Illustration by Stacy Reece

A Bouffant Stacked Toward Heaven

Four new poems by—and an interview with— Marianne Worthington, author of “The Girl Singer”

Somewhere around 2013, I came across Still: The Journal, which has appeared three times a year since 2009, publishing poetry, fiction, and a variety of non-fiction related to Appalachia. I know there are other publications with “Southern” or “Appalachian” in their title, some of which have been around much longer, but I think of Still as the central literary journal of the South in this century, and maybe the previous one too. 

I say that because it is devoted to literary work, appears three times a year, has survived for over a decade, and publishes well-known and unknown writers. It is simultaneously in the sweet spot and on the edge. 

You could say the same thing about Marianne Worthington’s poetry. She co-founded Still with our friend and contributor Silas House, and she is still going strong. She also taught communication studies and media writing to college students for decades, and still teaches poetry and nonfiction classes to workshops and conferences. Of course, all along the way, amid all that generosity, she’s also been writing.

You’ll see a few things in this new batch of Marianne’s poems. First, “Ars Poetica” literally means “on the art of poetry,” and this mode goes back at least 2,000 years to the Roman poet Horace. As you might guess, it’s a poet trying to say something about poetry, poets, or the act of writing itself, so keep that in mind as you watch the poem’s speaker watch various animals doing their thing outside her window. 

We’ve also got a poem written in blues stanzas, three-line assemblies that operate just like blues verses. All the end-words of each triplet rhyme, with the first two lines often nearly identical to each other operating as the “base,” and that third line a variation that takes you somewhere else. 

Marianne’s third piece is an “after-poem,” one that uses a line from another poet’s work as a starting point. Her final poem’s staggered lines will have your eye walking back and forth across the page as if on stairs. 

All this is because Marianne Worthington has a lot of tools at her disposal, and you’ll rarely see her come at you with the same kind of poem twice in a row. There’s a restless curiosity in her forms, and that’s paralleled by the subject matter and viewpoints too. The Girl Singer–which received a 2021 write-up in The New York Times–has loads of persona poems, poems written from the perspective of relatives, but also that of various “girl singers” of country music radio and TV shows, hired on as supporting acts along with comedians. 

There’s a condescending little implication in that term: that a “singer” (especially a headliner) is male, and thus the need to modify it with “girl.” Part of Worthington’s work in The Girl Singer is to let those often sidelined women sing again, for themselves, for each other, and for us. You’ll find plenty of music in these poems, too. 

—Andy Fogle

Section break curlicue

Ars Poetica

I watch the rabbit happen from her warren into the sunlight
this morning. We’re both early risers, perched on the edge
of the day waiting for the weather to make up its mind. 

While I lean into my oatmeal at the window, the rabbit
leapfrogs the high grass until she reaches the dandelion patch.
She sucks down the stems like spaghetti, chomps

off the yellow buds for dessert. She takes her time in the sun,
crouched so still in the open back yard that I wonder
if she is hurt or sick. Her body leaves a mini crop circle

in the grass when she finally hoe-downs around the bend and out
of sight. Yesterday I watched a crow swagger down the hill
while I washed the supper dishes. A mockingbird swashbuckled

him all the way down the fence row, until the crow finally flew
off. His black wings made a pattern in my line of vision
and a flutter in my chest that I can’t name. Later I will find

a single black feather on the driveway, a tuft of fur pinched
in the fence wires, left behind like turning points in a story
I’ll never finish, the ending feral and out of reach.

Driving Dirty Knoxville Blues

Jimbo grew up driving his Daddy’s old Chevy
Jimbo ran the roads of our town in that old green Chevy
He’d pick me up and we’d ride down to the levee

We grew up on water generated by The Man
The TVA bought up our farms and ran us off the land
We didn’t know how many of our kin got the TVA sham

My Daddy’s cousin he wasted away with that old Consumption
My Daddy’s cousin he had to move into that spooky TB institution
My Daddy would drive to see him down the river road to the junction

I had an uncle used to work at the packing plant on the killing floor
My uncle used to cut those pigs down on the killing floor
He’d bring us side meat to eat so we wouldn’t feel so poor

