Listen: Poet Nathalie Anderson Explains How She Turned "Failed" Research to Poetry

As part of the Aydelotte Foundation’s popular Second Tuesday lunchtime cafe series, Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature​ Nathalie Anderson spoke to the campus community about the unexpected sources of inspiration for her poetry, including her "failed" research on an artifact inherited after her father's death.

Anderson, who directs Creative Writing, discussed the item, a substantial IOU from her ancestor M.D. Huger to Betsey Garrett, a free person of color. This talk prompted Anderson to conduct extensive research on the subject, but her attempts to translate it into poetry were repeatedly unsuccessful. Then, two years later, inspiration struck from out of nowhere.

Anderson is the author of four books of poetry — Following Fred Astaire, Crawlers, Quiver, and Stain — and libretti for four operas. Her chapbook Held and Firmly Bound, considering a pre-Civil War debt between the races, was just released by Muddy Ford Press. Anderson received a Pew Fellowship in 1993.

Audio Transcript

Speaker 1: Today we will have a talk from Professor Nathalie Anderson. She's connected to the creative writing program, and also the department of English Literature. Her talk will be today on Going From Failed Research to Poetry, and I think that's actually a pretty exciting connection. Next month, we'll hear from Christopher Graves in Chemistry, and then we will conclude our series with a talk that should touch on our concerns given the economic and the healthcare landscape, and hear from Daifeng He in Economics. Thanks so much for the support and infrastructure from the Aydelotte Foundation and that includes Pam Shropshire, who holds it down from her side of the office, and then also colleagues Tim Burke and Rachel Buurma, who are also part of chairing and sharing in the leadership of the foundation and this series. Without further ado, let's hear from Professor Anderson.

Nathalie Anderson: Thank you so much for coming today. I fell like we're between apocalypses and so I especially appreciate your finding your way onto campus. It took me five routes before I made it here, so I'm especially grateful.

From Failed Research to Poetry, that title might seem surprising because as a culture we have preconceptions about poetry, which are very different. Here's how we usually imagine our poets at work. That's Oliver Goldsmith. Here's John Keats. Here's some anonymous gentleman poet. Here's a lady poet. Here's the Victorian poet Caroline Morton. Here's Phillis Wheatley. Even from this small set of exemplars, you'll notice some commonalities. They are all looking off into the middle distance. They're, with an abstracted air, leaning on their hand or with a finger to their cheek or to their chin or chewing on a pen. Betokening angst, self forgetfulness, deep thought, with the idea that they are producing implicitly self-generated poems. Whether one is a bardic poet or a beatnik poet or a Mac poet or is led and inspired by a muse, the assumption is that poetry just happens, that it comes as natural, as unconsciously, as exuberantly as hair grows out of the head. That's meant to be Rimbaud by the way.

This is one of my favorite versions of the premise. This is the famously pessimistic, depressive poet Thomas Hardy and this is Max Beerbohm's cartoon. It says down here, "Mr. Thomas Hardy composing a lyric." You can see there the dead tree, the blasted heath, not clear whether that's a moon or the sun, a very sinister owl with its eye blaring out. But notice, he's got his little finger to his chin, completely absorbed in himself composing.

I'll say that ... this is what's more likely to be going on. When we're caught up in the writing, ... I didn't mean to show this yet but we might as well have it up there. While we're caught up in the writing, I think that poets do often look like what we've just seen, absorbed in our work. I'm sure you all look same way when you're absorbed in whatever it is that you spend your time intent on. More frequently this is what's going on under the surface, I can tell you.

The Nobel prize winning poet, William Butler Yeats, was getting at something like this when he wrote in his poem, "Adam's Curse," "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. / Better go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather, / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these, and yet / Be thought an idler...."

This was clearly written by someone who managed to avoid actual manual labor for most of his life. Never the less, his point is interesting. A lot goes on in the process of writing a poem that intentionally isn't obvious in the finished product. Though you wouldn't think it from the images I've that shown you, one of those things can be research.

I am always engaging in research as I write, whether I'm reading trashy biographies of Fred Astaire and even taking ball room dancing lessons in order to write my first book, Following Fred Astaire, or reading up and observing insects and spiders for my second book, Crawlers, or investigating the stories behind significant examples of high art or of populist art, these works influenced poems in my book Quiver, or exploring the history of stained glass for my book Stain, a book where there's also a sequence called Wreckage, which is based on a photograph album that my mother kept during the Second World War, and a sequence called Kyoto based on my travels in Japan.

