Place has always been important to me in my writing. Growing up in Arkansas and spending most of my adult life in Alabama, I find that many of my poems are grounded—explicitly, in subject, or implicitly, in imagery and feel—in these two places. Living in a place, or spending an extended period of time there, seems important to soaking it up in a way that results in poems.
When I’ve gone to other places to write, I’ve tended to take work in progress along with me. Away from home for a bit, I’ve found that the freshness of a new scene and the dedicated time for writing add energy and new insights to whatever I’m working on. In the last five years, I’ve helped set up several writing weekends (known by its participants as Do It Yourself Women’s Writing Retreats, or DIYWWRs) as booster shots for community and immersive writing, but I’ve also done two formal writing residencies, a month in the Escape to Create program in the new urbanism town of Seaside, Florida, and a semester as a visiting writer-in-residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. As residencies, both came with fairly clear guidelines and expectations—workshops, readings, and so on. In becoming Poet Laureate of Alabama, however, I was presented with an open field. The establishing legislation, from 1931, states that “There shall be the honorary office of Poet Laureate of Alabama” but does not specify any particular duties. (The act also specifies that the poet laureate shall not be paid but that the Alabama Writers Conclave—now Alabama Writers Cooperative—may provide the laureate with “a small gold medal simulating in design an open book, upon which may be inscribed the title of the office, the name of the incumbent and the date of the commission issued by the Governor.” I do treasure my poet laureate pendant and wear it whenever I get the chance.)
Previous Alabama poet laureates have edited anthologies, spoken to great numbers of schoolchildren, written poems for governors, given readings, and taught workshops. What I did would be completely up to me. I had several months between being chosen and being commissioned, so I came up with a plan, based on my love of making connections among people and easily memorized as a five-letter abecedarian: to Amplify the many literary activities already occurring around the state, Build Bridges among various writing communities within the state, Connect Communities with their local writers, encourage Do-It-Yourself attitudes re reading series, writers gatherings, and other literary activities, and Educate Alabama citizens about the different poets and kinds of poetry being written in our state. I also saw an opportunity not available to previous poet laureates, to use social media to extend my presence as a public face of literature in Alabama. I set up a Twitter feed, @ALPoetLaureate, and with that and public Facebook posts helped spread the word about new books, readings and other events, contests, and other literary news.
I couldn’t have imagined how important my social media would become once the pandemic hit. My husband and I began staying home on March 13th. In the past week, we had been to a literary festival in Monroeville, Alabama, to the state Writers Hall of Fame banquet in Tuscaloosa, and to north Alabama for a community college writers’ day at which my husband, a literary critic, served as moderator. We’d sat long after dinner at the lodge on a mountaintop in north Alabama talking with the other writers about writing and publishing and what might be happening with this new disease in the coming month—would we have to stay at home for a couple of weeks?—and the next morning we drove home and the first case of COVID in Alabama was announced and we have barely been anywhere in the last nine months.
Seeing my husband’s disappointment when all the events for his new anthology, Alabama Noir, were cancelled, it occurred to me that I might be able to help out the poets with new books whose events had likewise been cancelled. I decided to read a poem a day on Twitter from a new or recent book by an Alabama poet for the month of April, National Poetry Month, and posted it on Facebook as well. (I also decided that I didn’t have to spiff up in any way for it; in the panicky, uncertain early days of the pandemic, simply getting dressed every morning and brushing my hair felt like an achievement, with extra points for putting in earrings!) Once April ended, I thought I’d like to keep going: there were still so many poets to get to, and people had begun to enjoy the readings and retweet and share them. I decided once a week would be a reasonable goal, so I named it the Mid-Week Poetry Break and have been doing it ever since. Reading these poems has helped me to remain an advocate for poets and poetry despite not being able to be out and about in the state, and it has connected these poets and their work to people who might not otherwise have gone to a poetry reading or festival. I had to work within Twitter’s 2 minute, 20 second limit, and I tried to read poems that would make some sense to listeners in one reading, but apart from that I found a great variety of poems I was able to read.
Other virtual poetry life began to happen, as well. Instead of being able to go to Montgomery and serve as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition, as I had done in a previous year, I made an 18-minute video on how to interpret a poem. My first Zoom event was for our lifelong learning program at the University of Alabama. A man in Wisconsin asked to interview me for a podcast he’d started up as a pandemic project. This fall, I appeared on the University of Alabama student poetry group’s open mic Zoom, did a 2-hour Zoom writing workshop for the Alabama State Poetry Society’s fall meeting, read for the Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO) fall fundraiser read-a-thon to support arts programming, and read poems for a “Poetry Vespers” service on Zoom for an Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Detroit (one member has Alabama connections). While very much anchored to our house in the woods overlooking a small lake, I’ve been able to expand my sense of place via these virtual connections, and I am grateful for the ability to do that.
I’ve also been happy to be able to focus on some poetry projects, writing poems but also editing a collection of poems by my late mother, titled Root & Plant & Bloom, as a project with my sister. In the three years I’ve been poet laureate (it’s a four-year term), I’ve continued to write and publish poetry and essays; I don’t always work at the same time daily or always write something, but I aim to do something related to feeding my interior life as a writer every day. It seems to me just as important to model taking time to write as it is to promote writing in a public way.
A state is as much an idea as it is a geographical space, a physical accumulation based on land sales, land treaties, land grabs, land swaps. I remember the first time my family drove to another state, when I was a child, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t a line on the ground, as there had been on the maps I liked to study. One side of the line looked very much like the other. But the concept of a state, of an Arkansas or an Alabama or a Mississippi or a Georgia, does come to matter, building up not only around invisible lines but around history and politics and sports and family and famous writers and artists. Faulkner and Welty are Mississippi, Harper Lee is Alabama, Flannery O’Connor is Georgia. Perhaps they could have been themselves if they’d been born elsewhere, but it seems unlikely. I’ve come to love and value the particular literary community of writers and readers I’ve found here, in a place that ranges from lower Appalachian mountains in the north through fertile farmlands in the central area and on down to the Gulf Coast in the south. We are both a place and an idea of a place, a state with a range of ideas and writers as varied as its landscape.
Jennifer Horne is the Poet Laureate of Alabama, 2017-2021. Raised in Arkansas and a longtime resident of Alabama, Horne is a writer, editor, and teacher who explores Southern identity and experience, especially women’s, through prose, poetry, fiction, and anthologies and in classrooms and workshops across the South.
Her latest book is a collection of poems, a chapbook titled Borrowed Light, from Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press. Her previous collection, Little Wanderer, was published in Ireland by Salmon Publishing. Tell the World You’re a Wildflower is a collection of short stories in the voices of Southern women and girls. She is also the author of two other poetry chapbooks and another poetry collection, Bottle Tree, and the editor of Working the Dirt: An Anthology of Southern Poets. With Wendy Reed, she co-edited the essay collections All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality and Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. With Don Noble, she edited Belles’ Letters II, an anthology of short fiction by Alabama women, and she also is at work on a biography of writer Sara Mayfield.
She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Seaside Institute in Florida, and in 2015 she gave the Rhoda Ellison Lecture at Huntingdon University in Montgomery, Alabama and was awarded the Druid City Literary Arts Award, given by the Tuscaloosa Arts Council. For the spring semester of 2018, she was the Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina.
Her web page and blog, “A Map of the World,” are at: http://jennifer-horne.blogspot.com/