Corrie Williamson will be our judge for the Alice Osborn Award for poems written by adults for children.
She has an unusual view point from which she considers the impact of 2020 on the role of the poet:
“Let me begin by saying that I am perhaps an anomalous source to ask this question of, at this moment in time. I have spent the majority of 2020 – beginning March 31st, as the fellow at the PEN Northwest/Margery Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, and have lived in a small, off-grid cabin two hours from cell service or internet in an old fir and madrone forest in southwestern Oregon, up a steep canyon from the wild Rogue River. In some ways I have been sheltered from the events of 2020. In other ways, they have been sharply on my mind with the clarity that distance sometimes brings. I say the following with one month left of my sojourn in the wilderness; I say it willing to have my mind changed upon re-immersion.
What I say is this: I don’t believe that the role of the poet has been fundamentally altered by the events of 2020. Now, the world we live in, write about, and hope to make better has changed, no doubt about it. We as people, if we’re paying attention, have changed. Under our feet the sands shift.
2020 has not been an easy year. But that pleasing numeric, reminiscent of keen eyes and the old adage about hindsight, is just a bracket containing and helping us consider a particular chunk of geologically minuscule time. And those neat brackets seem intent on cutting off bloodlines and ties and connections running forward and back. 2020, after all, is the scion of 2019, and while the US first began to sit up and take note of COVID-19 this past February of 2020, the virus’ launch into bloodstreams and eventual colonization of immune systems the word over began at the close of the previous year. The fires that burnt five million acres in one week in the west ravaged landscapes and ecosystems whose moisture began accumulating with the fall rains of the prior year, and are the consequence of rising temperature and aridity we’ve been well aware we’re causing and doing so little about now for decades. Police brutality and the relentless violence against black bodies are not a 2020 invention. A thousand sad or silly memes lament and lambaste 2020 for its cruelty and chaos, as if both were new, and will suddenly go away when the new year’s bell rings in 2021. A sweet dream in the age of instant gratification.
You could make the case, I suppose, that poets are sometimes valued more in hard times, more widely read during crisis and trouble. Over the past year we’ve seen book stores thriving as many socially distancing, home bound people turn to the written word and do their best to support locally owned businesses. A dear friend who owns a bookstore in my home in Montana told me: “People are loving reading right now – information as escape.” While I know it to be true that some poets publishing books in the COVID era are struggling to gain audiences and readership without the bump of in-person reading events and book tours, I’m certainly happy to think of readership widening and deepening. But I think this simply reflects and reminds us of a role for poets that is very old.
Langston Hughes did not need 2020 to tell us about inequality and the struggles of black folks during segregation. Seamus Heaney didn’t need it when he described the Troubles in Northern Ireland in Station Island. Whoever wrote what is often considered the world’s oldest surviving poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, on stone tablets nearly 4,000 years ago didn’t need 2020 to write about the harmful rule of a selfish king or the wanton destruction of the cedar forests. I could go on, but I trust you take my point. Does that mean we should fail to learn from the hard lessons of 2020? Of course not – just that we should always be learning those lessons, of every hard year, of every hard day. They’ve appeared in poems for millennia; they will appear in the days to come, and they are essential, and urgent.
Though I’ve mentioned a couple of poets addressing socio-cultural or political struggle, I don’t think that all poets can, will, or should address such issues. We have our own as well as collective stories. Times are always tough for somebody. Somebody is always hurting, struggling, fighting against injustice. Perishing. Right now, times happen to be hard for more of us than we’ve previously considered “normal.” Meanwhile, poets are doing, I believe, what they have always done. They have their ears to the ground. They are witnesses and news-bearers. Their great gifts are empathy, compassion, connection. They seize a moment, image, phrase, and distill them into transferable meaning. “Writing poetry,” Sam Hamill says, “is a form of concentrated listening.” Poets will listen to different stories and whispers, and write the ones that feel urgent to them. They may write about COVID or George Floyd or the Dakota Access Pipeline or Ruth Ginsburg’s death or the election. Or they may write about their grandmother losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. Or their boredom. Or what’s for dinner. Or their child laughing. Or their anxiety. Or the memory of seeing a stark white heron in the tidal flats as a small child and holding that memory as a totem for forty years without telling anyone until she put it into a poem, as my friend recently did in a draft she honored me by sharing.
The role of the poet has always been to shine light – on the beautiful, the fleeting, the sweet, sure, but also on the tragic, the unjust, the mind-numbingly brutal, the painful and the shameful, the stuff that makes us weep and squirm. What’s the old saying – art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
If there’s one caveat to my claim here, it would be that I do perceive a somewhat more serious movement, a more open and vulnerable (and also more complex) conversation, around elevating the voices of marginalized poets and oppressed communities, to ensure that these voices are heard and these stories told. I do not think that this is a product purely of 2020, but I do believe the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have pushed this idea deeper into the minds of writers everywhere and, in some cases, into the commitments and missions of journals and publishing houses. I hope it lasts; it’s up to us as writers and readers to see that it does.
Poets, like everyone else, must be active architects of the world they want to live in. I believe that every day of every year should make us better – first as people, all of us. The suffering of others – and the lights shone on that suffering by whatever source, be it a free press or a poem or the scent of smoke in the air or the knock of a neighbor on the door at evening – should make us better, more compassionate, more generous, more careful of one another and the world. The work of poets is to let such learning, heart-breaking as it often is, seep into poems. If we are lucky, someone will hear or read, and be moved – moved to action, maybe, or maybe just moved, which is worth more than we tend to acknowledge. It happens every day, and that won’t change.”
Corrie shares the following poem with us:
Fincastle, Virginia, 1804
What clamored squall
in startling a tom turkey
back to chestnuts’ shelter
from his worm shucking
in the dawn-wet fields,
ritual of snaring &
snipping from their lives
the little soileaters pulled up
like thread from the earth’s
stormy needlepoint canvas
to keep from drowning.
He squabbles in shade
now, hunts leaf litter
& de-armors the chestnuts
beneath their mother trees,
watch-keepers aged & aging
in their uninterrupted
dominion. Time is its own
form of idle malady, which
stirs, brews, fruits, or
readies its black powder
beyond our knowing. All
things abide here between
summon & pluck.
Originally published in The Arkansas International
Corrie Williamson was born on a small farm in southwestern Virginia. She is the author of two books of poetry, The River Where You Forgot My Name (Crab Orchard Series/SIU Press 2019) and Sweet Husk (Perugia Press 2014). She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, with a BA in Poetry and Anthropology, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of Arkansas, where she was a recipient of the Walton Fellowship, and a Director of the Writers in the Schools Program. She has taught writing at the University of Arkansas, Helena College, and Carroll College, and worked as an educator in Yellowstone National Park. She was the 2020 resident of the PEN Northwest/Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, spending seven months off-grid along the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, Shenandoah, and many others. She lives in Montana.