An interview with the Mississippi-born poet who explores grief through poetry in his 2012 book He Will Laugh and is currently working on an anthology titled The Queer South.
Growing up Baptist in Jackson, Mississippi, Douglas Ray immersed himself in music and the arts from a young age and began to understand the power of words. He received his bachelor’s degree from The University of Mississippi, where he edited The Yalobusha Review, and went on to receive his MFA in Poetry. He currently teaches English at Indian Springs School in Birmingham. Ray’s latest book, He Will Laugh, traces the relationship between him and his ex-boyfriend, from the excitement of their first meeting to the aftermath that ended in suicide. In the interview below, Ray talks about using poetry to channel and express his grief, why he’s equal parts Suzanne and Julia Sugarbaker, and the importance of giving gay Southern writers an outlet to express themselves.
EZB: I have to start by asking about the tagline on your website: “Equal Parts Suzanne and Julia Sugarbaker.” What traits do you take away from each of these Southern women?
DR: A daily afterschool routine when I was in, say, 5th-7th grades involved coming home and watching reruns of “Designing Women” on Lifetime. Julia (Dixie Carter) was the outspoken, righteous, impeccably dressed leader of the bunch. I admired her for being passionate, articulate, entrepreneurial and a commanding presence. She was not afraid to call out bigotry or small-mindedness when she saw it.
And Suzanne (Delta Burke), while completely over-the-top most of the time, showed her vulnerabilities over the seasons. She took her tiaras, country clubs, pageant titles, pet pigs and feather and silk bathrobes seriously. There is nothing not to love about Suzanne. Also she was a Pi Phi at Ole Miss, my alma mater, so we were destined to be bonded.
EZB: Where in Mississippi are you from, and what was your experience like growing up in the state?
DR: I grew up in Jackson and then spent six years in Oxford completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees. My family still lives in Jackson, and I have strong ties to the state. Growing up, I was immersed in the arts community. From age 8-15, I wrote music and toured around the country, playing my compositions in concerts with the Yamaha Music Education System’s Junior Original Concert program. So I got to know some of the major figures in the arts community in Mississippi, and those relationships showed me the power of the arts in a place with as conflicted a past and present as Mississippi. I think that my involvement with music led quite easily to my later focus on poetry.
I also grew up in the church — the Southern Baptist Church. While that certainly was not an affirming place to grow up, especially realizing that I was gay, I did learn the power of words in the church. The church interpreted the Bible literally, and those words served as the guiding dictates for so many people’s lives. I suppose that my being a part of a community that did not believe in interpreting texts with nuance also propelled me to be a literature teacher who emphasizes the multiple possibilities of constructing meaning from a text.
My years in Oxford were a fantastic entrance into literary culture. Oxford is a town where the literary community in many ways sets the social calendar. The conversations that start at a reading on campus or at Square Books usually spill over to the bar, to dinner and to a late-night house party. I also loved that social circles were multi-generational and included everyone from interested undergraduate students to retirees looking for a cultural hub to keep life interesting.
EZB: How long have you been writing poetry?
DR: I wrote my first poem in 11th grade, as part of an assignment in my English class. I then edited my high school’s literary magazine the next year and wrote terrifically bad poems filled with abstractions and forced rhymes.
When I went to Ole Miss, I took a class my second semester there with Ann Fisher-Wirth. The course was required by the Honors College, and I fell in love with Ann as a teacher, human being and poet. I applied for an award through the Honors College to go to Spain and write poems inspired by the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. After winning that award, Ann suggested that I apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop. So the summer after my freshman year, I had the opportunity to work with Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, Kevin Young and Galway Kinnell. That’s really when I began to take poetry seriously.
EZB: When did you begin writing He Will Laugh? You’ve said that “you can’t put grief into a sonnet, but I tried to.” What was the process of writing the book like for you?
DR: I began writing the book at the outset of a new relationship, and I thought that it would be interesting to write in a couple of forms — particularly the sonnet and the prose poem. These early poems formed what ended up being the center section of the book, “Then.” The project sat dormant for a bit; the relationship ended after some time. When the fall of my final year of my MFA was in full swing and I needed to finish a manuscript for my thesis, I got the news that my ex had killed himself. I knew then that the book had finished itself.
Everything I was feeling was overwhelming, and I turned to poetry for clarity. One thing that I love about poetry is that it demands precision; there are no synonyms in poetry. So if I was going to put grief into poems, I had to see, think and write with absolute precision. Though the subject I was writing about was messy and unbelievably painful, poetry demanded that I find the right language to match my experience.
EZB: You’ve also said that the South is central to your work and to who you are. I feel like we all know what it means to be a Southern writer, but what does it mean to be a Southern poet and, in your case, a gay Southern poet?
DR: Gay Southern writers are nothing new. Think Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, Florence King, among others. I think that anyone who has spent some time in the South knows what a queer place it is — a place filled with dissonances and possibilities. As someone who has lived his whole life in the South, I know that the landscape, the cultural patterns and reference points, the speech patterns influence who I am as a poet and as a human being. As a gay writer in the South, I think it’s important to be visible and to talk about my experiences as a gay Southerner.
One need look no further than last week’s legislative action in Mississippi to realize that there are still major threats and challenges to being gay in the South. There are active powers that would like to suppress queer culture in the South — to paint GLBTQ-plus people as less than human or unworthy. I reject those people trying to control my narrative; that’s why I choose to write about queer subjects in the South. It’s also important for the Southern queer folks who might find my work. They can know that they’re not alone.
EZB: How did The Queer South come about and why is it important to have a literary outlet for queer culture in the South today?
DR: I was teaching a senior English elective at Indian Springs School called “Southern Literature and Culture.” As I was organizing the “units” or chunks of material I wanted to cover, I decided to have one unit explore the queer South as a way to blend my own narrative into the fabric of our academic discussion. I looked for an anthology that might be useful and didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. I decided that, rather than waiting for something to appear, I would try to make something happen.
I approached Bryan Borland of Sibling Rivalry Press about the project because they were doing great work in queer publishing. The press is also located in a small town in Arkansas and making a huge impact on the literary landscape from that position in Arkansas. It seemed to be the perfect press for this project, and Bryan graciously agreed.
Whenever I think of why it’s important for a marginalized group to voice their experiences, I realize that it’s because lives are at stake and people’s quality of life is at stake. If we really want things to “get better” for queer people, we need queer people to tell their narratives and to be affirmed and celebrated.