31 Mar 2010

Diary of a Billsticker – Mississippi Delta, USA

31 Mar 2010

The Kid Was From Shake Rag

This was a nice, clean run lasting several days whilst driving through the Mississippi Delta in an old Plymouth Fury procured from a rent-a-junk in Nut Bush, Tennessee. As we got closer to the end, Clarksdale, Mississippi, things became very clear. They ended up being clear as a country creek (Truman Capote).

We (Reggie-John and I) always fly Delta Airlines. We caught a flight from Philadelphia in the morning and were in Memphis, Tennessee, by late afternoon. Americans don’t like to go too far from the house without adequate servings of pizza. I think the plane had extra supplies strapped to the roof. Luckily, a health care bill was going through Congress at the time. There was a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina and I saw many Americans checking that the pizza was still on that roof. Anxiety is a funny old thing. Americans are good people.

There has been quite a bit of debate on the news here lately about how the carry-on baggage situation on airlines has gotten out of hand. Then, a couple of prominent Americans have been offloaded from their flights because they were too fat for their seats. This doesn’t happen in Nigeria.

You can always tell when you cross over the Mason-Dixon Line and into the American South. The very air seems brighter and the energy is completely different. Things that are taken far too seriously in the North are ignored here. It is also as if the Southerners have already found something that people in the North are desperately looking for. We all hope they find it soon before they drive everyone nuts.

I guess the Ukraine is different from Chechnya as well. Then, I think in life, everyone wants to secede from something. Though it’ll sometimes bring a ton of misery on yourself if you try.

Reggie-John and I set up in Oxford, Mississippi as a base camp. This town is about seventy miles from Memphis. I’d dreamed for years of going to Oxford. The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) is there. I’d often read about Square Books and how it was reputed to be one of the best bookstores in America (it is). The owner (Richard Howorth) was Mayor of Oxford for a while (maybe still is) and that’s got to be a good thing. I mean a bookstore owner as Mayor – I can dig it. It’s kind of like when Vaclav Havel was President of the Czech Republic. A poet as President – I can dig that too. Literature is incredibly important to any community.

I also knew that William Faulkner lived in Oxford and is buried there; but what attracted me most to Oxford were two particular writers, two of my personal favourites, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. They are both dead now, both unhorsed due to heart attacks. Barry Hannah died only three weeks ago. In their writing, which was always full of intense energy, they were both bull goose loonies. And that’s high praise. To paraphrase Truman Capote again, they ‘walked the plank.’ They took real risks. Someone once described Barry Hannah’s writing as ‘accelerating incoherence’ – it’s that good.

Barry Hannah taught creative writing at Ole Miss and he was famous for other things apart from his writing. One of them being that he once drove a troublesome student home and put a gun to his head. He then told the student to behave himself in class.

Me and Reggie-John stayed at Chester’s Hillbilly Haven and ate breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast. That old Plymouth started every morning and we were carrying poem posters by five or six poets. However, we concentrated mainly on the two new poems by Tusiata Avia “Nafanua, the Samoan War Goddess, talks about going to Washington, DC” and Stephen Oliver’s “The Great Repression.” I never go far without Janet Frame’s “The End” poetry poster being in my kit. That’s what I call company.

Tusiata’s and Stephen’s poems are worded particularly strongly and perhaps they should be. Both are striking works of art and come alive on a wall. There is a beauty there. These are words carved out.

Setting out from Oxford each day, we covered the area around Highway 61 (yes, that Highway 61!) and included Indianola, Yazoo City, Pontotoc, Tupelo, Parchman (where the Mississippi State Penitentiary is headquartered) and then deep into Clarksdale.

The American South is an extraordinary place for music and literature. Clarksdale is among the most extraordinary places of all. The city’s inhabitants have had an immense influence on American culture. In fact, they have affected the world. Among the citizens have been Sam Cooke, Tennessee Williams, Muddy Waters, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin’s grandfather, Ike Turner, and Jimbo Mathus. Morgan Freeman owns a blues club in Clarksdale. The city is about the size of Timaru. It is probably smaller.

A few short miles away is Tupelo, Mississippi. There was a kid here who loved his mother and who recorded his first song for her. When he was young, his daddy, Vernon, went to jail and they lost the house. He picked up a guitar for the first time at about ten years of age. By this time, he was already hanging around a black area called ‘Shake Rag.’ He was a pretty cool kid (from all accounts) and he listened to the blues and gospel songs and soon he learned to move. He also walked the plank by wearing clothing that he saw black people wearing. They have always known what “cool” was. In high school he wore brothel creepers and lime green socks. Now that was a risk in the early 1950s, but people could relate. And he could turn out a song like no one else.

You cannot listen to the type of music that grows in this area (blues/gospel/spiritual) and not be swayed. Not now, not then. Myself, I’d gone to Mississippi listening to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and I came back listening to Blind Willie McTell. These things happen. You could call it spiritual.

When he was thirteen, Elvis Presley and his family lit out for Memphis and better luck. It changed the world.

We would be absolutely nowhere on this planet were it not for music’s (and poetry’s) ability to connect people. Music and literature transform us. The two make us better people.

So I always take it as the deepest privilege to be driving around America putting up poetry posters by some of NZ’s finest poets. I am always clearer headed for having done so.

Phantom has a new launch of poem posters in Auckland on April 28th. Included in this next round is a fine piece of work by Chris Knox. Also featured are Stephen Oliver, Tusiata Avia, Bill Manhire and others. The job has just begun.

We are always privileged and grateful.


Keep the Faith,


Jim Wilson

25c         25e

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