“You always meet the devil at the crossroads, right?” says Todd Hearon. “So is there a devil in my career right now? Yeah, in fact, and its name is history.”
Hearon is speaking from the porch of Robert Frost’s former home in Franconia, N.H., where he is the 2015 Dartmouth Poet in Residence. The modest hill farm with outsized views of the White Mountains where Frost lived a century ago is now a museum in addition to a summer home for the resident poet. Its barn serves as a venue for poetry conferences and public readings, run throughout the summer by The Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts.
According to The Frost Place’s website, the poet-in-residence program, begun in 1976, supports poets “at an artistic and personal crossroads, comparable to that faced by Robert Frost when he moved to Franconia in 1915, when he was not yet known to a broad public.” Dartmouth has funded the residency since 2012.
Dartmouth Poet in Residence to Read at Sanborn, July 28
Todd Hearon, Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place, will be reading in the Wren Room at Sanborn Library at 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, with Professor of English Emeritus Ernest Hebert.
Residency alumni include prominent contemporary poets, among them Katha Pollitt, Robert Hass, William Matthews, Mark Halliday, Laura Kasischke, and Dartmouth’s own David Graham ’75 and Cleopatra Mathis, the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing and a professor of English.
“There is a kind of atmospheric pressure that could be stifling, but I’m accepting it as a gift of the time to get back to the work at hand,” Hearon says. He points to a chain in front of the Frost Place museum with a sign that says “closed.”
“There’s a line in Frost’s poem ‘Directive’ that says, ‘put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.’ Every time I walk past that sign, I think, wow, it kind of is closed to all but me. The place is inspiring. The view, the house, the road. I imagine if the old man were here, he would say, ‘All right—get to it, keep at it, do your best.’”
The devil history that Hearon is confronting in his work is the legacy of “sundown towns”—communities where African Americans and other minorities were purged, and that brutal history buried beneath idyllic-sounding town names: Eden, Hallelujah, Sacrifice. Many of these towns are in the South, but there are many, too, in the Midwest, West, and even northern New England, Hearon says.
“I was born in a sundown town in Texas called Paradise,” Hearon says. “I didn’t know this until I started my research—it was a revelation. I called my dad and said, ‘Do you have any recollection of any people of color ever in that town?’ And he said, ‘Come to think of it, no.’ I never really wondered why.”
His forthcoming book, Crows in Eden, depicts a fictional town in eastern Tennessee, “just over the mountains from where I was raised in North Carolina. After the lynching of three men in 1919, the entire African American community was driven out, overnight. The book looks into the aftermath—the consequences of violent displacement not only to the victims but to the perpetuators. What is it to live in a place where, because these histories were denied and suppressed, there simply is no color? In this fictional town the sun is perennially at noon. There’s no historical memory; there are no shadows; there is no depth.”
Most of the year, Hearon—an award-winning poet, dramatist, and novelist—teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy.
“I do find time to write the occasional lyric—a manageable project with a teaching load. But a big, extended, narrative, dramatic arc; I can’t do that at school,” he says. “That needs sustained time and attention. A lot of my writing is just walking for miles, not writing but thinking, waiting for phrases to come up. It’s stomping out psychic space so when you get back to the porch, it’s clear.”
Dartmouth’s connection to Robert Frost and The Frost Place runs deep, says Cleopatra Mathis, whose photograph hangs in the Franconia barn along with those of all the previous poets in residence.
Frost, Class of 1892, dropped out of Dartmouth but returned beginning in the 1940s to give talks and readings and participate in the Great Issues program. The College awarded him an honorary degree in 1951.
“He had close friendships with several professors on the faculty, as well as the College Librarian, Edward Lathem ’51,” who edited his collected works, Mathis says. Memorabilia from the Frost Place museum winters in the Frost Collection at Rauner Special Collections Library.
“In many ways, Frost is ‘our’ poet. It has been a source of pride for Dartmouth to have this connection with a major American poet, and it allows our students to continue in the tradition,” she says.
Last week three Dartmouth undergraduates—Maeve Lentricchia ’17, Bradley Geismar ’17, and Daniela Childers ’16—got to experience that tradition as participants in the annual Frost Place Conference on Poetry. The three attended the conference thanks to funding from the Dartmouth English department. (The Master of Liberal Studies program also offers its students two scholarships to the conference each year, though no MALS students attended this year.)
The conference brings together a community of about 50 poets of all ages and backgrounds. Staying at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H., up the road from Frost’s house, participants attend intensive workshops each morning, followed by in-depth discussions of craft and evening readings by faculty and guests at the barn in Franconia. On Friday night, the participants read their own works from the barn podium.
