My piece in AGNI, "Baptist Town," marks the start of an exciting new project. The piece is a blues haibun, inspired by a recent trip to the Mississippi Delta. In 2013, Shannon, the kids, and I went to Mississippi, where I was a featured reader at Ole Miss's Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference in Oxford. Along the way, we visited many of the "holy" sites of delta blues. I have long been a huge fan of the music, the stories , and the people associated with this part of the country and this style of music. We visited the graves of Memphis Minnie, Bukka White, and Robert Johnson; legendary juke joints like Bentonia's Blue Front Café and Merigold's Po Monkey's Lounge; the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm; Dockery Farms, where Charley Patton helped shape the blues into its popular form; and many other places. In the tradition of Basho, the originator of the haibun—a prose/haiku hybrid form—I began to chronicle some of the stories surrounding our visit to these places. Some of my blues haibun are fictionalized with non-me personae, some tell stories from long ago such as the 1908 exploits of Jelly Roll Morton through Clarksdale, and some are pretty true to our actual experiences. "Baptist Town" falls into that last category.
This poem tells about our drive through the eponymous section of Greenwood, the place where blues great Robert Johnson was living when he was murdered in 1938. Greenwood is a fascinating city, prototypically "Southern" enough to have served as the filming location of The Help. Its allure is due in no small part to the rich history and culture of its Baptist Town neighborhood. Still, though, Baptist Town is rough. Really rough—at least by my standards. There are poverty and crime and drugs and pain, but these of course exist alongside vibrancy and joy and triumph and perseverance. At any rate, it is a complex and perhaps even awkward place to be marketed as a tourist destination to blues fans. There was no museum, no walking tour, no concert festival, no canned faux juke joint. We drove along the cracked streets, looking out our windows, trying to imagine what the place looked like in 1938. Ogling the decaying buildings. Trying to make out ghost signs on brick walls. Marveling at the beauty of the massive McKinney Chapel Baptist Church, black-wreathed for a funeral. We were on our own to pick apart the stories of the landscape.
Baptist Town is not an attraction. It is a neighborhood. A beautiful but edgy neighborhood with beautiful but edgy people, many of whom live hard, hard lives I could not even begin to understand. A place famous for death, yet a place where life, undenied, persists. I felt a sense of wonder, but also a sense of voyeuristic discomfort at having invited myself into these people's lives and taking pictures, with my pen and camera, of their home. The poem is, in a way, my working through that discomfort. Part tribute, part apology, part thank-you note.
Look for more poems from this series in the coming weeks.
(By the way, for those interested, photographer Matt Eich has an absolutely amazing photo project chronicling life and times in Baptist Town today, called Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town. Highly recommended.)