Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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New on the bookshelf: “Had Slaves” by Catherine Sasanov

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What if you discovered a family secret, something that shook your whole idea of the family you came from? How would you begin to think about it, make sense of it? If you’re a poet, you might write about it, which is what Catherine Sasanov did when she discovered that members of her family had been slaveowners in 19th century Missouri. The result is her new poetry collection, “Had Slaves.”

I spoke with Catherine for my Boston Globe column back when she had written a chapbook called “Tara” about her family’s slave-holding past. Now this full-length collection is out from Firewheel Editions. In 2009 it was the winner of the Sentence Book Award, which is given annually to a manuscript consisting entirely or substantially of prose poems or other hard-to-define work situated in the grey areas between poetry and other genres. It was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series.

Catherine spent four years researching the lives of the Steele slaves of Southwest Missouri. She is the author of two previous poetry collections, "Traditions of Bread and Violence" (Four Way Books) and "All the Blood Tethers" (Northeastern University Press), and the libretto for "Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours," commissioned by Mabou Mines. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Mexico’s National Fund for Culture and the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her journal publications include Pleiades, Field, Hotel Amerika, Agni, and Poetry. She lives in Boston. Her readings are listed at her website.

In reviewing the book for, Sima Rabinowitz wrote, "Sasanov demonstrates here, as she has in the past, that it is possible to tell a story in verse that takes advantage of what makes poetry so powerful, its magnificent potential for restraint, economy, and a kind of emotional precision that nearly defies comprehension."

I asked Catherine to tell more about “Had Slaves” and this is what she said:

“’Had Slaves’ was written out of my discovery in 2005 of slaveholding among my Missouri ancestors, and my field and archival research into what happened to their slaves. The book consists of lyric poems and prose poetics ending with a notes section. The notes are not there to explain the poems, but to help with greater historical or cultural context if readers want that. Since America’s racial history has been so poorly looked into and discussed, it felt important to make notes available.

“I’ve come to my subject as a first generation northerner on my father’s side. Except for two pieces of paper in my family's possession (an 1857 will where my ggg-grandfather, Richard Steele, leaves nine men, women, and children to his family members, and a note left by an elderly cousin where the words had slaves appear) there were no other written or spoken traces in my home of my bloodline's involvement with slaveholding. For that matter, except for the mention of a handful of events, the lives of my white ancestors were shrouded in silence, too. As if the past couldn't endure the journey from Springfield, Missouri, to Rockford, Illinois, the city my father settled in after WWII and where I was born and raised.

“It still takes my breath away to think that I could have gone to my grave without any idea of my family's slaveholding past, that something so terrible could have been swallowed up in silence. It didn’t help that I also grew up with a very ‘Gone With the Wind’ idea of the landscape it took to nurture slavery. A small Ozarks grain farm with tarantulas mating in the corn wasn’t my idea of Tara. As if slavery couldn’t survive outside of an environment rich in moonlight, magnolias, Spanish moss, oak alleys, Southern belles, mammy, and the big house. These revelations really drove me to work against myth and bad history regarding where slavery took place, and who was involved in it. God-fearing ministers held slaves. Revolutionary War soldiers fighting for freedom owned them. Small landowners and men who supported the Union troops during the Civil War kept them. Examples of all four of these slaveholders exist in my bloodline alone.

“I traveled to Southwest Missouri in 2006 to do field and archive research, trying to find out what happened to the Steele slaves and freedmen. If I hadn’t come to the area already knowing that slavery was a part of its landscape, I would never have guessed it. Evidence that the black Steeles ever existed kept coming back paper, kept coming down archival, since every visual trace of slavery has been passively or actively eradicated from Greene County except in words. The evidence lurks in census, probate, and court documents, in business ledgers, doctor’s notes, bills of sale, tax lists, wills, appraisal sheets, death certificates, land deeds, Civil War pension files, marriage licenses, and plat maps. Paper as a kind of amber preserving the past. Its data are often untrustworthy, sometimes on purpose, sometimes from sloppiness. And while I logically knew that the information I looked at translated into human beings, the language of slavery is often constructed to make it easy for readers to distance themselves from the people being discussed. They can never be clearly envisioned.

“In writing ‘Had Slaves,’ I became something of a forensic anthropologist, fleshing out the bare boned, fragmented information I was uncovering about the individuals my ancestors owned. I wanted to make real that it was lives my family held in bondage, not a bit of cursive on a page, or a group of names that could be lumped into a faceless, unindividuated mass called slaves. At the same time, I wanted to reflect on how difficult it is to resurrect the dead when one works within the straitjacket of a shamed history: the paucity of details, lack of images of the people one is discussing, and nothing in their own words. I reflect on this absence in a number of poems, but the poem that most embodies it is the shortest in the book. It was written out of my knowing only that 19-year-old Steele slave Edmund was bequeathed by Richard Steele to his eldest son, a man who’d come up from Tennessee to collect him. The poem in its entirety reads:

Willed, Bequeathed: Edmund, Walked Towards Tennessee,
Is Never Seen Again: September 1860

The sky, the bloody
meat of it,
sutures itself
with geese

“Life was particularly brutal the further south a slave was sent, and it’s possible that Edmund may have been sold beyond Tennessee by his new owner, a man who may have been more interested in cash than another slave on the eve of the Civil War. It was something I had to consider since Edmund isn’t named among the black Steeles of Tennessee or Missouri after Emancipation.

