Away from the Past into Other Pasts
Lea Graham, the 2021-Michelle-Boisseau-Prize-winning poet, on how a place’s strangeness is made familiar and kept strange by poems
"America Today" by Thomas Hart Benton. Credit: The MET
Marcus Myers: I’ve gathered from reading your work, unless I’m mistaken, that you’ve traveled far from your home region but usually still find a way to feel close to it.
Lea Graham: That's an interesting way to phrase it. I had to go back through and look at my recent work to realize that Arkansas (and to a lesser extent, Missouri--where I spent my last two years of high school and went to college) is almost always present in some way in the poems. I don't think I had considered just how much of a presence it is.
MM: Your poem “In a Polish Dream” has this wonderful use of the pronoun you. Given that every other person in a dreamscape—whether set in Arkansas, Missouri, Poland or a mix of all three—represents a version of the dreamer’s self, I’m wondering about this “you”.
LG: The “you” the poem addresses is my spouse, actually, and the event—drinking and singing with a group of Polish folks in Ravenna, Italy—was taken from something that really happened among beautiful people, selves—yes, a mix of character—other than mine. We were living in Florence for a semester where I was teaching and had gone to Ravenna for the weekend. When we came back from dinner one evening, our Polish neighbors—I think they were a choir who were traveling together—had set up a big table outside in front of the guest houses where everyone was drinking and eating. They invited us to join them and then got Spitzer (my husband) to sing “Happy Birthday” with them. It was the only song in English they knew and he knew no Polish, of course. What struck me at the time was how familiar it felt. It seemed (minus the drinking) like a scene my older relatives—now all passed—would have been part of: that joy in sharing and eating and singing and just being together.
But to circle back to your question about travel and home: I think making connections between where I grew up in Northwest Arkansas and the countries I’ve traveled to is something I do without thinking. The rural experience and agrarian culture that I grew up around while living on and off with my grandparents on their farm is something that translates well when traveling just about anywhere you go. While it applies, perhaps, to rural places and small towns more (and probably accounts for my great love of the places I’ve lived in Latin America), I think there’s even something to the kind of make-shift, make-do attitude that comes with living on a farm that can be applied to traveling in urban areas abroad.
MM: This sounds so familiar to me, having grown up more of a rural mouse in a large Arkansas town (not quite a city), and first wandering my way through Little Rock, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, NYC, LA; and also Geneva, Heidelberg, Rome, Venice and other European cities in my 20s and early 30s. And I think I get what you mean by “something kind of make-shift”, because I remember the alertness and resourcefulness required when wandering out of my element, slowly changing and learning from being with, attuning myself with, others and the layout of new cities, noticing the strangely different all around but always finding my bearings by what’s still familiar….
LG: Yes, definitely attunement. And points of consilience. Well, I once got on a train in Bucharest that had started out in Moscow a few days before. I was headed to Bulgaria overnight and wanted to get a sleeper car. I can’t remember all of the details as to what made it difficult, but what I do remember is that I hadn’t paid attention to the kind of currency I needed and so tried to pay for the sleeper with Romanian lei when I needed euros. I remember very distinctly following a couple of the train staffers back to talk with the Russian conductor. I needed to try to persuade him to let me pay in lei and a hodgepodge of other currency I had on me. As we walked through the cars, there were clothes strung up and drying along the walls and windows—people’s t-shirts and underwear, pants and socks. But also, there was the smell of woodsmoke (from where? I’m still trying to mine my memory for where that was coming from) that sent me back to my grandparents’ farmhouse and the fire that always seemed to be lit or smoldering. As I was walking back through each car on what I knew was a fool’s journey, it felt like I was walking back in memory in a weirdly actual way with the make-shift laundry line and smoke. It was such an odd and exciting moment—different—even though it was also quite ordinary.
MM: And I remember at 19 this sort of excitement over being—this physical, even if sort of trite, tingle lifting the small hairs along the back of my neck—so far away from home in the Roman Theater of Orange, France, thinking, We’re not in Arkansas anymore, Marcus. Which was my mother’s sentiment, a yearning to see the world, growing up in Kansas. So she might have conditioned this in me with her European travel narratives. Regardless, all my childhood and teenage years in Hot Springs, watching Cessnas lift from the municipal airport and over the Ouachita ridgeline forming the east and west horizons beyond our home, I’d wondered what it would feel like to lift up and go, to be so far away from here. And at 19, sitting on the nearly 2,000-year-old stone steps with my German friend, Freterika Heuck, I thought, I am away. I am there.
