In 1998, Dr. Sarah Gordon saved my life. I was new to Georgia College & State University, a transfer student with a waning interest in literature, my major. Somewhere along the way, I’d begun to lose interest in the written word. Nothing made my arm hairs go on end anymore. Yet there I was, a student in her modern poetry class, beginning to fall under her spell, both charmed and intimidated by her earnestness and love of the subject matter. She often referenced Ezra Pound’s “Make It New” slogan, a dictum, as applicable to the 20th Century poets we studied as it was to Dr. Gordon’s brand of lectures, a middle ground between John Keating and Jonathan Edwards in their revelation and intensity. My own conversation narrative centers on a class early in the semester when she read aloud Pound’s translation of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”. I believe I began to cry somewhere around the lines “They hurt me./I grow older.” And it’s been a beautiful life ever since, full of books, raised arm hair, and students of my own. Of course, my story is not unique. Dr. Gordon taught at GCSU for close to 30 years, inspiring countless students to read, write, and, in many cases, teach with a purpose.
Dr. Gordon has also garnered a reputation as one of the world’s foremost Flannery O’Connor scholars, writing two books about her– Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination and A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia– and editing The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, The Flannery O’Connor Review, which she founded, and Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius. In addition to her scholarship, Dr. Gordon published her first book of poems, Distances, in 1999. This year, she published her long-awaited second collection, The Lost Thing, through Mercer University Press. Throughout her latest book, she confronts the inevitable– a life giving way to loss and the accumulation of remembrances. The Lost Thing traffics in absence and memory, yet never succumbs to what Dr. Gordon calls “uplift.” Instead, the melancholy, the strange, and the awe of it all coalesce, lingering like a ghost town.
I spoke with Dr. Gordon in anticipation of her reading at Georgia College & State University on Thursday, April 14th, at 7:30pm in the Russell Library Museum Education Room.
I’ve heard you speak at length as a professor and friend about other poets, but today I want to talk about you, the poet. Could you tell us about your roots as a creator?
Well, I really came from a family of readers. My mother read, and my father was an avid reader. My father was probably a writer who never wrote. He could have– he went to Davidson College, and he was very much interested in literature. But he came home and went back into business. But the ambiance was really bookish, and of the three children, I was the one who didn’t like to ride horses– we had show horses– so I would sit in the car and read. Of course, when you read, if you have any sensibility at all, you start writing things down. I began to write stories, and when I was in college, I did a collection of short stories for my honor’s undergraduate degree. That was when I was asked by one of my professors when I was going to turn to poetry. He said that my stories were so lyrical. Actually, I had been secretly writing poetry on the side, jotting down things. Of course, poetry does overflow into your fiction. Writing fiction was always boring to me. It was not intense enough. It’s a strange thing– I’ve always loved the intensity of the writing process with poetry, which is just not there for me with fiction. I haven’t written fiction since I was in college, so then I turned completely to poetry, writing on the side when I was getting my master’s.
I have a tendency, as you know–my poems are sort of dark. They’re not the ones you embroider and put on the kitchen wall for inspiration, but I have a tendency just to read widely and strangely and to find things in odd places, like my interest in Howard Finster, the North Georgia folk artist whose work I’ve always loved because he’s a lunatic fringe. That’s why I’m interested in Flannery O’Connor. I’ve spent most of my life with Flannery, and her work is offbeat, to say the least.
The content of my poetry isn’t something to hang on the embroider on the kitchen wall; it’s darker. The subject matter ranges pretty widely. I know this so when I read other poets, poets that I particularly admire that are writing right now. There are a lot of them who are purely inspirational poets. I mean, they’re fine writers, but underneath it all, it’s all uplift (laughs)!
I’m just not of that breed, so it’s a little bit harder to get published when you’re forthright– when you write out of a dark place. That’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve always been interested in the grotesque and the bizarre and the woman who walked over and kissed the painting with her red lips.
You write about her in “Acts of Love.” Is that a true story?
