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OXFORD SCENE — Thursday, May 6, 1993


by Jennifer Mattingly, Scene editor

Diann Blakely is breaking ground in a very difficult field. She is a modern-day poet. Her first book, Hurricane Walk [published under the name Diann Blakely Shoaf], is already receiving much acclaim.

Blakely will be at Square Books on Friday at 5 p.m. to give a reading of her works. “I think, as concerns publishing, [poetry] is the most difficult of all literary fields to enter and in which to remain, because it’s assumed there’s no money to made from the art. People think that is dead: they have MTV instead these days. But the second is no substitute for the first.”

Hurricane Walk has been eight years in the making. But Blakely’s interest in writing and poetry goes long beyond that. She’d always “scribbled little bits and pieces,” but it took Blakely a while to realize just what it was she wanted to do. “I was half-way through the Ph.D. program in literature,” she says. “Then I had my first poem accepted.”

Blakely has been teaching a senior-level advanced course in American literature and creative writing at the Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee, for the last five years. One thing she tries to give her students is the sense [that poetry] is not a free-flowing set of ideas that requires little refining. “Poetry may be therapeutic,” she says, “but it is not therapy. It’s an art, and it has to be crafted. Self-expression is only the beginning, and what must happen is a simultaneous ever-digging-deeper into the self to discover the urgency for that expression, which is part of the revision process, and perfecting what Eliot called forms—traditional or free verse—for our feelings.”

Like most writers, Blakely has found that much of her time is devoted to reading, which she describes “as much a part of [her] routine as writing itself. One of the first questions I always ask people is ‘What are you reading? What have you fallen in love with recently?’”

Poetry is, undoubtedly, one of the hardest aspects of literature to enter. But Blakely believes that it deserves a second look by the public. “With the readings I’ve given before,” Blakely says, “with the audience reactions, it’s obvious that there’s some part of our souls that isn’t being fed by our popular culture. It’s wonderful to be offered that sense of affirmation.”

Blakely, an Alabama native, is only one of the growing population of Southern writers. She believes that the South offers a unique environment that fosters the writing ability in its residents. “I think it’s something in the air,” she says. “The most exciting writing comes from those who have inhabited a disenfranchised place. New York is no longer this country's literary epicenter. The South, the Southwest, California, Montana (!)—nontraditional places seem to possess an energizing conflict, friction, and tension, which are always megavitamins for art.”

For Blakely, who knows what the future will include? She plans to continue teaching and writing, and with a second manuscript finished, it is bound to be an interesting ride.

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