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Interview: William Wright, editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology

September 26, 2010

I’m pleased to welcome occasional contributor Brandon Wicks back to Art & Literature once more. This week, Wicks interviews William Wright, an award-winning poet now working on what’s shaping up to be one of the most ambitious projects in contemporary Southern letters. Wicks handles the official introduction and takes the post from here.

William Wright is the series editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, a multi-volume collection of contemporary southern poetry. Volumes I and II, South Carolina and Mississippi, were co-edited with the late Stephen Gardner. The third, Contemporary Appalachia, co-edited with Jesse Graves and Paul Ruffin, is forthcoming in Spring 2011. Wright is the author of a chapbook, The Ghost Narratives, and a full-length poetry collection, Dark Orchard, which was the 2005 winner of the Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize.

Brandon Wicks: You’re now at work finishing up the third volume of the Southern Poetry Anthology. It would seem a daunting process for any writer to transition into editing such an ambitious project. How did this idea take shape? How did it gain traction?

To be frank, the idea for The Southern Poetry Anthology took shape due to supreme naïveté on my part, and it was sheer luck that the idea was acted upon. I own only a few anthologies dedicated specifically to poetry of the American South, because only a few exist—Leon Stokesbury’s The Made Thing, the beautiful second edition that came out of the University of Arkansas in 1999; 45/96: The Ninety-Six Sampler of South Carolina Poetry (Ninety-Six Press), edited by Gilbert Allen; The Yellow Shoe Poets, 1964-1999: Selected Poems (LSU Press), edited by George Garrett; Locales (LSU Press), a collection edited by Fred Chappell; and Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry (University Press of Virginia), edited by David Rigsbee and Steven Ford Brown. (There are certainly more regional anthologies, but I haven’t gotten a hold of them yet.) I found all of these anthologies to be wonderful for me—formative influences for my own work that lead me to discover these voices more deeply in the author-specific Selected Poems and Collected Poems editions, not to mention stand-alone books. But these works never seemed to dig deeply enough. I knew—thanks mostly to Stephen Gardner and a few other mentors—that lots of great poetry being written in the southern states was relatively unsung, visible only in a few journals here or there, perhaps in a chapbook or two.

In 2003, I first started thinking this way, and so, inconveniently—among teaching, term papers, presentations, and my own writing—The Question arose: Why don’t I edit a series of books—state-by-state with a few regions considered, too, and take a contemporary snapshot of poetry in the American South as it is in the present moment? How presumptuous!

I knew then that I needed someone to help me, and I approached the late Stephen Gardner, my mentor and very good friend who guided me during my undergraduate years. It so happens that the night I called him with the big idea, he had had one too many bourbons, and his considerable inebriation lead to a very enthusiastic confirmation that he would help me and that he thought it a great idea. The next morning he woke early and called me. Without so much as a “hello,” he asked, “I get the feeling that I agreed to something rather significant last night. What was it?” When I went over it again and finished my spiel, there were at least ten seconds of complete silence on his end of the line, followed by, “Oh, shit.”

But he kept his word. We worked like dogs, and somehow we did it after several false starts. It took three years to bring that first volume into being, but it marked the first tangible result of my dream—a dream that slowly began to seem obtainable.

Our anthologies endeavor to take a selective and wide sampling, perhaps the first project that will reveal poetry in the South as a vast, raucous, dissonant, and yet beautiful family, not just a few staid portraits taken again and again.

What was initially the most challenging part of making the series a reality? What’s the most challenging part of the process now?

Initially, the challenges were so myriad that they’re hard to record. In my haste to begin the project, and, again, thanks to my general naïveté, I didn’t think to streamline the submission process, so we had things coming in via e-mail and snail-mail, all formatted differently, some with bios, some without; some with copyright information for previous publications, some without. The byzantine processes—the handling of the little things—proved to be the biggest obstacle.

Now I’d say that balancing my life to spend time with my friends and my fiancée, Michelle, and to leave the cave of my office, are the biggest challenges. Sometimes I’m so absorbed in these anthologies that I feel I neglect some parts of my life that are most important to me.

There are two volumes out now—South Carolina and Mississippi—with the third, Contemporary Appalachia, forthcoming. How many volumes do you foresee publishing?

I envision the publication of ten or eleven more volumes, namely Louisiana, Georgia (both of which are in the submission phase now), Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Paul Ruffin, founder and director of Texas Review Press and now my permanent co-editor for future volumes, has also expressed interest in releasing a final collection simply called The Southern Poetry Anthology, which collects the very best poems of the entire series—whether from established or emerging poets. I think this is a great idea, too, so I’ve agreed to add that volume to the list—although that one is several years away, obviously.

The Appalachia volume was actually in the planning stages before the South Carolina edition came to fruition, thanks to my friend and colleague, Jesse Graves, an Appalachian scholar and poet of rapidly growing repute. It became clear to me that integrating the Appalachia poetry anthology into the larger project was the natural thing to do, mostly since all of the poets in the volume are from the “Appalachian South,” which spans more states than many realize: from Meridian, Mississippi, to the southeastern sliver of Ohio and northern West Virginia.

Given that the Contemporary Appalachia volume is more regionally amorphous than those defined by traditional state geography, do you foresee future volumes approaching southern regionalism in a similar way? If so, any thoughts on what they might be?

I’ve considered it, and I think some interesting poetry would arise out of a collection of say the mid- and south-Atlantic coasts, and especially the Gulf Coast. As someone who gets to the beach as much as he can—particularly the relatively rustic beaches of South Carolina—I imagine the poets who live there, as well as along the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, hear a very specific, susurrant music, one that I’m sure translates to the poetry in fascinating ways.

The Gulf Coast, fraught as it has been with major tragedies in the last several years, has many stories left to tell, ones perhaps told best in the narrative poetry form. And while the Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama editions of The Southern Poetry Anthology will include some of these poems, I think collecting them in one larger regional anthology might prove valuable.

How do you foresee the aims or goal of the SPA changing/evolving over future volumes?

That’s an interesting question. My central goal is to see this project to its end, honestly, and I hope that, after all volumes have been released and the many poets’ voices heard, the end product will reflect the effort that my co-editors and I have put into them. In this way, my goals are static, though perhaps after all is said and done, the anthologies as a whole will serve to help new writers, Southern or otherwise, find their own voices.

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4 comments

  1. Wonderful project–and I know how hard it is to put these together. I edited Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry in 1999–took me two years!


  2. [...] & Literature The Literary Blog of Raleigh's Metro Magazine. « Interview: William Wright, editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer October 3, [...]


  3. One of the important reasons for editing and publishing such anthologies is that it should establish the fact that there are some fine poets in the South. Southern writers are not ALL story tellers, though all poetry has narrative as its backbone, “grounded” poetry that is. The southerner by some quirk of Nature has for years been the story-tellers; they tell stories in grocery check-out lines; they tell stories waiting for their physicians; they tell stories after church; they tell stories in bus stations, airports, and any where else at which someone will listen. They are forever the “Ancient Mariner” from whom it is almost impossible to escape. This series of anthologies should demonstrate that ALL southerners don’t just tell stories about their relatives, their grand children, recent parties in the nearest pubs or bars. These anthologies, I believe, will demonstrate that there are Southerners who do indeed respect the highest levels of diction, that the Southerner also can be part of the refinement of our English language as opposed to corrupting it. William Wright should be commended for this outstanding effort. I am certain this service to his fellow Southerners and Americans will be one of a lasting tribute. Lenny Emmanuel


  4. Splendid project. What a delight to hear these myriad voices.



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