Carlyn Ferrari: "Any Wife to Any Husband—a derived poem." This small garden is half my world. / I am nothing to it. When all is said, / I planted the thorn and kissed the rose, / but they will grow when I am dead. / Let not this change, Love. / The human life. Share with her, the joy you had with me, / list with her, the plaintiff's bird. / You heard with me feel all human choice, but feel most is shadowy third.
Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. On today’s show, Tess Taylor revisits and expands on her essay, “Light the Word,” it was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of the OA. She examines an underappreciated Southern poet named Anne Spencer and the ecosystem of art and activism that she created over the course of her life in Lynchburg, Virginia. Then later, we’re thrilled to bring you a live performance by another Virginian, Lucy Dacus, whose album, Home Video, is stunning. But first, more on Anne Spencer. Here's Tess Taylor on the significance of Spencer's work
Tess Taylor: Her archive is phenomenally interesting. And it's interesting because it affirms the incredibly active intelligence of somebody who's living a fundamentally domestic life. Her output was really small. She did, you know, it was 30 poems during her lifetime. And it makes hard going for, for huge amounts of scholarship because there's lots of fragments around the edges. There are lines of social critique and poetry on electric bills. And I loved this, this texture to me, of the work being done that way was very affirming and it felt familiar and it felt, um, it companioned me in a domestic practice that I have of jotting down a few lines on the back of a grocery list and hoping that I'll have time to make them into a poem. And so there's something about the, the beautiful, unfinished quality of the work, and yet the continual practice of bearing witness and of writing, um, that I think is part of the scholarship of Anne Spencer.
SAL: Taylor returned to Spencer’s work on the occasion of Spencer’s inclusion in the U.S.P.S.’s “Voices of the Harlem Renaissance” series. She is in conversation with Dr. Carlyn Ferrari, who teaches African American literature at Seattle University, and Camille Dungy, who, like Spencer, is a poet and Virginian. Dungy once lived down the street from the renowned writer. They discuss Anne Spencer as a literary figure of the 1920s, her activism, and her boundless wit and wisdom. Back to Tess.
TT: At the top of the segment, we heard the scholar, Dr. Carlyn Ferrari reading her favorite poem by Anne Spencer, whose life and poems offer us powerful models—even, and especially, a hundred years after they were written. Spencer is sometimes classified amid the poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but she never lived in Harlem. Actually, she lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she and her husband, Edward crafted a house on Pier street, filled with art and hosted a salon, which drew activists and visiting artists from James Weldon Johnson to Paul Robeson, to Zora Neale Hurston to W. E. B. DuBois, perhaps as the essence and perhaps as the piece de resistance, Spencer also cultivated an incredible garden in the back.
TT: The entry foyer is pink. A lemon yellow Ottoman in the bronze sitting room holds a weathered copy of The Souls of Black Folk. A parlor table holds papers documenting the first meeting of the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP, which convened here when James Weldon Johnson first visited in 1917. Beneath a painting by Lawrence A. Jones, a black arts movement painter. The dining table is set with turquoise China, a bright book-filled sitting room overlooks the garden where Spencer's writing cottage waits. The garden fends off the world's turbulence. The kitchen has mint green walls, deep red linoleum floors, and a splash of lime trim. A cupboard is painted with a bit of Spencer's 1926 poem "Lines to a Nasturtium." I invited the poet Camille Dungy to read it and to discuss Spencer's work with me.
Camille Dungy: Day-torch, Flame-thrower, cool-hot Beauty, / I cannot see, I cannot hear your fluty / Voice lure your loving swain, / But I know one other to whom you are in beauty / Born in vain . . ."
TT: Dungy, whose family came from Lynchburg and once lived close to Spencer's, taught for a while at Randolph College. She is now University Distinguished professor of Creative Writing and Poetry at Colorado State and the author of many tremendous books of poetry that deftly explore both the black body and the natural world.
CD: My family knew Anne Spencer, um, and so would have known her work and this feeling that I have of always having known Anne Spencer. And not being able to tell you exactly when her poetry came into my life has something to do with that familiarity, both of, of the culture out of which she's coming and the community she lived in and really helped to create. I do remember the first time I visited her house and just what a delightful space it is. I think there's something about those kinds of preservation efforts where we can see somebody's imprint on a space.
