Sunday, January 18, 2004

Beth Ann Fennelly - Oxford, MS

Beth Ann Fennelly has just finished a 15 page poem about kudzu, the climbing and unstoppable vine that covers millions of acres in Mississippi, Alabama, etc. Kudzu is a Southern touchstone, and when my wife and I first moved down here in the mid 80s, it seemed an exotic and frightening natural world element too spooky and mysterious to ever fully understand. We left Mississippi after only about 18 months, so its reappearance as we drove into the state last night set us thinking about the South, a place, a way of life, a varied and multi-faceted landscape vastly more intriguing than the easy and lazy stereotypes that abound.

But Fennelly is from the north, suburban Illinois, specifically. So I wondered how she came to be here in Mississippi, and - more importantly - how she got so in touch with the evil vine.

We park alongside her home's huge corner lot, and Beth Ann greets me and lets me into her delightful and airy home just minutes after putting her daughter down for a nap. I sit opposite her, my back to an entire wall of book-filled shelves, actually pretty and white cupboards, some with glass doors.

She met her husband, the fiction writer Tom Franklin, in Arkansas, the furthest north Franklin had ever traveled (he's from Alabama), and the furthest south for her. After some years in Illinois, they've settled in Oxford, a hip and wonderful Mississippi town, also, of course, the venerable college where Fennelly teaches, Ole Miss.

Fennelly tells me a little about kudzu, an Asian vine that was introduced to America at the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. An ornamental vine in its homeland, it grows best in the climate of the southeastern U.S., where it is free of its homeland's variety of pests and bugs. In the summer, the vine can grow a foot a day, and it does, obscuring fences, trees, power poles, sides of houses, etc.

Most folks see it as a nuisance, but for Fennelly, it represents one of the things she loves about the South, its places, and people. It's mysterious. It covers up some things that would normally be too in the open, too easily seen. Like her favorite elements of Mississippi, the kudzu conceals some of what's underneath, leaving rich stories for writers to unearth. She believes in her own work she's doing the same things.

Supposedly napping, Beth Ann's daughter has serenaded us throughout the interview with a combination of singing and talking, a burble of words and sounds that have reached down the hallway to us while chatted.

I won't see her on this visit, but I was glad to to hear her little songs.