Jul 19 2015

Southern Fictions: Story always rises to the top

Last Friday the UPS driver dropped two packages off on my doorstep. This is not an unusual occurrence; I’m a book reviewer so people send me books. I’m a reader, so I also order lots of books. Books arrive at my house several times a week in everything from thin flimsy envelopes to massive cardboard boxes. Last month my UPS driver told me to get a Kindle.

Southern Fictions

Southern Fictions

Last Friday, one of the packages he brought had a Kindle in it.  The other contained, well, the exact opposite of a Kindle; a letterpress edition of a chapbook of poems, with a hand-made cover, a hand-sewn binding, typeset by hand, signed by the poet and numbered “42” out of the 100 that were printed.  I stood looking at these two packages thinking how strange it was that they arrived together and how fluid my “TBR” stack had become.

Every reader has a To-Be-Read stack. Mostly, it exists as piles of books stacked up on bedside tables, next to favorite chairs, on coffee tables, on little shelves in the bathroom. Or, if you are like me, in all of the above. Piles of books I want to read tend to accumulate near any spot I settle in to read, so there are stacks all over the house.  But the “stack” is evolving. Aside from the usual pile of paperbacks and hard covers, new releases and battered finds from library sales, there are also “ARCs” – review copies not quite finalized, sometimes with just the title, author and publication date printed across the front. There are ring-bound manuscripts that haven’t even made it to the review copy stage. There is a pile of papers that I printed out myself from a file a writer sent me of her new novel, which has yet to find a publisher. There is my little iPod, which is currently loaded with Shakespeare and poetry, since I have suddenly conceived a desire to hear great poems read aloud, rather than just read.  And now there is this—a chapbook that looks like it ought to be under glass in a museum, and a slightly worse-for-the-wear ebook reader that looks like it belongs in the box of old electronic stuff I don’t use anymore.

The Kindle, I should say, was a gift of sorts. A hand me down first generation version (the one that looks like the thing Captain Kirk was always signing and handing back to his Yeoman with the amazing hairdo), a friend had decided he didn’t want it and asked if I did. Since I would never actually purchase a Kindle, but had been curious about them, I said sure.  I have since bought exactly one book for it—fellow BiblioBuffet contributor Lev Raphael’s new novel Rosedale in Love, which is only available as an eBook. I had been wondering how I would get to read it.

But if the Kindle was a kind of afterthought, the chapbook was not. The chapbook, a collection of sonnets titled Southern Fictions by the former North Carolina poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer, I had been waiting for. I had put in a request for a copy six months earlier, when I first heard of the publishing project.  The Kindle can apparently hold 1500 books. The chapbook is about twenty pages long. The Kindle came free. The chapbook, I was willing to pay a hundred dollars for—partly to support the press and the cause (proceeds are used to fund youth writing workshops)—but mostly to support the poet, who once convinced a newspaper to publish a poem I had written, and even more importantly, told me I should keep writing poetry.

That encouragement was worth far more than a hundred dollars to an uncertain poet. The Kindle has never encouraged me about anything. So it won’t surprise anyone to hear that it was Southern Fictions that floated to the top of the TBR stack and that I picked up first to read.

Southern Fictions is a series of sonnets Byer wrote exploring her personal experience with racial conflict in the area of Southwest Georgia, where she grew up.  There are six poems, each a snapshot, a memory, of a girl’s imperfect awareness of the simmering violence around her:


I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
what we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.

The sonnets had been published years ago in a special edition of Callaloo, but this chapbook was something else entirely.  The poems gave birth to it, one might say. Its very form is a physical expression of the words within.

The first line of the first sonnet goes “My father drapes his battle-flag across a back room window. If I tried to tell him why I wish he wouldn’t, I’d have hell to pay.” Richard Krawiec, the publisher of Jacar Press which spearheaded the project, David Wofford, the craftsman whose Horse and Buggy Press did the printing, and Ann Marie Kennedy, the paper artist that created the covers for the book, decided to take that line as literal inspiration. “All books feature a frontispiece image of a flag,” writes Wofford, “which is meant to imitate what a flag might look like after being up in a window for decades and faded by the sun.”

