This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lauren Russell, whose second book, Descent, is out today from Tarpaulin Sky Press. Comprised of poetry, prose, and archival documents, Descent is an ambitious exploration of family history and identity. Russell began work on the project after she acquired a copy of the diary of her great-great-grandfather Robert Wallace Hubert, who served as a captain in the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, Hubert fathered children by three of his former slaves, one of whom was the poet’s great-great-grandmother. Noting the omissions and silences in the diary’s text, Russell researched and imagined the lives of the “many faceless names” in her family tree, the people and stories otherwise overlooked by history. “What happened between or out of or in the holes of the story is the real story,” she writes. “The very talented poet Lauren Russell shows us how to write what we do not know; to give with grace and dignity, humanity to names on the family tree,” writes Brenda Coultas. “Descent is a search for truths felt in one’s bones.” Lauren Russell is also the author of What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press, 2017). The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Cave Canem, her writing can be found in various publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Hyperallergic, and the Brooklyn Rail. In the fall, she will join the faculty at Michigan State University, where she will also direct the Center for Poetry.
1. How long did it take you to write Descent?
It depends on how you count. I acquired a copy of the diary of my great-great-grandfather Robert Wallace Hubert in the summer of 2013, and once I started transcribing it, I realized pretty quickly that it was going to be the basis for a future writing project. So it was seven years from the time I received the diary to the time of Descent’s release, but the bulk of the writing happened between 2014 and 2017. That said, I wrote the two earliest poems in the fall of 2013 while still in graduate school and still working on my first book.
After I completed the full draft of Descent in the summer of 2017, I continued to make substantial revisions and some additions through the spring of 2018, and I kept tinkering with the manuscript throughout the following year. After Tarpaulin Sky picked up the book, I undertook a massive fact check in August 2019 that resulted in a number of edits, and I was still making small changes right up until the time it went to the printer in April 2020.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This was the most research-heavy writing project I have ever undertaken, which came with a couple particular challenges: First, I am a core introvert, and though I only recently received the diagnosis, I am also on the autism spectrum. I have become an effective teacher and administrator through years of practice, and in fact I have come to love teaching and the kinds of intellectual and creative conversations and practices I’m able to cultivate with my students, but at the end of the day I am a writer who is most comfortable in her own company. Researching a book like this forced me to connect with people in ways that didn’t always come naturally. I had to make phone calls, I had to ask questions of strangers, and eventually I traveled to East Texas and, with my parents, met relatives I didn’t previously know I had, as well as local history experts. Actually it was on that trip that I began to practice making eye contact—now I’ve been doing it for five years, so it doesn’t require as much effort, though I still get the sense that by neurotypical standards my eye contact is a little bit off. All said, while my shyness is a challenge, it is also a gift because what’s most fundamental is being able to listen.
My second major challenge as a researcher is that I don’t know how to drive. I certainly would not have been able to get around East Texas if my parents had not cheerfully accepted my research trip as a family vacation and met me in Houston with a rental car. Also, the internet has made it possible to do a lot of research remotely, and I often worked with digital archives or had archivists scan or mail copies of documents because I simply couldn’t get to them—but I wonder what unknown mysteries I might have uncovered if I had done more of the archival research in person. In the notes section of Descent, I emphasize that I am a poet and not a historian. There are several layers to that statement, but one is that my limitations as a researcher have created openings for imaginative work. Hence I call Descent a work of biomythology, a riff on, or expansion of, Audre Lorde’s “biomythography.”
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
From 2014 to 2015, I was a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The purpose of a writing fellowship is to write, and I think I drafted nearly half the book in that one year. In Madison I became good friends with the poet Lewis Freedman, and we’d meet at a coffee shop every week and write in each other’s presence, which was important for staying accountable to the project. I also read a lot that year and kept a running list of forms I wanted to try, often as I encountered them in other poets’ work. A number of those forms made it into the book.
Later after I moved back to Pittsburgh for a very full-time job, I found it hard to stay in the book. I was able to get a lot done at the one-week Cave Canem retreats for Black poets in 2015, 2016, and 2017, simply by being compelled to write a poem a day, and for the last couple of years I have participated in the one-month June “Poem-a-Day” initiative organized by the poet Sean Bishop, which is a way of forcing myself to produce something, no matter how rough, for as many days of June as I can muster. It is a lot easier if I happen to be at a writing residency. Every summer between 2017 and 2019, I spent between one and two months at writing residencies. In fact it was at the Millay Colony in 2017 that I finished a complete draft of Descent. I have found that physically removing myself from my day-to-day life and responsibilities is the best way to make expansive time and space for my work, a tremendous privilege that should be a right for every writer.
I really enjoy prompts, and if I give myself one, I will write something, which I can later mine for materials for poem-making. During the academic year, the only writing I typically do comes in the form of the in-class exercises I complete alongside my students, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll manage to steal a few days or a week to do something with that material during winter or spring break. In the fall of 2018 through the winter of 2019 I made a practice of collecting images at galleries—I’d write down one image from every artwork I saw. Later when I went to the Millay Colony for spring break that year I transferred these onto index cards, and I used some of them in the post-Descent poem “Are We Not Obsidian?” titled after the Ellen Gallagher exhibit Are We Obsidian?
I also love to get strange assignments from editors because they give me the opportunity to make something I wouldn’t have made otherwise and to make it on deadline. Thanks to some of the editors who’ve reached out to me in the last few years, I’ve gotten to create a poem in conversation with a Bible verse, though I’m an atheist; an audio poem in response to a Norman Pritchard poem; and an erasure of a John Ashbery poem. I save up these assignments and complete them at residencies.
