Tramp: On Poetry, Women, and Wanderers

When I first started writing what would become Tramp, I had no idea what it would grow into. Playing with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century newspaper articles about women who blew into and out of towns, sometimes on foot, sometimes by rail, was just a way to explore a subject I found compelling, women trying to break through social norms so they could determine their own lives. I typed passages from interviews, cut them apart, and laid them on the kitchen table in an effort to understand who these women were and what they had to do with me. Looking back, I think I was trying to find a new way into poetry, something more three-dimensional than the page, something that could capture the swift thrill and violence of experience.

In the simplest terms, Tramp started with my reading Trea Martyn’s Queen Elizabeth in the Garden, a tour of the gold-dusted landscapes that were designed to curry her favor during her annual progress. Reading about her travels, I began to wonder about the people who were cleared from her path, the poor who were not to be seen, and came across a 1753 reprint of a book with the handsome title, A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, a book which includes descriptions of twenty-four of the most common kinds of thieves and a glossary of their unusual dialect, helpful, perhaps, if, as a member of the gentry, you were to bump into one while inspecting your grounds. One book led to another, Elizabethan poor laws led to Victorian, and eventually, through Google Books’ search algorithm, I found a notice about a 1707 New York City ordinance declaring that churches providing clothes to the poor were to sew the mark “N : Y in blew or Red cloath” onto the garments, thereby branding each recipient with his or her own set of scarlet letters.

It was at this point my reading dovetailed with my family story. My great grandfather came to New York in 1900 from Benevento, Italy; he was seventeen years old with twelve dollars in his pocket. He later married, and my great grandmother died when their five children were under ten years old. Unable to provide adequate care, my great grandfather, a junk dealer who meandered the streets looking for scraps and cast-offs with his horse and cart, brought his daughter to family members elsewhere in the city and the boys to the massive Mount Loretto orphanage on Staten Island where they spent the bulk of their childhood. My grandfather only spoke about Mount Loretto in the broadest terms, mostly to say that he hated it, that the priests were mean, and that he would periodically run away. Later he worked on the docks, and as the story goes, got into a fight and killed a man, leading him to tramp his way south and get work on a ship that took him to Brazil. When I was in my twenties, living in Washington, D.C., he told me he was glad I was living there, that the people were “nice.” He liked to talk about a woman in Alexandria, Virginia, who gave him water when he was passing through, and as he lay dying and I was trying to get him to eat, he said, “I’ve been on this train a long time. It’s time to get off.”

My attempt to understand my family, the effect my grandfather’s wandering had on my father, the choices my father made so that I spent my childhood in one house, then another, and another, my attempt to understand my own experiences as a woman, the personal, cultural, and historic forces that told me to sit in place and be a good girl, that punished me each in their own way whenever I tried to push back, led to my kitchen table with three children dashing in and out and me musing over women tramps at the turn of the century, trying to find a way to make their stories come alive. At first the articles were the source of an essay, then a poem, then a long poem, then a play, then poems, an essay, a play, a play and poems, and on and on as I tried to find a shape that would make their voices sing. Below is a list of books that were important to me when I was writing Tramp.

Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions, 2010). Probably no other poet has been more important to me over the last few years in thinking about how to come at a poem than Anne Carson. Her monumental Nox has an accordion binding with pages that alternate between prose poems, found text, definitions of words from ancient Greek, and images that deal with the death of her brother. A meditation on loss and language, Nox lives most powerfully in its silences.

Deborah Digges, The Wind Blows through the Doors of My Heart (Knopf, 2010). Digges was my teacher in college, and she played a significant role in the writer I would become. This haunting book, her last, is full of gorgeous poems that grapple with the death of her husband in a grief that is near consuming.

Robert Hayden, Collected Poems (Liveright, 1985). There are poems you read that take the top of your head off. I can still feel this book’s vibration in my hands as I made my way through it as an undergraduate. “Middle Passage” is a poem that exploded my idea of what a poem could be.

Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross, When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (University of New Orleans, 2010). This book of interview-poems and photographs by Hogue and Ross artfully captures the displacement experienced by New Orleans residents in the months after the storm. Relocated to Arizona with few, if any, of their belongings, survivors try to take in their losses while Hogue and Ross bring to the surface what we owe each other in the aftermath of disaster.

Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2008). Howe was my other writing teacher in college, and I’m forever grateful to her for introducing me to Elizabeth Bishop and teaching me the sentence’s potential. I’m mesmerized by her poems’ light structures and the strength of their centers. Reflecting on momentary scenes from domestic life, her poems have an abiding integrity that balance the deeply spiritual with a keen humor.

Natasha Trethewey, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002).  Trethewey’s second collection is one of my favorites. Written in the voice of a light-skinned Storyville prostitute, the book is divided into two sections; the first a series of letters home and the second a diary about the experience of being photographed by E. J. Bellocq. Trethewey explores the intersection of race, gender, and power in poems that are at once understated and heartbreaking.

Joelle Biele is the author of the poetry collections White Summer and Broom and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and “The New Yorker”: The Complete Correspondence. She has taught American literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Goucher College, the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and Jagiellonian University, Poland.

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