by Sarah Kelly
Typing interviews over gchat always reminds of the nineties PBS series “Ghost Writer”, in which a group of Brooklyn teenagers with the help of a ghost solve crimes by typing messages. I’m not sure how, but that was the premise, and I remember it being an excellent, heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thirty minutes. The New School may not technically be in Brooklyn, but its close enough. Current MFA student Audrey Whitesides “3 Folk Poems” experiment with the use of fragmentation in poetic form. Our interview opened up a discussion about Whitesides’ own understanding of Kentucky, folk music, and what it means to truly belong.
SK: When did you first start writing poetry, and what do you think drives you to write poetry in particular?
AW: Well, I started writing when I was 15– but that was song lyrics. Pretty soon after, I started encountering these poets like Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Olson who were doing things with language I had never seen before. So I decided I wanted to do that more than lyric writing (though I still am a musician!).
I think I like poetry best because it’s so liberating in terms of form/content/language/experimentation, but it also forces you to create your own rules so other people can enter your work. It lets you go totally outside of normative ways of speech– new languages and syntaxes to engage with.
SK: I’m taking a course in Contemporary Poetry at the moment, and reading work by Ginsberg, Brooks and Walcott among others. Poetry does seem like a way for writers to engage with language as something that is continuing to evolve and change. That brings me to your work. Your re-purposing of these folk songs is unlike any other poetry I have encountered. You describe these pieces as “fragmented”. When did you first come up with the idea for this project (if you see it as a project). What was your process for creating it?
Also, asking questions in an interview makes me feel a lot like Oprah for some reason.
AW: HA well now I’m just going to pretend I’m answering all of this in front of a live TV audience.
But to your question—
I started a big and somewhat undefined project engaging with my relationship to the South/Kentucky in late 2011. A lot went into it– I think I’ve got a couple hundred pages of poetry in various states of completion. The folk song re-purposing was just one strand. The “folk process” has always been a big part of that music– before there was a lot of mass communication, people would swap songs and then forget some lyrics and have to make up new ones, and so on– so each person would take a song, alter it slightly, and spread it on. You get all these songs that have the same chords and melodies but totally different words. And some songs, like “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”, where they become these surreal collages by the time they get recorded.
That song, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”– specifically the recording of it by Bascom Lamar Lunsford from the 1920s– was the inspiration for these folk poems. It’s nuts– there’s a $40 bill, and there’s one part where, according to most lyrics you find online, Lunsford sings, “Because a railroad man, he’ll kill you when he can,” but I always hear the line as “If I’s a railroad man, they’ll kill you when he can.” It just struck me how unstable meaning is in that song. Each verse is a different fragment of the song’s story, and the listener has to try to pick up the pieces as best as they can. So I wanted to break things down even a bit more, move even more away from linear narrative and make each word a point of instability.
The process was pretty long. First I picked nine songs– “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”, “Pretty Saro”, “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room”, “Down in the Valley”, “The Coo Coo Bird”, “Sugar Baby”, “No Depression in Heaven”, “Peg and Awl”, and “Spike Driver Blues”. They’re all country/folk songs, though also all very different. I just felt some connection to each of them, felt like I wanted to enter them. For the first set of folk poems, I just cut up all the words in the songs, put them in a pillow case, and randomly drew them until I had three poems. Then I typed up and arranged these words on my computer, though I didn’t change the order or anything to make them more “sensible”.
After that, I wanted to try again with a bit more control. So I broke the songs into groups of three– first three songs listed above, second three, and third three– based on just intuition. Then I wrote down each word that occurred in each of the songs. That was like my “dictionary” for the poems– the first poem could only use words that existed in the first group of three songs, and so on, and I couldn’t change the tense or anything. I tried not to focus on making sense and focused more on the sound and relation of words, though I think narratives do arise in the poems for me at least. Then that was that! It was kind of cool because revising wasn’t like a thing I could do– I had the words I had and I couldn’t change them.
SK: As someone who is unfamiliar with the folk process/oral tradition, I find this approach so interesting. I was talking with the other editors of Seven Stamps recently about how I see your work forming a sense of identity through place: but by a different process of forming connection. Language acquisition/use can be seen as the primary piece of inherited culture, and I see this idea at play in your work. As a first generation American, I often feel very closely linked to Ireland ( where my parents are from) but at a distance from that culture ,too, as someone who has never experienced it first hand. Do you feel as though you are a Kentuckian, and what do you say when people ask you where you’re from?
AW: Well, that’s a really hard question for me to answer and actually a big part of why I had to write all these poems! I usually do call myself a Kentuckian, and tell people that’s where I’m from. Being a queer and trans woman, self-identification is really crucial to my life– like if I’m not claiming who I am, there’s no place I’m going to receive it from. In a different way, I feel like it’s important to claim Kentucky– it’s a huge space with a lot of history (some very bad history, like all the South), and I want to actively engage with that. But at the same time, I feel like I have to be careful, because I’ve chosen to live in the city and I’m middle class and I have a lot of class privileges that rural Kentuckians don’t have. The community I’ve chosen is very different (again, being queer and trans is a big part of that), and cultural appropriation is not something to do carelessly. But I received a lot of Kentucky from my parents, and I did live there as a kid– so it’s in me somewhere. Some of my cousins are still farmers; there’s a Whitesides Road by Lake Taylorsville. I could have been them, but I wasn’t. Part of the fragmentation is because I feel like I can’t totally claim Kentucky, but it really shaped my family and so I want to have a relationship with it, figure out how to find my place in that culture without taking anything that isn’t mine.
SK: I’m finished with the hard-hitting questions for now, promise! It’s difficult to see where you see yourself fitting into a culture that has influenced you strongly, but feels like something you can’t “claim”. I think you bring up some thought-provoking ideas here. Now for some fun questions. You mentioned earlier that you are a musician. Are you currently producing music, and what instruments do you play?
AW: Yes! I’m in a punk band called Little Waist in Brooklyn. I sing and play guitar. Our demo just got finished, hopefully an EP soon. I started playing piano when I was like 10, switched to guitar at age 12. Also picked up bass and drums (badly) along the way, and tried unsuccessfully to do mandolin.
SK: Music is something that clearly influences your work, and it’s cool to see how it fits into your life. (I wish I was in a band, if only to stand and play the tambourine.) Thanks so much for the interview. We really appreciate you giving us your time.
Audrey Zee Whitesides is a poet and musician born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Her poetry and cultural writing has appeared or is forthcoming in/on Autostraddle.com, Jughead’s Basement, and Wonder among others, and she’s the author of two handmade chapbooks. She also leads Brooklyn trans punk band Little Waist. You can read her work, Folk Poems #4-6, here.