But there is something else. The thick, textured, dull red cover of hand-pulled sheets also evoke that first sonnet, because amongst  cotton and flax fibers are the strands of cut up, pulped, old Confederate battle flags. “You are literally holding a repurposed flag in your hands while you read Kay’s poems,” says the printer. “I will admit it was nerve wracking looking at a 3 foot by 5 foot Confederate battle flag… but after getting over that it felt pretty good to take a rotary cutter and slice the thing up into pieces.”

Southern Fictions may have been the shortest, most lightweight volume in my TBR stack but it feels like the longest and the heaviest. The weight of all that memory Byer infuses into her sonnets. The deliberate intentions and craft that went into the creation of the chapbook. My own stuttering memories of my first, timid approach to the poet with a poem I’d written about a traffic light being out at an intersection and her very kind, very encouraging reply.  Even the defiant pride those shredded flags once displayed that was now part of the texture under my fingers. Someone could put each of the sonnets on a blog somewhere and it would be a good thing—they are worth reading, worth coming to understand. But these sonnets, in this book which is number 42 of a 100, are different. The story of the book is entangled with the story in the book and the story of the reader who intersected with the story of the writer. And if this book, number 42, were to be lost, that swirl of joined stories would be as well.

An eBook doesn’t have all that extra weight of story.  It winks in and out of existence like the lightning bugs hovering over my front lawn in the August dusk.  And despite the several pounds of weight this early Kindle (1.0) carries, it remains oddly insubstantial. There is nothing about the device that hints, for example, at the long friendship Lev Raphael and I have shared except for the fact that his book is the one that comes up at the top of the booklist—being the “most recently” (and only) ebook purchased for the device. I have an entire shelf filled with Lev’s novels and nonfiction, most of which he has signed at some point with little notes that make sense to no one but me—a testament to years of emails and letters and what-are-you-reading-now? notes to each other. Rosedale in Love remains excluded from this evidence of a valued literary friendship, locked away from Lev’s other books in its own pattern of 0s and 1s. I suppose I could send him the Kindle to sign.

But really, I decided on a hot afternoon later that weekend, it doesn’t matter. I had spent about an hour reading Southern Fictions and letting myself get lost in the poems. Later that day I grabbed my iPod, put the leash on the dog and spent several hours walking him through the scrubby fields and along the marsh while listening to and getting lost in the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

And when we came back, hot and dusty, we curled up on the couch under the one working ceiling fan—the dog to sleep and I to read Rosedale in Love. And it was as easy to get lost in the story as it had been to get lost in the poetry. Oh, I didn’t “forget” I was reading on a computer, any more than I could have forgotten the heavy textured cover of Kay Byers’ chapbook had ripped up Confederate flags in it, or that the poems of Wilfred Owen were spoken in someone else’s voice rather than his own.  But it was still utterly easy to get lost in what was said, and suddenly, I looked up from Lev’s brilliant re-envisioning of Wharton’s House of Mirth and it was almost dark, and I realized the electronic “pages” had become hard to read. Fine writing is like that, which is why all the strange forms that are manifesting in my TBR pile are not, I think, causes for lament or alarm. Books may evolve, but we seem hardly capable of keeping Story contained to a single format—to a few printed pages or a collection of 1s and 0s. Story just bursts out everywhere. And Story always rises to the top.


Books mentioned in this column:

Southern Fictions by Katheryn Stripling Byer (Jacar Press, 2011)
Rosedale in Love by Lev Raphael (Kindle edition, 2011)
The War Poems by Wilfrid Owen (Audio Connoisseur, 2010)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


Website showing the process of creating Southern Fictions:


Originally published at Bibliobuffet.com, June 12, 2011