Writing: “A Blessed Unrest” – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 3 of 3

Trudy

Trudy Hale

Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine, and owner of The Porches writing retreat, has talked in previous segments of this interview about her love affair with the retreat house and the writing life.  In this segment we continue the conversation about the compulsions of writing and the forms it takes in her life.  And we come back to something dear to this site as well – the importance of place.

So, you’ve got that quote on your welcome sheet from Martha Graham.  That’s one of my favorite quotes, and I saw it for the first time on your sheet.  That last line: “There’s only a clear, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching, and makes us more alive than the others.”  You know, the fidelity to that process.  I know why that speaks to me.  Why does it speak to you?

It goes back to that idea that if you’ve been given a gift–the writing.  It’s like the biblical thing, the person with talent.  We all have different degrees of talent, but if you don’t use that talent in some way, you’re not going to feel fulfillment.  There’s some dis-ease; something’s not right.

But there’s another part of the quote that I really like: “It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.”  There’s always going to be others writers infinitely more brilliant, and you can’t get in there and do these comparisons.  It’s your job to let your expression come out, and that’s your purpose.  You’re always going to feel as an artist, that gift, and it gnaws if it’s neglected–it’s kind of that thing.  It’s a gift, but also somewhat of a curse; you can’t just sit around and not use it.  You’re troubled by not using it.

It’s the fire in your bones.

IMG_2930Yeah.  It’s gonna give you unrest.  It’s a gift, but it’s gonna…what is it?  Prickle, and poke, and holler at you if you’re neglecting it for too long.  And [the quote] also gives you permission to express, to have your expression, and not–  There’s something writers have, that overly self-critical voice.

Yes.

Their editor comes in before you’ve allowed the expression to get out on the page.  You can always go back and make it better.  That’s why I love that Annie Lamott quote: you just gotta get it down.  It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

The whole thing about honoring the time, too.  The thing I fight in myself is the feeling that, “Oh, well, that’s the frivolous side.  That’s the frivolous thing to do.”  Rather than see it as the most essential thing to do.

That’s exactly it.  That’s another thought–“I’m wasting my time.”  Those are little demons, you know?  You gotta shut them up.  But that’s that voice, that self-condemnation that’s trying to prevent you from expressing yourself and getting the work done.

There’s nothing like tapping into the creative.  William Blake wrote a lot about the creative and the artist, and that artistic expression and that act of creation, no matter what medium or form, is the closest that we get to the divine.

So, all those little thoughts like, “Oh, I’m wasting my time,” I’ve had–everyone has that, like, “Oh, what’s the point?”  And that’s a little demon.  You gotta chase that one out with a broom.

Absolutely.  And then, seven more will come in, right?

I know.  It can happen. You’ve written a scene and it’s not alive in some way.  It’s flat on the page.  And just to think, “Okay, I’m just going to keep working on it,” and not pass any judgment on it, and not beat yourself up.  There’s a lot of interior work that has to be done in the writing and the process of creation.

A lot of times in my writing, I would seek distraction, and not sit down and do it; something to distract me from writing.  We do something else, and we try to feel virtuous.  You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

That’s right.  Wherever you go, there you are.  So, how does Streetlight fit into all this for you?

When I first moved to Charlottesville, I met a writer who was involved with Streetlight, a literature and arts journal, and they needed an editor.  At the time, it was a hard copy magazine  Then, in 2008 with the crash, the printer who was donating fell through.  For a while, we went on a hiatus.

Then, (and this is where the old house once again came to the rescue), I had a writer in residency at Porches who was a web designer.  I said, “Hey, I’ll trade you some time at The Porches if you can set Streetlight up on a digital platform.” So, that’s how the magazine was able to reinvent itself.

