Joyelle McSweeney’s Beautiful Statement

April 5, 2014

Here is that beautiful statement I read today about the future of poetry. Enjoy:


By Joyelle McSweeney

Another panel on the future of poetry? Another gathering of anointed poet-critics? It’s sinister.

I’ve sat on such a panel before—four years ago, and if anyone asks me this question again, I’ll make the case again that the future of poetry is no future, that what’s interesting and unkillable about poetry is its blackbox present tense that keeps shedding spectacular and occult effects like a basement blacklight and like a distant star, collapsing after its set.


That’s why I’m not avant-garde since I have no interest in marching forward with my banner though I do have a banner and it’s made of rags and rats and estrogen-shedding plastics, a toxic and lousy affair.   We flounce, half-Havisham, half-arthropod.  Our standard is flaccid and bends. The cassette runs backwards. The whole get-up plus the cassette is degrading  and rotting like the rotting python for which the Pythian oracle is named and sending up fumes and those fumes help me know the FUTURE OF POETRY which is the present shacked up with the past in a clunky San Francisco flop house in Vertigo, synthetic sky a shady blue = day-for-night.  Snake oil. A switcheroo.

What goes on in that casket-slash-room  when the plot is somewhere else, when the director is not thinking about it, when  the corset is glaring at the sewing box and the hairdye split off from the plotline and goes out to off gas in that serenely toxic sky.

=POETRY NO FUTURE. Poetry’s furtive and glamourous effects.

pythian oracle

Every poet should want to be knocked off course by some incredible new-to-them poem, whether it’s contemporary, ancient, or from any of the several hundred misery-infused centuries humankind has inflicted on the earth. Nobody should need to know whether a poem is important or permanent before allowing him or herself to get renovated by it.

Yet panel after panel shows our poet-critics back at it, trying to prognosticate what-comes-next, which is really (paradoxically) a diagnostic tool for determining ”what will be permanent.”

The Future of Poetry, it would seem, is an eternal question.

The Future of Poetry will be an eternal chain of panels discussing the Future of Poetry.

The Future of Poetry begins to look like the panelists. I’m talking to myself again.

The Future of Poetry will be a decision made by textbook editors and syllabus-designers and prize-hander-outers and best-of-list-makers (Will there be poetry textbooks in the Future of Poetry? Will there be anything else? Is the Future-of-Poetry anything but a pedagogic mode?).

But Poetry will keep on swarming incompatibly in the valley of its own making, a way of happening, a mouth. That valley is a cave, that cave is full of guinea pigs: here in the gorge, here in the stack, here in the heart of the guinea pig darkness.

It looks like Mommy is having another litter.

And Hell has many mouths.

A Thought Experiment

March 19, 2014

I just received an e-mail with this picture of a Cornell alum at a ceremony yesterday at the University of South Carolina granting Billy Collins the Cooper Award. He wished I could have joined them, and so do I. Since we talked a little about Billy Collins today and we’ve read one poem from him (and will certainly read some more), I thought I’d share it:


Generally, I will stay off of the blog–this is a student forum for you to discuss whatever you want. But we’ve started to get some interesting threads on here, so I thought I’d keep it going. And the picture in general made me think of one of our discussions today. We started discussing the question of accessibility, and Em made an excellent point when she said that Billy Collins prefers the idea of a “hospitable” poem rather than accessible. I think it’s an excellent distinction. On the other hand, it potentially just kicks the can down the road a little ways. So here is a thought experiment for you (as someone said to one of my points today, “well, that’s extreme and wouldn’t happen.” True, but sometimes we need to go to the extreme to consider if there are lines we might productively draw and then perhaps more effectively discuss where those lines might be). So, take the word accessible or hospitable and try to imagine a poem that would truly qualify as either term for everyone. Remember how many people don’t like to read or don’t want to read at all–let alone poetry; would far rather watch mixed martial arts than have anything to do with a poetry event of any kind (I don’t say this as a judgement, simply an observation). Remember how many people want nothing to do with the arts of any kind nor have any background that would invite them into an appreciation of poetry. The question, then, is to imagine a poem that would be accessible or hospitable to everyone and imagine what that poem would look like. As someone who is inclined to read a poem, do you think there’s any chance it would be a poem that would move you? Again, it’s a question not an argument. But if you can’t really imagine such a poem, then we have to think not of a poem as accessible or not, but ask accessible to whom. Or another way to think about it: should a poet necessarily try to be hospitable to an audience that will probably never be interested in poetry? Should a poet try to win converts or simply write the poems that she needs to write as best as she can? 

