Family Tradition

Alan Messer
by Alanna Nash - Feb/March 2009

Lucinda Williams and her father, Miller, talk about words, wisdom, and another Williams

Time magazine has called Lucinda Williams “America’s best songwriter.” Miller Williams, her father, is a respected poet—President Bill Clinton’s inaugural poet in 1997—with a score of literary awards and prizes. Occasionally, father and daughter appear together in “concert,” the two trading off songs and poems for the audience, which could be as diverse as a room full of prisoners or an elite Nashville crowd. Yet they are rarely, if ever, interviewed together, and even their joint performances are few. In the meantime, they’re keeping busy solo. Miller, seventy-eight, has a new collection of poems, Time and the Tilting Earth, published this past fall by LSU Press. Lucinda, fifty-six, released her new album, Little Honey, last October. Here, they talk about the influence of such Southern giants as Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams, Sr., as well as their effect on each other.

How did you develop your love of words?
LUCINDA: I was born with a love of words. I’m my father’s daughter. I began writing poems and stories as soon as I learned to read and write. I found a certain comfort in the isolation of writing. And I found solace in the sound of Dad’s typewriter keys. I beamed with pride listening to him read.
MILLER: In part I came to enjoy the use of words because my parents paid close attention to the use of language in conversation. And my father was a Methodist minister whose sermons were works of literature.

How long have you performed together?
LUCINDA: We’re not exactly sure when it started, but the first performance I recall was 1978 in Arkansas at Cummins Prison. This was before my first album came out. I accompanied Dad and performed for the prisoners. We also performed at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1981. The next one I remember was at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1995.
MILLER: We began with a couple of performances in Arkansas—the first was a Poetry-in-the-Prisons program that I’d established at the state penitentiary. The first performance that stirred up considerable publicity was March 30, 2001, in Pittsburgh, at the International Poetry Forum.

What was the original impulse for that?
LUCINDA: Dad was holding poetry workshops and giving readings at the prison. I was living at home during that time. He came up with the idea of holding a “Poetry Sung, Poetry Said” performance at the prison.

What actually happens onstage?
LUCINDA: “Poetry Sung, Poetry Said” is similar to what songwriters call “Writers in the Round.” Typically, no more than four songwriters at a time gather onstage and sit in a circle or a row. The first one to start performs an original song, and then the next performer does the same. The emphasis is always on the song and never on vocal perfection.
MILLER: I introduce us, read a poem, and she sings one of her songs. We go back and forth for about an hour, often making rather light father-daughter remarks to each other or to the audience between songs.

How have audiences reacted to this?
LUCINDA: They have always been positive. Overall, the folks we draw to these shows are supportive and attentive, and some are just plain curious! The first show at Cummins Prison was the most unusual and life-changing for me. I was only about twenty-four. The male and female prisoners had to be held in separate quarters, and we performed for the male prisoners from a stage in a large auditorium. We followed that with a performance for the women in a smaller building, in a simple room, sitting on chairs, while they stood around us or sat on the floor. I felt intimidated, but also proud and brave.

Miller, you were friends with Flannery O’Connor. How did that come about?
MILLER: Flannery and I met when she drove the thirty miles from her farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia, to speak at Wesleyan College in Macon, where I was professor of biology in 1958. We hit it off pretty well, and she invited me to visit her and her mother at the farm. I made it over every few weeks and soon began to take Lucinda with me. She and Flannery also hit it off, and she was allowed to chase the peacocks for which the farm was well known, though at five, she could never catch one. Flannery would show me her stories in progress and look at my unfinished poems, and we would share our impressions. One time I said to her, “Flannery, you call them short stories, but to me they’re long poems.” She smiled and said, “You call yours poems, but to me they’re very short stories.” She’s been a presence in my life to this day.

Lucinda, what if any effect did O’Connor’s work and those visits have on your own writing?
LUCINDA: Because I was so young, I don’t consciously remember those visits. I discovered her writing when I was about sixteen. I understood her completely and she became a hero of mine, and I yearned to write songs the same way she wrote short stories.