When I first moved to Nashville from Durham (North Carolina) eighteen years ago, I found myself unexpectedly delighted by many aspects of living here. I had been reluctant to leave Durham for lots of reasons. My last child was born there. I had good friends there, and I lived in a marvelous story and a half 1920s bungalow, built as a wedding present to a young woman whose father had been mayor of Durham. I had a great little job as Poet in Residence at Duke Medical Center. More than anything else, however, Durham was – is – one of the best places in the country (I am convinced) for a writer to live. The area is chock full of writers, and all the cultural enhancements that build up around writers: good bookstores; community writing workshops; great places to drink coffee; public gardens and parks wherein to walk and think; a plethora of reading series; organizations that support writers and writing... And on and on… I didn’t understand how it was going to be possible to give all of that up. So, I sobbed in the minivan all the way from Durham to Asheville, our halfway stop on the way to Nashville.
Midday, we entered the romantic, ancient terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a chilly, snowless December afternoon. Fog obscured the mountaintops, and congregated in nearly invisible handfuls in the air around us. As I feasted my eyes on the blurred beauties of those softly undulating ranges, a few lines of poetry surfaced: “there were blues and greens dancing before my eyes, in different depths, various textures… they glistened, they curved.” Hmmm… Oh! That was Hilda Morley (“For Elaine de Kooning”). Then, I thought of the Black Mountain Poets, and the community (Morley and her husband the composer Stefan Wolpe were part of it) they had created just up the road, right there in the middle of nothing but mountains. It was an-almost cheering thought. I’m a practical woman. So I stopped crying, and thought: maybe I can make it in Nashville...
One day a few months after I had moved here, and was happily relating how much I liked living in the city, a good friend who had fled Nashville in the late 1970s for the more rational weather and progressive mindset of New England, blurted out before she could help herself, “But what could you possibly like about Nashville?”
It was a fair question, I think. Even then, in 1995, good bagels, French bread, and rich coffee had to be searched out. The restaurant offerings were just beginning to develop past neighborhood meat-and-threes and regional chains. Although there were way too many churches, there was just the right amount of independent bookstores (in that pre-Amazon.com era), and absolutely, astoundingly good live music to listen to at a whole series of small clubs – but there was virtually no literary community at all. It took me awhile to realize that the creativity that oozed out of Nashville’s every crevice was pretty much taken up by music. To enter it as a poet, it was necessary to do some slicing and dicing. Thus, I found myself doing things I had not thought of doing before: starting my own writing groups, serving as unofficial “poet laureate” for the Nashville Independent Film Festival, for instance, where I recited Frank O’Hara’s, “Ave Maria” (“Mothers of America!/let your kids go to the movies!”), or trying to write song lyrics at the invitation of a music publisher (couldn’t do it). It was not long before I fell in love – hard – with this mid size city situated smack dab in the center of the northern reaches of Tennessee.
People visiting for the first time are often surprised by how small downtown Nashville is, and how compact is the entire Music Row/Capitol Hill/Vanderbilt University/downtown honky tonk district. One of the charms of the place is this sense of smallness, of closeness. Somehow it is possible here (more often than you might think) to maintain the fantasy that you’re living in a small, mind-bogglingly creative town, where weirdness is tolerated, and – in general – most people just don’t get all that upset about anything. (This is NOT true for all of the red state of Tennessee; but it is definitely true for blue state Nashville.) Maybe it’s the enervating influence of the heat and humidity. Maybe it’s just the music: hard to be cranky when surrounded by music…
It took me awhile to understand the bumper sticker I used to see all over South Nashville: Welcome to Nashville. (Now Y’All Go Home!). It seemed xenophobic, almost hostile. Wasn't it really saying, with a modicum of civility, thanks for stopping by, but now get the hell out of here? I couldn’t relate it to the friendly, welcoming city I was living in. Then, a few years ago, my husband and I attended a Tennessee Repertory Theater performance in downtown Nashville at TPAC (Tennessee Performing Arts Center). It was winter, very cold, very damp, semi-icy. Everyone was hunched into their coats and hats, and hurrying (as much as Nashvillians ever hurry) to get into the theatre. As we were waiting to cross the street on the corner just across from the box office, a large, sleek automobile bore down into the pedestrian lane and stopped, completely obstructing our passage. There it sat: as menacing as a large animal, exhaust curling up like a raised tail in the cold night air, the couple in the front seat, apparently negotiating (or arguing about) something or other.
Most of us in the waylaid crowd just shook our heads, and started on our now-diverted way across the intersection. One fellow citizen, however, a young woman, took it on herself to point out to the driver the error of his ways. Leaning down beside the driver’s window, she tapped on it until he pressed the button, and the glass slid down, admitting a gush of wintry air and her smiling face. “Hey!” she called out in a friendly, Southern-inflected voice. “Where do you think you are? New York?” Everyone (but the driver) laughed out loud…
So now I think I get that bumpersticker: Welcome to Nashville. Glad you're here. Have a good time. Listen to some music. Spend some money. Hell, buy some boots. But please don't move here. We like it as it is...
Pundits and cultural critics can say all they want that the South, or the New South, or regionalism is dead. But before they make their next pronouncement, they should come to Nashville. Because there are a lot of things happening here – beginning with the way many people talk – that seem persistently rooted
in an ongoing local culture that people seem determined to continue to cultivate. Certainly that’s true in country music. (The CMA Music Fest is happening this weekend! Music is busting out of the city’s seams, and thousands of visitors are clogging the sidewalks of lower Broadway, dreamin’ the dream of country music in cowboy boots and big hats.) It just may be true in poetry, too. Here’s a poem by a marvelous Tennessee poet, Jeff Hardin. http://www.poetrynet.org/month/archive/hardin/intro.html It may not be old time Southern poetry, but it still says a lot to me about life here in Nashville where creativity is always a door opening into transformation, and where slowness and civility – despite all odds – seem to keep hanging on…
Rifts Between Opposites Beginning to Heal
Now that I have your attention, might I suggest sitting a while,
thinking of nothing.
You’re not under the impression, are you, the mustard seed can do
anything without you?
One can travel a long way
to reach rooms full of distance and cramped conversations.
This far along I’ve about decided nothing can be measured,
not even a breath.
The way one person bends to assist another could be this world’s
Idea, if you’d be so kind to help us along
in this impoverishment.
Having opened the book, she said,
the first word she saw was transformation.
No, unsubscribing from your own thoughts, at least right now, is not
Everywhere memory looks
there are fragments of easels in discarded heaps.
Is this the moment all the rifts that exist between opposites
begin to heal?