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The House Below the Hill

proctors ledge One of the most infamous episodes in American history, the Salem witch trials of 1692 have been studied in almost obsessive depth, but the subsequent executions of 19 innocent people has been relatively poorly documented. A research group known as the Gallows Hill Project has now proved conclusively, however, that the deaths by hanging were carried out not on the ominously named hilltop itself, as many had supposed, but on an area farther down the slope, called Proctor’s Ledge. The fact that the spot now stands next to a Walgreen’s drugstore, illustrating uncannily two extremes of American culture, is just one of the reasons that major news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Huffington Post have picked up on the story. But this discovery provides certainty to a story that has been plagued with rumor and mystery for three centuries.

The research team’s determination of the location began with the testimony of a woman accused of witchcraft named Rebecca Eames. During her own examination, Eames confirmed she had witnessed five hangings of already accused and convicted people from “the house below the hill.” This remark in Eames’s testimony provided an invaluable clue for Benjamin Ray, author of the recent Satan and Salem: The Witch Hunt Crisis of 1692 and curator of the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, and Chris Gist, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist in the Scholar’s Lab at UVA’s Alderman Library.

The research team believed that Eames’s “house below the hill” remark was in reference to a house on Boston Street. This was the main road that led into the courthouse and was across from several acres of public land, now called Gallows Hill. Researchers knew the executions took place on Gallows Hill, but they did not know exactly where. To find out, Ray and Gist analyzed maps of Salem drawn by early 20th-century Salem historian Sidney Perley, using technology that Perley lacked, namely GIS software. As Gist pointed out, “Anything that is spatial can be leveraged using GIS.” Using current topographical analysis, historical maps, and aerial photos, Gist created a view-shed analysis of the topography surrounding Boston Street and Gallows Hill to determine which ledges on the side of the hill would have been visible from the houses on Boston Street.

“We were able to spatialize history to gain more evidence and deepen the historical narrative,” Ray said. “We wanted to know which house Rebecca Eames was likely in and whether she was telling the truth. She had been deliberately lying in other parts of her testimony, confessing that she was a witch to save herself from the gallows. How could we be certain that she could see the executions as she testified, from any of the nearby houses? We also wanted to test the accuracy of Perley’s hand drawn maps. GIS mapping was the best way to tackle both questions.”

Identifying the site has few archaeological implications—the bodies were not buried at this location and, despite the suggestion of a gallows here, the hangings were probably carried out simply with a rope tied to the branch of a large tree—but it has profound historical and cultural significance, removing centuries of uncertainty and allowing the community of Salem to properly preserve and memorialize this important chapter in its history.

Some of the content in this post comes from the UVA Today article “X Marks the Spot.” Benjamin Ray’s Satan and Salem: The Witch Hunt Crisis of 1692 is available now.

Posted in History and Political Science, Main, Philosophy and Religion

Meet the Poets, Take 2

IMG_1930 For University Press Week we introduced you to two of the contributors to the latest edition of our annual poetry anthology, Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. In that interview, both poets discussed how they became writers, poetry’s place in the modern world, and their favorite work by other poets. In this follow-up we wanted to give them the chance to discuss their contributions to the Best New Poets book and to share the poems themselves. Last week we spoke to Tiana Clark. Our second poet is Emily Vizzo. The poem under discussion appears at the bottom of the post.

Q: Your poem focuses on a contemporary issue—undocumented immigration—but you approach it through a quite complex series of symbols and a vocabulary including words that resist even a dictionary (taxa, charlotte). Can you say something about the combination of such formal sophistication with an urgent social issue? You have very beautiful, mysterious passages alternating with mundane things such as lists and citations.

Emily Vizzo: I don’t think of my poem as focusing on undocumented immigration as a “contemporary issue.” I’ve lived in San Diego for 15 years, and in Southern California my whole life. The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and of the region itself, is something that makes me extremely uncomfortable from a humanitarian perspective, and I was writing into that discomfort from my own experience as a resident here. And I recognize that it’s a limited act, with very limited risk.