“Slavery officially ended in the 1860s, but many of the people who survived it lived deep into the twentieth century, nipping at the heels of my birth. It staggers me that John D. Steele, the youngest slave owned by my family when the Civil War ended, died only four years before I was born."

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The Occasional Recipe: beef stew

Saturday, March 13, 2010

It’s almost spring, the snowdrops are out, and our dinner thoughts should be turning to asparagus and lamb. And yet, here in Boston, there are plenty of days when hearty winter fare still feels like the right way to go. Maybe beef stew that’s been in the oven for hours, sending delicious smells through the house and making the kitchen warm.

Here’s an easy one that never fails. It’s from my late friend Dan Murphy, who served it in front of the fireplace with a warm, crusty baguette, a first course of green salad, and a dessert of homemade chocolate pudding. Perfect! He got it from a book called “Cooking from Quilt Country.”

2 lbs stew beef
3-4 potatoes
3-4 carrots
2 ribs celery
3 small onions
1 28-oz. can tomatoes
1/4 c. water
5 tbsp. minute tapioca
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 300°. Cut meat into bite-size pieces. Prepare vegetables, cut into about 1-inch pieces.
2. In large heavy roasting pan combine all ingredients except parsley.
3. Bake, covered, for 5 hours without stirring.
4. Add parsley just before serving.

Two notes. First, about the parsley. I have no doubt that it would be a tasty addition. But I have never failed to forget it. Just as I’m cleaning up after dinner I find that little mound of washed and chopped parsley, waiting eagerly for its close-up. (“Is it time now?”) Oh, well. I now consider it optional.

And most importantly, about the direction to bake for 5 hours “without stirring.” I have always taken this to mean both the stew and the cook. So put the stew in the oven and sit down with a good book. Maybe light a fire. After all, it’s only March.

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Where do our words go?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This Sunday afternoon, March 14, I’m reading in Plymouth in “Poetry: The Art of Words,” the Mike Amado Memorial Series. The series is named for someone I never met, but to whom I am connected in a strange and humbling way.

One thing I know about Mike Amado is that one of the great pleasures of his brief life was writing poetry. Mike was ill for most of his life and died of kidney disease when he was just 34. He lived in Plymouth and was a musician and poet, the author of two collections, “Poems: Unearthed from Ashes” and “Rebuilding the Pyramids.”

Mike was also a member of the Bagel Bards, an informal group of Boston-area poets that meet on Saturday mornings, usually around an Au Bon Pain table in Davis Square. And that’s where he and I have a connection. I’ve sat around that table, too, and, when I wrote a column for The Boston Globe, I once wrote about the group. Mike read the column, found a poetry home at that table. The contacts he made there led to wider publication of his work and to frequent readings. He published his two books, started a reading series in Plymouth, attended a summer writing conference, and became a presence among area poets. Then he died, in early 2009.

His friend Jack Scully told me all this this later. It was Jack who had shown Mike my column and it is Jack who keeps the reading series going, with featured readers and an open mike.

Here is an excerpt from Mike's poem "An Offering of Eagle Feathers," which was published in Wilderness House Literary Review 4/4:

Show me the path through the pines, Let me feel
raindrops from young, green maples drape
my shoulders as I freely walk home again.
Here I will lay eagle feathers before we all become extinct.

So this Sunday when I’m the featured poet, I’ll be feeling the connection I have with this young poet I never met. But I’ll also be thinking about how our words, written and spoken, ripple out from our small circles and end up in places we cannot predict. We can never know their impact, good or bad. We can only know that they take on a life of their own. Sometimes we find out a little about where they go and whom they touch. And we can hope that they go out into the world to do good things.

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Art Appreciation

Monday, March 8, 2010

I did a reading yesterday at the Concord Free Library. As invariably happens, I found myself feeling grateful for the turnout of people who came to hear poetry. To really hear it, in the most profound sense. To open themselves to the experience and take in the sound and sense of someone else's words.

It was a fresh reminder of our human hunger for art at all levels, which runs so sadly counter to all the knee-jerk budget slashing that throws arts programs overboard first in any school budget cutbacks.

I was thinking of that on Saturday night when my friends Erica and Don and I watched a fascinating documentary film called “Herb and Dorothy.” It’s about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who, on modest civil service incomes, amassed an art collection now housed at the National Art Gallery in Washington, with overflow pieces being parceled out throughout the 50 states. It is a story of people who simply loved art and who took the time to pay attention, to look carefully, and also to talk with artists about their work.

