Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 10, 2017

Episode 147: The Poet Confronts History: The Art of Research for Creative Writing

(Robert Strong, Cole Swensen, Brian Teare, Jessica Jacobs, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers) Writers are increasingly exploring historical events and archives for material, often to engage with the diverse, and sometimes silenced, voices of our past. Our panelists, poets known for their work with history, discuss creativity in the research process, venues for publication, and strategies for landing research-oriented writing fellowships. Moderated by the editor of the Poetic Research column at the journal of early American history and culture.

Published Date: June 21, 2017


Speaker 1 (00:00:06):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2017 A W P conference in Washington dc. The recording features Robert Strong, Cole Swenson, Brian Tier Jessica Jacobs, and Honoree Beone Jeffers. You'll now hear Robert Strong provided

Speaker 2 (00:00:34):

Good morning and good afternoon. This is the poet Confronts history, the Art of Research for creative writing, featuring Jessica Jacobs, honoree, Fanon Jeffers, Cole Swenson, and Brian Tier. It's wonderful to see all of you here. I'm Robert Strong, your moderator. I'm the editor for Poetic, the Journal of Early American History, culture and Literature where all of our panelists have appeared at one time or another. My most recent book of poetry does confront history in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century, the Puritans and the Native Americans. It's called Bright Advent and is just out in a gorgeous edition from the Good people at the Marie Alexander Prose Poetry series and White Pine Press. If you want to continue the conversation that we begin here today, I'll be at the White Pine table tomorrow morning and I'll have on my poetry and history gloves and I'd be happy to spar or hug or anything else.

Speaker 2 (00:01:46):

So in 1953, the poetic historian Charles Olsson wrote that What strikes one about the history of said United States, both as it has been converted into story and as there are those who are always looking for it to reappear as art. What has hit me is that it does stay unrelieved and thus loses what it was before it damn well was history, what urgency or laziness or misery it was to those who said and did what they did. Any transposition, which doesn't have in it an expenditure at least the equal of what was spent diminishes what was spent. And this is loss. Loss in the present, which is the only place where history has context. Today we're lucky to hear from four panelists who have worked hard against that loss, and I think Olsson would be happy with the various ways they have moved the ball forward by synthesizing their research and their poetry to get at those original expenditures of urgency and misery.

Speaker 2 (00:03:19):

I'll introduce everyone at once and then we'll hear from everyone one at a time and we'll have some time for a question answered afterward and I hope the panelists will engage each other if you have questions as we go along or comments. Jessica Jacobs is the author of a book of memoir and poems in whatever light left to us, as well as Pelvis with Distance, which won the 2015 New Mexico Book Award in poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. For that book, Jessica conducted extensive research on the life and work of Georgia O'Keefe, but she also spent a month alone off the grid in an extremely basic desert shack immersed, I imagine in something like the mindset of O'Keefe's landscapes, honorary Fernan Jeffers has received many awards and fellowships for her work, including from the American Antiquarian Society, the N E A and the Witin Foundation.

Speaker 2 (00:04:22):

She's the author of four books of poetry, most recently the Glory Gaps. But the one I'm really waiting for is the Age of Phyllis, and I hear we'll hear a little bit from that today. We don't have it in hand yet, but honoree's work and thinking about Phyllis Wheatley is very interesting and very important, so I will pro you all to follow it online until we have the book in hand. Honoree has written of a much earlier period of her reading. I had a feeling Phyllis Wheatley was trying to tell me something important, something I was missing, but that I would get if I would only stop and pay attention to her.

Speaker 2 (00:05:06):

But for me today, the most important thing about Anna Ray is that she will be taking over the editorial helm of poetic later this year. Thank you. I'm very excited. This is a really exciting news for the future of this unique venue for poetry with history. So send your work to and it might make it to the eyes of this brilliant writer and editor, Cole Swenson. It seems impossible to me to read a Cole Swensen book and avoid the provocations of research and poetry. She has published more, well, more than 10 books of poetry. Most recently, I believe, landscapes on a train. She's been a finalist for the National Book Award and has given us many translations of poetry from the French. Her recent collection of essays on poetics noise that stays noise engages history on many of its pages. In the pages of poetic research, a commonplace Cole has asked, what can poetic language do for a research project and given us this preliminary answer? For one, it has qualities such as greater ambiguity, more flexible syntax, and a focus on image that can evoke things that cannot be said and so can point to aspects of a subject that can't be stated.

Speaker 2 (00:06:33):

Brian Tier, I actually first met Brian Tier, I think more than 10 years ago in an A W P hotel bar where we fell smoothly into a conversation about the Elit home eroticism in the journals of Michael Wigglesworth, that 17th century Puritan minister and poet, bestselling poet, the Day of Doom. So that should be enough of an introduction for a panel of this subject. But I should say that Brian is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford University in the recipient of numerous other poetry fellowships, including from the N E a Pew McDowell and the American Antiquarian Society. He's the author of five full length books of poetry, including the Lambda Award-winning Pleasure. And most recently, the empty form goes all the way to heaven. Jessica,

Speaker 3 (00:07:31):

That does not move.

