getting to know molly lynn watt and her new book on wings of song
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My earliest memories were the happiness of bedtime rituals. My mother read to me every night and I fell in love with the sound of the human voice. Many nights she opened the gray covers of “Story and Verse for Children”, and out popped sounds and images of everything I loved or wished I knew:
I have a little shadow it goes in and out with me
And what can be the use of it is more than I can see
he is very very like me from the heels up to the head
And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed…
My father sang me songs in his Irish tenor voice:
I don't wanna play in your yard
I don't like you anymore.
You'll be sorry when you see me
Sliding down my cellar door…
I went to church each Sunday and learned to read by reading the litany from the hymnal, singing the poetry of hymns and listening to passages from the King James version of the Bible.
There was never a time when I did not hear or read poetry. I always had a mottled white and black covered composition book from the grocery store and birthday presents of yellow pencils and boxes of Crayola crayons. There was not a day in my childhood that passed without my writing about the ants in the back yard or the water rushing from the pump or collecting cow turds to burn for heat or the free feeling of flying high on a swing over the lilac bushes into the sky.
This practice continued until I married at 21 and the babies came quickly and I became a political activist against war, for civil rights, for the environment and many other important and good causes to save our humanity and our world. Time compressed into what was essential to do. I had not yet figured out that writing was essential to me and could be an activism that called others to take notice. But I stored away images and experiences that I would one day write witness to; they would not vanish; we would remember.
And then the towers fell on September 11, 2001. Life is fleeting and I had not done as I intended. I quit my job reforming education and sat down to write the witness I’d always intended. I had many stories and images to record, but the one gnawing in my gut, the one I’d needed to write became the book we are celebrating on this page. On the Wings of Song—A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, Ibbetson Street Press 2014.
I tried memoir. I tried shapeshifting the story into fiction. I settled into poetry where I could condense my stuttering memories of racism into jagged lines and breaks, shrieks and sobs, I could paint my memories of terror and courage with words. I could take people today into that jail cell of 1963 in Maryville, Tennessee with a couple of phrases:
iron clanks iron shuts out
starry sky live oak trees fireflies
even mosquitoes won’t follow
my daughters and I are disappearing
into the sadness of stained mattresses
reeking toilet no door iron bars
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I can’t always to be lucky enough to be given a writing residency as I have been twice, once at the Lake Atitlan, Guatemala home of Joyce Maynard and once in the Soul Mountain, Connecticut home of Marilyn Nelson.
Give me my aqua dragon mug of luke-warm coffee with almond milk, a yellow legal pad, number 2 pencils with sharp points and my plush red sofa in my living room, when no one is talking, no radio is blaring, no background music is playing, no phone is ringing. I will not hear the sounds from our busy street. I will sit quietly looking out over the greenery until a flood of free writing creeps or explodes out of my fingertips onto the paper. After the initial gush, from five minutes to a couple of hours, I will retreat to my MacBook and shape up the poem. This may take days. This may take years. This may never be finished, even when published.
Sometimes what I’m writing about is too painful for me to sit down with it every day first thing in the morning.
I don’t write every day
Once I told Martha Collins
She said, “That’s okay”
Grace Paley became my heroine, first for political activism we shared, then for her writings which I stumbled across and devoured, and then as my teacher at the William Joiner Institute for War and Social Consequences and then as my friend. Grace never chose among her family, activism and writing; she juggled all three. I post her poem The Poet’s Occassional Alternative in my kitchen:
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper…
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Of course my poems in general come from all of the above.
But in my second book of poems, On Wings of Song—A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, the poems come when my memory is triggered.
I see my Tennessee 1963 trial transcript sitting on the shelf. I see the photo on the wall of my one-year-old and three-year daughters looking back at the camera sucking their thumbs these fifty years later. I hold a whisk-broom in my hand. I eat a serving of grits for breakfast. I see a sycamore tree’s camouflaged bark. I hear a mass meeting rise in one voice, we shall overcome some day and someone takes my hand, we sing and sway. Some poems come from a nightmare or an ache. My poems are jogged by memory stimulated in a moment, but their source is the deepest center of my being where reverence and terror and awe and regret and hope reside:
…I see bleached bone
not a branch stripped of leaves
sycamore wood is for coffins
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
Many writers, but for On Wings of Song—A Journey into the Civil Rights Era:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up…
the victim hanged, though not on a tree, this
was not the country, they used a steel arch
with electric lights, and later a lamppost, this
was a modern event, the trees were not involved.
