Johnye Strickland

Jo McDougall, From Farm Wife to Poet: Metamorphosis of a Southern Writer

slattonS.jpg (53474 bytes)Jo McDougall grew up on a rice farm carved out by her grandfather in the Arkansas Delta, near DeWitt. Her husband also came from an agrarian background. When they went to the University of Arkansas, they majored in Home Economics and Agriculture, since they expected to spend the rest of their lives as rice farmers. But as often happens when you’ve made plans, life intervened. In her forties, McDougall returned to the University to get an MFA. Since that time she has taught Creative Writing at Northeast Louisiana University, Pittsburgh State University at Pittsburgh, Kansas, Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She has held three McDowell Colony Fellowships. With Miller Williams, she presented a Symposium for High School and Junior High School teachers on teaching poetry to students, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in December 1999. A film entitled Emerson County Shaping Dream, based on her dramatic monologues, is scheduled for release in 2000.

While living in Kansas, which has its distinctive Midwestern culture, McDougall came to understand her own cultural heritage. She began to explore her claim to the South, as Willie Morris had done in North Towards Home. (Interview 1998) In Roots and Recognition: Where Poetry Comes From, an Occasional Paper published at Pittsburgh State University in 1994, McDougall speaks of a ‘palpable Southern Mindset,’ which contains recognizable elements such as a love of storytelling; absurdity; a heightened sense of family and history, in addition to a ‘fierce . . . addiction to place’; the awareness of defeat and guilt, which came with the loss of the Civil War (Roots 11); and the Gothic elements of ‘violence, desolation, and decay.’ (Arkansas Writers’ Conference, 1997)

One of the major features of McDougall’s poems is storytelling, which she identifies as a Southern element. In style, she is a minimalist. Yet she can pack a sense of the profound, couched in simple language, into an eight line poem. One such poem is entitled ‘Labor Day,’ from The Woman in the Next Booth (9):

The boy’s mother hears it on the radio.
A fishing boat has been found.
She walks through the house,
reassuring the backs of chairs.

Her husband comes from the lake.
Dusk filters through the screen.
Sit down, he says.
He puts his hat on the table.

In addition to storytelling, the Southern sense of family combined with the poignancy of loss appears.

This poem has a particular resonance for me. As the former wife of a man who in his youth insisted on going fishing alone, in remote areas, without letting anyone know where he was going to be or when to expect him home, I sense this woman’s anxiety. And as the mother of a son who died suddenly from a common childhood illness, I understand her frozen disbelief. But aside from my own reader response, I have found various audiences responsive to it as well. I use it in my Arkansas Writers class, and I have used it successfully in workshops with poets and in a recent talk to a group of women business owners.

Most of McDougall’s poems involve storytelling. And at least one of them contains a storytelling character, with an implied audience:

. . . One summer we owned the Lincoln,
next we didn’t . . . .
Mother blamed the Lincoln on Darrell—that was my husband.
She said he was drinking. Would you like a Scotch?

(‘A Bottomlands Farmer’s Widow Remarries and Speaks of the Killing,’ in From Darkening Porches 6)

This poem is also an example of the Gothic elements of violence and decay, and of the fear of loss. The central story is of a trial, ‘when the lawyers held up the panty hose and bra / Darrell was supposed to be wearing the night he was killed.’ The narrator speaks of ‘rotted crops,’ and of ‘night [that] comes down smelling like a cottonmouth,’ which reflect decay. Her fear of loss is expressed with respect to her ‘oldest, Ginny, / which [she] don’t know to this day / where she is.’

McDougall considers her most Southern poem to be one entitled ‘Harlot Hag Dry Harpie’ (Woman 19). When I first encountered this poem, I thought it must have been written for a creative writing class: Take this list of words and use as many of them as you can in a poem. But according to McDougall, that was not the case. This is one of the few poems which, she says, came looking for her. As she was waking up one morning, the phrase ‘Pomegranate sequin dove my harlot hag dry harpie’ came to her. Then the characters in the poem—first the woman, then the man—appeared in her room, which she says is unusual for her (either to visualize characters or to have a recognizable visit from the Muse. Usually her poems begin with an incident she has witnessed, or a person she has known, she says. Interview 1998).

