Rachel Nix Interviews Jeanie Thompson of the Alabama Writers’ Forum

Rachel Nix: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, Jeanie. Thanks so much for sharing your time with us. Jumping right into things, I want to discuss The Myth of Water, a stunning collection of poems from the life of Helen Keller. Your poems offer a chronological telling of her life as if Helen is sharing these events in her own words. It’s all so carefully done and clear that years of research was involved. What was it that urged your drive with this project? How did it all begin?

Jeanie Thompson: Thank you for this opportunity to talk about The Myth of Water, Poems from the Life of Helen Keller, Rachel! My entry to this project was very slow—first I read Helen’s book A Light in My Darkness and realized that I felt a resonance with her about many things—especially that her spirituality reminded me of how I felt about poetry. Then I read Dorothy Hermann’s biography Helen Keller, A Life and learned the story of Helen’s thwarted engagement in Montgomery. A dramatic event happened just blocks from where I was living at the time I read the book, and I felt as if the universe was pointing me toward this material of Helen’s adult life. As funny as this may sound, I wasn’t sure that poetry was what I wanted to write—I thought what I was seeing was a film or a play. Finally, after doing some reading, and speaking with other writers, I wrote the first three or four poems in France. Yes, I had to go all the way to France to write about Helen Keller in Alabama.

RN: When first reading this collection, I was struck by the musicality of the poems. The Tennessee River runs near Tuscumbia, Alabama where Helen was born and spent her early years. For those unaware of local folklore, there is a widely held belief that the river sings and inspires song. Did this folklore play into the way these poems were written or did this musicality simply align with your effort to share how you imagined Helen would word these memories?

JT: I wish I could say that the folklore played a part, but I can tell you that in my first book, How to Enter the River, the title poem is about a canoeist teaching his students and the first line is “Now the singing of the river is his…” The musicality that is inherent in all water has been a touchstone image for me. Borges talks about the five great metaphors and one is “time is a river.’ I would add “the river sings.”

I should also say that the musicality of language in general—poetry in particular—is what draws me to writing. I want to hear the lines most of all. The abstract aspects of poetry attract me, too, but the sound values of poems are what really stay with me and impel me to try to write my own.

The Myth of Water

RN: It’s apparent place is an important aspect that contributes to the spirit of your work. I’ve attended two events where you’ve read your poetry at the Helen Keller Public Library in Tuscumbia, Alabama and your work is incredibly alive there. Would you tell us about your connection to the Helen Keller Public Library?

JT: Thank you for this important question! Libraries have always been important to me and I think that’s because my mother, who grew up in Tallassee, Alabama, was a library board member in Decatur—my home town from age four til I left for the University of Alabama. My first paying job, besides babysitting, was working as a page at the Wheeler Basin Library in downtown Decatur. A very somber and almost scary place run by older women, it was a treasure trove for me. There was no end of things so discover. As I walked down the steps to the lower level holding as many books to shelve as I could carry, I didn’t realize I was soaking up the great writers of the day—Southern, American, and International. The time I was able to spend alone, moving among those titles and pulling a book off the shelf at will, shaped who I am as a writer through shaping my curiosity and wonder. There is no way for a young person to get this physical impact from the internet, though I love that resource.

Jeanie Thompson and John Tuten

Jeanie reconnects with John Tuten, Ivy Green Board Member, at the Lions Clubs’ meeting in June 2018 at the Helen Keller Public Library (Tuscumbia). PHOTO: HKPL.

When I was invited to be the 2018 Helen Keller Festival Guest Lecturer, I had no idea that I would be returning to another such setting. Tammie Collins and I planned a week of activities for me as “poet in residence” and I spent five days going in and out of the community room connecting with local people such as Johnny and Doris Tuten, mainstays of historic preservation at Ivy Green. (I had met them the previous fall during the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Lions relationship with Keller during which a sculpture of Helen and Anne Sullivan Macy was unveiled.) I had lunch and supper during meetings of the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, and the Civitans. I kept asking people very directly, “Are your children the best writers they can be?” because I want to raise community aware of the importance of writing in people’s lives and in our economy. I read poems to a diverse audience of astute listeners. And in the twin room of this building, an astounding exhibit called “I Wake from a Dream,” a response by UNA professor emeritus Wayne Sides to The Myth of Water, kept people captivated—and returning to the library. Now Tammie, her Friends of the Library and its Board, and I are planning a poetry reading series for the HKPL that may be funded in part by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, along with local funding, and of course Alabama Writers’ Forum support and guidance.

