“She takes the open fifths into the choir of her heart: A Conversation with Marianne Worthington about The Girl Singer” — curated by Tiffany Troy

Marianne Worthington grew up in urban Appalachia, listening to country and folk music and letting it live within her. The speakers in The Girl Singer offer lyrical celebrations of the women who performed that music and recite their stories anew. The girl singer is also the poet—one who traces loss through turning seasons, monitors the patterns of neighborhood wildlife, and creates a sisterhood for singing old songs in new ways.

Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers of the world? What would be helpful for the readers to know going into your book?

Marianne Worthington: Probably that I grew up in a very musical city, which was Knoxville, Tennessee. Although it’s not as well-known as Nashville, Tennessee for country music it had really strong ties to local musicians that would come to Knoxville; they were either born there, or they lived there or they got their start there, and then they would move on. In particular, there was this live radio show, the “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” that my parents used to talk about. I think it was at lunchtime so you could run downtown and you could actually see the show while it was being broadcast over the radio. My mother remembered seeing Maybelle Carter with her three daughters June, Anita, and Helen. We listened to that kind of music on the radio and we watched that kind of music on TV, so I grew up listening to and loving folk and country music.

Eventually, I went to college, but not until I was much older. I was 27 or 28 before I got to college and I began to study writing. And it wasn’t until we moved to Kentucky in 1990 that I began to really write poetry seriously. So, I’ve always kind of been a late bloomer.

As far as what people should know about the book, it’s a combination of how I wanted to talk about my upbringing, my family, my interest in music and how I try to write poems that are observations of the world around me.

TT: I see everything you mentioned—family, music, observation of the world around you—in the stories that the songs tell and your extension of these songs in The Girl Singer, especially with the murder ballads.

MW: I actually got a grant to study murder ballads, folk music, and old-time radio music at Berea College about a decade ago. For a month in June during the summer, I spent every day in the library, hours and hours in the library studying their special collections and listening to music and reading letters and studying the archives that they had there. It was a really rich experience.

TT: I can imagine that. Is it like uncovering what nobody else has?

MW: Yeah, and what was really fascinating, and I didn’t know too much about this, was that there were “ballad” scholars who came into the Appalachian Mountains to collect and document the ancient British ballads that were still being sung in Appalachia.

Many of the ballad collectors perpetuated the stereotypes of mountain people. Some of them did care about the people, but a lot of them didn’t really care about the people at all, they just wanted the music. So there was a lot of derision, some making fun of the way people talked, or the way the ballads had changed slightly according to culture in the dialect and language. All of that I didn’t know anything about. All these women I studied who were early radio stars, I didn’t know much about that either.

I was really lucky that that was the specialty of one of the archivists there, Harry Rice. He could show me the path that I needed to take. That’s kind of where my interest started in writing these poems about particular women and particular songs.

TT: That’s wonderful. A decade later, we have these poems that are so deliberate and unique. You bring your personal and family history and also your love of the stories that the ballads tell and weave them together.

Turning to the epigraph, which quotes Emma Bell Miles, Our Southern Birds: “In all the world there is nothing braver than the heart of a singing bird” and it goes on. I find the epigraph deeply connected to your love of music growing up in Knoxville. How does the epigraph help you set up the collection that follows?

MW: I think it helped me in many ways that might not be evident in the collection. First, the writer of that epigraph, Emma Bell Miles, was a woman who had grown up in the mountainous part of Chattanooga. Her parents had moved there when she was 10 or 11 to teach school from Indiana. They came to Signal Mountain, which was right outside of Chattanooga. She had this dual background. Her parents weren’t Appalachian but she ended up marrying an Appalachian man. She was the first person to write about the people of Appalachia from an insider’s point of view, so that her book she wrote and published in 1905, The Spirit of the Mountains, didn’t romanticize the mountains and didn’t deride the mountaineer either. She was really balanced. Then her book about birds, Our Southern Birds, was published in 1919 just a few days before she died at age 39. She worked on it, one and off through the years but, especially while she was sick with tuberculosis and in a sanatorium. I wanted to honor Miles because she was so important to me in learning about my own heritage and my own culture.