LG: Right! And I do wonder about peering at or pining for the world outside of Arkansas and what caused it in me or any of us. As we both know, any place is or can be interesting, and I have a deep love for the language and art of storytelling that I grew up with. But I do wonder about why the pull of the outside world was so strong beyond the fact that things like publishing companies, TV, movies and so much else seemed to happen in big cities and so often on the coasts. For me, I think the pretty strict religiosity I grew up with had something to do with my own craving. I felt like there was much I wasn’t allowed to know about or wasn’t told and so I went to books to learn it. At some point, I wanted to see for myself what I had read about. But also, there was something about the taboo of leaving home and especially if you left the region and more especially if you left for urban places. So, of course, I wanted to go to those places. I have instances I can remember so vividly of sitting on my grandparents’ rock fence and looking at the Milky Way and imagining my future in a place like NYC. What a cliché! But it was a cliché that made me curious and adventurous. I still feel like at mid-life and though I’ve been a lot of places—40+ countries at the latest count, that I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
MM: Right, and I and many of our readers probably can definitely relate to what you say about the strictures of your religious upbringing. Strictures brings the word structure to mind, the balance or counterbalancing a poem and collection of poems requires. So, let’s pivot to your book From the Hotel Vernon, a fairly long sequence of poems that shows, among other thematic layers, how architectural space can organize and sustain a permanent state of being away from home for a cast of characters, most of them drinkers. And in this book, there's this particular attention to how a town’s constructed reality is constantly in a state of decay and renewal, with traces of past centuries’ systems and layers and schemes beneath the present.
But these poems maintain such visceral and spiritual honesty about the sacred found within the profane setting of the hotel and its bar, which are spaces originally designed and built for the kind of rest and enjoyment one might find while making oneself at home while away from it. In many of the poems, the reader finds this kind of Apollonian principle of structure and constraint balanced with Dionysian freedom and release. Cycles, seasons, rites and ritual. And the historical setting and spaces in this collection creates a microcosm of Worcester, MA, one containing multitudes.
And you do so well to sketch it all—high visual registers mix with valences of the lower, often grotesque and vice versa—in bright, crisp images and metaphor. For example: “A guy and his bike wheel through the door, / rhombused sun.” And in more than a few of the poems we find a kind of carnivalesque atmosphere in and around the hotel—the sweet and salty jokes, flirtation, dancing, deep belly laughs, and sex that always sours into abject image or figure. And this aesthetic attention in your poems to how a space is always an embodied one, and one overwhelmed and reconfigured by humanity, reminds me that no realistic depiction can leave out very much of the mess. And this reminds me of something Hanif Abduraquib says in an essay: “The great mission of art that revolves around place is the mission of honesty.” Could you speak to this honesty your readers find in your poems? So I guess I’m most curious for our readers to learn how it came about in your thinking about what work you wanted your poems to do in this collection. And I’m also eager for readers to learn of your process while working on a series of poems about place.
LG: This is such a great set of observations and questions. Thank you for noticing this attention to the “Apollonian principle of structure and constraint balanced with Dionysian freedom and release,” as you put it. That was intentional and I worked hard at it so as to avoid writing a “bar book” in which it was just tales of drunkenness and questionable behavior.
I got the idea for writing this book in the spring of 2007 when I was on the cusp of moving from Massachusetts to New York. I had just gotten my teaching job in Poughkeepsie, and I was going through a divorce. You might say that my own spiritually/geographically liminal spaces connected with the liminal space that the Hotel Vernon and Kelley Square (where it’s located) are. The Vernon lording over one corner of the former roundabout there on Millbury Street and Kelley Square sitting at the edge of I-290 as you enter Worcester. I had been living in the city for seven years and while I’d heard about the Hotel Vernon, I had never been there. One night a young friend called me up and sort of commanded me to come down to the Vernon. There I met an artist who was living upstairs in the Vernon (once a fancy hotel turned weekly hotel with a shared bathroom down the hall) and making a documentary of the place. He appears as “Alli” or “Al” in the book and was a vibrant character of the place for a time. But also, he had done a lot of research and interviewed all kinds of people about the place. He was the one who explained the murals on the walls down in the barroom that were a rendering of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” painted by “Captain” Joe Miron, the bartender, a trained painter, and son-in-law of the McGeady’s, who owned the place for so long. The murals were done in the 1940s and the poem’s characters appear as benevolent pirates.
(Consequently, photographs of the murals taken by my photographer friend Jennifer O’Leary compose the cover of my book). But also, Alli pointed out one mural on the back wall, which was the crudest of the paintings, unlike the others, showing a beach scene with sailors and beautiful Polynesian women. He told me that that was the one mural in the place that Al Capp painted—the cartoonist who did Li’l Abner.
MM: No way! A friend of mine from high school’s grandfather played one of the characters on that radio show Lum n’ Abner, another media depiction of hillbillies, which my mom remembers hearing, or at least hearing about from her parents, where she grew up in rural Kansas. 20th century Arkansas was just one giant small town—though we know it actually has more than several, distinct cultural areas—with roads leading to other regions, exporting cultural stereotypes—anyway….
