Saturday Feb 23

BarbaraPresnell Barbara Presnell’s poetry collection, Piece Work (CSU Poetry Center), won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. In 2009-10, an adaptation by the Touring Theatre of North Carolina was performed in community colleges throughout NC. Her work also appears in three award-winning chapbooks, and in The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, Laurel Review, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and other journals and anthologies. She has received grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

                               Barbara Presnell Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour

These poems form a narrative of family, with one person's story leading into another's. They also consider the struggles we face as humans, what we protect and what we grieve. Could you talk a bit about your construction of this particular narrative and its inspiration?

This series of poems begins the story of my grandmother and grandfather, two people whose many threads of a single weaving always fascinated me, all the more because I never knew them. My grandfather, Josiah, was born in 1861 and my grandmother, Hannah, in 1872. He was a blacksmith, and together, over a period of almost 25 years, they had ten children, two of whom died as infants (as the poems tell). As you might imagine, Josiah and Hannah were legendary characters in my childhood. In order to reconstruct their narrative and understand who they were—and, in the process, understand more about myself—I began with the stories I'd heard told by my aunts and uncles.

But the swirl of family stories didn't give me enough factual detail to write with authenticity, so I turned to history books, medical journals, military records, census reports, and, even my grandmother's Guion Miller application for inclusion in the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, which I located in the files of the National Archives. Slowly but very much in focus, Josiah and Hannah begin to emerge, and as they did, I began to understand more clearly their struggles, their griefs, their loves.

Speaking of griefs, the poems "Nails" and "Diptheria Outbreak, August 1898" are particularly striking, the experience told from both the mother and father's point of view. Could you talk about your decision to share these different perspectives?

Because the children belonged to both Josiah and Hannah, and because Josiah and Hannah both belonged to me as grandparents, I could not explore one grief without acknowledging the other.

Grief is such a personal, private sadness, one we each experience in our own way and find our way out of in our own time. Not really knowing who my grandparents were except through the stories told, it felt a little presumptuous to delve so intimately into this most fragile moment in their long life together. But, because this was such a defining incident, I needed to examine their separate responses. My grandmother's was easiest to understand. Because I too am a mother, I could feel something of the enormity of her pain, and because I knew her for the last few of her 94 years, I had an inkling of her relationship to her 8 living children and knew how much she clung to them throughout her life, in part, I always believed, because of this early loss from which she never completely recovered.

Josiah's response was more difficult to access. This was a time when men were responsible for the practicalities of death—making the coffin, seeing to the burial. But these were his children too that he was laying to rest in the boxes he made. I found him most genuinely in the blacksmith shop where he spent his life working with his hands, forging iron. This seemed to be the exact place he would have worked out his grief, and as I see him hammering those nails in those small coffins, I see his face streaming with tears that the rest of the world would never see.

I notice that these poems carry a sense of community within them. The people within this sequence are connected through generations and blood lines. Your collection, Piece Work, is a narrative about a community of textile workers. Could you tell us about the significance of community in your work and its significance to you as a writer?

In large part for me, I think it's about story as much as it is community. As a narrative poet and a storyteller, I see poems existing in collaboration not isolation. One leads to another, one expounds on another, illuminates another, on and on, just as our lives don't play out in isolation. We are all cells bouncing off each other, acting and reacting. One of my favorite collections is the Spoon River Anthology, which was introduced to me in my middle grade years. I love the way each voice contributes first to the others with which it is intimately related—husbands and wives, children and parents, lovers and friends and enemies—and then to a sense of the whole community that grows larger and more complex with the strength of each individual voice.

Think of the manufacture inside a factory, such as the one in Piece Work. A single machine can't turn out a t-shirt any more than a single individual can make a life. Each worker matters in the process, and none is more or less important than the other. We're all so interrelated and dependent upon one another. In the case of these poems, it's the community of family that comes together to tell one story, to make a single t-shirt, if you will, and while I hope each individual poem can stand alone, each gains strength when joined by another.

I know that not all poets would agree with me, and that's fine. A poem should be able to be its own thing, just as we all must ultimately stand alone (or as one mentor said to me, quite bluntly but with a twinkle in her eye, "When you get right down to it, Barbara, everybody is pretty much out for themselves.") But any collection, whether lyric or narrative, finds threads of meaning weaving throughout, and often the poet isn't even aware of the repeating themes or images (just like brothers and sisters deny how much they look alike). In the end, we're all in this life together and nothing, really, stands alone. A tree can't grow without the wind and sun, a teacher can't teach without students, a bank can't loan money if it doesn't have customers who need it.