“Almost every year since the establishment of The Frost Place, Dartmouth students have served as summer interns and received scholarships to attend the many conferences in Robert Frost’s house and barn,” Mathis says. “It is an experience that matters greatly both to aspiring writers and to those who love what the work of Robert Frost means to our study of literature. We are incredibly lucky to have this bond.”
Lentricchia, a double major in classical languages and literatures and philosophy, discovered poetry through Mathis’ introductory poetry course. “I had never thought about writing poetry before, and learning about craft and working on poetry has changed my life. So coming to the conference was a must.”
“Wanting to write poetry is not necessarily what you talk about with your friends at Dartmouth,” says Geismar. “Talking about what people have written is a way to connect, because if you’re showing your work, you’re inherently letting your guard down. At the conference, we’re getting to have that type of conversation with people who are at very different points in their lives than we are.”
Geismar is a double major in earth sciences and English. “I wasn’t an English major before I took Professor Mathis’ class last winter,” he says.
Like Geismar, Childers, an anthropology major and music minor, decided to add a minor in English to her academic load after taking Mathis’ course. “At Dartmouth we’re taught to write in a very expository way that is wonderful for clarity,” she says. “But a lot of things aren’t experienced in an expository way. Writing poetry has opened me up to talking about things that I couldn’t articulate before, and that’s been just transformative.”
The students agree that the chance to attend the conference, to which Mathis encouraged them to apply, was “too good to pass up,” despite the pressures of missing a full week of Sophomore Summer classes and work on research back in Hanover.
“The conference is really lovely, and it’s unique because it’s a true opportunity to explore. There’s not a lot at stake. It’s like, try this out and we’re going to help you discover,” Childers says.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. “I’ve been working harder here than I have in a long time,” says Lentricchia.
All three said it was important for them to see “real people with real jobs” (as Childers put it) make a place for poetry in their lives.
“It’s nice to see people doing something that you’re interested in, and still having some kind of a balance,” says Geismar. “They’re living proof that this can be pursued outside of the classroom.”
Lentricchia agrees. “To come to a place like this where you can be in a community of people who are happy and successful and thoughtful has been seriously inspirational. It’s made me realize, okay, living an artistic or an intellectual life isn’t just a pipe dream.”
Her favorite part of the conference? “The readings at the barn have been truly magical. That sounds trite, but the feeling of sitting in that barn and hearing people read from their books—their manuscripts—is humbling and astounding and wonderful. It’s just incredible to be ending your day with poetry as your dessert.”
She adds, “I want to make a plea to the English department to never stop sending students to the Frost Place.”
Hearon’s first book of poems, Strange Land, won the Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition, and his full-length play, Wives of the Dead, was winner of the Paul Green Playwrights Prize. He received a PEN/New England “Discovery” Award and the Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation. Poems from his second collection, No Other Gods, have received the Rumi Prize in Poetry (Arts & Letters) and the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize (Sarah Lawrence College). He received a Dobie Paisano Creative Writing Fellowship from the University of Texas in Austin to complete his first novel, A Little Space.
Of his poem “No Other Gods” (below), Hearon says, “I’m trying to find a nexus where the sacred intersects with the profane and is held together in a kind of crystalline reality. Which to me is divine. Many times when we say ‘divine’ we’re thinking about something way up there, but I think that the divine has to hold the profane and the sacred together.”
By Todd Hearon
Little left anymore out of which to fashion even a B-grade myth. My life,
how it looks to me as a mongrel to its master in anticipation of the snap
or slap. I have desired belief and lack it—belief comes from terror and is not to be desired—
have mauled the hand that made me and have punished myself punished myself again and again
for a pettiness that may be aboriginal. And probably is. Pasiphae: recall
her desire for the Cretan bull, inflamed by the angered god, how she had fashioned
the magnificent and terrible apparatus, into which she climbed. Belief
is like that: it comes in the dark, in the anticipation where we crouch, exposed,
reduced to a purity of heart which is desire for one thing only—not the white
bull of Poseidon, not its beauty, not its grace, not even the mythic cock but to be
mastered, humiliated, inhumanly undone by a bruter force than our desire could dream of.
To be filled. God, I have asked for that, not knowing what I ask, have watched
them draw Pasiphae’s body out, gleaming and satiated, limp, uncomprehending
the dark seed that now swells in her, this daughter of the sun. See how she lies
so lovely on the meadowgrass? There is no peace, no content, no pain anymore like hers.
How you almost envy her. She has passed over. How you almost said desire.
(From No Other Gods, Salmon Poetry, 2015. Permission granted by the author.)