew up Irish Catholic too. I've struggled with my faith — or lack of it. And my father died of alcoholism.

"So, I was thinking about our personal inheritances and our poetic ones — how I feel drawn to Berryman and in certain ways how I want to reject him or critique his views of the world. How do we become the people we are? And what freedom do we have in the choices we make?"

In the case of a painter Fennelly greatly admires, Berthe Morisot, the choices are a matter of determination and self-discipline, motherhood and making time. Fennelly's familiar with all four. In her previous collection, Tender Hooks (2004), she focused on her experiences as a new mom. In the years since, she's been able, as she says, "to let up just a bit" from the intensity of being home alone with a newborn:

"After Tender Hooks, I was trying to think about the more profound ways that becoming a mother had shaped my poetry. Of course, there's the superficial way: It took away all my time! But it also made me bolder, my poetry more concentrated. The same thing happened to Morisot after she gave birth. She pressed forward with a new idea of Impressionism, and people praised her: 'Look how rapid her brushstrokes are, how like Japanese calligraphy, how quickly she's able to work.' I thought, She's a mom! She doesn't have much time."

In Unmentionables, however, there is time for Fennelly to write of her daughter Claire, now 6, and of her son Thomas, now 2. What you won't find is a description of parenting's daily grind.

"Each day's like planning the Manhattan Project," Fennelly admits. "But Tommy and I do get our moments here and there. We both feel the need to write every day. Or at least to try. That's a priority. So we're willing to make the sacrifices to help each other. It ends up almost working out okay."

And that includes time for Fennelly's Pilates classes. The myth of the self-destructive poet?

"If people really knew what my life is like, I'd never be respected as a poet again," she says. "I'm my daughter's room mother at school! I like my healthy, balanced life."

Just as she likes the house in Oxford she and Tom Franklin have bought. "Chicago's a great city," Fennelly says. "It'll always be my favorite American city. But we're here, in Oxford, for good."

Does that make this born Midwesterner a Southerner now or some day?

"I get asked that a lot. For my husband Tommy, it's uncomplicated. He's from Alabama. For me, there's more tension and texture to the question, because there's no way I could officially be considered a Southerner — except that I write about the Southern landscape and Southern themes. So, when someone asks if I'm a Southern writer, I demur. I feel like I shouldn't claim that title for myself. It's an honor I haven't yet earned."

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