Vermont Studio, Part II: some pictures

May 10, 2011

Awhile back, I wrote a long blog post about my experience at Vermont Studio Center. Thought I’d give a little photo tour of the center and some other odds and ends.

Here’s the heart of the center, the Red Mill. All of the offices are here, a lounge, the dining hall. It stays open 24 hours and you can always get coffee here, and while the dining hall closes down you can always at least get some cereal if you’ve been working at three in the morning:

Here is the Maverick Writing Studios. This wasn’t here when I came to the Center a decade ago (hard to believe how long it’s been). Back then you had a desk in your room and kind of lived all in one room for weeks. The Maverick was opened about 4 years ago and is the only building that was actually built by the Center. All other buildings were already standing in the town (VSC has basically bought much of Johnson, Vermont and converted it to its own ends). There are 16 writing studios here, each with a view of the Gihon River (yes, it does flow out of Eden, VT for all of you up on your old testament) and they are generally filled with a waiting list:

Here is the Gihon River during spring thaw:

Hmmm, what else have I got? Oh yeah, a little fuzzy, but here’s a shot of Stephen Dunn meeting with the writers, giving a talk on the “turn” in poetry. Good stuff:

Here’s Pogo, the VSC mascot, waiting patiently for someone to throw a tidbit out the kitchen window after lunch:

Campfires are a necessity. Here I learn that Peeps (it was Easter time afterall) will not only roast like marshmallows over the fire, they turn really pretty psychedelic colors when they do:

Here’s my good friend Tim/Spleen getting ready to interview me at WMRW in Warren, VT:

Here’s the board at Threepenny in Montpelier, also disappointingly blurry (it’s the lighting folks, not the beer). It also doesn’t do justice to the bottle list they have on hand:

And finally here is a scene that still makes me homesick for Vermont. How I love those mountain streams and rivers, those endless swimming holes and beautiful waterfalls and cascades. I didn’t get out in the woods nearly as much as I would have in different circumstances (as in, other than mud season) but it still felt great to get out and see the landscape again.

I have much more, but I’ll call it a night for now. Maybe more later, maybe not. Who knows.

Brewing Furious or Furious Brewing

May 6, 2011

You gotta love May. The apple and plum trees in our yard are in bloom. Spinach is coming up. Orioles, Grosbeaks, and Hummingbirds are all at the feeders. And the temperature’s warm enough to move the brewery outside. So, I’m sitting here with my laptop in the sun as today’s beer boils away.

Northern Brewer in Saint Paul (where I generally get my ingredients) has a “Pro Series” beer that is supposedly THE Surly Furious recipe, straight from Surly. So rather than concoct my own beer, I figured I had to give this a try. The recipe seemed fairly straightforward, a medium body IPA with plenty of hops, bordering on what CBD referred to with one of his recent beers, an “irresponsible” amount of hops. But it wasn’t until I really got into the brewing that I realized what pushed this over the edge into true Surly territory (you’ll see). Here’s the recipe:

4.1 gallons of water at 164 degrees in preheated cooler/mash tun.
8.5 lbs Canada malting pale ale malt (this is bumped a little bit higher than the recipe since I’m using a batch sparge)
3.25 lbs Simpsons Golden Promise
.88 lbs Simpsons medium crystal
.63 lbs Belgian aromatic malt
.125 Simpsons roasted barley

Target rest was 153 degrees. I was at about 156 so I added some cool water which lowered it to about 151, not perfect but certainly OK. Note to self: be a little more patient with the mash before adjusting the temperature. I think if I had waited just a little more that 156 would probably have settled out to a perfect 153 or 154 degrees.  At 30 minutes, I heated up about 2 quarts of the mash and added it back which raised the temp to about 155.

4.25 gallons 170 degree water in 2 batches.
Batch 1, added and let sit as a mash out for about 10 minutes.
Proceeded to sparge at full speed until I collected 6 gallons of wort.
I Tbsp of gypsum added to each batch of sparge water.

.5 oz Amarillo 8.2%, 60 minutes
1.75 oz Warrior 17.2% 60 minutes
1 oz Amarillo, 8.2% 10 minutes
1 0z Amarillow, end of boil
1 c. malto-dextrin, 10 minutes
1 Tbsp irish moss, 10 minutes

I added 1 Tbsp of calcium carbonate for yeast and pitched a quart starter of Wyeast 1335, British Ale Yeast (this surprised me for an American style IPA, but I’ll do what they say).

