Dr. Phillip Howerton
In the Preserving the Ozarks series, Ozarks Alive visits with local people who are doing things to save parts of our region. Whether environmental, historical or cultural, their efforts are documenting and sustaining elements of this area for generations to come.
Dr. Phillip Howerton offers a unique perspective on the Ozarks through poetry and publishing that perhaps is a product of his family’s deep roots in the region.
He was brought up on a small dairy farm in southern Dallas County, and spent several years as a milk truck driver, a production worker at Dairy Farmers of America, and a beef farmer.
A first-generation and a non-traditional college student, he began college at the age of 27, earning an associate’s degree in English, a bachelor’s in history, and a master’s in education while attending evening classes at Drury University.
When the dairy where he worked closed in 1998, and he then taught GED classes and high school for three years before beginning a doctorate in English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. That led to a career teaching English, first at North Arkansas College for seven years, and later at Missouri State University-West Plains, where he has been since January 2013.
While all his work will make a difference for years to come, some significant efforts shine through his writing and publishing. He owns Cornerpost Press, “that seeks to publish and promote literary works that might be overlooked by publishers unfamiliar with the region and its authors,” its website says. Additionally, he serves as co-founder and co-editor of Cave Region Review, now in its 12th year, and as general editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.
His essays, reviews and poems have appeared in a wide variety of journals and books, such as American History through Literature, Arkansas Review, Christian Science Monitor, The Concord Saunterer, Encyclopedia of American Environmental Literature, Encyclopedia of Arkansas Culture and Literature, Journal of Kentucky Studies, The Midwest Quarterly, Plainsongs, Red Rock Review, The South Carolina Review, Teaching American Literature, Thoreau Society Bulletin, and Writers of the American Renaissance.
His poetry collection, The History of Tree Roots, was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2015, and his survey of Ozarks literature, The Literature of the Ozarks, was published by University of Arkansas Press in February of 2019. For the latter work, he received the 2019 Missouri Literary Award from the Missouri Library Association.
Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Howerton, his history, and what inspires his work.
How did you become interested in poetry? Did this begin at an early age, or later in life?
My first conscious interest in poetry was during my junior high years. I had attended a small school for grades one through six, and then for junior high I was bused to the county seat and dumped into a group of 100 strangers. I didn’t make a good transition and became exceedingly shy, quiet and withdrawn. That was when I made a first real effort to write. I even submitted some poems to magazines and journals and had a couple of things published, but my interest faded as I moved into my teenage years. It didn’t surface again until I started college in my late twenties.
For those of us who are not skilled at writing poetry, can you share about how you go about this process? Is this something you sit down to do, like writing an article, or do you simply have to be in a certain frame of mind and inspiration strikes?
I’ve read the advice of numerous established writers who state that successful writing requires discipline and a continuity of effort. They are right, but I lack discipline, and there is little continuity in my efforts. Yet, I’m not a complete slacker. I do have a continuous interest in reading and writing poetry, and I know that the more I read and write, the more I will produce. There have been times that I have immersed myself in writing, and I have had a couple of periods of great creativity, but I have other interests and other responsibilities.
What is your hope for someone who reads one of your poems?
I want them to see something that was there all the time but that they had always overlooked, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Here are two of Dr. Howerton’s works:
Electricity and indoor plumbing
arrived late in these hills,
and in many lawns old wells remain,
framed by rock walls, thigh high
and capped with a flat stone.
They became obsolete, then monuments,
and are now only obstacles to mowing.
Today we lifted away the capstone
and peered into the depths looking
for something we do not know
and saw only the stones of the inner wall
stacked downward into darkness
and the reflection of ourselves
with hands cupped around eyes,
like a family pressing their faces
to the picture window of a house
they have locked themselves out of.
On Her Blindness
I don’t remember being aware at age four
that Mother was losing her eyesight.
My attention was captured by the grasshopper
I held prisoner in a Mason jar who kept eyes
upon escape when I inserted fresh grass,
by the bubble-eyed tadpoles I had scooped
from the creek and placed in a fishbowl,
and by how strange my name sounded when I
said it aloud with eyes closed; but I
sometimes cried on moonless nights
when darkness consumed my room.
