Interview with Julia Bouwsma, Author of Midden
conducted by Lizzy Petersen
LP: In many ways, Midden, which tells the story of Maine’s 1912 forced eviction of Malaga Island, is the kind of book with few precedents. Were there any particular poets or scholars who informed the book in a major way and helped guide you through writing it?
JB: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that Midden was actually in its final stages of completion before I ever heard the terms “documentary poetics” or “documentary poetry” and realized that this was exactly what I had done. However, even though I didn’t know the term, I think I recognized the concept intuitively. I read as many “subject matter” books as I could, as many books dealing with race and history from as many different angles as I could find. I looked toward poetry ancestors as well as contemporary poets. It’s an exciting time for poetry and for projects like this one. It seems like the list of poets exploring historic and inherited trauma is growing exponentially. Practically every day now I encounter another book that might have informed this project. An almost certainly incomplete list of poets whose work I looked to includes: Gwendolyn Brooks, Molly McCully Brown, Christian Campbell, Martha Collins, Nicole Cooley, Camille Dungy, Claudia Emerson, Tarfia Faizullah, Carolyn Forché, Vievee Francis, Aracelis Girmay, Monica A. Hand, Roxane Beth Johnson, Robin Coste Lewis, Audre Lorde, Shane McCrae, Mariko Nagai, Patricia Smith, Jean Toomer, Claudia Rankine, Natasha Tretheway, Jake Adam York, C.D. Wright, and Richard Wright. Lauret Savoy’s essay collection, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, was also indispensible. As was the work of many Maine writers, historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and artists who have been equally haunted by the story of the Malaga Island eviction. In particular, I would be remiss if I did not mention the artist Daniel Minter, who has done a great deal of work around this subject and whose piece, Malaga Girl-Red, Navigation of Bones, is the cover image for Midden.
“i was no longer a remote viewer of history, but an active participant, someone who is now more aware of the bones and ghosts among and upon which I’ve been walking”
LP: How did you understand your connection to this story? Your role in the story? Did it change over the course of writing the book?
JB: I began writing Midden in order to try to understand the story of the Malaga Island eviction, which is a story of such profound loss and senseless violence that at first it seemed almost incomprehensible to me. My first position to this story of the State of Maine’s 1912 forced eviction and erasure of an interracial island community was as an outsider standing on the other side of history’s window—as someone who knew loss but couldn’t really fathom loss of this type or severity. Writing this book was, at first, a way to try to understand something beyond my own lived experience. But as I wrote, I realized that no one ever truly stands outside of history. And so in order to write the story of Malaga Island and its people, I had to write my way inside. I had to examine the complicity of my own privilege. I had to explore my deep and growing connection to my own land (eighty-five acres in the mountains of western Maine) and to consider how vital that relationship is to my own narrative and sense of identity, to contemplate what it would mean to be separated from it, to interrogate the entire notion of land ownership. I had to face my own doubts and fears about writing this story, about whether I even had the right to tell it. All of my uncertainties only increased with each draft, so I wrote them in, layer by layer. And ultimately, I hope, the book became one in which I was no longer a remote viewer of history, but an active participant, someone who is now more aware of the bones and ghosts among and upon which I’ve been walking.
LP: In Midden, many of the people’s stories have been up until now essentially untold and a majority of the poems in the book are in the voices of African-American people. What was your process for entering the persona of these people? What did you feel was politically at stake and how did that affect how the poems took shape?
JB: In writing these poems, it felt crucial that I try to walk the very precarious line of giving voice while trying not to take voice. The residents of Malaga were stripped not just of their home but also of their narratives—their stories were overwritten by that inflammatory and exploitative journalism that helped drive public sentiment toward the eviction and then actively silenced afterward. I wanted them to have their voices back, to amplify their stories, to write into the silence. But I had serious questions about how to do this ethically. My initial attempts often felt incomplete and undeveloped, risking caricature. I had to allow myself to write bad poems, even problematic poems, as steppingstones so that I could eventually learn how to write more nuanced and developed voices. A big part of this was embracing my own uncertainty as I allowed my imagination to fill the gaps. I tried to remember that what I did not know and why I did not know it was as important to the story as what I did know. I had to acknowledge that I was trying to tell a story that was so terrible that there was no right way to tell it and then experiment with different forms and attempts, knowing and accepting that most of the time I would fall short. I struggled to push away my own ego and sense of poetic authority so that I could enter a liminal, listening space where the voices of the ghosts of Malaga could come to me and I could move from being a maker to a listener.
“i wanted to examine the intricacies and complicities of silence, systemic erasure, and white supremacy”
LP: In the poem, “Erasure,” you write “Between // the sea / a trail / they have hidden / themselves in the deep / or / flood-tide” to talk about the community that was forcibly removed from Malaga Island. How do you think the tension between erasure and hiding is working in your poems, in terms of form and subject matter?