LG: Definitely. And this connection to home as far away as New England was an electric moment for me since Li’l Abner was the one way that Arkansas was nationally depicted when I was growing up. Realizing in that moment that Arkansas, in a way, was everywhere made me know that I had to write about the Vernon. There was just something fortuitous about that discovery and it seemed like a book that landed in my lap, in some ways. So, I asked Bob Largess, the owner, for a job bartending for the summer and that was how I was able to spend so much time observing, writing and recording what I saw and heard. But one thing I should also mention is that while the core of the book got written in about six months, I sat on the manuscript for years because I wasn’t sure that it was exceeding a bar book. In the last few years before I started sending it out to presses for publication, I added to the manuscript and, I think, sharpened it up and towards the higher registers. I wanted to make sure that it was a book that I’d want to keep reading.
But to speak more to the “Apollonian principle of structure”: I realized as I was starting to write the poems for the book that it could get really narrative and Dionysian quickly. I didn’t want to write a book of poems only about story and excess.
So, I began thinking about the structure of the Vernon and that of Kelley Square. I would stand out on the Square and sketch it out on an artist’s pad; likewise, I’d do the same inside the barroom which had a few rooms or spaces with particular names, like “the Ship Room” and “Amen Corner.” I was also re-reading Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and trying to make sense of the space I was in and its impact on people and things. The poem “Poetics of the Scratched Patron” actually takes lines from Bachelard and collages them with names from a list of “scratched” patrons that I found behind the cash register. What a goldmine that was! Another find was a long list of people who weren’t supposed to come into the Vernon anymore and the descriptions were so funny and conversational—“Doyle—the fat one” comes to mind as the kind of distinguishing characteristic (because, of course, there was a thinner Doyle who hung around). Anyway, I began to think about the meaning of space and how the Hotel had been a place for politicians, newspapermen, artists since 1900. Why? How does a particular space invite us and invite deal-making, storytelling and other creative endeavors?
MM: And what did you figure out in the process of experiencing, researching, writing, and revising this manuscript?
LG: Well, quite a bit. Along with paying attention to the space of the place itself and also doing research on the Blackstone Canal and the neighborhood, people would come in and tell me stories of the patrons—like the guy who got hit by an ambulance and had a steel plate in his head or the guy who was caught pleasuring himself in a bakery delivery van outside one of the Catholic churches nearby…I heard so many wacky, difficult tales! And I learned that people will tell you a lot of stuff if they feel like you want to genuinely know. And so, I would ask the regulars about their memories of the neighborhood or what Worcester was like when they were growing up. They would sometimes act as if they didn’t want to tell me and so I’d give them a little space before they’d just start talking. You asked me what is a poem “here to do” and in this book it was certainly to “tell the truths” about this place, to paraphrase the Hanif Abduraquib essay you mention. To get at the grandeur and intelligence alongside the abject poverty and excesses. The Vernon itself was a place that by the 1970s had fallen into such dereliction—called “bucket o’ blood,” that kids were told to cross the street when they went by it. But of course, when it was built around 1900, it was the most elegant bar/hotel in the city where politicians went to do their backdoor deals. It had a speakeasy in it during Prohibition where Babe Ruth drank his rookie year with the Red Sox. It was a neighborhood place for such a long time where people would have send-offs for soldiers going to war or other types of gatherings.
And I discovered early on that Worcester, too, is that place that people, who don’t know it in any kind of intimate way, want to dismiss. Yes, it is a post-industrial city, but one that is endlessly fascinating in its history and the people who have lived and currently live there. The poets Stanley Kunitz, Charles Olson and Elizabeth Bishop grew up there. Kunitz’s father committed suicide in Elm Park, I learned one day—a few blocks from where I lived, by drinking carbolic acid due to some financial tragedy. The Industrial Revolution was partially born in Worcester, it turns out, and the goods that were sold were floated down the Blackstone Canal and out to Narragansett Bay near Providence, Rhode Island for about twenty years before railroads took over. So, I wanted to get all of this in the book as much as I could to broaden the understanding of the place. Also, the people who lived there and/or frequented the place were so smart and funny. There was good humor and lots of storytelling—alongside the boozing and drugging. A lot of the addiction that I witnessed there had to do with mental illness that hadn’t been addressed. There is a common story told in Worcester that during the Reagan administration the definitions of mental illness were changed and so those people who had been in care facilities were released. The story is told to explain what seems a high visibility of mental illness in the city. Now I have never investigated and verified this, but it did feel like there were a lot of people who needed help who couldn’t get it or who couldn’t get enough of it. I think a lot about the Gandhi quote about how a society treats its most vulnerable is its true measure. I didn’t want to glaze over the difficulty—or even the annoyance!—of these characters in the book, but I did want to show the humanity and community that I genuinely found at the Hotel Vernon.
