The Writing Life–It Came for Me: Poetry

On visiting Hunterdale with kin long after Grandma died:

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photo by Simson Petrol via Unsplash

It was pathetic to look at–

Grandma’s glorious garden overgrown with grass.

Her long back yard littered

with automotive and boat wrecks.

The scuppernong vines half

the size they were back when.

Still, amidst the mess, I could make out the spot

where I first knew my Uncle Bill as the person he was.

I could hear him talking with my dad over the neighbor’s arbor.

The rich, languid pace of Bill’s voice.

The more clipped but equally spacious tones of my father.

The rhythm so familiar.

The timbre soothing

in the deep way of Grandma’s stillness.

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photo by Henry Perks via Unsplash

And there I was,

looking at the spot where a great tree once stood

and beneath which I watched

Uncle Bill work on his journal.

It was a rag tag Woolworth’s notebook of a thing

filled with random quotes and stray reflections,

clippings from newspaper cartoons and articles.

I was transfixed.

In the summer of ’77, I would have been 13 years old and full of life.

Maybe it was ’78.

When I got back home

I bought a big, spiral-bound thing with a purple cover–

–5 subjects!–

and started my own.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

It was enormous all empty like that.

I filled it with Mark Trail comics

and paeans to Uncle Bill

and lost and found loves.

In such lost groves and abandoned arbors,

beneath trees that only root in memory now,

in books with uninked pages,

in the company of blood so strange and yet familiar,

the writing life–

it came for me.

–Alex Joyner

Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism: The Ed Ayers Interview concludes

Is there reason, as a historian, to be an optimist?  Edward Ayers, among other things the co-host of the BackStory podcast and radio program, narrates a troubled chapter of American history in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.  In the first two segments of this interview we have talked about vicious political climates and racialized narratives.  But here, my former professor talks about the pendulum of history and Confederate monuments, something he’s been doing a lot of thinking about in his multiple roles:

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photo by Dean Hinnant via Unplash

So the grand theory of history here behind what you’re doing—-you’re saying there are these big counter-forces at work during this period. If the South hadn’t seceded, emancipation wouldn’t have happened. If the South hadn’t resisted civil rights for blacks, there wouldn’t have been voting rights and office holding for blacks. If Northern Democrats hadn’t provided cover for Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Is that how history works in America? Not through compromise but through the opposition of grand forces?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I think that we’re watching the foundations being laid right now for a new Progressive Era. I think that the opposition to Trump is going to be a major force over the next 15 or 20 years. That may be wishful thinking.

I would say that, partly because of the two party system, American history does seem to move like a pendulum rather than like an arrow. One set of accomplishments cannot be taken as a [common] accomplishment; they are taken as the embodiment of a partisan initiative. You certainly see this today in the [US retreat from the Iran deal], for no particular reason other than the predecessor did it and the current president’s undoing it.

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Ed Ayers

I’ve not gotten any criticisms from anything [in my argument] yet, really. I’ve just gotten some grudging comments from people who aren’t really in sympathy with this whole kind of social history/inclusive approach. If you’re gonna criticize it, then the implicit argument here is that this diminishes the intentionality of the Republicans and of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t mean for it to do that, but that would be the criticism. The argument is that the Republicans knew all along they wanted to end slavery. That’s why they created the party. They did whatever it took along the way to do it, and then they did it. And they instituted as much Reconstruction as they could. The flip side of that is that the white South resisted every step along the way and won a large part of what they wanted, which is local control. 

So I’m trying to put the two things in interplay and showing that neither of those stories —either the triumphalist one or the defeatist one—is true, but rather that each side is making the other. 

These are what we might think of as dark matter. We now know the dark matter accounts for most of what’s in the universe. You can’t see it but it has gravitational effects. The Northern Democrats and the African-American people in the South and white Southerners are the dark matter that moves this great national story in ways that we can’t understand otherwise. I don’t know that it’s a grand theory as much as it is trying to explain all the orbital irregularities that we see in the story.

And if we don’t understand what the Republicans were up against, then we can’t understand really the depth of what they accomplished. I think it’s what’s surprising to people about this: I’m not following any traditional rhetoric about this of celebration or of condemnation. I’m just saying we put everybody in the screen…we put everybody in the same frame and then we see they’re making each other’s history. 