Although the experience begins in pleasure, it’s a hugely generous thing to open oneself fully to art. To try to understand what was behind the creation of a work involves the kind of deep connection between people that lets us bring the best of ourselves to each other. I often find it useful and fun--especially when confronted, say, with a painting or with music that feels challenging--to try to imagine what its creator might have felt in the process. What was he or she thinking about? Trying to do? Wanting us to notice?

I was in London recently and, on walking into the British Museum, was drawn to an exhibit of one of the museum’s oldest items, a pair of reindeer, apparently swimming. It was carved into the tip of a mammoth tusk, possibly 13,000 years ago. Why? There is no way to know. We may guess that it was some kind of totem. Or it might have been carved in tribute to the animals that provided sustenance. But there is also the possibility that the carver created it solely as an expression of the world around him or her. Art! Our earliest evidence of its centrality in our lives.

Maybe it’s art that, at the deepest level, makes us human. And, whether or not we recognize it, our willingness to experience art, as much as our ability to make it, is our most basic human connection.

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The time of our lives

Monday, March 1, 2010

I have the honor of being a guest blogger on the blog of Melusine, an online journal of literature and art. (I am also delighted to have a poem in the current issue.) The blog post is about boredom, something I always dismissed, but am now taking a new look at.

A few years ago someone said that time plays a major role in my poetry. If that’s the case, I’m not surprised. It is a major theme in my life--my use of time, our allotted time, the accumulation of time. What I was thinking about when I wrote the piece on boredom was how we have so many tiny and often inconsequential demands on our time that we don’t even have enough time to get bored, and I think that’s a loss.

I used to have no tolerance for boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” was my watchword. But I’ve begun to think that what used to be boredom may now be more aptly called “unstructured time.” Every minute of our lives seems to have its demands, its--as Keats said in a way-pre-Google age--"irritable reaching after fact." Few of those demands are important and most of them are set up by us.

I thought about this--and wrote about it--recently when I found myself tempted by a shiny new smartphone. I have to confess that I have still not entirely closed the door on that, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to make my decision in a way that still keeps me in charge of my time.

So here’s my new thinking on boredom. If we fill up every available minute, maybe we’ll never experience boredom. But maybe, too, we’ll never have the available time to think the thoughts that would be most creative or would make us most aware or would in some way add to the pleasure and significance of our lives. Maybe the free time, the unconnected time, to be a little bored would be the best gift we could give ourselves.

Here’s a challenge I'm setting for myself and offering to you, too: unplug a little. Not completely, just a little. See what comes into your mind. Maybe think of it as the new and improved boredom.

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“How do you read a book of poems?”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That’s what my friend Michael asked in an e-mail he sent me today. Michael is a major reader, devouring books in astonishing numbers, across genres and centuries, and he is a thoughtful reader whose note asked important questions about reading poetry.

So he asked how I read a book of poems. “Do you read it straight through or dip into it now and then? Do you read it with pencil and paper, taking notes, or just immerse yourself in it? Do you go back and read specific poems or the whole volume? My dilemma is how to retain something of the language, beauty, images, sounds, etc. that make poetry so wonderful.”

My first response was, “aaaah.” What poet is not heartened, cheered, thrilled, by the thought of readers out there who want to know how best to approach our work? Who want to bring themselves to it with their most careful attention?

How do you read poetry? I can answer only for myself. As a poet I have been gratified to have many people tell me they read my first collection, “Afterwords,” straight through. Unlike many poetry collections, “Afterwords” has a strongly narrative line, and I have been glad to know that it has so often been read start to finish. I think that a reader gets it in a different, maybe better, way reading that way because it is very specifically “about” something, the illness and death of my husband and the reimagining of my life in the shadow of that loss which has the element of time.

My second book, “Container Gardening,” is a more typical collection, with thematic sections, but with an overall relatedness among the poems that may be subtle enough to be apparent only to me. I can picture it being read piecemeal, though again, I hope it is sometimes read cover to cover.

I obsessed over the selection of poems to go into my books and their order. I think that’s almost always the case, with choices being made carefully, often in consultation with editors, fellow poets, and trusted readers. Which poems group together most cohesively? And then, which one builds on the mood of the one before? Which gives the reader a breath? Which complements or varies the length, the sound, the shape? The results of those decisions can be seen only by the reader who takes in the book as it was put together to be read.

As a reader, though, I have to confess that, though I ultimately end up reading front to back, I often start with the box of chocolates approach, paging through for a favorite I’ve heard or scanning the table of contents to see if there is a poem calling out to be looked at first.

I don’t read poetry--or fiction either, for that matter--with pen and paper in hand, although I often leave little bookmarks in both at pages I know I’ll want to revisit, maybe read to someone else. I think Michael’s word is the perfect one here: “immerse.” Poetry is as much about sound as it is about content. In order to really get it, you do need to immerse yourself in it, free yourself from distraction and give yourself up to the words.

Most of all, as a reader, I want to be alone with the sound of the poem. Immersed.

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