2007 AWP Panel in Atlanta, Georgia

Secrets, Betrayals, and Half-told Tales: Writing under the Spell of Traditional Ballads

4:30-6:15pm, Thursday 1 March, 2007. North Court West, 2nd floor

Panelists: Lee Ann Brown, Betty Smith, Susan Tichy, and Margaret Yocom

Panel description:
Southern Appalachian ballads and their European counterparts often obscure rather than reveal their tales of love and power, relying on fragments, gaps, repetition, and resonant metaphors that call forth lives of centuries past. Three writers of drama, non-fiction, and poetry who have lingered in the “gude green-wood” of the traditional ballad will read–and sing--from their works, and then discuss why and how they weave the ballads’ language, sound, and other-worldliness into their writing.

Our panel brings together written and oral literature by exploring how a distinctive southern American traditional form–the ballad--influences writers of drama, non-fiction, and poetry. Several panelists will not just talk about ballads but also sing them. The second AWP panel to investigate how writers weave traditional materials into their creations, we will continue the conversation, begun in 2006, between the closely allied fields of folklore and creative writing.


Lee Ann Brown is the author of two books of poetry: Polyverse (Sun & Moon); and The Sleep That Changed Everything (Wesleyan University Press). She received an NEH Summer Institute grant on "Regional Studies and the Liberal Arts: An Appalachian Exemplar" in 2006, and teaches poetry writing at St. John's University in New York City.

Betty Smith is a traditional ballad singer from Hot Springs, NC, whose singing appears on June Appal and Folk Legacy labels. Author of Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers (Univ of Kentucky), she wrote and performs a one-woman drama based on Mrs. Gentry’s life. The Appalachian Writers Association honored her with its award for contributions to Appalachian literature.

Susan Tichy is the author of three books of poetry: Bone Pagoda (Ahsahta), A Smell of Burning Starts the Day (Wesleyan), and The Hands in Exile (Random House, National Poetry Series). She is an editor of Practice: New Writing + Art and teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University.

Moderator: Margaret Yocom, folklorist, is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University where, among her courses, she teaches "Folklore and Creative Writing." Assistant editor of Ugiuvangmiut Quliapyuit: King Island Tales, she has published poetry, and articles on family folklore, material culture, gender, and ethnographic writing. Her major fieldsite lies in the western mountains of Maine. She serves as American Folklore Society liason to AWP.


Organization of the panel:

– Throughout the session, Betty Smith will sing several ballads, especially "False Knight on the Road" (Child #3), "Unquiet Grave" (Child #78), "Lady Isabel and the Elfin Knight" (Child #4), and "The House Carpenter” (also called "The Demon Lover," Child #243).

– Lee Ann Brown, Betty Smith, Lee Ann Brown, and Susan Tichy will read from their writings for 10 minutes each. Then they will talk about ballads and their writing for 10 minutes each, in the same order

– Time for discussion

We are attending to such questions as

– What first drew us to ballads, as singers, writers, folklorists? What kept us there? How have we learned more about the ballads?
– How have the ballads—their words, images, metaphors, half-told stories, fragments, gaps, repetition, and sound—influenced our writing?
– Which ballads and which ballad performers have most influenced us at different moments of our lives?
– Why do we pay special attention to the oral nature of the ballad, to the music? What has our singing of and listening to ballads taught us about ballads, writing?
– What has listening to multiple versions of the same ballad brought us? (For multiple texts of traditional English and Scottish ballads, see <http://www.contemplator.com/child/index.html> and <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/index.htm>)
– What are some of the most unfortunate misunderstandings about ballads?