Then, our editor-in-chief moved out of town and I was asked to step into the position. “Temporarily,” I said.  Well, cut to three/four years later, I’m still the editor-in-chief and loving it. We have a talented, dedicated volunteer staff.  Just recently we’ve added podcasts and we’re publishing an anthology of 2016.  You’ll be able to download it as an ebook or a hard copy.

hneader-imageThe magazine, I realize, shares a similarity to what we’ve been talking about with the retreat. And to Heartlands.  It’s about place. The power of place. The magazine especially likes pieces that have a strong sense of place. We are excited by writing with an emphasis on the interaction of place and one’s personal relationship to it.

This same idea is what I try to keep reminding myself in the writing of my memoir.  When I describe the three flights of steep stairs, the rattling hand-blown glass in the windows, the groans of the heart-pine floors, I struggle to make it like the material equivalent of my inner being, and how fixing what’s broken in the house, fixes what’s broken in me.

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Writing at The Porches – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 2 of 3

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

In the first part of my interview with Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine and owner of The Porches writing retreat, we discussed the relationship she developed with a neglected farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  In this segment, we talk about the writing.  (And all the ways we contrive not to.)

The Porches is such a healing place.  How has living there changed your writing?

Oh, that’s a great question.  Well, first of all, I have written more descriptively, or taken more time with description.  You have different craft elements, and writing descriptions for me is the most–I hate to use the word tedious—but there are other parts of the craft that I like, like the dialogue.  Just to stop and linger descriptively about the physical aspect of where the characters are, I find that I’m able to slow down more as I’ve been writing here, and to linger more, and to flesh out the bones of the story.  I have a tendency to kind of speed along the story, keep the pace going.  I’ve been able to, once I’ve been writing here, to say, “I need to linger here,” and be more concrete and let all the senses play out; taste, touch, smell.

IMG_6054But one thing that’s happened to my writing, too, is, because I’m so involved with the retreat, I sometimes find it harder to take longer periods of time to write, and this is something I’ve got to work on.  I enjoy doing the retreat so much, but sometimes I’d rather make up a writer’s bed–and I hated housework when I was growing up.  I hated domestic stuff.

I never enjoyed doing any kind of housework before, but making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams; and that’s an attitude that’s definitely changed in me.  But it also is something that I will–because I enjoy it–I’d rather do that sometimes than sit down and write.  You know how we do with writing–Resist it when it’s the very thing that sutures our soul back together.

Making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams.

Yes.  You need a retreat other than yours.

I need a retreat from my retreat or better writing habits.  I have met so many wonderful writers and people.  It’s really enriched my life to have conversations about writing.  I used to socialize a lot more at the beginning of the retreat.  I’d have a glass of wine and hang out, but I realized, as time goes on, I have to focus on my writing.

Yes.  So, when you’re in your rhythm, what does that look like for you?  What does your writing process look like?

Trudy

Trudy Hale

I have to write in the morning.  I have to honor that time, and I’ve had to really fight, because there’s a part of me that wants to take care of the retreat first, or check all the emails.  And I have to become conscious–okay, you’re going to sit down and do the writing–because if you start checking the emails, you fall down the rabbit hole.  When I have that first cup of coffee, I say, “It’s not going to make any difference to whose ever email that you don’t get back to it ’til 11 o’clock instead of 9 o’clock.”

I have to have a very direct conversation with myself.  I go through runs.  I’ll establish a habit when it becomes easy because it’s a habit–like you get up, and exercise, and brush your teeth.  But then, I’ll have these times where I have taken a trip and it’s broken my rhythm, or I have some family crisis.  So, it’s a constant rededication to honoring that sitting down, and also not being judgmental, and keeping the faith, like, “Okay, maybe this morning I’m going to write a lot of stuff that’s not going to be used, or won’t be as good as I’d like it, and just put that aside and say ‘That’s okay.’”

So, a lot of it’s an inner dialogue with the self about the writing and the relationship with the writing, and it’s an ongoing relationship.  And there’s good days and there’s bad days.