I think her work speaks to The Girl Singer because it has music, it has nature, it has loss and grief. Her work still has a lot of resonance for me, even a century later.

TT: I agree. Many of the songs that you made alive for us readers in The Girl Singer felt deeply resonant, despite being set in an obviously different historical period and place. Could you describe the process of writing the collection?

MW: I had been working on the poems for a very long time and some of the poems in the collection—not necessarily the music poems—but a lot of poems about my family were written a long, long time ago. I had a chapbook and I just couldn’t get this collection together. I studied with two, three really experienced poets that I admired, who helped me think about putting it together as a book. So I don’t know that I can actually say what my process was. It was more like listening to how other readers reacted to this mess of a manuscript I had. I mean I didn’t even really have a manuscript, I had a pile of poems. I took a lot away from the process and I know better now how I want to put collections together in the future.

Some of those poems are old and some of them are fairly new. I added one poem at the very last minute before my manuscript was due to the publisher. So it runs the gamut of old and new.

TT: It’s always a magical, alchemical, almost a strange and groping process in putting the poems together. I have a similar process to your own where the poems sort of come, but I don’t exactly know how they coalesce at all.

MW: Exactly. It helps to have readers who can help you with that. My friend Silas House, who is the editor of Fireside Industries, an imprint of the University of Kentucky Press, helped me to order the collection. This was really helpful.

TT: That is a perfect segue: how did you and the folks around you help with structuring the collection?

MW: One thing that helped me is a writing group with three other women that that I teach with. Now, we haven’t met since the pandemic started because we always like to meet in person, so we can gossip and then you know get down to work. I was bringing these poems from this collection to our meetings, bringing them and bringing them. I would say, it doesn’t have anything to do with this or that, and they would say yes it does. You’ve done this, you’ve done that, things I couldn’t see but they could see it and they could hear it, or they could say, put this poem next to this poem. It’s like when you write poems, you can’t really see your own mistakes. Like when you write an essay, and you write a word twice. So my writing group helped me think about where to place the poems.

TT: That’s wonderful, because you’re writing from your experiences, perception, and obsessions, and your friends are there to tell you what makes your poems unique.

The Girl Singer has many different types of poems. One poem you actually need to flip around and read sideways. There are other poems with unique shapes and others that are more traditional, like couplets. When you write poems do the form come automatically or do you like consciously think about it and work your way towards a form?

MW: I don’t think form typically comes immediately or before the words in my poems.

Sometimes, though, I do write a poem in a particular way. I’ll say, I’m going to write 14 lines, like a sonnet, because that’s going to force me to get 14 lines on the page. There’s a particular poem or set of poems in the collection about different types of birds and I just made up this little shape. I wanted there to be three lines, a certain number of syllables per line, and rhyming sound at the end of each line.

I did that because I could not figure out how to write about all those birds and not lose my mind, so I just made myself a pattern. But I love rhythm. I was trained as a musician and I’ve studied music all of my life. I’m not sure about this, but I think I learned to read because we went to church and I was always looking at the hymn book. I remember my mother, aunt, and grandmother would point to the words as we were singing the hymns. That kind of singing and metrical precision has always been really important to me.

The poem you mentioned that has to be read sideways was actually too long to place on the page. So I convinced my publisher to turn it sideways but that’s actually a contrapuntal poem. You read the right side of the poem in one voice, and then you read the left side of the poem of the other voice, and then you read it straight across so that there’s a third poem. I want to write more of those. That’s such a beautiful and fascinating way to show conflict. The way I came to know of that form was through Frank X Walker who showed me Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly: poems  and it just blew me away. But they are really hard to write.

TT: How do you convincingly adopt different voices, personas, and the stories that you tell in your poems? We can look at “Recitatives on a Murder,” based on murder ballads of the story of the three women and Tom Dula as an example.

