Poetry is a Way of Seeing: A Conversation with Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock
BY Nicholas Graetz

BETTY ADCOCK grew up in deep East Texas in the small farming town of San Augustine, one of the oldest settlements in the state. Her family history there begins in 1819, and such deep roots inform much of her work, particularly the unexpectedly lush and unusual landscape of her early life: this is not the Texas of prairies and cowboys but a mixture of deep south and west, in the shadow of immense, disappearing forests and the fabled Big Thicket wilderness.

Since her marriage to Donald Adcock, musician and educator, she has lived all her writing life in North Carolina, winning major literary honors in her adopted state. They have one daughter, Sylvia Adcock, a journalist married to Steven Ruinsky, and two matchless granddaughters, Tai and Mollie.

Largely self-educated — she has no degrees — Adcock has studied and written poetry through early marriage, early motherhood, and more than a decade working in the business world. After her first book was published, she held a number of teaching residencies. She currently teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

Asked in an interview what she hoped for in her poetry, she replied “to tell the truth and find that it is music.” Read more at bettyadcock.com.

In your latest collection, Slantwise, there is a poem (“1932”) about your mother and father. What is your clearest memory of your mother, Sylvia Hudgins Sharp?

My mother reading to me. She was a high school English and Latin teacher, and her papers show her passion for literature and for children’s literature. I remember also a yellow dress with white polka dots, and the frightening sight of her lying in the coffin, placed in the house as they were then in rural places, looking like NOT my mother.

The poem about my mother and father on the bridge came to me by way of the true story recounted by the family with whom mother boarded when she came to my hometown as a young teacher. She had educated herself, working her way through college (and some way toward a master’s) beginning at age 16. The oldest of nine children in a poor farming family, she achieved something rare in those days, earning a college degree in the 1920s all on her own.

Poetry is still, for me, a way of seeing, and my background helps me look. And then look again. And then again.

I had written poems about my mother’s death, which was all I knew of her until my father gave me her papers when I was in my twenties. Those papers showed me a woman whose passion for poetry was so great that she corralled rural wives of preachers, doctors, farmers, and storekeepers to read Frost, Whitman, Eliot, MacLeish, and many others. This was in the 1930s and 40s (she died in ’44). She even assigned them Langston Hughes, strange for that time and place. I still have the printed programs from The Study Club, as she called it.

I feel my roots grow in both sides of the south’s past: the poor-white, dirt-farming majority and the plantation-owning minority. I know more than one thing because of that. It makes for contradiction that exercises perception. Poetry is still, for me, a way of seeing, and my background helps me look. And then look again. And then again.

Your father Ralph was a landowner. Did he farm?

No, but yes, too, sort of. I used to be deeply perplexed as to what to say on school questionnaires about “Father’s Occupation.”

His family were original settlers in east Texas, the first having arrived in 1819. It was the deep south, a slave economy, ruled by Spain, settled by Virginians, North Carolinians, and Tennesseans, so they were “old landed gentry.” After the agrarian era, they became the “land poor:” lots of land, little money.

He had worked as an accountant in a bank, and, during WWII, in accounting at the ship-building centers in Orange and Beaumont. He commuted until my mother died in 1944. He never took another job, just went hunting and fishing. There was just enough income from farmland in other counties where farm managers ran things. I finally figured it out, from a book I read that used the term, that I could call my father a “gentleman farmer.” It was a great relief not to have to say: “He goes out hunting.”

My father was broken by my mother’s sudden, unnecessary, too-early death, likely caused by a transfusion of the wrong type of blood. He never fully got over that grief and spent the rest of his days walking the beautiful, difficult forests of that place and he never remarried.

If this sounds as if we were weathly, let me disabuse you of that right now. The house I lived in was Victorian, large, grand-looking only from a distance, and falling apart in many ways. I once fell through the front porch. If this sounds like something out of a Faulkner story… well, that’s not far off.

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