Kelly Cherry and Henry Taylor met at the University of Virginia in 1960, where he was a first-year undergraduate and she was a graduate student in philosophy. After he got over feeling inferior because the difference in their ages is only a few months, not enough to account for an entire undergraduate career, they began talking to each other about their writing; they’ve been doing that ever since, but specifically, one poem or story or novel at a time. Recently they were prodded into a conversation, carried out through the mail and on the phone, about contemporary Southern poetry. They had never talked about that before, even though they are both Southerners.

Henry Taylor: I took a course in Southern literature once, and came out of it mostly with a sense of gratitude that I was writing in the 20th century. I can’t remember a single line by Henry Timrod, and when I think of Sidney Lanier, I usually wonder whether anybody has ever put into a novel a law firm called Habersham and Hall.

Of course the South has been studied at length as a region, maybe more than any other region in the country, and it has been pointed out countless times that it’s the only part of the country that was ever defeated in war and occupied by victorious forces. That made a difference between Southerners and other Americans for a b long time. It’s probably also true that anthologies of Southern poetry are bigger and possibly richer than anthologies of Western poetry or Midwestern poetry; I don’t recall seeing an anthology of Northeastern or New England poetry of this century, but it would make an interesting collection, and might be more like a collection of Southern poetry than we might expect.

I guess I’m wondering whether the South’s pure size, and the diversity of its cultures, make labels like “Southern poet” almost a matter of geographic origin. There are still Southern poets who use Southern landscapes and speech patterns, but aren’t there a great many who don’t?

Kelly Cherry: I suppose that we might approach the Southern poet the same way one approaches God, via negativa. In that case, it seems to me, the Southern poet is, first of all, somebody who is not a Northern poet. What this means is that the Southern poet is not unfamiliar with the idea of defeat. The Southern poet is not unfamiliar with the Bible. The Southern poet is not averse to telling stories, and may even elect to tell a story rather than expound a point.

I spent part of my childhood in upstate New York, and I remember being, even then, amazed by the Yankee ability to assume an invulnerability, by a Yankee lack of interest in the rhetoric and rhythms of the King James Bible, and by Yankee reticence. Nobody talked with anybody! Of course, later on I found out that in New York City there was quite a lot of talk, but it was nearly all in the form of argument, not story.

(As for the biblical reference, however, I could not have been happier—though, again, later on—to encounter the splendidly allusive music of such Yankees as Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Robert Lowell. Even of a Midwesterner like T.S. Eliot. As it happened, Melville, Edwards, Lowell, and Eliot were not present during my childhood, in the tenement railway flat we lived in, three flights above a grocery store.)

These are generalizations, and as such, trivial. Besides, they’ve been made before. I’ve made them before, myself But what I do think is peculiar—pretty peculiar—to the Southern poet is the idea of resurrection. “The idea of resurrection, of the old made new, the last made first, the dead quickened,” I once wrote, underwrites Southern poetry with a sense of gladness, a sense of irrepressible joy, at the possibilities of reformation, even in the face of defeat. Especially in the face of defeat. (The face of defeat could be de sole. I didn’t say that.) This is why, I think, Harold Bloom’s theory of misprision—that great writers must figure out a way to misread their “precursors” in order to clear imaginative space for themselves—has found so little sympathy in the South. Southern poets have had no difficulty at all locating imaginative space for themselves. How could there ever be any limit to imaginative space?

Consider Fred Chappell. He’s taken on Dante, in his long poem, Midquest. Well, so has James Merrill, but Merrill makes a series of points, or rather, makes a series of refusals to make a point, while Chappell goes right ahead and tells a bunch of stories. With characters who have names like Virgil!

“The Southern poet,” I wrote, “who grows up even laterally with the Good News as part of his daily bread, and who is maybe more than some guiltily aware of the need for it, is likely, looking at the merits of his poetic fathers, to feel not that anxiety which has been wished on him but an expansive exhilaration, a sense of the terrifying possibilities of—not of ‘misreading.’ Of translation. In the beginning was the Word. And in the end also.”

I wrote that, by the way, back in the days when I was tenaciously clinging to the representative masculine pronoun. I didn’t want to sacrifice the power of the singular for the political inclusiveness of a slash mark. If you want to talk about the imaginative space available to women poets, I’ll become positively rapturous.

So what I would say is this: there is something beyond geography that defines a Southern poet. Not that you can’t be from Japan and know what it is to have lost a war, or from Israel and know the Bible, or from California, and have stories to tell, but that these things taken together promote an assertive belief in the possibility of, and need for, self-re-creation.

Taylor: I think you’re right about the Bible. I was just paging through an anthology of recent Southern poetry, and was surprised at the number of poems that get right to it, very often- by way of a story, a recollection, say, of a funeral; the past has an immediacy for many of us. There, now, I’ve said us without thinking, so I have to admit that I can see Southern poets as a group, scattered as we are. I’ve never even met James Applewhite or Robert Morgan, much as I suspect I would enjoy them if I did. Morgan lives in Ithaca, I think, and that reminds me that a bunch of Southern poets don’t live in the South now. We’re hardly a Mafia.

