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Poet Sybil Estess Discusses her Upcoming Memoir

Thanks for stopping by! My name is Monica Viera and I'm an author who interviews different artists from around the world.

Who is Dr. Sybil Estess?


You may recall the name ‘Sybil Estess’ from her artistic contributions as a poet. She was even nominated for Poet Laureate of the State of Texas for 2015 and was one of eight finalists for Poet Laureate in 2009. In a recent interview, Dr. Estess and I discussed the transition from writing poetry to prose: what she enjoyed about the experience, what she found difficult, and what she’s looking forward to writing next. Her upcoming work is a memoir but told through the eyes of a fictional little girl named Sam. Dr. Estess explained why she made this decision, and where the inspiration for the character came from. Literary devices and writing techniques aside, we also discussed how the time period and setting play a central role in the story. Dr. Sybil Estess was raised in a time and place that few alive can attest to, and through her first narrative work, she hopes to shed some light on what that experience was like, thus revealing just how much things have changed.

When do you first begin writing?

I first began writing as a pre-teenager, in a very small town in Mississippi of about 1200 people. Around the ages of 12-14, I started to keep a journal. I was very religious at that time, and I would usually write prayers to God, asking for help with my daily life – especially with my boyfriends! My mother found the journal, perhaps teased me, and I quit writing. At the time, I was a Southern Baptist, believing I was called to go to Africa and be a missionary.

What was the impetus for writing this book?

I was first an academic, publishing many critical articles on my field of study: modern and contemporary poetry. Then I published five books of my own poetry. I hope to publish more poems and at least one more book. But for 20 years I have wanted to write this book about the unsolved lynching case in my hometown in April 1959. And not only that, but also, I wanted to give a view of how it was to grow up in an apartheid society in Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s.

Not many alive today know about those times in that place, and some of its primitiveness, such as my grandmother's "farm" in Jasper County, MS, where she had no running water nor lights, and no indoor plumbing. It was all very, very primitive there, where folks even spoke some words with a dialect of middle English. As a child, I believed that the people and their language were just ignorant. In retrospect, I know that they were indeed very unschooled, most of them. However, I do have an aunt by marriage who taught school in the county and got a master's degree in teaching. But I learned in a linguistics class while getting my master's degree at the University of Kentucky, that some of their language patterns and ‘strangely’ pronounced words did come straight out of middle English. For example, our word "help" was in middle English "hope." So, my relatives would utter statements such as "I went to hope her in the garden." I thought they were off their rockers. I know now that it was I who was ignorant of where such language originated.

This is a memoir, told through the eyes of a character named "Samantha." Can you explain why you used this particular device to tell your story?

I argued with many friends and foes, including my own spouse about how I chose to tell the story. Many thought I should use my own name and tell it in the first person -- including, as I said, my husband. I did not want to do that, however, for some reason. For one thing, I am not famous or a well-known figure such as Michelle Obama or even Natasha Trethaway (whose memoir I have not read yet, but I look forward to doing so). I thought that if I made it just a "story" about an unknown character, that it would read more like a novel and would be more tempting for someone to be interested in, and also more entertaining, since, I think, the character "Samantha" is as a child a bright but mischievous little girl, and quite captivating.

Also, I knew a child like this with this same name. She is now 18 years old; I have not seen her in many years, but as a child, she was an active and brilliant little character, the oldest of three children, the granddaughter of a friend of mine who passed away. I loved that little "Sam" and wanted to use her name.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of reliving your childhood? The most difficult?

I found the process of reliving my childhood very delicious. Right now, I think about it all the time. I dream about it. Those days are past, but in retrospect they were so carefree, colorful, and seductive. Who would not like to be able to ride a bike all over your town of 30,000 people, and meet your friends to ride and to play and not have to report into your parents until dark? Who would not like to be able to skate an entire block around the Jewish community center, a half block from my last house in Hattiesburg when we moved when I was ten? Where is there a whole block of sidewalk to skate around? Who would not like to be able to sit and read Nancy Drew all day on a summer day, and be so excited by her seemingly real adventures? Who would not like to safely ride a city bus on Saturdays to a beautiful library to check out her books, and stay half a day in that library just exploring?

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Those were the days of my childhood. And then my beautiful 5th grade teacher, Miss Golding, who had the most gorgeous red hair and had majored at the local Teacher's College in Voice – she had us singing throughout the day to break the difficulties of hard math problems, or the strangeness of far-away geographies that we had to learn. Who would not love it? She was a masterful children's teacher who I have never seen the likes of before or since.

On the hard part, it was difficult to recall my parents’ arguments about religion, for example, and how they fought over me for churches. And how they had a huge battle of, on all days, the day of my afternoon baptism in a pond, and how my father refused to attend. Also, after my family moved when I was ten, it was difficult to remember how lonely I was that first year, how I was misplaced in the wrong class, and not the bright one. How I never knew where the library was, how I resorted to reading only movie magazines. How that move was a major wound.

What would you like readers to take away from reading your book?

A sense of

(a) the systemic racial apartheid system of the time and place;

(b) the nature of a lower class through the eyes of very smart little girl in the midst of this society;

(c) the nature of the primitiveness of a place such as Jasper County, MS, where my grandmother lived, as a pioneer woman. She was totally afraid of any newness or stranger, but she could pop the head right off of a rattlesnake and throw it out the door of her corncrib to me. She could rise before day-light and kill a chicken from her own yard and cook it for breakfast, for whomever was around -- including her "hands" who helped her on her small farm after my grandfather died when I was age three: Ponce de Leon Pittman.

(Even the names were strange, and I would like the reader to know about some of these. In those days it was common to name babies after famous persons. For instance, not only "Ponce de Leon" but my spouse's grandfather was named "George Washington Estess.")

All of this was only three generations ago. How far the American culture has come in this time – that, I would also like to remind my readers of.

Your best known as a poet, after completing this book, which method of writing do you find you prefer (poetry or narrative writing) and why?

Poetry! It took me six years to write this prose book, which I imagined before that for about twenty years. There was so very much re-writing and editing to do. I can put together a book of poems, now, in about 3-6 months, which I intend to do next.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

A new book of poems, titled "Lawsy!"

To learn more about Dr. Estess and her work, you can visit her website here. Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State: 1940s-50s will be available on September 15th, 2020.

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