Speaker 3 (00:07:34):

So my second year of grad school, I fell hard for the artist Georgia O'Keefe drawn in as much by her life as her art. If you don't know, she was pretty much a badass, so you should check her out and found myself writing poems in what I imagined as her voice, but even as I read as much about and by her as I could, multiple biographies, a stack of art books and over a thousand pages of letters, a small but insistent inner critic kept reminding me there were already shelves of books about O'Keefe written by historians and scholars, people far more qualified than I was. And as you might be aware, she also has art on pretty much every tote bag, calendar, dorm room poster to the point where it's almost like a visual music. You can't see it anymore. So who was I to try and write about her?

Speaker 3 (00:08:40):

How could I possibly find a new perspective on such a legendary figure? And even if I did, how could I add something of value? So it took me a long time to give myself the permission I needed to pursue this project. So I guess what I'd like to do today is to help share that permission with you, the permission to write about whatever subject it is that made you want to come to this panel today. And I'll also share one of the practices that most helped me write the poems themselves because honestly in a time, especially now that we're in DC, when we are screaming at each other across massive ideological divides, persona, poetry and the research it requires feels more necessary than ever when done well, such poetry demands. We explore voices and viewpoints, not our own demands. We act with empathy, looking at others, even those with whom we disagree with, not judgment, but a desire to understand and even find possible points of agreement.

Speaker 3 (00:09:58):

So let's start with permission. Just as I began writing about O'Keefe, Natasha Trethaway visited my school to read from thrall her most recent collection. I was thrilled. I had been obsessing for the last year over her second book, Belo Ophelia, which was written from the perspective of a young woman named Ophelia who worked in a brothel in turn of the last century, new Orleans like Natasha herself, Ophelia was a woman of mixed race, and I noticed as Natasha began to read the personal poems, the poems about her own life from Thra, many of them grappling directly with the difficulties she'd had with her father who was white. I heard echoes of the same concerns she'd given to Ophelia a decade before. It seemed as though those earlier poems written in another woman's voice had given her the distance she'd needed to work through subjects that felt perhaps at the time far too private and painful to confront head on and had invested Ophelia with the spark needed to make her live on the page.

Speaker 3 (00:11:14):

In this way, I learned that while persona poetry seems to violate that most basic rule of write, what one of the best ways into your subject may well be what you know best, your own experiences and concerns serving as a launchpad from which to explore this other person's life while helping you write poems about them that only you could write. Though I wasn't aware of them until much later, the reasons O'Keefe resonated with me are now clear to go to grad school. I left a really steady career in corporate publishing and was trying to figure out what it means to be a writer. And there was O'Keefe who had it all figured out. She had walked away from her classical art school training to forge her own path as an artist, as a feminist. And also at the time I had recently left a relationship and I was trying to see how an intense focus on writing and teaching could possibly fit into any future relationship.

Speaker 3 (00:12:23):

But in O'Keefe's correspondence with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she maintained a passionate if tumultuous marriage to another artist while also retaining long stretches of solitude and a fierce independence. So in getting to know her better, in doing the research I needed to feel that I understood her beyond just this surface scrim. She became more than a grand mythological legend and became instead a flesh and blood woman. I wanted to understand a woman I hoped would help me better understand myself and a possible path forward permission. Granted, by the time summer rolled around, I was on my way to the O'Keefe Museum Research Center in Santa Fe, and I like to over prepare. So I had an entire postal bin filled with books, a timeline of every possible moment in her life that I could possibly write about and nearly a hundred pages of notes, which is to say I was completely and totally overwhelmed. Yeah, I had no idea where to go from there. And I had consumed so many ideas and experiences not my own. It felt like every time I sat down to write, they crowded my throat until I could barely breathe, let alone breathe life into new poems, striving for accuracy, I had lost any chance of authenticity. I was left instead with a static collection of lineated facts.

Speaker 3 (00:14:06):

So I went to the desert, as Robert said, and like any good Jew in need of salvation, I turned to the Catholics obviously. So for this next part, especially for the atheists among you, please feel free to swap out the word God with either the word poetry or inspiration. Okay, so a little history Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits believed it was not scholarship, but imagination that offered the most direct path to God or poetry or inspiration. Yeah, you got it. So as part of his spiritual exercises, he developed what he called Ignatian contemplation or imaginative prayer. In imaginative prayer, you don't just read words on a page, say the story of Jesus in the manger, you practice instead what Ignatius calls composition of place using your five senses to imagine your way in to that moment. Because for most of us, sight is the dominant sense.

Speaker 3 (00:15:19):

You might begin with where everyone is located in the scene with how the light falls on each person's face. Then you might imagine the sounds of the animals, the smell of all that human fear and excitement, what the clothes of that time felt like. Was that a scratchy texture, that fabric, whether it was hot or cold, and on and on. Once you've constructed that kind of living, breathing stage set in your mind, you imagine yourself into the scene and let it play out around you. Ignatius then advises that your role there is not to judge, but to be receptive, to be as open as possible to the presence of God, however that might manifest for events. When you have little information, when moments or voices have been lost or actively suppressed, this can also be a method to imagine your way in to what's missing.

