Entering its fourth year, the Charlottesville Reading Series brings together three regional writers from disparate backgrounds to share poetry and memoir extracts: Matt MacFarland, Greg Wrenn and Erica Cavanagh. Like most writers, they all have an eye for detail, one that implores us to pay attention to our surroundings, whether to empathize with those unlike us (MacFarland) or to record our natural world so it is preserved for future generations (Wrenn) or to observe other cultures and learn about ourselves (Cavanagh). On Friday at The Bridge PAI, each will offer perspectives and insights that might not otherwise occur to us through the dynamic experience of hearing them read their work aloud.
MacFarland, a native of central Virginia, graduated from UVA’s MFA program in poetry in 2015 and remained in Charlottesville. His poetry manuscript, Singing Saw, was a finalist for the 2016 New Issues Poetry Prize. The title poem, he says, is “a kind of fictitious origin myth” about the found instrument, which produces music MacFarland describes as “a haunting, holy sound.”
Other poems in the collection are persona poems, which allow him to step into another person’s shoes. “The interesting thing about persona poems is inserting a degree of fiction, and inhabiting that other voice,” he says. “An important component of poetry, and art in general, is empathy. It feels like a more and more important component to me in our current American state of affairs,” he says.
MacFarland never expected to become a poet. But after taking a Romantic period poetry class in college, he says, “It clicked for some reason.” For MacFarland, a poem begins with language itself. “I’m really obsessed with etymology,” he says. “I keep in mind that the etymology of poem is [the Greek word] poiein, which means to make. I like to think of it as something you have to work on, to craft.” And now that he has been writing for many years he realizes, in retrospect, “I never felt I had a natural talent for anything except writing poetry.”
Wrenn wrote his first poem in fifth grade.
“I had an electric typewriter and I remember I wrote a poem about a humpback whale,” he says. To this day, marine life continues to fascinate Wrenn, who grew up snorkeling in the Florida Keys and panhandle. Due to “problematic eardrums” he was told he would never be able to scuba dive. But when traveling in Thailand at age 29, Wrenn says, “I decided to ignore the voice of my doctor in my head and get certified as a diver.” Since undergoing ear surgery, he has now completed 160 dives.
He also continued to write, and published his poetry collection, Centaur, in 2013. A recent Virginia transplant and professor at JMU, he is working on an “eco-spiritual memoir” called Reef. He describes diving among coral reefs as “a way for me to encounter the incredible beauty of existence but also the inherent impermanence of all things.” He visited a reef in Indonesia in 2015 that astounded him with its beauty, but when he returned there last month it was unrecognizable. “Our collective output of carbon is the principal problem,” he says. “The carbon I put in the air is indirectly and unintentionally destroying what I find so beautiful.”
Reef is structured as a series of letters from Wrenn to his seventh great-niece in the 23rd century. “I want it to be about a relationship,” he says, “how my actions and my civilization affect other human beings.” There are photographs and videos of coral reefs, but only literature, he says, can “record the felt sense of being underwater. …We need to create that record for posterity and for ourselves. We have to come to terms with, literally, what we’re losing.”
Cavanagh, originally from Rochester, New York, and a professor at JMU since 2007, is crafting a memoir about living and working with the Bariba people of Benin, West Africa, while she was in the Peace Corps at age 23. The recollection focuses on what she learned about female strength as identity and its cultural significance. In the Bariba society, she says, “women were not to cry out during childbirth or flinch, just bear down and push. The pressure on them to not show pain was a way to subsume their own pain and trauma. And that perpetuated the kind of oppression they experienced as women.”
She realized that despite major cultural differences, she too had learned from American culture not to express her pain. For example, the tendency to not speak about shameful experiences, she says, “really only compounds the shame and prevents healing. It’s a reflexive narrative in that way. The book itself is an exploration of the ways in which culture can undermine our health.” In her early 20s, all she wanted was to be strong, or at least embody the appearance of strength. But through the course of her experience in Benin, she realized that what she really needed “to be a whole person was love and acceptance, which is eventually what I got through a close relationship with a family there.”