How Charleston Won My Heart

On this overcast morning (DC's eighth straight, oof) as I wait for my sister to take her GRE's so we can run away to Baltimore, I finally have a chance to tell you about my trip to Charleston to address the Poetry Society of South Carolina. 

But before I can talk about going to Charleston in September, I have to tell you about going to Charleston in April. It came about through pure Facebook-style serendipity: a reader, Katrina Murphy, reached out to say how much she'd loved I Was the Jukebox. Ever in search of new routes to Mississippi, I offered to set up a Carolinas-Georgia trek and come to Charleston, if she was game to set up a reading. She did that and then some--working with W. W. Norton to get stock, arranging a newspaper feature, and booking the majestic setting of the Circular Congregational Church, built in 1681.

In a moment of bravado, my parents drove down to make a weekend getaway out of it. The three of us prowled the old graveyard before the reading, headstone by headstone. We stepped into the church and I gasped. It was gorgeous. As I later admitted, there were a handful of poems--"Drunk," "In the Deep"--I dropped from my set list on the spot, fearful of blasphemy.

So I read "Love Poem for Wednesday," Katrina's favorite, and took some other requests. The crowd was lively (though I did manage to rattle some passers-by who sat down thinking they were on the first stop on a ghost tour). 

That's Katrina sitting beside me as I sign books. She's talking to Susan, who brought us back to her house for a dinner of roast chicken and asparagus. I can't remember another time someone home-hosted and didn't blink at all my food allergies. A small group of us stayed up late into the night, talking life and poetry over gin & tonics. Heaven. This is why poets tour: these moments of stumbling into a community you could call home. 

But the next morning was all panic. I woke at 6 AM to prepare my Schedule C expense records. I was trying to make the 10-hour drive to Oxford with a stop in Birmingham to see friends expecting to meet right at 7 PM. Tornadoes were being reported in the states I'd have to drive through. I couldn't get Susan's front door to lock behind me. All the places my father wanted to show me--the courthouse, the French Quarter--no time. I left loving the people of Charleston. The town? Barely glimpsed it. 

So when Richard Garcia invited me back as a guest of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, it felt like a second chance. Though once again it was a long drive, this time my father offered to do it with me. 

Part of the drive down was talking: his work in Hawai'i, my book touring, what next. Part of the drive was spent on the conversation of music: him sharing the new Tom Principato, me sharing the new Paul Simon. And part, of course, was spent on a gratuitous rest stop at South of the Border. Because that's how we roll. Also, they have the biggest real fake-looking shark I have ever seen. 

The College of Charleston gave us adjoined rooms at an incredibly reasonable rate, and we snuck in a pre-reading snack at the college deli down the street. We headed to the historic Charleston Library Society. 

My first thought, as we walked in: Wow, another amazing space. My second thought: That's a LOT of chairs waiting to be filled. Eeek. I didn't know what to expect on a Friday night. Would it be the same faces from a few months earlier, minus those who would choose a date or a concert over hearing me again? 

There was nothing I could do but tuck myself into a chair and make sure I knew what I was reading. I wanted to share a couple of poems from the third collection (or what I hope is a third collection; right now it's just a sheaf of loose paper). One, "Inventory," I found myself editing on the fly. Would it go over? Would this be a sestina-friendly crowd? And magically, as I sat in my chair worrying, people started to pour in. A lot of people. 

Turns out the Poetry Society of South Carolina really knows how to kick off a fall reading series. Rarely have I been so lucky in my audience: warm, responsive (they laughed at funny poems! they made that little "mmh" sound at the sad ones!) and yes, they most definitely knew how a sestina worked.

Rosalyn Cowart was local reader who opened, having returned home to Charleston after receiving her MFA at Florida State University. She had fabulous chicken poems; I'm quite sure we'll be hearing more from her.  

I opened with "The Emperor's Valentine," happy to take my cue from Rosalyn's animalia theme. First published in the Black Warrior Review as part of my chapbook Bitch and Brew: Sestinas, it opens:

I admit, the monkeys were overkill.
They refused to leave their jeweled hats alone.
They hurled the grapes at each other like small,
hard promises of sex to come. With wild
animals there is always a small, hard
promise of sex to come. Even turtles,

shells scraping as they circle their turtle
tank. For us, sharing a glass house would kill
the spark. But they’re exhibitionists. Hard
to make blush, turtles. Never bathed alone,
using the same dish to drink...

Afterwards, the best part: carousing! Jim Lundy, former PSSC president, celebrated his birthday. Jim is great--we shared a dinner conversation back in April. I'm looking forward to joining him in February 2012 for his Monday Night Poetry & Music. 

I was thrilled to see Katrina again, and she had worked with Brit (pictured holding the cake above) to set a Sandra-friendly table for the reception: almonds, grapes, vegetables and hummus, right down to crackers with no egg or milk. Though I hadn't read any "Allergy Girl" poems, one woman bought Don't Kill the Birthday Girl for her allergic grandson. We joked about the resoundingly pink cover. 

A personal highlight was meeting Marj Wentworth, Poet Laureate of South Carolina. We have Oxford, Mississippi friends in common--poets Dave Shirley and Ann Fisher-Wirth--and over dinner we talked shop. She's so versatile: her next book, co-authored with Juan E. Méndez, is Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights.

The next morning I taught a workshop on sestinas called "The Gyroscope of Form." I had a class full of ringers--Richard heavily encourages his private students to attend. It was a delight to look at examples from Philip Sidney, Elizabeth Bishop, Miller Williams, and Sonya Huber, tracking the evolution of tone, lineation, and flexility of endwords through the styles of different eras. We talked technical challenges. I shared examples of my strategic process. We drafted sestinas (or at least, the first stanza) using a pool of endwords that included "blue," "cellar," and "hermaphrodite." One participant, Kit, was inspired by the origami poems I'd read the night before to bring in her fancy papers and fold me a shrimp. On the spot. I wanted to say Can I keep all of you?

There are so many wonderful people I haven't even gotten to mention by name--Debbie, Denise, Stefan (who took all the great photos from the reading), Suzette, Mary, Bryan, and on and on. But I must give 1,000 thanks to my hosts, Richard--so sharp and funny--and Katherine Williams (yin to Richard's yang, a scientist with the heart of a poet). I hope all PSSC guests get to experience this. I didn't just feel welcomed; I felt honored. This is the oldest statewide poetry society in the country--they just celebrated a 90th anniversary--and it shows in the vitality and breadth of their programs. 

Now, I'm not going to choreograph the rest of my visit, which was where my dad took over. I'll just give you a few glimpses, as we walked the cobblestones he cares so much about, learned about the quirks of the architecture, went to the water (which I had never seen in Charleston!), tasted a half-dones different kinds of olive oil, got a little goofy in an art gallery, and kept company with a very charismatic oyster shucker for an hour. 

Later, a little Lowcountry blues (Katrina et al came on board for this part). A few vodka gimlets. An enthusiastic bachelorette party that roped my dad into singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to the bride-to-be.

I love Charleston.