The Beat: A Reading and Conversation with Linda Parsons

Poet, playwright, and essayist Linda Parsons is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewIowa ReviewPrairie SchoonerSouthern Poetry Review, Terrain, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and others. Her sixth collection, Valediction, contains poems and prose. Five of her plays have been produced by Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. 


Bio and poems at the Poetry Foundation

"Poet Linda Parsons Launches Her Latest Work, 'Valediction'" in Inside of Knoxville

"Valediction: Poems and Prose" in Southern Literary Review

"Travels with My Father" in Still: The Journal

Two poems at Terrain.org

"Therapy Dog" at Verse Daily

Two poems at Vox Populi

Mentioned in this episode:


Thank you for listening and sharing this podcast. Explore life-changing resources and events, sign up for newsletters, follow us on social media, and more through our website, www.knoxcountylibrary.org.

Rate & review on Podchaser


00:04 Alan May

Welcome to The Beat. Today, we’ll be talking with Linda Parsons about her work, and she’ll be reading several of her poems. Linda Parsons is a poet playwright, and essayist. She’s the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Terrain, Shenandoah, and many others. Five of her plays have been produced by Flying Anvil Theatre, here in Knoxville. Linda has published six books; today, we’ll be talking with her about her latest, Valediction, which contains both poetry and prose. Welcome, Linda. Thanks for being here today.

00:49 Linda Parsons

Oh, thanks, Alan. It’s a real pleasure to be with you. Well, since we are looking toward summer, and, uh, leaving spring a bit, I thought I would do a few summer poems. I will start with my fourth book, This Shaky Earth, which has a lot of gardening and a lot of summer poems. In the summer, I tend to write a lot about tomatoes.

“Back to the Garden”

You wait for them all year, luscious cheeks

and bottoms plucked from vine or roadside stand.

Grainger Co. Toms, the sign motions

to your throat’s unquenchable June, calling

for one bite of saltflow, its fat cherry heart

a firecracker bursting. The glory of tomato,

stirred with basil and Vidalia—the prize

you’ve wished for, warm suns bulging pockets

worth their weight in toil.

Swallow, and enter all the gardens you weeded

of spurge and clover. Heatwaves simmer

up ahead, sweatbees light in the moist V

of knee. You could heft this fruit over the fence,

live out your dream of pitching for Brooklyn—

it feels so right in your hand, a knuckleball

over home plate would do it.

If you walked them again, the backyards

of great-aunts who sent you to pick Big Boys

staked on bamboo, the soil would be foreign,

homeplace subdivided, shutters taken down.

The women no longer those who called

like clockwork, Hurry up, hear?

and you a giant in the rows.

So this is a poem as much about childhood and memory as it is about summer or tomatoes or gardening. Which is the beauty of poetry. You can do all of that together, at once. This is another summer poem, and I was inspired to write this by being on a walk with my younger granddaughter, who’s now almost fifteen. And the cicadas had started up, and they were in the trees above us, and I grew up calling cicadas jarflies. So, um, and in this poem I realized that, there I was in the middle, between my granddaughter and my grandmother. So this is kind of a powerful poem for me.


Under the old redbud in the boulevard,

sound umbrellas our heads, lifted as to thunder.

Near oh near, they cry above us, and together,

though deaf in their midst, we speak the names

we have learned in lives brief and long. Cicada,

says my granddaughter, given by her mother.

Jarflies, I counter, word my grandmother broke

with half-runners on newsprint spread in our laps,

far, so far on that glider, that porch, those burnished

evenings. In the dying down, the four-year-old

affirms the stamp of science: ci-ca-da, not yet

surefooted in the gloaming, the papers we’ll flatten

with corn shucks, oilcan she’ll fetch for our rocking

to and fro. In the new ringing, like all deepness

wrung from pitched joy, we look and look

for the red eyes, the jewel wings, near,

oh near in the shattered still-lit night.

And now I will move to my current book, my sixth. This is titled Valediction, and it contains both poems and prose. Short prose. There is a lot of both darkness and light in this particular collection.

"Light Around Trees in Morning"

So much light, I think it’s caught fire,

the paperbark maple self-immolating—

but it’s only the coppery scrolls’ silhouette

facing east. Someone once important

to me planted this tree, led friends to this

very spot as if it were the only blaze,

the garden’s only crown.