Afaa Michael Weaver:
we frolicked like wealthy children on an English estate,
as reluctant laws and bloodied heads
tacked God's theses on wooden doors,
guaranteed the canopy of the firmament above us.
Fred Marchant’s: First Song Again: Trust the wood you stand on,/Become an ally of the grain,/Bend in the wind./Trust even the high precarious places,/ The steeples and windy overhang/ That teach you everything./ Trust too the rose tint of late afternoon / Sifting down through a lofted/Blue heron wing./Trust above all the imminent return/Of the small, but persistent/ Impulse to sing.
And the community of writers at the ongoing Writers Workshops of William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
People often ask about the title, On Wings of Song—A Journey into the Civil Rights Era. The heart of my narrative memoir in poems takes place in the American Civil Rights Movement in 1963 which was a time of horrific events and a time of terrific hopefulness living together in the same volunteers. We survived on wings of song as an army is said to travel on its stomach. Singing is a theme in the book, lifting us out of fear and despair into a place of unity and love. We sang together without instruments, or song sheets or ipods, or boom boxes or microphones, and everyone sang and the nation heard us.
The book starts with:
I want to write a poem
the way a jazz man
composes on his feet
sways in rhythm
taps a syncopated beat
I want to howl and growl
to a bottleneck slide
pulse with rage and heat
rap a wild wind run
to blast away injustice…
and ends with one more verse to We Shall Overcome.
This is a book of witness and documentary poems. It is the trace that some of these events actually happened although we have nothing but memory to go on. It spans World War II through 2014 and brings racism in America to the surface so we can take a long hard look and recognize Jim Crow when we see him tramping our streets. The book forms a narrative that could be thought of as one long poem. High school students and adult communities have found it a thought-provoking and inspiring story in poems, and it brings up issues related to the violence and the hopeful responses we keep witnessing in our cities and towns today. A lot to think about, a lot to talk about, and it inspires a lot to write about. We all know it is not over yet.
Other themes show hints of why we needed a women’s movement, how a non-violent movement functions and a portrait of a young mother nurturing a young family under the duress of political struggle. Quakerism-in-action runs through the book, if you watch for it, you’ll find it.
I wrote the poems over 12 years time, I wanted a book finished for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement. I wrote the poems not in any sequence, nor uniform style, nor form, nor voice. I believe this is part of what keeps the book fresh and varies its pacing. I laid out all the poems on the floor and then decided which wanted to be beside another until most of the poems were selected into a notebook in a sequence that turned out to be chronological. Then I wrote the acknowledgements, the front matter and the dedication for the thousands of ordinary citizens carried on wings of song during the nonviolent struggle of the Civil Rights Movement.
I am proud of this story and I especially enjoy giving readings to groups interested in the subject matter. One of my favorite of many readings this past year, was at The Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York where several students from several parts of the world each took a poem and read it in the all-school assembly as I threaded the narrative together. And yes, we also sang a few freedom songs.
Read a sample poem from On Wings of Song and listen to some audio recordings here:
Molly Lynn Watt text for video poem from On Wings of Song —A Journey into the Civil Rights Era
Civil Rights Update (2014)
the girl in skin-tight jeans
strains toward the mirror
mascaras her lashes
adjusts a third earring
plugs in an iPod
in a wake
she knows the story—
not much older than she
packed up two babies
drove dusty Tennessee roads
through drought-dry cotton fields
where tenant farmers
trying to register trying to vote
were fired were evicted
were harassed by the Klan
put her life on the line
went to jail with babies in tow
but sometimes she wonders
why didn’t Grandma stay home?
she’s serious about making a difference
studied the example of Dr. King
starred as Rosa Parks in the play
she’s steeped in the language of rights
argues about curfew
posts hopes on Facebook
imagines herself a singer
doctor engineer poet
as if walking the aisles of T.J. Maxx
for a readymade fit off the rack
until bored she tries on
a new way to make a difference
the girl really a young woman
has not walked with the rhythmic feet of protest
is unaware of the care activists used in dressing
Brylcreemed hair polished shoes pressed shirts
clip-on neckties the kind that unclip
when gripped their eyes on the prize
picking-off big-picture fights—bus boycotts
freedom rides lunch counter sit-ins
they marched for jobs votes schools
singing songs to freedom’s beat
this girl owns her civil rights
but cannot imagine her vote counts
she does not know she is living the dream
but must keep dreaming it
or the movement will stop
Jim Crow still tramps the street