Reading comic books, looking at photographs, traveling, dancing, this is not what we usually imagine when we hear the word research, but I'm sure you're aware there are books of scholarship that are written on all of these topics. The research that I've done could have culminated in that way. As it happens, this becomes the raw material for poetry. And I'll say too that I'm not writing poems about this material precisely. That book that you saw a second ago, Hollbobler's work on ants, for example, feeds into a eulogy for my grandmother, a sequence of poems. The sequence of poems that explores the tensions between the idiosyncratic individual and the collective, the hive if you will. My research on stained glass, which was prompted in part by the destruction of religious art in England during the reformation, allows me to consider how we respond to violence and trauma variously through art.

I'm so committed to this idea that attentive exploration feeds the production of art that I actually teach a course in it that's called the Poetry Project. Let's see if I can make this come up. This is the webpage, and you can get to it actually through the library page is the easiest way. You can see some of the things that we work on in this class, newspaper research, genealogy, historical research, letters and correspondences, science related resources, visual art resources, researching poetry, find poems. This is a really terrific site, and I recommend it as something you might want to play with yourself.

This takes us back to why failed research, why am I talking about that with you today. I'm going to skip over a long preamble to say after my father's death I came into possession of this family document, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it. It's an IOU from Columbia, South Carolina dated 1853, seven years before the Civil War. It states that a person named M.D. Huger, one of my ancestors by person, owes $2,400 to Betsey Garrett, specified on the document, right there at the top, as a free person of color.

I wasn't aware at the time that there was a community of free persons of color in Charleston before the Civil War and this amount of money is extraordinary. For an era when a man might, for example, will his townhouse to his wife and provide $500 to maintain that house in perpetuity. This is a lot. But as usual with IOUs, there's no explanation here for why the money was owed. The document tantalized and shamed me. Its language, stated right there at the top, that M.D. Huger was held and firmly bound to repay the debt resonates disturbingly from a time when enslaved people were all too literally held and firmly bound.

I decided that I would like to come up with some possible explanations for this mystery, and I was awarded a sabbatical in 2010-2011 to explore the project. Here are some of the books, and just a few, that I consulted during that year. I also traveled to South Carolina, I visited archives, I talked with specialists. Yet the more I read and and more I discovered as a process that generally sparks ideas for me, the more impossible I found it to write the poems. The most obvious approach would be dramatic monologues, to write dramatic monologues, giving voice to the person that owed that money. But trying to embody the attitudes of the time was so distasteful that I just couldn't make myself do it. Another possibility would be to write about my own experience in researching the document, even about the distaste I've just described. But the writer Catherine Sasanov had recently done precisely that in her compelling book Had Slaves and I didn't want to duplicate her strategies.

A third possibility would be to respond to the unspeakable aspects of the time, the unspeakable atrocities, by breaking language itself. But that had been done too by M. NourbeSe Philip in her extraordinary book Zong. Here's a representative page from that book to show you what she's doing. Look at these,  I know that you can't really see this, but right here, der that I can to [inaudible 00:11:40] ion ig [inaudible 00:11:46] beat no. Everything is broken into pieces. It's really, really a fabulous book. She had done that and so I felt it wasn't appropriate for me to do it also.

When I came to the end of my sabbatical, I had read a great deal and I had written a lot of poems, but not one poem on this topic. I felt that the unspoken issue behind the document, racism both historical and contemporary, was too big, too distressing, too responsible, too anxiety-inducing for me to feel capable of continuing the project. I was disappointed but in a way I was relieved to set these materials aside and I did set them aside quite firmly.

Then two years later, in early January of 2013, out of the blue I woke up one morning with a way in. A possibility that I'll sum up in the word Say. Here's what I wrote down on January 4th when I should have been grading papers or preparing for the next semester's courses. You probably can't see that but the first line says, "Let's say you're your mama's little boy." I know that this doesn't seem all that different from writing a dramatic monologue, except that it shifts the terms. "Not "I am this pernicious person," but "suppose that you're born into these circumstances. What do you do?" I like the provisionality of it and I like the way it pinpoints a shared dilemma. Because we're all born into our times, we can't get out of them. We all have to figure out how to settle into that role or to challenge it. How to define ourselves within it or against it.