But there’s nothing like it; that feeling when you’ve really gotten into it, and time…  I guess it’s like a musician or any artist.  It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there.  That feeling—there’s nothing like it; and it nourishes, it restores, it centers.  It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there…It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s great.  And if I go for too long a time without really honoring that writing time and writing, I get really kind of grumpy…just a little out of plumb.

In the third part of this interview we talk more writing and Trudy’s ongoing projects – Streetlight magazine and writing workshops.

 

This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale, part 1 of 3

PorchesSummer500pxThere’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge.  Actually, there’s a bunch of them.  Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.

I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead.  The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time.  The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.

But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James.  The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond.  The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words.  Or not.

Trudy

Trudy Hale

The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house.  Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk.  Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches.  Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive.  In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.

[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in.  It’s a wonderful story…]

So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?

Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally.  It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode.  He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South.  He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis.  But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.

So, we thought, well, we really like the South.  You can get a lot for your money.  And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one.  He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.

But he was convinced.  He was determined to buy it.  And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.”  We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville.  I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.

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Where the Tye meets the James

We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic.  At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him.  He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing.  Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot.  He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?”  These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”

So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed.  And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.

It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me.  And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”  Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends.  I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.

So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville.  We packed the dogs up and we moved.

Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall.  We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.

She was an artist.  She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house.  It was falling down around her ears.  In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.

But she painted murals.  She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.

We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave.  He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper.  I think, ferns and plumes and…  Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?

No.

Okay.  What’s her name?  Perkins.  That’s it.  [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.

Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around.  I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?”  And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks.  The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.

I was really conflicted for many months.  I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent.  But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…”  The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.

The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore.  So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment.  I would like to stay here and fix the house up.”  At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.”  Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs.  So, that’s the birth of The Porches.

Wow.

old barn_thru_windowSo, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out.  And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids.  So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse.  I thought, “Oh, my God.  My life is just falling apart.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.

I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse.  And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.”  What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house.  But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is.  All the pain, and all the joy, too.  And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.

And the house does become a character, in a way.  I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage.  And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.

And we were able to restore ourselves together.

Wow.

You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate.  And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon.  And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered.  When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing.  And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–

You were diluting the love story between you and the house.

That’s great!   That’s what happened!  That is what happened.  I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.

[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]

 

Dismantle Confederate Memorials? Let’s Build Some Different Ones

16301481_BG1A Robert E. Lee monument is dismantled in New Orleans.  A torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protect another one.  A lieutenant governor candidate in Virginia calls for removing all Confederate memorials and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederate leaders.

William Faulkner had it right.  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

But the effort to erase the memorials to a shameful part of our history may not be as helpful as its supporters imagine.  A past submerged is not a past resolved.  What we need is more memory – not less.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of deserved attention this week for his eloquent defense of the decision to remove four memorials.  He said:

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

Landrieu lamented the prominent place that these memorials had in the city, the way they defined the city’s landscape and imposed a narrative about who was in control.

All of this is true.  My white ancestors, who no doubt were part of the masses who contributed to the erection of these memorials in courthouse lawns and city squares across the South, felt a need to honor the sacrifice of the dead and to give meaning to the senseless suffering of the Civil War.  But there was a lot left unsaid – ugly things about the senseless suffering of enslaved people and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.

And yet…have we really moved to a new level of discussion and engagement if we simply move the stones?  That’s the easy part and it is functionally destructive.  Where is the constructive counterpart?

Landrieu noted this:

Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

I know the Lee monument in Charlottesville.  It stands in front of the downtown United Methodist Church and we used to gather around it for the Palm Sunday celebration – something that always seemed like a perversion of the message of the day.  Unless the waving palms were an act of defiance of death-dealing powers, a connection we never openly made.

I imagine a new act of art in such places.  What if, lining the looming boxwoods that surround that memorial, there were new statues turned toward the general on his horse in various stages of reaction?  White and black, 19th century and 21st century, stunned, appalled, weeping, wondering, saluting, casting stones?  What if we commissioned a flurry of such works that would transform these old works from hagiography to conversation?

