Mississippi in Verse
A Q&A With Tupelo Poet Patricia Neely-Dorsey
by Erin Z. Bass
Patricia Neely-Dorsey grew up in Tupelo, Miss., and is a 1982 graduate of Tupelo High School. She attended Boston University, then moved to Memphis for almost 20 years, before returning to her home state in 2007. Moving back into the house she grew up in sparked lots of memories that first year, so much so that Dorsey began to write down her thoughts on paper. Her book of poems, “Reflections Of A Mississippi Magnolia,” was published in February of 2008.
In honor of National Poetry Month, Dorsey spoke with Deep South about her style of poetry, growing up in Mississippi and how she was influenced by writers like Eudora Welty. With titles like “Mississippi Through and Through, “Southern Man,” Right to Vote” and “Making Cracklings,” there’s no denying the sense of place in Dorsey’s writing. You can find several of her poems from the book in our Southern Voice section, and her book is sold on Amazon, at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo and several other independent bookstores in Mississippi.
How did you start writing poetry?
I never thought about being a writer. It kind of came to me in my sleep and when I woke up, I scribbled it down and from then on I started having poems coming to me.
You describe your work as “folk poetry.” How is that different from other types of poetry?
It’s mostly telling the story of the common people in everyday life. It’s not something that needs to be interpreted or analyzed like more academic poetry. I call it poetic storytelling, like a folk art.
What brought you back to Tupelo after living in Memphis?
I have a son, Henry, and I wanted him to know the life that I grew up in, a slower pace.
Was Tupelo different from how you remembered it as a child?
The people are not different at all. Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody’s business. Its just larger with more stores and restaurants.
You’ve often said that Mississippi is misunderstood and has negative connotations associated with it. Can you explain what you mean by that?
We’re always at the bottom of the good list and the top of any bad list – the fattest state in the nation, for teenage pregnancy, literacy, race. When people think Mississippi, in 2010 they still think slavery, lynching, burning. People still associate that with Mississippi and don’t want to hear the good things.
Many of your poems center around things you did while growing up, which you describe as a “fairytale childhood” in the “Acknowledgments” section of your book. What are some of your fondest memories?
My father was a doctor, the only black doctor in town, so I grew up going on house calls and meeting people, living in the country, playing outside. I went to book club with my mom. I was a debutante when I was 18.
What books did you read as a child, and what poets do you like to read now?
I loved “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Anne Moody and, of course, later I loved “The Color Purple,” “Jubilee” by Margaret Walker, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I read that so many times. I have always loved Nikki Giovanni, she has just spanned the decades with me, and I still love all of Maya Angelou’s things.
You quote Eudora Welty on your website as saying, “Write about what you know.” Were you influenced by her?
She’s the kind of writer that I am, telling stories. She said Southerners are people of storytellers and that what she does is just tell our stories. She said there are so many wonderful Southern writers because we don’t have to make things up.
April is National Poetry Month. What advice would you give to aspiring poets and students?
They always say read a lot and write a lot, so keep writing. When it comes to publishing, persistence, never giving up, believe in what you’re doing, especially with poetry.