O.G. 1.060 (a little light for the recipe, but respectable)

Dry Hop:
Here’s where it gets a little insane. When I read the recipe it simply said dry hop with “furious hop blend” for 7-14 days and I figured this was the part they kept secret. OK, I’ll add an ounce or two of whatever mystery hop they give me. But the package of hops actually lists the ingredients and amounts. This is crazy:

5 oz Simcoe!!
2.5 oz Ahtanum
.5 oz Warrior
.5 oz Amarillo

Are you kidding me?! 8.5 oz of strong hops as a dry hop addition? If it wasn’t listed as Surly’s own recipe, I’d think Northern Brewer had gone crazy. Really. This is a scary amount of dry hops, but then again, Surly is not your everyday beer so it will be fun to see how this goes. I’ll add it to my secondary in about a week.

I’ve previously mentioned the wonders of batch sparging. I did this brew as a batch sparge and it went really well. The gravity is slightly under the recipe, but not bad. Just a slight loss of efficiency. But the gain in time and flexibility is amazing. The traditional sparging used to mean I’d spend almost 6 hours for an all-grain brew. This one took me less than 4 hours. More importantly, I spent far less time with the beer. Traditional sparging demands a lot of attention; with this beer I spent most of my time writing as the beer did its thing. A few flurries of activity and then it would sit some more. Brewing beer and writing, isn’t that what sabbatical should be about?

Thoughts on New England Beer

May 1, 2011

I grew into beer in Vermont, drinking New England beers. One of my first real beer loves was Catamount Ale, which used to be brewed in White River Junction but is now defunct. Long Trail was emerging on the scene about the time I was leaving Vermont, and it was a good brew we really enjoyed, but it wasn’t Catamount. McNeill’s brewery was also starting production about the time we left. McNeill’s, formerly Three Dollar Dewey’s, was the bar that really turned my beer world around (and Ray originally brewed with Catamount before he began brewing his own) and opened my eyes to the big wonderful world of malt and hops. So I’ve always had a soft spot for New England brewers.

Fact is, though, they didn’t really hold up once I moved away and my beer horizons expanded. For instance, most of the beers I loved in Vermont really didn’t hold up once I started tasting those amazing west coast ales. I moved away in 1990 as the beer world was quickly expanding, and my awareness was also expanding (thanks in large part to the Saturday Night beer club at Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis where I worked for many years–the perfect way to relax after long busy nights at the restaurant). My love of Vermont beers became more nostalgic than anything (although nostalgia plays an important part in the beers we love). After I moved away, I did get back to Vermont pretty regularly through the 90s and it was always a pleasure, say, to revisit McNeill’s brewery or have a Long Trail but on the whole the New England beer scene seemed to be losing ground. Then I barely visited during the ’00s.

So it was interesting to be back in Vermont recently to both see what was happening in the scene in general, and to revisit some of my old favorite beers. I sensed a world divided. As I mentioned, Catamount is no more. Long Trail seems to be fluorishing, but the beers are pretty uninspired. Otter Creek, which was also emerging about the time I left, falls into the same camp–decent but uninspired beers. In fact, during my first week in Vermont, that was my sense of New England beer in general: Long Trail, Otter Creek, Smuttynose, Harpoon were all fairly disappointing. I went to the Vermont Pub in Burlington which opened about the time I left as well–it wasn’t great at that point but I thought I’d see where it had gone, and it had gone from mediocre to worse. I really thought the beer here was pretty bad and the ambience even worse. Flat Street Brewery in Brattleboro was really pretty bad. My visit to McNeill’s (which I blogged about earlier) was good, some of his beers were quite wonderful, some less so, but that quirky Brattleboro charm had kind of run off the place at least on that Friday night. I found a few newer local brewers, Rock Art, Trout River, Lake Placid, Shipyardbut the first beers I had from any of these places were mediocre as well.

After a fairly disappointing first week, though, things did get much better the second week. First, I spent a day in Montpelier and had some beers and lunch at the Threepenny Taproom. This place is a real find, and I really wish it had been there when I was at Vermont College (how life would have been different to hang out here instead of Julio’s or Charlie-O’s). A great draft list and an even better list and a small but creative daily menu. The staff knew their shit and were really pleasant. I had previously had a few Allagash beers from Maine, and they’d generally left me lukewarm, but I sampled their barrel-aged Curieux–holy crap that was good! This is also where I discovered Hill Farmstead, a small but really creative brewery doing some amazing work. I sampled two fabulous IPA’s. After Threepenny, I also found some of the better beers in some of the local portfolios. For instance, I found some very good Rock Art beers: Rock Art brews: their Vermonster is a really nice malty barleywine and their Belvidere and their ESB2 are both excellent imperials; Lake Placid’s Ubu is a solid English Strong Ale; Long Trail’s Double Bag is a much stronger IPA than their regular IPA. My last find in Vermont was Burlington’s Flat Bread/Zero Gravity brewery. I had lunch there my last day in Vermont and was really happy to end that way, a really good IPA, an  even better Imperial, and a good belgian tripel.

