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Poet sings the blues

By Marc Stengel

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  There can be no question of Diann Blakely's suitability as a poet. Mahogany-haired, lithe-limbed, she gestures in sweeping strokes to render mere anecdote into intoxicating incantation. With just a hint of self-consciousness swaddling her like a mist, she plays the basilisk muse enthralling and immobilizing an uncomplaining prey.

"What poetry does best and perhaps does most plaintively," she explains, gazing aside, "is to remind us of the absences and losses of the world we currently suffer and revel in. It is very much the language of intimacy. In the end, the most useful aspect for poetry is to attune our hearts to tenderness. We live in a world that bombards us with false intimacy. Real tenderness is lacking in our lives, because it's not a commodity, it's not useful, not really worth anything.

"A child, I think, understands certain layers of human emotion, even in the absence of any other experience. [T.S.] Eliot himself once said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. That insight applies as much to writing as to reading. During my first book, Hurricane Walk, for example, an idea would come to me, and it very often felt like I was simply taking transcription. It felt very close to Don Justice's notion of the poem as 'Platonic script' or of Osip Mandelstam's concept of hearing a melody for a moment, then it goes away, and you're always writing after that melody--after that Platonic script--except you can never quite get back to it."

Since long before the publication of her first collection in 1992, Blakely began assembling the peripatetic résumé of a contemporary poet: degrees at Sewanee and Vanderbilt; additional graduate work at NYU and Vermont College; fellowships at Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers' conferences; teaching posts at Harvard, VU, and Harpeth Hall; prizes, published works, and editorships. A second collection, Farewell, My Lovelies, will appear in '99, and a third manuscript is nearing completion as The Cities of Flesh and the Dead. Meantime, Diann Blakely will be the featured poet for September on the Internet site PoetryNet (http://members.aol.com/poetrynet/month), edited by Vanderbilt's Mark Jarman.

"I have an associative way of thinking which isn't at all very logical or straightforward," Blakely admits, unbowed. "But I'm convinced that our distractions are what make us. I know, for example, that I have a profoundly fluid sense of time. I remember once getting into an argument about the nature of 'the lyric,' which some hold to be the representation of a frozen instant in time. I have never had a frozen instant in time. Maybe this also has something to do with being Southern. I don't know."

Blakely was born in Anniston, Ala., and raised in Birmingham, although for nearly a decade, she prospected for her muse primarily in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts before settling in Nashville in '87. Northeastern self-exile notwithstanding, her Southern credentials and self-image have endured, if not unaltered, at least unrelenting.

"When I was in Boston," she says, "I felt that it was a very puritanical place. Looking back, I realize that I was living there during the birth of the political-correctness movement. Boston has plenty of brains, but it lacks joie de vivre. By contrast, the South has this life-spirit, but when I first returned, I kept thinking, 'Where are the smart people here?' You sort of forget this Southern mind-set that encourages people not to want to appear too smart--particularly the women. I think the people who are most sensitive to these things are people such as myself who've lived away for a long time. And now I tend to notice certain things, because I've come back here and my accent has changed--certainly my manner has changed. I've lost my...chirpiness; you know, the way some Southern women are still taught to be."

As Blakely brings to a close her third collection of poems, she admits a longing to reinvent herself artistically in some way. For her next adventure, she is gravitating toward a musical muse that tempts her with new conjunctions of "ache and urgency."

"The project on which I am currently embarking," she explains, "has me singing duets, so to speak, with [the late blues singer] Robert Johnson. It's a new book called 'Love in Vain.' I'm taking each one of the 29 songs he left behind and responding to it in a kind of duet--a sort of call and response.

"Johnson is in some ways the Keats of modern music. He was the son of sharecroppers and had this very fractured early existence. He's always an orphan in his songs. In his earlier years, he would hang around Robinsonville, [Miss.,] which is close to Tunica, and would try to learn about the blues from Johnny Shines and those guys, and they didn't think he was good enough. So he disappeared for about a year, and he came back as this guy who could make a guitar sing as if two or three guitarists were playing at once. He had this eerie, plangent voice that could range from growls to falsetto. He himself helped spread the legend that he had been gifted all of a sudden by making a deal with the devil":

O come on, honey, and let's go to the cemetery

At midnight, where bluesfolk charm their guitar-strings

To dissolve thoughts of ragged, last-drawn breaths

--D. Blakely, "Come on in My Kitchen"

"Having had a series of calamities of my own in a relatively short period of time, I have naturally been drawn to a book project having to do with love in vain, with loss. Dealing with what seems like a series of misfortunes seems to me to be a way of addressing the plainly historical events in Johnson's life in a manner that's more truly lyrical. The idea of having this whole book-length project unfold for me is just terrific. People who aren't writing may not understand, but we sort of just have to wait for one idea to come along and hope the next idea will follow."

--Marc Stengel

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