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Landscape as Language

by Katlin Walker

Terry Ann Thaxton’s Mud Song is the winner of the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. This year’s judge, Kevin Prufer, commented: “…the swamps, back roads, and small towns of Florida transcend setting and become something akin to personality. These are wild, harrowing, brightly colored poems, bristling with violence and trauma. The poet’s language surprises and delights. Her wit is deft and sharp. The engines that power these vivid poems are memory, desire, fear and, at times, a kind of holy rage.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Thaxton about Mud Song, gathering insight into the memories and the process that fueled this collection.

Your poems illustrate a sort of secret life of Florida—one that privileges squirrels over dolphins, mud and sinkholes over sandy beaches, and cardinals over seagulls. How did growing up in Florida help you avoid falling into the trap of describing the state’s landscape in an expected or clichéd way?

The Florida that I know has all of these things: dolphins, squirrels, mud, sinkholes, sandy beaches, cardinals, and seagulls. The poems in Mud Song serve as a counternarrative to the clichéd, stereotypical, or perceived version of Florida. I grew up in Sarasota, a town on the Gulf Coast, so I did grow up near the beach, and my mother and aunt took my siblings, cousin, and me occasionally during the summer. When I became a teenager, I went to the beach with friends, but by then I’d already fallen in love with the dry uplands—the pine flatwoods, the dry prairies, the scrub, wet prairies, cypress domes, and hardwood hammocks. The house we lived in, from the time I was six until I graduated from high school, sat on ten acres of land, surrounded by hundreds of acres of natural Florida habitats. My brothers and I spent most of our days after school and on weekends in the woods, tromping through muck and dense forests. When Disney World was built, one of my aunts asked my mother, “Why would they build something like that in the middle of nowhere?” And my mother answered, “And why in that swamp?”

Florida’s landscape is constantly because of development. The construction of gated communities, apartments, businesses, and tourist attractions does something, I believe, to the soul or spirit of a person. No matter where I’ve lived (in Florida), I’ve always driven past some type of major construction on my way to my job. One day there is a lush forest with oaks, saw palmetto, filled with gopher tortoises, snakes, armadillos, boar, and the next day that same rich habitat is cleared to make room for a new subdivision, usually named after what was destroyed to create it; usually something like “Oak Reserve” or “Palm Ridge.” This cuts deep. These sudden changes to the landscape affect my sense of the world. And the landscape is part of who I am. The landscape I know, and spend my time in, is how I know myself. The landscape is my language. The mud, the swamps, the alligators, the birds, the saw palmettos—all of it is part of my being.

The memory of your mother takes on a haunting presence in “Say One Word to Me” and a number of this collection’s other poems. What can you tell us about the impact your mother has had on your writing?

I never set out to write a poem that includes my mother (or my father, for that matter). She is always there, always an unanswered question. She died fairly young—at 63. I was in my early thirties when she died, and I did not come to know her very well until a couple of years before her death. She knew she had colon cancer, but did not tell anyone until it had metastasized even to her brain. During those years—of her knowing, and none of us knowing—she and I had conversations in which she allowed me into her life struggles. She revealed to me how unhappy she’d been in the thirty years of marriage to my father, who’d died at age 53, eight years before my mother. She shared with me secrets about his life she’d told no one, not even her closest sister. She told me about her wanting to divorce my father when my siblings and I were kids, but she didn’t know how she would’ve financially supported us. This knowledge that throughout my life, my mother had been terribly unhappy is always part of my writing. This haunts me.

When I was born, I was told, I had so much hair that that my grandmother said I looked like a possum. At birth my dark black hair met my eyebrows. I had black hair on my arms. Thankfully, the hair on my forehead and my arms fell off quickly, but I always felt like an outsider in my family—and my mother’s joke stayed with me. Though it is my older brother who was adopted, I felt like the child who was not part of the family. I was a girl—that was not good I learned early. Everything felt haunted to me. The first house I can remember living in I refer to as “the haunted house.” One day in that house, when I stayed home from first grade, I was resting in my parents’ bed downstairs—my mother was next door helping a neighbor—I heard something in the garage. I was certain it was the devil. Terrified, I snuck out of bed, and crawled out of the bathroom window, causing all of the items on the windowsill to fall out onto the ground. My mother punished me for making such a mess out of nothing. I believed in the devil. I believed my house was haunted. I believed I was haunted.

A lot of these pieces serve as reflections on self-transformation or revelation, particularly with regard to aging and religion. Can you speak a bit to the personal journey that led you to write them?

