It is rare for a book of poems to explore well not only historical eras but also the lives of past people, especially those neglected by formal history, and yet Kimberly J. Simms accomplishes this historic excavation in her first collection Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill. Simms weaves South Carolina history of mill workers in the late nineteenth century, both personal and journalistic in detail, and spins their lives into stories. The story of mill workers in the South is often forgotten, blotted out by the shadow of the agricultural South in historical narratives, and yet in this book Simms makes a case for the necessity of these stories through a juxtaposition of elegiac and celebratory poems. These mill women and children gave birth to early labor movements in the South, providing for poor, white women an early entrance into fields of labor not shared by their Northern counterparts until many decades later.
She focuses on the lives of children, with “lungs full of lint/calloused soles black with machine oil,” forced by familial poverty to work in the mills. Despite their hardships, they remain children, curious and searching for glints of innocent joy in the clouds of cotton dust. If one listens to these poems, one might hear flashes of song between the mechanical churn of ginning machines. There remain winks of wonder in the midst of the mundane, the workers at the mill holding fast to kindness and community. Simms writes, “Charity starts with a twang in the heart.”
Her poems, however, do not ignore the cruel aspect of mill life. In focusing on the fictional character of Lindy Lee, a young girl working in the mill, Simms explores how workplace politics, the selfishness of supervisors, the despotic power of mill owners combine to mold a life of misery for individuals with little power. The machinery of not only place but also society work together to strip Lindy Lee of her agency.
Ultimately, this story is one of survival, not glamorous, but instead a product of a series of steps toward a better life. “I want to dance lint-less,” wishes the speaker of one poem, finding escape in cinema. Whether the speakers of these poems describe flooding in middle Saluda, a familiar problem to contemporary readers, or the drudgery of daily mill work, Simms sings songs in which every life is both lament and fanfare. And the pain of the everyday may be relieved only by the hope of a softer future, a future not coarse as cotton, in which “tomorrow I will take up silk.”
Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill is available on October 21st and can be pre-ordered here….
And you can check out the publisher’s site here…
Kimberly Simms is a travelling poet. Will she be visiting your city on her tour? Find out here…
“because love too is like a county fair/ in that it’s at its best in the dark/ next to someone you just met.”- Keegan Lester
Keegan Lester’s debut poetry collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Books Prize, possesses a haunted urgency that, as one careens through its poems like a semi navigating mountain roads, suspends one between what we cannot know about being human and what we cling to as gospel. Gospel’s an accurate word for Lester’s verse. He explores language, love, grief, and Lester’s adopted home state of West Virginia.
The collection, however, is not coal-dusted or steeped in stereotype, but instead luminous with the acknowledged humanity of Appalachians. This is summed up neatly toward the book’s end in “You Appalachian Re-appropriating Asshole Poets,” in which Lester writes, “i don’t write about killing deer… my great uncle pitched/ for the yankees. He also killed deer/ he never wrote a single poem.”
There is an impossibility in both capturing the places we have lived, how they must necessarily change in our actions and through the echo of our memories. In the first “half” of the book (although this part accounts for the majority of the book), Lester weaves together disparate poems into a singular “ghost note,” which is like an elegy. Or prayer. Or the scribbled final thoughts of the dying. Or the dead.
In early 2017, I had the opportunity to see Keegan Lester perform his poems. He reads with both the New York Poetry Brothel and the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue. I use the word perform because Lester affects the posture of a backwoods preacher. The words travel through him, rather than from him as if transfused through the mother-lode vein of a word mine.
I picked up the book this morning for a long car ride and tore through the book for the third time. Perhaps it took some time to compose proper thoughts on the collection, but there must be a reason I keep returning. This book is itself a return, a home town not yours but nevertheless intimately familiar.
“Keegan Lester is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. This is his first book.” – Found on Publisher’s Website
“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
The bar would be cramped on any other night, but tonight there sit only a few students, refugees floating upon wooden detritus in the aftermath of exam shipwreck. I sit down with a group of three Germans who claim to study law and later on, two Americans from Sacramento. They paint their lives in vivid colors and broad strokes, and I listen, nursing a Tom Collins. The conversation floats toward the future and films and far-out imaginings.
