How an SMU Poet Straddles America’s Cultural Divide

A profile of Greg Brownderville, published poet, editor-in-chief of The Southwest Review and associate professor of English at SMU.

By Peter Simek 

A few days after the November presidential election, I meet the poet Greg Brownderville for a coffee near the campus of SMU, where he teaches poetry and runs the Southwest Review, the century-old quarterly literary journal. We are here to discuss Brownderville’s latest volume of poetry, A Horse With Holes in It, published in November by Louisiana State University Press. Our conversation, however, inevitably turns to the recent election.

Greg Brownderville
Greg Brownderville

“Snark is having a moment in this country,” Brownderville says. He is wearing a sweater under a sport coat. With his beard and slicked-down swoop of brown hair, paired with a soft-drawling, buttery Arkansas accent, he looks and sounds every bit the part of the campus creative writing professor. “People just get on Twitter and send out these snarky one-liners that are very dismissive and mean-spiritedly denying the basic humanity of everybody on the other side of the argument. I see it on both sides.”

Brownderville is uniquely positioned to see into America’s much-commented-upon cultural divide. His life—a childhood spent in rural Arkansas, an adulthood lived in liberal academia—has straddled America’s two worlds.

Brownderville grew up in Pumpkin Bend, a tiny community of about 60 residents on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, where oceanic fields of cash crops were framed by shadowy cypress swamps. It was an appropriate setting for an adolescence that sounds decidedly Southern Gothic. His father was a farmer before farming went bad and he became a funeral home director. His aunt did time for trying to hire a hitman to kill her husband. Brownderville and his brother and sister spent plenty of time in a Pentecostal church that, just a few years before he was born, in 1976, quit practicing snake handling. For fun, they hiked through the swamp to find a country store where an old man sitting next to a potbelly stove made change for candy out of the coins in his pocket.

Pumpkin Bend was a very poor, deeply religious community, mostly Pentecostal, but its brand of Christianity frayed at the edges and mixed and mingled with superstition and mysticism. His grandfather told stories of ghosts appearing near the Pumpkin Bend Cemetery. His grandmother once saw an apparition of an angel who came to visit her in her living room dressed head to toe in khaki. “But it wasn’t like no earthly khaki,” Brownderville remembers her saying.

“My family is about as far away from being Shakespeare lovers as you can imagine,” he says.

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