Importance ebbs in time, keeping its own

mystery and we’re left on our knees,

in cinders, smoldering ash, as I was,

turning to what’s more important—

clover in the iris, stones overrun

with chocolate mint, the scrawl

of minor serpents to read and expel.

A woman alone makes good headway

in the weeds, my corona unscrolling

like fiery swords at the entrance of nothing

and everything Edenic. Sometimes I think

light comes only when we're bowed

too low to notice our leaves and limbs

burnished by morning, our bodies

in spontaneous combustion.

I think, sort of, a subheading for this poem might be “our gardens, ourselves” because when we garden, we are so fully a part of the space and what we’re doing there. Another cicada poem. They’re actually my spirit animal. They’re about to start up here pretty soon.

"Everywhere and Nowhere at Once"

On day 11 of the Chopra 21-day meditation series,

the Sanskrit mantra, om shanti, says: I radiate

perfect peace. Tell that to the basement guys

jackhammering concrete for new drainage pipes

and pump, the years-old seep of groundwater

into floor and foundation. Through the harangue

of metal on rock, joists rattle their tibias, teacups

their saucers. Deepak urges me to access deep

peace from within. His silk voice prods me

to befriend the sound, to be the Sufi of sound.

Silk woven into rope saying to pull myself

from the shattered past, hand over hand,

into good air, to stand in the only now, everywhere

and nowhere at once. From the sodden earth,

I reemerge with Brood X cicadas feeding on roots

these seventeen winters entombed, an ecstasy

of wings starved for summer. Maple and oak

and trumpet vine vibrate their dervish of brief being.

And I, reaching down to my damp cellar, release

all the noise—the unrequited, the unforgiven.

My new body trembles, flooded with sun.

And now I’ll read a couple of poems for my father. This is a poem for Knoxville and for my dad, and, actually for James Agee, who is a Knoxville native and whose prologue from his novel—A Death in the Family—I use a little bit of here.

“The Hissing of Knoxville Lawns”

Off Broadway, north of the city, I carry

jugs to my assigned neighborhood tree,

the wine-colored chokeberry. Hobbled

in 93 degrees, I breathe in the cool sewer,

its rush to First Creek, then the Forks

coil to form the Tennessee. I left my mother’s

people in the Nashville Basin for Knoxville

at eleven, straddled the Plateau, surged

like the muddy Cumberland to get here

and root. I wait till dusk to water

my own trees — redbud, dogwood,

paperbark maple — uncoil the hose

like James Agee’s father on Highland Avenue,

a little bit mixed sort of block,

all the fathers out on their summer lawns,

collars removed and necks shy,

the bright bell of spray a call and response

to cicadas’ risen whine. Like my own father,

using the old name hose pipe, rinsing

the road off the Buick, home from traveling

the Southeast, his satchel and pamphlets

unpacked. We don’t think of these moments —

how I sat snug as the car warmed up,

as he scraped the winter ice, how the hose

rang in his hands those dusty days —

until we stand in that very spot

and open the spigot, until the arc

of water is pure rainbow, peach

to indigo, and we are carried back

and back to our selves undisguised.

I went to Cuba a few years ago, and my dad was a big cigar smoker, and so I couldn’t help but feel that when I was there, especially when we went into this famous cigar factory that his presence was very much with me.

“Travels with My Father”

I didn’t realize I was taking you to Cuba,

dead a year, packed in the dark of my bag

as you once stowed contraband cigars

across the Canadian border. Travel,

your salesman’s blood, now my slipstream—

waystations, points of interest, quest for

the bluest blues. Naturally you stalked me

to the Partagas factory in Havana, wild

with leaf and aroma—Montecristo, Punch,

Cohiba (Castro’s favorite), Romeo y Julieta.

We strode the crumbling city together,

battered by sea, salt, time.

You would've come if you could, before

your prisoning mind, before la revolución,

1959, whose icons paper city and countryside

as if Che’s guerrillas stormed ashore

just last week. You would’ve come before

your embattled neurons, a discombobulation

of brain and will stowed in your dark recesses.