TT: I felt the same way. In coming to Spencer's house, I was entering the domestic space of a brilliant black woman who in addition to being a poet was a literary writer, hostess, and activist. From this home and garden, Spencer wrote nationally celebrated poetry, worked to build the town's first black library and to helped to found her town’s NAACP chapter.
CD: She housed all of the major black figures who would come through Lynchburg. It was, uh, it was kind of a thoroughfare at the time, but their house was the house where these figures would, would stay. She was deeply connected.
TT: There are not many good recordings of Spencer reading. One, with Chauncey, her son, is faint and scratchy. It jumps back and forth discussing how James Weldon Johnson was dealing with Woodrow Wilson's racism and whether or not Paul Robeson was a communist, but there's a political spark and a side-long wit that I recognized. Here's a tiny bit of Anne Spencer's voice coming through time:
Anne Spencer: Sometimes our eyes grow dim with tears and there's a futility of our attempt. The unrewarding secrets of our attempt to even locate half-truths of what would be history. If men want kindness to man. And the best thing to do is take up phrases and make anew.
TT: Anne Spencer is not only a poet, but an example, an epicenter, a micro history of literary life and black life in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s. For all this richness, she still remains a poet's poet, a figure reserved for people in the know. Maybe that's because she only published thirty poems in her lifetime. She was forty years old when her first poem was published in 1922. Anne Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales in Henry County, Virginia, South of Lynchburg on February 6, 1882. Spencer's biographer, J. Lee Greene, who recently passed away after decades as professor of English and African-American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, described Spencer's mother, Sarah Louise Scales as the child of a former slave and the wealthy Virginia aristocrat. I talked to Carlyn Ferrari, a professor of Afro-American studies at Seattle University, who's working on two book projects about Spencer.
CF: A lot of her education came from being on her own. She went into school already with this love of nature. With this love of reading. She was a very precocious child, very, um, a, uh, wide reader. I'm an avid reader, rather. And so she went into school, um, even without the kind of formal education she had this kind of fierce independence and affinity for, for solitude. And so, um, one of the things that Greene notes and the biography is that, um, while she might not have had that kind of formal classroom education, she was able to cultivate this strong sense of individuality and personal freedom that really, um, served as the kind of foundation for how she lived her life. And also the foundation for, a lot of the themes of her, her poetry.
TT: J. Lee Greene reports that when Anne arrived in Lynchburg, she could barely read. Later, Spencer recalled, “When I went to the seminary, I could call all the words, but I couldn't understand them.” Nevertheless, she ended her time at the school as one of her class’s highest achievers.
CF: She made a reputation for herself as being either a bit, uh, outspoken or a bit of a, I don't want to say problem student, but let's just say that she wasn't really interested in, in those kinds of, um, the kind of prescriptive notion of what it meant to be a good girl and what it meant to be a, um, a good woman, so to speak.
TT: At school Anne met Edward Spencer. He tutored her in geometry, in exchange for her help with language translations. The two fell in love.
CF: Edward was quite an intelligent man. Um, she liked him, but, um, her mother wasn't particularly fond of him and had another individual in, in mind for her. So, um, while the school was supposed to be the place where she was going to be groomed to find a kind of ideal husband, she ended up finding, um, Edward who would ultimately be the perfect match for her because he very much cultivated allowed her to cultivate that sense of independence and creativity that, um, that she had going into into the seminary.
TT: At the time she began writing poems, she also gave her high school's commencement speech using de Tocqueville's ideas to suggest the role of black citizens in revolutionizing America's future. Later, she remembered it as an optimistic moment and that her speech was well received by both whites and blacks in the audience. Optimism or no, Anne was poised to enter a violent, deeply segregated world. After graduation, her career options were limited; as an educated black woman the only real path opened to her was teaching, which she did for a while. She wanted to marry Edward, but her mother felt he was too working class. Her mother had different suitors lined up, an elderly doctor and a principal whom Anne did not wish to marry.
CF: Anne Spencer was just, uh, not interested. She actually jumps out of a window to escape. Um, a conversation with him—literally jumps out of a window. And, um, she has a story, um, that was published in, I think it was Colored American magazine. Um, “Beth's Triumph.” That sounds like it's actually based on this moment of her life, where she literally jumps out of a window to escape, um, uh, an unwanted suitor. So a nod to her fierce independence and unwavering sense of self.