Perhaps the work of Michael Mergen, a photographer reflecting on memory and place, should get more prominence.

These old monuments deserve our attention because they are offensive.  Some of them should go.  But I can’t help feeling there should be more.

“A Grace Wholly Gratuitous”

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

‘Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain.  But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull.  For unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?) there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.’

–Annie Dillard, “On Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley”

Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out? – revisited

rich-brown-219577The struggles of rural communities has led a number of recent writers to ask, “Why don’t people just leave?,” an attitude I groused about in a recent post.  The Atlantic has been covering this beat in a series of articles.  Now Brian Alexander has written another piece in that magazine titled “If Declining Towns ‘Deserve to Die,’ Where Should Their Residents Go?”

It includes this humdinger of a quote from Kevin Williamson in a 2016 National Review essay:

“The truth about these downscale communities is that they deserve to die…Economically, they are negative assets…They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need a U-Haul.”

But, as Alexander documents, if your house is underwater and not likely to sell anyway and you have limited job skills that don’t promise much better prospects in a new town, moving is no answer.  And they certainly are no answer for the towns left behind.

Instead of seeing declining communities as pits to be abandoned, perhaps we need to see them as an untapped resource to be developed.

How to write a good country song

IMG_3306When was it that a hit country song became a list of country-fried images?  Seems like all you have to do is string together bare feet, pickup trucks, fishing poles, and mama and you’ve got you a bestseller.  (And, yes, I do know that I was a country music DJ back in the day when John Anderson was “Swingin’” on the porch with Charlotte Johnson while her daddy was in the back yard rolling up a garden hose and he was feeling love down to his toes.  But this is a rant with a point, thank you very much.)  And that point is that easy call-outs to a romanticized rural lifestyle somehow work.  So Josh Turner can laud his “Hometown Girl” who grew up “where the corn grows up to the road side” and who “couldn’t hide her beauty with a baseball cap” and he’s got a Top 10 hit.

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Adia Victoria

Meantime, I’ve been listening to Adia Victoria, whose own version of the blues has been described as Southern Gothic.  Adia, like Josh, was born in South Carolina, but her view of the place is decidedly darker.  “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles,” she says in “Stuck in the South,” “but I can tell you something about Southern hell.”  Her music, as her voice, growls with subversive energy.

But I didn’t come to do music criticism.  (Although, Sam Hunt…”Body like a Back Road”?  Are you serious?)  I just came by today to say once more that we need a little more texture in our view of the places we live.  I say this as somebody who is a sucker for gauzy sentimentality.  A fireworks show after a baseball game can get me misty and a far-off train whistle stirs my high lonesome sensibilities.  It’s not healthy to remain in those places, though.

As a church leader, I know the comforts and the dangers of nostalgia.  When a church defends itself against self-reflection by glorifying an idealized past, it is preferring not to see the world as it really is or people as they really are.  It could be that the children and youth who used to populate Christmas pageants as bathrobes shepherds (I’m getting misty again) still bear the image of God (they do) and could enrich our lives and our worship if we chose to engage them deeply (they could).

We rightly bristle when our communities are lampooned and real people are reduced to stereotypes, but I worry that we do it to ourselves, too.  We grasp an identity or an ideology that reflects a piece of who we are and see all things through that lens.  Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

Seeing our culture only as noble pickup trucks or vicious hanging trees is not really seeing at all.  We are more than that.

The role of good worship and of good art is to offer us a frame to see the world in its depth and to resist final declarations about it.  In both we pause before mystery and use what resources we have to give voice and notice to what we see.  Perhaps we sing.  And with any luck we rise above schmaltz to poetry.

A glorious, shabby democracy – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen concludes (3 of 3)

Having talked with photographer Michael Mergen in previous segments about his Civil War landscapes and the parallel Civil Rights series, today we talk about the glorious shabbiness of American democracy.  This is something he explored in two works we talk about here – one a series in which he photographs buildings across the country that share one commonality – the address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The other is a survey polling places where Americans vote.