Speaker 3 (00:16:25):

This was the practice that helped me enter O'Keefe's world to demonstrate more clearly what I mean. I'm going to end with a poem first, walking you through the process and facts that went into it when O'Keefe was in New Mexico, staying there alone for months at a time while her husband remained in New York, they would often write to each other up to two or three times a day. So the poem I'm going to read takes place three years after Steitz has died. When O'Keefe finally moved from New York to take up permanent residence in New Mexico, though their relationship near the end was sometimes contentious, Steitz spent a lot of time complaining about his physical ailments, how difficult it was to have her away. There was always intense mutual love and appreciation between them. And after his death, she rarely spoke of him, but she painted the painting that this poem responds to a drastically.

Speaker 3 (00:17:29):

In her third year of mourning a blackbird with snow covered red hills. And in the painting is a landscape in which the vivid red hills, if you've ever been out to the high desert in New Mexico, they're so bright. But in this painting, they're completely ghosted out by snow and they haunt the foreground of the painting in the same way that I imagined his memory haunted her every day. And above them, there's a blackbird painted in the sky. And while I was researching this painting, there was just something I was very taken by it. I learned that her nickname for Steitz, one of her nicknames was Old Crow Feather. And so in a way, this was like a posthumous portrait of Steitz.

Speaker 3 (00:18:20):

So all of this research done, I've learned all of these things. I tried to imagine my way into the mind and body that painted this sketching the layout of her adobe home in my notebook, imagining the routines of her solitude. And what occurred to me as I traveled with her through her day was that after so many years of constant communication, there was no reason that death meant she would stop writing to him, that she would stop communicating with him and that perhaps part of the reason that she had chosen not to return to New York was because she could just pretend she could be in New Mexico like she'd always been. And Steitz could be in New York, still alive, still there, waiting for her to return a blackbird with snow covered Red Hills, Georgia, O'Keefe, ABCU, New Mexico, 1949.

Speaker 3 (00:19:26):

After years shared at a distance, I am already accustomed to an empty bed. I summon the dogs from the morning melt their garland of red prints, mudding the floors, walls, breathe back, the stove's heat. As long as I am here, you can still be in New York grousing about your bowels and feet. I pull on over shoes, walk, sketch you lunch with old friends at the gallery. I make dinner read, wear your sweater to bed the blue one, fall asleep writing to you in my head of that day, the next knees tucked so tight to my chest. I hold my own soles cannonball through the night, and you are there taking sun on the dock sputtering as my lake splash startles you awake. Love. Come join me in this water. Thank you. I am not going to speak very long, but before I do speak, I'd like to acknowledge the presence and the body of the renowned poet afa Michael Weaver here in the first row for over 20 years.

Speaker 3 (00:21:19):

For over 20 years, he has encouraged me to commune with the ancestors, which is to write spiritual truth and not only the historical truth, and I love him very much. I first started doing archival history about 28 years ago as a graduate student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was there in a journalism program which I promptly flunked out of and ran up a whole bunch of student loans. But I was in an African-American history class. It was a graduate class with the great Joseph Harris of Howard University, and he was a visiting professor. And I found letters from enslaved African-Americans who had written their masters and they didn't know that many of these letters existed in the collections. This was nearly 30 years ago. This was in 1989. So it's only now I find that archival information was important to me emotionally and spiritually, but it's only now that I have found it useful in terms of my work.

Speaker 3 (00:22:54):

It's in another book of mine, which is fiction, and my first novel, which is in my age's hands, and I'll be reading from that tomorrow in terms of my poetry. I began work on a series of poems, imagining the Life and Times of Phyllis Wheatley Peters the 18th century African-American poet who was the first black woman that we know of to publish a book of poetry. And I started on that tentatively 14 years ago, and I've written three books since then. It's been a long journey because she is the mother of African-American literature. And so I wanted to get it right at first. It was only supposed to be a series of maybe eight to 10 points. However, I received Barron's Artist Fellowship to the American Antiquarian Society in 2009. The American Antiquarian Society is a learned society dedicated to the study of early American history.

Speaker 3 (00:24:06):

Membership is by election only, and 14 American presidents have been elected into the society. So when I first went, it was on a fellowship. And then in 2014, I received a letter that I had been elected into the American Antiquarian Society, and I still don't know who put my name up for that. And yeah, I don't know how many people who have master's of fine arts poetry are members of the American Antiquarian Society. But I think one of the reasons whomever put my name up is that when I arrived there, I was sent on a journey to write a full book, not only about Wheatley Peter's life, but about pre-colonial West Africa, the transatlantic slave trade and black male participation in the American Revolution, which even today, I'm shocked that people do not know that over 5,000 black men fought on just the side of the continental army in the American Revolution, and that does not include black men who fought on the side of the British.

