Man From Memphis

Introduction of Don Share
O, Miami Poetry Festival
April 19, 2014

Poets, like poker players, like to bluff.

There’s the bragging, boasting, baffling and misleading, the blindfolding and hoodwinking. It can feel so right– and sound so good – to call someone’s bluff.

And then there’s Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis sits on a bluff, just above the tidewaters of the Mississippi. In fact, it’s not just any bluff but the fourth Chickasaw bluff. You can count them, one two three, four - like lines of verse – as the French river men did when they sailed up the Delta to steal the Chickasaw land.

Before it was a small promontory, a bluff was actually a kind of ship that had a big, blunt, flat bow – somewhat like a bulldog’s face or the vertical grill front of a pick up truck. Sailors and explorers have always transported the words of their boats into the landscapes of their arrival.

But about this particular fourth bluff in the Mississippi gambling land of boasting and hoodwinking, of Elvis and Isaac Hayes – it’s from here that our guest tonight, the wonderful, generous, learned and musical poet Don Share originally hails. Don deliberately and now maybe regretfully, lost his accent and left for New York, then Harvard, and now he’s in Chicago as the brilliant editor of Poetry Magazine. But he’s a Memphis man.

In fact, however beautiful it is tonight at sunset at the water’s edge on Biscayne Bay, Don might be thinking of the safety of that old Memphis bluff. I read that he once lost a week’s writing in another flood town where the waters washed his work away in New Orleans.

We won’t let that happen tonight, Don.

When he was growing up in Memphis, Don used to hear the great blues singer, Lily Mae Glover, known as Ma Rainey #2. Ma Rainey was famous for holding court on a wooden throne on Beale Street between Fourth and Hernando. On Mondays, in particular, she said she would have “Blue Mondays where the boys would boil.”

And Don would watch her, transfixed as she stomped her foot while she sang. The stomping, Don said, almost seemed to fight with the melody: it seemed both to embody and reconcile the conflict and pain of the song.

Which is what the blues are about, of course, with their hard beauty, their rough and dark comic manners, their sadness that still knows how to get up in the morning and get on with things.

That ice and fire paradox fuels so much of our best art. And that clear-eyed, almost ruthless effort of turning the muddy state of our emotions into something mysterious and enduring –Don brings that urgency to his poems. He tells the truth about how we fail, how foolish we so often are; and he writes and sings these astringencies with rhythm and a stomp. He brings reverence, craft, deep knowledge and great love to the street-side–well, here tonight at sunset in Miami, we’re blessed to have it be a bayside–throne of poetry.

On Ma Rainey #2’s tombstone in Memphis it reads:

I’m Ma Rainey #2
Mother of Beale Street
I’m 78 Years Old
Ain’t Never Had Enough of Nothing
And It’s Too Damn Late Now!

Don once said his own epitaph should read, “Don’t get me started.”

Well, I say, hell yes, let’s get him started.

Ladies and gentlemen, Don Share.

Related: Miami Introduction O Miami poetry