Category: Photography

Author Q & A with Ann Fisher-Wirth

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 4)

As an Army brat who swore in her teen years that she’d never live in Mississippi, poet and University of Mississippi professor Ann Fisher-Wirth has, after nearly 30 years as an Oxford resident, decided that Mississippi (along with parts of California) now feels like home.

Not only has she felt moved to compose poetry honoring Mississippi’s culture, history, and people, but she is devoted to preserving its land, which she believes has suffered “severe environmental degradation that cannot be separated from its history of poverty and racial oppression.”

mississippiHer newest book, titled Mississippi, is a collaboration with acclaimed photographer and Delta native Maude Schuyler Clay, offering a different perspective  on her current home state–one that is both visual and literary. The volumes includes 47 sets of Clay’s striking–and sometimes haunting–photos, each paired with one of Fisher-Wirth’s reflective poems.

Photographs and letterpress poems from this project are on exhibit throughout Mississippi, and a performance piece involving six actors has been created from two dozen of the poems.

Fisher-Wirth’s other poetry books include Dream CabinetCarta MarinaFive Terraces, and Blue Window. She has alos published an academic book on William Carlos Williams and four poetry chapbooks. With Laura-Gray Street, she co-edited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology.

She has been the recipient of several residencies, is a Fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and received a senior Fulbright to Switzerland and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award to Sweden. She is also a past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Fisher-Wirth teaches American literature and poetry workshops and directs the Environmental Studies program at Ole Miss. She has recently completed a sixth poetry book manuscript, Because Here We Are.

There was a time when you swore you’d never live here. Tell me about your Mississippi experience, and why you’ve stayed.

I was an Army brat; when I was 10, my father retired and my family moved to Berkeley, California, where I spent my teenage years. Living in Berkeley in the 1960s, I paid careful attention to the civil rights movement; that’s why I swore I’d never live in Mississippi. I lived in southern California, Belgium, and Virginia.

Ann Fisher-Wirth

Ann Fisher-Wirth

But in the late 1980s, we cam here (to Ole Miss), lured by the terrific English department, the literary community centered in Square Books, and the fact that Mississippi seemed to be a very complicated, culturally fascinating, beautiful and troubled place. We came in a spirit of adventure, and a feeling that we could do good work here. We’ve stayed because we want to. The English department has just gotten better and better–it’s a friendly and increasingly heterogeneous department. I love working with our MFA poets as well as with the undergraduates who study American literature and creative nonfiction with me. I also love directing and teaching for the minor in Environmental Studies, and ahve had some fantastic, dynamic students over the years.

Our children are all grown–our three daughters live elsewhere, but our two sons are here, as are two of our grandchildren–a major attraction. I’m attached to our house, old and drafty as it is. And Oxford is just plain an incredible place to be a writer.

How did you and Maude come up with the idea to create a book together? Were the poems written to go with the photographs, or were the photographs taken to go with the poems?

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude and I have known each other socially for decades and have known each other’s work. At one point or the other of us casually remarked, “We should do something sometime.” She thinks I was the one; I think she was the one.

A few years ago she started sending me photographs she had taken but never published. I had recently published Dream Cabinet and The Ecopoetry Anthology and was looking for a new project. I was moved by her photo of a tree in water–this has turned out to be the cover image for the book–and I wrote the poem based on the yoga pose Vrksasana that begins “You stand in Tree…” A little later, she sent me a hauntingly beautiful image of a boat in greenish water. I knew I wanted to write a poem based on this photo, but had no idea what it could say until Made mentioned that the boat had belonged to her close friend who had just died. Immediately, the poem “Between two worlds / the soul floats…” came to me, and eventually that became the opening poem of the book. Others followed as Maude continued to send me photographs over the next couple of years.

Nearly all the poems were written to go with photographs; in only on or two cases, we found photos to go with poems I had already written. But as you know, the poems don’t just describe the photographs, and, with one exception, the photographs don’t have people in them.

Instead, the poems are spoken in voices of fictive characters that the photographs somehow suggested to me. Creating this book was, for me, very much an act of channeling voices, scraps of lives that I have encountered since living in Mississippi, sometimes combined with scraps of memory from my own life–exploring the incredible richness of this region’s spoken language.

What is the message of the blending of this poetry with the sometimes bare, sometimes harsh images of the state’s landscape, that you want to leave with your readers?

Poems are more about experiences than messages, so I don’t really have a message per se. I wanted the poems to reflect the variety of voices, and hence the variety of people, in Mississippi: old, young; wise, foolish; poor, middle-class, wealthy; loving, hateful; male, female; lettered, unlettered; black, white, Native American. Some of the poems are harsh and bleak, and speak to the realities of racism, poverty, violence, and environmental damage that are part of Mississippi. Others are lush and beautiful, as befits the beauty and gentler aspects of the people and places.

