Sybil Estess's Mississippi Milkwater
By Samantha Skelton
As my conversation with Sybil Estess began, I quickly realized that she has been writing since college, has a PHD, has been in a writing group for over forty years, and is a seasoned writer with a lot of truth to tell.
Her latest is an adventure in itself: her first work of prose, that's largely based on her life growing up in Mississippi.
In her debut memoir, Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State, she explores the more primitive side of human beings, including staying at her primitive grandmother's alone, when she was young child, no running water or electricity and details other experiences based on her life that shaped who she is today, including the last unsolved lynching in Mississippi in her hometown when she was sixteen.
Tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to start writing poetry.
I had written a lot of academic prose, but never written a prose book that had to do with me. I grew up in Mississippi and moved to a smaller town when I was 10. I was always a bookish child, I used to keep a journal from about age 12 to 14 and I was very religious. My journal entries would often be prayers to God.
I went to Baylor University and in the freshman English course, our teacher assigned us to write a Shakespeare sonnet. When she gave the papers back, I got an A+ but she asked me to go to her office. She said this is written in perfect form, but it was too hard to understand what it was about because it was written in Shakespearean-type language. She advised Sybil to write in contemporary English language.
I did not begin writing seriously until I was a Ph.D. graduate student at Syracuse University when I was thirty. I took extra undergraduate courses in poetry writing, in their excellent department, and got in a women's feminist writing group. The rest is pretty much history. I have been writing for forty years.
I saw that you've served as a literature panelist. What have you learned as a literature panelist that informed your work as a writer?
I served on about three or four panels, both city and state wise. In both Houston and in Austin, our capital, I was on panels to give money to art agencies.
It was fascinating to learn about the different arts groups in Houston and throughout Texas and to see the almost endless different kinds of creativity near where I have lived for over forty years.
Tell me about your first narrative work, Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State.
I've been wanting to write this book for 20 years. In today's population, many children don't know there are places in this country where it is or was so very primitive in nature.
Lately, I am living in New Mexico and realize that many people, including children, on Native American reservations know this reality, but not many city kids know, and do not remember those times.
Is any part of this book fictional?
I created the fictional main character, Samantha, based on myself and my experiences growing up. She is freer than I was, and I could manipulate her as a character, knowing she's fictional and not me. My friends, the adults, my relatives in the book: I changed the names, but they're based on real people.
When I was five and six years old, I spent time living with my grandmother in two summers. Lola, my paternal grandmother, a widow, did not have electricity or running water. The people where she lived were very primitive. My grandmother was very scary to me. Lola, or "Mamaw,
as I called her, was almost mythological. She died when I was eight.
There were three terrifying incidents that really affected me. The first was that an epileptic boy, my dad's first cousin, was thrown in a well being dug for a new house while very rough men stood around and laughed at him while he had a grand mal seizure. I, or Sam in the book, ran back to my grandmother's house down the road and all she said was, "There ain't nothin' I kin do."
The second experience was that once I stood waiting for her on the ground outside her built-up corn crib when she picked up a rattlesnake, pinched its head off, and threw it out at me.
The last was when she, barefoot, accidentally stepped in hot coals while doing her Monday washing with a fire under a black wash pot, stirring the washing with a long stick. I had to run for "hep" and I only recall the direction (about two miles on a dust path) that I ran and nothing else.
Someone took Lola to a hospital thirty miles away, and my parents came to take me home, but since there were no telephones, I never understood the transactions. My parents also never talked to me about the awful experience.
Did these experiences change who you were when you grew up?
I realized there was and in some places still is a different kind of life that a lot of people don't know about. In my grammar school, they separated you by abilities. I was with the doctors and lawyers' kids. The school was great, and I excelled.
But in junior high through high school when we moved to a smaller town, because of more inferior teachers and perhaps my own depression because of moving, I lost my love of reading and learning and didn't get it back until college.
An important part of the book details what happened the night of my high school prom. The next morning when we were home, a friend called to tell me that there was a death at the courthouse. We went down there and saw a man had been lynched. I'll never forget the image of blood all the way up the three sets of marble stairs.
After the investigation started, the FBI came into town. My father lent some of those men his air-conditioned offices because they were staying for a month. He ended up getting an anonymous call that if he didn't get them out, they would burn their offices down.
When my father told me this, about four years later, just before he died, I told my Dad he was a coward. He answered, 'No I'm not. I just knew I had to make a living still.' That always resonated with me - and the fact that I never apologized to him for what I had said.
The book ends with the lynching , never prosecuted, and the character based on myself, Sam, going off to college in another state.
Did any experience that you've had with poetry inform this book or was it completely separate?
Completely separate. I don't think I'll ever write a prose book again. I wanted to tell this one story of growing up in this time and location.
What are you currently writing or working on right now?
I'm working on another book called Lawsy. 'An expression of great surprise or horror,' is the definition in the dictionary.
I have about 50 poems written so far, inspired largely by that term, though they're not all centered around that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write, write, write. Get in a writer's group if you can. I've been in writers' groups from age 30. They have helped me immensely. Don't write in a closet by yourself. Share weekly or at least monthly.
Also, begin to send your work out because no one is going to come to your desk for your writing. Start local in your area and send out your work.
Don't be discouraged by rejection and don't let it just rest in your desk drawers or shelves.
Read more about Sybil Estess here: http://SybilEstess.com.
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