Margaret Britton Vaughn: Poet Laureate of Tennessee

Sunday, November 10, 2002 - by Jay Mouton

When we think of poetry most of us conjure up a couple of images in our mind's eye. Perhaps the dusty, crusty old college professor rambling on and on about some 'bridge over Tincan Abbey' or some something like that. Maybe the young college poet spilling out his or her guts about their latest love affair and how life will never work out for them because, well, nobody understands their most personal and private feelings. And, we're often not far off the mark on these images. But fear not, poetry-seeking friends, for there is someone coming to the rescue. Her name is Margaret Britton Vaughn and she just happens to be Tennessee's own Poet Laureate.

Margaret Britton Vaughn, or Maggie as her friends and followers know her, was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1938. Her family moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, in the early 1940's. While Maggie spent her youth in Gulfport, she moved back to Tennessee in 1965. Over the years Maggie has worked for several newspapers in Nashville, and she taught at the renowned Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee before taking up the pen full-time.

The road to becoming Tennessee's Poet Laureate has been a long but enjoyable one for Maggie. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1975 by The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper. This collection, entitled 50 Years of Saturday Nights, centered around Maggie's love for Country Music's 'Grand Old Opry' and the music and musicians that had performed upon its stage. 50 Years of Saturday Nights contains numerous poetic tributes such as the title poem, "Fifty Years of Saturday Nights:"

"I've got fifty years of Saturday Nights

packed in an old memory

I've been tucking them away for years

in a trunk as big as Tennessee."

This section of poetry, gleaned from the poem itself, is an introduction to Maggie's published collections that have been released over the years. This work has been out of print for a number of years so, if one has a copy, rest assured it is a collectible work by this time.

Maggie spent the 1970's and most of the 1980's working for a newspaper company in Nashville, Tennessee. During this time Maggie developed her craft__that of poetry. While Maggie was developing as a poet, she had the talent and opportunity to pen a number of country songs as well. Her songs have been recorded by such country artists as Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb and Conway Twitty. While these songs did not supply enough income for Maggie to make the transition from newspaper employee to full-time 'bard,' it did garner enough interest in Maggie that the company she worked for published 50 Years of Saturday Nights.

It was during the late 1980's that Maggie made the decision to approach writing as her 'vocation.' She had published the single collection and had numerous pieces published in other publications. It was a big step to leave the security of a 'nine-to-five' job for the uncertain world of the 'freelance writer,' but Maggie bit the bullet and made the final decision.

After Maggie made the move to Bell Buckle, Tennessee, it solidified her cut with the mundane world of her newspaper job and opened up the creative flow. Maggie opened up a small bookstore in the town of Bell Buckle, which at the time was a small artist's colony on the verge of a full-scale bloom. Within a decade of Maggie's arrival in Bell Buckle, the town became a permanent base for a number of creative souls. By the early 1990's Bell Buckle counted among its population of less than 500, the following: a potter, three sculptors, a painter, an award winning Nashville songwriter, a record producer, and a number of writers. The interwoven connections between these creative individuals made for a number of interesting evenings in the small burg.

During this time Maggie was busy developing her talents as a poet and securing more publication as such. 1991 was the year that saw release of one of Maggie's most popular poems__The Light in the Kitchen Window. "Light" was the lead poem in the collection of the same name. This poem was the pivotal work that would lead to Maggie's tenure as the 'Poet Bard' of Tennessee.

The Light in the Kitchen Window


The hand-me-down china and linens

Were saved for the dining room,

That's where we ate on Sundays,

With the silver knife, fork and spoon.

But the old kitchen table

Was where we sat most of the time,

Passing cornbread and biscuits

And chicken parts of all kind.

It was the time to laugh and talk,

When the family seemed to be stable;

It was the supper hour,

With dinner leftovers on the table.

It was that time we borrowed

With God as the lender,

A time that won't be back,

With the light in the kitchen window.


Throughout the early 1990's Maggie not only experienced a surge in sales of her two collections of poetry, but she found a new avenue of approach to help support her 'life as a poet' - the poetry reading. Maggie had begun to make a name for herself at various 'literary functions' as a reader and lecturer. It was not long before she was so much in demand that she often had to decline one offer or another. While she was not getting rich from her reading and lecturing it was leading to more sales of her work and the road to becoming Tennessee's Poet Laureate seemed a little less gravel and somewhat more paved.

In December of 1994, Maggie's next collection of poetry, Kin, was released with singing endorsements from such popular writers as Lee Smith, Nikki Giovanni and Fred Chappell. Endorsements aside, it is Maggie's growth as a poet and speaker that propelled the popularity of this Southern writer. Within months of the publication and release of Kin, Maggie found herself on 'the road' as often as she found herself home in Bell Buckle. The popularity of the work within Kin was the next step in Maggie's accession to Poet Laureate of Tennessee.

Kin

Youth ties the blood line together

then walks away,

leaving age to unravel the knot.

Needing air,

the line stretches

in different directions

until the fork becomes the knife

that cuts the vein to freedom.

Freedom rewinds the lines

pulling the living back

to bury the dead

and dig up memories of the knot.

1995 was a blur of activity for the poet. Maggie's career as a writer was going ahead full speed, but there were even bigger events on the horizon for her. With three published collections to her credit, she was given the official title of "Tennessee State Bard" under her belt, and the demand for her 'voice' in speaking engagements, what could possibly be next on Maggie's literary agenda? Another published collection of course.

1996 was Maggie's year. It seemed the literary road she was traveling on would finally be completely paved. During early 1996, Maggie, as Tennessee's 'official Poet Bard,' was asked to write a poem to help commemorate Tennessee's 200th birthday. Who We Are became the Official Tennessee Bicentennial Poem during the state's year long celebration of statehood and history.

Who We Are

We're Tennesseans who love the home place.

We're the Volunteer State and will always be

Ready to go when someone's in need.

As our trees turn green and our barns turn gray,

We celebrate our two hundredth birthday.

We know we've done our best, stood the test,

And will be laid to rest

In the fertile soil of Tennessee.

The next honor for Maggie was to take place in mid-1996. With the popularity of Who We Are the State of Tennessee made the next and most logical step in honoring their favorite poet. Margaret Britton Vaughn, "Maggie," was appointed to serve as Tennessee Poet Laureate. With the publication of Acres That Grow Stones, which included Who We Are and her popular poem "Flag," Maggie had become what she had worked so hard for and dreamed of becoming - a writer. A Poet.


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