It's been a long time in the making," Bobby C. Rogers, age 45, says. "Good to finally get the book out. And the call I got from Ed? That was the phone call you want to get."
" "Ed" is poet Ed Ochester, and he was calling Rogers to say he had good news: Rogers' manuscript, Paper Anniversary, had been awarded the prestigious Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for 2009 — a prize given annually by the University of Pittsburgh to a first full-length book of poetry, with publication of that winning manuscript by the university's press.
Which puts us where things stand now: official publication this week of Rogers' debut collection of 35 poems, most of them set in West Tennessee or Memphis, every one of them signaling a talent in our midst — a talent at home observing (and enlarging upon) the lunchtime scene inside the Barksdale or a Jerry Lee Lewis show inside Bad Bob's Vapors Club; hearing the nighttime sirens of Memphis and the strain of FedEx engines overhead; or reflecting on the uneven sidewalks of Midtown underfoot and the darkened four-squares lining Carr.
At home too: recalling the natural sights and sounds and the very air associated with small-town West Tennessee or recalling a Christmas day spent, during Rogers' student days, in Marseilles; another day spent "burning" a house of its exterior paint; the look of snowfall, sunlight, and shadow. And then the following: doubts as to language's ability to capture the things of this world or to adequately convey the innermost self.
"What we do is collect and assemble, dosed up with caffeine and whatever else/ might nerve us/ to shape the world into something orderly and tellable. It's all artifice," Rogers writes in "Anagnorisis." It all depends on words. (Or when words fail us, silence.) But small comfort there, because, as Rogers observes in "Winter": "Words go corrupt and settle and/ shift/ from the plumb meanings you once nailed them to." And so, as the poet wishes they could: if only language could share in the certainties of sound carpentry — the tools of carpentry recurring throughout Paper Anniversary: a surform tool, a chalk line, a whetstone, fluting gouges and mortise chisels, a jack plane. The object, in carpentry as in poetry: craftsmanship and accuracy.
"I've always seen the world in terms of words," Rogers answers to the question of when he began writing. "I grew up in the town of McKenzie in West Tennessee, and I spent a lot of time on front porches, among extended family, listening to stories. That's how time passed. That's how time was given meaning."
But as Rogers puts it in his acknowledgments, it was Marilyn Kallet who's "to blame for all this."
It was as an undergraduate at UT-Knoxville that Rogers worked with Kallet, a poet who gave him the freedom to take his work less seriously. And yet, it was Rogers' time in Knoxville followed by the MFA program at the University of Virginia (learning from Charles Wright and others) that was seriously important — "important," he says, "to be around serious poets, serious minds thinking about poetry."
Rogers' poems have appeared in numerous literary reviews over the past 15 years. He is the recipient of the Greensboro Review Literary Prize in Poetry. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And he today commutes from Memphis to Jackson, Tennessee, to teach at Union University. But he's not a "poetry scene kind of guy," he admits, though he makes a point of attending local readings.
After earning his master's at Virginia, Rogers headed not to New York or Boston, as many of his classmates did, but to Memphis. It's where he and his wife Rebecca Courtney, an architect, and their children call home. It's, he says, a good place for him to be.
"I've always wanted not to be considered a regionalist, but it seems I am," Rogers says. "Ed Ochester in his blurb on the back of my book comments on that, tries to defuse the charge, expand my reach. But I'm happy to be one — a regionalist — now that I think about it."
And now that I have the opportunity, I'd like, in one respect, to prove the poet wrong — wrong that Rogers should write in "In Season" that: "I'm not sure I shape a damn thing, the concussions of the hammer/ more noise/ than ringing." The poems in Paper Anniversary do indeed "ring" — clear, strong, and true.
Bobby C. Rogers will be signing copies of Paper Anniversary at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville on October 9th. Look for him to be reading from and signing his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on October 21st.