Linda Parsons, Knoxville resident, poet, and playwright, has produced her tenth book, “Valediction.” An assemblage of poetry and brief essays, the new work forms the basis of her reading this Saturday at Union Avenue Books. Hers will be the second of two readings, the first of which features Terry Shaw and Kelly Norrell at 10:00 am. Linda will read from and sign her book at 3:00 pm.
I’m not sure when I first met Linda. We have many mutual acquaintances, and folks with downtown connections and arts connections tend to find one another. She was a part of downtown before I got here. Still, I’d never heard her story, so on the advent of her new work, I took the opportunity to learn more about one of the city’s finest writers.
Originally from Nashville, Linda moved to Knoxville to live with her father and stepmother. She attended Bearden Junior High (now Bearden Middle) and was poised to attend Bearden High School when the family moved to Wisconsin. “I was a stranger in a strange land in Wisconsin.” They lived in Plymouth near the Kohler plant. “I had never felt cold like that. The snow would drift up to the gutter line of the house.” She also felt like an exile and said the experience of being around so many people different from her was a good one. She went through high school before returning to Knoxville.
She said she, “married too young” to a man she met in Wisconsin. The year was 1972 and he enlisted in the service to avoid being drafted to have some control over his assignment. They were stationed in Maryland “literally on the Mason-Dixon line. There was a marker.”
She started writing while in high school and credits her literature teachers in Wisconsin. “They really opened the door for me to novels and poetry. I fell in love with it and started writing poems. By the early 1980s when military life ended, she returned to Knoxville and began to earnestly pursue a life of writing. She wrote both poetry and plays, and eventually obtained both BAs and MAs in English.
“There were early venues for poetry. There was the Wrangler which evolved into By the Tracks.” She was part of a group that gave readings in the gallery of the Bijou in the 80s. (Ed note: I made it to some of those and look back now and marvel at how many of my future friends and acquaintances attended, none of whom I knew at the time.) She read publicly and began to get some encouragement. She studied with Art Smith and Marilyn Kallet. She joined the Knoxville Writers Guild as it was getting underway in the early 90s.
“I remember that first publication. It was a little journal with the title, “Up Against the Wall Mother . . . ” She laughed. She was published repeatedly in the UT Phoenix (which she noted also published Cormac McCarthy when he was a student there. She said she got published in several small local publications and it was very encouraging. Eventually her work appeared in some of the pre-eminent literary and poetry journals in the country, such as The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, and others.
She said that while early publication encourages writers, she sometimes feels it comes too early before the work is ready. “Read, read, read, read is the most important thing. And to share your work with others . . . get feedback, support other writers. There are so many other things that are important for you as a writer beyond publication.”
She said her work has evolved. “If you stay open, learning, and growing, your work will evolve, and it should evolve. I needed a voice . . . I needed to claim my voice and I did that in the writing.” As she grew older, she realized she had childhood issues, including with her mother who, late in life, was diagnosed as bi-polar. “Now it seems I’ve evolved into being at home in the garden,” a theme that she says echoes through the new book. “It’s a place of work and sweat and peace and discovery. The garden contains every metaphor of life,” she paused to laugh before continuing. “Death and resurrection, meditation, plain hard work, artistry . . . It’s like an extension of myself.”
She said attempting to bring order to a garden is like “trying to impose order on our world. We can only bring a semblance of order. It’s wild and it’s part of the earth. It teaches me patience, not to be too perfect, to let things be as they need to be, and to flow. I hope to bring that to my writing as well.”
She co-edited (with Candace Reeves) a book of poems, Poems from the Valley in 1996 and published her first volume of her own poems a year later. “It’s like a child you’ve carried and birthed.” The new work is her sixth book and contains poetry but is the first to also contains short prose. She took an online workshop with the poet Rebecca Gayle Howell in 2020. The assignments led to the “micro-essays” contained in the book.
The workshop also forced her to write daily, which is not something she routinely does. “You try to be open and receptive, but I think it is foolish to simply wait for the muse.” She said an idea, or a line comes to her and she works with it. She used a recent refrigerator delivery as an example. It was complicated to place, and the worker described it as a dance, albeit one that left scares on the house along the way. She began to think of “battle scars,” and that changes lead to unexpected consequences, all of which are a part of growth. “I begin with the particular of my life . . . and eventually it needs to open up into the universal.”
“Valediction is the act of saying ‘goodbye,’ and there are a lot of goodbyes in this book. I lost both parents and my stepmother in a period of four years, as well as other losses that I write about. It’s about seeing the place that they did have in your life, how they are still with you and how they will continue to be with you as a guide and a presence . . . I believe that within every ‘goodbye,’ there are the seeds of ‘hello’ and new beginnings.”
Local artist Gary Heatherly provided the art for the cover and local writer and photographer Kelly Norrell. The book is now available at Union Avenue Books or online through the publisher, Madville Publishing in either paperback or e-book format. The reading will be tomorrow at 3:00 pm at Union Avenue Books. “I’m always so grateful for that space they’ve created. It’s such a jewel for us.