TT: Anne prevailed. In 1901, she married Edward Spencer and moved back to Lynchburg. By 1903, already with two small children in tow, the couple moved to the house on Pierce Street. Edward was a craftsman and a careful collector. He helped Ann in his work and also in building a beautiful home. Camille Dungy describes it this way.
CD: Her husband was a mailman and he worked a few routes that had him in some relatively wealthy areas. Lynchburg, Virginia, because of its placement on the James river. Uh, and then because of its placement on the railroad line, was a very wealthy town for some time. And so on his mail route, Spencer would sometimes, um, just collect things, um, with, with the permission of the people who've kind of been finished with them. So the college built a brick wall around the grounds of the college. And when they did that, they kind of had no use anymore for this wrought iron gate.
TT: The marriage was happy, supportive, and fortuitous. Together, Edward and Anne built ecosystems for art, activism, family, and retreat.
CF: Because I think it's really easy to look at their home now, and to, like, project, like, a certain, like, middle classness or privilege onto them. And I mean, if you look through those ledgers in the, you know, in the archive, like he had so many jobs, like I can't keep track of how many jobs he had. Right. I mean, he was the postmaster. Um, I think he and his brother owned a hardware store down the street. There was also, he was a chauffeur and a chauffeur's license.
TT: This was one of the first generations to come of age after enslavement, Edward was taking advantage of every new door that could open. Meanwhile Anne had freedom to dream. She had for a mother of three and for a black Southern woman—or really any married mother of the 1910s and twenties—a rather radical freedom to write. The family hired help with laundry, child raising, and cooking. Edward supported her ambitions. Anne often woke late, dressed slowly, went to work in the garden, joined her family for dinner, and then stayed up in her cottage with her books and papers. Sometimes she drafted lines in the morning while getting dressed and worked the same lines into poems at night.
CF: When I've spoken about her in the past and, you know, talk about her kind of self care routine and the, and the like, you know, the bathing for, you know, two hours and brushing her hair. And, you know, sometimes people will be like, “Oh, she lived this like fabulous lifestyle. Like, you know, she was like the real housewife of Lynchburg.” And I'm like, no, no, that's not. That's not what, what that was.
TT: Yes. There's a way that she's using this time to subvert existing routines and to build an intentional, beautiful world that could be nourishing. Here's a poem from that time describing a washer woman that Spencer in her notebook called “a high priestess of cleanliness.” Camille Dungy reads it here.
CD: “Lady, Lady” Lady, lady, I saw your face / Dark as night withholding a star, / the chisel fell, or it might've been, / you had borne so long the yoke of men. // Lady, Lady, I saw your hands / Twisted, awry like crumpled roots, / Bleached poor white in a sudsy tub, / wrinkled and drawn from your rub-a-dub. // Lady, Lady, I saw your heart / And altared there in it's darksome place / were the tongues of flame the ancients knew / Where the good God sits to spangle through.
TT: I love that poem. And I was going to ask you about it also, because one of the things in that poem is that the whiteness seems to be the scalding or the wound, the wound actually in the poem is white, is figured as white. There's something very subversive in her formulation there.
CD: One of the things that I think Spencer does really, really well is she makes you question your assumptions about the connotations of white and black. Uh, she is a writer who reverses our cultures, typical connotations of those words. And so whiteness, skulls, scalds, bleaches bones, um, desiccation dryness, just cruelty and violence. Those are the connotations that she very frequently lays against whiteness and blackness is often earth, soil, that which things can grow from, uh, potential beauty, uh, space for wonder. Uh, and so she just, it's subtle until you see it. And then it's just all over her work.
TT: I asked Carlyn about the poem.
CF: The repetition of "lady, lady" and addressing her so formally, um, is an amazing sign of respect and something that certainly wouldn't have been extended to a woman, a black woman in, in 1925. And I think that that last line about, um, "where the good God sits to, to spangle through" just aligning her with divinity and aligning her with, um, with God, I think is, is such, um, such a beautiful line because in the 1920s in particular was just not, um, not a moment in history in which, you know, black women were, were, well-respected certainly not called ladies. And so she's doing, I think some really subversive I think important early black feminist work by even writing this, this poem.
