What Pecan Light [Bull City Press; April 20]

It would be wrong to call Hannah VanderHart’s poems masterful, though at times it is tempting to, anyway.

In “When Someone Says a Poem Is Masterful,” a poem near the end of her first full-length collection, What Pecan Light, the speaker asks, “who wants to master the body of a poem? (no one should).” A beat later, an admission: “I have a master in my family tree / Jack Allums / he will always be there.”

These are poems that meet the white reader on a common ground, sometimes even the literal ground of a chicken coop, as in “When We Are Not Talking About Race In The South We Are Talking About Race In The South,” and then swiftly ask what is it to farm and be farmed, to cultivate and to reproduce a system of violence.

And so VanderHart unsteadies the ground, which might be common but is far from neutral. VanderHart, also an editor and educator, is an active member of local and online poetry communities and co-organized the Little Corner Reading Series while she was an English PhD candidate at Duke University.

What Pecan Light illuminates—decisively, and with lyrical precision—is how white supremacy is as inherited and intimate as the recipes shared over supper. “To make will always be better” she writes, “than to master.”

INDY: At what point did whiteness become a central question of What Pecan Light?

HANNAH VANDERHART: The first poem I wrote for this collection, “Confederate Statues are Falling This Morning,” I wrote after a fight with my mother, instigated by the tearing down of the Confederate soldiers monument in front of the Old Durham Courthouse. To write the poem, I had to go further back than the historical moment inciting the poem—I had to go to my grandmother’s house in Ruston, Louisiana, to the polluted lake by her house, to the turtle I pulled from it. (Carl Phillips writes, “We thought we knew a thing. Now we know it differently. That’s the effect of the poem on its maker…”). Going deeper into the question of the complicity of whiteness has been both the labor and the birth of this collection.

Where did you find the archival material at the core of these poems?

We each have an archive—oral, written, forgotten sometimes—in our families. In my experience, the written is often the bare bones of it. When you do genealogy work on a family tree, you look for birth date, death date, and marriage to make sure someone belongs there. This has obvious limits. Talking with my father has been a good part of the poems’ archive—I learned things I had not known before about my grandfather’s chicken farm (the second-largest farm in Louisiana, my father always said). My brother uncovered the newspaper clipping with my grandfather’s words about the farm.

Other poets are also a vital part of the archive, and an aid in filling in the gaps, learning what silences you are looking for when you consider yourself as a historical person in the world. We don’t actually know that much by ourselves, without others. [Natasha] Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina transformed what I thought I knew about the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Claudia Rankine knocked down doors of my thinking, regarding personal narratives and the American lyric.

What can you tell me about craft and your writing process?

Line is probably my favorite part of revision—discovering a line is off by a single word, or that all the lines in a poem are. Line is the revision element that feels most like play to me. While I have a background in metrical form, I admit I find any particular number of metrical feet less interesting than breath as meter (iambic pentameter has been noted to be a line of breath, so that works for some). C.D. Wright, one of my favorite poets, had an attachment to Williams Carlos Williams (she wrote a beautiful introduction to Spring and All), so that’s one line of craft descent I would pull to name my own engagement with line/breath.

You’ve just launched a new poetry journal; how are you building its editorial ethos?

Moist Poetry Journal was born from the desire for an inclusive, playful space for poetry. The grounds for disliking the word “moist” are often gendered, with (at least) a shadow of misogyny. I think the most exciting poetry being written now is by poets that dissolve borders—physical, bodily, geographic, formal. Poets like Rachel Zucker, who embrace the “contaminants” of their poetry. Moist has poems forthcoming from a volunteer firefighter in Arkansas, a medical student in England, a young writer in Mumbai. Moist also means fresh. That’s what I’m looking for in selecting poems.

Anything else you’d like to share about the collection and how readers can support it?

I’d love to shout out Ross White of Bull City Press for creating the publishing space for What Pecan Light—please buy books from our small and local presses, and great bookstores like Golden Fig Books. Also, I’m leading a virtual workshop via Scuppernong Books in Greensboro on April 29 called “Digging Up Bones: Writing Your Past,” and would love to see folks there.

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