Contributor Sean Hill’s notable second collection of poems, Dangerous Goods (Milkweed 2014), won the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry in April 2015, and he was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Hill, whose previous collection is Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008), has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bush Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, The Jerome Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, and the University of Wisconsin, as well as a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.
Hill kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Dangerous Goods.
The two poems that appeared in Memorious, “Postcard to Wrong Address,” which is the first poem in Dangerous Goods, and “Postcard to Eduardo,” are part of a thread of postcard poems that stretch through the collection. They move between being addressed to and from people, inanimate objects, and states of being, and then turn to “Postcard with Blood Stain” and “Postcard with Bloodstain Received.” Where did these postcard poems begin and how did they evolve?
Thank you for giving those two poems a great home. The postcard poems started in 2005 on a slow meandering late summer road trip from Bemidji, MN to Vancouver, BC and the ocean with the fiction writer Lauren Cobb. I’d never been a sender of postcards, but for some reason when I saw a couple of common nighthawks flying low over some railroad tracks in Hartline, WA one evening, I felt like that was some sort of gift, and I also felt the impulse to share it with the poet Nicky Beer. So that night at the hotel I wrote a poem and bought a postcard and mailed my first postcard poem the next morning.
I like to work in series; I like worrying through and working out things across a group of poems, so I thought that this postcard poem could be the beginning of a series. And because I’m a casual birder, I’m often seeing birds (even when not looking for them); I mean I notice them the way people notice the things they have an affinity for. So I decided that each poem in the series would have to take off while on a trip from a bird sighting that I felt moved to share with a friend. And I’d have to write it and mail it before I returned home. The thing of it was trying to capture the place and the mood and the import of the moment and the relationship with the addressee—trying to figure out how to make an epistolary poem out of a postcard.
After three or so years, Lauren or I had the idea that I should write postcards to and from abstract concepts, states of being, and inanimate objects. These poems began with a list of titles and my working out the thought problems that the titles presented to me. They were engaging because I had to imagine the physical, emotional, and psychological lives of these things, and then I had to work out the relationship between the speaker and the addressee. In the cases of the “from” poems where the thing is the speaker I had to imagine its linguistic life. What would Destination say and how and to whom? Once I got on a roll making up titles, dramatic situations like “Postcard with Blood Stain” and “Postcard with Blood Stain Received ”came to me. Most of the postcard poems that ended up in the book were from this phase of the project. Ultimately, they were the ones I felt were most compelling as poems and would be most compelling for a reader.
I’m glad you mentioned the American Antiquarian Society. It’s an unbelievable resource for anyone interested in American history before 1876. I was fortunate enough to be awarded one of their fellowships for creative writers, which allowed me to spend several weeks there conducting research—exploring and gathering material.
I definitely think about poem-writing as an act of making. In both of my books, first in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and then in Dangerous Goods, my engagement was at turns as much with the making of the poems and the books as it was with the material I was working with. This back and forth occurs at every stage of my process; it’s the dance of form and content balanced on the edge of function that begins with the impulse to write a poem and ideally results in a poem.
With the dramatic monologues particularly in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor there was a certain mix of internalizing research, remembering/channeling the voices of the people I grew up with, listening to the new voices I heard in my head—the poems’ personae, and ventriloquizing.
When I was at the American Antiquarian Society, I spent my days reading books about the American Colonization Society and Liberia in the 19th and 20th centuries; I read period newspapers and firsthand accounts and the American Colonization Society’s newsletter, and I looked at maps 18th and 19th century maps of Africa, and I followed leads down rabbit holes.
The reading part of my research process with Blood Ties & Brown Liquor was very similar. In Blood Ties & Brown Liquor I think was more concerned with exploring history on the human scale; I mean I think I was focused more on the lives of people who preceded me—those Black lives that made me possible. Whereas with Dangerous Goods, while I was interested in the people whose lives were the history that fascinated me, I was just as interested in Liberia as a 19th century “scheme” to deal with Black folks in America in its earlier sense—a large-scale plan for achieving a goal—and its more contemporary sense—an underhanded plot. I was interested in the motives of its establishers and its colonists and immigrants. I was interested in historic sweep.
The Liberia thread in Dangerous Goods came from a brief mention of central Georgians immigrating to Liberia in a history book I read as research for Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. That book led me to letters written to the Milledgeville newspaper by two African American men who’d immigrated with their families in the early 1870s. The men represent two reactions of African Americans trying to make a home in Africa. Sandy Gannoway returned home to Milledgeville after two years whereas Allen Yancy was firm in his determination to stay in Liberia even though he had lost three of his children and his mother to disease there. It was this bit of Milledgeville history that piqued my curiosity, snagged my imagination, and stuck with me for years.
