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.

 

W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade
photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.