Yes, it really happened! I’m fascinated by things that I read in the newspaper. I read the New York Times every day, and, honey, there’s enough material in there to fill several volumes. You know– I’ve always loved the crookedness of things, “the bent world” as Gerard Manly Hopkins would say.
Now that I’m retired, I write every morning, and I read avidly– I don’t stop reading. Also, I have a couple of friends here who read drafts of things for me. I never sent many poems out until really the late ‘80s and ’90s. I didn’t submit anything because I was too busy. I was editing a journal and writing some scholarly things and a couple of other books, so I really didn’t. And that’s a poor excuse, but a poor excuse is better than none (laughs)! Since I retired, I’ve tried to make this time count, so I’m a little picky about where I send things, but it’s rough. It is rough. As Flannery said, “Beat every bush in Georgia, and a novelist will run out.” And I think that’s true of poets, too. There are a lot of poets out there, a lot of people writing, some good ones and some horrible ones. It’s tough, but it’s fun. Writing is the activity that most completely absorbs me and has always most completely absorbed me. I can lose hours just working on a line or a sentence, which is a great gift.
I wanted to ask you about your routine. You mentioned that you get up early and write in the morning…
I did when I was teaching. I got up much earlier because sometimes I had to teach 8:00 classes or 9:00 classes. Now I get up about 7:30 and have coffee and get on the computer and read my email, and then I’ll start. I actually write on the computer now. I make notes in my little notebooks, but I actually am able to compose on the computer, which is something I never thought I would be able to do. I actually can do that now, and it’s so easy. It’s almost too easy.
I used to say to my students in the last years of my teaching, “You have these computers, and they’re wonderful. You have something that looks like a five-paragraph essay, and it looks on the screen like an essay. It’s got indentions! It looks like an essay, walks like an essay. It must be one. Print it out!” But what I was trying to tell them is the great thing about a computer is you can make all these changes and adjustments right there. I remember the days when you had to have carbon copies and a Xerox machine. That’s what I mean by it being almost too easy. You have to really check yourself to see if you’re actually writing on the computer.
What’s your relationship with the muse so early in the morning? Do you ever have to force its hand?
Oh, I force its hand a little bit. And here’s something that happens to me (my partner says my brain never stops): When I’m in bed at night, and I’m trying to go to sleep, a line will come to me, just a sentence or a phrase, and I will say it over and over, so I won’t forget it, because you can forget those things if you’re going to sleep. I will get up the next day, and I will write that down, and I will force it. I will do a little forcing, but not too much. It’s sort of as though you’re making a record of it, and it’s there, especially with the computer. You can keep it all, and then you go back to it. That’s what I’ve done.
I’ve just done a series of three poems that are all Catholic-related. They’re sort of strange, so I was able to do it piecemeal. The first one was entitled “I Seek an Audience with the Pope”– that’s the first line. I thought it was an interesting idea, and then I just worked from there. So I don’t let the muse go. If the muse comes, I hold on, but sometimes, as Flannery, says, “You have to sit there. You have to be there.” If the muse comes, and you’re not there, there’s nothing to hold on to. I think of my old word discipline— I really believe in writer-ly discipline. I think you have to have a regular time– it sounds corny– but you have to have a regular time, silence, and you just have to be still, even if it’s just 30 minutes. When I was teaching at Georgia College, sometimes I would just have 30 minutes to go in and jot something down or have a few moments of quiet, and it meant so much to me because then, the next day, I had something. You wrangle with the muse, but you don’t pull her too tightly.
Your first book of poems, Distances, came out in 1999, so some time has passed…
I was going to ask if you ever had concerns about being a “prolific” writer? You write every day, but were you worried that you’d never publish another book?
