“The artists sing for themselves.”
Speak, My Tongue (Calypso Editions, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?
WADE IN THE WATER
Thornton Dial, Anderson Johnson, Nellie Mae Rowe and James Hampton
The world will never be destroyed
as long as people are put back in the ground,
six feet of rot and worm swallowing
everything but the soul. It is not my own.
This ground, this world, it ain’t my home.
God knocked at my door, God knocked
my legs out from under me, and my soul
looked back in wonder. I saw a spider
swinging from her silk like death’s bell.
I saw foil covering Sunday dinner,
the preacher humming of The Coming,
The Quiet-Ever-After, and we all said
Amen. We said,
Bring me your wood, your cloth, your leftover
cardboard boxes, and I—through His hand—
will make them new. Bring me
glass cat eyes with splinters, neckties frayed
like the clipped wings of an eagle,
a woman’s head on a cow’s body,
beer cans cut into flowers.
Bring me tire treads, chicken wire,
Mickey Mouse in chains, broken bedsprings.
Bring me your own busted knuckles
and see them shine like mica catching sunlight.
God knocked at my door. He said,
Fear not the end of this world,
realm of the stuck, the waiting.
Why did you choose this poem?
This is almost a found poem, with much of it coming directly from the artists listed in the subtitle. The artists sing for themselves, and the poem offers images from their work as well as a glimpse of the deep faith that fuels visionary art. Thornton Dial was internationally known, but most artists in the book were not. I wish each of them had had more opportunities to speak to an audience outside their home communities, and to be listened to.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
My husband and I own five Richard Burnside paintings, all gifts from my sister-in-law who lives near Pendleton, South Carolina and knows the artist. I grew up about an hour from Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden and studied ceramics as an undergrad, which is to say I knew a little about folk art before I encountered Burnside’s work. But the Burnside paintings inspired me to learn more, and I became interested in these wonderfully complicated humans as much or more than their art.
What’s your book about?
Speak, My Tongue is a celebration of self-taught artists of the American South. I don’t like the terms naïve and outsider applied to artists—these pejoratives imply permission to dismiss talented people and their work, which is what plenty of people do when they see the Burnside paintings in my house. I hope my book helps readers appreciate the art but also find connections between themselves and these artists who often live/d at the margins of society.
My own understanding of self-taught art deepened when first I saw a handmade doll by Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum in Atlanta. The doll reminded me of the ones my grandmother, my father’s mother, made. She made candy, quilts, and dolls for a living.
I’m not sure I’d thought of my grandmother as an artist until that day in Atlanta, but that moment inspired the first section of the book. Really, I’d grown up surrounded by artists. My grandmother on my mother’s side quilted and crocheted, but her real gift was storytelling. And my grandfather made ornate saddles.
I found other connections from there. I wrote a series of love poems for my husband inspired by the playful relationship of Georgia and Henry Speller. And I saw similarities between the Alabama mountain folks in my family and artists like Thornton Dial, though most of my kin wouldn’t have made eye contact with him if they passed on the street. So racism became a recurring theme, and shame. And many of the artists were deeply religious, their art fueled by divine visions. Their certainty about God led me to investigate my own insecurities regarding religious faith.
What are some of your favorite books of poetry? Or what are some books that have influenced your writing?
Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom and Monica A. Hand’s me and Nina probably influenced Speak, My Tongue the most. Fisher’s narratives and monologues are exquisite. I re-read “Pearlie Tells What Happened at School” a few times each year. Hand’s me and Nina taught me to indulge myself in language, music, and image. It’s like Tyehimba Jess’s amazing book leadbelly but with longer sighs and deeper moans.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a hybrid poetry/creative nonfiction project. I started it after I visited St. Helena Island to better understand Sam Doyle, an artist in Speak, My Tongue. That trip inspired me to investigate other places in the American South linked to the Civil Rights Movement, especially places that are not well known. For example, I’ve lived most of my life about thirty miles from the original site of Highlander Folk School, and I didn’t know it existed until two years ago.
Carrie Meadows grew up around leather workers, doll makers, quilters and tall-tale tellers who taught her the importance of straight stitches and good stories. She teaches writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.