My sense, then, is that in general New England breweries are a little behind other areas of the country, but there are some exciting things going on. It’s a little harder to find the gems here than other areas of the country, but they’re out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what creative brewers like Hill Farmstead will end up doing. I think I need to go back, this time with MB in the summer so we can do some hiking, visit the old swimming holes, and do some serious beer research.

Vermont Studio: Thoughts on Arts Colonies

April 26, 2011

Rainy Tuesday afternoon in Iowa,  a begrudging winter still trying to hang on. Kind of melancholy and I sit here trying to write, but thinking more about the last two weeks at Vermont Studio Center and trying to wrap my ahead around what they meant.

It’s difficult to explain to others why a residency is so useful for a writer. A painter or sculptor, OK, because they need space which can be hard to come by. But a writer? I have everything I need with a computer or a pad of paper and pen. And I’ve been on sabbatical, so I’ve had time as well: why the great need to get away? Isn’t it just a vacation? I can’t really argue with that. And I certainly don’t want to argue it’s anything other than a real luxury. Two weeks with everything basically taken care of, with plenty of good food and nothing but time to write. But it is a very useful luxury.

The challenge I think is trying to make art in our normal lives. Now be assured that I don’t generally talk about Capital-A art; I use the term art in a pretty inclusive way, from the very mainstream to the avant-garde. I like popular culture; I like Weeds, 30-Rock, and mainstream movies. But I don’t want that to be the only thing available. But those arts that aren’t mainstream will always struggle for an audience (but this isn’t a statement of their overall value). And those artists struggling for an audience will always struggle to juggle livelihoods and to fit their art into those lives. Some manage to do this quite successfully; some, like me, struggle endlessly. So you may say, “it’s just a matter of priorities” or “it’s all psychological,” and of course that’s true. But it’s also a bit like telling an addict that he has a problem: true, but what’s important is finding the tools to actually deal with the problem. Without that, what good does such knowledge do? I know it’s a psychological problem (and I’m far from alone judging from the many conversations I’ve had with many writers and artists) but the question is what tools can I use to combat it.

I’ve been productive on sabbatical, but my old habits have remained. Time to work will not alone shake you out of habits. And there is the benefit of the residency: my old habits of avoidance or procrastination or self-inflicted angst or whatever are almost impossible to sustain. There is a studio without much in it: some books, my computer, my notebooks, a lamp, a chair overlooking the river. There’s the endless April gray, snow and rain, and cold and wind (and frankly this is just right–I don’t know if I’d get any work done coming here in the summer; I’m sure I’d spend all of my time down at the swimming hole). There’s a communal fridge where I keep some beer. And there is the quiet, punctuated by the faint sounds of someone else tapping away or perhaps pacing the hallway outside your door  (reminders that others are working as hard or harder than you–keep at it!). In a building across the alley, I have a bedroom–not a particularly comfortable one, so I don’t really feel like being there–and then there is the Red Mill with a lounge and a dining hall. It’s a comfortable place to sit and have some coffee, but there will always be someone there who will inevitably ask, “How’s the work going?” reminding you of what you’re there to do. And if you do want to hang out, well then they’ll want to talk about the work, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, what everyone’s doing. There are three meals a day, so even if I wanted to think about what I should be fixing for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to (ah, food, a great avoidance technique of mine). At dinner, we all gather and share our day’s successes and struggles, and afterward we share our work, have some drinks, then go back to work for as long as we feel like. In other words, you’re always in contact with people who care immensely about your success, about the larger creative work in general. Everyone. That’s a rare thing. You may have your network, and you may talk about the work once in awhile, but it’s so constant here that you begin to think about your work differently. Everything else starts to fall away and your old habits die away and the work feels fresh, exciting in the way it’s hard to sustain in the “real” world. In two weeks I made headway on 4 projects, any one of which would normally have taken me twice that time; I spent about 60 hours alone just transcribing the Batwa stories I’ve been working on; this alone would have taken me forever, but I also managed to write an introductory essay to those stories. The real challenge is, once you get into a habit of writing until 3 or 4 in the morning, snapping back out of it.

