AWP 2014: Hidden Populations Panel: The Saddest Place
March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments
Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.
Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”
“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”
A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”
Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”
The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.
Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.
Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”
Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.
So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.
“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.
“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”
Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.
Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.
And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.
Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.
First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.
Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.
The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.
As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.
The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?
Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.
One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.
Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”
Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.
All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).
Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.