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Ozarks literature – what is that, exactly? Well, experts say there’s a rich literary history going back over a hundred years that pays tribute to our rugged, pastoral landscape and the people who call it “home,” while emphasizing some harsh realities that permeate this region. A new book combines writings from local poets, novelists, columnists and historians. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson sat down with the book’s editor, an English professor at Missouri State University-West Plains.
Anthony Priest edited “Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology,” and says he conceived the book years ago when he was inspired by poet Miller Williams’s Ozarks, Ozarks: A Hillside Reader. This new book, Priest says, reflects the diversity and change of the region.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for Ozarks literature. And I think most people, and writers especially, write about what they know,” Priest said.
He grew up in the region and was raised on a farm, which informed his writing. He obtained an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied poetry.
One of the essays in the book, written by MSU Professor Brooks Blevins, dissects the stereotype the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” brought.
There is a strong poetry element in “Yonder Mountain.”
“A lot of them just deal with the ordinary people and the extraordinary moments of their lives as we live here in the Ozarks. People from this region are proud of their history. And they’re proud of the hard work it took to make a living and raise children here. And so, the poets have written about that—in plain-spoken, and sometimes ornate or beautiful language—but still, it’s quality literature,” Priest said.
His favorite poet featured in this book, he said, is Michael Burns, Priest’s former instructor. One poem by Burns is “On the Fifth Day of the Search,” written about David Tate, a Neo-Nazi and accused murderer who was a fugitive on the run in the Ozarks in the 1980s:
On the Fifth Day of the Search
Redbud and dogwood, everywhere the flowering,
And a branch of Long Creek flowing into summer.
Here are the cardinal, the chipmunk, the whitetail,
And maybe even the black bear who has lumbered
Out of his sleep. There’s windsong in the treetop,
Or helicopters. Are you lying belly down
On a cool stone, resting your head on the shirt
You stole last night from a backyard clothesline?
I imagine you slithered into a crevice
Where you mouth words like hungry, bastards, cold;
Or from someplace deeper: afraid and now.
Whatever the world seemed to you in winter
In Idaho, an Ozark spring fulfills the covenant.
You move, and the mockingbird follows, and the crow.
“Yonder Mountain” is published by the University of Arkansas Press. It’s available on www.Amazon.com, and at the MSU Bookstores in Springfield and West Plains. Priest will also have a booth at the upcoming Old-Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival in West Plains the weekend of June 15.
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.