Reed College senior Chalcedony Wilding explores the heartland of America in "Jawbones to Earlobes: Persona Poems from Avoca"
The creative writing project, funded by a Kaspar T. Locher Creative Fellowship, evokes the residents of small-town Iowa in the 1950's.
PORTLAND, OR (December 14, 2005)– Reed College senior Chalcedony Wilding initially viewed the Kaspar T. Locher Creative Fellowship as an opportunity to finish a project she had been working on independently for two years: a series of "persona poems" from the point of view of a fictional character living in Avoca, Iowa, in the early 1950s. During the time she had spent developing her character, Wilding had also been developing her own conceptions of Avoca and of the 1950s–conceptions the Locher funding forced her to reevaluate by allowing her to visit the place she had been imagining.
The first Locher fellowships were awarded in 1998, in honor of the late Kaspar T. Locher, literary scholar and Reed professor emeritus of humanities and German, who had championed the idea of a creative fellowship. In 2005, Chalcedony Wilding was one of four fellowship recipients. Senior Katharine Rutledge-Jaffe wrote "A Family Photo Album," a collection short stories dynamizing the stasis of the family photo album; junior Bronwyn North-Reist addressed issues of loss and remembrance in her one-woman show, "It's Been a Pleasure;" and senior Ethan Rafal presented the photography exhibit "Children of the Night: Images from a Forgotten Genocide" based on his experiences with former child soldiers in the Ugandan refugee camp Pabbo. In her project's intention to straddle time and space, to look both at the personal and at the other, it is perhaps Wilding who articulates the theme of the year's recipients' work.
Wilding's protagonist is Ellie. She has no last name. "I have her entire family history planned out for a couple, three generations, but she does not have a last name," Wilding affirms. This underscores what is perhaps a peculiarity of Wilding's conception of her character: she is both minutely particular and a sort of everywoman, a lens into her community and her era. Ellie is 12 years old in 1951, a recent immigrant to Avoca. Hoping to explore themes of inclusion and exclusion and the nature of an "outsider," Wilding wanted to work with a character who would be in some way separate from the community life of Avoca, but nevertheless revelatory of that community life. Ellie moves to Avoca with her out-of-state mother and Iowa (but not Avoca)-born father, a naval officer who is killed at sea in World War II shortly after he has relocated his family.
Avoca was initially only a setting for Ellie. It had aroused Wilding's interest because of its remote location and the beauty of the names dotting the sparse region on the map. The Locher funding, however, inspired in Wilding a sense of responsibility to the place and the people she had been largely inventing, "as though my fiction should be historically accurate or something," she says, and so she began planning to use the grant money on a trip to Avoca. She encountered immediate difficulty: Wilding, who grew up in New York City, cannot drive; Avoca cannot be reached by mass transit. The pragmatic difficulty of reaching Avoca was a rather neat parallel for the poetic difficulty of reaching Avoca.
Undaunted, Wilding opted to take a Greyhound bus to Des Moines, Iowa's state capitol. There, an interested and obliging friend met her in his car to make the rest of the journey to Avoca via Council Bluffs, where she read microfilm archives of the Avoca Journal-Herald, Avoca's local newspaper from the 1940s and '50s. The Journal-Herald contained a valuable resource: the newspaper of Avoca's high school was printed in the town's general-circulation newspaper.
"That was just lucky," she says. Without this find it would have been difficult to gain purchase on the vernacular within which she wanted to work, the vocabulary and views of young people. Once in Avoca she interviewed two women who approximated Ellie's upbringing, discovering in the process her own discomfort with interviewing strangers and the fact that these women had grown up, moved beyond the voices of teenagers and the voices of the 1950s. The newspaper archives were like voices frozen in speech, unable to update their slang or change their minds. She recalls one social-column item: "Does so-and-so look happy? It must be because her boyfriend's home on leave."
These archives were Wilding's first hint that perhaps the realities of Avoca would not match up to her longstanding image. She recalls the lack of national news in the newspapers but the wars' obvious concrete impact on the community life of Avoca, evident in an exhibit on World War II made up of artifacts and interviews collected from grandparents by a middle school class. "Going against my own personal prejudices of what Iowa must be like, there were a huge number of peacenik grannies."Wilding says. After experiencing Avoca firsthand, she describes it as "simultaneously cosmopolitan and isolated." Immigration and emigration were much higher than she had imagined, but were conducted, until the mid-'50s, on unpaved roads.
As Wilding became more engaged with Avoca as a community, her poems began to reflect that. A sweeping series, "Stepping Back: Avoca, Conversation" presents six soliloquies, in the respective voices of Ellie, her mother, the editor of the Avoca Journal-Herald, Ellie's cousin, the girlfriend of Avoca's first Korean War death, and the poet herself, and then braids them together into one sestina that expresses the sense of community dialogue in which Wilding was finding herself interested. "Once I had my six-line soliloquies, the sestina's mathematical restrictions forced the poem to become a conversation," Wilding says. Ellie's voice is clear and individual in her poem, but it is only one of six, and in the culminating sestina, it is in no way privileged over the other voices. Wilding was trying to shift her focus to the places of community interaction without losing her attention to the individuals who make up the community.
Back at Reed, in October, Wilding participates in a reading with the three other winners of Locher Fellowships. She is back in her own element. She tells the audience that as a poet she has both recognized and come to terms with her poems' distance from the realities of Avoca: "Ultimately, though, I decided to be a little selfish and leave in the poems that might be unrealistic or anachronistic . . . because actually I was happiest when, as Jonathan Safran Foer's Alex says, I was 'being very nomadic with the truth.'"Then she starts to read a sample that represents almost three years' worth of work.