I work for a non-profit hospital in San Diego; there are signs warning pedestrians to watch for rattlesnakes in the parking lot. From my desk I can see giant, lumbering Osprey military aircraft and narrow, pointy, sky-tearingly loud jets flying from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar–over the Sorrento Valley, over the glassy La Jolla biotech villages, over the 805 and 5 freeways that funnel directly past Carmel Valley, past South Bay, past National City, past Imperial Beach, past Chula Vista, past Rancho del Rey, Otay Ranch, and San Ysidro, past the Sweetwater schools where I used to teach, down to the border.

En route to work, I routinely pass helicopters flying low over the Pacific Ocean, traveling between the downtown San Diego Naval Base or North County’s Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. When I would work in schools in San Diego’s East County, out past the Kumeyaay Highway, in small communities like Jacumba, Descanso, Pine Valley, and Campo, being stopped at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints is part of the deal.

I definitely wasn’t trying to write in a sophisticated way. I was trying to be careful and specific, respectful, conscientious in my language and thinking about this difficult entanglement. Maybe I failed at that, as I’ve failed at many things. I try to be humble, and a learner, and ready to do better and be better, always. I was trying to understand myself and where I live. The final lines from the poem come from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Q: For me the bear encompasses many forces, from a threatening border patrol to a whole history, but when my colleague read the poem she felt the bear represented the immigrant. The roles do blur in interesting ways. The bear might react in an unpredictable manner, but then the “you” in the poem has hidden layers as well: he/she is everything from a holstered pistol to mere “chum.” Is this complexity intentional, or is one of us simply an obtuse reader?

Emily Vizzo: The bear was something that maybe happened in the poem as a way to think about power, risk, and wanting something badly. I wasn’t planning to write about bears. The bear just came into the poem and immediately made room for itself. I didn’t think about it symbolizing one thing or another. I would definitely not attempt to convey a bear as symbolizing a whole history of anything. I don’t think it’s possible to know a whole history of anything.

As it turns out I work with a man who fought off a bear, a grizzly bear. When I got my flu vaccine a few weeks ago he was somehow helping to run the vaccine stations. Seeing the prominent scars–he lost most of his scalp during the attack–reminded me that while poems can be big things, they are also small things.

The U.S. Border Patrol may stop my car at a lone desert checkpoint. The officer may have a gun. He may lean into my rolled-down window to ask me questions and he may walk around my car with his terrifying dog. There may be no one else around for miles but me and these bored men in uniforms, with their polarized sunglasses and their semiautomatic guns. I guess anything could happen.

But there is a difference between writing about bears and fighting a bear. There is a difference between writing about bears and being a bear. I know that difference. Writing about a bear is the smaller thing.

Q: Is the long, intentionally prosaic title a quote from somewhere?

Emily Vizzo: Yes, it is. Probably ten years ago, maybe more, my mom bought me this book by the American historian David McCullough called The Path Between the Seas–it’s a history on the construction of the Panama Canal.

I finally read it last year, and I kept highlighting his incredible prose with a pink Crayola marker. The lines were so good, and so moving from both a historical and human perspective, that I decided to write a poem series using those highlighted lines as long poem titles. Thinking about that wild engineering endeavor, the trauma and death that it caused, the way it brought countries and laborers and big money together in these uncomfortable ways, made me think about the absurdity of this other thing, a big fortified wall separating the United States and Mexico, extending deep into the Pacific Ocean.

That has now become a manuscript of new poems, each with a Panama title. The poems themselves aren’t really about Panama. They’re about my life in Southern California, especially Ventura and San Diego. As a result they’re also about waiting tables, my dad’s work as a plumber, my early career covering Congress in Washington, D.C., post 9-11, my eight younger brothers and sisters, my great-grandmother Lucia, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy as a single mom (nine kids: two boys, seven girls, every daughter named Mary), teaching in Chula Vista, my grandfather sailing the Panama Canal on a post-World War II Navy goodwill tour, and the bizarre entanglement of Hollywood in normal life here. The house I grew up in, which my dad built, appeared without any permission or notification that I know of in the film Erin Brockovich, as part of that movie’s caricature of a poor semi-agricultural community in California. Writing the poems is helping me to understand my life, and to know my heart better.