JB: To give a little context, this poem is an erasure of Holman Day’s 1909 article, “The Queer Folk of the Maine Coast,” written for Harper’s Magazine. This article was central in beginning a wave of inflammatory and exploitative journalism directed at the people of Malaga Island. As I wrote Midden, I spent a lot of time thinking about the power of language to either harm or heal, and I specifically chose to create an erasure poem with this text because I wanted to enact a type of literary justice by inflicting erasure on a piece of writing that had played such a significant role in erasing both the lives and narratives of this community. But, as your question suggests, this poem also gives rise to a kind of liminal space—one I tried to enter in a lot of the poems, including the “Dear ghost” poems that run through the book—that addresses the tension between erasure and hiding. I was trying to strip away the dominant narrative of the time to reveal the stories that exist below the surface of the stories we have been given. And I wanted to examine the intricacies and complicities of silence, systemic erasure, and white supremacy: the entrenched belief that not saying will make living easier, that speaking only brings trouble; that silence is the only way to rebuild a life, to patch an un-stitchable wound; the tenuous and tangled lines between complicity and survival that run along an entire continuum from violent external erasure to the inherited silences of assimilation. The story of the Malaga Island community was actively hushed within Maine for the greater part of a century following the eviction, both by the descendants of Malaga and by the descendants of their aggressors. To try to separate out the reasons behind those silences is to find one’s self caught within a myriad of complexities and in-betweens.
LP: In the Afterword, you write, “My research has been a poet’s research—circular and sometimes scattered but obsessive.” Can you talk about your research journey? How long did it take to write this collection? What were some of the obstacles you came up against in your research—documents missing, names misspelled—and what was your way of working through them? How did you find a stopping point?
JB: The archive surrounding the Malaga Island eviction is a fragmented one. Dates, names, and facts shift suddenly and without warning—a pattern I recognized from my attempts to research my own ancestry as the descendant of European Jews. I would write a poem based on something I thought I knew only to discover that what I thought I knew was not correct. I had to acknowledge that writing Midden would be like walking my road in mud season—that the ground beneath my feet might give way abruptly and I’d find myself up to my knees in mud. Even now, I’m still learning details that I didn’t have quite right. So I don’t think there is any real stopping point, much like writing a poem. Even though the book is now published, the conversation will keep continuing and shifting around it. I’ve decided I’m okay with that. History, and our participation with history, is an active and messy process— not something we can press behind glass like so many dead, beautiful butterflies. But poetry is a perfect medium for this kind of work because it allows us access to a type of emotional truth that extends beyond the limited specificity of names and dates.
That said, I researched extensively and am so grateful to those who either provided me with information or sources or worked themselves to create archives and accounts. I read hundreds of newspaper articles, read dissertations and archeological reports, went to museum exhibits, watched documentaries, listened to interviews with descendants, collected photographs and hung them on the walls of my workspaces. None of that would have been possible without the work of so many, too many to name here. In the afterword to the book I provide as an extensive a list of sources and people as I could, though I fear even that is incomplete.
“poetry is a perfect medium for this kind of work because it allows us access to a type of emotional truth that extends beyond the limited specificity of names and dates”
LP: To get into the nitty-gritty, what was the process like for acquiring photos to use in the collection? Why did you choose to use them and what do you think they add to the poems?
JB: The decision to include photographs was one that came about in the final stages of editing the collection, once I was working with the wonderful Poets Out Loud series editor, Elisabeth Frost. We were looking for a way to a way to break up and ground the poems, but I was resistant to setting the book in sections because it felt like too neat an approach for such a tangled story. Including images felt like very natural way to do that, especially because I had surrounded myself with photographs throughout my working process and had written many of the poems as responses to them. But we wanted to make sure that including images didn’t accidentally recreate the kind of exploitation the book was working so hard to write against. And we wanted to make sure that the images didn’t end up overpowering the poems either. We consulted Afaa M. Weaver, who had selected the book for publication, and he was immensely helpful in guiding this process and helping us to achieve what felt like a good balance. The actual process of securing permissions for the images included some research and a lot of emailing, but wasn’t that complicated in the end.
LP: What is the response in Maine to these poems? And the African American community there?
JB: In many ways, I think Maine is really just beginning to grapple with the legacy of this history. Lots of people in Maine still don’t know the story of the Malaga Island eviction. And Maine still tends to be thought of as a very white state, which of course dismisses this history and so many others. So it’s been crucially important for the African American community in Maine to make the story of Malaga Island much more widely known and to make it very clear that there have always been people of color in Maine: indigenous people, African American communities, and now, increasingly, immigrant Mainers. I think there is a growing sense that this story is one that Mainers cannot relegate to the past, that we need to actively grapple with it and learn to heal from it in the present, and that speaking about it is the only way to do so. I think there is a sense that this story is one that all Mainers need to figure out how to own, even as we come to that history through the various lenses of our own unique perspectives and experiences. Artists, writers, historians, descendants, archeologists, educators, people who identify from many different backgrounds, are coming together to do that work. It gives rise to some difficult conversations and moments sometimes, but that is a necessary and powerful part of the process.