I said in my Lincoln Prize address that to only look at one party or one side is like trying to understand a battle by only looking at the maneuvers of one army. That’s the basic idea of this book: we can’t understand any part without at least trying to see how all the parts fit together.

I always think of you as an optimist about the course of history. Do you feel like an optimist?

Yeah, I do actually. I think what this story shows us is that things that are far worse than we can imagine can happen and that things that are far better than we can imagine can happen too. The capacity for both swings of the pendulum are with us all the time. History has these capacities that can be tapped by people of vision and good will and ability and those reservoirs are all around us all the time.

Having watched the Civil Rights movement in my own life as a child, and to see everything suddenly change reveals to me that people of good will can make remarkable things happen. It seemed impossible at the time. I think that can happen again.

But we can also see that reservoirs of hatred and mistrust are always there, as well. I think it’s useful to know that we have to be careful that we don’t talk ourselves into the Civil War the way Americans did. On the other hand. that we need to be determined to make the most of the reservoirs and possibilities that we do have, too.

One of the things that seems to resonate between those times and these for me is this idea of how shame plays a role in the dialogue. In the Reconstruction Era, you say that the South was willing to admit defeat and the end of slavery and the Confederacy, but that the Republicans wanted more. They wanted repentance and confession of some kind of moral error. How did that dynamic play out, and are we seeing some of the same sort of language in our political life today?

Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if my fellow historians believe this. This is another kind of dangerous argument because it suggests that the Republicans were perhaps self-righteous and made problems that they didn’t need to make, which is the way that Reconstruction has been understood. These guys were fanatics, right? [is how the argument goes]. 

I guess it’s understandable to me why people who had tried to destroy the United States would be held accountable for what they had done. I think I’m the first one to actually locate that word ‘rebellism.’ That’s a great word. [The Republicans] recognize that the reality is that if they don’t kill that attitude, then whatever political events happen, that’s going to come back. All that to say that it’s an entirely legitimate thing that the Republicans want. It’s also probably unrealistic.

16301481_BG1A lot of Confederate monuments were testimony to the fact that they were not going to give up their ‘rebellism.’ They were never going to admit they’d been morally wrong. They were willing to admit that they’d made a mistake strategically in giving away slavery for political independence, but they were never willing to admit that it was illegal or that it was wrong in the eyes of God.

You see those quotes in the [Southern] papers even as the Confederacy is dying that say, “We feel that we had vindication from God to do this.” Volume One [Ayer’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies] is all built around the 23rd Psalm. That’s one of the most striking changes in the first part of the war is the way that the Confederacy recruits the Deity. They celebrate Lee and Jackson as particularly Christian soldiers. 

If they didn’t have that…if they didn’t believe they were fighting for exactly the same ideals that the United States had been built upon…they could not possibly have waged this rebellion if they did not share the faith in this ideology with the North. They would not have been able to have changed people’s minds in a matter of weeks that something that you had opposed for years—secession—was now an essential act and that if you do it you are morally superior. If you don’t really have the larger religious framing of that it doesn’t happen.

So that’s another reason that the white South doesn’t change its mind—the idea of “We’ll be tried by adversity.” They have a script for that. They understand, “This doesn’t mean we’re wrong; it could mean that this is a trial to see how we bear it.” That helps give them a resolution that they would not have had otherwise.

In your description of the people of Staunton moving the bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery, the Lost Cause narrative is already there, which is something that I think of as developing later, once the Confederate memoirs start coming out.

Here’s another place where I’m kind of doing something dangerous. That makes the Lost Cause look more plausible. It makes you understand that it’s not just a new word for white supremacy. These were your sons that you’re burying and then reburying.

The whole idea for everything I ever do is: we’re not gonna understand if we don’t try to see it through the eyes of the people who were enacting it. We’re not going to understand the Lost Cause if we don’t understand the real grief that motivated it. The trick there is to see that grief can be wrapped in other kinds of purposes as well. That’s the tricky thing.