The stench of that packing plant used to plug up the skies
We’d have to hold our noses whenever we drove by
That blood stink covered our clothes filled up our hair and our eyes

Our town was all brick warehouses dark alleys and railroads
Our town was all segregated and full of white men prowling in shadows
We grew up bound by dirty water, knew how to stay in our own zone

Jimbo had a little girl she grew up wilder than a patch of woods on fire
Jimbo’s girl blazed through his money rode off with some Harley biker
That girl left Jimbo broken left him with her baby that couldn’t stop crying

“This Is Why Some of Us Wake Up / In the Middle of the Night Looking for a Saint”

from Kelli Russell Agodon’s “I Don’t Own Anxiety, But I Borrow It Regularly”

Vestal Goodman had a shimmering
aura with a hairdo not of this world.
Her bouffant was stacked toward heaven
and even as a child I wondered
how she balanced herself while singing
full-throated about living over
in Canaan’s Land surrounded by men
who tried to out-sing her but failed. 

Vestal sparkles in gold lamé like
the letters gilded on my grandmother’s
leather bible. I don’t want to go
to church every time the doors open
but we do. My Sunday School teachers
wear orthopedic shoes and polyester
and throw old-fashioned Christmas
parties with punchbowls full of rainbow
sherbet clouds floating in lime green seas,
peanut butter divinity rolls and gifts
of the Lord’s Prayer stitched onto cloth
bookmarks. I sit with my father before
church on Sunday mornings while he
shines his shoes. We watch gospel music
video clips on local TV: The LeFevres,
The Speer Family, The Chuck Wagon
Gang, Wendy Bagwell & the Sunlighters,
the men swaying and singing in competition
with their wives, mothers, and daughters,
the women crooning only their lovely holiness.

I have rejected the theology of gospel
songs but I can’t give up Vestal Goodman
and how she will break it all open
when she becomes an emblem for all the gay
church kids who want to be drag queens
but settle for singing gospel music. Vestal
will shepherd them like a latter-day saint.
She will mentor and love on them and teach
them to shape their hair like a helmet, look
away toward that yonder shore, open
wide and sing real big for Jesus.


The dog mostly sniffs her way around now, aging
The dogdown, her hearing and vision waning
The dogdown, h like the slow loss of sentience before deep
The dogsleep. After another menacing news cycle 

we go outside to breathe and study
The dogthe yard. The groundhog and her two
The dogdown, hbabies already gone to ground at dusk
The dogand the rabbit at the brink of the hill

is quiescent. The rabbit roots herself down, down
The dognow just a depression unseen. The dog snuffles
The dogdown, hat the spot the animals have flattened
The dogwhile crawling under the fence. We are all safe for now.

Section break curlicue

Nine Questions for Marianne Worthington

1. Where’d you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I thought it idyllic, but now realize that my city was polluted and parochial in many ways. I’m currently writing about a lot of those awful things I witnessed growing up in Knoxville: segregation, poverty, bad air and water, and small-mindedness in church and school and politics. But when I was a kid there, I had great fun and freedom. There is no greener place on earth than East Tennessee in summer.

2. Who were the people who educated you, formally or informally?

My grandmothers had a tremendous influence on me. They both lived near us in Knoxville, and they both had been widows/single mothers for decades before I came along, so they were independent, problem-solving, hardy, practical women. (Actually, my parents were that way, too.) My grandmothers grew up on subsistence farms in rural parts of East Tennessee in large families with no indoor plumbing. They were both adults before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, but they never missed an election after that. They dressed up like they were going to worship rather than to the polls on election days. They were my first feminist role models, although I doubt either one of them would have used that word to describe themselves. 

I went to a public elementary school and a public high school, and almost all my teachers were women. I watched and emulated all these women in my early life. Through their influence I learned how to develop skills in critical thinking and common sense, survival, collaboration, and achievement.

3. Do you have any early memories of being in love with language (reading, writing, hearing, saying, etc.)?

I think I probably learned to read by standing with my mother in church and singing from the hymnbook. I remember she would trace her finger along the line we were singing and hold the hymnal low enough that I could hold it with her and see the pages. I also had an extraordinary music teacher at our church who made consistent and abundant opportunities for kids to learn and experience music inside and outside the church. I learned so much about music and hymnody in that environment, so that when I learned how to read music and started playing piano, I was actually getting the best training for a poet: learning to recognize and vary patterns, rhythm, counting, tempo, dynamics, stanza-making, swaying, rhyming, toe-tapping, and celebrating the musicality of language.