Above me, the speakers leak a lullaby of nineties grunge songs—all the tunes you might have listened to in middle school in order to feel superior and dangerous—and I’m rocking my head lightly as my skull flushes out. Become Mr. Lighthead.
Three drinks later, the bar is a tilt-a-whirl of colors and faces. I must hold each new name on my tongue like a secret, whispering over and over these incantations so that tomorrow I might remember the right words. Though students crowd inside, there still remain many places where one can sit down.
This student bar, not a flashy place by any stretch of the imagination, no special light show or dramatic flair: a few cheap bottles of spirits, a lazy bartender consumed with playing cards and taking shots, nostalgic music floating through the air like midday church bells, beers priced far lower than what one might call cheap, viola, a student bar where many twenty-something’s living in close vicinity might squeeze together into a small space. A final space where closing time becomes a joke, where consciousness becomes a myth, and I become a cartoon awash in an ocean of conversation bubbles.
After riding the U-Bahn from Stuttgart airport into the main train station (often named the Hauptbahnhof), we wonder through the train station searching for our correct train which we will ride into Heilbronn. A small bird hops on the platform, a black bird, which I find strange to see underground. Element of air trapped under Earth. When we ascend to the above metro station, a dozen or more birds flit past my head. After navigating the station, which is under construction, my Opa and I must dash down the length of the platform to catch the train before it leaves.
Once onboard, we may relax. With my bags stacked next to me in a seat, I press face to glass and watch sunlight paint Stuttgart. We pass through a series of tunnels, each decorated with crude graffiti. If you pay attention, one notices similar tags appearing again on the sides of buildings later. We pass through the city, a corridor of banks, tall buildings, and beer gardens. Then into the suburbs. The houses in Germany appear very similar in form and style, their red roofs slanted and shingled. Very Old World feel, these houses which appear in sparser patches as we inch out of Stuttgart.
Soon the train glides through the countryside. One sees stretches of pasture, geometrically parceled along the ridges of each sloping knoll. Like an extremely well-played game of Tetris, these agricultural tapestries stitch together into the scene of rural Germany. Later on, as we Heilbronn draws closer, we pass the stratified vineyards. The Romans rose the grape vines on various platforms to trap heat in various areas, and the Germans have adopted this step design. Like shelves built into each hillside.
We drive now through my mother’s childhood hometown. Named Laufen. There’s a tunnel there my mother once told me about during a trip to Germany five years ago. They nickname this place The Suicide Tunnel, for when trains burst into the light, they cannot see whether a person stands next to a track, making it easy for an individual to throw oneself in front of the train. I remember years ago I found this place incredibly morbid, a place famous for its suicides. A place made holy through death. But now, an older version of myself reconsiders. Not so strange to find a place disturbing or special, for any place could become this place if a person dies in that place. There is a housing complex back home where a friend died, and still I cannot easily pass this neighborhood without a strange shiver.
Any house may become haunted. Any train track may become doomed. Any graveyard can be made holy for the family and friends of those whom are there interred.
“South is South”: Writing About South Carolina Without Demonizing or Romanticizing Its Culture, Past, and People
The South of the Mind smells like honeysuckles; sometimes Charleston smells like sewage and dead fish. The sun is a warm friend in the South of the Mind, where snow is mere fantasy; last weekend, snow blanketed my hometown of Aiken, and a week before the sun was a bully breathing down the backs of our necks. Either genteel Southern belles or toothless rednecks populate the South of the Mind; South Carolina is populated by a growing diversity of people who do not easily conform to categories. Just like any other geographic region, the Southeastern United States suffers from an image problem, presumptions propagated by stereotypes about the places, people, and culture that overshadow the true nuanced portrait of the region. Perceptions of the South formed through fiction often affect people’s opinions about the South itself. In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I grappled with representing the small-town South in a way that felt authentic. On one hand, I wished not to construct the South as an overwhelmingly horrible and backwards place and therefore gloss over its positive attributes. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore its faults. While southern culture and politics does not escape unscathed in my stories, I intend to present a balanced representation—the beautiful, the ugly, and the damned.
