Poetry is a Way of Seeing: A Conversation with Betty Adcock
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.
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.
While we’re on the topic of family, your granddaughters, Tai and Mollie, were both born in China and adopted by your daughter and her husband. What is it like having grandchildren?
It’s everything it’s cracked up to be and more. It was not an ambition to which I had paid much attention. Turns out it ranks highest on my list of joys. Tai Lane, 11, and Mollie, 7, are bright, beautiful and affectionate kids. Tai is a talented painter and Mollie can best us all at wordplay. And they live in Raleigh now instead of New York as they did earlier. Perfect.
Have they changed your perception of writing in any way?
They have taught me things I use in my poems, perceptions I could not have had without these two small persons in my life; but my perceptions about writing itself remain the same. I do, however, spend more time with children’s literature than I used to!
Will Chinese culture be a part of Tai and Mollie’s growing up?
Tai and Mollie are very conscious of their Chinese heritage. At age 5, Tai went to China with her parents to get her little sister. She climbed the Great Wall and saw all manner of wonderful things, including the ancient bells of Wuhan. But she and another child with the group were thrilled to discover a McDonald’s in Beijing — they are American kids. However, they perform with the dancers in Raleigh’s yearly Chinese Festival sponsored by the Chinese community here. And Tai has become very good at traditional Chinese painting techniques, taking private lessons. The four-panel silk screen she hand-painted hangs in her parents’ dining room and no one guesses it was done by a child. But I am doing the typical grandma thing, bragging.
How did you come to live in North Carolina?
I married a North Carolinian. I met Don when I was 17 and he was teaching in a Deming, New Mexico high school. My roommate at school in Dallas was from Deming and she took me home with her for spring break. I met this wonderful older guy who loved poetry and was a marvelous musician. I decided then and there to marry him, which happened a year later, after my first year of college. Don moved back to North Carolina to be near his mother who was ill. We hadn’t necessarily intended to stay — but he was soon offered a position as Associate Director of Music at North Carolina State University and here we still are.
From the Publisher:
“Betty Adcock writes poems that range from elegy to dark humor as they confront both loss and possibility. Intervale, selections from her first four books plus a new collection, traces the continuity of her vision and shows that lyric intensity can bring light to even the most obdurate darkness.
Moving from the original loss of a world at her mother’s death during the poet’s sixth year to the world’s loss of the arboreal leopards of Cambodia and Vietnam; from vanishing farmland to the endangered Sacred Harp music that once flourished in backwoods churches; from the difficult history of a little-known rural place to the weighted ruins of Greece—these poems frame lessenings, divestations, and devastations in the midst of plenty. A wilderness disappears into cozy myth, farming into industry, tiger and elephant into zoos; the very ground underfoot, with its attendant necessities and contingencies, can seem to fade into fabrications we take for reality…”
East Texas and North Carolina landscapes are present in your poetry in many ways. What are some of the differences in the two?
North Carolina has a gentler climate than east Texas. The central North Carolina Piedmont where Raleigh is located has a landscape much like my earlier home, the same kinds of trees and flowers, the same easy growing seasons, though east Texas has a longer one, with perhaps more exotics, like pomegranate trees. Both wilderness areas are haunted, magical. The two are enough alike that I felt close to things in North Carolina from the day I arrived. Of course, we bring our own landscapes with us as well, whatever they are, don’t we?
I used to say “Geography is destiny” and never knew if I had read it somewhere or made it up. I do believe it; whether it is the real land or the manmade cityscape laid over the land — certainly it is true for poets, whether the poems are set in Nebraska, Texas, New England, or four square blocks of Manhattan. Or in the nowhere of the disembodied mind. Or in our current cultural cyberspace. The place we came from or have settled into shapes lives, and so of course it shapes poems.
You worked in advertising. What did you take away with you from that kind of work?
I stayed in advertising for eleven years and I wrote my first book while I was working as a copywriter at a small agency. I was not ambitious in that field; if you are ambitious, it will devour you, for it’s a risky and demanding business. Our clients were mostly regional, small businesses, banks, agricultural organizations, even a travel trailer manufacturer and some politicians. I did not believe in what I was doing… I did the only thing I could to make a living. I have, to this day, no college degrees, not even a BA.
A friend, knowing I had never held a job of any kind but was already publishing poetry in journals, and knowing I really needed a job, got me the interview at this small agency in Raleigh. I told them I could write anything — I figured if you can write poetry, you can write anything.
I started at the minimum wage. I think it was $1.50 an hour. I started out by answering phones at the front desk and wrote a few ads. The first ad campaigns I designed would have been expensive to produce and would have bankrupted the agency. I think I had one for a bank involving a hot air balloon and an airplane with several zoo animals. First they laughed, then they hired me. The job was purely a necessity. I had no degrees, no skills, couldn’t type except with three fingers. We had an 11-year-old daughter, college looming. I had gone back to college myself but we had run out of funds entirely.
