Columbus writer and educator Thomas Richardson found his calling while at Vanderbilt Divinity School — one that led him to return to his hometown and teach high school English.
Amid his class schedule, Richardson polished off his thesis, a poetry collection for the low-residency master’s in fine arts in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women. Those poems now make up his first book, titled “How to Read,” which was published this year.
Richardson recently had the opportunity to read from his book at MUW’s annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Next, he will appear on the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour alongside musicians Mighty Souls Four and Keith Johnson.
The long-running radio show will be recorded at a live taping, which is open to the public, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Oxford. Mississippi Public Broadcasting will air the episode on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. on WMAB 89.1 FM.
In “How to Read,” Richardson’s subjects include childhood, fatherhood and even his classroom experiences. He currently teaches at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, where he graduated. He was previously a faculty member at New Hope High School.
“I wanted to return to Mississippi,” Richardson said about his career path, “because I wanted to help students have engaging educational experiences like I was lucky to have growing up here.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Several of your poems have a strong sense of place in the South and in Mississippi. What does it mean to you to be a writer from here?
Being a Mississippian or Southerner naturally means holding competing ideas or competing emotions inside of us at all times. I love it here, and I hate it here. This is a home that inspires creativity and stifles it. We try to look forward, but we’re so often pulled back. We’re a church-loving people but a Christ-rejecting people. Columbus is a wonderful microcosm of all that.
Your poems often feel autobiographical. Are they based on true stories?
Without a doubt, some of the poems in “How to Read” are autobiographical. I write about real moments in my life and specific people I love. That said, even within some of the poems that are very clearly about me or my family, there are imaginative leaps. When you look at a poem that you think is directly about me, there is some point where I’ve thrown off the constraints of the way I really saw something for the sake of artistic or philosophical play.
Many of your poems use humor to tell more universal truths. What are the more serious and difficult issues you want readers to contend with?
I’m a big believer in the power of ironic juxtaposition. Sometimes juxtaposition leads to a “haha” laugh, and sometimes it leads to an “oof” — a twist of the humor dagger. Under that umbrella, I particularly like taking a look at the ways we talk about and practice religion and the ways we talk about and practice our Southernness. I’m also interested in the classic move from innocence to experience.
I think a lot of the humor, and sometimes dark humor, in the book has to do with recognizing that the ways we perceive the world around us change over time. Some of the funnier poems, I think, are the most direct treatments of that change in perception.
What would you say to someone who says they normally don’t read poetry?
I think when people say they don’t read poetry or they don’t like poetry, they really just haven’t yet found the poetry that speaks to them. Maybe they got burned by a high school English experience or “the canon.” If folks were to start with Billy Collins, or, more regionally, Catherine Pierce, Jacqueline Trimble and Beth Ann Fennelly, maybe they could find their “in.”
Who have been your biggest influences, whether other writers or people in your life?
My parents, both English teachers, certainly valued language play in our house, so that’s probably where I got my start. I am heavily influenced by Jacqueline Trimble and Kendall Dunkelberg, fantastic mentors for new poets. Rhythmically speaking, I owe a lot to Gerard Manley Hopkins and my mother, who I think owes a lot to Gerard Manley Hopkins herself!
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.