Places #1: Lisa Russ Spaar

"Places" is a new feature by where local artists show us the places around town that inspire them.

Guest post by Chelsea Hicks

Much like Emily Dickinson who wrote beside a window looking out over a graveyard, the poet, UVA professor and recent recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Lisa Russ Spaar has found her muse living among the noble dead. Although—Spaar takes it a few steps further than Dickinson. Literally.

A short walk away from Spaar’s office window in UVA’s Bryan Hall, is the University of Virginia Cemetery and Columbarium at the corner of Alderman and McCormick Roads. Spaar returns to the graveyard for a moment away from her life as a constant mentor and teacher.

In "No Picnic," a poem about death and seasons, she describes the cemetery as a “supernatural asylum," with “petal-blooded grass” (as described in “Home”) and marble slabs "lined by starlings,” (from "Permit me voyage, love, into your hands") that act as keepers of the graveyard.

It’s not hard to believe that the graveyard has been a wellspring of inspiration for upwards of 30 years since her time as an undergraduate student at UVA.

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What do you do when you come here?

I like being perched partly in the world, but also partly sequestered from it. Porches, windows, places where I feel like I have a sort of sanctuary but I’m also very open to the world. This is also one of those thresholds…You’re outside of time. I feel that here.

Does this site come up in your work at all?

A lot. In fact, many of my poems are set in this graveyard but you wouldn’t know it. I have a poem that will be in the new book (Vanitas, Rough due out from Persea Books in Fall 2012) about a girl [on her cell phone] walking through the graveyard in a really beautiful pair of high heels and she says something like, “That’s so not on my vagenda.” […]

Vanitas is a school of painting where you mix up things that are decaying or dying: like skulls that represent time passing, musical instruments that have come unsprung or flowers with bugs coming out of them, fruit that’s partly molding. 

Does the graveyard remind you of any other places?

It reminds me of my grandparents’ farm in South Jersey that we don’t have anymore. It had orchards and this sort of casual order of horticulture. It’s New Jersey, so all around us were highways and across the river on a certain kind of day you could see northern Philadelphia but on the other hand it was this 100 acres on a river with big sycamore trees, lawns, birds. Going to this farm was where my imagination unrolled.

As a writer, perched in windows at my grandmother’s house and looking out over the river and farm I found sort of an inner life. Like I had an inside. I think my beginnings as a writer were in a place like this so I think I seek them out.

(Photo by Anna Caritj)

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Back in her office, Spaar marks up some of her “graveyard poems” for me to look over. Behind her, a portrait of Emily Dickinson looms out of the dim light beneath the window. I notice the cover of her 2004 collection of sensual and sacred poems, Blue Venus: a window with blowing curtains. It suggests the sequestration of graveyards, of Spaar’s childhood at the farm, and of Dickinson looking at neighboring tombstones from that liminal space between isolation and the world.

Dickinson seems as comfortable below the window as Spaar does in the graveyard, and I consider the irony: they’re living half-lives through each other. Dickinson’s heavy bun, iron-straight nose and budding lips exude all the pathos of the graveyard, of Spaar’s poems and the “horrifying and wonderful” prospect of Lisa and Emily sitting together in the graveyard or even beside the window, here—in their office.
 

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