I did much better later, of course. I bargained with my bosses to let me come in when I chose, leave when I chose, could take time off for literary things, and work by the hour. As long as I got everything in on time, they didn’t care. There were times of pressure when I had to work fourteen hours or more, all night on TV shoots. I had to have been the most inexperienced “producer” ever. My first TV shoot was my first sight of the inside of a TV studio. It was all rubber bands and scotch tape, flying by the seat of my pants.
What did I get out of working in advertising? The answer is, I got out of it as fast as I could. And I wrote a considerable part of my first book on their time. If I could finish the ad in five minutes, I could work on poems.
And your experience working on the Southern Poetry Review?
Guy Owen founded the journal under the name Impetus in Florida at Stetson University. He moved it with him when he came to North Carolina State University to teach, renaming it Southern Poetry Review. I took a creative writing class with him in 1965. It was a fiction class but he let me write poems instead — that, incidentally, is the only creative writing class I’ve ever had. Anyway, at the end of the semester, he gave me a list of places to which I could send poems and asked me to be a reader for SPR. Later, I became an Associate Editor, and I guest-edited an issue of women’s poetry, unusual in those days. I helped found the Guy Owen Prize. Guy died young, and two of us, Thomas Walters and I, sent out letters to all the poets Guy had published and encouraged for years, a number of them well known by the time of his death. Everyone sent contributions and we raised enough to start the prize. I am very proud to have been able to help keep Guy’s name connected to the magazine he loved.
Despite the word “southern” in its name, the magazine was national in its reach. Guy did certainly encourage southern poets particularly, but work from all regions came in to the journal. I recommend to you the paperback anthology, Don’t Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review, just out this year from University of Arkansas Press.
One of your poems, “Kind of Blue,” (also a famous and influential jazz album by Miles Davis), blends nature, music, place, and language. You’ve had the good fortune to enjoy live performances of some of the greatest jazz musicians; how is it that you’ve gotten to listen to many jazz greats while living in Raleigh?
We live just blocks from the site of the club that was one of the best jazz clubs in the country during the seventies and the early eighties, when jazz was drying up in New York. A British physicist who also played jazz drums opened a place called “The Frog and Nightgown” that attracted most of the best-known mainstream jazz greats. I heard Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Charlie Byrd, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Bill Evans, Stan Kenton, Sonny Stitt, and many more. All these players came for multiple gigs at the Frog over the few years it existed.
Because my husband is a jazz musician himself (flute) and an obsessed jazz buff, we went to the Frog often, sometimes several times a week. I actually got to know a number of those guys, had them over to our house. I’ve listened to the talk among my husband’s serious musician friends, heard them argue and detail the way jazz works, and I know something of that has influenced my own approach to poetry. For me, in fact, working on poems has a lot in common with jazz improvisation — the dialogue between the poet and his/her poem (yes, a draft can tell you things to do next) being similar to the dialogue between the player and the tune, a “striking off” each other — the play between the conscious and the unconscious, the given and the new, pattern and then abandonment and return, the poet and other voices he/she hears. I feel very much at home among jazz people. And I discover that most of my poet friends are jazz buffs. They talk to Don more than they talk to me.
Your poetry is also very conscious of nature. Why does nature still inform so much poetry? Do you think natural imagery will eventually lose relevancy as people move further from (or continually overtake and urbanize) the natural world?
My father was a genuine woodsman and, though he hunted them, he loved animals and their world much more than the small talk of offices and stores and houses. I took in some of that as much by osmosis as anything else. He also taught me about plants and creatures, brought me wild pets — a baby skunk, a baby raccoon to raise. We had a pet cardinal who would come to the screen door to be let in at night. My grandfather took me on long walks into forested land behind his house. He taught me to call owls. I was an only child and spent much of my time wandering around collecting things from outdoors. I was close enough to the natural world to see it as farm kids do. And everything we ate was raised at home, then smoked and canned or preserved or pickled.
The term ‘nature poet’ is offensive. All poets are nature poets, even if their testament is to the city sprawl and shifting cultures laid over the earth by humankind, a species that is also, in spite of itself, part of and subject to what we refer to as “nature,” that which we generally objectify or anthromorphize or ignore.
If that is a gone world, and it is gone — but whether in the form I knew or a New England snowy wood, a Kansas plain, a rainforest, or a wild coastline — it remains the only ground of being we have. The term “nature poet” is offensive. All poets are nature poets, even if their testament is to the city sprawl and shifting cultures laid over the earth by humankind, a species that is also, in spite of itself, part of and subject to what we refer to as “nature,” that which we generally objectify or anthromorphize or ignore.