Ellie's War
          Little River, 1862

This one, Josiah, on the floor at her feet.
At the table, that one scribbling on a slate.
Curtis at the Meeting House with the others,

deciding, and her in this dark candle-thick house
with the children, pondering for herself his choices:
Does he join up? If not, he runs or takes his gun

to the woods to live till this is over. Who’ll then
be left to papa these girls? These boys?
That one, stirring gravy in the kitchen?

That one, stacking sticks at the hearth?
Curtis says he won't go, conscript or no.
No money to buy his way out like some others,

not with these younguns and so little rain.
Won't go to jail, won't run like a rabbit.
If they come for him, well, we'll see, by God.

Not our war, he says. Then why, she wants to know,
are blue coats camped out in our field,
are gray boys killing neighbors like dogs?

A shuffle out the window, leaves unsettling
but there’s no wind tonight. She's got the rifle, has
an eagle eye. This one on the floor, hungry, starts to cry.

Josiah, 13
            Little River, 1874

Picture him, hair cast in sun
and thick as hay, a tall boy, paused
by his horse at the edge of a field to gaze

out toward the woods and beyond.
August heat scorches down
on late summer corn, tasseled

and plumping for harvest. He doesn’t know
much beyond this acreage, can’t imagine
himself next year, let alone one day

with a girl by his side, and children
as measured as kernels on a cob.
All he knows is the trouble he’ll find

if he isn’t home soon but he doesn’t
think about that. He doesn’t think at all,
but feels—his bare chest, hips tucked into loose

britches, too tight boots passed down
from his brothers, brown skin
prickling, here in the square middle

of his whole world,
cheek flush and warm against
the sweaty neck of his bay.

My Grandmother Works the Bean Rows
                             East Bend, NC, 1890

No clouds in this July sky,
and sun tarnishes her brassy skin.
Her hornet black hair is ribboned
at her neck and washing
down her back, over shoulder bones

that move in rhythm with her digging.
She turns at the intrusion of a horse’s hooves,
the impatient snort of the nag now bending
toward the fence, and the man, Josiah,
who has stopped to watch. Rising up

in his saddle, straight as the ladder back of a chair,
he tips his hat brim, smiles, says,
“You really Injun like they say?”
Her mother dead, her father gone, she belongs
to no one but Aunt Margaret with her own

dark-skinned children. This man who pauses at the field—
every single day—thick, fair hair, tall as she is,
hands coarse from smithwork and blistered
by scorching iron. What she ought to do
is curl her fingers around this clod of red clay

and skip-rock his face. What she does
is close her hand around a grin,
and when he says, “Wanna ride with me
to town and back?” she lays down
her hoe and climbs on.

            Diphtheria epidemic, 1898

Tonight in the shop by lantern light
and fire, Josiah saws and measures
pine boards for a box. Twenty-one inches,
head to heel, plus one hand width on either end.

Eighteen at the shoulders,
narrowed to nine at her feet.
Get the body in the ground today,
says Doc Burton. Children are dying

all over town. Josiah knows
what he means, his boy at home
with fever hot as the furnace
he works in. His brother Dan says,

Dovetail it. Take your time and do it well.
Perfect joinery for perfect child.
But on this anvil he himself forged the iron lengths
now cooling in his palm, one fist around the tongs,

one clutching the hammer, strength of his arm
pounding the fiery rods to draw them out
true and sharp enough to penetrate
the toughest wood, right enough

for the red and yellow quilt
Hannah stitched in her seventh month
that will line the box and fold around
the toes, face, small shock of steel black hair.

Diphtheria Outbreak, August 1898
      The disease called the “strangling angel of children” causes winglike membranes to form
      on the soft tissue of the throat, which result in complete airway obstruction and sudden death.
                                                                                         —from The Lancet, 1859

In the dark, too-hot house, she rocks
Clifton—already Josiah calls him Slim, not much
fat on five-year-old bones.

He struggles to breathe, his body so scalding
her skin burns. Germs all around,
but she can’t see them, couldn’t see

when they stole into Blanche the baby,
taken on Tuesday, or three-year-old Nellie,
this morning gone.

Clifton cries, croaky and sharp-edged.
Beside her sits the bucket of water
Josiah brought before he left with Nellie’s body.

Squeeze of her arm, a whisper, He’s strong.
He can fight it. Can he? She dips a cloth
into water, washes his face, his chest,

his arms. His legs hang
over her elbow’s bend, his head sags.
Her full breasts ache for the baby

they don’t yet know is gone. The still air whispers
Nellie. But now, this skinny, dark-haired boy,
too much life in him to settle into sleep.