- Could you tell us a little bit about how you became the city poet laureate of Columbia, SC and what it means to you?
The City of Columbia passed a resolution creating the position in October 2014, and I was invited by the selection committee to apply. I was named city laureate in January 2015, a four-year position. It is the first city laureate position in South Carolina. It has been a great experience. There were the usual expectations of writing poems for specific events–the commemoration of the anniversary of the burning of Columbia by Sherman’s troops, for example–but I’ve also been asked to write for events like SC Pride and for a rally calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from our statehouse grounds. You can see some of the poems at http://www.columbiapoet.org/.
I’ve been mindful of a responsibility to tell the stories of the city, a kind of obligation to do what I can to give the city and its various communities a voice. To that end, I’ve also tried to create venues for local writers and to imagine possibilities for poetry as public art: poems on the city buses, poems on coffee sleeves at local coffee shops, and my favorite little “guerrilla poetry” project, fake parking ticket poems for April 1, 2017– April Fool’s Day but also the beginning of National Poetry Month, and a Saturday, when you don’t have to pay for parking downtown.
- Alongside “poet,” “department head,” and “professor,” some sources have you listed as an activist. What kind of activism do you tend to be involved in?
For many years I was quite active in gay and lesbian organizing in South Carolina, working with the LGBTQ community center, the state pride march, and the statewide equality coalition, which I chaired during the difficult ballot referendum over an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment in 2006. In 2005, I was also one of the founders of Rainbow Radio, the first LGBTQ radio show in the state. Some of the voices we aired were later collected in a book, Out Loud, which became a bit of a lightning rod for anti-gay state legislators when it was used as a common reading for college students. (See: https://www.cnn.com/2014/03/09/politics/university-budget-cuts-gay-literature-south-carolina/index.html.)
- Do you have a particular piece of writing that you really had to fight to get out of you? Something that was harder for you to put into words than your other works?
I think a lot of the poems that were in my last book, Ark, were difficult. The book is based on the time I spent helping with my father’s home hospice care when he was dying of pancreatic cancer. It was a difficult and important time. We didn’t have a good relationship, after he and my mom basically cut me off for being gay, so it was a kind of second chance for me. And I wanted to get the words right, get the stories right.
- I see that you went to Harding University and I’m just curious: what advice would you give to your undergraduate self while at Harding? And how did your time there help guide you to where you are now?
That’s a tough question. I don’t regret going there, but I think going there kept me closeted and afraid for longer than I might have been otherwise. And yet I got such a grounding there, academically, spiritually, ethically. I’ve had to grapple with the fundamentalist religious tradition I grew up in, but I think maybe the grappling was not only more difficult but maybe more mindful, more thoughtful, if only because I had such a rich understanding of the tradition and the culture because of attending Harding. I also did study abroad in Italy while I was there, and that experience opened me up to so much aesthetically and culturally. I wouldn’t be who I am now if it hadn’t been for that life-changing experience.
5. SDR is all about celebrating southern queer identity. As the director of USC’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers/contributors who may be struggling with reconciling their southern roots with their sexual orientation or gender identity?
We tend to think of Southern culture as a homogenous thing, conservative and religious and maybe backward. But Southern culture is heterogenous and rich. I grew up a farm kid in rural Arkansas. I had tons of uncles and aunts and cousins, and many of us went to the same church. Family, church, community — these lines blurred. Maybe we sometimes judge each other and attack each other the way we learned to in the cultures of shaming and shunning we come from. But we also learned lessons about resilience and connection, didn’t we, about finding our strength in our connections with others.