Yes! I really thought I would not publish another book. I thought, “Well, I have my three O’Connor books– two that I wrote [Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination and A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia] and one that I edited [Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius]– and one poetry book. That’s enough.” But then I started getting acceptances from places. The Sewanee Review took three of my poems at once! You talk about some big head that I went around with a while. This was about two years ago, and I had always wanted to be published in The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and those places. They really liked my work, so I thought that maybe I do have a book, and I began to look. I have a lot of poems, Charlie. I probably have enough right now for another book if I’d sit down and trace a theme or something all the way through. That’s when I put this book together, and I entered a couple of contests, huge contests, which were remote. Then I just sent it to Mercer, and Marc Jolley, the director of the press, wrote back and said, “We really would like to consider this.” I thought, “Jeez, that would be great!” And they did a wonderful job. They are meticulous. They’re a small press, obviously, but they take great pains. I would publish another book with them in a minute. But that’s what happened. I began to get published more, in really good places, like the Georgia Review, which is very hard to get into. I guess I got enough ego to think, “Well, maybe there is another book in there.” And sure enough, there was.
You mention searching for the unifying theme or thread among your poems. Is finding a theme essential when putting together a collection?
Oh, yes. In fact, I have read several of my friends’ books and manuscripts and made suggestions about how to organize them. What I did for the first book was–this so sounds crazy–I put all the poems that I had written that I was considering in piles on the floor in my little living room in Milledgeville to see what subjects overlapped. I realized it was all about different kinds of distances. All these things had to do with either emotional, physical, or psychological distance, so that became my theme.
For The Lost Thing, I realized that so many of the poems are about losing, because that’s what happens when you grow older– everything falls away, not just people dying or being sick. Your past evaporates; it just goes. You’re beginning to see that now, I’m sure, at your young age. That’s when I realized that the poem that really says it all—it’s not the best poem in the book– is “The Lost Thing.” It’s about loss. You can tell by the people who did the blurbs that they all got it, and so did Mercer.
So that’s how you have to do that. You can’t just assemble 50 or 60 pages of poems. There has to be something that even lightly connects them all. Of course, everything’s about living and dying; there are no new themes under the sun. It’s just another way of doing it, saying it.
Can you talk about your relationship with the past? How do you resist the urge to revise it or shape it to make a better story? Moreover, you avoid the trappings of sentimentality. It’s easy to fall into nostalgia, but your poems are not sentimental.
Well, they’re not sentimental. They’re not. I used to make this distinction, and I still believe it, between the word sentimental and the word sentiment. I think a poem can have sentiment, a strong feeling, but it must not be sentimental. It must not tug at the reader’s emotions. That’s kind of a cheap shot. My education was so much involved with the moderns and teaching them. This is so interesting: I have friends who write here, and they are not educated, necessarily, in modern poetry. It’s very odd to me that you would want to be a poet and not know anything about the last 100 years. I think I was made tough by reading tough works like the metaphysical poets and poets of the 17th Century, which really influenced me when I was an undergraduate and all the way through, and then doing my dissertation on T.S. Eliot and just removing myself from feeling. Eliot wanted you to make something new, make it fresh and hard and crystalline, and not fall into the Romantic. See, I never have loved the Romantics. I love Keats, but I’ve never loved Shelley. “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”– I can’t stand that (laughs)! So I guess I’m too hard-nosed to be sentimental. I would just cut that out of a poem immediately if I saw it there.
It’s a tough line to walk, between the sentimental and the sincere. Edward Hirsch has said the Eastern European and Latin American poets did it the best, that Americans had difficulties with emotions and sentimentality…
There’s so much contemporary American poetry that I really do not like. There are these workshops– maybe you’ve seen them advertised on Facebook– and the poetry they like, the poetry they feature in these workshops is always uplifting. That’s the only way I can describe it, and to me, it’s just not real. To my experience in life, it is not a real experience of life.
Is it possible to create great work when you’re truly happy, or do you need that looming tragedy or disaster to temper your good spirits, to inspire you?
