Mississippi has made a career out of producing writers. Some are born into the family; others join later. Beth Ann Fennelly is one of the transplants.
Originally from Chicago, Fennelly moved to Oxford when her husband, Tom Franklin, was named the Grisham Writer-in-Residence for the University of Mississippi, and she accepted a position as assistant professor in the English Department.
They expected to stay for nine months or so — just long enough for Franklin to complete his residence. That was 2001. About a year ago, Fennelly’s family made a show of commitment and permanence to their adopted home.
“We have three born-and-bred Mississippi children, and last year we bought five plots in the Oxford Cemetery, just down the hill from Mr. Faulkner and a beer can’s throw from Barry Hannah, so I think it’s fair to say Mississippi is my home, my geographic and spiritual home,” Fennelly said in her acceptance remarks August 10 at the state Capitol when she was named Mississippi’s poet laureate. “And I am thrilled to be chosen to serve this home I love through the transformative power of poetry.”
Fennelly is Mississippi’s fifth poet laureate, a distinction most recently held by Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Fennelly to the role after a selection committee facilitated by the Mississippi Arts Commission recommended her as one of three finalists. During her four-year term, Fennelly will make poetry more accessible to Mississippians by creating and reading poetry during state occasions and participating in school and community events that celebrate poetry as an art form.
In the fall of 2017, Fennelly will also release Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, her latest book of poems written in her witty and approachable style that takes readers into her life as a mother, wife and writer. Early in her career, as Fennelly was learning to listen to her voice and pay attention to her own interests, she was trying to tackle what she considered big, serious poetry, but it wasn’t working.
“Those weren’t good poems I was writing, and I think it was because the impulse was adopted, forced in a way to achieve an effect,” she said. “I honestly think I finally learned that writing is not some type of gift bestowed as luck. Writing well comes through practice. Also, I learned to trust my own interests and subject matter.”
“Realizing that gave me confidence to just pay attention to what I was paying attention to,” she said. “After I started doing that, I started honing the impulse a bit more. Now I don’t question when it comes; I just start writing.”
Now, she builds from common subjects.
As poet laureate, Fennelly will be a voice for poetry and literature throughout the state.
Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White says Fennelly’s rock-star status as a talented poet and a talented speaker will put the state in the best light.
“There are people who are great writers but can be clumsy when it comes to public speaking,” White said. “Beth Ann represents literature and arts and culture in a magnificent way. I’ve never seen her step to a podium not well-rehearsed and ready to rock.”
White said poetry can be seen by some people as an otherworldly art form, but Fennelly’s work invites readers in.
“Beth Ann writes in a user-friendly way. It is complex but not overly complicated,” he said.
“Oxford’s literary society was made famous by William Faulkner, and when Willie Morris and Barry Hannah settled there, they perpetuated a literary culture in Oxford,” White said. “Beth Ann and Tom are the contemporary torchbearers leading the way for literature in that town.”
Much of that leadership has been showcased in Fennelly’s work as director of the masters of fine arts program since 2010. She has handed over the reins to Dr. Derrick Harriel, who credits the school’s top-20-in-the-nation status to Fennelly.
“Students regularly talk about how compassionate and thoughtful she is and how she challenges them to work outside their normal practices, adding additional layers to their work,” Harriel said.
Fennelly will continue teaching in the program while serving as poet laureate.
Molly McCully Brown, who will graduate in the spring of 2017, said Fennelly is the reason she considered the university’s M.F.A. program.
“She has fostered a community where all the writers are invested in each other,” Brown said. “Ambition and energy are incredibly high, and this is a program that takes care of its writers both personally and professionally.
“Beth Ann is incredibly infectious, incredibly smart,” Brown said. “Poetry is a thing that she loves desperately, and I know whatever she does out in the world will be about trying to bring that delight and pleasure of poetry to more people.”
Fennelly appreciates living, teaching and writing in a community that revels in its literary reputation.
“It’s amazing to live in a town where Square Books anchors social life, and Rowan Oak (Faulkner’s home) is always available for a walk or a picnic,” she said. “We have a very literary culture and, because of this, writers like to live here, so we have an amazing faculty, truly world-class. And also because of this, we are able to get students who have true talent. It’s a pleasure to teach them.
“There’s nothing sweeter than choosing a home that chooses you back,” Fennelly said. “Being selected as poet laureate is one of the sweetest pleasures of my life.”
Photos by Danny Klimetz