So, as I mentioned, I have done a couple of writing residencies of the more “typical” sort (i.e., a bunch of artists living together in a beautiful place, being fed regularly and generally looked after, summer-camp-style). I must admit that I love this kind of residency. The being-cooked-for alone cannot be underestimated. But last fall I was lucky enough to try out a whole other sort of residency experience. I spent three months living in the childhood home of southern novelist Carson McCullers in Columbus, Georgia, thanks to the Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship. (Marguerite and Lamar were the parents of Lula Carson Smith, later known as Carson McCullers.) And I was the only one living in that house for those months, though people came and went some, since the more formal front of the house is a kind of museum dedicated to Carson’s life and work, and since university events and readings were held there every now and then. Those occasions were sort of surreal, actually. I never knew whether or not to put shoes on, before I skulkingly emerged from the back of the house.
My stint on Stark Avenue was a very interesting and intense time for a number of reasons. For one thing, I found that I spent a lot of time trying to understand what it meant that Carson had lived and written there. In the room that was once her bedroom there are glass cases that hold some of her old things. For example, her typewriter is there, her eye-glasses, some small white gloves, her childhood record-player, a personal check, her watch, a metal trunk she used to travel with, her high school yearbook, etc. I would stand in front of these objects and try to wrap my head around what it meant that they had been hers, in the same way that I am surrounded by similar objects that I call mine each day. How strange that they remained, impossibly physical and durable, and she did not. (It sounds so obvious and banal when I try to explain it, but the encounter with these facts was very stunning to me at the time.) In the corner of the bedroom was a blown-up photograph of Carson at her desk with her typewriter (the same one now on display). She is turned to gaze disdainfully at the camera. The corner pictured in the photograph is the same corner the photograph is propped in; it’s where she sat and wrote part of her novel The Member of the Wedding.
I actually read The Member of the Wedding for the first time while I was living in the house. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter had been an extremely important book to me early on, and this made living in Carson’s childhood home especially poignant. But Member I hadn’t come across before, and, in a way, I’m glad I hadn’t. Reading it in the Stark Avenue house, where she wrote part of the novel, and in Columbus, where the novel is set (though not named), was a very moving experience. (It also became my new favorite work of hers, and I recommend it to poets in particular, since the way the novel thinks and moves and uses language are very much the stuff of poetry.) Now I didn’t only have to wrap my head around Carson’s simultaneous absence and presence, but also that of Frankie, the main character of Member; she’s twelve and is infuriating and endearing and vivid. In what way did she live more here than if I’d read the novel in Missouri or Maryland? Was there a difference, besides in me? The shining opposition of temporariness and enduring presence was very alive for me during those months of the residency. And, in fact, one of the most substantial pieces of writing that came out of my time there was a long poem that dealt with just these matters and materials: Carson, Frankie, Columbus, the house, temporariness, solitude, connection, etc. That poem is, I believe, the longest I’ve written (about seven pages), and, happily, will appear in Western Humanities Review later this year or early next year.
Another reason these months were particularly tied up with the tension between temporariness and presence is that I was going through a break-up. Living by yourself in a big house, in an unfamiliar town, with no enforced structure to your days while going through a break-up is not something I would necessarily recommend; though, in retrospect, I don’t regret that it happened while I was there. It may sound clichéd, but it’s true that I needed to be still with what I was feeling; I needed to sit in its miserable stew and cry and just be where I was. Had I been at one of the more prototypical residencies, I might have found more ways of deflecting. As it turned out, I did make some wonderful friends while I was in Georgia, and so there were some much-needed nights of good food and wine and conversation during the second half of my stay. But the first half was pretty solitary. My ritual for myself at night, after a day’s work, was to sit out on the wonderfully wide and high-ceilinged front porch and drink red wine spritzers. I alternated between staring out at the wide, mostly quiet neighborhood street, and (my saving grace) talking on the phone with friends, who kindly listened to me night after night and humored slightly melodramatic questions like, “…but what do you think everything is for? what do you think everything is going toward?”
At the McCullers house there wasn’t a ready-made, live-in community waiting, as there were at other residencies I’d been to, so I had to work harder to find that sense of connectedness, both in my daily life and in my poems. When I wrote each day, I opted not to sit at the big desk in my office, or at the smaller desk in my bedroom, but out on the front porch, where I set up a small collapsible card table and rolled out a desk chair. There I felt like I was withdrawn from the world enough to concentrate, but still, in a way, part of the life of the street and neighborhood. Sometimes I was happy to see people strolling by or doing yard work, and other times, when I was particularly absorbed, I felt irrationally invaded when they would look up toward the porch at me – as though a stranger had just peered into my living room windows. But I liked that tension of simultaneous connection and disconnection from the world.
And, in a way, this tension is very similar to the one I feel animates poems, which are really more about desire for connection than actually finding it. We never know, after all, in the midst of writing a poem, whether there will be an audience or an individual person who is intimately reached by what we have written. All we can experience is the wish for that union of common understanding. That experience was writ large during my first couple months at the McCullers house, when the things I was mainly striving to connect with (the house, Carson, her belongings, her novel, Frankie, etc.) were things I could really only hope to connect to through an act of imagination. And I must say, after I had written the long poem that did its best to commune with the place itself, I felt much more at home there – much more a part of things.
As a tribute to Carson and her work, I’d like to leave you with the stunning opening to The Member of the Wedding, which is itself a tribute to the achingly human desire to be a member of something:
"It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an un-joined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. In June the trees were bright dizzy green, but later the leaves darkened, and the town turned black and shrunken under the glare of the sun. At first Frankie walked around doing one thing and another. The side walks of the town were gray in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass. The sidewalks finally became too hot for Frankie’s feet, and also she got herself in trouble. She was in so much secret trouble that she thought it was better to stay at home—and at home there was only Berenice Sadie Brown and John Henry West. The three of them sat at the kitchen table, saying the same things over and over, so that by August the words began to rhyme with each other and sound strange. The world seemed to die each afternoon and nothing moved any longer. At last the summer was like a green sick dream, or like a silent crazy jungle under glass. And then, on the last Friday of August, all this was changed: it was so sudden that Frankie puzzled the whole blank afternoon, and still she did not understand."