I’m seated by a floor-to-ceiling window in a Memphis coffee shop waiting for a former professor of mine. Memphis, because it’s his home turf. I watch the passersby coming and going on this sunny Saturday, and as I’m looking outside, I see Bobby C. Rogers turning the corner of Cooper and Cowden. He is a professor of English at Union University. He has also been a recipient for a National Endowment of the Arts grant, was selected as a Witter Bynner Fellow by the then poet Laureate Charles Wright, and earlier this spring he released his second collection of poetry, Social History, into the landscape of Southern literature. The long lines of Rogers’s narrative verse explore the terrain of memory and the rural South, bringing life to the real and imagined (or some amalgam of both) voices inside the pages of Social History. Rogers meets me at my table with a cup of tea in hand, just as I remember him—wearing Ray Ban glasses and American-made Red Wing boots. He’s genial and speaks with a quietly Southern seersucker lilt. Today we’ve met to discuss his new collection of poems, writing, and West Tennessee.
How did you begin writing poetry? When did you realize that was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Well, I’ve always known that. In elementary school, the elementary school librarian would put my stories up on the bulletin board. It didn’t hurt that my father was the principal, so maybe that helped me get my first exposure. But it was less clear what form that writing path would take. I started out aspiring to write great, big ole, fat novels that would have people instigating a bidding war over the movie rights. As it turns out, my gifts are narrative but narrative in a lyrical poetry way. So it took me a long time to figure out my form, and that’s something, as you probably know, you’re always trying to figure out. What’s the best form for this artistic expression to take, for this piece of writing to take? And that’s just ongoing. Right now I’m writing in a very long, narrative line, but who knows how I’ll need to work it in the future?
The poems in Social History are set mostly in the rural-suburban South. I’m curious how you think the South has shaped you and informed your voice.
It’s hard to compare it to anything else because Charlottesville, Virginia, is as far north as I’ve ever lived. So it’s pretty much all been in Tennessee. I grew up in McKenzie, have lived most of my adult life in Memphis. . . . All of my family is from West Tennessee, so this is home. It just shapes you. I used to want to escape the formative influences of region and family, but that’s useless, so now it’s mostly what I write about.
Were there any reasons you wanted to escape those influences, and was there a moment when you realized you couldn’t?
For the same reason a lot of times my students want to escape their background. They just don’t think it’s exotic or interesting enough, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they lived in Manhattan and could say something like “Central Park” or “Fifth Avenue,” and you don’t even have to describe it? You just name it, and everyone knows what it looks like. When you’re from some obscure place, you have the responsibility of trying to make it come alive and describe it, and that’s much harder to do and, I think, much more worthwhile doing.
Your poetry has an ephemeral quality in that a lot of it is set in the past and deals with how memory changes, and also because they are about smaller moments in life. Do you think being a poet has helped you slow down to recognize those moments that we would maybe not deem noteworthy and let pass by?
I’ve always been slowed down, Josh. I’ve never gone real fast. My life is kind of slow. Life in Tennessee is kind of slow. It’s just the speed I’m used to. I would love to write faster poems with more dramatic impact, but it seems inappropriate to what I’m writing about. And a lot of the writing I love moves at a rather slow speed. Chekhov, I love the stories of Chekhov. The writing of Peter Taylor. There are a lot of prose influences in my work, a lot of short stories that are my favorite literary texts, and in some ways my influences govern the speed of my work as much as the subject matter.
A lot of your poems have a biographical element in that they’re about other people, fictional or not. What kind of people are you drawn toward to tell their stories in your poems?
I’m curious about that, too. I learned a long time ago when I was trying to write about an event as it actually happened, I sat down to write a so called biographical poem where I was in a place that I had actually been, and things were happening to the person in the poem that had actually happened to me in that place. The poem, as hard as I tried to make it journalistically accurate, would be slanted and biased in all kinds of ways despite my best efforts. And conversely, when I was just making something up according to the needs of the poem and thought of myself as being a fictive genius just fabricating this dramatic scene, I would come back to that later and realize that that made up thing was closer to the truth. So, yeah, my father was an elementary school principal, and there are a lot of those details that come out, but I don’t know how much of it is really autobiographical. At best, it’s just my version of events.
What type of person strikes you the most? There are a lot of poems about other people. How do you select them?
There are a lot of famous people in Social History. George Garrett, an old teacher of mine at the University of Virginia, who’s one of these writers’ writers. There’s an elegy to him in there. And, boy, he was a wonderful teacher and writer, and he deserves a much better elegy than I was able to give him. William Eggleston, who’s a wonderful photographer, he has a poem in there. But I think I really love writing the poems about the unknown people. The salesmen of stamped metal window awnings who’s a total fabrication. I mean, I have known any number of salesmen, and I guess that person is a composite of those people. Or the auto body repair man who has a little trouble with the paint gun unless he’s had a drink or two. Those are sort of made up of people, though I’ve known people in those lines of work. I like writing poems about the unknown and the obscure. I’m unknown and obscure.
That’s not true. That’s the least true thing you’ve said.
Poets are invariably obscure. We aspire to obscurity. If we do well, that’s where we’ll get.
There’s a lot of tension between the past and present—what role our past and our present play in our ongoing narratives—and also what shape our memories take as we carry them forward with us. What do you think is the role of our past and our memories as we go forward in our lives? And, as a poet, do you feel a responsibility to those memories in your telling of them?
I try to feel a responsibility to everything. What you’re talking about is that Faulknerian notion that the past is never the past. I think that’s true everywhere. You can pretend you don’t have a past and that it doesn’t shape who you are and that it hasn’t held you back in any number of ways, but also given you great good fortune in any number of ways. There’s no escaping it, so why try? You have to make your peace with your past.
In “The Principal’s Son” you write, “It was a small town in the western end of Tennessee, so all of this took place longer / ago than it actually did, if any of it took place at all.” And in “Social History” you write, “. . . to gild the past with a shine like the sweet glaze on a fruit / pie fresh from the fryer grease.” Both of those lines, to me, speak to the distortion that our memories take. So when you’re writing, how do you determine how much room to give those memories to breathe and become their own things?
Telling the truth is hard. And I ultimately try to let the poem determine what’s true, which may sound like a fancy word for lying, but I try to become detached from the details of the poem and try to make a functioning poem that accomplishes something more than just telling what happened on a Thursday in 1974. “The Principal’s Son” poem, I sent that to the Southern Review, and Jeanne Leiby was the editor at the time, she’s deceased now, as it turns out her mother was an elementary school principal as well, so I think that’s why she accepted the poem. That and she was really a car buff. She was impressed that I got the paint color right of that 1973 Pontiac. And, of course, now it’s no trouble to research the exact paint colors, and why wouldn’t I want to get that right? There are so many other things you’re going to get wrong, you can at least get the paint color: lake mist green.
Most of our readers probably don’t read poetry—
Most readers do not read poetry. Most literate human beings—most of humanity on the planet does not read poetry.
Despite that, I do think people are interested in it. That’s why everybody grows up writing poems in middle school before falling away from it, so I do think a lot of people are at least curious about poetry but are maybe too intimidated to pick a book of poems up over prose. So I’m curious to hear you speak to the possibilities of poetry in the hands of a reader and how we might be able to engage with it better.
The trick to reading poetry is to just read the words one after another. Just like you’re reading a Stephen King novel, just like you’re reading an article in Southern Living, just like you’re reading the newspaper—back when people read newspapers. Granted there are other things going on, there are formal things occurring. And even if you haven’t made a lifetime study on how those formal effects occur, they are still effects that will happen when you read the poem, even if you haven’t read book after book on prosody. So just read the poems. A lot of times I think in high school you’re led to believe that you need some secret key to unlock the meaning of a poem, and that that high school English teacher has the key, and you’re not quite responsible enough to be given the key, and that’s just ridiculous. Just buy a book by Charles Wright and start reading the poems. Buy a book by Phil Levine and Adrienne Rich and Claudia Emerson and read the poems. They’re lovely things in those books.
I know we’re kind of borrowing you from Memphis, but what is it like to work as an artist in Jackson?
That’s a valid question, because all my life’s been in West Tennessee. I’m still home in McKenzie. My mother lives in McKenzie, my brother lives in Huntingdon, I work in Jackson. All of my experience is in West Tennessee, and it’s a good place to be as an artist. It’s a rich culture, wonderful people with distinctive voices. When I got out of graduate school in Virginia, a lot of my friends were moving to New York, most of all, also Boston, San Francisco. And West Tennessee seemed a lot more accessible. Certainly the rents were a lot more accessible than Manhattan. And it’s what I knew and understood, and I have not regretted that move.
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
Photography by Josh Garcia.