Copy-editing and fact-checking poems

As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.

So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.

I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.

For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.

 John Robinson’s List, 1826
This ruled and foxed document the only
record of your name, followed by numbers
firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat
for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson
to this university, along with a thousand
acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle
ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey,
36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla,
Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
I couldn’t say
but it does look likely.
Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy,
68, twenty dollars, but the note,
in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth
nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.
A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher
sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried
the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher,
40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children,
eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old
Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James
preach about to Creasy-without-price,
“club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen
to a sermon or sleep right through?
Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game,
strategizing always? I remember you,
eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
No one gains by your imaginings.
Unless you do yourself.
I can’t find you on the 1834
“List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,”
with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although
I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later
Garland purchases nearly everyone
to send to his Mississippi plantation:
“Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.”
After the commission, trustees count
twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers.
That money translated to red brick buildings,
lichened shady trees, and my salary.
Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink
boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks,
a library shelf, digits propagating
in some faraway white-pillared bank?
Ma’am, I cannot say.

I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.

A famous Michael Miley photograph of W&L

Extinction burst?

Last Monday, I found a KKK recruitment flier on my front lawn. Just a week or so earlier and a few blocks away, the first physical memorial to enslaved African-Americans was meminstalled at Washington and Lee University, an institution that benefited financially from slavery but, until recently, bruited that terrible fact much less than, say, its debt to certain slave-holding generals. (See this post from last
year on a virtual memorial that, for me, marked the beginning of a better-informed conversation.)

I find myself trying to draw a line between those two opposing gestures, the plaque to honor the dead and the dishonorable flier. Maybe my sense of meaningful patterns is just a poet’s delusion.

The flier was one of many found in my neighborhood. It was protected from rain by a plastic baggie and weighted with a handful of rice. (White rice, and yes, I’m working on a poem with that title.) My more immediate media responsibilities, however, were to fire off a letter to the local paper and alert the police. Before that, like a real twenty-first-century American, I posted a query on Facebook, wondering how to respond given that the terrorist literature was probably legal–the threat of violence is latent, all right, but the flier doesn’t overtly advocate physical harm to others. The picture of a broad-shouldered, masked, accusatory Klansman carries a frightening charge, as do the all-caps format and the hateful associations of the initials themselves, as well as the not-so-metaphorical phrases “White Power” and “Join the Fight.” The flier certainly scared me; I went inside and locked the doors. But the organization itself is legal, and the politics it advocates are too, despite the KKK’s history of atrocities.

It was interesting how people responded via social media. Many recommended I contact the Southern Poverty Law Center (they never returned my call KKKbut I know other locals had already reported the fliers there). I learned that one local trigger for this flier-bombing was a day of memorial services for the Rev. LaVert Taylor, a black Civil Rights activist. But it’s not just a local thing, and in fact, friends reported similar recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. A certain Republican front-runner is, through toxic rhetoric, empowering white supremacists and other haters to come out swinging, everywhere. The state of U.S. politics, at the national level, is just dire beyond belief.

I’ve since given the flier to a student journalist trying to report the larger story, and there’s a rally against racism arranged for this Monday at 5 pm in Lexington’s Hopkins Green. So maybe this abhorrent attempt to rouse “white pride” is a wake-up call of a useful variety. And I look forward to the dedication ceremony for W&L’s memorial, at 4:30 pm on April 5th, around the side of Robinson Hall (though that back-door location does make me wince–I hope there will be a lot more remembering in the next few years, much of it front-and-center).

When another FB friend, a psychiatrist, said he hoped the flier was an “extinction burst,” I got excited, realizing what the term must mean. When a conditioned behavior stops receiving the expected reward, it gradually dies out–but before it decreases, instances of the undesired behavior might increase for a while. I’m glad to have an official-sounding shorthand for a phenomenon I’ve observed. Does this surge of KKK malevolence represent desperate flailing of a group about to shrink right out of existence? I like that idea, but am not counting on it.

I see a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice in daily life, but those biases are less socially acceptable now than in my childhood, or than they were in the 90s, at the beginning of my teaching career. My first-hand experiences of prejudice involve not racism but sexism, sometimes vicious and sometimes quietly insidious. I’ve been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. But I have many more opportunities than my mother did, and my daughter lives in a freer world than I knew at 19–and maybe all 3 of us will be able to vote for a female presidential candidate this fall, a development that has been absurdly long in coming. It’s obvious that the revolutionary reality of an African-American president and the possibility of a female one have created a lot of backlash. The whole Drumpf-o-rama extravanganza of the last few months, including the poisonous trash I found by my doorstep, could be a sort of final or near-final tantrum of some ancient varieties of stupid.