When I learned how to read music and started playing piano, I was actually getting the best training for a poet: learning to recognize and vary patterns, rhythm, counting, tempo, dynamics, stanza-making, swaying, rhyming, toe-tapping, and celebrating the musicality of language.


Also, like everyone always says when they grow up around a large, Southern family, I too grew up hearing adults tell big stories. They were constantly talking and hollering and laughing over their own stories. Finally, I heard my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, and my cousins Talk. On. The. Phone. They all talked on the phone a lot. I eavesdropped a lot.

4. How do you feel about being a Southerner: proud, ashamed, both, otherwise?

I feel mostly defensive about it, honestly, because I think we’re easy targets; and because I am from and live in Appalachia, there’s another level of “otherness” people can often assign to us. I hate that oversimplification of we’re “all this” or we’re “all that.” After the devasting flooding in eastern Kentucky in the summer of 2022, for instance, I actually saw social media posts that said we “deserved it.” So that kind of thing—a hateful dismissal, which is one of the current vibes in all social media right now—makes me feel defensive.

5. Have you ever left the South for any significant period of time? If so, did it have any effect on how you understood the region, or how you understood other regions?

Yes, my husband and I lived in central Indiana for several years; our daughter was born there, and we were teaching at a large state university at the time. I was miserable there, frankly. It was so flat and there was so much corn (and basketball), and I thought I might die during the snows that first winter. But living there also fostered my understanding of the sacredness of a place we carry around inside of us. I was homesick most of the time I was in Indiana.

I thought I might die during the snows that first winter. But living there also fostered my understanding of the sacredness of a place we carry around inside of us. I was homesick most of the time I was in Indiana.

6. Who are some contemporary Southern poets or poems we should know about and why?

I love how Tyree Daye writes about place and family. His collections are ones I return to often: River Hymns, Cardinal, and a little bump in the earth.

7. What’s a poem from another era that’s close to you and why?

This is maybe not technically “another era,” but I wish more people knew the work of my late poetry teacher, Jeff Daniel Marion. Danny gave me such a strong foundation in writing poetry, and I relied on his friendship and mentorship for over thirty years.

8. You’re the poetry editor of an online journal you co-founded in 2009, Still: The Journal. I’m pretty sure it was the first journal specializing in Appalachian or Southern writing that I paid any special attention to, and it wound up leading me to quite a few others (including here, so thank you). I think y’all are an important part of a wave of such publications, a chorus of voices that are often ignored by the literary mainstream. Please tell people about how and why you founded the journal and how it’s evolved.

Thanks, Andy, for saying that about Still: The Journal. I co-founded Still with Silas House and Jason Howard in 2009. We were all living close to each other then and visiting a lot, and one night we talked about starting a literary journal that focused on Appalachian voices, and we set up a website that night and started soliciting some writers we knew who might send us work for a first issue. We wanted to feature poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, artists, musicians, and others who had connections to Appalachia. It was probably too ambitious—fifteen years later it’s a lot to keep up with!—but we did it, and we’ve published three issues a year since October 2009. After Jason left to edit Appalachian Review, we asked Karen Salyer McElmurray to be our creative nonfiction editor. Then Silas left a few years ago to concentrate more fully on his writing, and Julia Watts joined us as fiction editor. We just published our forty-fourth issue.

9. Speaking of the literary mainstream, “The Girl Singer” got a 2021 write-up in The New York Times. Did that change anything for you?

You mean after I got up off the floor? It was wonderful and scary and exhilarating and threatening all at once. Ultimately, I was just so grateful and all warm inside about it.

Author Profile

Marianne Worthington is author of The Girl Singer (University Press of Kentucky, 2021), winner of the Weatherford Award for Poetry. She is poetry editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine she co-founded in 2009. She grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and lives, writes, and teaches in southeastern Kentucky.

Leave a Comment