The other aspect really is to be in this constant contact with people doing such exciting work, and not just writers who I sometimes spend too much time with anyway. There’s the sculptor doing a combination of 3-dimensional and musical homage to the Gihon River (which runs through the studio grounds); there’s the painter doing translucent paintings on both sides of sheets of mylar as a way of investigating space; there’s the chinese sculptor working with long plastic threads as a kind of fiber optic, swirling lines of reflective plastic making a different sculpture every time the light shifts; there is the painter/photographer/multi-media artist with her series of work, “Devices to Save Everyone from Everything”; and on and on. It’s a kind of collective intelligence that starts to take hold in a setting like this–it’s no longer just you and the work, it’s the WORK pouring through the collective mind, taking on its many manifestations. OK, that might sound a bit over-the-top, but it’s how it feels, and what that feeling does to your work is invaluable.

I come back with a huge body of writing I’ve accomplished, but more importantly I come back with a fresh sense of process, a fresh relationship to my writing. Now, I can’t imagine staying at a place like that–the intensity really is a bit much to sustain. Most residents stay for a month, but I only stayed for two weeks–I certainly wondered how a month-long stay would have played out, but I can’t imagine more than that (there are a handful who do 2 or 3 month stays). But as good as this all feels and how energized it makes me about my work, there’s a kind of melancholy that accompanies coming back to the day-to-day world. As one painter sarcastically said, “Oh, yes, I know I’ll go back to my job where everyone will be so creative and energized and have such witty, wonderful things to say about art in the world,” and we all knew what she meant. I went to the Studio Center ten years ago and remember coming back with some of the same feelings: I had a serious case of insomnia because I was so jazzed about possibilities and my mind wouldn’t stop. I started working on plans to start an arts colony somewhere in the midwest, plans that never really materialized, but it was still an exciting moment. I find myself again wondering about how to maintain some kind of community with the same intensity and commitment.

Many would say, well you work in a college, surely that’s got the same kind of community. And certainly there’s a supportive community at the college, but it’s far different. We’re so wrapped up in politics and teaching and grading and committees and the day-to-day work that we don’t engage on the same level. And what work is supported is far more likely to be academic in nature rather than creative (I don’t like to make such a distinct binary between these two ideas, but there is a strong divide and these terms are the best I can use to describe the division–my “academic” side feels far more nurtured in this setting than my creative).  This is not to say anything about the quality of work being done here–writers, visual artists, musicians, students and faculty alike, are all quite wonderful. But most of us rarely find the time to just sit and talk about process, for instance. And the dynamics of interchange are quite different here. Here I am the “authority.” At the studio center, I certainly was feeling older, shifting to some role as elder of the tribe, but I was also just another artist. People maybe wanted advice from me on how to get jobs or how to get published and those more mundane but essential realities (to which in this climate I really have no advice anyway) but in terms of the work, we were all just equals, we were collaborators.

I suppose one lesson for me, then, is to figure out how to bring more of this dynamic to my teaching; how do I collaborate more with my students, knowing all the while that I still am inherently the authority. But more importantly I find myself wanting to find another community. I know that Iowa is filled with wonderful writers and artists, but it takes a kind of social commitment and energy that I don’t always have to find them and interact with them (this whole post on the importance of community for one’s art is strange for such an introvert as myself–another benefit of such an insular community as the Studio Center is that it forces me into a kind of creative extroversion). So perhaps I’m where I was ten years ago after all. Maybe I really should start an Iowa arts co-operative. We could buy some farm land with buildings we could turn into studio space, we could do community arts projects, we could hang out and talk, we could grow a communal garden, and of course we could do our work. That’s my dream for this rainy Tuesday. Who’s with me?

Poplar Terrace Update

April 14, 2011

Another of my current writing projects is trying to wrap up an essay I’ve been working on about Frederick, particularly Baughman Mansion/Poplar Terrace, the run-down, abandoned mansion in the neighborhood where I grew up. I’ve been spending too much time on the Maryland Archives website–apparently I’m a historian in disguise and didn’t really know it. Fascinating archives: one of the great discoveries is to learn that every parcel of land had to have a name when it was first surveyed and deeded: the names themselves have this whole buried history to them. Here’s just a sample of names for land tracts in Frederick: “I have lost the most,” “I am lost,” “Hug Me Snug,” “I believe it will do,” “Bite him softly,” “Catch it if you can,” “Bone of contention,” “Poverty in Reality,” and one of my favorites: “I don’t care what.” (It makes me think of how Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit got her name–appocryphal or not, I’m not sure: “Mr Zappa you have to give her a name now.” “OK, Moon Unit #4 it is”).  But since I’ve written about my quest before, I thought I’d outline what I’ve learned about the property for all you Fredericktonians out there (and granted, if you’re not a Fredericktonian it might not hold much of interest).