Oh, I think that’s absolutely right. I think there is something to the fact of writing is a kind of therapy. You and I both have kind of melancholy dispositions– probably, to say the least– and I really think that the best writing comes out of those. The couple of people in my writing group who write those very optimistic poems are people who do not get depressed. They don’t have the black dog in their lives at all. You know, the black dog roams around my windows sometimes and I have to… I don’t like to think of writing totally as therapy, but there is certainly something about the relief that you get when you express it on the page that is somehow helpful in some way.
One feature that I love about work is your habit of referencing other poets and artists. I’m thinking of “Dear Mary Oliver” from Distances, and also throughout The Lost Thing, you write about Harry Crews, Dylan Thomas, Howard Finster, and Elizabeth Bishop. Is this a way for you to carry on a dialogue with these writers, even if it’s a one-sided conversation?
Absolutely, sure. I spent an afternoon and an evening with Mary Oliver years ago when she came to Georgia College, and it was delightful. She didn’t talk much, but her partner did. She was a mess! But anyway, Mary Oliver’s poetry reading– of all the poetry readings I’ve ever heard– was the best one I’ve ever heard, ever. And, you know, I drive miles to hear poetry, so she made an impression on me. I didn’t like her later poetry, I have to say. It got smarmy to me; it got sentimental. Even that old so-and-so Harry Crews, I had some interactions with him.
I love your poem about him, “Vestige.”
That’s one of my favorite poems in the book, to tell you the truth. A lot of people don’t know anything about Harry Crews. The one about Howard Finster and the one about Harry Crews are two of my favorites, and the one about Dylan Thomas, “The Last American Tour”. One of my friends, who’s not into poetry at all, said, “Oh, that’s about James Dickey, isn’t it? The drunk James Dickey?” (Laughs) I said, “No! That is Dylan Thomas!” And it’s true. It’s based on truth! The poor wife! And he did steal people’s shirts. He stole shirts from the houses that hosted him. I love that. See, that’s what I mean by being drawn to the strange and the grotesque.
I wanted to discuss perspective. You’ve seen the canon change over time, and I know Elizabeth Bishop’s star has risen, whereas her friend and mentor Robert Lowell’s reputation has suffered…
Well, in a way Bishop’s has, but the thing that got me about her– and this is a very personal reaction– I read a biography of her, the last biography that came out [Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop], which was very good, but it was just such a damning portrait of her, Charlie. She had every door opened to her; every door in the world was just open to her. She went to Vassar, and then Lowell, of course, opened every door and invited her to teach at Harvard in later years. But she was a fall-down drunk…
I didn’t know that…
Yes, oh absolutely! Sally Fitzgerald told me many years ago when I asked her if she knew Elizabeth Bishop, and she said, Oh, yes,” and that was when Bishop was still alive. And she said, “At last, she’s got a sensible partner,” who was the younger woman with whom she spent her last years, but Bishop was really awful, and she would never acknowledge her homosexuality. Lota [de Macedo Soares] was devoted to her. Bishop really kind of drove… Lota committed suicide. I thought, “Here, some of us don’t ever have any advantage. They are people that we know who have become writers from nothing, from no advantages, from no doors opened,” and she had these doors opened and all these opportunities, and she didn’t write very much.
That’s true. You can read her complete works in one sitting…
So I just wanted to say something about Lota, because Bishop always called her “her friend.” Everybody knew they were lovers for years. Bishop went to her home in Brazil and made herself right at home there. So I guess I sort of vented my spleen about Elizabeth Bishop (laughs)!
You’ve witnessed over the years the changing of the guard, writers slipping in and out of vague and favor. Could you ever anticipate these changes?
No. When you’re getting your literary education, when you’re in college and graduate school, you get inured to this–these are the people who are important. I remember thinking when I was in high school that Edna St. Vincent Millay was wonderful. Then, when I was in college and graduate school, everybody was looking down on Millay. Now I think, “Golly! She wrote some gorgeous sonnets.” Now she’s coming back into vogue a little bit, even though she too has had an awful biography [Savage Beauty] written about her name. She was not a likable person.
