“Time and Distance Overcome”: I titled this class after an essay of the same name by Eula Biss.
I wanted a few words to suggest how a dive into the historical record can yield surprising and urgent connections to our own immediate moment. The class is about writing poems using archival material to help unmask stories we personally—and often communally—need to reckon with.
Biss’s essay, first published in the Iowa Review and which you can find here, begins with the idea of connection through the novel invention of the telephone, and moves toward communities’ “war on telephone poles,” because of their perceived blight on the landscape. But the essay zeroes in on a much uglier fact: the poles were used in countless lynchings of Black people. Biss did not know when she started her research that she would find this horrific revelation, but her discovery becomes the story.
I’ve long been interested in layering poems around a history or character to create a book-length narrative. Some great examples that jump to mind are Instruments of the True Measure by Laura Da’, Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume, David Mason’s Ludlow, and collections by Natasha Trethewey and Linda Bierds. There are so many more. What are some of your favorites?
Of course, you don’t need to be writing a collection to take this class! All are welcome, no matter your experience. If the premise is interesting to you but you’re not sure where to begin, our readings and weekly prompts will help guide you.
In the meantime, you might check out one or more of the books listed above. Look for the emotional impulse behind the work. How is the personal scale juxtaposed against the historical? Next, consider your obsessions. What do you tend to focus on, not just in your writing but in life? Do you collect things? Are there family stories you want to explore further? A childhood event? What scientists, actors, activists, artists, musicians do you admire, and why? What haunts you?
Lived experience is a form of research. Bring your stories, your curiosities, the half-drawn shade you want rolled up. What will you discover? I’m looking forward to finding it with you.
Erin Malone was raised in Nebraska and Colorado. She’s the author of Hover (Tebot Bach Press), and a chapbook, What Sound Does It Make (Concrete Wolf). Her recent work has received fellowship support from Kimmel-Harding Nelson, The Anderson Center, Ucross, and Jentel, and has been included in journals such as FIELD, New Ohio Review, Radar Poetry, and Ruminate. She lives in Seattle and from 2016-2020 served as Editor of Poetry Northwest.