You would’ve carried home a baker’s dozen,

fragrant cedar glued in the windowless

workrooms, stories of Guantanamo’s bluest

blues, your memory unbattered and questing.

So, as you could tell from the previous poem, my father had dementia in the last few years of his life, and I was one of his caregivers.

“Putting Him On”

Arrow, Van Heusen, creased and pressed—

it all frays to flannel—pocket torn, buttons

chipped or missing. Just as Leda took on

the swan’s mastery with his godlike force,

I put on my father’s few things left—this shirt,

whiff of smoke and Old Spice, sweatpants—

whatever slipped on easily in assisted living.

I inhale his remembered body, knowable

finally in diminishment, two stranger hearts

shawled close. I could not smooth his brute

fear at the end, that white rush—no airy

wingbeat fallen, no knowledge of how

terribly heaven bears down.

And I’ll return to something a little lighter. Return to summer. And to tomatoes in This Shaky Earth.

“Tomato Song”

Heart of hearts, you are generous and many-

chambered, so round, so firm, so fully packed.

The better to eat you, drop syllables of indiscretion

on table, wrist, tongue. The ancients thought you

poison before tasting the heaven of love apple.

Your buxom corona drops the stalk to its knees,

hot as a brand on flesh, drunk on the incessant cup

of sun. Salted and sliced to perfection on our plates,

you are the bushel baskets of summer, bristling

fields we ran so often the tracks bear our lifelines.

Your shape is the hello of home, low talk of

passing hours as night smiled on porch and gable.

From the mustard path, where we thought vaguely

of heading back, jarflies spelled out their ten thousand

names, soft bedroom lights blinked open. August

an apple in my reach, my heart is the fruit of all

hunger, its juices and red mouth singing. I stand

even with cornshocks, the border of forever child

and forever gone, broomsedge less wild to the touch.

17:53 Alan May

A lot of your poems seem to be at least partially set in gardens or they feature gardening in some way, and that’s definitely true in Valediction. I get the sense that, for you, there's a strong relationship between gardening and writing. Is that correct?

18:08 Linda Parsons

Oh, very much. And I’ve been coming more and more to an intertwining, I guess you would say, of my gardening and my writing over the years, and so, for me, of course, it’s an artistic pursuit--gardening. It’s a palette, as much as anything else, but it also is a real... it’s a place where I really invest myself, my time, my efforts, my desire to be part of the land. To make something beautiful. To be taught some lessons about things like patience, and, you know, understanding that alongside the life and the growth and the color there’s also sudden death. There’s draught, there’s change along the underside of that, and so the gardening is a metaphor for, really, all of life. And so it works perfectly in writing poetry, which is... They’re both very meditative pursuits.

19:13 Alan May

Yeah, I was thinking about that in terms of the prose pieces in the book, how that, in many ways they’re meditative and--they’re called visitations—and I think about all of the things that a visitation could make one think of. I’m thinking of, you know, religious—”The Visitation”--and, of course, the visitations that happen when, you know, before a funeral. It’s kind of a...

19:44 Linda Parsons

Exactly. Right...

19:45 Alan May

...a thing that we do here in the South, at least. And, in a way, it’s almost as if sometimes you’re... the speaker is visiting some people who have passed.