I spent the next weeks listing out and expanding ideas. You can see this was January 13th, "Let's say you're your mama's little boy and they ship you off to school. Maybe she's got another on the way, maybe she dies, maybe it's just time. It's strange where you are ..." By May, I was drafting whole poems. "Let's say you're your mama's littlest lamb and when she goes they lose you all night long, night after night, in your ceaseless seeking ..." By the end of that summer, I had completed nine poems offering explanations for the death and another 13 poems thinking further about the implications of that phrase, held and firmly bound. I wrote the last poem in this collection in the Fall of 2016 and it was published as a chapbook in February last year.

I've been thinking a lot about Sarah Willie's comment at the last Aydelotte Café, that this narrative sounds more like triumph than like failure. That's the story we want to hear and I'm ecstatic that mine turned out this way. But it also raises the question of who wrote these poems. Clearly I did and here is the very much marked up little collection of pieces of paper and this was just the first draft to prove that I worked hard at this. But in another sense, I did not. For two years my unconscious kept this material dark, turning it over and over outside my awareness, allowing it to gestate into being. Does that mean that I buy into that image of poet with which I began the talk? No. Never the less, it's interesting to think about that, the unconscious doing its work in all those images. 

I thought that I would share a couple of these poems with you now. I'd like to begin with that poem about the motherless child, since you've seen the beginnings of it. I also definitely want to read a poem from the book's second section, where you can see my research at work most clearly. I want to read at least one more, I'll see where the time is after I look at these.

In the book none of these poems had titles. They're all numbered one, two, three. One thing that I like about that is that in these poems that are about explanations for the debt, they're mutually exclusive, so it can't be the same person having all these things happen. I like that, it's just here's another number, here's another specimen.

Let's say you're your mama's littlest lamb and when she goes, they lose you. Night after night in your ceaseless seeking, you leg yourself limp, bleat yourself brittle, there's no availing.

Or say you're your mama's fair-haired child, through all your picking in the pantry, your flouncings round the yard, your wrigglings and your snivelings at prayers, she doesn't hear a word against you. No, it's oh the cherub cheeks or oh, the haloing of curls. And so the kicking up, the biting down, and when she goes they let you flail all night, they let your squalling face go blue.

Or say you're a mama's boy and when she goes they ship you off soft, thinking to harden you. Smaller and smaller as the road twists you away, you shrink so they can handle you, manhandle you, those gentle men. You know to speak when spoken to so everyone nudge and nick, each gouge and goad, each punch and thrust you answer Sir. You butter won't melt, you devil may care. The harder they hit, the more you can't cry.

Yes, you're the golden boy. Everything you touch you're good for it. You live large, live larger, are largess. You can bank on it. You can bet your life, you can bet your expectations, you can bet the farm. Hit me, you say to the man with the cards. Hit me hard, hit me again.

Or say you're your mama's little man and when she goes she grips your arms, she looks you up and down. She needs you tall. She needs you grown. You'll stand for her. You're all she owns. But when you fall.... No, still and all, you're... You're the mammy's boy. She who never leaves. She who's there for you. She who mustn't snap. She who shakes her head. She who can't say no. Who pinches cheeks, who bites her coins, who bides her time, who grows a thing that grows a thing. And if not she, if far from she, some other she, some Bess or Bits, some Betsey, who makes things cook, who bides your time, who knows a man who knows a man. Where else would you turn. How much do you owe?

I'm going to say just a couple of things about that poem. That idea of the mammy of course is one that is disturbing to us today too, the idea of that person who's been romanticized as the person who selflessly gives love to the white children in her charge. But I hope that this poem gets at the position that she's in, where the boy thinks she can't say no, she loves me, but she thinks I can't say no, I have no other choice. I hope it also shows a kind of neurosis in this boy who grows up to someone who thoughtlessly uses.

Here is a poem that comes from the second part of the book. This part of the book is called Held, to pick up on that Held and Firmly Bound. I'll just tell you every poem in this section ends with these words. So this poems draws on Fanny Kemble's journal of a residence on a Georgian plantation, 1838-1839. Probably a lot of you have read this book. It's fascinating, chilling, very interesting. Notice that Kemble, who was a theatrical presence in England before she came to United States, where she was lionized. She was theatrical royalty, really. She met somebody in Philadelphia, fell in love, and they lived a charmed life until his aunt died, his aunt who actually owned the Southern plantations from which they got their money. They went down South so that he could manage those places and Kemble, who by this time had become an abolitionist, was horrified. You'll see as I read this poem that a lot of what I say in this poem comes directly from hers, directly quoted. Notice the distance between the year that she was there, 1838-1839, and the year when she published, 1863.