Although all novelists writing in English must confront the hegemonic power of the language and the violence committed by its speakers both in the physical and intellectual realm, writers in the South wrestle with a particular complex past. Because our past brims with violence, exploitation, and continued inequality—trends that today perpetuate new forms of oppression—we cannot paint the South in its antebellum grace. Too often we portray the South as blood-less cotton fields and pristine plantations, southerners sipping sweet tea while seated in rocking chairs as the breeze tickles the backs of their necks. Conversely, we also tend to focus only the brutality of our past without taking into consideration the hardships of southerners. In order to truly have a conversation about how to write about the South, I think we should confront a few topics. Over the next few weeks, I will pen short essays on the intersection of fiction and other topics, how these topics pervade our culture and therefore our stories. Though I may choose to write more essays than I currently intend, the topics include race, development, politics, religion, and family.
While engaging these topics, I hope to challenge myself to think more critically about how I construct my own “South of the Mind” in my novels and short stories. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County is only the first book I intend to write about the South, which tackles all of the above mentioned topics, but as I write about different cities in South Carolina and beyond (I am now writing about North Carolina, gasp!), I hope to show how nuanced each region truly can be. The “South” is merely an idea—a construct formed by unconscious popular consensus—in much the same way “Africa” is merely an idea for many Americans based not in any actual knowledge or experience (See Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa” for confirmation of this). If you have any comments throughout the series on what ways portrayals of the South are fair or unfair, please share them. Likewise, I must contend that I speak primarily for South Carolina being born and raised in the state. Let us write with our minds and hearts open. See you next time for a frank talk about the South and its history of racial oppression.
This week has been so far incredible, and now I’m gearing up for a slightly quieter week of writing and editing and putting my head down so that the copy-edit of the final draft of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County can be finished.
I got a poem published in RiverSedge, a lit journal based out of the Texas-Pan American Press. I will update on which poem got published once the journal is released.
Recently, I also received publication in The Southern Tablet. You can read my poem here: When You’re Sixteen In a Small Southern Town. It’s a fun poem about childhood and growing up, which is probably one of my favorite non-slam poems I’ve written recently.
On Saturday, I got the honor of being in my hometown newspaper The Aiken Standard. Entertainment writer Stephanie Turner penned an awesome feature about my first novel, my burgeoning poetry career, and my creative process. I was very happy at work that morning as several people approached me, having recognized my picture from the article. It’s been an interesting summer in Aiken, SC, because I always felt like in Charleston, people know me as a writer and in Aiken, people don’t know me as anything. But that is starting to change, and I hope only I can remain humbled and grateful about the opportunities afforded to me.
Read the Article here: Aiken Poet Completes First Novel.
Poetry, too, has blessed me this week with an incredible energy. On Wednesday night, Nova (a fellow poet and my significant other) and myself drove up to Greenville, SC to compete in a small slam hosted by Moody Black. I was happy to catch up with my poet family, especially one brother who is about to join the Navy. The event stoked my love for the spoken word art form and taught me just a little bit more about the competitive side of poetry. Check out the slam winner Annie Lee, picture below.
The very next evening, I attended an open mic at MAD Studios in Augusta. I have featured here before and love the venue. This week, Bilaal Muhammed blessed us with some poetry. Augusta Poet Laureate SleepyEyez Carter was instrumental in bringing out many of the city’s poets and performers for an evening of high-energy love. During that evening, I learned that both Sleepy and Brotha Trav (the previous poet laureate) were heading to Atlanta on Saturday.
I called to ask if I could tag along. I performed as the spotlight poet at Urban Grind’s “Do You Lyric Lounge?” I also got invited back next year on August 2015 to perform as the feature. I am slowly building up a calendar for 2015, based around the same time my book will be released!
On top of all this great news, Germany won the WORLD CUP. I celebrated by buying some new books. In the coming week, I’m going to start blogging more frequently so I can give more full thoughts on the events and happenings I’m experiencing. On July 22nd there will be the Holy City Slam in Charleston (hosted by myself and Matthew Foley) which I will blog about before it happens. Also, we are having a small poet’s party tomorrow evening at a local pool– The Poetry Potluck! The other big news is the Word Perfect show in Charleston on August 14th, which will take place at the Charleston Music Hall.