Speaker 3 (00:25:23):

So I wanted to just write my points. And then I found out that much of the research that we think we know on her work, on her marriage, on whether or not she had children, that all of that is fabricated. And so that was one of the things that was really, really shocking. What we know about Phyllis Wheatley Peters life, and I insist on calling her Phyllis Wheatley Peters because she was married and despite the lies that her first biographer told about her before she died, she went by Phyllis Peters. But we don't know that because of the lie that her biographer tells that she never used her husband's name. But there's documentation in a great wonderful book. So let's separate the first book from the latest biography, which is incredibly detailed by Vincent Coretta called Phyllis Wheatley Genius in Bondage. And so we have all of this documentation that shows that she went by Phyllis Peters after she married.

Speaker 3 (00:27:06):

I think one big issue is that sometimes historians big issue with historical poetry is sometimes historians don't pay attention to the work of creative writers and vice versa, writers don't pay attention to historians. I'm hoping now that we are looking at someone holding the seventh steel in his hands, and as the old black lady say, we live last day days, that maybe people will start to understand that past is prologue. As William Faulkner has said, the past isn't dead. It isn't even past, right? So I think that's why Robert's founding of the poetic research column for commonplace is incredibly important. It allows an interdisciplinary approach to the fields of creative writing and history in a respectful way. And Robert published some of my first Phyllis Wheatley poems, and when I met him I was like, wow, you're so much younger and good looking. For some reason I thought he was like David McCullough with like a gravelly voice. I love David McCullough. I have romantic aspirations about David McCullough.

Speaker 3 (00:28:45):

And then I'm going to wrap up. I've talked for a few years about gaps in Phyllis Wheatley Peters biography. What we know comes from a memoir by Margaretta Matilda Odale. And as someone who, as an antiquarian, someone who studies research, I'm grateful that she had an interest in Ms. Phyllis as a black woman. I'm enraged by her appropriation of this black woman's life and by her leaping into gaps and erasing her black family. Phyllis Wheatley had a life in Africa before she was a slave, okay? Phyllis Wheatley had parents, she had a mother. Susanna Wheatley was not her mother, but she was a very kind woman. And we are grateful to her for loving that little girl and helping her work get out there. We are very grateful to her, but she was not Phyllis Wheatley's mother. Phyllis Wheatley had a best friend who was a black woman and we don't hear a lot about her. And she had a man who was a black man, and I found not Vincent Coretta or rather the librarians that the American Antiquarian Society found and passed to me information that shows that even after Ms. Phyllis's death, Mr. John was trying to get her work published. So what we have is a series of stereotypes about this black man that he abandoned her and moved further south, which is ridiculous. Why would a free black man move further south to slave holding territory?

Speaker 3 (00:31:02):

And I found him and published in commonplace a year before Vince and Gretta's book came out that I found John Peters alive on the 1790 census of Boston. So he had not left Vincent Coretta, let's just be so grateful to him, found that John Peters was in debtors prison when Phyllis sweetly died. So that's why he wasn't at her sight. And to this day, there is no proof that she had children. We do not have baptismal records, we do not have graves. We do not even know where Phyllis Wheatley is buried. So then it became a mission of mine to find as much as I can, but also I love her, she's my ancestor. And I want people to understand she was not an uncle Tom. She was not someone who was grateful for being captured into slavery. But you have to read the letters and you have to read all the poems and you have to look at the context and that takes someone who is interested and who is not already made up his or her mind.

Speaker 3 (00:32:32):

So I'm going to end with a poem that one of my students just the other day said, professor Jeffers, this poem is Brainwashy. When I was talking about we were reading Phyllis Wheatley's most infamous poem on being brought from Africa to America. It was a white student. I have some really great black women, Latinas, white women, and they're just all outraged now. And I just love these little baby radicals, I love them. And they're like, it's super brainwashy, professor Jeffers. So I want to read the poem that really transformed my idea of what these two lines mean. TWA Mercy brought me from my pagan land, taught my benighted soul to understand. And there's one word, y Y in the wall of language means mother. And so this is mothering number two y. Someplace in The Gambia circa 1761 mercy child, what a mother might have said, pointing at the sun, rising what makes life possible then dripped the bowl of water reverent into oblivious earth was this prayer for her respect for the dead or disappeared and act to please a genius child.

Speaker 3 (00:34:19):

Her girl could speak only of water, bold sun light arriving, light gone sometime after the nice white lady paid and named her for the slave ship. Mercy, what the child called Phyllis claimed over that seed journey. Journey, let's call it that. Let's lie to each other, not early descent into madness, naked travail among filth and rats. What got Phyllis over the sea? What kept a stolen daughter? Perhaps it was mercy. Dear Rita mercy, dear brethren, water bowl, sun, a mothering, God's milky sound, morning shards. And she wondered if her child forgot her real name, refused to envision the rest, baby teeth missing and somebody wrapping her treasure barely in a dirty carpet was

Speaker 4 (00:35:39):


Speaker 3 (00:35:42):

You know the story, how we've lied

Speaker 4 (00:35:47):

To each other,

Speaker 3 (00:36:05):

What great talks. I want to read these books right away. Thank you very much and thanks to Robert too for putting this all together.