I don’t actually believe racism’s on its way out, rationally, or sexism, for that matter. If recent eruptions constitute an extinction burst, it’s extinction on a glacial time-frame, with many more explosions of hatefulness still to come. My seasonally recurrent hope for us all, though, isn’t entirely irrational, either. The Darth Cheneys, Grand Dragons, and other super-villains of this all-too-real world are getting pretty creaky in their cyborg parts. They won’t be pulling puppet-strings forever. And I don’t think this W&L memorial, small and belated as it is, could have gone up twenty years ago.  We haven’t made nearly enough progress, and making any gains at all seems incredibly, insanely, criminally difficult, yet I’ve seen growth happen. Happy spring equinox, friends. Imperfect closure, I know, but I’ll keep trying to rhyme with it.

kkk letter

Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

WandLMy seriously talented students are justifiably proud of their liberal arts college. The academic opportunities are excellent. Professors are dedicated to working closely with undergraduates in small classes and frequent office hours. The campus itself is lovely, staffed by friendly people, set in a charming small town, and surrounded by soft blue mountains. So the members of my winter course on African-American Poetry had mixed feelings when, as a January homework assignment, I asked them to read this timeline of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. They expressed pride about some entries, particularly the opening paragraph about John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States; he completed his studies here in 1799, when we were still Washington Academy. Most entries dated from the 1800s up through the Civil Rights era, however, are shocking.

While my students read in and wrote about a rich poetic tradition–so much of which concerns history and memory–I asked them also to blog about a set of connected questions. Some of them came into the room already acutely aware of how race affects their academic and social lives, but I hoped everyone would begin to tune in to the prejudices that remain poisonously present here, not necessarily because we’re a southern institution but because we’re an American one. Wanting them to perceive also how racism can root deeply in a place, even in the bricks and mortar, I instructed them to take a walk, look around the physical campus, and analyze what implicit lessons art, architecture, and other elements teach about race at Washington and Lee. I limited blog access to class members, hoping to allow greater frankness. At the end of the class we decided to keep those limits. Students submitted lively posts I wish I could share more widely, though, on the sometimes-blinding-whiteness of this place–the “iconic white pillars” of our colonnade looming up out of the snow. “Whose tradition is it?” they asked, stepping back for a critical consideration of our buzzwords, and “Where’s the love for John Chavis?”–noting the prominence of statuary of white male slaveholders. One student remarked that the fraternities and sororities resemble plantation homes. Many of them noticed, too, that race isn’t the only elision: start counting portraits, for example, and you see how overwhelmingly white and male are the figures whose contributions we honor.

So how could we modify the implicit curriculum delivered by Washington and Lee’s physical campus? In particular, what commemorative work should we be doing on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans in W&L’s history? The timeline is an outstanding contribution, but most students have never seen it. It seemed to us that we need a range of monuments and events: some fixed or recurring, like statues and MLK Day programs, and some changeable. Student tour guides and Lee Chapel docents could have more to say about race here. There is curricular work to do and perhaps orientation programming. I’d love to see a permanent video exhibit in a major building, sampling a range of visual documents and texts (even poems–plenty of writers have studied here, including Christian Wiman and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon). Our neighbor, the University of Virginia, is working on commemoration.  A pamphlet, some exhibitions–I know they don’t right the wrongs of the past. But they feel important to me just the same.

Of course, my class shouldn’t decide the scope or kind of remembrances we construct. That should be a big conversation involving many different constituents. On the other hand, the best work isn’t always done by committees. Sometimes artists and activists need to jolt the conversation. For now, I’ll let my students do it.

Junior Gingy Dixon observes: “On the lawn of the Colonnade stands an obelisk in honor of John Robinson, a man whose ‘donation’ of slaves is central to our university’s history. In Washington Hall, many artifacts and pieces of art related to George Washington sit in shiny display cabinets or hang below tasteful spotlights for visitors to admire. I take no issue with our school honoring its namesake benefactor and this nation’s first president, but I do take issue with the negligence of the people who built this hallowed institution and those who dared to bring about change… Wall plaques in Washington Hall bear etchings of influential monetary donors throughout the University’s history, which is fine, but it should also bear the names of the slaves who provided as crucial (if not more crucial) a service. They were treated as objects and not people because of their skin color, and therefore deserve to have their names displayed as prominently as the people who freely donated their money. Being a veritable institution of honor means honoring the past – ugly as it may be… if we own our history, we maintain our honor. Doing anything else is just weak.”

And from senior Brittany Lloyd, a Civil War buff and former Lee Chapel guide as well as a pretty damn good English major: “Remembering sometimes has to be gory and brutal and uncomfortable. It is easy to forget. It is vital to remember.”

Teaching and writing in the Confederacy

My cushy job is supported by bequests from wealthy people. I knew some of that wealth must have been amassed in ethically fishy ways. However, I only learned for sure a couple of weeks ago that my home institution prospered directly and substantially from slavery. This unsurprising fact is still so shocking I can barely write about it.

Various news outlets recently featured the apparently controversial story that, in 2014, Washington and Lee University is becoming slightly less hospitable to nostalgia for the Confederacy. I’m happy confederate flag replicas are being removed from Lee Chapel—it’s a good change, if overdue—though the furious editorials in the local paper seem seriously overblown to me. C’mon, people. There’s still a recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee roughly where the altar should be. Our institution is still named after him.