People don’t have to be likable to be wonderful writers. It’s just that now it’s almost impossible to be anonymous, to write and have that private life separate. We know too much. We know too much about people, like Dylan Thomas or good ole Harry Crews.
Are there any writers lost to time that you’d like to rescue, someone who has slipped away or is slipping away from recognition?
I’m worried about Edward Hirsch. I like him so much, and I’ve liked him for years. Actually, somewhere in this house, I have a bunch of books autographed to me from Edward in appreciation of my work on Flannery. I’m afraid he’s fading away. I don’t like that. I just think he should be read more. But there are some people that I think really deserve the attention they’re getting now. When you think about writing, you would think also about fiction, and people don’t read [William] Faulkner anymore, and they don’t read [Eudora] Welty anymore, and that upsets me.
People fade in and fade out, so let’s hope that Eliot doesn’t go out completely. I mean, he was a scoundrel of a man, if you want to get down to it, but let’s hope he doesn’t stay put down just because of his strange life and his attitude toward women and Jews. I think you just have to roll with the punches. Anybody you would like to bring back whom you think is we’ve lost?
I love John Cheever, and I worry about him fading away.
Oh, I do too! I worry about him, and I worry about John Updike.
I know! He’s another guy. I don’t know what the problem is…
I think that part of Cheever and Updike’s problem is suburbia. They wrote these suburban novels, and that’s kind of passe now. To tell you the truth, Charlie, the novels that I like reading a lot are by either European writers or Japanese American Writers. I just read this novel called The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. It’s very brief, but it’s brilliant; it is absolutely brilliant. Then, I’ve been reading Olga Tokarczuk, a woman from Poland. She wrote a new 1,000-page novel, The Books of Jacob. Now that I haven’t tackled that, but I have read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is another one of hers. If I had created that title, it would be enough to just live and die right there (laughs)! Like old Whitman with “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”– that title was enough! Anyway, check those two out. You know, American writer seems so thin to me.
Another writer I love who might be slipping is James Wright…
Oh, I think he is, too. James Wright was a terrific influence on Mary Oliver. I think he was her teacher– 140 years ago– but Mary Oliver was a wonderful poet. I think American Primitive is one of the great books of poetry from America, I really do. But she kind of fell off after that. When you become popular as a poet, you should begin to worry. I guess more people post Mary Oliver on Facebook— well, that and Wendell Berry— and you want to say, “Uh oh, watch out…” (Laughs)
How about Richard Yates? He’s another fellow I love who might not make it…
I don’t think he’s lasting right now. I just read about three or four of his about a year ago. I just got on this kick…
The Easter Parade, Revolutionary Road, Young Hearts Crying, A Specials Providence …..His short stories are devastating, too… Sort of a segue, talking about poets who are losing their fame and reputation, I am thinking about Dylan Thomas, who was, perhaps, the last sort of “celebrity” poet. But there are other poets who are maybe more popular for their tragedies and hard living. Charles Bukowski comes to mind, but also Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Their biographies overshadow their work. What’s your response to students who are seduced by the notoriety and decadence?
I think it can be deadly, obviously, when you get obsessed with somebody. The first poem I ever had published was in 1972, and it was it’s not a poem that I’m particularly proud of right now, but it’s in the Georgia Review, and it was about Sylvia Plath and I was really disgusted with the fact that people were swarming around her, making her into this mythic sufferer. I think it’s good to love a writer; it’s good to love a writer enough to find out about them and to read them all, but when you get into this almost cultish thing, that’s scary. That is just scary.
And I think we read different writers differently at different times of our lives. A writer may mean nothing to you when you’re 25, and then you go back to that writer when you’ve lived a little bit when you’re 35, and you’ve seen some things and experienced some loss or whatever, and that writer means something to you. I was taken by Tennyson in that way. After my mother died, I was teaching “In Memoriam”, and I got to that “Dark House” section, and then I understood it for the first time, which is when he goes by Hallam’s house, and there’s nobody there. Probably if I look at it now, I’d find it corny, but in 1973, suddenly it was not just an academic poem that I’d had to read for my exam. It was real.
