Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday Muse: Alabama's Poet Laureate

Alabama's Poet Laureate, Sue Brannan Walker, first assumed her position in August 2003. She subsequently was re-elected to a second term, which expires in 2011.

Established by the state legislature in 1931 (Act 92), the office is an honorary commission. The Alabama Writers' Conclave, the membership of which includes state historians, playwrights, fiction writers, poets, and newspaper writers, selects and elects a designee whose name is then certified to the governor. 

Originally, the office had no term limits; in 1983, the Alabama Writers' Conclave amended its constitution to limit the office to a single term of four years. The nominee must have resided in the state at least 15 years. He or she need not be part of the Conclave to be nominated.

Walker's predecessors are poets Helen Norris (1999 - 2003), Helen Friedman Blackshear (1995 - 1999), Ralph Hammond (1992 - 1995), Morton Dennison Prouty, Jr. (1988 - 1991), Carl Patrick Morton (1983 - 1987), William Young Elliott (1975 - 1982), Elbert C. Henderson (1959 - 1974), Mary B. Ward (1954 - 1958), and Samuel Minturn Peck (1930 - 1938).

* * * * * 
Sue Brannan Walker, Ph.D., editor and publisher since 1981 of the literary journal Negative Capability, has published more than a half-dozen collections of poetry, including It's Good Weather for Fudge: Conversing with Carson McCullers (NewSouth Books, 2003), Blood Must Bear Your Name (Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2002), The Appearance of Green (Nightshade Press, 1995), Shorings (South Coast Press, 1992), and Traveling My Shadow (Negative Capability Press, 1982). Her Blood Must Bear Your Name was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was awarded Book of the Year from the Alabama State Poetry Society. Walker's new collection, She Said, is forthcoming from River's Edge Press.

With John William Chambers, published of Elk River Review, Walker edited Whatever Remembers Us: An Anthology of Alabama Poetry (Negative Capability Press, 2007), which became a finalist for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance 2008 poetry award. In addition, she edited, with Eugenie Hamner, Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy (1991); wrote the Introduction to Selected Writings of Jay Higginbotham (2008); and provided the text for In the Realm of Rivers: Alabama's Mobile-Tensaw Delta (NewSouth Books, 2004). She also edited, with Rosaly Roffman, a collection of poems, stories, and essays titled Life on the Line: Selections on Words and Healing (Negative Capability Press, 1992), which received the William Crawford Gorgas Award from the Medical Society of Alabama and a book award from the Alabama Poetry Society. In addition, Walker's edited a number of Negative Capability issues, including Negative Capability: Myth, Magic, and Folklore Issue (Vol. V, No. 2, Spring 1985).

Walker's poetry ranges over such themes as love, war, family relationships and blood ties, friendship, sickness and healing, poets and writers, and the natural world. It tends to be written in short lines  (enjambment is common) and displays often-wonderful use of simile and a charming sense of humor. It is also insightful, demonstrating Walker's deep knowledge of her subjects.

Here's an excerpt from Walker's delightful "Grandfather's Thumb"*:

She said
her grandfather's thumb
was a chapter in the story
of his life, a black digit,
a hammer with which
he sometimes hit the nail,
sometimes not. . . 
. . . She said Grandpa
told her the thumb was hard labor,
and she thought he was tough—
but he was also trips to the bakery. . . .

This next poem is from Blood Must Bear Your Name:

Doctors pronounce
a clean bill of health,
the way a fold of cloth
hides what was spilled upon it,
visible and real as grease.
Beneath crazed eyes,
rust claws the green edge of life;
terror paints roads addled as waves.
In Saint Remy, where brown potatoes
look with hard blind eyes
at a sky of brooding crows,
Vincent fingers his absent ear
and waits the red explosion
of a gun.

In the following example, Walker demonstrates her sense of humor, writing "A Found Poem" that she titles "Prenuptial Agreement (Charles Walter Stetson to Charlotte Perkins Gilman), October 22, 1882":

I hereby make my solemn oath
that I shall never in the future years
expect of my wife
any culinary
or housekeeping proficiency.
She shall never be required,
whatever the emergency,
to D U S T!
 ~ from The Appearance of Green

You have to smile, reading that.

In her limited-edition Faulkner Suite (see below), Walker questions what it might have been like to see Faulkner at the grocery:

Did he pad the aisles in mules
or swagger past the potatoes
in his RAF costume that confirmed
a dream made real by appearance?
Did he finger the leaves of turnips
like a book or stop to tell the girl
behind the counter why he prefaced
the tale about Miss Emily
with a rose? A man with a distrust
of docs, he favored Epsom Salts 
over surgical fusion for a back
broken tumbling down the stairs 
at Rowan Oak. Once his wife
asked a friend if Bill
ever talked about their relationship.
"We used to go fishing together;
we loved each other," she cried. . . .
~ from "Did William Faulkner Shop the A&P?"

This final excerpt is from Walker's "Helen Keller Comes to Know Water", which may be read in full here (scroll to page 6):

Helen knew that life compasses shadows, but a child,
though blind, learns that a hand brimming with water
is the priceless gift of wanting fingers.

Walker's poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines and periodicals, including Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBirmingham Arts JournalConnecticut Review, Elk River Review, The New York Quarterly, Writer's Digest, Kalliope, Black Willow, Piedmont Literary Review, Journal of New Poetry, and Jabberwocky.

A member of the faculty at the University of South Alabama, where she was named Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in 2008, Walker has been chair of the Department of English. Her literary scholarship includes a biography of Jefferson Davis (in sonnets) and critical essays on, among others, Marge PiercyJames Dickey, Flannery O'Connor, Margaret Atwood, and Richard Eberhart. Walker's Faulkner Suite (OEOCO Press, 2008), published in an edition of 50 ($300), contains 17 poems that reflect and "recover" the legacy of Faulkner, who, according to the Foreword by Don H. Doyle, "described himself as a failed poet and said that, like most writers, he resorted to short stories because he couldn't do poetry." (An example of a page from this fine press book is here.)

Walker also has published a novel about Mobile, Alabama's 1878 yellow fever epidemic, a one-act play, The Light Guitar, musical recordings, and book reviews. She's participates often in poetry readings and festivals, lectures, and workshops, judges poetry competitions, and maintains active memberships in many literary groups, such as Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and National League of American Pen Women.  


All quoted poetry excerpts © Sue Walker

* "Grandfather's Thumb" received First Prize in the Southern States contest sponsored by Persimmon Tree, an online arts magazine "by women over 60".  The complete poem is here.

An example of Walker's drama, Cognac in Coffee, Oysters in Champagne

Walker's "I Won't Answer If It Calls My Name" (scroll to page 23)

Walker's Curriculum Vitae

Alabama Department of Archives and History

Alabama Writers' Conclave

Alabama Writers' Forum

"Poets Laureate of Alabama" in Encyclopedia of Alabama

Alabama Page


M.L. Gallagher said...

The richness of the lives of these Poet Laureates you share is inspiring.

Again -- WoW1

Cassandra Frear said...

"but he was also trips to the bakery"

Ah, now there's an image I can sink my teeth into.

Joyce Wycoff said...

It's Monday and I'm one poet laureate wiser thanks to your generous sharing. Thanks for widening my world. joyce

Anonymous said...

The nominee must have resided in the state at least 15 years.