We have a meeting here tonight in Richmond about the Monument Avenue Commission. We’re coming to a conclusion of that and I think people are slowly coming to see that the knee-jerk formulations—“It’s just history and you can’t change it” or “[The people who erected the Confederate monuments] didn’t mean anything politically by it” are not true. On the other hand, for people who are standing on the other side [it’s important to understand that] the people who are building these things are still grieving for sons and fathers they lost. It’s also important to understand this if we’re gonna move forward—what all the people who put the monuments up originally meant by them.

Thanks for the book. I hope it gets a broad readership. It should.

Yeah, you know, getting a Lincoln Prize…all my friends here who are not in the history biz were most impressed that I beat Ron Chernow [author of Alexander Hamilton] and winning the Avery Prize from the Organization of American Historians. But I think that our impact comes from classrooms for the next twenty years. I hope, that’s where the impact comes from—people actually have a chance to think about it a little bit rather than just reading the book then moving on.

So there’s not an Alexander H.H. Stuart musical coming out?

They did actually do a stage dramatization of it at the Black History Museum in Richmond based on words of four characters: two white, two black, two men, two women. It was very powerful. Just the words and a few of mine along the way. So it would make a great movie or a great miniseries. So if you could make that happen I would appreciate it 

We’ll get Lin-Manuel Miranda on it and see what he can do with it.

That’d be great.

The Vicious State of Politics…Then: Ed Ayers on Heartlands-part 1 of 3

Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator.  Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.  His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award.  He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general.  In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about.  In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:

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By Dswanson1001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51846534

So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?

This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.

The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.

Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.

The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.

That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious. 

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Ed Ayers

Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.” 

People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”

The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.

Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came. 

Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.

Segment 2 of this interview, “Doughfaces, Denzel, & Racing Against Racism,” can be found by clicking this link.

A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.

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Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

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.

How Bad Memory is Afflicting Your Ministry (& Maybe Your Marriage)

one-wedding-251029Could your church (or community) be suffering from faulty memory?  I thought about this last Monday when I attended a presentation on the Missional Wisdom Movement.  The movement is relatively new and it is supporting the creation of new forms of Christian community that take the form of everything from a laundromat ministry to co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

What isn’t new are the roots that the movement draws from.  They are building on the contemplative tradition that draws people into the presence of God for discernment of insight and releasing God’s vision into the world.

The possibilities intrigue me.  (What might an intentional Christian community do and be on the Eastern Shore?)  But the presentation also hit me right in the memory bank.  This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

The marriage researcher, John Gottman, says that one of the telltale signs of a troubled relationship is bad memory.  As it says on his website, “In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together.”*

On the other hand, couples that have difficulty recalling those formative days of the relationship are usually struggling.

IMG_5611I worry about churches that are so caught up in conflict or in the mechanics of ministry that they can’t remember why they are doing what they’re doing.  I also worry about clergy who have lost their first love and their sense of calling.

To use the Gottman analogy, if a church can’t remember the excitement that got them into a project and celebrate they strength they discovered by going through it together, then perhaps its time to recall their mission.  If clergy fumble for the words to say why they are in ministry, it may be time to get reacquainted with the Lover who turned their lives around.

So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.

This applies to the connection as a whole, too.  So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.  No disciple lays aside her plans and life in order to save a system.  Disciples became a part of the body of Christ because they heard a call that rearranged their world and the work they do as a result only makes sense in light of that call.

When I am attuned to the voice of God in my life, I know that it because the task before me is a part of a greater joy.  It’s the same joy I knew as a youth coordinator in a West Dallas community center.  That’s a memory I savor.

When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen (part 1 of 3)

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Michael Mergen at work – photos used with permission

Michael Mergen is a photographer of memory and landscape.  His photos capture ordinary, even shabby parts of America and invest them with the meanings we place on them.  So a series on the things businesses give as freebies to veterans (burgers, ice cream) and another on the things we name for war heroes (interstate highway bridges, stretches of commercial streets) becomes a silent commentary on our values.

At a recent exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, I was particularly taken with a series that imposes the image of highway historical signs over the contemporary landscapes of Virginia Civil War battlefields.  So I gave Michael a call and the Farmville, Virginia-based photographer and professor at Longwood University gave me some time to talk about his work.

Can you tell me just a little bit about how you see your work?  How would you describe what you do?  