I haven’t had time to stop and fully process what all has happened since June, but I am envisioning a writing and reading renaissance in Tuscumbia, Colbert County and, I hope, other parts of the Shoals. One the Forum’s major projects is the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame, and I kept pointing out to people in these community conversations that there are multiple members of the Hall of Fame in the Shoals, and North Alabama: Helen Keller (Tuscumbia), T.S. Stribling (Florence), William Bradford Huie (Hartselle), and Rodney Jones (Falkville), and the list will grow. I grew up in North Alabama, a beautiful place that was a bit culturally repressed, even though great writers, musicians, and artists sprung from its soil. How fabulous to be a part of releasing that cultural impulse anew in the twenty-first century for the benefit of the next generation and beyond.

RN: Out of personal curiosity, which of the poems in the collection is your favorite? Is there one you believe most captures Helen’s character?

JT: Of course, it’s hard to say which is a favorite. As I’ve taken these out to the public and read them aloud, I always find that one or two seems to be a favorite. I can tell you the ones I think connect the most with readers: “This Day” and “Photograph of Helen Keller with an Unknown Children” always seem fresh, and I feel when the audience is listening and then becomes more engaged in both of those. “With the Martha Graham Dance Company” is the perhaps the most musical because it strictly follows the repeating patterns of a villanelle. I love to read that one aloud!

New York, 1954

Helen is filmed and photographed meeting and dancing
with Graham and the Company

To move on feet like these requires a different sight.
The floor shook. With a new rhythm of their footfalls
and the lift of their toes, I knew their vibrant light.

The small one, their master whose very body spelled breath,
guided me to a young man, a gnarled foot I held.
To move on feet like these requires a different sight.

His toes pointing the urge to be up and up, that height,
the subtle heat of their bodies, their movement called.
With the lift of their toes, I knew their vibrant light.

When she pulled me into them, a current ran, spear-like,
tightening, as if my whole body were a palm.
To move on feet like these requires a different sight.

My sturdy shoes on that elastic floor knew joy uplifted
and she—rod-straight and lithe, her body hard, a calm
praise for the lift of their toes, that vibrant life—

She sheared around us—a star, a comet whose bright
corona poured forth joy’s spoken filaments. All
to move on feet like these—a different sight!
To know the lift of their toes, I moved in their vibrant light.

from The Myth of Water (The University of Alabama Press, 2016)

RN: You’re a busy woman, involved with multiple literature-related endeavors. What’s next for you? Are there any other personal projects you’ve got aim to plow into?

JT: I am just trying to find my way back to writing poems at the moment. The pantoum in this issue was one of the first truly spontaneous poems in a long time and I had to make everything stop so I could sit down and write it before it flew away. I do have an idea for something that would be a sort of sequel to Myth, so I’m researching that now. I don’t want to say much about that until I’m truly committed to it—more conversation later! Thank you for asking that question because it allows me to say that writing gives me so much joy and I want to return to that state of mind. It’s very hard to keep joy front and center these days and poetry can help salve the wounds of all the strife in the world today. That’s not a cliché but a statement of fact—art can save us from ourselves.

RN: Outside of your writing, you consider yourself an arts advocate—which I’d affectionately argue is an understatement given your roles in so many aspects of Alabama’s arts growth. Why do you believe it’s so imperative to coax the art community, specifically younger folks?

JT: It is vital to human life to experience and participate in the arts. I really think it’s evolution’s way of mitigating mental illness, pain, and grief. Incarcerated people and those who are returning to society talk about the way arts kept them sane while inside, and I see how our young men in the Writing Our Stories program appear to mature, grow, and become much more self-aware because of their poetry. I started writing at fourteen and it saved me from the pettiness of high school society—I look back now and realized I was severely bullied by gossip. We didn’t know what to call it then, but it felt the same. I was different, sort of up in my head, and not in one of the high school sororities. That alone made me a target. But because I was trying to write, imitating older people at school, reading a little American poetry starting in about 11th grade, and understanding that I had some kind of flare for it, I had something I could hold on to that was mine alone. I wasn’t very good because I had no formal instruction—once I got into classes as an undergraduate at UA, I started to understand a lot more about how to write and the importance of reading other poets, listening to wiser, older teachers, and starting to develop my voice. This can be a safety net against all kinds of hazards for a young person. Today it is so much harder for young people because of social media and other pressures. We need the arts in schools more than ever, and yet in Alabama less than 50% of our public schools have an arts specialist. It’s a constant struggle that all of us working with arts education in various ways are making progress. The Alabama Arts Alliance, directed by Donna Russell in Montgomery, is one of the champions of this movement.

