Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Kelly Lenox
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Cataloochee,” the speaker brings up their grandfather and the insecurity in not knowing what he would say to them. Do you often draw people, such as this grandfather figure, from real life, or do you find it easier to build characters from the ground up?
Kelly Lenox: That figure in the poem is based on my actual Gramps, my mother’s father. I do not find it easy to create characters—I envy that skill that fiction writers have. That said, I don’t write about family members all that much, with the possible exception of my kids. Raising them was such an adventure. Anyhow, Gramps arrived in the poem without forethought. Maybe partly because it was his birthday and partly due to the things I was noticing (more about that below).
RR: How did you discover Cataloochee?
KL: We were out in the mountains on Memorial Day weekend, looking for a way to avoid the crowds. Up at the north end of Great Smokey Mountains National Park is this historical settlement, Cataloochee. There’s just one way in—no roads from the rest of the park. We thought, this is off the beaten track—let’s have a look. Also, I was really intrigued by what I had read about the settlement and what they had preserved.
RR: In your work the speaker fights the urge to hiss that they are nothing more than a ghost, but still admits that they wish to not be forgotten, at least to themselves and to us as readers. This is shown through imagery instead of dialogue. What is your advice on balancing showing versus telling?
KL: Aren’t all rules made to be broken? Seriously, although I wouldn’t follow it slavishly, I have found that when I’m reading poems in which the writer allows me a way to enter into the poem, to participate in the poem, it’s a richer, more gratifying experience than when they tell me what to feel. So to the extent that your poem shows, or you let the reader see what you see, that’s when discovery starts to happen, which is one of the joys of reading poetry.
RR: This piece seems very focused on the before and after of a natural historic setting and the difference that historical trauma makes to the memory of a landmark. What made you interested in that juxtaposition?
KL: The story of people being displaced for national parks (not to mention military bases, reservoirs, etc.) is one I remember from when I was a teenager visiting Shenandoah National Park. Sometimes on a hike you’d see a low stone wall along the side of the hill. Or there would be remnants of an orchard—especially in spring when the trees bloom—there among the hickories and oaks. And I learned that when parks were made the people who were making their living there were given time to get out. Sometimes it was a generation, sometimes it was the death of the current residents, or a certain number of years. Then I read that Cataloochee had been a settlement that existed, and the park was built around it. Of course, it had been home to Native Americans long before that. So by this being set aside, I can go there and experience it. The only way is for them to have been displaced—if it continued as a town it would have developed like every other town. Or been mown down, but it wouldn’t be this frozen-in-time setting. There’s an inherent tension there that is really powerful for me.
Also, Cataloochee had a particularly haunted feeling to me, and I’m not one who haunts easily. The evidence of the lives that people lived was everywhere, yet the spaces were vacant. It wasn’t a museum piece, it was in place. You can look out the window and see the view that they saw, you can see what the walk was like from home to school.
RR: We’re interested in the kind of connection that the speaker has to Cataloochee in opposition of the tourists that feature in the poem. How do you think personal connection affects the remembrance of a place?
KL: The speaker is not very generous towards the tourists, although the speaker is also a tourist, even if she doesn’t happen to have a dog tucked under her arm. Over the years, tourists have scratched their names in the windows and woodwork of that house, and to me that is a flagrant violation of an almost sacred space. When I was there I felt a certain distance from the others, and I think that’s partly because I was so haunted.
As to connections, I was speaking from my own experiences, which is really all that I am equipped to speak for. Personal connection certainly enhances the experience of a place, gives it flavor. For example, at the Caldwell House, I read stories of how they’d hauled some of the houseparts in over the mountains. That reminded me of Gramps, who moved his family from Georgia to Florida around 1940 (“I said I ain’t gonna raise no more chillun for that mill,” he told me, referring to the cotton mill). Gramps built their house using parts he hauled from one that was being torn down. The road in to Cataloochee, even today, is pretty rough. Driving in we were imagining what it must have been like in a wagon, and marveling at the ruggedness of those who made a living back in there and made a place to call home.
Kelly Lenox’s work in Issue 4.2: