Richard Tillinghast and David Tillinghast are brothers, poets, and children of Memphis. Richard is the author of Journeys Into the Mind: A Book of Places. David is the author of Sisters, Cousins, and Wayward Angels. In advance of their signing in Memphis, I was able to corner the Tillinghasts and ask them a few questions. They are eloquent — and loquacious — fellas.
Memphis Flyer: What was it like growing up with two writers in the house? Did both of you know you were going to be poets early on, and did you read each other's work? Any competition there?
David: From the start, Richard knew that he would be a writer. My interests lay in other areas, such as sports and girls. I enjoyed hunting and fishing, while Richard was concentrating scholastically. I joined the Navy. I saw lots of the world.
Certainly, there is no competition because that's in bad taste.
Richard: Competition? Well, of course, all siblings compete with each other, but in this case I would say not so much. In my last couple of years in high school, David was in the Navy and off at college, so we weren't at home together. I don't think at that time it was clear to either of us that we'd be poets. I was taking classes with Mr. Callicott and playing drums in a band, and my ambitions were to be a painter and/or a drummer.
I was still playing in bands [when] I went off to Sewanee, and it was only there that it became clear to me I wanted to write poetry and make my living as a college professor.
I've known the Tillinghast name for as long as I've been a bookseller, and I was told long ago that you are Memphians. Tell me the particulars and what Memphis means to you.
David: Memphis is our hometown, historical as well as actual; our 1888 home on South Cox was way out in the country then. Mother and her two brothers went to Central High School. My grandfather, A. J. Williford, was a prominent attorney in Memphis. I remember hot, sweaty summer nights eating watermelon at the Pig and Whistle. Some of us boys would ride our bicycles to the Malco Theater to watch Randolph Scott. Some afternoons, I would take the street car up to the Falls Building on Front Street where my father had an office.
Richard: Yes, even with the old New England name of Tillinghast, David and I are both Memphians. This identification gets stronger and stronger for me as I get older and now spend my summers at Sewanee.
Our father was a New England Yankee, and our earliest American ancestor came to Rhode Island in 1640. The Williford side of the family has been in West Tennessee since before the Civil War. When you grow up in Memphis, that's what you are, a Memphian and a Southerner. Though I have traveled all over the world, I am very proud to be from Memphis. David and I both graduated from Central High. I was among those who hung out with Furry Lewis. Bill Eggleston was a friend, and his work epitomizes something important about our region, as do the paintings of Carroll Cloar and Burton Callicott. Jesse Winchester as a singer and songwriter, the great historian Shelby Foote, and Peter Taylor as a friend and mentor are also Memphians whose work means a lot to me.
And my favorite question to ask writers: whom do you read and, if apropos, who influenced you?
David: Of the yonder writers, there is Homer's Odyssey; the letters of Peter Abelard to Heloise; and of course, passages from Shakespeare, the old English ballads. Moving sketchily forward, there is Bobby Burns, James Whitcomb Riley, Winston Churchill's histories, W. H. Auden. The Georgian poets of the first war: Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke. Erich Maria Remarque, John Steinbeck's stories, Hemingway. On a more immediate level, I was influenced by my mentors George Garrett and James Dickey, not stylistically, but through our everyday contact, which eventually developed into friendship.
Richard: What do I read? Here is my summer reading: Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks. Dennis Covington's riveting Salvation on Sand Mountain. Donald Hall's Essays After Eighty. Two books by Sewanee graduate Jon Meacham: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Franklin and Winston. The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court by Peter Taylor. And I'm re-reading "The Bear" by the greatest of them all, William Faulkner.
Richard and David Tillinghast booksigning at Burke's Book Store Thursday, July 13th at 5:30 p.m.