Writer's Block Feature: Q&A with Poetry Contest Winner, Holly Wendt
In July, I spent a month in residence at the American Antiquarian Society as a Charlotte and Robert Baron Fellow, researching piracy in the early eighteenth century for the novel I'm working on. When I arrived at the AAS, I had some very specific questions in mind that I needed to answer for the book, but, as all research teaches us, part of learning is also discovering how much we don't know. Within a day, I understood that I needed a much more comprehensive understanding of the period than I had, and that put me in the really enjoyable role of professional sponge: I needed to read as much of everything as I could and soak up material, linguistic, and geographical details from all manner of primary sources. As I read journal after journal, newspaper after newspaper, I found myself drawn to strange details of all kinds. I knew that they had no actual place in the novel, but the writerly magpie in me couldn't keep from collecting them anyway. I made a new file devoted entirely to these oddments, and during the first week of the residency, the Widow Quillin piece was the first to hum poem to me. (And I admit that I was incredibly relieved that this piece's first leanings were toward poetry, as opposed to another piece of long fiction.)
Though I do tend to think fiction-first, specifically novel-first, some of the best writing teachers I've had have been poets. The first real workshop I was in was a poetry workshop with Gary Fincke at Susquehanna University (as a marvelously lucky high school student), and then I took Introduction to Creative Writing with Sascha Feinstein at Lycoming College, which covered both poetry and fiction. Somehow, despite that, I never quite thought myself a poet, but I learned very quickly that poetry could teach me to be a better fiction writer. I read a lot of poetry, especially when I feel stuck in my own sentences, and it tends to kick-start my prose in unexpected ways. Because of that training and reading, I do turn to writing poetry from time to time, especially when confronted with details, like these, that refuse to be forgotten. I'm in the process of turning the rest of that detail-hoard into a chapbook, and working on that while various pieces of the novel percolate is an excellent way to stay immersed in the novel's world and vocabulary while still getting that necessary space for contemplation.
The longer I live a writing life, the more I've learned to trust the work. If a piece wants to be a poem, who am I to argue with it?
The contest-winning poem, “(What is here inserted comes from a Credible Hand and attested by some now in Boston),” speaks of an old woman, the Widow Quillin. Is this a real person? I’m assuming from the italicized section, that you pull at least some of these details from a biographical or journalistic source.
Insofar as I can tell, the Widow Quillin was quite real, though I didn't find any other mention of her in any historical source. The title and the italicized section of the poem are taken from the Boston News-Letter, a weekly newspaper that not only printed local news but also happenings in the English court and European politics, advertisements, and occasionally events remarkable enough to be of public interest. Widow Quillin's long life and strange new teeth were apparently deemed engaging enough to pass along in the June 20, 1715 issue, but there was no other information given about her.
The longer that little clip stayed with me, though, the more I wondered about this woman whose body could do two unexpected things: sprouting new teeth but also living that long. The poem became my opportunity to imagine her ultimately quite ordinary life. Because everything else I was reading was grounded in the same period and same general place, I drew her imagined life from that research: an imported porcelain cup, but just one because I didn't imagine her as wealthy; ivory and rum and sugar as reminders of the Triangle Trade and its small luxuries (and its underlying great human cost). A woman's inheritable possessions—the things that would be considered definitively hers to manage and will to whomever she liked—were the household's "movables," things like linens, china, furniture, and so I envisioned Widow Quillin's life according to those objects, as well as her familial relationships.
In the poem, the Widow Quillin, who has been missing at least some of her teeth for twenty years, begins to grow two of them, “one above, and two below in the different sides of her mouth.” The poem’s penultimate line also seems to suggest that she has breast cancer. Despite the poem’s concern with growth, many things are deteriorating: the teeth, the woman’s body, her family—not to mention the havoc the cancer will eventually wreak on her. How do you reconcile this growth in the midst of decay? Was this the driving force for the poem?
While writing the poem, I was certainly thinking of some fatal malady, but I was thinking of it more in line with eighteenth century medicine and its less certain diagnostic vocabulary. I may lie in the future and say I had this reading in mind all along, actually. Thank you!
The poem does connect the concepts of growth and decay, though, in the very real sense that to grow is also to eventually grow old, which brings with it inevitable physical deterioration. There's a thematic tie, too, in the sense of the temporal setting: the growth in the colonies and in the Caribbean at that historical moment had its own malignant enlargement. As the British empire grew, it necessarily decayed in certain capacities, particularly in terms of effective administration of its outlying territories during the Golden Age of piracy, because the rapidity of said growth outstripped the ability to control the same. That such a connection emerged in the poem is far more a product of being utterly steeped in the research rather than overt design, but I think it speaks to the real joy and privilege of being able to work in such a comprehensive archive as the American Antiquarian Society. The immersive experience works magic somewhere between the back of the brain and the fingertips, and the best thing I can do as a writer is to stay out of its way and let it manifest.
If you could say anything to contest judge Rebecca Morgan Frank, what would it be?
Thank you, of course, is the thing I wish to say most. It's always a profound and wonderful thing when a reader or an editor sees something exciting or singular in a piece. My own work is so familiar to me. While I'm writing and polishing a piece, it's become easy enough to ascertain whether it's working or not-working, where I think something is evocative of the vision I had, but it's much more difficult to envision how another reader will encounter it. It's an honor to have my poem selected here, and I'm grateful and pleased that Rebecca Morgan Frank also found Widow Quillin's story moving.
And Memorious is a beautiful journal with consistently excellent work—it's an honor.