MM: Finally, talk to us some more about your Michelle Boisseau Prize-winning poem and the vein from which it comes. No doubt there are other poems stacked up with this piece.
LG: Well the poem “In a Polish Dream” was probably started about seven or more years ago. The only recurring dream I have is one in which I’m driving but I realize that I’m actually in the backseat sleeping. I realize I have to get into the front seat and take the wheel but without waking myself up and ruining the spell of the car driving itself and staying on the road. So, yeah…clearly, this is a control/lack of control dream. Maybe it’s even an imposter syndrome dream, who knows? What I do know is that the poem was born from the first time I remember having the dream. It was so arresting and I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days. But as I sketched out the poem, I realized that the rest of the dream—where I make it into a Polish town (in my dream mind) and go looking for a place to stay, wasn’t really working. It kept winding up in a predictably quaint place. So, I let it be for a good while. In 2016 when I was living in Italy and starting to work seriously on a book of travel poems (now called The Swing at the Edge of the World), I went back to the poem. After the night of singing with our Polish neighbors in Ravenna I think I drafted the rest of the poem the next morning. The link, of course, being Poland—a country I have wanted to visit for so long and have yet to go.
The poem, I think, works in a haunted and layered way. The lines “Something isn’t right about my life. / I am excited /driving this dark away /from the past into /other pasts” are key for me. The second half of the poem feels like some kind of answer to these lines. It sets a scene, but it also—despite its past tenses, creates a kind of present and future that springs out of the dream and, yet, has nothing to do with it. This might be that sense of “unfinished” that John Gallaher used to describe it, I’m not sure.
I would say that it’s a hard poem for me to talk about in some ways because the connection between the opening dream scene of the poem and the “years later” that happens mid-poem is largely intuitive. The poem deals with the dislocation that dreams and travel create. How we both know things and/or people and don’t know them all at once. I go back to thinking about that bread spread with lard that our neighbors gave us for the next day’s breakfast which was true farm food—something, again, that my family might have made (okay, maybe their version was more biscuits and gravy and Vienna sausages, etc.). But it was something I had never had, but completely familiar. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised at any of this given the European cultural influence in the U.S., but when you’re traveling someplace new, everything is a marvel. And for me, poems are about how the mundane is made marvelous or how the strange is made familiar and kept strange simultaneously.
But I suppose Ravenna, the place that Dante was exiled to for the last nineteen years of his life and where he wrote The Divine Comedy, also seemed an intuitive yet connective choice. I mean it’s a poem that is also about traveling and being between places. He was exiled in Ravenna for political reasons and never returned to Florence—though they’ve been trying to bring his ashes back to the city, I understand. So, bringing Dante’s grave into the poem seemed right, but mostly an intuitive decision. But I also suppose that it’s an homage to this important writer. There’s so much we wouldn’t have without him.
The other poems in the collection deal with various travel observations and experiences: sighting a red fox in London’s East End at 9 a.m. (because you know that since WWII their territory has diminished and so they’ve improvised!), staying overnight in a Guatemalan refugee camp 25 years ago, observations on visiting slave castles while staying in a beach resort in West Africa and realizing that my hotel in Bucharest had a multi-lingual karaoke club and a glow-in-the-dark mini-golf course in its basement. But it also has to do with the impact of my reading during those travels: Pasolini’s Roman Poems, Kenneth Koch’s One Train, articles on immigration, the history of the ancients’ conquests along the Mediterranean and that of Lisa Ghirardini (Mona Lisa) who lived out her last years in a convent down the street from where I lived in Florence. Clearly, the tension between the familiar and the strange or unknown holds these things together.
The title of the collection is taken from an actual place in Baños, Ecuador called Casa del Arbol (House of the Tree). It is a swing that people of all ages visit to swing out over a canyon near Mount Tungurahua, an active volcano. It is one of those truly simple but remarkable experiences. Again, that tension between the familiar activity and the specifically unfamiliar. I mean who doesn’t love to swing? And who isn’t in awe of a volcano?
MM: A pleasure, Lea. Thank you.
LG: Yes, definitely a pleasure to talk place and poems with your readers in mind.
Lea Graham is the author of two poetry collections, From the Hotel Vernon (Salmon Press, 2019) and Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011); a fine press book, Murmurations (Hot Tomato Press, 2020), and three chapbooks, Spell to Spell (above/ground Press, 2018), This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016) and Calendar Girls (above/ground Press, 2006). She is the editor of the anthology of critical essays: From the Word to the Place: The Work of Michael Anania (MadHat Press, 2022). She is an associate professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and a native of Northwest Arkansas.