TT: Another important part of Spencer's story is not just the poems themselves, but the way that the poems reflect an intentional ecosystem, which Spencer cultivated and which she helped build for others. In fact, Spencer's entire publishing career grew out of a meeting
CF: As the tale goes, W.E.B. DuBois, Um, you know, they become acquainted because he needed to stay someplace where there was an indoor bathroom. And she was one of the only individuals who had indoor plumbing. And so that was one of the ways that, um, her home became known as not just this, the safe haven, but also, a place that could be welcoming and accommodating, um, to an outside world that was so hostile
TT: In this way. Spencer's publishing career grew as a joint flower with her building of the Lynchburg NAACP, and the fact that in the house she had built with Edward, she could house travelers. And that was no small gift in the segregated South. It was difficult for African Americans to find reliably safe places to stay and word spread of Spencer's garden, her fine bathtub, her good hospitality, her beautiful bedrooms. Later, Spencer did take a job to help send her children North to college, working for some time as she put it in "the Jim Crow library," the only black woman employed by the all white Jones Library in Lynchburg. She pushed the library to desegregate, but the idea did not take. In 1924, Spencer became the head librarian of a new black library. This turned out to be an empty bookless room in Dunbar High School. She ended up donating her own books. Spencer worked as the librarian at Dunbar for twenty-one years. Her pay was $75 a month.
CD: The town’s black people needed a librarian because by the deed of the public library in the city, you could not enter the library in that town. In order for the town to desegregate the library you had, they had to build an entirely new building because the building was deeded in that way.
TT: In Lynchburg, Spencer often walked miles to work to avoid riding segregated public transportation. And when she did ride, she refused to go to the back of the bus. She would also March into the offices of the bus company and complain. Years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Spencer also simply sat down. In this town against this backdrop, Anne Spencer wrote beautiful lines of poetry and made fascinating observations about the world of everyday life. But after the publication of her poems during the Harlem Renaissance, she largely stopped sending out her work. Here's Carlyn again.
CF: One of the things that, um, her archive is filled with his letters from, from people like James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois, who are, you know, begging her to, to send things to her. Um, one of my favorite letters, it's, it's a draft of a letter to James Weldon Johnson, and she says, um, "I have nothing new finished. I have eleventy-eleven bits of paper stuck in so many different places that promise something if I ever get to them." And I think that without the encouragement, um, and say um the, I don't want to say harassing, I should say insisting in, you know, from James Weldon Johnson, I think it, it becomes, um, a little bit easier for her to, to revert to the solitude and to the, um, kind of private nature of her writing with which she was, I think most comfortable. Um, and you know, I think though what's important to remember is that even though her writing isn't being displayed in this public, um, realm that she's still writing every day, all day, um, you know, Johnson really does introduce her to those kind of formal, the formal life of a writer. Um, but it's not something that she really desired or aspired to have. And so I think she was comfortable letting it go because it never was something that was central to her sense of self. And wasn't the metrics that she used to evaluate herself or the validity of her writing.
TT: I talked to Carlyn about my trip to the alderman library at the university of Virginia and all of the Anne Spencer papers. I saw there as well.
TT: There's these incredible scraps in there that are such an, an evidence of this woman making sense of, of these days. Um, I loved this fragment that was on an electric bill and it said, "These streets are too expensive and golden milk pearls. Nobody's been to heaven since Reconstruction years."
CF: It says something that, that was enough for her that, you know, a line or two to her that was a poem. And, you know, to her, that was a manuscript. And that was enough. Um, one of my favorite lines is, um, I found it just on a scrap somewhere. "There's nothing more boring than connubial bliss." And then like, okay, that's, you know, she's got these fantastic, um, one-liners and she's so funny. Like she's so funny. She's hilarious.
TT: "My favorite age for woman is when she has left giggles, but come to laughter.” “The soul has conscience, the body, mostly intellect.” Or “Things starkly different can equal, if love is stronger than death, so is ignorance.”
