Minton Sparks – Speaking in mother tongues
“I’m still waitin’ to figure out what it is I’m gonna be.”
Sitting across the table from her at a Sylvan Park neighborhood cafe in Nashville, performance poet Minton Sparks embodies everything she sounds like on recording and by phone. At once lively and deeply present, her eyes flash, behind which are lightning bugs of ideas, blinking and glowing, synapse to synapse. Words come in trickles, then torrents, dancing from embers of thought to tooth and tongue and lips, language forming like smooth pebbles skipping across silver water.
Sparks has a lyrically lilting voice, from the softness of elongated diphthongs and dropped word endings to the edgy nasality of no-holds-barred, the timbre and cadence saying “horse shit” rather than the words themselves. It is the kind of voice that makes you want to lean closer and let the stories unfold. And that is just what Sparks does so very well on her debut spoken word recording, Middlin’ Sisters.
“The thing that this project has been for me is this link between my grandmother’s generation and my daughter’s generation, and my grandmother’s still alive,” she explains. Named poet laureate of her fourth-grade class, Sparks was raised in the bosom of hard-working rural Southern women sprinkled from Nashville to Memphis and on into Little Rock.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and has studied theology, written scripts, and directed a residential facility for women recovering from addiction and prostitution. She is raising two young children, facilitates Outward Bound-type camps and writing workshops, and is a co-member of a convent. Rich material.
“I’m most myself as a writer,” says Sparks. “I wrote [these poems] over a two-week period. It kind of just came. My mom called me one morning, and my [great] aunt had left her husband, and she said the whole family’s sayin’ she’s trash — ‘Trella’s Trash’, it’s that cut from it.
“And then I just started thinkin’ about the way that all of them spoke. Writin’ these stories was just as much writin’ for my son and my daughter as much as anybody else, because originally I was just gonna read ’em at Christmas dinner and that be it. I didn’t know I’d get around to makin’ a CD of it.”
Friend and noted songwriter Marcus Hummon came on board to produce, Waylon Jennings lent his voice as a tormented preacher, and Grammy-winning tunesmith Darrell Scott composed music on the spot, beautifully accompanying these true tales of Sparks’ matrilineage. The result is the wonderful musicality of Southern oral tradition: folksy, but devoid of pretense, preciousness, and, most importantly, judgment.
“I went to radio and television school and did all this stuff to lose my Southern accent,” Sparks says. “[And yet] for me, the Southern voice is the voice of truth, because it’s my mother tongue.”