Cherry: Maybe that’s another definition of the Southern poet. Somebody who is not a member of the Poetry Mafia.

But don’t you feel that we are at least some sort of extended family? I’ve never met Robert Morgan, either, and Applewhite only once, but I think of them as literary cousins of a sort. And why? Because they come out of a cultural idiom that parented me, too.

Taylor: Do you mean moon pies and 7-Elevens? Faulkner and O’Connor? Blues and bluegrass? Cherry; Those things are there, though for me they are there on the periphery, not at the center, simply because they were not direct influences on my childhood. But no, I mean the larger themes we were talking about.

Taylor: Surely, though. Southerners aren’t sitting around in a daze of nostalgia, as Northerners seem to think. Not these days.

Cherry: Hanging out on the metaphorical back porch of a summer evening, memorializing an Arcadian past. . . . It’s true. I don’t know anybody who’s doing that. Did Southern writers ever do that?

Taylor: I think they did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That may make for some misunderstanding, some misreading. I’m thinking of Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, which came out a couple of years ago. It’s a book-length poem, mostly spoken by Sidney Lanier, but the voice is invented, not based on Lanier’s poetry. It’s a wonderful book, anything but an exercise in nostalgia.

Progress and nostalgia, Old South and New South; there are tensions there still. Take the question of race. Certainly, in the last thirty or forty years, it has become clear that this is not purely a Southern problem.

Cherry: That’s true. But I, for one, do find myself concerned with it in my work, though rather more in my fiction than in my poetry. It’s a concern of the novel I have in progress at this moment. But, you know, I’m not sure it’s a Southern concern. I live in Madison, and the race question currently has priority here. Naturally, this finds some expression in my work. Do you feel it’s a concern in contemporary poetry by Southerners?

Taylor: Yes, but I’m not at all sure that Southern poets deal with it more often than non-Southern poets. The African-American poets who are also Southerners have had widely various ways of handling it, or of writing poems in which it is not the subject. I think it’s a national question; as such it concerns Southern writers as much as it does anybody else.

But listen: I know you’re a Southerner by birth, and largely by upbringing, but I wonder what’s Southern about your work. How do you feel about being called a Southern writer?

Cherry: Much the way I feel about being called a woman writer. That’s to say, I don’t like it, but there are plenty of things in this world I worry about more. I’m a writer, and I happen to have been born in the South as a woman. I have this weird sense, contrary to all theories of biological or environmental influence, that I could just as well have wound up in a different body in a different place in a different time, but that no matter where I was, I’d still be myself I don’t think there’s anything mystical about this. I think I just have a very strong sense of myself as, paradoxically, someone able to lose herself in other characters. 1 could almost define myself as someone who can be un-Southern, un-female. Or maybe I mean someone able to find herself in other characters. . . . At the same time, I’m well aware of being in this womanly body and living in this time and this place. And you? Do you think of yourself as a Southern man writer?

Taylor: Not often. An effect of growing up in a white male society as a white male is that it often takes selfconscious effort to think, “I’m a white male.” A complication in my case is that I grew up in rural Virginia, as a Quaker in a Quaker community, and have realized since I was very young that there are contradictions and tensions between those two cultural inheritances. I think those tensions have been more useful to me as a writer than either background alone would have been.

Cherry: Yes, that’s a wonderful thing about the South, wonderful for the Southern writer, at any rate, and not only for the Southern poet. The South is a great place for writers because it is so endlessly rich in contradictions. I’ve often remarked that I think it is very hard to grow up in the South and not become a writer. Those contradictions are so funny, and so tragic, and everywhere. I just published the first book of fiction I’ve set in the Midwest, and I’ve been in Wisconsin for going on fourteen years now, and spent a couple of winters in southwest Minnesota. I think I had to learn how to see the contradictions in the Midwest before I could write about the Midwest. They are here, of course, but they are subtler. You have to accustom your eye to them. In the American South, contradictions spring up in front of you wherever you go. What Southern writer doesn’t find himself, or herself, practically dancing, doing a dance of pure delighted amusement, on every stroll down the street?

Taylor: I know what you mean, even though I live where there are roads instead of streets. You remind me, though, that the time I spent living in Salt Lake City, in the late 60’s, gave me a place to look back from. I wrote most of the more “Southern” poems in my second book while I was out there. Partly, it was a way of simultaneously combating, and giving in to, the stereotyped assumptions some of my colleagues there made about me. Often, out there, I thought of the trap Jarrell describes in one of his essays; a young Southern woman moves to New York, and people keep saying to her, “Whatever you do, don’t lose that precious accent!” and she winds up sounding like Amos ‘n’ Andy. But probably that’s an avoidable pitfall. How does the South look to you from Madison?

Cherry: Henry, even as we speak I’m looking out at a sidewalk that’s got over seventeen inches of snow on it, just from yesterday. I’ve spent seventy dollars so far on getting that snow shoveled, and there’s an irreducible residue of ice that the city’ll probably fine me for. And you want to know how the South looks to me from here? I’ll tell you: from here, the South looks like literature. From here, the South looks like poetry.