CF: Yes, she is hilarious. But also like in her brevity, she's also so profound
TT: When I visited the archive, I fell in love with Spencer's fierceness and wit. As I've journeyed deeper in my exploration of Spencer's work, I want more, more finished poems, more typed notes, more essays. I also wish Spencer more ease in her world. More freedom to travel widely. During the pandemic, this year where I've also been constantly in intimate spaces, I've been gardening and thinking about her garden too. Her garden, like her home is full of whimsy; lilacs dance around boxwood hedges. At the center of the garden, robins-egg-blue pergola is draped in grapevines and in the back is the cool shed with the desk and many books. Spencer called the garden her Gethsemane, referring to the garden where Jesus passed his final earthly hours. In 1974, looking out at her garden. Spencer wrote this last poem from her sun porch, "Turn an earth clod / Peel a shaley rock / In fondness molest a curly worm. / Whose familiar is everywhere / Kneel / And the curly worm sentient now / will light the word that tells the poet what a poem is.” Sentient. The word hits me: coming to know, coming to knowledge, coming alive, coming awake to the world and all its possibilities. Lighting the word. That is what we want for the plant world, but for the human world as well. Spencer died on July 27, 1975. It's fitting that after Spencer's death, her garden became in its own way, an emblem of healing. When the garden fell into neglect in the early Eighties Anne's son, Chauncey Spencer asked the Lynchburg hillside garden club to help restore it. At the time the garden club’s ladies were all white. Many had never heard of Spencer, few had ever visited the black side of town. And painstakingly, these women restored the garden to health, pruning back roses, nursing original bulbs. These days, the garden is open from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. The hillside garden club maintains the garden for the public and is a space to stop and linger. Reading and Spencer today, Camille Dungy says that Spencer offers a powerful model.
CD: I think of her as a woman in her—it, it essentially my age, um, doing the same work. And so I'm able to think of her as a sister, and a peer, and a compatriot. Uh, when I, when I walk through my own garden and moved through my own garden, she had, she had a grape arbor that nobody was allowed to eat from because the grapes were for the birds. Um, and I, I have a lot of that in my own garden that I, I always wonder, like, is this um, sense that I have of this particular plant that, uh, isn't for me, it's for it's for the rest of the ecosystem around me, is that, does that come out of me or does that come out of Anne Spencer and I'm, I'm not ever entirely sure. And I'm okay with that.
TT: Spencer's garden is alive. When you visit it, when you go, you may fall in love. You may find that Spencer even now offers strong models about how to build community and ecosystem and poems all at once. I love how Spencer's poems seem to want to unsettle us towards blooming, towards becoming, towards leaning, towards the earth, towards community, towards the world. And maybe finally towards one another.
SAL: Y'all asked and we listened! Back by popular demand is the free CD accompaniment to our 2021 Up South music issue. Join us this winter to explore the influence of Southern sounds in Motown, Chicago gospel, Philly soul, and beyond. You can pre-order the music issue today at OxfordAmericanGoods.org and use the code PODCAST for 15% off your purchase. That's OxfordAmericanGooods.org code PODCAST. Last year, we met up with a few artists at the 30A Songwriters Festival for a series of intimate live performances. Today, we’re excited to bring you Virginia native Lucy Dacus, who is also a member of the band boygenius. Dacus’s third studio album, Home Video, which was released in June, revisits her childhood in Richmond, narrating memories of first love and her journey with faith and sexuality. Here she is performing “Trust” and “Fool's Gold.”
Lucy Dacus : Okay, I’m gonna play this song called “Trust.”
LD: [“Fool’s Gold”]
SAL: Thank you to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the African American History Commission for making this episode possible. We were also honored to partner with the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum on this episode, which marks the first time listeners can hear Anne Spencer's voice outside of the museum's archives. Poetry and archival audio courtesy of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Inc. Archives and Shaun Spencer-Hester. Special thanks to Spencer-Hester and Dr. J. Lee Greene for their contribution to this episode. This episode was produced by me, Tess Taylor, Sarah Whites-Koditschek, Noah Britton, and Hannah Saulters, with Eliza Borné, Trey Pollard, and Julia Kraus. Lucy Dacus appears courtesy of Matador Records. Audio mixing by Curtis Fye, and post-production and score by Spacebomb. Additional recording at Real Paid Studios. Sign up for our newsletter at oxfordamerican.org/newsletter for all the latest OA and Points South information. And remember, promo code PODCAST gets you 15% off any purchase at OxfordAmericanGoods.org. Thanks to 30A Songwriters Festival, Fayetteville Roots, and Visit Fayetteville. We hope you enjoyed the show.