’70s era rabble-rouser Rosemary Daniell nurtures new writers

The red Mustang parked on a manicured property in Buckhead belongs to Rosemary Daniell. Once the bad girl of Southern letters who shook the literary establishment of the 1970s with her feminist essays and sexually explicit poems, Daniell has come up from Savannah to lead the monthly Zona Rosa writers group. It’s a twin of the creative writing workshop for women she founded in Savannah in 1981, during a period of emotional drift.

Thousands of hopeful writers — including a few men — have sought Daniell’s guidance through the rocky path of telling their life stories or inventing fictions at her workshops and summer retreats. Many of them have published books or won awards. Among the most prominent, Amanda C. Gable, workshopped her acclaimed first novel, “The Confederate General Rides North,” with the Atlanta group. In Savannah, John Berendt would drop by for feedback on the latest chapter of what became “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” his record-breaking bestseller about a notorious murder.

Inside the Buckhead home, 10 women ring the living room with Daniell, a pile of edited manuscripts beside her. She wears a pendant necklace of parted red lips — Zona Rosa’s logo of feminine power — and painted cowboy boots. She bears the faint gloss of a Cosmo girl, though she’s of grandmotherly age now. Daniell’s sister, Anne Webster, a nurse and poet short-listed for the National Book Award in 2009, hosts the group of businesswomen, psychologists, ex-teachers and published writers who pay the $75 monthly fee, myself included.

When a retired real estate agent writing a memoir about her difficult Italian family describes her struggle writing about distressing personal material, Daniell says, “If something doesn’t make me feel anxious to write, it’s not worth writing about.”

For over a decade Daniell has been at work on a memoir, “My Anarchist Heart,” much of which had been painful to write, she says, involving mental illness and addiction in two of her three children. In the lamp glow of the meeting, however, Daniell radiates a purposeful serenity, ruling the room with her soft, melodious voice.

If Southern feminism is a contradiction in terms, Daniell embodies the paradox of grace and fierce independence. In 1975 she burst onto the national stage with her provocative collection of poems, “A Sexual Tour of the Deep South,” stirring controversy like an Erica Jong of the Bible Belt. Rolling Stone magazine hailed the book as one of the best works of feminist literature of the era.

Five years later, Daniell followed with the equally attention-grabbing “Fatal Flowers,” a memoir about growing up in a repressive Southern Baptist culture that she accused of turning women into flirty mannequins who suppressed both anger and real desire. It was among “the most important books ever published out of the South,” declared Newsweek. Many of Daniell’s subsequent works — more memoir and poetry, as well as an essay collection, a novel and two books about Zona Rosa — also hold a mirror to her life, examining the wounds, dreams and sexual adventures from different angles.

In her new memoir, “Things I Should Have Told My Daughter,” Atlanta writer Pearl Cleage criticizes what she characterizes as excesses in Daniell’s reportage about her personal life and prose dashed off like dispatches from the front, which she recognizes carry a burning immediacy. Cleage recalls Daniell being called “a barracuda” who will “seduce a man … and then write about it!”

More than anything, Cleage’s remarks reveal the legend that grew around Daniell as both a femme fatale and castrating feminist. Daniell, disputing Cleage’s observations, was surprised by the attack on her writing. “I’ve worked hard on craft in order to be able to write about difficult things in a way I could be proud of,” she says. “While others may have faulted me for what I’ve written about — and many have — no one, to my knowledge, has written that I was a bad writer.”

The 1970s were a golden era for the literary scene in Georgia, much of it centered around Daniell and her friends, including novelists Pat Conroy, Anne River Siddons and Terry Kay, and poets Coleman Barks and Turner Cassity.

“The times were changing and boldness from talented women writers of the South was finding an eager audience,” Kay said in an email. “And [Rosemary] could write. She knew how to put together sentences that had music and muscle.”

But the era of champagne-soaked book parties was also riddled with the hostilities of the sexual revolution. Daniell skirmished with male colleagues on literary panels who objected to readings of her uninhibited poems. When Daniell invited Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker and Grace Paley to appear at a literary festival at Callanwolde in 1974, Cassity publicly lamented that feminists would mob the event. “I was so furious at his sexism,” says Daniell, who “gave [him] hell.”

Nor has Daniell shied away from inner confrontations. For 50 years she has kept a journal and recorded her dreams, encouraging others to do the same to tap into their unconscious. Some have found Zona Rosa therapeutic, she says, healing their traumas through writing. Unlike traditional workshops that focus entirely on the written page, Daniell’s offers writers “exorcises” to probe what’s transpiring in their minds and hearts — the stuff that fuels the writing. “Write about the thing you most don’t want to write about” is one such prompt.

Gable, a Zona Rosan since 1997, continues to find the group valuable, though she is now enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing at Georgia State. “Solid critiques are important,” says the novelist, working on a second book set during the Civil War, “but I also think it’s crucial to have people who can see the possibilities in the story you are struggling to tell and believe in your ability to tell it well, eventually.”

If Daniell’s optimistic spirit feeds writers — who are often inclined to doubt — it probably also has helped her weather a life of upheavals.

With an 11th grade education and a violent first marriage behind her, she married architect Sidney Daniell and became a homemaker and mother of three in the late ’50s. But she eventually cracked that mold apart with dreams of becoming an artist. A poetry course at Emory University led to her meeting James Dickey, the charismatic bard of the South, who was unemployed at the time and critiquing student verse for $2 a poem.

Their affair lasted on and off throughout the 1960s, and it became Daniell’s gateway to other extramarital dalliances. The day after her architect-husband moved out after 13 years of marriage, a new lover moved in. Soon Daniell was gone from home much of the time, traveling around rural Georgia teaching for the Poetry in the Schools program. The experience helped shape her writing workshops.

In “Fatal Flowers” Daniell describes the year her life furiously unraveled. Her mother committed suicide at age 60, her alcoholic father died, and her third marriage collapsed. The quick succession of sorrows propelled Daniell into an extended period of sexual experimentation in her 40s, which she chronicled in her writings. The years of indiscriminate sex ended around the time she founded Zona Rosa and met the soldier who became her fourth husband.

But a happy resolution was elusive. Trouble had been brewing with two of her three children since their adolescence. Daniell’s memoir-in-progress describes her struggle to help her paranoid schizophrenic son and drug-addicted younger daughter. In 2009, her son died in her care of lung cancer. Her middle-aged daughter, in recovery now, lives with Daniell and her husband. For all Daniell’s efforts at self-examination, she said it was the 25-year-long saga of leaving her “renegade life behind” and trying to rescue her children and that provided the enlightenment she needed.

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