All writing projects require investments in time, intellectual energy, and creativity, and any one of these elements can be difficult to find and sustain over the course of a book-length composition. When the writing requires research and travel, too, the task becomes all the more daunting. When I began writing poems based on historical subjects, I traveled to the historic sites and to the libraries I needed when my budget allowed. Then I received the call from the National Endowment for the Arts with the news that I had been chosen to receive a literature fellowship in poetry, and suddenly many of my logistical concerns evaporated.
Writing historical poems presents a unique set of problems: linguistic, geographical, political, and cultural accuracy. The NEA has made the research necessary for such accuracy possible. Having traveled in Wales, East Anglia, York, and Ireland, I have completed a draft of a poem-sequence about witches and have begun a companion sequence devoted to mystics. I hope to complete at least one book-length series of poems about women on the margins—the cooks, the herbalists, the wise women, and the witches.
Without financial support, I would have been many, many years in just the preparation for this project. With the help of my literature fellowship, this long series of poems is already well under way. Individual poems have already appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner. Thanks to the NEA, the finished manuscript will not be far behind.
The Will of Mary Carryll: 1809
A shilling each to my sisters, if they
will come all the way to Wales from Ireland
to fetch them. I pardon the sharp letters--
I did abandon home and my nephews,
but where were they when Father called me old
maid? My Sarah will have Aber Adda
field, purchased with the labor of my hands,
big-knuckled but strong, my only talent.
To Lady B, my crucifix and chain,
for remembrance of the day she laid me
on their own sheets when my stomach troubles
began. She is called queen by the younger
maids in town, but she held my head in her
hands while I retched onto the floor, and wiped
my eyes to cool sleep. Also to remind
her to love the other servants, even
the kitchen girls and Moses Jones the drunk.
Well, all have fallen short of glory. Send
my prayer for forgiveness to the butcher
John, over whom I triumphed in the matter
of the beeves. My superior height was
a sore trial to him. Three shillings for
Shanette the Witch, whose cress poultice sweetens
my boils, grown putrid these last weeks. Sarah
doubts her wisdom, but who among us is
perfect? A cloud chastizes Lady B’s
good eye, and Sarah swells with dropsy, like
the childless prophet Joanna Southcott
who swears she’s carrying the second Christ.
Poor hounded thing. My sweet Jesus--the world
beyond our birches is a hunting field,
the body a hungry animal God
lures. Or drives. What token mad Mary Green,
who begs on Llangollen’s streets, might crave, give
before she asks. This is my testament:
dispose of me, as seems good to Sarah
and her Eleanor, in veneration
of the Lady I have ever served, in
whose universal sight I hope to rest.
Sarah Kennedy holds an MFA from Vermont College and a PhD from Purdue University. She is the author of four books of poems, including Consider the Lilies (David Robert Books 2004), Double Exposure (Cleveland State University Press Open Competition Winner 2003), and Flow Blue (Elixir Press Prize in Poetry Winner 2002). Sarah Kennedy has received grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is the book review editor for Shenandoah and teaches at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of the author