Poetic Research Department

Megan Pugh
Statement of Poetic Research


As Huck Finn found out after telling Jim they'd ride a raft to freedom, the Mississippi only flows in one direction: south. If a flatboatman sailed all the way to New Orleans in the early nineteenth-century, he'd need a new way to reach the rest of America. And if he'd blown most of his money on wine, women, and the sporting life, his best option might be to go in on the cost of a horse with a couple of friends and whipsaw his way home.

Whipsawers, named for the same two-manned handtool that must've cut the lumber for many a flatboat, made their way across the backroads of the South in a jagged collective. One man would ride a horse for a few hours, tie it to a tree, and start walking. When the second man walked his way to the horse, he'd climb on, ride a while, bypass the first man, and tie the horse to a tree for the third man. Barring selfishness or attacks by bandits, they kept on taking turns.

Robert Frost gave American poets license to think of themselves as manual laborers—writing is like chopping wood and making hay!—but I like the idea of turning the hand tool of poetry into travel. Traveling alone can be isolating, but whipsawing guarantees companionship. Of course, your journeys won't quite match up: the field through which you amble may be one through which your buddy gallops. When you pass by a gnarled live oak and think of pinning sonnets to your beloved on its trunk, he might be wondering whether he can stomach another supper of spit-roasted squirrel.

In these poems, I try to get at something like those divergent but overlapping experiences of place, though if I really want the metaphor to hold, I should add something about the centuries of folks who have walked down the same Southern roads or who walked down similar roads in other places or down roads they wished were similar, or who wished they were walking down roads when they were actually sitting on a couch in California listening to mp3s of Caetano Veloso when they should probably be listening to 78s of Jimmie Rodgers yodeling so they could figure out how to emulate, in writing, his quick switches between somber chest-singing and high-flung notes from the throat, which, by the way, Sly and the Family Stone also do, in the song "Spaced Cowboy," with an odd, jaunty ghostliness.

My poems—which, like that parade of pedestrians, would-be pedestrians, and singers, yoke together different experiences, times, locations, and voices—have to do with how history builds up in place. They're set primarily in the South, both because it's the place I know best and because people generally think of it as the country's most "placed" place. Fifty years ago, C. Vann Woodward, in his essay "The Search for Southern Identity," argued that in spite of industrialization's homogenizing force, the South remained a distinct region—not necessarily because of its present particularities (though there were, and are, plenty of those) but because of its unchangeable history. This history, Woodward wrote, provided a vital counterweight to the myth of American exceptionalism: Southerners, who generally have less money and less education than the rest of the country, understand defeat. And beneath a ham and biscuit-scented haze of moonlight and magnolias, Southerners know, too intimately, America's great sins of slavery and racial violence.

Any place is a story people make up, sometimes together, and sometimes in spite of each other. But that doesn't make our experiences of place, or our stories, less powerful. Woodward also described a set of anxieties that may be even more familiar now than they were in 1960: "Has the Southern heritage become an old hunting jacket that one slips on comfortably while at home but discards when he ventures abroad in favor of some more conventional or modish garb? Or is it perhaps an attic full of ancestral wardrobes useful only in connection with costume balls and play acting—staged primarily in Washington, D.C.?" I've kept these concerns in mind too, though I'm less concerned than Woodward is with the authenticity of performance. Faux-backwoods politicians drive me crazy, but sometimes the pap on pop-country radio makes me homesick.

I rummaged around my own ancestral attic (a filing cabinet in my San Francisco apartment) to find fodder for poems: unpublished memoirs by my great-uncle and great-great-grandfather, nineteenth-century legal documents, my grandparents' letters and diaries. I've also turned to travel narratives, history books both scholarly and chatty, broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, WPA oral histories, songs, films, and gossip from my life, the lives of people I know, and the lives of people I'll never meet. The poems proceed largely by association. It's how the mind works, and how cultural history, at some stage, gets written: you comb through the archive, looking for patterns.

History and poetry both provide records of experience, but they have different conventions. Prose promises causes, effects, plots and explanations, while poetry can thrive on gaps, cuts, and suggestion. I cull from both genres here, flirting with narrative and relying heavily on parataxis, which helps us see different pieces of place and time before they've been shaped into an orderly story. I'm interested in how the past feels—sometimes close, comforting, and explanatory, and sometimes alien, estranging, or altogether lost.

Ezra Pound famously called "a poem including history" an epic, but these poems, encountering history, are closer to lyric. Instead of trying to account for the grand march of time, I've explored how history haunts us. After all, poetry is a haunted genre. A sonnet can be about anything, but it can't help being about love, because of all the sonnets that came before it. Thanks to Dante, any set of tercets could make you think about journeying into the afterlife. And couplets, no matter your intention, will call attention to rhymes, doubling, correspondence, or a lack thereof. Haunting can be more literal, too: these poems are largely peopled by the dead. While some of them make repeat appearances, I've also included floating actions, ideas, and artifacts, because even a past that's been neglected or expunged can have an echo.

I feel a great debt to, and identification with, record-keepers and hoarders. I've tried to play the part of a hostess who has occasional access to a séance table or time machine, though I might be more like the old woman my father saw in his early days of social work who plastered her walls with society pages from the newspaper and talked about the Country Club set as if they were her closest friends, though she'd never met them. Some of these people had attended my parents' wedding.

Further reading

Herbert Asbury, The French Quarter (New York, 1936); "Billy Bowlegs in New Orleans," Harper's Weekly Magazine, June 12, 1858; W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York, 1941); "Domestic Intelligence," Harper's Weekly Magazine (June 19, 1858); Marius Harrison Gunther, unpublished memoirs (1921); Clifton Johnson, Highways and Byways of the South (New York, 1904); Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country (New York, 1942); Alberta Morel Lachicotte, Georgetown Rice Plantations (Georgetown, S.C., 1955); The Littlest Rebel, directed by David Butler (1935); Lil McClintock, "Please Don't Think I'm Santa Claus," Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1927. Old Hat Records, CD 1005, 2005; John Muir, Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf, ed. William Frederic Badé (New York, 1916); Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom (New York, 1861); Rpt. Modern Library, 1969; John Solomon Otto, "Florida's Cattle Ranching Frontier: Manatee and Brevard Counties (1860)," Florida Historical Quarterly 64: 1 (July 1985): 48-61; The Carolina Low-country, Society for the Preservation of Spirituals (New York, 1931); Louis Fitzgerald Tasistro, Random Shots and Southern Breezes, vol II (New York, 1842); Kyle S. VanLandingham, "Captain William B. Hooker: Florida Cattle King," 2003, accessed February 2012; These Are Our Lives, Var. (Chapel Hill, 1939); YouTube broadcasts of June Carter performances in the 1950s.

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