Do I think imagery from the natural world will disappear from poetry? No, but there will be, is already, less of it. Fewer people know the language — for it is a language: the texture of a leaf, the way wet chickens smell like ashes, the way a dead animal’s carcass seeps slowly into a forest floor, the way the owl’s call parses distance. So things will change, and then they’ll come round again, perhaps not gently but certainly. The poets will write it all down, as they have always done, even if nobody reads it, and nature won’t disappear from anything, however we might think we wish it would.
James Dickey — What was he like? Has his poetry been important to your work?
I did know James Dickey slightly. I knew his work very well. Especially the poems written between 1957 and 1967. Almost all his poems afterward pale in comparison with the work of that one ten-year period. I have said this before, but Dickey’s work gave me a kind of permission to write about the South I knew.
I never connected much to the poems of the Fugitives, except for Robert Penn Warren, who was the most daring and the closest to the ground, so to speak. Reading Dickey’s poems as they came out in the journals was a revelation. I read Dickey and Roethke intensely at around the same time. Both of them mattered to me very much. Dickey’s south was a place I knew; his way of merging with the land and its creatures was something I knew. He was nothing like Ransom, whose poems reminded me of the ornately carved marble-topped tables in my grandmother’s Victorian house, or Tate or the other philosophers of that group. Dickey’s poems were not like anybody’s, unless one imagines a Gerard Manley Hopkins with a huge ego, a southern accent, and a tacky cowboy hat.
It’s common knowledge that writing poetry does not usually pay well, and its effects are often ephemeral; your poem, “Letter to a Gifted Student,” is a sober, almost cautionary-tale-look at writing. Could you comment on the opening lines, “Know this is first: the gift is worthless/ you’ve been unwrapping all these years”?
“Letter to a Gifted Student” is a dark poem, though not altogether so. Remember the tear at the end is the “necessary tear.” The poem is perhaps a kind of warning about what real poetry requires. There’s a lot of fake poetry around though I am aware that nobody is supposed to say so.
If someone should say to me, “How can you tell if a poem is fake?” I would give the answer Louis Armstrong gave when somebody asked something similar about jazz. “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know.” But that’s an aside. Real poetry asks everything of the writer. There is little in the way of tangible reward. The whole “po’ biz” machine is absurd, really. Rewards are given but not always for real poetry; and the rewards are small indeed compared to, say, selling houses or starting a band. Knowing how serious and how talented this student was, and how tough the competition for publication and for readers and how skewed the standards can be depending on academic connections, self-promotion, literary politics — I simply wrote a warning not to expect the world to give a damn but to go on writing. Tim McBride is an outsider to the literary world, a situation I understand. I’m happy to say, however, that his first book is due out from Northwestern University Press in the spring. I still tell my students to continue writing poetry only if they have to; if they cannot imagine life without it; if it is a way of seeing that is essential to them for its own sake, even if they never publish, never teach.
When did you begin writing?
I don’t remember NOT writing, at least once I learned to make letters. My fifth-grade teacher told me once, after I had grown up, that she used to catch me writing “poems” while holding up my geography book to hide what I was doing. It seems to be what I have always done.
Which writers do you especially admire and why?
I am actually going to try and answer this question. But it becomes absurd because there are so many, and from so many periods. Even limiting it to the 20th century and beyond would be too much. The poets who meant most to me when I was very young and finding everything for myself were Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Robinson Jeffers.
I admire rich, expansive language, and also the controlled short form. I love narrative and lyric and any well-made combination of those. This was in the late fifties, early sixties and none of the three were in fashion. Here’s the benefit of learning without classrooms — you get to discover the ones you need. The first two were for passion and music, the third, Jeffers, was a revelation on many levels. He remains the most important poet to me. Then there was George Herbert, and Dickinson, Hardy, Warren, Dickey, Kumin, Kinnell, Merwin, Roethke, Plath and early Hughes (I am a politically incorrect reader) and more, more — each different reasons, different rewards. I could add Nemerov, underappreciated I think, and other less known poets like Adrienne Stoutenburg and Eleanor Ross Taylor.
I admire rich, expansive language, and also the controlled short form. I love narrative and lyric and any well-made combination of those. I can note the books read in the last several months that I admire right now: Usher by B. H. Fairchild; re-read Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; Figure Studies: Poems by Claudia Emerson; Messenger by Ellen Bryant Voigt; Pictures of the Afterlife by Jude Nutter; re-read Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson. Next month there will be others. What I ask of poetry is clarity, passion, a logic of metaphor, and above all, the music without which poetry is only prose broken into lines.
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