Of race, prejudice and change
After 30 years as a New Yorker, poet David Groff has discovered that being in residence at the Anderson Center awakens him to a different world.
"It makes me feel that I'm actually a nature poet," he said. Instead of familiar asphalt, he finds himself writing poems about red squirrels.
Groff, who is spending June at Tower View, has been here twice previously. He enjoyed the "lush warmth" of July 2006, then the "entirely different, crisp" feeling of October 2008. In June, he said, "everything is just on the edge -- it's still so new."
Those earlier residencies played an important role in his writing because they "crystallized" a lot of the poems "Clay," his new book, he said. "Clay" won the Louise Bogan Award for artistic merit and excellence, named for a New York poet and critic whose work appeared in the New Yorker magazine.
The book is named for Clay, his partner of 17 years, who is HIV-positive, Groff said. The new book contains poems about the epidemic of HIV and AIDS, and also includes elegies to his mother, nature poems and other themes.
A handful of the poems emerged from the unusual circumstances of his childhood -- "my experience growing up as a white child, the son of an Episcopal priest, in a nearly all-black town, in a nexus of the Civil Rights era."
Groff was born in East Orange, N.J., just outside of Newark. In 1967, when he was 10 years old, race riots erupted not far away.
"Years of injustice and systematic suppression had left Newark smoldering," he said. "In the not-quite-suburban enclave of East Orange, African-Americans and whites had lived in uneasy but cordial close quarters for decades. They attended my father's church together, dined at the same restaurants, shared some political power and went to school together."
That changed in 1967. Thousands of whites moved out of the neighborhood, including many of his father's parishioners.
"A year later," he said, "I was the only one of two white children in my class."
However, Groff said, "it would be wrong to say that being a white child growing up in East Orange gives me singular insight into the truths of the Civil Rights struggle. Compared to the black people struggling for equal rights and justice in the 1960s, my experience was one of privilege.
"But my experience as a white kid in a black town did give me an early lesson in how all of us are profoundly and politically entwined in our times," he added.
While at Tower View, Groff is working on his "White Flight" manuscript, a book-length series of poems exploring his boyhood in East Orange. "I want it to be completely unified," he said -- consisting of poems but "almost novelistic" in style. "I want to tell a story about what that experience was like."
Ultimately, the finished manuscript will address such themes as "How does race work in America? How do you do justice to people who are different from you?"
America is still dealing with race issues, he said, pointing to the increasing diversity in communities of all sizes. "We can be so threatened by somebody who is different."
Groff's community service will be to work with students attending the Sheldon School for the Performing Arts. He and another June resident, poet Michael White, will help the young people create scripts for their productions.
He is a book editor in New York and teaches graduate students in a master of fine arts program, Groff said, so "It will be a real pleasure to work with kids who are committed to creativity but also fresh to the demands of art."
Pointing out that poetry began as performance art -- words spoken around the campfire -- Groff believes working from that premise is "a way to really open yourself up." He plans to have an interactive relationship with the young people.
"That's one thing I really love here," he added. "At a residency you can be so wrapped up in your own head. It's good to step out and get back to other people, back to the community."