Virtual Salon #9 with Sara Robinson

Since poetry, like bourbon, has a long shelf life and often a long trajectory of rising to wider attention, I’m including a couple of 2019 authors in this salon series, including Sara M. Robinson. Blurbing her new book, Needville, I wrote, “So many voices smolder in Sara Robinson’s ambitious new collection. Evoking a fictional coal town named Needville, she channels exploited miners; dying canaries; guilty consumers of coal-fueled electricity; and even the voices of mountains themselves. ‘How are poets like geologists?’ one poem asks. Robinson’s answer is to take the long view, probing the mighty forces that shape us. This powerful book treats its subject with precision, compassion, and not a little fire.” (Hey, I think I succeeded with that blurb! They’re micro-reviews themselves and not easy to craft.)

I find this week that it’s also a rewarding book to reread. Different images jumped out at me: a mountain gutted like a deer, “naked creeks with muted pulses,” fatback sizzling and jumping in an old black skillet, a miner discovering a mammoth in a deep vein of ice, and the observation that “we will all turn to carbon & silica one day”–as well as a rash of Rite-Aids, Dollar Stores, Hardees, and peanut butter nabs. Sara has deep roots in Appalachia and her passion for it pervades the book. She also worked for decades in mineral industries, so many poems have a scientific bent, too. Check out the mini-interview below, including Sara’s excellent ideas about cocktails.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

I would have a new bourbon drink called Black Water, a mixture of Writer’s Tears Irish Whisky and a splash of branch water. I would have grilled cheese sandwiches fashioned in the shape of lunch boxes. And for dessert I would offer Lemon ice cream with spoons in shape of little shovels. All would be served in a diner made from a coal car or rustic cabin/shanty. Main entrance would simulate going into a mine shaft. Lantern lights. Dripping water and iron clinking as background music. Fiddle playing intermittent. 

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am totally frustrated with our government right now and yes I am able to write. I wish I could write more about the pleasures of whisky drinking but the latest news is really interfering with my enjoyment. I keep wanting to come up with whisky cocktail names like “Shelter-in-Place, Shelter Dog, Old Miner Boots, and Hollertini.”  I have written a few poems about the current state of things but mostly I am composing concrete poetry using lines from the daily paper as verse. These I post on FaceBook. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

I would love to start a blog someday, but in meantime, I’m on Facebook and also easily accessible by email. I’m available for group Zoom conversations or FaceTime. Also Needville debuted as a play this year and actually had a real audience (right before the virus shutdown) under the direction of NY Director, Tom Evans. It was videoed and copies of the play are available.

Poetry and heart

Thanks to the folks at Copper Nickel! The new issue contains my essay on Robert Sullivan, “Uncanny Activisms”

I looked up “heart” and found definitions including feeling, courage, enthusiasm, vital part, “the condition of agricultural land as regards fertility,” personality, disposition, compassion, generosity, character, charity, humanity, and of course love. It has associations with memory, too (“by heart”) and deep concern (“to heart”). Obsolete: intellect, which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean by “heart” now. My curiosity about the word is probably connected to valentine season, but I’ve also been reading a ton of poetry lately and thinking about what draws me to some poems more than others–a set of qualities I sometimes call heart.

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

In town, though, crocus and snowdrops are arriving, early omens of a busier season. I’m not sure I’m ready for spring and the associated book-launch madness, but at least I have the generous blurbs below to reassure me the book is worth at least some attention. That matters so much, when writers you admire will spend their time reading your work and saying thoughtful, encouraging words about it. It gives me heart.

Occasional poem on coeducation

bookmark

One of my students is currently researching coeducation at Washington and Lee, a guy whose father graduated in W&L’s last all-male class (’88) and whose mother studied here for a semester after women were finally admitted (class of ’89). He’s writing a series of poems based on interviews, newspaper articles, and even obnoxious graffiti from that era, so I gave him a copy of the bookmark pictured above. When an Associate Dean was asked in 2005-ish to organize a celebration of 20 years of coeducation, she asked me to write a poem for the occasion. I was originally supposed to read it aloud at an event but a poetry-phobe in Development nixed that idea. Ergo, bookmark.

The poem printed on that slip of blue cardstock is mostly sweet, remembering the aspect of coeducation I am wholly unambivalent about: all the great women students I’ve worked with during however many office hours I’ve held here in the past 24 years (if you do the math, don’t tell me). Before it, however, I wrote a spitting-mad sestina based on the research I did on coeducation in Special Collections. The phrases in quotes are all things W&L faculty and students said to the media.

I told my student about having to write my way through a poem inappropriate to the occasion before I could get to more celebratory language. He asked me if he could see it and I lost track of his request until this afternoon, when I finally finished a massive piece of committee work. It took some digging.

No Marthas

A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial, a wooden gentleman,
whose once-warm original gave a useful sum,
and his name, to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Marthas. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that constant exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, while shocking, too, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
of course but back in the eighties, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Respectable capital, sums
and debits, eventually admitted women. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed low on cash; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with pink curtains and higher enrollments. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody.
Or gripe about “girls” during African famine. So days
of swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs and assault; no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, marched in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Like some kind of day, breaking.