Emily Vizzo

It was a miracle route everyone had been searching for and the story caused a sensation
—David McCullough

I.

To catch a bear
during daylight hours

draw a simple line of sugar
rimming the os ilium.

Make that be the telephone line
you use to call the dead.

Your ancestors will still be Ohio
bound, grassing.

Give them overnight charlotte
w/ the good news of passage.

There are four ways to become an American citizen:

1. Be born here.
2. Marry an American.
3. Become an American soldier.
4. Secure the necessary documents, called “green,” called “natural.”

Though there is the fifth way, less advertised.

II.
Around me, desert.

An angled border fence splits the leather
elbow of this mountain.

Upon approach I am filmed
by a camera flock.

There is a man with a large dog.
He walks around my car

twice.

III.

To catch a bear
during daylight hours

draw a simple line of sugar
rimming the os ilium.

Make room for your body
on the ground.

When finally a black bear
comes for you,

consider sweetness—
oranges, whole milk, candy wrappers, nectarines.

Let your body be a mouthful.
Let the black bear be

an American black bear. Your sister
taxa. What he takes from you at this point

depends on his hunger.
His will might be simple.

A lob of fur, rank. Cinnamon
huge skull & molar.

There may be an archipelago
of sugar mouthing, faintly erotic.

Rumbled underfur.
You may be violently claimed.

Remember, it was you that hoped
to catch a bear.

You huckleberry. You chum
salmon. You apiary. You pistol, holstered.

IV.

Reasons why you did not catch the bear

1. Your line of sugar, though sweet, was not simple.
2. The meat cupping your os ilium, though luscious, was not savory.
3. Curettage made tender your feet, your heart.
4. The black bear was not in fact American. See also: Apprehensions, San Diego Sector.
Unaccompanied alien children. Fiscal year 2014, 875. Fiscal year 2015, 987.

( Best New Poets 2015: Poems from Fifty Emerging Writers is available now.)

Posted in Featured, Literary and Cultural Studies

Meet The Poets, Take 1

TianaClark_Headshot For University Press Week we introduced you to two of the contributors to the latest edition of our annual poetry anthology, Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. In that interview, both poets discussed how they became writers, poetry’s place in the modern world, and their favorite work by other poets. In this follow-up we wanted to give them the chance to discuss their contributions to the Best New Poets book and to share the poems themselves. Our first poet is Tiana Clark.

Q: Your poem “The Frequency of Goodnight” features three generations of women. The first two share a waitressing life that leaves each exhausted. They fall asleep in front of the TV. The third, the grandmother, has entered a deeper sleep—namely death—but her own daughter blames television for the Alzheimer’s that killed her. Can you say something about the television theme in the poem? And do you see the hard work the women are engaged in as soul-killing, fortifying, or both?

Tiana Clark: The three generations of women become a triptych linked though television and frequencies, themes signifying transmission through matrilineal inheritance. There are no fathers, husbands, or lovers in this poem. These women are alone, fending for themselves. The television becomes the noise of that solitude, a modern siren song lulling the women to sleep with the threat of permanence, catatonic—a single blue light flickering in the dark. Additionally, television frequencies are invisible, and I wanted to conflate that with the hidden damage passed down from generation to generation. Yes, the manual labor physically taxes the body, but loneliness erodes the psyche.

Q: People will invariably read this poem as autobiography. Is this something that was hard to get used to as a poet? Does it feel strange to share your life with strangers?

Tiana Clark: I welcome it.

While a stigma may remain regarding confessional poetry and the lyric “I,” for me, there is power in showing my face, in revealing and reconciling my vulnerabilities on the page. I think of Muriel Rukeyser saying, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

During my first solo poetry reading, I was terrified. However, I remembered watching a video of Sharon Olds, discussing how she always brought a poem she was terrified to read. That resonated with me—often, my terror is rooted in truth. What I am most afraid to say is what I most need to write.

