Dr. Sybil Estess, Talks Her Childhood with New Memoir "Mississippi Milkwater".
Before Dr. Sybil Estess was a poet and memoirist, she was a little girl growing up in 1940s Mississippi, in a town called Hattiesburg. The book begins with her grandmother, living 70 miles away. She describes her grandmother and her generation in Jasper County’s living situation as ‘primitive,’ and compares the lives they lived to peasants of the Middle Ages. In her memoir, Dr. Estess describes, in gripping detail, the harsh reality of life in that place during that time. The main character, Sam, did not live there permanently, but her visits were scary. She stayed there alone with her grandmother, Lola, twice before her death, both when she is six and seven years old. Her grandmother dies when she is eight years old.
When Dr. Estess was a bit older, in a smaller town they had moved to from Hattiesburg, but a county seat with a courthouse, she witnessed something truly horrible happen, an event that would shape her future by urging her to leave Mississippi. Mack Charles Parker was a young black man accused of raping a white woman. As Dr. Estess explores in her memoir, Mr. Parker was lynched before he could ever stand trial. Dr. Estess saw how the entire town, law enforcement, and the rest turned a blind eye to the incident, and to this day refuse to acknowledge the horrible truth of what happened.
Have you always been a writer/poet? What is the first poem you remember writing?
I wrote in a journal when I was a pre-teen and teen. The writings were mainly prayers to God. I would tell him/her about all my daily life, including any issues with my parents, friends, boyfriends. etc. Once, in mid-teens, I learned that my mother had read some of these and laughed at them. I threw them away and quit writing.
In college, at Baylor University, our sophomore literature teacher had been teaching the romantic poets, and especially sonnets, by Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly. She assigned us to write a poem in one of the two sonnet forms. I wrote about my love and admiration for a male student (whom I happened to marry about 7 years later). But the poem was filled with antiquated language such as "thee" and "thou." When I got the paperback, the teacher had graded me with an ‘A +,’ but written a message for me to come to her office. I did, and there she explained to me that although I had followed the form perfectly, she had no idea what the subject of the poem was. I thought at the time, "Well, Good. I didn't want you to know." She encouraged me that if I were to write in the future, I must write in contemporary language that could be understood. I remembered that, and thought, "Yes, that is something I would like to try." But I never did, in college.
Then I taught school and got a master's degree. I still did not try writing any poetry. But when I was age 30, married, and moved to a northern state, I entered a Ph.D. program at Syracuse University. I thought, "Now is my time for this old desire." So, I took extra courses, in undergrad poetry writing, got into a writers' (women's feminist) group, and began to send out poems. I took these courses for three years, not within my curriculum. I have been writing poetry ever since. I am 77, so that's been a long time ago. More than forty years.
What influence did religion or spirituality have on your upbringing? Are you now more "religious" or "spiritual"?
I really do not like the implication that the words have opposite meanings. I do not think that they do. I think that I am both religious and spiritual. I was raised in churches. For most of my life, I have continued to go, to one or the other.
What is the contrast between living in MS and living in Houston?
There is no comparison, and I had places and times in between to prepare me for Houston. I lived in Lexington and then in Louisville, Kentucky, and then for 9 years in Syracuse, New York. Where I lived from ages 9-17 was a town of 1,200 people, a hamlet. For me, most of the education was not good, and I never even found out where the library was (whereas, living in Hattiesburg, MS., as a pre-teen, I had been to the library every week, and read several books a week). Unfortunately, in this tiny town, I quit reading -- anything serious, at least. Perhaps I read a few religious books. It wasn't until college when I had to read to pass courses that I began reading again. In graduate school and in all my teaching after, and in retirement, I am a serious reader.
There were no cultural opportunities in my small MS town. The one occasion was that a choir director took a group of high schoolers in her choir to New Orleans (two hours away) to see the Verdi opera "La Traviata." She prepared us thoroughly, having us learn the libretto and read about the history, plot, and outcome in terms of "performances" of the opera. I was so happy to hear those arias that I nearly jumped from my seat to a lower level. If I had had this opportunity often, life would have been different. But again, I had to wait until college.
Houston, of course, has everything (until COVID-19) and now everything online. I watch a lot of Netflix stories now. But Houston is abundant with music, dance, art, literature, and of course science if one is in that line. Also, liberal churches, which I did not have in Mississippi.
Who are some of your writing inspirations?
Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, William Meredith; Sylvia Plath; and among our contemporaries, the American woman poet who just won the Nobel Prize: Louise Gluck--as well as Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska also in our generation and not long deceased.
Can you discuss the Mack Charles Parker Lynching and the way it shaped your view on where you were raised?
I think you need to read my Mississippi Milkwater memoir to learn this.
It has taken me the rest of my life to assimilate and learn what happened there and approximately why --- the whole incident was a huge mistake for everyone, including the FBI, the MS Governor, President Eisenhower, and J.Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. In addition to the denial of the townsfolk that anything of that nature could happen to "good white people.” The ones in the town who are still alive when it happened are mostly still in denial. There was more than enough corrupt law enforcement also.
And almost total racism.
When my dad told me that someone on the telephone anonymously threatened to burn his business down, I at first did not believe it. I am sorry that I never apologized to him for that and he died soon afterward. The lynching was in 1959. He died in 1964, but he only told me about the episode shortly before he died.
As to how it influenced me, I knew that I did not want to stay in Mississippi forever after that happening.
What main message do you want to share with your memoir?
The knowledge of how it was in Mississippi pre-civil rights, and also how some persons, such as my father's relatives, lived such a primitive lifestyle even up until around 1950. Their life was more like the peasants of the middle ages. Some persons do not know about either of these syndromes in the deep South, in what at the time was an apartheid culture.
What message do you have for novice writers?
Write, write, write. Send out. Send out. Importantly - GET IN A WRITERS' GROUP - for critique and feedback. Doing that is invaluable. Nothing will ever get published sitting in your drawer.
My husband wrote an excellent memoir book but let it stay in his desk drawer for about five years. Finally, I dragged him to a literary meeting where we knew a certain Texas publisher would be in attendance. I got out of my spouse's way, persuaded him to describe his book to this man, and the result was that it was published by the man's press. But the book would have never walked there alone. I was always in a writers' group until recently, and I am seeking another one now.
Which of your previous (poetry) books would you recommend to anyone interested in reading Mississippi Milkwater?
There is really no carry over between the genres, except for the language I tend to choose, but I suppose my last two books: Labyrinth and Like That.
Can you describe your writing process?
I don't mind telling this because I think my process is fairly weird:
First, I write down (almost all, though not all) first drafts of poems in longhand writing. That is not unusual, but for me, it must be on UNLINED paper. Even if it is a napkin in a cafe, it is better than notebook paper with lines. I hate lined paper; the lines seem to get between my thought processes and the paper and screw it up. Even prose, letters or essays, or anything else, I like to write in and on unlined paper.
Then, I type the draft and begin to work on it. The process and time vary. One and only poem seemed "given to me." I wrote it down just as it came. That one is Daughter, can you Hear Me? I thought I heard my mother's voice when I wrote the poem.
On the other hand, I have a poem about my dad's death that I worked on for ten years. I am still not totally pleased with it. I have worked for nearly seven years on Mississippi Milkwater. A memoir is a lot, a lot harder, I think.
To learn more about Dr. Estess and her work, you can visit her website here. Keep an eye out for her memoir, Mississippi Milkwater, which will be released sometime later this year.