As all of Frederick was originally, it was first part of Benjamin Tasker’s 7,000 acre tract, “Tasker’s Chance” surveyed by Tasker in 1725 and then given to Tasker by Lord Baltimore in 1727.

Most of Tasker’s Chance was sold to Daniel Dulaney in 1744.

Dulaney then sold or leased plots in what became Frederick. Dulaney kept a 1,000 parcel for his own home, a tract he called “Red Hill.”

This is all general history of the area. Tracing it from here is where it gets tricky since as parcels got divided, the deeds have very scant, vague maps. For instance, a deed map might refer to a large rock by the large oak tree in the meadow as the starting point. But this is the best I’ve figured out about Red Hill. Where the current mansion “Prospect Hall” stands at the corner of Butterfly Lane and route 180 was the southeast corner of the tract. The eastern line then traveled north paralleling what is now route 15 (crossing current route 40) and the best I can surmise is the property line would then have been what is currently Baughman’s Lane. Baughman’s Lane and Shookstown (the corner where Baughman’s mansion would eventually stand) was the northeast corner of the tract. It’s a little difficult then to figure out how far west the tract went but if it were originally 1,000 acres, I come up with it going between 1/2 and 1 mile west (if the tract was 1000 acres, that’s 1.5 square miles. From Prospect Hall to Shookstown is about 2 miles, so we’d be left with roughly 3/4 mile but none of these measurements are exact, so…) So the best guess I have is that the property line would have been roughly where Willowdale Lane ended up, following that line south back across route 40 and up to Butterfly Lane.

In 1766, the British confiscated Red Hill (although I’ve read some interesting competing narratives about this event–I’ll save these for another day). The property was later sold by the confiscation commissioner to one of Thomas Johnson’s (first Governor of Maryland) brothers. Johnson sold it to Colonel John McPherson (1760-1829) and officer in the Revolution. It’s a little unclear in the history, but most think that McPherson built the actual “Prospect Hall” mansion (which later became St. John’s Catholic High School):

John’s heirs then sold the property to Edward trail. From here, I made use of this wonderful map from 1865. (for any of you from Frederick, this is a really fascinating map, to see all the names still prominent not only in the current phonebook, but in the names of the town, its roads, parks, streams, etc.) At this point, you can see what is Shookstown Road, Rosemount, and the far end of what would become Baughman’s Lane (the section between Shookstown and Rosemount). The name Trail is right in the corner where the mansion would later stand (although there is no lane on this side of Shookstown yet). One other confusing factor in the history is the plot of land that Dulaney sold to the Bruner’s, the family that built the well-known “Schifferstadt” house, still standing and now a museum. It was difficult to determine whether Bruner land was actually part of the Baughman tract or not, and you can see Bruner listed right in the same vicinity. My confusion was over the road that looks like what would be Baughman’s lane with Bruner listed on the west side. But that road can’t be where Baughman’s Lane ended up if you see the road the comes into Shookstown and later connects to Baughman’s Lane (if you compare this map to current google maps of Frederick, most of these roads are still exactly the same, so I feel confident in reaching some of these conclusions). What this cleared up for me, though, was the question of the land our house was on: I’d say we were clearly on original Schifferstadt/Bruner land and not Baughman land.

After Edward Trail died, his wife Lydia Trail (Ramsburg) left the land to their son Charles Trail, a prominent Frederick figure, in 1879. Charles is known for his own mansion built in downtown Frederick, once an underground railroad house on Church Street, now a funeral home:

Trail didn’t keep the land long, selling it in 1882 to his in-law, Cyrus G. Helfenstein who built the mansion that L Victor Baughman went on to inherit (many names, but apparently things stayed in the family from McPherson on to the last resident Charles Conley). At this point, the tract is listed at about 300 acres, so it had shrunk considerably. I suspect that by the time it was in the Baughman family it went to what is Route 40 because I know that Austin Baughman, who inherited it from Victor, donated the land at the corner of Baughman’s Lane and route 40 for the old state police barracks. After Austin Baughman, the house and remaining land went to Charles Conley Jr. who moved into one of the tenant’s buildings and, as I understand it, simply let the big building go to ruin which is the condition it was in when I came into the story, or it came into my story, however you look at it. I remember finding newspaper clippings in the house from the early 30s but nothing later,  so was it the depression that led to the house’s downfall? Why did it end up so neglected with so much in it? I’ve tried to track down someone who might be able to say, but it seems like the house itself, that might now be lost to history.