4. What are you reading right now?
When I started responding to these questions, I had just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s new novel, The Mirror and the Light, which was a riveting quarantine read. It is the third and last installment of the Wolf Hall trilogy and also might be called a work of biomythology in its representation of Henry VIII’s councilor Thomas Cromwell. After the Wolf Hall BBC miniseries came out in 2015, based on the first two books in the trilogy, Charles Krauthammer wrote a review of it in the Chicago Tribune called “The Maddening Appeal of Distorting History.” Krauthammer measures Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and Thomas More against Robert Bolt’s conflicting representations in the play A Man for All Seasons, which I actually haven’t read, but I’m bringing the review up because Krauthammer concludes that multiple views of historical figures can comfortably coexist, alongside actual historical facts. “There is the historical Caesar and there is Shakespeare’s Caesar. They live side by side,” Krauthammer writes. Mantel is a writer and storyteller of superlative skill, and the epic nature of these novels provides the escapism I so often desire from fiction, especially in the time of a pandemic. Her novels also remind me of one of my underlying concerns in Descent—that what actually happened is less important than who owns the narrative around it, and the narrative can change over time.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I am inspired by the work of the poet, permacultarist, visual artist, and composer Julie Ezelle Patton, whose apartment building in Cleveland doubles as an archive for the art of her mother, the visual artist Virgie Ezelle Patton, and a number of other artists, while also serving as a kind of way station for other poets, activists, and artists—I landed there for Thanksgiving last year. I once heard Julie say that the building is her best book. It’s this expansive view of text and life that I find simultaneously so inspiring and so demanding. Julie’s approach to materiality in poetry, her improvisatory jazz performance poems, her stitched-together poems, her visual poems/sound texts, as well as her work as a citizen poet and community builder, continuously expand my understanding of what poetry can be and do.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
A few years ago I was at a post-reading dinner with a bunch of other poets, and we were all complaining about day jobs and having no time to write. One of them said, “There is no easy solution to the problem of capitalism.” There is also no easy solution to the problem of time. For the last four years I have been assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh and a research assistant professor in the English department there. I would sometimes joke that I had a poetry job that interfered with the actual production of poetry, because my job demanded so much of my energy and time. But, simultaneously, through that job I encountered many poets and other artists and scholars whose work and practices have come to influence mine, the university provided research funds to support my work, and each year flexible time in the summer allowed me to go to writing residencies for a month or more.
In the fall I will be joining the faculty of Michigan State University as an assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and will serve as director of the Center for Poetry there. Now having arrived at the elusive tenure-track job so many poets dream of, I am one of the lucky ones—no, I have always been one of the lucky ones—especially at a time of crisis when an international pandemic, accompanied by lack of adequate social safety nets and very poor leadership, is creating widespread financial hardship and throwing preexisting inequities into sharper relief. I’m reminded of the poet Justin Phillip Reed’s recent blog post, “You Have To Contend,” where he writes, “What does it look like when a society’s artists are empowered to make art for themselves, for other people, and art for art’s sake without instantly demanding that art to register in the eyes of prestigious, philanthropic purveyors? abusive networkers? hoarders of education?” As Justin suggests, I would like to live in a world where all writers, regardless of institutional affiliation, formal education, socioeconomic class, or monetary awards for ambiguously defined “merit,” have adequate time and space to write. Until now we have assumed this is impossible, but how do we know if we have never demanded it?
7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I do my best to manage, but it is often disruptive and at times has been nearly debilitating. In the total isolation of the last two-and-a-half months, my OCD has gotten worse. Sometimes it manifests in extreme perfectionism, which can become excruciating; I will wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to go back to sleep because I am obsessing over some research oversight or an error in the text. Christian Peet is my editor at Tarpaulin Sky, and I am grateful for his patience with my many corrections and recorrections, my edits and obsessions and agonizing second guesses. He’s also been willing to work with me to get the book to physically and materially look the way I want, which has sometimes been a painstaking process for both of us.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Descent, what would you say?
Probably nothing. One of the joys of writing, for me, is the process of discovery. Why would I want to ruin that for myself?
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Many, many people read and offered feedback on some of the individual poems and essays in Descent, and I owe a debt to all of these early readers. But I only trusted a few readers with the complete manuscript. One of them was the poet and scholar Tana Jean Welch. She read the full draft just as I was preparing to send it to publishers and gave me very important feedback. I had initially ended the book on a prose poem from the perspective of Bob, my great-great-grandfather, and Tana suggested that it ought to end with Peggy, his former slave and my great-great-grandmother, whom I have described in many statements as “a Black woman silenced by history.” The whole project came out of my search for Peggy through the gaps in Bob’s diaries, so why give Bob the last word?! Thanks to Tana’s feedback, I reordered part of the book so that it ends on a poem in Peggy’s voice.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
The best advice I got for this book was from the poet Amaud Jamaul Johnson, who was director of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison when I was a fellow there from 2014 to 2015. When I first arrived, I had this very ambitious project in mind, which eventually became Descent, but I felt overwhelmed by the research. Amaud’s advice to me was to keep three notebooks: one for images, one for diction, one for narrative facts. I used that method to organize my notes, and whenever I sat down to write, I’d have all three notebooks open and write from the material I had gathered across them. I don’t know if I would have found a way in without Amaud’s advice.