Some of these poems were written many years ago, and some are new. When I put this collection together I was pleased to see that the older poems blended well with newer poems to show this development of the self. The poems in my first book and my second book were written in a similar time span of each other. Some of the poems in Mud Song come from when I was working on the first book, but didn’t seem quite right for that book. Some of them were written during the time I was working on the second book, but again, didn’t seem to quite fit. Thus many of the poems in Mud Song, I’d felt are misfits, like me—not fitting into the books I was working on at the time. I’m always writing poems, and I have at least two books going at the same time. Although, really, most of the time I’m positive I have zero books going. When I write a new poem, I decide which “book” it should go in based on mood or subject or emotion. I became impatient with this book, which is now titled Mud Song, many times because it just kept feeling like all of the misfit poems. I couldn’t throw them away, though, because they contain so much of what keeps me alive, what keeps me breathing: mud, roots, trails, sand, my dog, birds, the sky. I kept putting all of the misfit poems in one document until I had enough to make a book. For me, it is the landscape that has transformed me, transformed the poems, it is the landscape that gave me a new religions, a new spirit, an acceptance of aging. The landscape lulls me forward.

Because of your gender, your father offered to financially support your brothers’ college educations, but not yours. You’re now a professor of English at the University of Central Florida as a result of your own determination. How did you reflect on your relationship with your father while working on poems like “Drought,” where he takes center stage?

I once asked the poet Judith Hemschemeyer, one of my undergraduate poetry professors, when I would stop writing poems about my father. She laughed, and said, “Until you’re not.” That was 25 years ago. Here he is. My father. He was a complex person. He was full of contradictions and personal demons. Though he wouldn’t pay for a girl to go to college, he was proud of me when I, as a teenager, told one of my brothers to “lick dirt,” and my brother actually did it. When my brother told on me, my father said, “If a girl can make you lick dirt, then you deserve it. Now leave me alone.”

The poems allow me a way to reflect on him, a way to try to understand his struggles. He had a great wit. He loved to laugh and make us laugh. He also had a militant style of discipline; I was punished many times with a razor strop. He cried quickly and yelled when we did something he didn’t like.

For many years I was angry with my father, but poetry (and perhaps age/maturity) has allowed me to reflect on his own struggles—some I know of and others I don’t—and to include him in poems when the narrative calls for a memory of him or when a memory of him works as a metaphor in the poems.

When I earned my AA degree, I danced on his grave. When I earned my BA degree, I drove to his grave and chatted with him. When I earned my MA degree, I felt sad for him. When I earned my MFA, I wrote “for Dad” on the back of the diploma. When I started teaching, I believed that he and my mother would’ve been proud of me. I still feel that.

Mud Song is your third book of poems since 2011. How has your writing process evolved over the years? Are there other writers that have influenced your work?

I never know how to write a poem, so I use freewriting, images, limitations, restrictions, lists, and prompts to get words on the page. Many times these end up simply being exercises to get my mind focused on writing, but most of the time, I can find a subject or image or line that will propel a new poem forward. When I first started writing, I would use a list of randomly selected words from random books on my shelves. Then I started using prompts and restrictions that I placed on myself, such as syllabics or use of color or not using particular words. Lately, I’ve been using images that I find online or art that I see in a museum. I don’t really write ekphrastic poetry, rather I use the images to find a way into a narrative that will eventually become a poem.

Before I’d started college, at age 28, I had only read early Renaissance and Elizabethan poetry, which I’d read only because, one day after school, I’d snuck into the under-the-stairs closet at home and found an anthology of Renaissance poetry with my mother’s name written on the inside cover. I was fascinated by the rhythms and language. I didn’t think about those poems as influential until much later when I did start college. In college, I was introduced to many of the American Modern poets. But the one that changed my idea of what poetry could be was Sylvia Plath. When I read the poems in Ariel, I decided to try poetry. In addition to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, I am influenced by many of the American Modern poets and the confessional poets. I try to read new books of poems by young poets as well as those I learned from early on in my poetry development.

I read poetry, fiction, nonfiction, as well as hybrid works. Big influences include Laura Kasischke, Etheridge Knight, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dorothy Barressi, Lynn Emanuel, Catherine Bowman, David Wojahn, Mary Ruefle, W. S. Merwin, Edwidge Danticat, Tomas Transtromer, Adam Zagajewski, Julie Marie Wade…oh, there are too many to list. I’m currently reading Rochelle Hurt, Michael Dickmann, Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, W. G. Sebald, Stephen Graham Jones, and Denise Duhamel.

I discovered a book by Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, Saborami, that I’m going back to again and again. It’s grounded in place. She describes an art exhibit she created of just leaves. I feel at home in that book.