I had posted some photos in an earlier commentary. More recently, I found this image in the Maryland archives:

c. Maryland archives

This one gives me a different perspective on it, seeing that it had sidewalks leading up a second road to the house (the lane between Shookstown and Baughman’s so prominent in later years would have been on the other side of the building–I do remember there being a “road” there, but it was an overgrown dirt road, nothing to say it once would have been a sidewalk-lined lane) gives it an even more prominent feeling. By the 1960’s the house was this:


This looks at what would be the left side of the house in the picture above, so the road would have gone up to this side. Housing developments have now encroached on this site on three sides, going right up to the rusted wire fence that used to mark the tree line for the house. The horse pasture in the picture above is still a field, but last I was in Frederick it had surveying marks in it, so before long any traces will be gone. What I’m not sure of though is if the stand of trees where the house stood will also disappear or if it will remain its own kind of marker–now almost 30 years after the house burned down, that stand of trees remains, a kind of ghost of the past, a kernel tucked into the world growing around it. The house itself is slowly crumbling back into the land. Last fall I wandered up to the spot, climbed around on the piles of brick and rock, the rock had all collapses or been pushed into the foundation making it a pretty small pile, and the foundation of the building now looked really very small, especially when the place seems so big in my memory. Funny how that happens I guess.

Africa: The Problems of Translation

April 12, 2011

One of the things I’m working on while I’m here at Vermont Studios is getting down all the stories I gathered in Uganda. I’ve already been working on this, but it’s a tedious project (someone recently told me I should have gotten a foot pedal for transcribing, something I hadn’t even thought of, but after many long hours working on this I see the value in not having to use one hand to keep turning the machine on and off so that you can just keep typing).

I have never done any translation. And in some ways I wouldn’t say I’m translating these stories either–someone else translated and I am just transcribing. But this, too, poses its own challenges. I have three different people who translated, and they speak English to different degrees and with different styles. As I go through the stories, then, I need to decide several things: what is merely erroneous wording that is the result of the translator searching for the right word or phrase in English vs. what is a kind of repetition of language that is true to the speech patterns of the speaker? What is a speaking style that is perhaps true to an “African” speaker but not inherently Batwa? (the translators were African but not Batwa, so they may be translating in a way that represents the Batwa speech pattern or they may be translating in a way that highlights a different speech pattern that is not Batwa). And what material is perhaps stylistically true to the speaker’s speech patterns but not essential for the story in written English form? For instance, I can’t see rendering all of these stories exactly as told because there would be a great deal of repetition, so I am making decisions about shaping the stories anyway. I am weeding through and finding the unique elements from each speaker’s story so that the whole adds up to an interesting and true representation of their stories, but so, for instance, we don’t have five different versions of the method of Batwa making fire (of all the fascinating elements of Batwa life in the forest, I’m not sure why this one is so essential–it’s clearly a cultural tidbit that has been reinforced over the years, but I’d hate to break it to them that a Boy Scout in the U.S. also knows how to do this, certainly not the most essential aspect of Batwa culture to convey to an American audience. But then too am I making judgements on how to portray another’s culture? Or is such post-colonial angst self-defeating in a project like this). It’s a fascinating project for me, but it’s also quite alien to the way I work. Some great material, but it’s much slower going to get at that material than I would have expected with many challenging questions I don’t really have the answers to. But onward…

Thoughts from the Old Stomping Grounds

April 10, 2011

Last fall I spent a few days wandering around my old hometown where I hadn’t lived in over 25 years. It was an interesting study in memory and change that I’m still writing about, trying to come to terms with what I remember, what I don’t, what the town remembers and what it doesn’t, etc. One of the things that fascinated me was the way I could pinpoint things that were buried under twenty five years of a reconstructed landscape. I was trying to remember an old dam and fire pit that I used to camp beside out in a wooded patch in the midst of long meadows that ran behind the “golden mile” of route 40. At that point it was still pretty much farmland and meadows everywhere. But the town has grown exponentially since then; those fields are now miles and miles of townhouses, malls, and roads. How then did I walk right to the point in the stream–now completely unrecognizable from memory, a complete different stream course and topograpy–and find the remnants of the old dam?

Yesterday, I wandered around another one of my old haunts, Brattleboro, VT. I only lived there about 4 years but it has been 21 years since I lived there. What I found interesting was that my experience was the complete opposite of going back to Frederick: here the changes were minimal. It’s really the same town, same landscape, but it felt completely alien. It’s still the old hippie haven I remember, but I had trouble acknowledging that this is the place I had lived. Sure, I got there the more I wandered around. Twenty years later, the Shin-La is still running with the same family at the helm and the flavors came back to me in a flash, the crisp dumplings, the fresh ginger, the really hot, really good KimChi–I’ve yet to ever find Korean food as good as theirs:

Mount Wantastiquet still looms across the river, the same scene I woke up to every day from our tiny apartment, 6 floors up above the railroad tracks (how I remember that bright morning sun flooding into the apartment as it crested Wantastiquet–being, as we were, too cheap and/or ignorant to get any kind of room-darkening shades).

