Poet and documentary filmmaker James Edward Seay III came from a background that made him an unlikely candidate for a future career in literature. Born on 1 January 1939 in Panola County, Seay came from a family that was closer to the earth than to education—lumbermen, farmers, and blacksmiths. Seay became the first member of his family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1964 and a master’s degree from the University of Virginia two years later. At around this time he married noted Virginia author Lee Smith, and they had two sons before divorcing in the early 1980s.
Over his long and celebrated literary career, Seay’s poetry has appeared in thirty anthologies, and his essays have been featured in magazines such as Esquire and Antaeus. Seay has also published four books of poetry—Let Not Your Heart (1970), Water Tables (1974), The Light as They Found It (1990), and Open Field, Understory (1997)—and two limited editions of poetry. In 1988 he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Departing briefly from poetry, Seay teamed with director George Butler in 1990 to write a documentary film, In the Blood, about big-game hunting in East Africa.
Seay’s poetic vision of the South is directly descended from the viewpoint of such older southern writers as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Yet Seay’s version of the South is intermingled with the memory of parents and grandparents and with images from today’s South. James H. Justus believes that Seay paints a clearer version of the modern southern atmosphere than any other writer of his age: “None of the poets of this generation has done better than James Seay in not only evoking the village culture of the contemporary South but also transforming its commonplaces into objects and events of talismanic significance.” Seay’s poetry often juxtaposes the epic with the ordinary, as in “The Majorette on the Self-Rising Flour Sign,” where the “soldier-girl” in a flour advertisement becomes “this age’s superwoman.” To avoid giving way to cliché, Seay complicates his “southern” imagery; references to “sweetbreads and wine” and “white whisky in a Clorox jug” are never sweet remembrances of a time past but often are dark in tone and a little unsettling.
Seay taught at the Virginia Military Institute, the University of Alabama, and Vanderbilt University prior to 1974, when he became a lecturer and later professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has also served as director of the school’s Creative Writing Program.
- Julia Bryan, Endeavors Magazine website, http://endeavors.unc.edu (Fall 1997)
- James H. Justus, The History of Southern Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin (1985)
- David Williamson, University of North Carolina News Services website, http://uncnews.unc.edu (18 February 1997)