The ‘Harlot Hag Dry Harpie’ poem is about a ‘woman from Opelousas’ (note the sense of place), who came to live with a circus barker ‘who had lived with an alligator lady, and Siamese twins.’ According to McDougall, she was a ‘silly woman,’ the kind you find in the South who will do anything to please a man, such as ‘paint a harelip on herself, / tape down an eyelid, paint her nose black, sleep on all fours.’ I consider this poem to be McDougall’s best representation of absurdity, but I don’t see it as she does, as the most Southern of her poems. When I asked her why she thought of it this way, she said it was characteristic of the sleaziness, of both the circus and of small Southern towns, where such ‘silly women’ can be found. She had in mind a particular circus which came to DeWitt when she was a child. Her mother told her not to go, but she and a friend went anyway. (Interview 1998)

McDougall writes often about relationships—between men and women, between families and place, between women and houses. And hovering in the background is the threat of loss or decay. In ‘Dreaming the Kin’ (From Darkening Porches 23) the narrator sees her ‘grandfather in a field of corn,’ but he doesn’t see her. She enters her ‘grandmother’s kitchen,’ where her grandmother is ‘canning sausage’ and her ‘aunt sits folding clothes.’ Neither of them notices her, prompting her to wonder if she’s ‘come to the wrong house,’ though she remembers the dishes with ‘red and yellow flowers chipping on the rims.’

A typical relationship poem is ‘The Bluebird Café,’ one of several set in small town cafés or coffee houses. (Woman 25) It reads:

Eating alone
I shuffle a magazine
turn the coffee cup
light a cigarette.
There is no one here except for one
waitress, a cook I can’t see,
me, and one old woman in a booth.
Why didn’t you come home last night?

Another relationship poem which also reflects loss, decay of a sort, and sense of family is ‘How It Sometimes Happens to a Man That a Noble Heart and Purpose Come to Dwell Within Him.’ (Darkening 34) A man who goes home to his wife sits after supper ‘with his drink on the darkening porch. / He would like to give to the woman / his love, his life, his father’s pocket watch. / He hears his wife / knitting in the dark.’

McDougall often writes about women (men too, but more women I think) who lead marginal lives. In her own words, she says she writes about people in small towns, ‘not very successful people, maybe . . . A lot of the women are alone, and a lot of them are down on their luck.’ (Interview 1998)

One of her most typically Southern poems, in my opinion, is called ‘The Menial.’ (Woman 30) It reads in part:

Each woman keeps another woman¾  . . .
Who comes through a small gate when we call her
To cook, . . .
To suckle our young
Even to bed down in our names
To make love in our names
To have our children
She will do almost anything except
Dig in the ground a rectangle
Sink into that a box with a lid
Climb into that naked.

McDougall intended this poem to depict the white Southern woman who, even though she might not be particularly well off herself, could still afford to hire another woman to work for her. I read it instead as a reflection of the bifurcated mind which was typical of Southern women of my grandmothers’ generation. These women could convince themselves that they conformed to the biblical command to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but then refuse to let their children play with the child next door because his mother was ‘no better than she should be.’ Or to bring it a bit closer to home, the women of my generation who were capable of thinking of themselves as perfectly chaste in mind and body while at the same time they might be ‘fooling around’ with their boyfriend. I see the menial not as a real hired servant, but as the person who does the chores which were supposedly beneath the Southern woman herself—the cooking, perhaps; certainly the cleaning. And often the ‘making love.’ After having been told all her life that sex was wrong, and that if she seemed to know anything about it her husband would think she was a slut, how could she be expected to put her whole self into the situation?

As far as having someone else bear her children—which I can not see a menial in the flesh being able to do—the PBS stations in Arkansas in their 1998 and 1999 fund raising marathons aired a two hour video with Dr. Christiane Northrup, a woman obstetrician in Maine, who made the point that when she had her first child, even though she had been trained as a doctor to know what the process of birth entailed, she felt as though her body was in one place and her mind was completely divorced from the event, partly because she was so heavily drugged, which was the practice at the time, but also because everything about the birthing was totally impersonal, as though the woman herself were not there. (Women’s Bodies, Women’s Minds)

At the end of ‘The Menial,’ when the woman cannot get the surrogate to climb naked into the box with a lid for her, I see that as the same kind of ending McDougall often uses in her poems—a turn or twist, with an emotional impact or a meaningful insight. The woman is at last presented the opportunity to reconcile the opposing ideas or emotions of her life—to jettison the inherited baggage and discover her own identity. And while I originally assumed the death to be death itself, I now don’t think it needs to be. It can be a symbolic death, representing a choice for the Southern woman to reject the identity imposed on her by her culture and to reinvent herself in the form she herself creates, as many women have done in the past thirty years.