How did you develop an interest in writing poetry–and then realize that you were so good at it?

I come from a family of English teachers and readers, and I’ve always wanted to write poetry. I wrote a little bit in high school, then stopped, then wrote a little bit more while writing my dissertation, then stopped. Until I got tenure at the University of Mississippi, my writing was academic–a book on William Carlos Williams, a numbers of essays on Williams, Willa Cather, Anita Brookner, Robert Haas, and others.

Then just for fun I audited a poetry workshop that my friend Aleda Shirley was teaching, and after the first day, I said to myself, “This is it. I’m writing poems from now on, and never looking back.” Some time later, I attended a week-long workshop in California called The Art of the Wild, and wrote a poem called, “What Is There to Do in Mississippi?” It became my first published poem, in the magazine The Wilderness Society, and it even paid–so I took my whole family out to dinner to celebrate at City Grocery (in Oxford). After that, it took a while to get my first book, Blue Window, published, and the rest has followed. It’s always a a lot of work, always an adventure.

Thank you for saying I am “so good at it.” I sure love it. I’ve always loved writing, but my confidence about it is never a steady-state thing.

Your poetry style here is at once stark and powerful–there are no titles, no punctuation, no apparent patter of wordplay–and grammatical rules are cast aside. Tell me how this design contributes to the interpretation of the poetry.

I wanted to get rid of the conventional accouterments of poetry and just let the voices be heard. I also wanted the eye to be alive on the page–to treat the page as a field of composition and make use of negative space in order to capture the way we actually speak, which is never a steady march forward, and never completely grammatically. One of the strongest elements of Southern literature is its orality, and I wanted to honor the living voices in every way.

There are several recurring themes in your poetry in this book: racism, sexual desire, death, family, tragedy, memories, and nature’s beauty and fury. Why these topics?

Is there anything else? I’m partly kidding. But a writer doesn’t exactly get to choose his or her themes; these are topics that have greatly concerned me my whole life. They’re central to human experience, no matter where or when. By the way, I love the phrase “nature’s beauty and fury.” That “fury” is so important.

Do you have plans for future writing projects?

Well, I have a lot of uncollected poems and a desire to create another book, but as yet it has no shape. I’m writing new poems all the time, some of which are worth keeping. For the pas two fall semesters, I have team-taught with my colleague Patrick Alexander in the Prison to College Pipeline program for pre-release prisoners at Parchman. This has been an intensely rich experience for me and I’ve been writing about that. And there are a couple of editing projects I’ll be working on–but it’s too early to talk about them.

Ann Fisher-Wirth and Maude Schuyler Clay will be at Lemuria on Friday, February 9, at 5:00 to sign and discuss their new book, Missisippi.

Author Q & A with Panny Mayfield

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (September 3)

Panny Flautt Mayfield

Panny Flautt Mayfield

As an award-winning journalist and lifelong Mississippi Delta native, Panny Mayfield of Tutwiler has captured decades of blues and gospel music history through her camera lens–and her debut book, Live From the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), tells that unique story through her unique, up-close perspective.

The recipient of more than 30 awards granted by the Mississippi Press Association, the Associated Press, the Mississippi Film Commission, and the College Public Relations Association of Mississippi, Mayfield’s work has been exhibited in museums across the U.S. and in Europe.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, she shares more than 200 photos of Delta performers and their musicians, fans, friends, and families, taken at churches, clubs, festivals, and iconic juke joints, alongside her own detailed accounts of the lives and fortunes of dozens of familiar blues and gospel performers–including those who were Delta natives as well as international superstars who traveled from around the world to pay homage to the legends who influenced their own music.

Tell me about your childhood in Tutwiler and how you came to be a noted Mississippi Delta photographer.

Growing up in Tutwiler, a busy railroad town south of Clarksdale, I enjoyed small town life watching Randolph Scott movies at the Tutrovansum Theatre (a [portmanteau] for the Mississippi communities it served: Tutwiler, Rome, Vance, and Sumner), playing kick the can, and catching lightning bugs in Mason jars. I was aware of places like Lula Mae’s Sunrise Cafe where infectious music spilled out on the street, but it was totally off limits to me until I became an adult.

Photography fascinated me at about the age of 12. I began taking pictures and writing about cross-country family trips, became newspaper editor in high school and at Ole Miss, and began a lifelong career as a journalist and photographer.

I began taking blues photographs in the late 70s when Sid Graves founded Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum. Bluesman Wesley Jefferson needed a portfolio and asked me to photograph his Southern Soul Band playing at Margaret’s Blue Diamond Blues Club on the railroad tracks in Clarksdale’s New World District. I organized a folder for James “Super Chikan” Johnson who needed to get serious booking gigs.

