A Conversation about Poetry and Place with Dr. Chad Chisholm

Conversations, SWU Literary Festival

Dr. Chad Chisholm focuses much of his poetry on place, be it an old Episcopal church, a historic forest trail in Mississippi, or the top of local mountain watching a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. Chisholm, an associate professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University, will be sharing more about his work, and its particular connection to South Carolina, as one of the keynote speakers at this month’s SWU Literary Festival.

In this conversation, Dr. Chisholm talks about how prose and poetry differ, his relationship to South Carolina and how it informs his poetry, and the metaphysical and spiritual truth he’s discovered about place.

Jonathan Sircy: How do you decide that a certain topic—if you want to write about Mississippi, for instance—deserves to be in a poetic form versus a prose form? What are you able to do in poetry when you’re writing about place that prose can’t do?

Chad Chisholm: A lot of times my prose is looking at an experience that I had about my education. I just had an article published recently about my grammatical instruction. Obviously, I kind of knew where I’m going with that. When I write prose, the ending is more important than the thesis I start out with because that can change, but I usually know where I want it to end it. When it is poetry, there’s some sort of effect, some core, some sort of feeling and intuition I have, and I’m not sure what it means. And these are the poems where I explore what I don’t always know, at least not from my first drafts. I suppose when I write a piece of prose, it’s about what I want you to think. When I write a poem, it’s more about what I want you to feel.

JS: Are you somebody who feels something all the time about places like Mississippi, or is it only occasionally when you have the sort of feelings you’re talking about being the generative force for poetry?

CC: I obviously don’t write about everywhere that I go. I don’t have these intuitions, these aspirations, for every place.

In Mad Men, Don Draper says to Peggy Olson, “The product is all about what you feel.” And there is something to that with poetry for me when I write about a place. You go back to Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads. You visit a place; that’s what you feel, what you’re inspired by; or maybe it’s what you are bringing with you to the place. And the place has the answer; it unearths something that needed to come out; that’s usually how a place works with me.

JS: Let’s talk about your poem on Natchez Trace. Did that place give you an answer? Did it provoke questions?

CC: It provoked a lot of questions. Very much so. The Natchez Trace—I’ve known it for a long time. It’s an interesting little drive. It’s not really on the way to anything. It’s just a leisurely kind of drive to take. And there’s always markers that invite reflection. You stop at a road sign or a stop in at a trading post if you want to soak in history.

The poem is about ghosts, so there’s a lot of ghosts. There’s these hauntings, which is not to say I believe the Trace is literally haunted, although some people do believe that. There are legends. But I guess when it comes to me, like a lot of people who are drawn to poetry, I’m drawn to tradition and interested in traditions.

I’m interested in ancestors of people that have come before us. The ancestor is kind of like a ghost, or traditions are like a ghost: it’s always present, even if it’s unsubstantial at times. You’re not sure what to make of it. I like to explore that in going to places and learning about true traditions or history. It does invoke poetry sometimes, sometimes good poetry.

JS: Is that how you experience South Carolina?

CC: Yes. I think a lot of my best poetry has actually been about South Carolina.

I could go through a couple of poems of mine. I recently wrote a poem called “Skies of Seas,” one of the longer poems that I’ve written. It takes place on Roper Mountain with my daughter Lucy, at the Roper Mountain pinnacle overlooking the city and all the things that happened there, at the science center. I wrote a poem that was published in St. Austin’s Review about St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pendleton. I finished a poem not too long ago about the solar eclipse that I experienced in South Carolina.

It’s odd, because I’m not a native of South Carolina, though I’ve lived here for eight years total. I wasn’t really a native of Mississippi either. My mom was born on the West Coast. I was born on the West Coast, but I was raised in Mississippi. I’ve written quite a bit about South Carolina and probably going to continue. This is my home now.

I think a lot of my best poetry has actually been about South Carolina.

JS: So, when you do that, are you always trying to invoke your own perspective, convey that to the reader, or are you adopting a persona that you’re writing from?

CC: It’s a different part of myself, I suppose, but it is me.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis talks about consciousness and how there’s a difference between “I” and “me.” He uses the two personal pronouns, and he distinguishes between the two sides of himself. I think there is something to that.

The conscious “I” goes first—the more objective point of view that looks at the world— and “me,” the direct object if you will, that things happened to. My poetry is probably more the subconscious “me.” And that’s the part of me that really experiences a place, where the “I” of existence has retreated a little bit to absorb what I see.

So when I recall an experience, this leads me to change little things in my poems.

In the poem about seeing the solar eclipse with my daughter, I changed the setting a little bit instead of being on the campus of Southern Wesleyan University. I just picture that hilltop and a lot of astronomy people, people who were interested in science, not so much faith, to sort of explore that event in a different way.

My poetry is probably more the subconscious ‘me.’ And that’s the part of me that really experiences a place, where the “I” of existence has retreated a little bit to absorb what I see.

JS: Where do you get your theological understanding and place from?

CC: Whether it’s Dante taking a not so much a literal journey but a metaphysical one, or the idea of a journey and keeping your eyes open and things happening to you along the road—I’ve picked up a lot [of theology] from that entire body of literature that deals with this spiritual journey without really even knowing where it came from.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the Old Testament, how that begins with the patriarchs encountering the sacred and then building a shrine and altar there. And that place became sacred because of that encounter. It became sacred not just for them and their family, but for the entire nation.

Then there was the Deuteronomic reform where they tore down all these little shrines. Instead they focused all worship in Jerusalem. But, Christianity came around later, and one of the early popes said if people are worshipping at a tree, don’t curse the tree. Baptize the tree and use that as a way to teach people. I think of St. Patrick and Ireland and how a lot of churches that he planted were at pagan meeting places. They found there was something there and that people could meet God there. They would minister there, and they would transform these places. The pagan waters were transformed into baptismal waters.

When we give a place metaphysical or sacred significance, it becomes more than just that hill or that a clump of trees. Every generation has to find it for themselves, but they can as long as we keep teaching them through our poems and through our stories.

JS: Can you give us a preview of what you’re going to talk about at the festival?

CC: The presentation will run the gamut of my work. Obviously, metaphysical truth is really important to me. And despite the different themes, the different poems that I’ll be reading, they’ll be full metaphysical truth, which is important to me.

JS: We’re looking forward to it!