(that’s our old porch with the yellowish railings in the middle at the very top–great place)

Sure some things have changed, but nothing remarkable. It’s all got the same feeling, despite say landmarks like Three Dollar Dewey’s (the bar where I really learned to appreciate good beer) now having long since become McNeill’s brewery in the old firehouse and the old Dewey’s building long since torn down, turned into a parking lot which is now so old that even it is being rebuilt:

Here’s the “new” McNeill’s, now going on 21 (Ray & Holiday were finishing it up when we left–we got to drink there several times in its early days when I was still coming back to Vermont to finish up school at Goddard and then my MFA at Vermont College, both “low-residency” programs in northern Vermont). It still looks pretty much the same, (well, except for the parking ramp that sprung up behind it) and still has the same long wood tables, dart boards, and green swirled tiffany lights over the bar that were all in Dewey’s as well (I do mean the same, not the same style).

Other things that have changed, though, are actually still pretty much the same. For instance, the hippie co-op restaurant I worked at has been out of business for about ten years (really longer, but it had a couple of “revival” periods until it finally went under for good I think in ’02 or ’03 (I could be wrong on that–fellow Vermonters feel free to help me with the story). Yet, the sign remains, the mural on the wall remains, the beautiful old sun-porch remains even if now looking pretty decrepit (but frankly the building was pretty decrepit back when I was there. I remember when we’d have dances, the whole floor swayed and buckled so much that I was sure it was only a matter of time before the whole place would fell into the lower level–a pharmacy at the time, so that’s changed, but “Everyone’s Books” merely moved down the block into the space so it doesn’t feel like so much of a change).

So what’s all this mean anyway? I’m not sure, but I spent a good few hours at McNeill’s last night (the Dead Horse IPA on cask was excellent, the Oatmeal Stout good, the Dark Angel imperial stout started out incredible but didn’t hold up for a whole pint) wondering why Frederick feels so alien to me yet so in my blood that I can’t seem to forget anything while Brattleboro remains fundamentally the same yet I feel so alien. Sure time spent in each is part of the equation; sure, the age at which certain impressions are made is part of the equation, but I don’t think those things really explain it.

What I’m trying to work my head around is a half-formed theory in which changes in landscape and environment are a kind of working metaphor for memory, the way a city, say, is fundamentally the same as memory in which change overlaps change, history builds up and accrues in the sediment of place. As I say, it’s half-formed, it’s vague,  it’s more just an idea I’m trying to work through. What’s it all mean? I don’t know–I’ll let you know when I finish working on it (and then I won’t tell you anyway, cause I’ll want you to buy the book, right?).

Sabbatical Gone Amok

April 5, 2011

I would never consider myself a particularly organized person. I find a clear mind an aesthetic pleasure: I appreciate people who can think clearly, who can follow a line of thought, who can hold multiple lines of thought and express them clearly. I’m just not one of those people. My mind is muddled on the best of days, distracted on all the other days. That said, I generally keep a pretty organized desk; it always helps counteract what’s going on in my mind to have a clean space to work.

One of my sabbatical goals was to get even more organized. I’m revamping all my courses, one step of which is to go through all the folders of notes and articles and weed them out–what’s actually worth keeping? what course does it best belong to? I wanted to go back into the next school year feeling somewhat streamlined.

But then I look at my desk and realize all has gone wrong somewhere along the line. I think it’s the result of working with several big projects: I’m working on my book about the Batwa; I’m working on design for my book of poetry forthcoming this fall; I’m working on my collection of essays about landscape and environment; and I’m working on my conspiracy novel. All at the same time as trying to do my taxes, too, I guess. None of this helps my mind’s naturally disorderly functioning, but has helped my office organizational skills less.


What I really need is to just get away from all this for awhile and write, get away from the clutter and work. It’s not that I’m not being productive–I’m being very productive–but I can’t quite get a handle on what it is I’ve accomplished. I want to immerse myself in the work without all the piles of distractions. So this week I’m headed to Vermont Studio Center for a few weeks, just a few notebooks and my laptop, only so many distractions, only so many piles of work I can generate, and I’ll see where I go. I’ll deal with this mess when I get back.