She would come to my side and whisper,
“Don’t be afraid. There’s no reason to fear
the dark,” but I would not be comforted.
In 2019, you edited The Literature of the Ozarks. In the book’s introduction, you wrote about misconceptions regarding Ozarks culture, as well as gaps in the region’s literature. Why did you think these are important areas to address? Off of that: What can people do, if anything, to help correct these issues?
Two hundred years of stereotypes has resulted in the Ozarks not having a legitimate literary history. Few, if any, of the major anthologies of American literature mention Ozarks literature because it is often viewed as stagnant and lowbrow. Unfortunately, many folks who have produced Ozarks-based literature have gleefully fallen into these ruts of expectation to produce the formulaic and caricatured depictions demanded by larger culture. People whose histories and stories are easily discounted will be easily discounted themselves. The most practical and meaningful response would be for the people who care about the Ozarks to read and promote quality literary work that engages this region.
To some, the concept of “literature” might focus on famous books and stories. How does this concept apply in the Ozarks? Can you share some examples of what might be considered Ozarks literature?
The concept of literature can be used to denote any text from a blank wall to War and Peace, but if we agree for a moment to narrow literature to works of literary merit and timeless value, we will see that a lot of excellent literature has been produced exploring life as it is lived in the Ozarks. Some examples of such quality literature that I mentioned in The Literature of the Ozarks is the poetry of Irene Carlisle, the massive body of work by Donald Harington, the novels of Daniel Woodrell, the fiction and poetry of C. D. Albin, the fiction of Steve Yates, the poetry of Amy Wright Vollmar, the fiction of John Mort, and the fiction of Steve Wiegenstein.
Several years ago, you took over as editor of Elder Mountain. You are also the co-founder and poetry editor of the Cave Region Review. For those who are unfamiliar with these publications, can you please share a little bit about them, and why you decided to take them on? What are your goals through them?
I became involved in these projects to provide Ozarks-based authors and artists opportunities to publish and promote their work. Since the region’s literature is generally ignored or dismissed, creative writers focusing upon the region find it difficult to publish work outside the region, and there are a very limited number of publishing opportunities within the region.
In addition to your other work, I see that you own Cornerpost Press, which specializes in works about the Ozarks. It sounds like there might be a story here on how you decided there was a need for this publishing effort. Can you share a little about how it came about, and what your mission is?
As I worked with Cave Region Review, Elder Mountain, and the Ozarks Studies Symposium, I realized that there was a lot of excellent work that would never be published in book form because of regional bias. The big publishers have to make big profits, but a small publisher needs only the love of labor and the hope of breaking even financially. We plan to publish only 2-3 books per year and to publish only what we love.
Through your various efforts, you work to both preserve and create at different times. Which of these buckets do you think is more important for society?
It is much more important to me to promote and preserve the work of others than for me to create. Although I may occasionally have a worthwhile insight to offer, I know that numerous people are doing work that I could never do, and I hope others will become involved in Ozarks studies when they realize that legitimate publishing outlets exist.
Off of that: You obviously devote a lot of time to promoting literature in the Ozarks, and helping people appreciate and understand it. Why do you think that is important?
Another way to phrase this question might be, “What is the value of Ozarks Studies?” All places are constantly evolving, and Ozarks studies offers the chance to think seriously about how this region has and will change for better and worse. The Ozarks may be the last region in the continental United States where most people can own a home within their lifetimes, have access to abundance of clean water, and have access to public green spaces, and it is also a place of great biodiversity. These aspects of the region will probably be diminished in the coming decades. Writings about this region can highlight and explore the complex and troubled reality of this place.
Fundamentaly, what is it about the Ozarks that fascinates you?
The theme of the 2016 Ozarks Symposium was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” and it is this lure that fascinates me. That is, the region has the power to simultaneously repel and to attract, to disgust and to inspire.
Want to learn more?
To purchase his books and other works, click here.
Information about Cornerpost Press can be found at Cornerpostpress.com.