RN: Can you tell us a little more about Writing Our Stories and what inspired this initiative?

JT: Writing Our Stories is a creative writing program that takes place within the School District of the Alabama Department of Youth Services, where it started in 1997, and also in the 7th grade classes at three middle schools in Shelby County. The program is built on partnerships—between DYS, the Alabama Writers’ Forum, the Shelby County Arts Council, and Shelby County Schools. We place published writers in the classroom to teach a skills-based curriculum of poetry and fiction. Since 1998, we’ve published more than 80 books and chapbooks of student work.

The initiative was inspired because I visited one of the DYS campuses. I wanted to offer a service project but instead we were given a contract to teach and publish the first anthology—similar to work I had done in New Orleans in a Poetry in the Schools program. Those DYS students touched my heart. And now, in 2018, I am still inspired by them, by their courage, and their talent. Just this week I attended an Arts and Justice Forum to dialogue with people from Alabama and elsewhere about the power of arts in correctional settings. This ties in with education and rehabilitation, as well as encouraging humanity though the arts. This work at the Alabama Writers’ Forum is my heart and soul for many reasons, including the fact that we are employing writers to do lasting, positive work for our communities—I can’t think of a better vocation for someone with an MFA in creative writing!

RN: You’ve also held the Executive Director position at the Alabama Writers’ Forum since 1993. Would you elaborate on the various goals of the forum?

JT: We started the Forum in 1993 under the mentorship of Al Head, executive director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, who had a vision for a literary arts partnership. We’ve partnered with universities, community colleges, historical institutions, and other adjacent groups to create awards and produce many kinds of literary programs. The goal is to promote writers, writing, publishing, and teachers of creative writing in Alabama.
We aren’t an academic association, however. We are community-based. The goal is for Alabamians—and the rest of the world—to know the best and brightest Alabama writers and to create an atmosphere of literature in the cultural community. This doesn’t happen overnight, but after 25 years, I can look back and be proud of what we’ve done. People all over the world know about Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Winston Groom, and others, but we have so many talented writers yet to be known and I’m always interested in finding them. I’ve enjoyed this work and never in a million years thought I would run a not-for-profit and have to think about fundraising 24/7/365. It’s stressful and sometimes very frustrating, but, ultimately, we know we have made a difference in many writers and readers’ lives.

RN: The Black Warrior Review, which you founded, remains one of the most admired literary journals in the country. How’d that come about? And just between us (and everyone else), do you still avidly read every issue?

JT: Started in 1974, Black Warrior Review was typical of the literary journals that came into being during that rich time of the literary magazines and small presses that were keeping poetry and literary fiction alive and available. Some of us in the MFA program decided to do this, and had leadership from our teacher, Thomas Rabbitt, who advised us but refused to be an official faculty sponsor. We knew nothing about publishing, but we made our way with help of professionals around us and I count my four biannual issues as editor-in-chief as a high point of my young literary life. I was a baby who learned to be an editor, a manager, and a bit of a politician. I guess I have a basketful of advice for young people today who dream of starting a nonprofit or magazine—take a business course, learn how to create a budget, to write a press release or find someone else who can, and be prepared to work as long as it takes! I like making something from nothing and that’s what the BWR was in my life—my first literary community creation.

Thomas Rabbitt wanted us to be the leaders and that’s how it remains—a student-run, nationally known journal. It has evolved in many ways and today reflects a lot of the most cutting-edge work. I have a collection of every BWR in my office and I always dip into the new ones. I am BWR’s biggest cheerleader and proud that UA’s Creative Writing Program is known nationally for its literary journal.

RN: On the subject of literary journals, we’re always on the hunt for publications to dig into and are curious where others look to in appeasing their own tastes. Which journals do you admire?

JT: Perhaps one I follow most closely is The Louisville Review, published by the Spalding University low-residency MFA Writing Program where I’m a member of the poetry faculty. I’ve guest edited poetry for several issues. I like the old standards like Poetry Magazine, POEM, Shenandoah, Missouri Review, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Kayak, and online journals KRO Online and Cortland Review. These days Birmingham Poetry Review has become a powerhouse and Nelle (formerly PoemMemoirStory) is first rate, as is The Southern Humanities Review, which has undergone a renaissance in recent years. I can’t begin to even know, much less read, the vast array of magazines out there. I’m glad they are there, though—there’s a very long discussion to be had about the progression of journals, but the simplest statement is that without these journals, poetry would not have a platform in American.