It was Mae, Michael James’ lady, who began teaching me to dance to blues music in her kitchen. Decades later, I’m still working on my dancing and sharing the drama of the passionate music that is the Mississippi Delta blues.

After a career as a newspaper journalist and a public relations director for a community college, Live from the Mississippi Delta is your first book. How did this book come about?

My careers with newspapers, magazines, and Coahoma Community College were incredibly busy. Although I considered a book somwhere down the line, I was busy making a living and meeting ever-present deadlines until I retired in 2013. I was encouraged to put a book together by Molly Porter of Vermont, who scanned many of my photographs. Initially it was a book of photographs until Craig Gill, University Press of Mississippi’s director, urged me to include stories and text about many of the images, musicians, and events. The book itself is half text, half photos.

Explain what the blues, as a music genre, means to the Mississippi Delta.

I’m not sure if I can explain how much blues means to the Mississippi Delta. They are inseparable, conjoined. When the eminent folklorist and musician Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale in 1994, he emphasized the similar, unique qualities of Coahoma County blues to the original rhythmic music of Senegal in Africa, and he encouraged a cultural revival in the Delta.

You helped launch Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in 1988. Are you still involved in it?

Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and research director of Mississippi’s Blues Trail, co-founded the Sunflower River Blues Association, and he was here last month for the festival’s 30th anniversary. In 1988, we were considered an avant-garde bunch, but we followed Jim’s lead, staging a free music festival showcasing local musicians as well as well-known artists.

I asked Jim at that time what he thought of today’s Sunflower (festival), and he said he was glad it continued to be a unique, grassroots event where people felt comfortable and at home. This year, we had people from New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Paris, and Bangkok, Thailand.

I’m still publicist for the festival and I love our multiracial, diverse membership. I believe this contributes to the success of our festival.

Your book includes sections on Delta landscapes, “homegrown” and international blues musicians, Delta festivals, juke joints, and more, and your career as a photographer has given you front-row access to scores of musically influential events and people. What have you enjoyed the most and what have you found to be the most challenging?

My book begins with my own beginning in Tutwiler–also the birthplace of blues. it’s where W.C. Handy first head a guitar being played with a kitchen knife in 1903, and where the charismatic Robert Plant paid tribute in 2009 to the music that influenced his own phenomenal career.

I have been one incredibly person to have this background and to fine-tune it in Clarksdale, center of the blues universe. My books “homegrown icons”–radio broadcaster Early Wright, who invited me to his birthday dinners every February 10; and barber Wade Walton with his stuffed monkey Flukie–are just as important to me as international celebrities ZZ Top, James Brown, and Garth Brooks.

Describe Clarksdale’s association with its “sister city,” Notodden, Norway.

Clarksdale’s sister city relationship with Notodden, Norway, began in 1996 with initial visits by Norwegian journalists, musicians, and then city offiicials interested in researching blues history to enhance their own international festival and its connection with the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Norwegian officials dined on catfish; were entertained at the Rivermount Lounge, a local club favored by Little Milton, Ike Turner, and Bobby Rush; and were taken to a Marvin Sease blues show at the City Auditorium that went on until 2 a.m. The next morning, they attended a service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church at Friar’s Point, where members lined up to shake every Norwegian’s hand. Overnight, we became “cousins,” and exchanges between the two cities have flourished.

Tell me about the cover of your book.

live from the mississippi deltaI get emotional about the cover of my book. The musician–Arthneice Jones–is one of the most talented and articulate bluesmen I have known. A harmonica master and singer/songwriter, Arthneice was leader of The Stone Gas Band–a talented and popular bunch who played all over north Mississippi and Memphis before his untimely death. A musician who worked in concrete, Arthneice intrigued, charmed, and connected intimately with Sunflower acoustic audiences each summer with sidewalk philosophy mixed with music.

My initial choice for the book cover was a juke joint scene from Shelby’s Dew Drop Inn. But when University Press of Mississippi emailed, unannounced, the image of Arthneice imposed on raw Delta cotton fields, i cried. It was so perfect.

Do you have any plans for more books?

As a journalist trained to condense news and feature articles into brief, interesting opening lines with zero personal commentary, writing a book was a new experience. Fortunately, Craig Gill and the UPM staff were patient and encouraging. Helpful also were remembrances of my mother’s storytelling traditions.

A future book about 25 years of celebrating America’s great playwright with the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival is a possibility.

Author Q & A with Jack Spencer

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)

Kosciusko native Jack Spencer’s new book, This Land: An American Portrait (University of Texas Press) is a sweeping portraiture of the nation’s landscape, created over 13 years and 80,000 unforgettable car miles.

this landAn artist at heart, Spencer set out in 2003 on a quest to capture a post-9/11 America–to grasp a glimpse of a country of contrasts, fears, and hopes. The resulting book, he says, is “not a documentary or dogmatic statement, but rather an expression of the perception of the ideal.” The images are rendered in what he calls a “stream-of-consciousness perspective,” not “perfect pictures.”