MW: That poem was a hard one to write, too, but I was obsessed with that song and story and as child. My mother had a Doc Watson record where I first heard his version of the folk song, “Tom Dooley.” In the liner notes, Watson said that his grandmother attended to Annie Melton when she was dying. Ann Melton claimed to see the flames of hell at the foot of her bed burning up. I just thought what a mythology to carry through the family. I did a lot of reading about what happened. The song just says Tom Dooley takes Laura Foster into the woods and kills her for no good reason. That’s all what happens to women in murder ballads: they get taken out into the woods by these men and that the women think they love them but then the men end up killing them. Sometimes, they get away with it, and sometimes they get caught.

It anyway, I didn’t really know about the other two persons Anne and Perlene. They were all involved with Tom. The theory is—although no one’s been able to prove it and scholars differ on it—that probably one of those women killed Laurie Foster but Tom took the blame and was hanged. It’s a true story, but we also don’t know all the truth of the story, so it was kind of fun to think about how they would talk. They were all from the mountains in North Carolina it was fun to think about how you could make this rhythmical so it would be like a song.

One of the other murder ballads referenced in the collection is “Knoxville Girl,” but I retold the story from the Mother’s point of view—the mother of the murderer. The poem is called “Knoxville Boy.”

I did so much reading on the women performers who are featured in poems in my collection. I listened to their performances from old radio shows, how they talked to and interacted with audiences. It was daunting to try to “voice” those women.

TT: You mentioned earlier creating a form for naming birds. That form—like naming the bird followed by a definition/interpretation of the bird—strikes me as unique. How are you able to maintain the reader’s interest with the variety of birds in The Girl Singer?

MW: It’s really hard to do because if you say, I like to write about bird poems, people roll their eyes and think of all the cliches. It’s like dog poems, because it will turn into sap and nostalgia and it will be weepy. So you have to be careful. One of the things I did was read a lot of poems about birds and I looked at what other poets have done to make their poems stand out. It’s always a unique or fascinating image or metaphor that you don’t normally associate with birds that keeps your interest.

I’ve had a lot of time to stay inside and look out the window. I’m lucky that my neighbors have let the property line grow completely wild.

So now it’s this refuge for all kinds of birds. It changes as the seasons change. Just now, the brown thrashers have left and the robins have come back. I don’t know where the robins go, but they go somewhere and then they come back for the winter. The cardinals never leave, the blue jays never leave, the crows never leave. The mockingbirds stay here all year long.

Maybe that’s it for all poetry, you have to find that really unique image or simile or comparison or metaphor, that no one else has thought and that’s really hard.

TT: What are you working on today?

MW: I’m working on several poems about chronic illnesses which I know probably does not sound interesting but everybody in my family has a chronic illness, except me. I’m working on poems that speak to how do we live with chronic illnesses, what does it do to your family when someone becomes chronically ill. It’s sort of like—although I don’t really have the experience with this—when someone in your family is an alcoholic or addicted to drugs, it destroys the dynamic of the family. Chronic illness can do the same thing. It’s not the same as addiction, but it’s similar in in how it, you figure out a lot about yourself and you figure out a lot about your siblings and your relatives, when someone in your family is very, very sick and needs constant care. I’m working on that which is not happy at all, and I’m writing poems and nonfiction. I’m really interested in whether or not I can put together a collection that mixes genre, cross genre, or hybrid. I’m not exactly sure how to do that, yet, but that’s kind of what I’m working on.

TT: Before we close, what writing advice can you share to your readers?

MW: I was not lucky enough to get into a formal writing program. I feel like I’m probably too old to do that now. But Kentucky has this fabulous literary scene. You can take classes a lot of places. That’s something I would really recommend. If you can’t get an MFA, if you can’t study writing in a concentrated period of time, find somebody you can study with. I found a couple of poets I admired and contacted them: would you coach me? Can I have private lessons with you? We worked out a cost, reading lists, and syllabus, just as if I was in an MFA Program. Finding another writer who will invest in your own craft via teaching and mentoring is probably one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer.