What makes a Southern writer “Southern”?

I was considering this the other day. I was born and raised in Hickory Withe, TN, (right outside Memphis), lived a few years in Boston, a few years in Kentucky, a few years in Georgia, and a few years in Arkansas, but currently live in Missouri. By and large, the majority of my life has been lived in the South (all but 4 years, to be exact). But I do not currently live in the South and have no plans to return to the South–so am I a “Southern” poet?

What is it to be a “Southern” poet? Is it merely where you were born? Is it what you write about, or a style of writing?

Let’s say someone lives most of their life in California, and moves to Tennessee. How long before they can call themselves “Southern”?

With all of our moving, I feel a bit displaced as a writer. When I first began writing, I would solidly claim to be a Southern, mid-south poet, but now, when I type out my current address on a submission, I wonder what I can really claim.

How do you define regional poetry? By the poet being from there, currently living there, or writing about the place?

2 responses to “What makes a Southern writer “Southern”?”

  1. I think it’s more about roots than current location. I would consider you a Southern writer far and away above someone who moved to Tennessee but lived most of their lives in California. You will always be “from the South” in the same way a British person that moves to the U.S. is always “from Britain.” My personal opinion.

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  2. I often think these categories work better in relation to poems than poets. People migrate, and their relation to place is in flux, so some of their writings might reflect deep thinking about Southernness, others not. If I were teaching a course on Southern Lit (I don’t), I’d want to include some arguable examples so students could come up with their own ideas about the field’s boundaries. I feel like a borderline case myself: I grew up in New York and New Jersey with an English mother, but I’ve lived in VA since ’94 and my last collection especially was about regional history and landscapes and politics–so what affinities are most significant to my work? There’s no one answer.

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