I’m a photographer who looks at ideas of America, or our idea of citizenship, or ideas of American history, American politics – looking at how those things are manifest in the landscape, to how landscape can reveal history, how landscape or space can reveal, or show, or point to some of these fragments of American culture, American civics, American citizenship.  These recent works are more drawn to the landscape, but in some of the other work, looking at certain tiers, actual physical spaces that somehow speak to American civics and the American citizen.

So, the landscape you’re working in right now, [Southside Virginia], obviously influenced some of your projects, like the Civil War series.  Is there one region that was kind of formative for you? 

14_13m26-obverseI grew up just outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and that’s still home.  That’s where my family is…So, that landscape was home.  I’d always been a student of American history and enjoyed that history, but never really was taken by the Civil War and never thought of that as more than just a part of the long, complicated American history.

Then, I moved to Virginia and it took quite a few years of being here to let some of that influence creep into the work.

This is obviously this pivotal event in American history.  About half of it was actually fought here; and then, living in Farmville is like you’re living on Lee’s Retreat [in 1865 from Richmond].  So, I’ve seen some of the historical signs just doing other projects.  I’ve see the signs driving around rural Oklahoma.  Even in California and other places.

It was one of those things I kind of saw out of the corner of  my eye–I was probably doing 60 miles an hour down some back road, and thought that the physical marking of a landscape was denoting some kind of historical significance to it.  But then, so often what is being described there is absent from the landscape.  Occasionally there’s a house, [but] usually it’s more of an oblique, invisible reference. So, with the signs, it’s one of those deep, backburner kind of ideas. With the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I was thinking about the war.  I don’t have a connection to it, per se, but living in Virginia gave me, in some ways, permission point to it.

So, doing the signs, the rubbings, was fitted to my interest in landscape and the interest in history.

And you literally went out to those markers, and used a crayon to do a rubbing of the markers, and used that.

14_22f60detailYeah, so, I would photograph where the sign was and put myself within a reasonable distance.  I didn’t have too many set rules.  I started photographing where the sign was–sometimes, literally right next to the sign.  Sometimes, it might be 100 feet down the road a little bit, or off the shoulder of the highway.

Then, I’d make a print back here at school that happened to be roughly the same size as that sign, and then take the print back to the sign and clamp it on using spring clamps.  I’d do a crayon rubbing. I ended up using these jumbo, black crayons from Crayola.  I’d go into Wal-mart and buy these 8 packs.    My daughter would be like, “Dad, where are all the black crayons?”  She was left with 7 jumbo ones but all the black ones were used up.

I’d do this rubbing over the print because I was interested in this collision of history and contemporary landscape, to get at the idea that these signs are speaking or pointing to something that is gone.  We’re saying a hundred years ago this army passed through here, or, half a mile from here, a big battle happened, but there’s no trace of it.  There’s nothing.  So, I’m interested in the visual disparity of that.

In some of the ones where the landscape feels more contemporary, the ones that are closer to Petersburg, where you’re photographing the parking lot of a Walgreens, if you have an advertisement for Walgreens sale on potato chips, if you have that text colliding, literally, with a description of Lee giving the order to retreat.  Those contemporary collisions are interesting to me.  Or the one with gas stations and the price of gas, and the ads for vaping and the e-cigarettes.  You get very contemporary images and text colliding with text about Sheridan’s men or this troop brigade or that troop brigade.  That was interesting to me.

Also, the ones where it was really rural, and where I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “Gosh, this probably looks the same as it did 150 years ago.”  So, having both of those exist together in the series was interesting to me to talk about the way landscape has rapid change or how in some ways it has remained unchanged.

It’s such a great, visual way to place memory in the picture.  To have those words kind of hanging over it is a powerful image.

It comes out of a tradition in photography where people are interested in pointing the camera at a place that has some kind of historical or social/political significance.  But then, the challenge is always—how do you let the viewer in on the idea without relying exclusively on the text?  So you look at 20 photographs and say, “Okay, those are interesting photographs.”  And then, the text says, “Oh, X, Y, and Z happened there.”  Sometimes that can drive you back to the text to look at it, but that’s also been done.  So, this was a way of still engaging in that commentary but doing it in a more direct way, where the piece could be able to stand on its own and be a bit more self-evident.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at http://www.mimages.com.