 

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1600 N Pennsylvania Ave, Oklahoma City – photos by Michael Mergen, used with permission

One of the things I noticed in that series is the way that, as in a lot of your work, the object of your study doesn’t live up to the place that those events hold in our memory.  So, you talk about Lee’s Retreat being a Walgreen’s parking lot right now.  Or this great, historic Civil Rights Movement march, which is now in our history 50 years back, and yet the town is still suffering a whole lot of the same economic problems.    And then, something like the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue series— the idea of taking an address that has such a fixed point in our social consciousness, and looking at it in all the ways that it’s expressed throughout the country.  So, what led you to that particular project?

That was the first project where I feel like I was, as a photographer or as an artist, really looking at a national landscape.  It’s an arbitrary address, but it’s one address that is synonymous with the home of the president, the political center of power of the United States.  So, it has all of this history of politics, power, and military and has so much wrapped up in it.  It was one of those ideas where it’s like,  “I wonder if there’s more.  Are there other 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues?”  I found out that there were maybe two dozen or so–I think there was 27 or 28 at the time–it just became a conceptual framework that had political and historical connotations to it.  But a conceptual framework that allowed me to travel the United States and look at the built landscape of the country through this one address.  And then, just kind of look at some of the visual disparities, some of the visual similarities across the country.  And I think, in some ways, it had a little bit of humor to it.  Kind of has a bit of poignancy to it.  It serves, hopefully, as a kind of interesting conceptualization, or conceptual view, or conceptual framework of looking at a real American landscape.

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Early Voting #10, Las Vegas, NV, 2010 by Michael Mergen

And yeah, the expectations vs. reality is something that I’m certainly interested in; up through looking at the Lee’s Retreat landscapes—what we think something is and what it actually is, right?  That’s definitely a layer to that voting work [in the exhibition]—thinking about voting as an important and solemn civic act or civic duty.  But then, is that solemnity undermined when you’re voting in a liquor display?  When you’re being enticed to buy Jose Cuervo, does that somehow negate the civic weight of casting a vote?

The flipside is walking into someone’s living room and walking past framed portraits of their loved ones in uniform, in the military–is that a strange kind of conflict or collision of public and private, like the public act of voting in a private-owned space?  Or is it this kind of quintessential, grassroots Americana, where we as neighbors and citizens on a given day get together in someone’s house and choose our leader, choose our elected representative.

When I think about the different entry points of the work, you could look at some of that voting work and see a critical position.  I think you could see a celebrating of American democracy that is fluid and nimble enough to exist in all these different kinds of spaces.  Or is it less than honorific to vote in a diner?  I don’t know.  I remember being in a pizza shop in Philly where I started the project.  I remember someone started joking, because he said, “Do these votes even count?”  How does your vote in a pizza place in 9th and Reed Street or wherever maybe, how does that vote make its way back to the White House somehow?

What does that connection look like?  That path is murkier than if you’re going to a school, or firehouse, or a library.

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Early Voting #16, Reno, NV, 2010 by Michael Mergen

And yet, there’s something so egalitarian about that, you know?  It fits right into the notion of what we think we are as Americans.  It’s gonna happen in this ordinary place.

Sure.  I remember showing [the series] to a history professor when I was in grad school.  I remember he walked in and chuckled, and he was sort of beaming.  His name was Tom.  I was like, “Tom, what is it?”  He’s like, “Well, I’ve lived my entire life in Rhode Island…I’ve only ever voted in Rhode Island, but I know if I go to California, I’ll get it.”  And to me, that’s a testament to American democracy.  I’d never seen the work from that perspective.  I was like, “Huh.  I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been to countless polling places over 10 or a dozen or so states.  So, it is kind of all the same, the set-up is sort of the same.  There’s a table.  Usually, some sweet old ladies volunteer, coffee, some machines.  Even though it isn’t radically different visually, there is a shared system that I guess does allow for, in a 21st century culture where people move across states all the time, you’ve probably lived in four/five/six houses through the course of your adult life, there is a kind of a nimbleness to the project to suggest that “Move to Texas, looks like this; move to Maine, looks like that.  You’ll figure it out.  It’s not that different.”