Speaker 3 (00:36:17):

You're focusing on this great topic and if I think about my work, I realize that almost everything I've ever written takes place with historical context. I've written pieces that were 15th century and 17th century and 19th century, and in thinking about why I think about refraction and the way that each different era that connects with our own creates a different kind of echo, a different kind of reflection. So by working with different time periods, I find that I see something different about our present. And so I'm going to just read some comments about the relationship between past and present and then read kind of that same idea as it appears in an essay. I've been writing a series of half poems, half essays on in particular visual art landscape artists who work with a kind of non non appropriative landscape gaze. And so I'll read a couple paragraphs from that and then I'll read a short piece from a book that just came out from a chatbook from Omni Dawn that's about a river in the south of France and it frames the river through its history.

Speaker 3 (00:37:47):

History for me has nothing to do with the past, but instead, marks a specific kind of commitment to time. It is to embrace time and to make a conscious decision not to try to transcend it. One way that manifests for me is in a refusal of the notion of timeless art. Art that supposedly participates in the unchangeability of eternity and that thus defines the eternal as that without change, which means that it's not alive. In short, timeless art is art that refuses to engage with life. Timeless art is based in an ethics and aesthetics that dodge the threat of history. And history is always a threat. It is going to end badly, which is to say yes, everything will die. And responsible art, i e, that which truly has the ability to respond to life works constantly in the face of that fact and will not work anywhere other than in staring that down.

Speaker 3 (00:38:52):

So I'm interested instead in a conjugated art, an art that niches into the flow of time, knowing that it will not be smooth. Conjugated art risks not only becoming dated, but above all it risks admitting and demonstrating that there is no universal. There is nothing that can reach everyone. This is the root of my interest in history. It's an attempt to embed myself in time as a recognition of the inevitability of moments passing and a commitment to a present infinitely, infinitely enriched by retaining as active agents as much of the previous as possible. The timeless is in fact the only real past and no one moment can be any more or less past than any other in their passing. They're equalized. We speak of one event as being further in the past than another, but that's only a product of our penchant for narrative. We clutch at the apparent clarity of sequence, but that's an illusion.

Speaker 3 (00:39:54):

And writing engaged with the historical is committed to engaging with that in keeping the past available to the present. By investing a radical understanding of time as an imminence activated by detail. To write with history is to write in a way that brings the tale alive, that literally represent it, that causes it to be present. Again, because all art takes place entirely and only in the present history is a story that we're telling now and our telling, it keeps it present, active and pertinent. And this next section comes from an essay poem on the British film maker and visual artist, TA dean. Fascinating woman, really, really amazing work. Googleable but not very well known. So if you remember the name, you might just Google it and see who she is.

Speaker 3 (00:40:55):

For centuries, the easy epithet of timelessness has been tossed at great works in presumption of universal applicability. Such works are supposed to exist in the infinite tense of eternity and in alter ability, but there are social and political ramifications to keeping works of art metaphorically in neutral. If we can make an analogy between verb structure and manual transmissions, they are neutered. On the other hand, there are bodies of work such as deans that offer an occasion to consider non timeless art or art in time, which might be thought of as conjugated art. Art which has been taken out of the suspension of the infinitive and clicked into a specific niche in the temporal continuum in conjugated rather than timeless art. The works' relation to the grammar of culture radically shifts. Art is the verb in the syntax of cultural exchange and art conjugated, no matter into what tense is necessarily engaged in social and political networks that timeless art can't reach in contrast to timeless arts inability.

Speaker 3 (00:42:05):

Thus invulnerability, conjugated art is extremely vulnerable. Things in time change and not necessarily in step with time zone changes. Instead they risk becoming inappropriate, irrelevant, passe and anachronistic. Dean forts this risk by facing it head on, engaging the omicron with conviction. And one of her favorite words is anachronism. She celebrates anachronism in great ways. So I'm going to read a few pages from this little chat book that just came out and what's the name? Oh, it's called gov. It looks like it's ga, but in fact it's gov because a gov is the word in Barnet, which is a region in the south of France that means a torrent or a river. And so this is about the gov de pope and a river is always more than its water in this case, for instance, Ali, the Barney's word for the rich floodplains along the banks of the go flourishing with ash, oak and poplar, a territory used for pastoring cattle, cutting firewood, market gardening and by birds for nesting and foraging by moles for tunneling and by rabbits and feral cats, riverbank and pasture flock after flock, the willow of the salter fed her but faltered, holding on with an animal hoof as if the air got sheer cattle, sheep, goats and horses and they air.

Speaker 3 (00:43:48):

1375, a woman in the fog leading 50 sheep to the edge of a cliff where they all spend the night not knowing in which direction the cliff ran. 1593, a goat herd new to the job, got lost on his way back and so decided to follow the herd, which decided to pace back and forth across the league until morning 1711. A man returning after many years away got lost just a mile or so from his former home and ended up miles away again where he spent the rest of his life. These are but a few of the curve and of the turn and of the return of yet never even if you were to weave it from the grasses, would it encircle or ever offer a figure with the center bank and pasture, the flock? Another water. 1535, a woman asleep against one of her sheep curled tightly into her river. Adorned a river by nature overflows its terms water. Water we please another. All repetition is in some part spell as all water repeats itself is answered, carry me over, so over me carried all water is over bearing a border. We carry it anchor as it carries us in a small blue boat road by a large blue dog that cannot look back. Thank you.

