Poetry, politics, and friendship

In the early nineties, I was lucky enough to hear Toni Morrison introduce a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston. Both of them had recently lost manuscripts and many other precious belongings in house fires, and Kingston read a riveting piece about driving toward her neighborhood that day and realizing her home was ablaze. It became part of The Fifth Book of Peace; the burned manuscript was The Fourth Book of Peace, Kingston’s sequel to three legendary books also destroyed by fire.

It was an astonishing evening, but what recurs to me frequently is Morrison’s introduction, in which she described spending a lot of time on the phone with Kingston. “I only wanted to talk to people whose houses had burned down,” Morrison said.

I’ve been in a version of that space lately, avoiding people with dissimilar views about local and international politics. I know, I know, that’s a bad long-term plan. People have to be able to talk across ideological gaps, blah, blah. Being a teacher means centering your working life around that laudable proposition, but when the news is full of cruel parent-child separations and a crooked president trying to do as much damage to democracy as possible; your neighbors are writing bone-headed letters to the paper; and the local KKK capitalizes on it all by leafleting the town–well, you only want to talk with people whose houses have burned down. I am beyond grateful to a smart and feisty group of local friends who will bring wine to my kitchen and hang out to chat about hate mail, colonoscopies, how Sarah Huckabee Sanders is rather petite in person, and publishing poems about Hillary Clinton’s vagina (they say it needs to be a sequence–a “vagenre”–but we’ll see if I, ahem, have it in me). (And thanks, Rise Up Review! Smart and feisty writers, editors, and publishers who do their good work at a distance from small southern towns are also doing a lot for people’s morale.)

So it’s interesting that friendship conditioned by hateful politics turns out to be central to the writing and research I’m doing. This week I visited Virginia State University to read the papers of Amaza Lee Meredith, an African American artist, architect, and teacher who was a sometime neighbor and longtime friend to the poet Anne Spencer. I leafed through scrapbooks Meredith kept full of letters from students, memorabilia about Spencer, and poems she either copied out or clipped from magazines. She also preserved clippings about a few favorite politicians and a receipt from her $5 donation to Adlai Stevenson’s campaign. Meredith and Spencer were friends during the Jim Crow era and they clearly talked urgently and often about educational inequality and school segregation. I’m not comparing my experiences to theirs–Spencer and Meredith and their families were in physical danger, as well as being subject to daily degradations, because they were black in mid-twentieth-century Virginia–but I think negotiating this political moment is tuning my awareness to aspects of Spencer’s situation.

What sustained Spencer when social injustice and literary rejection demoralized her? Her garden. Reading and writing. And friends like Amaza Lee Meredith, to whom she signed “I love you,” late in life, in a shaky hand.

 

Krazy Kat among the nasturtiums

kk 1920

COMICS=POETRY+GRAPHIC DESIGN, says Austin Kleon, who is, in turn, reprising Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth–but wherever the formula comes from, I love the possibilities it raises for both comics and poetry as media. It’s my starting point for a paper I’m giving at the Modernist Studies Association conference very soon. I’ll be discussing the 1920 Krazy Kat strip above by George Herriman in terms of babble and doodle, Northrop Frye’s terms for the axes of poetic making.

I had a slight knowledge of Herriman’s work before, but this summer read the recent biography–which is, among other things, a story of racial passing–and became obsessed. Krazy Kat is very funny and anti-pretentiously brilliant and would be perfectly at home on a modern poetry syllabus. Each strip is as predictable as a sonnet: a linguistically inventive, genderless black ket loves a pompous white mouse with anger management problems, who responds via brick. That’s the form. The variations: endless. 

Being on the krazy side (I’m in denial about any resemblance to Ignatz, the lecture-asm nasturtiumprone control freak), I’m juxtaposing this poetic comic against an Anne Spencer poem presented in visual form. “A Lover Muses” is the second stanza of one of Spencer’s few published poems, “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), and was painted onto nasturtium contact paper and fixed to a cupboard by her neighbor and good friend, the African American artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith. I have some things to say here, too, about babble and doodle but also gender, race, justice, and the meanings of repetition. I’ll be joining Chris Gavaler’s “Modernism and the Comics” panel on Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Wish me luck.

Best of all, the conference is in AMSTERDAM, where we’ve never been, so Chris, the kids, and I are going a week early. Madeleine is home from her Siberian adventures, tired and hungry but eager to keep learning about Russian language and culture. She’s also more than happy to pack up again and see some canals and world-class museums. The scary thing is that, when we come back, our school years will start up again fast. Was my work this summer a howling success?–NO. Never mind. Pancakes and jenever, here we come.

“The wonder is that you are here”: poetry, community, and Anne Spencer

One of my favorite visiting-writer stories involves a New York-based author who, while guzzling artisanal cocktails in a local restaurant, said something like, “I don’t know why anyone would bother to write if they don’t live in Brooklyn.” That was a hilariously awful remark to make to his Virginia-writer-dinner-companions, but I get it. The literary path I’m hiking seems to point only uphill, through tangles that hide my efforts from sight.

asm nasturtiumAs a break from the trail and for inspiration to persist, I recommend visiting the Anne Spencer House and Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, about an hour and a quarter from where I live, just over the Blue Ridge. The lesson it teaches: how to surround yourself with what you find beautiful–how to fight for it–and write anywhere, on anything, with spirit.

The Lynchburg-based Harlem Renaissance poet gave hospitality to many luminaries, during an era when African-Americans didn’t have many safe spaces to stay while, for example, traveling between D.C. and Atlanta. Spencer became close with frequent visitors W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and published, sometimes with their urging and assistance, more than two dozen poems in magazines such as The Crisis. Her home is still welcoming: you can arrange a wonderful tour led by her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, and the gardens are open to anyone without appointment from dawn to dusk. The house built by her husband, furnished colorfully and full of art, still feels like a good place, full of sunny nooks for reading, brimming with evidence of authors at work. The long garden with its writing cottage, abundant flowers, grape arbor, and lily pond remains an oasis.

asm spare bedroomHow Anne Spencer lived is worth remembering, but so are her poems. The title of this blog is from “At the Carnival”, and the poem above, painted on a kitchen cupboard by artist and architect (and neighbor) Amaza Lee Meredith, is the second stanza of “Lines to a Nasturtium”. Many of her writings, however, are uncollected and unpublished. asm-boxtop.jpgCheck out these fragments (a poem?) jotted inside the cover of a panty-hose boxtop. Plus she scribbled all kinds of things on the walls, as the phone booth under the stairs attests. I’m looking forward to studying her papers at the University of Virginia later this summer. One of the questions I’m considering is the relationship between art and activism, in Spencer’s life and generally. The local branch of the NAACP, for example, was founded in Spencer’s living room, and her work as a librarian supported African-American literacy. Nor did she submit to Jim Crow segregation–J. Lee Greene’s book, Time’s Unfading Garden, is full of stories of spirited resistance. But her poems are rarely overtly political, with “White Things,” about lynching, offering a powerful exception.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures plus a link to a recent column I wrote for Modernism/ modernity whose themes resonate with this post: “How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II.” If you’re in the region and have time, I hope you’ll visit 1313 Pierce Street. If not, go write a poem on a boxtop, or paint it on the wall, and read, remembering all the people who fought for the right to.