Yeah, but at the same time, it’s also kind of a throwback notion, you know?  It feels like one of the few places where those kind of democratic, communal experiences still happen.

Oh, absolutely.  I tend to seek out academic books and use research to bolster my own understanding of the work.  So, Michael Schudson wrote this great book called The Good Citizen and in it he talks about voting as not merely an act of choosing one candidate over the other, but it’s this moment of collected gathering—that time where, living in the United States, when you seem like a citizen.  And it’ll only be for 10 minutes once a year, or twice a year, but there’s that moment you’re reminded [that] you didn’t just get up, take your kids to school, and go to work.  You take a slight detour to remind yourself of being a citizen.  But it’s only when you only leave the United States that you describe yourself as an American. The second you get in the airplane, you give your passport, and you’re like, “I’m American.”  Well, when you get back home, you’re like, “I’m a Virginian or I’m from Minnesota or I’m from Farmville.”  Everything is very specific.

But on Election Day, we have a different kind of quality to it.  There’s that collectiveness that happens where you identify something else than your own little pod, your own little circle for that time.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his site: www.mimages.com

Interchangeable heads and crayons in Selma – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen continues (part 2 of 3)

I’m so glad I obeyed my impulse at the stoplight in downtown Farmville, Virginia.  I was driving through and stopped at a red light next to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts where a local photographer’s work was on display.  I pulled into a parking spot and discovered Michael Mergen.

In the first part of my interview with Michael Mergen we explored a unique series in which he juxtaposed the text of historical markers with the contemporary landscapes associated with them.  In this section of the interview we discuss the pairing of that Civil War series with a Civil Rights series and the lenses we bring to the world.

I begin here by referencing two other series he did related to things we give to veterans and places named for military personnel who died in the operation known as the Global War on Terror…

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SPC Brian Scott “Scotty” Ulbrich Memorial Bridge, West Virginia, 2012 – photo by Michael Mergen

What lens do you bring to [your subjects] that gives you a sense of what you’re seeing?  In your series of veterans pictures – what we give to veterans and what we name for veterans – I would look at them and say, “Wow, that is really shabby, and tacky, and ordinary.”  And then I’m thinking, “Well, but you know, there’s a real democracy in that.  They’re taking things that we use everyday.”

Right.  My background was as a photojournalist and I come from a tradition of being neutral and trying to remain unbiased.  As an artist, you have obviously more license to take a point of view and take a position.  But I’ve always strived for at least a level of neutrality in my work, or a level of trying to present something ‘as is’ or as I found it, and framing it for viewers to then make their own conclusions.

There’s an intentional ambiguity in what I’m saying in my pictures that I’m conscious of.  Again, trying to not make it about me or my opinion necessarily, but to highlight something that’s happening.  Then, hopefully there’s a conversation out of that or even some disagreement can come out of that.  Especially with the [Civil War] soldier monument one.  I think that’s the one that you can approach from a “Wow, it’s just troubling that there are this many monuments that still exist out of sympathy with the political rationale for the war, and what happened after the war with Jim Crow laws and those kind of things.”  But then, I think if you support that, if you look at that wall of photographs, you’d think, “Wow, isn’t that great, that in 2017, there’s still this quantity of monuments dedicated to this war and this movement that happened.”  So, I think I’m okay with the different entry points that the work might provide.

In that Civil War piece, you chose an interesting part of those monuments to focus on: the face of all the soldiers.  I’ve walked past those Confederate monuments my entire life and now I focus on the words that are written on them and I wonder why there’s not a similar set of monuments for the forgotten folks from that period and the monuments to the ending of slavery.  But you chose the part of the statue that you hardly ever get close to—the face of the statue.  I thought that was an interesting choice to use that.  What did you learn by doing that?