When an internationally celebrated actress marries an independently wealthy man, the tabloids yawn. Old Story. And if she's the scion and salvation of British theatrical royalty and he's loved her the whole of her American tour, haunting stage doors, arms full of flowers, pockets dripping with bracelets, handsome and dashing and eager, ho-hum.

But what if she's budding abolitionist and he, beyond his bankers, lives off the back of slaves. Philadelphia money. She thought bonds not bondage. And he loved her for her enthusiasm, tuning out her prattlings, never thinking they might matter. Her hackles, his eyebrows, all their stakes raised. One could print that.

We know what she saw in Georgia because she wrote it down. The sweltering lands and slimy waters. The mosquitoes so thick on a man's coat that one could scarcely see the cloth. And men tied naked there for punishment. The pittances of hominy, tattered and filthy blankets, babies left to crawl and kick in filthy cabins or on broiling sand. The women by their labor, most broke in two. The sick house where post-partum, emaciated, aged, chilled, fevered, they lay upon the hard, cold ground. An epileptic barking like some enraged animal. The women forced. Families sold apart. Girls pregnant or just birthed, beaten in the fields for malingering or flogged, clothes turned over their heads. A procession of sable dreams.

For fifteen weeks she did what little she could do. Cleaned, sewed, served meat, paid black children for their clean faces, requested rather than demanded, paid slaves for any work done for her, taught the rudiments of reading, appreciated, attended, respected, advocated. Though she knew teaching slaves was unlawful, though she knew slaves were beaten for complaining to her, though her husband, baffled, morally muffled, brushed her distress away like a midge. She wished the sea would swallow up and melt in their salt waves her husband's lands. She imagined, I should consider my own throat and those of my children well cut should the slaves rise. Their nakedness clothes me, she wrote chastened.

Yet back in Philadelphia, even with all she knew, she did not publish. Even after her husband was caught in flagrante with another man's wife and she learned this through the tabloids, even after the divorce, even when she'd returned to England she kept her silence. Why? Because the world was on his side. Because the lands weren't hers to sell, the slaves weren't hers to free. She couldn't even promise them that thing shall not be done again. Because she believed she should be able through love and reason to change his mind. Because for nearly 25 years he kept their children in his custody, well out of her reach, by the laws of our good country, conscientiously held and firmly bound.

Okay, in writing these poems I felt it was crucial to work through possible debtors in the white population but not to presume to project an interiority into Betsey Garrett. When the book was accepted for publication though, the publishers felt that the sequence didn't feel quite finished. They encouraged me to find a way of including Betsey Garrett more materially in the book's culmination. I added some signifying, I guess I'd say, in a last poem that I call Plus.

Sorry, I did want to show you this. Here's the reason for that title. This is the back of the Statement of Indebtedness and you can see up here, right there and then again here, that when money is paid for her and it was paid in installments, she signs it with her mark, which could be that she's hiding that she can read or could mean that she doesn't read and that that mark is how she signs her name. We would typically these days I think expect it to be a X, but instead it's a plus sign. That idea of plus made me think of more, about how much more we owe. There it is close-up. Betsey Garrett, there. Right there. Her mark, her mark.

This is the last poem in the book. I'll just say that there is more debt to be paid. No work is enough. Plus One.

Betsey Garrett signs the papers, not with a X, but with a plus. Interest compounding. Signifying cross hairs, short hairs, short straw. Candles lit both ends, irons in the fire. Overstock, over run, overboard. Eclipse, pay up full, you'll always owe me more. An extra chair set fair to the table. A coat that'll fit you chit once you grow out. Beneath still waters, ice running dark. Skin deep, you don't know the half. More than you bargained for or you deserve, baker's dozen, lagniappe, sugar on top. Shake on it, shake with it, can't shake it off. Fist against hand. Hand into glove. Saddled with, hitched, held, bound.

I think I'll stop there so that we can have some time for you to ask questions. I have a couple of other poems that are in this document here, so we could do that but I am happy to stop now. Thank you.