Speaker 3 (00:45:44):

So I'm going to, hi, I'm Brian. It's a pleasure to be here with you and thank you Robert for organizing this and I'm not sure I would've even heard about the Antiquarian fellowship if it hadn't been for you. So I really appreciate that. I'm going to read a small part of a research statement that I wrote about my time there and it begins with an I went to go research 19th century spiritualism in part, and there was a very well distributed newspaper of the spiritualist movement called Banner of light. And so I begin with an epigraph from the banner of light from January 2nd, 1904 that says Optimistically eternity is today and everybody is in it.

Speaker 3 (00:46:41):

I could write, I went to the archive to look for ghosts or longing to be haunted. I went to the archive. I went to the archive to look for ghosts I could believe in, or I went to the archive to look for evidence of the ghosts I already believed in. I could write something more academic like I went to the archive to construct for myself the theological history of the ghost in colonial and antebellum American religious cultures. Or I could write that I wanted to understand what the ghost was doing in the American imagination before the spiritualist movement of the 19th century. What role did it play before it entered first the parlor, then the seance circle, and then the spirit cabinet where it spilled forth phosphorescent from the mouth of a young woman. I could write that I went to the archive to research a prehistory of spiritualism, given that all of the histories I'd read proceeded as though Americans had no use for ghosts before the fox sisters in March of 1848 claim to communicate with the spirit of a murdered man who'd been buried in their cellar.

Speaker 3 (00:47:55):

I could write each subjunctive statement here is true, but they are most true. Taken together, speaking as they do to the simultaneous sometimes contradictory desires each of us brings to bear upon the archive and its materials, desires, latent and explicit desires, sentimental and labinal desires, intellectual and discipline driven desires. Purely concerned with the satisfaction of curiosities and the stimulation of imagination desires intended more as interventions than as inventions, more rebellion than obedience. I could write, I could write, I went to the archive. And even though I could write all of these things, not one of them would be true without also writing that I did not know why I went to the archive.

Speaker 3 (00:48:47):

I could write. I went to the archive only if I did not know why I pushed, opened the front door, showed my identification, received the key to my locker and signed the guest book each day my hand trembled at my desk, but I could not write that. I could not write. I went to the archive and carried into it the dead. I could not forget, I could not write. I went to the archive already haunted. But when I write ghost, what do I mean exactly? The word can act as noun or verb as figurative or literal. Each of its denotative meanings easily shading off into a wide range of suggestive connotations. Ghost is pre Germanic in its formation, its deepest roots and cognates are in negative emotions. Fury or anger, imp pre Germanic, ugly in Sanskrit rage in old Norse and to terrify in gothic.

Speaker 3 (00:49:47):

It's more recent etymology consistently draw upon a cosmological or theological notion of a spirit or soul that inhabits the unseen world. Guest or gist or geist. It's common contemporary denotation. A visible spectral presence of someone dead only arises much later in the late middle ages in time to grace the stages of the renaissance and the pages of increase in cotton matter. Early fathers of the colonies in the archive, I thought a lot about the connections between anger, terror, and the spirit in US history in. And it seemed to me that the history of the ghost is a history of the triangle created between them a triangle as indicative of the violence of political and cultural change as of the emotional turmoil generated by losses both psychic and bodily. Perhaps spiritualism remains so poignant to me because it was the last major native religious movement to emerge from and make full use of the triangulation between anger, terror, and spirit.

Speaker 3 (00:50:54):

Its seances spirit, cabinets and spirit. Photographs functioned like little theaters in which believer and huckster alike stage the fertility and ugliness of cultural crisis that ghosts have always played a crucial role as indicators of social change as an argument increasingly popular among cultural historians. As Judith Richardson writes hauntings, this is a quote from her, often appear in places where social change threatens to obliterate any sense of historical continuity. Ghosts operate as a particular and peculiar kind of social memory, an alternate form of history making in which things usually forgotten, discarded or repressed become foregrounded, whether as items of fear, regret, explanation, or desire. So when I write ghost, what do I mean exactly? Wasn't I in the archive? Because denotations themselves shift with history and context like conscience. History is peculiarly double in as much as it is haunted by our acts. It haunts us, both of us, both ghosted and ghostly history.

Speaker 3 (00:52:08):

Is that the name for the ghost of something that is paradoxically still alive in the archive? It seemed to me that each book or pamphlet or image I called up from the stacks arrived as a device with which I might contact the dead, much like the Ouija board over which many have hovered in high hopes, the archive documents seemed activated most by my hopes, my eye, a kind of clan shut moving through the proffered alphabets until a letter lit up with significance. I'd come to the archive, longing to be haunted, longing to contact the ghosts I already believed in and yet unable to contact those who brought me there. Each novel or treatise, stereo card, broadside diary or letter offered names a litany. Eventually I noted that even the critical languages of bibliography and the history of the book are haunted by metaphors of haunting.