I may have ventured a little away from your question. Well, in the poem “Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports” I use the footnotes, which are part of the poem, to show some of the scaffolding—the way historical research came together with the thoughts of a poet making a poem. In the frontmatter of one of those 19th century books about Liberia there was a dedication to Henry M. Schieffelin. He had the same surname as Eugene Schieffelin whom I’d know about from researching how European starlings got to the U.S. And as luck would have it (or perhaps because they came from a prominent family) a huge copy of their family tree is kept in the AAS holdings. It’s as large as a conference table, and when I unfolded it I found out they were brothers. I started writing my exploration of their context and motives with the notion that there were resonances with the themes in the other poems in the manuscript at that point. The dates and footnotes worked their way in. Perhaps they give the reader a sense of a disorderly timeline that weaves world history with the speaker’s personal history and thoughts.
In “A Freedman Speaks of His Fellow, or From Milledgeville to New Philadelphia, 1872” I began with the historical material and a form I came up with called a three-sided dust devil. It’s a form that comes from my affection for the villanelle, but it adds a third rhyme and refrain. The poem is written in the voice of a freedman who didn’t immigrate to Liberia. This was another way for me to explore the questions I had about those who chose to immigrate.
I think this kind of writing encourages exploration into specific locales and local histories. And I think most importantly for me it becomes an exercise in understanding others’ perspectives—imagining the daily life through the five senses, through objects, through activities, through events, through relationships.
Is there anything you discovered in your research that didn’t make it into the poems that you still want to tell readers about?
It’s been my experience that there are always some discoveries that don’t make it into a poem or poems that don’t make it into the book. Those Liberia poems in Dangerous Goods came from that brief mention in a history book. Before that I’d hardly thought about Liberia in conjunction with the United States and perhaps never in conjunction with my hometown. It was this bit of Milledgeville history that didn’t fit with what I was trying to do with Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. But Sandy Gannoway and Allen Yancy seemed to fit with the book project that at some point I found myself writing toward—Dangerous Goods. So, yes, after finishing Dangerous Goods there is more I want to tell readers. There are figures and events in Minnesota history I want to explore, and I don’t think I’m quite finished with Liberia. We’ll see what happens.
This book is described as part “travelogue-in-verse,” and it does move across many different landscapes. At the same time, the poems push us to expand our understandings of places and histories; for example, the lynching in “June 1920” occurs in Minnesota and the colonization you examine involves sending African American Christians to Africa during and after slavery. Can you talk about the role of place in your work, especially when writing in part about lives shaped by the forces of slavery and its aftermath?
History is the meaning we make of the sequence of human events that occur in a setting, a place. It’s our understanding of who we are. Place has geology, topology, hydrology, weather, climate, and geography, and people, flora, fauna and history—it’s objective and very subjective when people are involved. Place and history and where they intersect is what I explore in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor—place as natal home and identity shaper; I was thinking about the “I was born…” of slave narratives. Dangerous Goods was written as a way to explore my moving from home—Georgia and the South—to a new place—Bemidji, Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Dangerous Goods is in part an exploration of place as a space to make a home, which raises the question “What is home?” People who were enslaved here in America had to contend with that question in a serious and pressing way during slavery and after it once they were recognized as citizens. We citizens still have to contend with that question.
If you were to create a poetic family tree, which poets would have to be on there?
Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Seamus Heaney, Marilyn Nelson, Sterling Brown, and C.P. Cavafy are in my poetic DNA. I was introduced to their work in college, which is where I started writing poetry. Reading Dove’s Grace Notes and Selected Poems, especially Thomas and Beulah, were a great influence as were Seamus Heaney’s Bog poems from his early works and Komunyakaa’s Magic City and Neon Vernacular and Nelson’s The Homeplace and The Fields of Praise and The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown edited by Michael S. Harper and C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. There are many others I could name including a long list of rappers from the 80s and 90s and, of course, many generous teachers like Judith Ortiz Cofer and Coleman Barks. I’m always finding long-lost great grandmothers, cousins, and aunts and uncles, but these are the poets I immediately think of when I think about forebears the way I think you mean it here. Their works and the things they taught me about the craft of poetry and history and scope and scale and community and the individual and poetic form and so much more gave me a way to write my poems and books.
What are you working on now? And if you could travel anywhere to research for a possible future book of poetry, where would it be?
I’m in the early stages of a new project that’s historical, and I’m thinking of it as following Blood Ties & Brown Liquor and Dangerous Goods. I’m also working on poems that I think are part of a new project that’s a little bit of a departure from the other work. And I would like to travel to West Africa, in particular Liberia, and Scotland to research a possible future book of poetry. I kept this answer to what’s possible as far as I know, but if someone has a time machine I could use, I have some ideas of when and where I would like to go in the past. Strictly for research for a possible future book of poetry.
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