19:55 Linda Parsons

Exactly. Right. There’s a lot of loss in this book, but there’s also a lot of new beginnings. And the book was inspired, I guess, by this string of losses that I had in my life, beginning in twenty seventeen, my stepmother, who I was very close to, died of this very fast neurological condition. She was the youngest of my three parents and was the first to go. And we were all in this disbelief that this could happen, you know, my half siblings and I, and then my father, a couple of years later. And then my mother a couple of years after that, so, over about four years, I lost all three of my parents, and then the passing of a former spouse, and so... And then the pandemic, right on the heels of that, so a lot of isolation, of course, as so many of us felt. I had a lot of time to be thinking about all of this, and to be creating—I spent a lot of time in the garden during the pandemic and a lot of time writing, as well. And, in fact, the visitations that you mention, the little flash prose pieces that are in the book were a product of a workshop that I took, an online workshop, during the pandemic. It was called “The COVID Garden Story Project,” and it was led and developed by the poet Rebecca Gail Howell, funded by the NEA, and there were about seven of us and we met weekly online. And we were to write what Rebecca called “A Delight” based on Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, where he wrote a little prose piece almost every day for an entire year. And so we were to write about our time in the garden, our time during the pandemic. And so pretty much, I think, most of the prose pieces in Valediction are based in the garden because that’s what we were all so invested in during this. It was a five week course, and so that’s where most of these were written. And it seemed so appropriate to put them in the book. I was inspired by a couple of poets who had done the same thing. Charlotte Pence, who’s spent a lot of time... She grew up here in Knoxville. She’s now the poet laureate of Mobile, Alabama. And she did that with her book Code, which has some short prose in her poetry, as well as Nikki Finney, a South Carolina poet. And so I looked at their work and I thought, well, that’s just the natural progression for me—is to include this prose in the poetry collection. So, you know, after every book is finished, you always think, “Okay, what’s next? Not only what’s next, but “What’s new? What can I do that’s different the next time.” And so this was very natural for me, and I’m very happy with the way it all fits together, I think.

23:22 Alan May

Yeah, I think prose pieces and the poetry pieces really fit together really well. There’s one—one of the first of the “visitations” where you...Well, the speaker is saying, basically, “In a poem, I would do this, but with prose, I’m doing something else,” and did that feel freeing to you to write these and include these, and I think, in some ways, they help to advance the narrative of the book in ways that maybe poetry might not be able to do.

23:57 Linda Parsons

Yes, I’m so glad that you see that in the book because that particular poem was one of my first “delights” that I wrote in the course with Rebecca. And it was like I was trying to start a poem, but knowing I needed to move away from that, I needed to expand that. And so I feel like it’s kind of a bridge between the poetry and the prose. And so then I was able to take that leap away from poetry, even though, in the prose pieces, as with all flash nonfiction or flash creative nonfiction, as it’s often called, or micro essays--it’s called many different things—you want that heightened language, you want an immediacy and you want kind of a... often a lyrical quality about it, but definitely that heightened language, and so it is like a prose poem, but yet it still expands away from that.

24:58 Alan May

Yeah... Yeah... So I take it that you’re the speaker in most of the poems in the book?

25:05 Linda Parsons

I have written, um, persona poems in the past, where I’m... I’ve taken the voice of my grandparents, the voice of my mother, and of my stepmother, in other books, but, yeah, pretty much the “I” is me, in this book, but readers should not always assume that that’s true. Because it’s not always true.

25:29 Alan May


25:30 Linda Parsons


25:31 Alan May

Yeah. I understand the discomfort, sometimes, that writers feel with all of that. The book deals with valediction, or saying goodbye—to parents, friends, a former spouse—but a lot of the book also deals with growing up here in Tennessee. It seems to me that poets frequently publish books about childhood early on in their careers. And maybe you have dealt with this subject matter before, but I was just wondering what it was like to grapple with childhood issues as a seasoned writer, as a person who’s been writing, you know, awhile?

26:14 Linda Parsons

Well, I have a good friend who’s a wonderful poet. And she... Every time she writes a poem about one of her parents she says, “Gosh, I thought I was done with this.” But it’s like, we’re never done with these relationships and the forces that they were in our lives whether for good or lesser good. How they shaped us and how we’re always still grappling in some way, or else trying to enlighten, trying to cast more light on these relationships, I think. Because, as you do mature, the goal should be greater understanding, greater compassion, greater wisdom about all of that, and I do try to move toward that, even though I have some dark poems about, especially, my relationship with my mother, I feel that in every poem, in everything I write, I’m still moving toward the light, toward the end of that piece, whatever it is, I’m moving toward the light in every, in everything I write. So that’s important for my growth. It’s important for me to make that effort. And it has been, you know, a source of healing, of great healing, just like gardening is a source of great healing. And you hope that by the end of your life, that you [laughs] that you achieve, a feeling of peace, you know, and writing toward peace and light, that’s what I try to do, and that’s what’s the best for me, and I think the best for my readers, as well.