Q: The poem has a tag line “after Terrance Hayes.” Is there a particular poem by Hayes that served as your model here? His work is known for being formally adventurous and often abstract in a musical way, while your poem is a narrative that speaks to the reader though vivid, recognizable detail. Although extremely artful, your poem is very direct.

Tiana Clark: Thank you! Yes, the poem draws from “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. I was taking a poetry workshop with the amazing Kendra Decolo, and she shared this poem with us. We were all gobsmacked and moaning as we read it out aloud—this was my first introduction to the work of Hayes, and his collections have been profoundly important to me. For this particular poem, I repurposed his line “Let me begin again” as a reboot technique, to approach the narrative from different angles.

Although I think Terrance Hayes is a poetic genius, I’m not trying to write like Terrance Hayes. I will never be able to. The poetry world already has Terrance, and we are all the better for it. I’m still working on trying to write like Tiana Clark—I’m very interested in what she has to say.

The Frequency of Goodnight

after Terrance Hayes

“The duende is not in the throat:
the duende surges up, inside,
from the soles of the feet.”
-Federico García Lorca

Like so many nights of my childhood
I lived inside the fishbowl
of a one-bedroom apartment,
waited for my mother to come home
(from her second job). As a waitress
she wore orthopedic shoes for flat feet.
All her uniforms blur together: IHOP,
Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney’s…
This is how she tucked me in—
jingle and clack of keys
would turn the doorknob open
allow me to fall asleep.
She tucked me in—not with blankets
or a kiss on the forehead,
but with locking the door behind her.
My single mother would take those big,
boxy shoes off, unhook her bra
(too tired to take it all the way off)
and eat the left over pizza
I had ordered for dinner.
Television shadows flickered
her exhausted frame, smell
of other people’s food on her skin,
crumpled ones, fives, and tens
fanned out of her server book.
I heard the change from bad tippers
like hail on the kitchen counter.
Maybe for other children
the purr of the air conditioner, the sound
of a ceiling fan whisking the darkness,
or the steady neon glow of a nightlight
set their dreams ablaze?
But for me, hearing those keys
slipped me under the wing
of my mother’s white noise.

Let me begin again,
when I was a waitress during college,
I had the shoes that doctors and nurses
wore to support their posture.
On Saturdays I worked doubles,
toward the end of my two shifts
my pace would slow—
as I made laps around my tables,
picked up half eaten sandwiches,
grabbed wadded napkins with chewed
gristle. When we closed,
I’d be on my hands and knees,
as I swept litter from the day,
collected broken off ends of French fries,
dislodged pucks of used gum,
dragged swollen and leaky trash bags
to the dumpster.
Bone heavy and body tired—
I would come home,
take those heavy wooden clogs off.
Turn on some show and listen
to the cadence of dialogue
like a metronome tipping my head
to the baptism of sleep.

Let me begin again,
The first dead body I ever saw
was my grandmother. Alzheimer’s—
My mother said, She always left
that old TV on while she slept…
frequencies messed with her head
.
If I focus now, I can still see my mom
asleep in her uniform on the couch—
feet propped up, open pizza box
dappled in grease stains.
I would tiptoe and turn off the television,
slink back to our bedroom.
This is how I tucked her in.
This is how we said goodnight.

Best New Poets 2015: Poems from Fifty Emerging Writers is available now.

Posted in Literary and Cultural Studies, Main

A Talk with the Poets

UPW-Logo-2015 As part of University Press Week, the University of Virginia Press is proud to take part in a week-long blog tour. Today’s theme is “Presses in Conversations with Authors.” Please visit the other presses posting new content today— Temple University Press, Columbia University Press, Beacon Press, University of Illinois Press, Southern Illinois University Press, University Press of Kansas, Liverpool University Press, University of Toronto Press Journals, and Manchester University Press.