I feel very privileged to have had my work included as part of this growing effort, and my poems have brought me into spaces, perspectives, and conversations that I might not have encountered otherwise. Myron Beasley, a professor of Cultural Studies, African American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies at Bates College curated an incredible Repast event on Malaga Island last summer that I was so delighted to be able to participate in. The artist Daniel Minter took the time to meet me for coffee after I approached him about cover art for the book and to talk to me about my apprehensions and hopes for the book. There is, I think, an enormous concern among those who are working with the history of Malaga that we get this story right this time around, but I think there is also an understanding that “right” means a lot of different things—that there are many different stories and approaches that now make up the midden that is the history of Malaga Island, and that all of them are necessary.
“such compartmentalized ‘us versus them’ thinking continues to lead to similar atrocities to this day”
LP: What was your reason for taking on the persona of Frances Gullifer in the poem “No Man’s Land,” as opposed to her husband Governor Plaisted? How did it feel to speak her prejudices or to inhabit her sense of callousness?
JB: In writing the story of Malaga, I found it necessary to at least try to understand how the perpetrators of this terrible act were able to justify their actions. I was uncomfortable about giving them a voice, but I felt I needed to understand the mindset, as such compartmentalized “us versus them” thinking continues to lead to similar atrocities to this day. The only reference to Frances Gullifer that I could find in my research was in the caption to an image of the governor and his entourage arriving on the island for his famous July 14, 1911 “inspection” of the island, after which he declared that “the best plan would be to burn the shacks down with all their filth.” There is no record of Frances Gullifer making any statements of her own, at least that I could find, so it was her silence and the complicity of her silence that I wanted to explore. I entered her voice in order to create a type of foil to the certainty and arrogance behind the statements of her husband Governor Plaisted (quoted in the same poem) and the actions of his deputy Agent Pease. So I imagined her as someone conflicted, as someone who could both own to the wrongness in which she had participated and still go along with it because it ultimately benefitted her position of privilege. This poem was one of the more challenging and troubling poems for me to write in part, I think, because that duality of knowing but still being complicit is one that feels all too uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has benefitted from dominant power structures and systemic white supremacy.
LP: You mention in the Afterword that you took some liberties in the poem “The Procedure.” How did you navigate that writing process and arriving at that decision?
JB: You know, I think this poem exists at least partially because of my “poet’s research,” which is to say that I began writing poems while I was still actively doing research. So there were times where I wrote a poem and then found contradictory information later. In this case, I knew that sterilizations had been performed in large numbers at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and I imagined that Lizzie Marks would have been targeted for one, especially because she was already the mother of a small child when she arrived at the institution. I found out later that Lizzie died in 1921, four years before sterilizations were actually instituted there. But sterilization still felt like a really important component of the story, another way in which these people had been so violently erased through eugenics-based thinking, so I kept the poem, knowing it would have happened if she had only lived another four years. Later, after the book was already well into production, I learned from a descendant that Lizze’s sister Lottie (one of the only Malaga residents to ever make it out of the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded) had been forced to undergo an “appendectomy” that was probably a sterilization days before being released. So while the details may be slightly off, the greater truth of the story holds.
“silence is the measure against which we write”
LP: What are your takes on the current landscape of persona poetry today? What role does it have in poetry now?
JB: Poets these days are understandably very concerned with the ethics of persona poetry, with the potential for appropriating the stories of others or for falling into the traps of caricature, stereotype, or voyeurism. These are incredibly important considerations, and I think it’s crucial that we stay aware of them, but I also think we have to remember that there are often craft solutions to these problems and that, as poets, it’s our job to find them if we can. I’d like to see us gradually shift from simply asking, Is this your story to tell? to a more nuanced thinking that considers proximity, privilege, and approach on a case-by-case basis. A thinking that instead asks, How can I tell this story in a way that will cause less harm than saying nothing? Because we have to remember that there have been atrocities committed with the express goal of erasing entire groups of people, so silence is the measure against which we write. And often the question What is the cost of silence? is as important as the question of story ownership. Not everyone has the freedom or privilege to tell their own stories. Sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes—as with the story of Malaga—the people are already dead and their stories that would be lost forever if we did not excavate them from the earth. I think persona is a powerful tool and needs to be wielded responsibly, but I don’t want to see poets shying away from it altogether. Rather, we need to continue to build creative approaches that write into silence while actively interrogating our own silences and complicities and exploring and incorporating our uncertainties into the narrative process to create a greater conversation.
Lizzy Petersen served as the Managing Editor and later the Grants and Outreach Manager at River Styx for 3 years. Previously, she edited poetry for Sycamore Reviewat Purdue University, where she received her MFA in Poetry. She currently mentors Central VPA High School students in St. Louis Public Schools to pilot one of the first online literary magazines for high school students, Outside Literary Magazine, and volunteers teaching writing workshops at North Campus in St. Louis. Lizzy also works as a Grants Manager for an educational non-profit in St. Louis.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, farmer, freelance editor, critic, and small-town librarian. She is the author of two poetry collections: Midden (Fordham University Press, 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She is the recipient of the 2018 Maine Literary Award; the 2016-17 Poets Out Loud Prize, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver; and the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award, selected by Linda Pastan. Her poems and book reviews can be found in Grist, Poetry Northwest, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals.