The year is off to a rough start with the news that Miller Williams, renowned poet and former Arkansas Times contributing writer, died yesterday in a Fayetteville hospital. He was 84 and had been struggling with Alzheimer’s for several years.
Born in Hoxie, Williams studied at Hendrix and later got a masters in zoology at the University of Arkansas, teaching at various small colleges for a number of years until he joined Arkansas’ English department in 1970. He went on to co-found the University of Arkansas Press, which he directed for two decades, and remained a professor emeritus until his death. Miller was the father of Lucinda Williams and famously read his poem, “Of History and Hope” at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. In addition to his own poetry, he published translations of prominent poets like Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra.
For our 40th Anniversary issue in September, I reached out to Williams to see if he remembered anything about his association with the Times. He wrote me back to say that by then, unfortunately, he didn’t. “At 84, I probably don’t have a lot of this frustration ahead of me, but there’s plenty now,” he said.
I recommend this interview with Williams from the Oxford American, which is full of great stories about his relationships with, among others, Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams:
OA: Did you ever meet Hank Williams in person?
MW: Yes, [in 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, “Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I’d be honored to buy you a beer.” To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me. When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month. He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I’ve got is a poem.” Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.”
UPDATE: Here’s a small selection of Williams’ 1970s work for the Times, six poems and a short story called “The year Ward West took away the racoon and Mr. Hanson’s garage burned down.”