A self-taught photographer known for his fine art work and his penchant to modify his images through artistic techniques, Spencer’s rich talent has been on display in major collections around the country, including Houston, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Nashville, and, in Jackson, at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Spencer’s first book, Native Soil, reveals his gift for artistry in the faces and places of his native South, and his work has been published in a wide variety of print media. Today, he lives and works in Nashville.

How did you develop your interest in photography?

As a child, I was always fascinated by boxes and boxes of old family photographs and tinytypes and would spend hours and hours going through them. I majored in art in college and played around with photography during that time and thereafter, though not seriously. I began to get deep into it in the mid-1980s and then began the work that was to become Native Soil.

Your new book, This Land: An American Portrait, was begun in 2003. It became a 13-year project and took you on a 80,000-mile road trip through the “lower 48” states, to find “sketches” of a country still sorting through 9/11. Tell me about your motivation to take on this massive project.

I was against the war in Iraq and thought that the United States was premature in their conclusion that there were weapons of mass destruction and not allowing Hans Blix to finish his inspections. The fervor that had been created was overwhelming. I decided to make a portrait of America. Not the people, but the land where we live.

You describe yourself as “a pictorialist at heart.” Please explain how that is interpreted throughout This Land, and describe some of the techniques used to accomplish that in these images.

As an artist, I do not care for the purely literal and have little patience with purists of any ilk. I think there is an underlying truth in interpretation. That is the basis of artistic expression. One must get outside of oneself to–ironically–express oneself. Otherwise, I would have been a photojournalist.

I have been something of a mad scientist both in the darkroom and on the computer, trying things that are quite unorthodox and perhaps a bit insane, just to see what happens. In turn, some of my techniques have been born of those experiments.

The photos are, for the most part, devoid of people. Explain why that was a priority for this work.

This Land was about the place we inhabit. This is the view that few ever see and, for the most part, do not appreciate and take for granted. A book about the people would have been an entirely different project and one that I have little interest in, as that would have been far too literal for me and I am quite fond of ambiguity in my works.

You note in your introduction that America is a land of contradictions. Tell me about the state of “irony” in which you find this country to be.

Literally every adjective and its antonym can describe this country: ugly/beautiful, loved/hated, sublime/obnoxious, rich/poor, wise/ignorant, new/crumbling, crowded/desolate, and so and so forth. At some point, one is simply left with an abstract notion of America.

You state that images of animals and “decrepit, once proud structures” become “symbols and metaphors of the country’s past” in this book. Explain how that is so.

With the idea in mind that “past is prologue,” I think it is a good idea to review the past in order to have a clear idea of where we are heading and how far we have come. This country likes to leave behind anything and anyone that has lost its usefulness. Little is preserved, let alone revered. The buffalo were slaughtered by the millions so that Sherman could end the Indian Wars. Buildings are left to rot or are torn down to make way for subdivisions or shopping malls and condo units.

You make the case that Americans have not been good stewards of this incredible land. Explain–and how can we do better?

Ask someone in Montana, Colorado, or other Western states about the acid runoff from mining that has turned streams and rivers into, essentially battery acid. Or people in Appalachia about coal runoff that kills water supplies. Or fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico why there are enormous dead zones where nothing lives. Or take a trip to Detroit.

As for a solution, well, it is not because no one knows about all this. It sis just that big money talks big and politicians like big talk.

Ultimately, what did you learn from this journey you referred to as both a “pilgrimage” and an “odyssey”?

I suppose that my overall takeaway from this odyssey, is that this is a fascinating land–astounding, really. It is vast and almost incomprehensible in its scope. Mostly, I loved the out-of-the-way, unseen, quiet spaces that few ever see, rather than the dramatic, obvious places. America is mostly made up of these places out on tiny little backroads and hidden from view.

In Jon Meacham’s foreword to This Land, he point sout that impages in this book capture a country he says many of us would believe has disappeared–scenes like “the fading churches, the roaming bison, the running horses”–a world he says is real, and is now, and is ours. Did it surprise you to realize that images like these are still part of America?

Yes, it did. People do not see this land when they are flying over it or taking the interstates.

What about this whole incredible journey has given your the most satisfaction?

Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer

I would have to say that the most satisfaction I got was the realization that it started as one thing and ended as another. I had no real idea what I was up against 14 years ago when I started out, and really had no clear idea bout what I was undertaking. I am a fan of Homer’s The Odyssey and Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca. Like him, I was thrown off course many times, yet somehow was able to right myself onward.

I am privately quite proud of the fact that it was accomplished. No one except me knows what I went through to finish the task. And, it is right that only I should know.

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