Speaker 3 (00:53:02):

The item that cannot be found is called a ghost. This guy, which I loved, thinking of all of the little spaces, empty spaces in the back of the archive, the scholar Jeffrey Todd Knight, has written beautifully about ghost images. The faint ink transfers of print from one page to another as often overlooked keys to print and culture and history. You've ever seen an old book with an ink engraving that has a vellum page over it and you lift up the vellum page. Often that engraving has leached onto the vellum. And if it's leached on the vellum, it's likely it's already leached onto the title page too. But that little image on the vellum sort of floating shroud of Turin is called a ghost image. Each day my hand trembled at my desk, but on days when my attention had for many hours each day for many weeks been entirely absorbed by stacks and scatters of books and pamphlets, my experience seemed so deeply saturated with their language that it was no longer history that haunted me.

Speaker 3 (00:54:08):

It was I who wouldn't stop bothering the souls of other eras, disturbing their rest with research. My eyesight would blur and the edge of my desk would cradle my wrists as time went soft as vellum between the fingers, the whole of it unfolds like the pages of a book. It was as though my mind had too long rested between the pages of history itself and there contracted the ghost image of its inks. But still, I was not satisfied, was not nearly haunted enough by direct contact. What was it? Who was it? I so much wish to find, and I'm skipping a big chunk that's basically about spiritualism as a kind of radical rejection and revision of Christianity and how there's a long history of antinomianism in American culture that spiritualism for all of its poetic qualities and all of its stagecraft seem to me to be as radical in its own way.

Speaker 3 (00:55:16):

As someone like Anne Hutchinson. Given that Anne Hutchinson being a woman and being an early challenger of patriarchal colonial structure, spiritualism was also largely run by women mediums. And a lot of authority was given to women during that period who didn't have a lot of social mobility. But mediumship, transmedium ship speakers on the Athenaeum circuit actually gave a lot of women a certain amount of mobility and also public authority. And so I found in spiritualism after research like this really interesting pushback during the 19th century, during a time of great cultural crisis and transformation. Anyways, so as this, I'm not promising this segue makes sense, but I want to leave time for us. So as the colonies developed into a nation and a nation into an empire to live an unorthodox life motivated by heterodox faith nonetheless still necessitates intelligence, creativity, compassion and courage. And ultimately that's what I loved about both researching early colonial heresies, but also spiritualism itself was the courage to live an unorthodox life with a heterodox faith, with an emphasis on spiritual insight gained by experience.

Speaker 3 (00:56:46):

Again, an important kind of American tradition. So in this, it is like any serious contemplation of death. I'm reminded of what Susan Howe has written in thorough of the EIC western imagination. I pick my compass to pieces dark here in the driftings, in spaces of drifting complicity, battling redemption each day. I did not know why. I pushed open the archives front door, showed my identification, received the key to my locker, and signed the guest book each day my hand trembled at my desk. I picked my compass to pieces, but I could not write that. I could not write. I went to the archive carrying the dead. I could not forget, I could not write. I went to the archive already. Haunted research is a form of mourning. I know that, but I could not write. I went to the archive because I grew up Christian and came out as a gay man during the AIDS crisis.

Speaker 3 (00:57:49):

I remembered the politicians who claimed AIDS had come to cleanse the nation dark there in the driftings. I could not write. I went to the archive because my first partner, Jared, died of AIDS related complications in 1999. For many gay men of my generation, adult sexuality and mourning have never been fully separate. Just as for many men and women throughout us, history, sexual shame and religiosity have never been fully separate. On the one hand, the alleged fatality of sexual pleasure on the other, the fatal tainting of spirituality by orthodoxy and the space of drifting, I could not write a classic American dualism. I knew that and though I could not write it, I went to the archive and offered my history to history and I could not write. I offered not to honor it, but to bury it there.

Speaker 2 (00:59:00):

Okay, this is wonderful. Thank you panelists. And we have a decent amount of time for questions. I might take the moderators privilege and just say some things that I'm thinking. I don't know if it'll turn into a question or where we'll go from it, but in the mix here, this idea of having to imagine your way into what's missing, I'm hearing from everybody in a way being reminded to pursue spiritual facts and not just historic facts. And the idea that what's missing is actually missing because of what we know and that the archive has these ghostly gaps in it that we're curious about. And the idea of timeless art reminds me of the archive and that it's, at least in the past, has been hermetically sealed and that's what it was. So when we get to the moment where we have a sense of what we've imagined our way into and a way to be authentic rather than accurate, does that affect your approach to getting the words down on the page? I don't know if anyone wants to pick that up and then

Speaker 3 (01:00:12):

I can talk about that. I mean, one thing that was awesome, and I don't know what the rest of you thought about working in archive along pretty much primarily historians, is that I didn't understand the process by which something becomes a fact that I was used to reading poets versions of history we're like, there's this thing here and there's this thing here and they're super cool and let's put 'em near each other and make stuff happen. And that's history. And I was really always quite enchanted by that. But when I was sitting there looking at historians who were like, I have to find 50 instances of this mention of this detail from all of these documents from this one year of the plague in Boston or whatever, in order for it to be a fact that blah, blah, blah. And I just was like, people died. That's kind of indisputable. Why do you have to prove it with all of this paperwork? And they were like, that's how we do history, by the way.