On the same day the president was explaining to reporters what flags we would not wave and why, a timeline of African American history at W&L was circulated to the faculty. This, it seems to me, is the more interesting, disturbing, important story. The kicker comes under the heading “1826”:

“‘Jockey’ John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner… Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington’s gift of canal stock, included ‘all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase…’ Accounts different slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.” [emphasis mine]

The university is named after Washington as well as the Confederate general who presided here after the Civil War, while Robinson just gets a building. Yet Robinson’s gift was a defining one. Washington College profited from the labor of these human beings for years and then pocketed the proceeds from their auction. The last two slaves owned directly by my employer were sold in 1852. If you scroll down to that date you can download a senior honors thesis on the subject from 2007, so clearly I have been working hard to maintain my comfortable ignorance. It’s also clear my institution has not been advertising this part of its history very audibly, much less seeking to redress it.

I will sound dismissible to some readers, I know—another squawking Yankee. Twenty years ago, I packed up my New Jersey mallwear to move to Virginia, and the move did alarm me. Some of my fear concerned W&L in particular. There was national gossip about bad behavior in the English department: “snake pit,” one adviser warned. The campus itself was as pretty as a country club but while W&L was a highly selective liberal arts college—a great kind of place to teach—I could see right off that many students drove vehicles worth more than my starting salary. They were also uniformed in designer sundresses or navy blazers that marked me, by comparison, as an utter outsider. Aside from the challenges posed by the school’s strange little culture-bubble, I wondered, what would it really mean to live and work in the South? Could two Northern non-churchgoers ever feel at home here?

Some of my fears turned out to be based on stereotypes and bad information. The Virginians I’ve met are racist in the same proportions as the New Jerseyans. They’re not more hospitable than Northerners, either, though they tend to be more polite in casual encounters. A county with lots of artists, small farms, and multiple colleges has to be full of good and interesting people to break bread with, although I wish there were more poets around. I feel almost at home here, and “almost” is as good as it gets for the hypereducated first child of a first-generation immigrant.

As for W&L, even the most homogenous-seeming student body is full of secret difference, and those secretly different students need decent teachers more than ever when the pressure towards social conformity is high. I had a senior colleague who disapproved of the newfangled field of American literature, and whose prejudices began with an Episcopalian dislike of Presbyterians and extended who knows how far. I also had terrific mentors like Visiting Assistant Professor Claudia Emerson, who told a story about playing war as a child with her brother and not realizing for years that the South hadn’t actually won. Those tales helped me frame my constant disorientation about how present the Civil War seemed here—and still seems. In my family, for example, if you said “the war” you might mean World War II or Vietnam. No one ever talked or thought about 1865 outside of a weeklong unit in Social Studies.

Many narrow-minded or otherwise difficult old guys have moved on since, and I helped hire their replacements. And my very good job gets noticeably better every few years as new scholarships attract students whose academic seriousness is ever greater. We do lose people because of W&L’s problematic history and culture—talented students bail out for more diverse institutions, and at least one brilliant colleague whom I still miss terribly just wasn’t going to feel welcome or safe while Civil War re-enactors marched past her Main Street apartment window. People will keep leaving. This sucks.

Ritual reverence for slaveholding white men at various annual college events doesn’t help. I am tired of being asked to admire Robert E. Lee; I don’t. Yet that timeline drives home for me that while I may feel like an alien, I can’t stand apart from, much less above, this history. My ancestors may not have owned African slaves, they weren’t even here, but I have still inherited culpability, and in a much more specific way than white Americans who generally enjoy privileges rooted in centuries of exploitation and discrimination.

Because of this job and this paycheck, I have amends to make, and I don’t know how. My colleague Rod Smith recently pointed me to this Atlantic article on reparations, and yeah, I’d support HR 40. I vote and make donations, but I believe W&L’s specific history needs to inform my professional behavior, too. I’ve always taught and written about African American poetry. I talk about race when I teach white and non-white authors. And I will continue to make the department as hospitable as I possibly can for every literature whiz who dares walk in past those white, white columns. Every student ought to be able to find, in our curriculum, books that illuminate his or her identity. Every diligent person ought to enjoy enough warm support to do his or her very best work. But what else?

I have been wondering if I have responsibilities as a poet. I read Tess Taylor’s The Forage House this weekend. It’s a very good recent poetry collection concerning, in part, her slave-holding white ancestors in Virginia. I admire the book, and I don’t mean to pick on it particularly, but I’m dissatisfied by parts of it. There’s a certain kind of contemporary poem whose essential argument is that history is inaccessible to us, that it’s wrong to appropriate points of view we can never fully comprehend, and that a conscientious writer would never erase real but vanished stories by imposing her own constructions over their fragmentariness. It’s all true. I’ve written that poem and made those arguments myself. Besides, poetry needs to be its own purpose, or maybe to spring from obscure sources. If a poet’s primary goal is historical, the language tends not to go so well. I can’t just will myself to write about W&L’s history in verse and produce good art.

But I stare at those awful lists posted on the timeline and wonder: isn’t there any act of imagination that could honor these lost people? Maybe not. The dead are past our apologies. It doesn’t matter to them that I am thinking about them as I pace these red-brick pathways.

Albert, 13, appraised value $325. My son’s age.  What would he have wanted W&L to become? robinson_slaves_list