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You're Not From Texas

Home is where my horse is. — Lyle Lovett

I was born in Pennsylvania (Dreary Erie, the Mistake on the Lake—how can I help but rhyme?), but I grew up in Georgia. When people ask me where I’m from, I say Atlanta. I’ve done my few years in Iowa, Arizona, Florida, and New York, and now I’ve lived in Lubbock, Texas longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. When anyone asks what I like best about West Texas, I say New Mexico.

Texas replies: “That’s right. You’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”

Texas wants to burn a song into me—not like a branding iron into the flanks of a bull, but how the relentless sun and sand over decades can burn a sacred patina onto an old truck’s fenders. It’s not a song in the way that I might need a guitar backing me up. It’s a thirsty complaint against the wind, and the wind don’t care. So I try to complain to God, but He says to turn it into praise.

Texas demands a fierce independence whereas the rest of the South hunkers down into a forlorn neighborliness. I feel a shift in consciousness when I leave Lake Charles and cross into the Lone Star State. And when I leave Farwell, Texas, drifting past Clovis, New Mexico, toward an even drier open space that is the otherworldly Southwest, something else shifts. Let’s not even talk about the disappointment Texans feel when they cross north into Oklahoma.

In a place where we have few trees and a lot of wind, I’ll risk it and go out on a limb to say that Texas may be a part of the New South. Texas doesn’t believe that, but still, there’s a common bond. Almost. I think it was Leon Stokesbury who I first heard define the Southern poem. He thought such a poem likely included a big dose of heartbreak and comic sensibility featuring family, landscape, and religion in varying degrees and combination. I hear these same quirky, dusty, open-sky, heartfelt mixtures in the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks (don’t judge), and more recently, Amanda Shires. 

If a Texas poetry exists, it’s made by the songwriters using the airwaves more so than by the poets confined to paper or voice alone. I’m trying to think of Texas poets, and I come up short of a convincing name. It has to mean more than just living here, writing poems. Dean Young? Tony Hoagland? No. Cowboy poetry doesn’t get the job done, either: too many clichés to have a chance at drawing something out of the English language that we didn’t already know was there. B. H. Fairchild comes close, but his “Lower Midwest” is not South enough. Our local Walt McDonald? Closer. The Texas poets I like best are the songwriters. Who could deny the title of poet to Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Janis Joplin, Nancy Griffith, Carrie Rodriguez, or doggone amazing Edie Brickell?

The difference, of course, between poets and songwriters, is that the songwriters have that instrumental support to the lyric—most lyrics are, at best, ordinary or even ridiculous without a good tune. Poets must hang words on the silence of the white page. But for the songwriters I mention here—if you strip away the music in their best songs—the words themselves do their impossible work in and with silence. And they lift you.

I’m not sure why the Texas songwriters have the edge, but I’d suggest it has to do with a tradition of strangeness handed down the line from Townes Van Zandt. For example, “The Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy.” The title alone! And I’d give anything to have written: “The clock is hers. / The hourglass is mine.” The other thing about Texas is how isolation in a wide-open space generates imaginative possibility. Vulnerability. A stoic restraint bordering on madness.

Can I do that? Can I make my own music here on my lonely parcel, a page just a bit flatter than the Llano Estacado, where the horizon holds only more wind-struck sheet metal, cotton, and more drought, where everything cries, Look up!

Return to the Poetry in Place symposium.