RN: We’re a nosey bunch here—who are some of your favorite writers? Whose work can you not get enough of lately?

JT: My favorite poets include: John Keats, Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, T.E. Eliot, and coming in the modern and mid-twentieth century: W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, Gendolyn Brooks, early John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton—these were my first real teachers. Then I discovered so many more: Apollinaire, Sonia Sanchez, William Matthews, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forche, Galway Kinnell—you see the problem?!

These days I enjoy so many poets, but don’t get to read as much as I’d like. One of my current favorite Alabaman collections is Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s American Happiness. And just this past week I met Camille Dungy and heard her read from her new book, Tropic Cascade. I’m interested in poets who can move me with their hearts and their sense of social justice and husbandry of our world. We used to call that political poetry!

But if I had to pick one book for the proverbial desert island it would be Merwin’s The Vixen. I learned more about the line as an engine of meaning from that book then any other (besides, say, Dickinson).

RN: We ask this in every interview because it seems like all writers have one book that’s defined them in some way. Any genre, and subject; what’s your favorite book? What book matters to you?

JT: I can’t limit it to one. Children’s books captivated me in the beginning and led me into the music and magic of stories. When I was in the 6th grade, it was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Another book that I’d like to mention is Letters from Alabama by Philip Henry Gosse, a work of natural history about Alabama in 1838, in print thanks to the University of Alabama Press. Gosse’s close observations of nature—flora and fauna—and the horrifying institution of slavery have a hold on me, and I’m trying to find my way into a historical personal poem featuring Gosse. He was only in Alabama about nine months but identified hundreds of species and gave us a view of our state from an outsider’s vantage point.

Jeanie Thompson and Rachel Nix

Jeanie Thompson and Rachel Nix

RN: Got a question for us? About the publication, the staff, who any of us admire in a historical sense?

JT: What motivates you to do this labor of literary love, a journal? What are your dreams for this state’s writing community? What do you think we need?

RN: Honestly, I don’t know how to not be a part of cahoodaloodaling. Raquel brought me on in 2012 because she knew I was an avid reader and had a special interest in engaging with young writers through casual mentoring via DeviantArt. It filled some gaps in my life and helped me navigate who I wanted to be and what I wanted to contribute in the writing community—I’ve since joined the staff at Screen Door Review, a journal promoting literary voices of the Queer South, and at Hobo Camp Review as an Associate Editor, focusing mainly on writing book reviews. This community becomes a comfort zone, even in the stress-filled portions of deadlines and time-stealing. But while I consider myself a writer, I still see myself more as a reader, and I love the notion that all voices have relevance and we can assist in amplifying the often less heard.

Admittedly I’m fairly new to Alabama’s writing community. I didn’t know how to find my community or how to engage with it for a long time, which I’m convinced is a typical problem for fellow writers. It all seems so focused in specific cities and therein lies the problem: lack of accessibility. In a separate conversation you told me that the Alabama Writers’ Forum attempts to connect the literary dots within this state, and I suppose that’s where my dreams start wandering: what if we quit talking about saving libraries and let the libraries save us? What if we expanded hours and used them for wider reaching and active hub spots, encouraging pit stops for traveling performance writers and volunteer programs? What if we actually used them for informative outlets that could bridge the small wannabe-communities to the larger ones? It’ll take some rethinking and some finagling of funding, but small towns deserve similar access to literature involvement as the bigger cities and the route, I believe, is through re-imagining our traditional intents.

WIth son Truitt Weaver at MYTH launch_Montgomery_2016Jeanie Thompson is the founding director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a statewide literary arts service organization. She is also a poetry faculty member with the Spalding University low-res MFA Writing Program (Louisville of KY), and a literary arts education advocate. She has published five collections of poems and edited a collection of essays by Alabama authors, The Remember Gate, with Jay Lamar. Her latest work, The Myth of Water, Poems from the Life of Helen Keller (UA Press, 2016), was a finalist for the 2016 Foreword Indie Poetry Book Awards. Her literary arts awards include two literature fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, one from the Louisiana Arts Council, and the Alumni Artist of the Year Award from the University of Alabama’s College of Arts and Sciences. Her work leading the Alabama Writers’ Forum to develop creative writing programs for at-risk youth has been recognized by the AUM Center for Government and by the Alabama Arts Alliance. In June 2018 she spent five days in Tuscumbia, AL, as Poet in Residence during the annual Helen Keller Festival. A native of Decatur, Thompson lives in Montgomery, Alabama. Find more about her work at www.jeaniethompson.net.

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