*     *     *

When we heard the theme of today’s leg of the University Press blog tour was “Presses in Conversations with Authors,” we immediately thought of the latest edition of Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. That’s fifty new authors, after all. Poets Tiana Clark and Emily Vizzo were kind enough to answer our questions, and we give them our most sincere thanks. A longer version of each interview will be posted next week. For now, here are some highlights.

Q: When did you begin writing poetry? What was the inspiration?

Tiana Clark: I grew up the only child to a single mother who worked several jobs—IHOP, Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney’s—so I was alone with my imagination most of the time. Creating worlds within this world, creating the characters to place inside those worlds, became an escape hatch for me. My formative years were spent speaking back to the silences that filled our apartment. I spoke to myself often—still do. That was my coping mechanism, a way to imbue my life with language. In a way, this impulse to create, to dream, and to express myself vocally was grasping towards poetry before I ever put pen to paper. I still like to think of create writing as a form of a play, a way to re-access that childlike sense of spontaneous improvisation. It helps me self-soothe.

Emily Vizzo: I started out writing as a way to be alone, I think. Growing up in a big family (I’m the oldest of nine kids) there was always a lot going on. The summer of my junior year in high school, my mom let me keep her electric typewriter in my bedroom.

Late at night, I would keep my bedroom window open, listening to the highway directly behind my house, smelling the boggy Pacific marine layer creep over the garlic fields and strawberry fields, smelling the neighborhood night jasmine and the lemon tree in our midtown Ventura backyard. I would gnaw through cups of crushed ice and grape juice concentrate all night as I typed away.

All the empty white space surrounding my poems on those pages felt charged and ecstatic to me. It felt really radical and kind of debauched to allow that much room to surround what I had to say about my life and the way it felt to be alive and in my body.

There now seems to me something extraordinary and lucky to have been awake and writing in a house where my parents and sisters and brothers were sound asleep, in their safe, warm bodies. We all had these lives to live, hopefully these long and happy lives, but this was that short time period where we lived together. And something about that closeness made me a writer, too.

Q: Have you formally studied poetry and/or taught it? Can poets learn from each other, or is the workshop and MFA world primarily a network generator? Does poetry thrive outside such an environment, or does there have to be an academic component attached to it?

Emily: Yes, I’ve formally studied poetry and I’ve taught it too. I believe that poets learn from each other, just as they learn from other things and other people. The value of workshops and the MFA “world” seems to me a personal value. Poetry can happen anywhere. I’ve always loved school, so I loved the experience of being in school to study poetry. But others might view that experience as not important or valuable because they learn differently. I respect that perspective, just as I acknowledge that formal education is a privilege that is more available to some people than others. Poetry is better and stronger when there are more people at the table. Not just sitting at the table, but standing on the table, kicking apart the table, using the table as fuel for a bigger, warmer fire.

Tiana: Muriel Rukeyser has this wonderful poem, “The Backside of the Academy,” which addresses the “closed bronze doors” of academic institutions in juxtaposition to the open, vibrant, and diverse neighborhood that surrounds the Academy. Here, the formal and informal college and beg the reader to investigate: where does art reside? If art remains one possible way of working towards truth, then who gets to claim ownership? The classical music and chiseled meter inside the gates, or the graffitied profanity outside?

The first time I applied to Vanderbilt I was rejected. But I couldn’t stop writing. I licked my wounds, and sought out whatever the Nashville creative scene had to offer. I found mentors, attended various reading series (both inside and outside academia), and took several poetry workshops through a local literary arts center. I started a monthly workshop group with fellow writers, and I signed up to for local Open Mic nights. During this period, I worked full-time, using my lunch breaks to write. I did this for three years before I decided to reapply—this time with better results. I learned to hustle and grind on my own—no formal program can teach you that perseverance. James Baldwin said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” Now that I’m at Vanderbilt, I’m grateful that I built that foundation for myself to thrive off of first. I taught myself how to exist as a poet. I truly believe you can start writing—and grow as a writer—wherever you are, no matter who you are. There is no formula.

Q: How did you hear about the Best New Poets anthology? How do you think it fits into a community of poets, if there is such a thing?