27:58 Alan May

So, I know that you are... In a conversation before, you mentioned that you’re not really a person really who has writers’ block, so much. And I just say that because I know that you’ve just published this book last year--and sometimes there’s a period where writers don’t write so much, after a book is published. But I’m just wondering what you’re working on now.

28:22 Linda Parsons

Hmm. I’m still very interested in the prose pieces, and I’ve got an idea now for a poem that I just need to sit down and work on, but I’m kind of... It’s like things have to simmer awhile before they’re ready for the page. I actually have a groundhog under my shed, or maybe more than one, and, you know, they, or she, they find my columbine my salvia and my comfrey and my spinach, you know, really delicious. And so I come out every night, and it’s like down to the... You know, all the leaves are gone, or whatever, and it’s like... And so I’m thinking, okay, how can I not only use this as a subject matter, but what am I—what's the lesson here for me? You know, there has to be some kind of lesson. And it’s... What is it? You know, I have to be able to explore that. Those possible lessons in some kind of writing, whether it’s in a poem or a piece of prose.

29:34 Alan May

So our audience heard it here first: there’s going to be some groundhog poems coming up—by Linda.

29:38 Linda Parsons

[Laughs] Oh, definitely, until they leave, until they find a new address.

29:47 Alan May

One of the things that we're trying to do with the podcast is to introduce our listeners to new poets. Who are your favorite poets? Who do you go back to again and again? Who are the contemporary poets that you like?

30:00 Linda Parsons

Of course, I discovered Mary Oliver in the nineteen eighties, and she’s been a real... Of course, she’s fully in the natural world, and she gleans so much sacredness from her being in the natural world, and that has really informed me in my life and my writing, you know, for decades now. But I also love Ted Kooser. He’s based in Nebraska, but, yet, of course, you want your work to be based in a place but yet still universal at the same time, and that’s what I try to do as well. And when I discovered them, you know, I discovered Bill Stafford—William Stafford’s work. They're just so many, and I’m starting to realize I need to return to Yeats. I’m seeing more things referring to Yeats, and I need to return to his work. And I guess I would like to name some Tennessee poets who are quite wonderful, and who have been writing for years. Of course, we just lost the wonderful Bill Brown earlier this year—he was in Middle Tennessee—that was a very huge loss. And Jeff Hardin is also in Middle Tennessee, Susan Underwood—Susan O’Dell Underwood—who's here in East Tennessee. Marvelous poet. And, of course, Charles Wright who’s the shining beacon over all of us, over all of the poetry world. Tennessee native, incredible poet. Yeah. Connie Green is local. She’s in Lenoir City. She’s just a marvelous poet. Also, I definitely wanted to mention Jesse Graves, who is an East Tennessean--teaches at ETSU right now. He writes, for the most part... The place on Earth that grounds him the most is where he grew up in Sharps Chapel in Union County. And that’s most of his writing.... It’s like the well-spring of his work.

32:14 Alan May

Yeah, we’ve had Jesse Graves on the program before..

32:16 Linda Parsons


32:17 Alan May

On the podcast, and he’s written about Sharps Chapel...

32:20 Linda Parsons

Oh, right. Yeah. Just wonderful work and he writes a lot of elegy. A lot of poems about loss, but at the same time, still, you know, giving us this, again to say, the sacredness about these relationships and how they’ve shaped us and how we are then giving off the light that they’ve given to us, you know. So...

32:49 Alan May

Well, thank you for being here, and thank you for reading your poems for us, and we’re very appreciative of you supporting our podcast

32:59 Linda Parsons

Oh, thank you so much. I just so admire what you’re doing with this, and I’m really happy to share my work.

33:05 Alan May

Thank you. Thank you.

33:06 Linda Parsons:

Thank you.

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Knox Pods
Knox Pods
Podcasts of Knox County Public Library

About your hosts

Profile picture for Melissa Brenneman

Melissa Brenneman

Melissa listens to hours of podcasts on most days. She started the habit with the intention of taking long walks, but podcasts proved to be more addicting than exercise. She records, edits and mixes podcasts for the library.
Profile picture for Alan May

Alan May

Alan May works as a librarian at Lawson McGhee Library. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama. In his spare time, he reads and writes poetry. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, The Hollins Critic, The Idaho Review, DIAGRAM, and others. He has published three books of poetry.