McDougall’s sojourn in Kansas, in addition to giving her a better perspective on her Southern roots, also provided her with lessons about Midwestern people, as well as about herself. For one thing, she learned to be more honest, ‘getting out of that Southern habit of double talk, where one has to read between the lines.’ She thinks there was an influence on her work as well—not only in subject matter (while in Kansas, she wrote about things that were happening to her there, and about the effect the landscape had on her), but also in style. She learned to be ‘less ornamental; less tending toward the grotesque; tending more toward plain talk, . . . flattened language.’ (Interview 1999)

Midwestern people are more attuned to the weather than Southerners, she thinks. There is even a sense of danger associated with weather. In the winter, you can step outside your house and literally freeze to death. Now that she is back in the South, she has retained that sense of the importance of weather. Working on recent poems about her grandfather’s farm near Cabot, Arkansas, brought the realization that she could not remember a time visiting in the summer when his crops were not burned up, in the days before irrigation became accessible.

She also learned that Midwestern people have a strong sense of stoicism. They too suffer adversities, but they never complain. They endure. Even the women don’t complain, nor do they share stories with friends about what happens to them, as Southern women are wont to do. Midwesterners are proud of their history, but they do not have the deeply ingrained sense of loss or failure, or even the strong sense of the past that their Southern counterparts have. Nor do they have the strong sense of sin and guilt that every Southerner is confronted with in the fundamentalist religions that pervade the South, where God and the Devil are seen to be in a continuing battle for the individual’s soul. Kansas is not without its failures and fundamentalists; but they do not dominate the atmosphere as they tend to do in the South, particularly in the small towns such as DeWitt and Stuttgart, where McDougall spent her formative years. (Interview 1999)

Jo McDougall has recently completed the manuscript of her fourth book of poems (Sleeping With the Light On) and is in the process of submitting it to prospective publishers. This book differs from her earlier work in several ways. For one thing, she has consciously sought to write longer poems, with more narrative, more of a statement. Formally, she concentrates more on the use of rhyme and meter, rather than the free verse or blank verse she is noted for in her previous work. One poem in particular, entitled ‘The Circle in the Ground,’ consists of two and a half pages of rhyming quatrains celebrating ‘a sense of community and a sense of place, and keeping up with the values that make a community and how that should extend on into the next century.’ (Interview 1999)

In this new book, McDougall finds herself delving more into memory for subject matter—particularly memories of visiting her maternal granparents on their ‘rock bitten farm close to Cabot.’ She combines the memories of ‘those times in that house’ with her mature understanding of the struggle her grandparents (and by extension, farmers everywhere during the Depression) had to go through ‘just to eek out a living.’ (Interview 1999)

The theme of loss is also strong in this book, especially the loss of place. The poet’s grandparents’ farm and house are lost, no longer there, having been replaced, she thinks, by a housing development. Even the house she grew up in is lost to her, and knowing that she will never be able to enter it again brings a sadness that is reflected in these poems. While she was working on this manuscript, McDougall experienced one of the most poignant types of loss in the death of her own daughter, which she writes about as well.

But all is not loss and sadness in the new book. There is also a sense of joy, and a sense of humor in some of the poems. For example, one poem called ‘Love Story’ is about a woman who falls in love with a man with a bald spot, and does ‘fantastical things about that,’ such as putting up ‘a little umbrella on top of his bald head, against the sleet.’ Another poem depicts a woman and man who are ‘into voodoo,’ and can ‘make each other appear . . . at will.’ She still writes love poems, but in this collection they tend to be about ‘married love.’ (Interview 1999)

I look forward to seeing the poems in this fourth book, and to the completion of the memoir she is currently working on. I have been an admirer of her work since I first discovered a remaindered copy of The Woman in the Next Booth on a sidewalk cart in front of Lorenzan’s Bookstore in Little Rock in the late 1980s. It is always rewarding to observe the growth of a writer, and a person, over time (in this case, more than two decades). Jo McDougall continues to experiment with her craft, and to explore her own perceptions of the world in her time and place, in order to share them with her readers. It is a world worth sharing, especially for readers with an interest or roots in the South. Her work deserves to be better known.

Works Cited

Interview: Jo McDougall by Johnye Strickland. March 26, 1998.

Interview: Jo McDougall by Johnye Strickland. December 13, 1999.

McDougall, Jo. From Darkening Porches. Fayetteville. University of Arkansas Press.


_________. Roots and Recognition: Where Poetry Comes From. Pittsburgh, Kansas.  Friends of Timmons Chapel, Pittsburgh State University. 1994.

_________. Towns Facing Railroads. Fayetteville. University of Arkansas Press. 1991.

_________. The Woman in the Next Booth. Kansas City: BkMk Press, University of  Missouri-Kansas City. 1987.

Northrup, Christiane. Women's Bodies, Women's Minds. 90 minute video. Available from JWA/Video. Chicago.

_________. Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. New York. Bantam Books.  Revised edition, 1998.

*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia, April 17, 1998.

(Photo by S. Slatton)