Tiana: When I find a poet’s work that I admire, I check where else they’ve published—it’s often get-img.xqy the most effective and efficient way to find poetic sustenance. I was reading Anders Carlson Wee’s contributor note and noticed Best New Poets for the first time. Soon after, BNP resurfaced attached to other wonderful poets like Peter LaBerge, Ocean Vuong, Meg Day, Tarfia Faizullah, and Phillip B. Williams. Usually this biographical scavenger hunt leads me towards new poets and literary magazines to add to my ever-growing list. This process is one way poets find each other, how good work spreads across communities and consciousness. The Best New Poets anthology absolutely fits into—and enhances—the poetry community, because it is a vehicle for us to connect, to gain access to other writers when often creating the work itself is such an intimately private process.

Q: What is your favorite poem?

Tiana: My favorite poem remains the first poem I memorized: “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. There is power in language, and there is power in claiming this poem, by reciting it aloud and with swagger. As an awkward twelve-year-old girl just beginning to become a woman, this poem was a necessary battle cry for my newly forming identity. I still repeat the phrase when I need a boost of feminine adrenaline. I have to claim that power continually—there are too many voices that tell me I’m not worthy. This poem helps me resist that darkness.

Emily: One of my favorite poems is “My Father,” by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

My Father

The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.

Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,

and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.

That poem was one of the first I ever read that made me feel I could write poetry, too – that I could write about my life. We used to run out to the front porch when we heard my dad’s work truck pull into the driveway for dinner. My dad is a plumber; he still wears that dark blue uniform with a patch spelling his name in cursive letters. His dad started a plumbing shop in Ventura back in the sixties.

There was a lot of laundry growing up. We must have folded those navy pants and buttoned those striped shirts onto their wire hangers a million times.

My parents had seven daughters and two sons – we’ve always been a family of strong, independent women. I’ve spent a lot of time, so many years, my whole life, thinking and writing about my sisters and my mom.

But lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I learned from my dad in the quiet, steady way he approaches his life. Thinking about the gifts hard work can give you, and about what it means to be a good person.

We will publish a complete version of each interview next week. Best New Poets 2015 will be available later this month.

Posted in Literary and Cultural Studies, Main

The Gales of November Came Early

EF_headline Tuesday, 10 November, marks the fortieth anniversary of the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. The largest vessel on the Great Lakes when it was launched in the mid-1950s, this iron-ore freighter hit a surprise storm on route from Superior (near Duluth) to Detroit in November of 1975 and went down with her entire 29-member crew. In addition to the many lives lost, the never-solved mystery of what ultimately brought the Fitzgerald down has made this tragedy one of the touchstones of shipwreck lore, inspiring countless news stories, books, and even a top-ten song by Gordon Lightfoot that, over the course of six tortuous minutes, will have you raising your tankard of beer to the lost crew.

The sites of two of the memorial services dedicated to this somber anniversary—the Mariners’ Church of Detroit and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Bay—as well as the history of other places associated with shipping on Lakes Michigan, Erie, Huron, and Superior, are recounted in the revised edition of the Buildings of Michigan by Kathryn Bishop Eckert, part of the Buildings of the United States series published by the University of Virginia Press in association with the Society of Architectural Historians. Subscribers of the architectural-history archive SAH Archipedia may view this content online (for non-subscribers, Archipedia is available for free trial).

Posted in Art and Architecture, Featured, History and Political Science, Rotunda

The Art of Translation

Authors reading from their own work is an old tradition, but here is something a little different—a translator reading from his own work. Robert McCormick gave a reading recently at Franklin University in Switzerland, where he is Professor Emeritus in Literature and Creative Writing. The text was his translation of Louis Philippe Dalembert’s L’Autre Face de la mer. Known in English as The Other Side of the Sea, this brief, exquisite novel tells the story of a woman and her grandson in Haiti, both of whom yearn to escape Duvalier’s dictatorship.

Posted in Caribbean and African Studies, Literary and Cultural Studies, Press News

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