Well, of course, you focus on the words, because you’re the writer.

Yeah, that’s right.

1_mergenview01I look at the face because I’m a photographer.  I learned that there’s a whole lot of them that had the same head on them. That I had no idea going into it.  It wasn’t until I had photographed maybe 20 or 30 of them, and had them hanging up in the studio, and I was like, “Wow, these are the same heads.”  A lot of these were ordered and assembled from a catalogue.  So, the company would be like, “Okay, pick your head, pick your body.  Do you want cannon balls or a cannon?”  And they were sort of assembled that way.  And that’s the way the a lot of them were made.  There’s a handful that were commissioned by a sculptor or by an artist, but they didn’t dominate.  So, a lot of them were the same head.

Then, also, they’re all white men, which is not surprise, but it’s also a little bit visually arresting.  And I remember showing it to somebody at a photo conference, and they said, “These are archetypes for Colonel Sanders or a Johnny Rebel caricature in a way.”  Is that figure the representation of the ideal Southern man?  I thought about those headshots, doing portraits of these statues, and that was the knee-jerk thought that I had.

So, it’s also that using photography in a way to get you a little bit closer to something you couldn’t get to.  A lot of these things are 30/40/50 feet up.  You’re not really looking at them in that kind of detail.  So, it was interesting just from a technical standpoint, and to use a certain lens and camera and position to get you this intimate look at just these faces.

You don’t know if there was an ur-model, do you?

There’s a book by a guy named Timothy Sedore.  He wrote a book called An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Civil War Monuments.  It’s really richly detailed of every monument down to every tablet, every plinth, every obelisk.  I used that halfway through to better locate some of these.  In there, it’ll give an historical description of the monuments, and you can track down who made it and the cost, and those types of things.  But the one that I always come back to, there’s one in Portsmouth, Virginia that is four-sided.

I know it, yeah.

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Portsmouth Confederate Monument

It’s right downtown there and in the description it was claimed that each figure was modeled after a veteran from Portsmouth, but you look at it—put them side by side—and you’re like, “There’s just no way.”  There’s just no way that that was actually modeled after a veteran.  I mean, maybe that was the case, maybe that was the hope, but it’s the same head as in half a dozen other moments.

So, there was a handful that were unique, like one in Lynchburg, for example.  Lynchburg, maybe at the time, had more money to commission a sculptor or artisan, but I think in some of these more rural areas, they were happy probably to put something up, and if it looked like the one two counties away, well, no big deal, because a hundred years ago, chances are you don’t really go to that county.

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photo by Michael Mergen

Going back to the crayon-inscribed photos in the exhibition [at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts], you had the Civil War series right across from the Civil Rights series, which was a really interesting juxtaposition, but what struck me is, having been to Selma and seen that landscape, how similar it is to the place where you are now.  So what did you see as a connection there or a contrast?

Part of the connection was historical, in that the end of the Civil War, 1865, and the galvanizing moments of Civil Rights–it’s almost a hundred years later to the day.  That was a strange coincidence, but they’re like two bookends, these two high water marks of American history—like a hundred years, within a week of each other.

So, that was part of it.  It was just seeing how these two things worked together.  In some ways, the end of the Civil War marked the inevitable beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  I think a lot of the political decisions, the way the political landscape was shaped post-Reconstruction, led to a situation where there had to be the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s also a nearby, Southern, historical journey from point A to point B, that had been marked with signs.  So, it was logistically a way to continue the same process…The 50 year anniversary of Selma was coming up and Barack Obama was down there, and the movie came out.  And I was like, “Oh, this could be another way of continuing this process, continuing this exploration of these marked historical landscapes.”

Michael Mergen’s series Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead was featured in the Oxford American magazine.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his personal site: www.mimages.com.