We change. We change in our allegiances, and we change in terms of what we find meaningful, which is a good thing. I mean, if you were still reading what you were reading when you were 17, you probably wouldn’t have grown very much.
I was going to ask about Reverend Howard Finster, Harry Crews, and, of course, O’Connor…
Because they’re all weirdly religiously obsessed (laughs)! You know, Crews is sort of a poor man’s Flannery O’Connor. Let me tell you a funny story about Harry Crews: He was going to contribute to the book that I did of tributes to Flannery, In Celebration of Genius, which is out in paperback now. I had gotten in touch with all these contributors who were going to pay their homage to Flannery, and everybody’s came in except his. I called him in Florida– this is about 2000– and he came to the phone, and he was just awful. He said, “I ain’t going to write that damn essay about that goddamn Flannery O’Connor. I’ve decided she was a mean bitch.” I said, “Well, I’m so sorry. Why did you commit to doing this?” I backed off, and he said, “You seem like a nice lady, but Flannery O’Connor was a bitch.”
Then I read the biography [Blood, Bone, and Marrow] recently. It was written by a friend of a friend of mine, and I reviewed it for something– maybe it was The Flannery O’Connor Review– and then I just got to thinking about Harry Crews. The best book he ever wrote was Childhood, the book about his youth. I taught it in freshman English at Georgia College, and the kids loved it because it spoke to them– South Georgia, the burning, and oil.
He was the kind of person that Faulkner wrote about in “Barn Burning,” Abner Snopes, who came in and walked all over that beautiful carpet. That’s what Harry Crews did—he stomped all over the carpet.
We’re talking about these Southern figures, so I must ask, do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
I guess I’ve got one foot in the South and one foot in the rest of the world. You know, somebody said that about Dante one time– he had one foot in the Middle Ages and one foot in the Renaissance. It’s like Flannery said– “If I set my stories in Japan, they’d probably talk like Herman Talmadge.” But, yes, I think I’m Southern, but I’d like to think that I have a kind of universality because I asked people from other parts of the country to read my manuscript, and they responded. That made me made me more confident that I wasn’t limited. I don’t want to be like Brer Rabbit, stuck to the Tar Baby, as Flannery said.
I love asking that question to bands because I’ve seen some bands embrace the distinction, while others wince at it.
Here’s the other side of that: Southern literature is the best literature in the country. And Southern music is, too. Let’s face it. I think we have to take pride in that. You might say something about the 19th Century New England writers. You might say something about Ken Kesey and the West Coast folks, but we have the greatest tradition in the South, for better or worse. It’s our ragged back story that’s so awful.
That goes back to our discussion, Charlie, of melancholy and sadness and tragedy as a collective spirit. The South, we have had our fall. We’re still having our fall. I think I may have told your classes the story about when Alice Walker was in this panel on Southern literature. Caroline Gordon and Walker Percy were up there, and they said, “We Southern writers have had our fall; we know what the fall means.” Alice Walker stood up and said, “You’ve had your fall. We haven’t.” That’s another apocryphal story, but it’s the truth. Our history is so tangled that it’s interesting.
We’ve talked about our melancholy, but The Lost Thing ends on some gorgeous high notes…
That’s why the third section is called “Acts of Love” because I think that art and literature and love carry us through. I really do. I place– obviously, my life testifies to it– a great deal of importance on the arts and on our ability to express ourselves as human beings and to confront loss, to confront sorrow. It’s the only thing we have. The only alternative there is to make something of it, to draw it, or to put it in a poem.
I love that need to interact with beauty in “Acts of Love”– kissing the painting or writing your name in the margins. For me, it’s representative of our all-consuming relationship with art, at least for those who have given their lives and hearts to it.
That’s the way when I talked about scrawling on the pages of the book– I really did do that as a little girl. There was always that impulse to make a mark.