Speaker 3 (01:01:21):

And so I was a little chastened, I must say by that. I was sort of, poets are pretty fast and loose with this history thing. So I agree with you guys saying we need more conversation between the disciplines. I think it gave me actually a better sense of the ways in which sometimes poets misuse or abuse history. But it also gave me a very actually clear distinction between what I was doing. I very quickly was like, right, I'm not doing a documentary project. That's not what I'm doing. Other people are here to do that. Other poets are here to do that. I'm here to do this other thing that I don't know what it is, it has to do with history, but it's more a reading of history and a reading of these documents. And it's more like a personal essay actually. And that I trust Hugh very closely the facts.

Speaker 3 (01:02:20):

And I use a lot of documents and collage a lot of documents together. But again, I cite them in a bibliography, but I don't cite them in the text itself. I sort of create this 19th century voice out of bunch of different people and also colonial voices out of a bunch of different people that I think of as more a choral or collective kind of voice of a time or era. So to me, I was used that knowledge of, right, I'm not writing history in the way that other people are. I'm writing an essay and I have permission to do that, but I also have to claim for myself, have to claim very clearly that I'm not using these other methods that other people would. And so for me it also was like, and I'll document what sources I use and I'll put that there so people can go track down the facts.

Speaker 3 (01:03:14):

But I very quickly became aware that I was doing some other operations on the archive that aren't about strict biography or strict historical, which it sounds like other people have, I'd be interested to hear how those who are doing historiography or actual histories, how their relationships work. I'd love just to underscore one point you made, and that is that the historian goes in knowing what he or she has to find proof of the poet goes into the same material looking not for proof of what is known, but looking for the unknown. And that gap of what cannot be said but can only be intimated, I think is what poetry can do that in fact the historian cannot do. And it's part of the story of history that never gets told. And to work heading toward the unknown is the only way that you can actually get to those interstices between facts to get to those haunted little gaps.

Speaker 3 (01:04:21):

Well, I'd like to trouble that notion just a little bit, and probably it's because of my cultural background, and I've written about this a teeny bit and I'm working on essays and who knows where this will come from. But I wrote an essay about narrative poetry and it was like an online symposium honoring Kwame dos, the poet who and novelist, and he's just got like 50 11 books and he's the editor of Prairie Schooner. But in the African-American tradition and in indigenous communities as well, American indigenous communities, oral tradition is also part of the historical record. So I think, and I also know historians who go in and they don't know what they're looking for, which is kind of disorganized to some people. They're like, so I agree with you in one way, but in the other way, I do think that I went in knowing a spiritual truth.

Speaker 3 (01:05:49):

Maybe that's what I'm saying. But in terms of the documentation, I didn't go in knowing, I went in knowing that there was something about Phyllis Wheatley that people thought they knew and that they had gotten very, very wrong. I received a lot of pushback as Brian, I didn't feel like I was like, I'm honorary. When I went in there, I was like, so I'm a poet. I was kind of defensive. But Caroline Slo, who I just love her so much, she told me it was going to take a black woman to say what needed to be said about Phyllis Wheatley. And Caroline Sloe is not a black woman. And she said, I think that you need to as a poet, you'll be able. So I think I'm sort of not troubling, but troubling at the same time. And I don't mean to be too cut and dried, obviously lots of historians are there to explore and they want to find out more.

Speaker 3 (01:07:04):

But I do feel as if there was a bit, and which is why I think I'm so, I feel so grateful to my little crew that was at the society when I was there and the guy who was the director at the time, who's now someplace else, Paul, Paul Erickson, Paul Erickson, they've been incredibly supportive. But there were people who came in and when I said I found John Peters alive on the 1790 census, so he couldn't have gone down south. I remember people were laughing at me and they were like, well, I'm sure. And I was like, look, I took pictures. Do you want to see the pictures? Right? It wasn't until Vincent Perretta published it that it became real. And I do think that there is a need again, which is why I'm so grateful to Robert that people acknowledge that we are intellectuals, poets are intellectuals, but we just have a different vocabulary.

Speaker 2 (01:08:19):

So I don't know if that makes sense.

Speaker 3 (01:08:21):

No, I think the whole issue of the suspicion against poetry and truth and how the relation between poetry and truth is just a huge subject. I think documentary and archival work really raises that.

Speaker 3 (01:08:40):

Oh, sorry. Yeah. So I felt like because what you're talking about that poetry and truth, that there's no nonfiction poetry section versus fiction poetry and they all kind of live together, that my responsibility came to be factual and accurate whenever I could. I mean, down to the point you talk about anachronisms of me trying to avoid them. If I wanted to use the word laminate, I had to actually look up and see if that existed at that time down to little, because I felt like if I did that and I was as faithful to those facts as I could, then I in some way gave myself the permission to write into the spaces where I could see the holes where there were no facts. And that was a hard dance. But I think I had to listen to what were those places that compelled me that I felt like I needed to write about. But something else that, a choice that I made when writing about O'Keefe was I interwove into poems in her imagined voice. Poems from my own perspective poems about my experience of writing the poems, poems when I actually spoke to O'Keefe and asked her questions. I've done that too. And it's a way of calling out

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