Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tanya Olson on the making of "flower of the mountain"

“flower of the mountain” originated in a visit to the exhibit Beyond the Headlines, by two photographers, Jeremy Lange and Derek Lee Anderson. I’ve long been a fan of Derek’s work from the Independent Weekly and was interested to see it hanging in large format. It was a beautiful exhibit highlighted by two stunning portraits, one of a teenage girl, the other of an older African American couple. I spent a long time with both and jotted down the names of the couple—Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher—and the fact that they lived in North Carolina and currently held the Guinness world record for being the longest married living couple. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the information right then, but I knew I wanted it. I had been writing poems about North Carolina residents and I love names, especially Southern names. Zelmyra was a keeper.

I kept thinking about that portrait all weekend, especially what it had been like for Derek to take it. Derek’s taken my picture before and he’s good at both talking to the subject before he starts shooting and giving directions during the shoot. I wondered what he and the Fishers talked about—what they thought about this young, hip white boy who showed up to take their picture, and whether they cared that they were now the longest living married couple. I loved the way Mrs. Fisher is smiling and isn’t looking directly at the camera; I loved that they got dressed up and the way she’s holding his hand. She’s thinking something but we’re not to know what it is.

Ulysses is my favorite novel and I often borrow bits and styles from Joyce for my work. I’ve written poems as letters between him and Lucia, his institutionalized daughter, and a poem that uses the ending of The Dead to tell how Lisa Marie Presley and I had to break our engagement when I wouldn’t convert to Scientology. In connection with Mrs. Fisher, I kept thinking about Penelope and Molly and what women do to stay in touch with love and other vulnerable feelings. What had it cost Mrs. Fisher to be in an 86-year marriage? Molly mulls over the gains and losses of love before sleep; I wanted Zelmyra to do the same.

Clearly, I stole the stream-of-consciousness, mumbly, associative brain roar of night from Joyce, as well as the lack of punctuation and the repetition of yes at the end. I also plucked the title—Bloom calls Molly his flower of the mountain. I don’t think any of the “facts” about the poem’s Zelmyra and her husband are true of the real Zelmyra and Herbert. I didn’t do any research on the Fishers. I did read about Seabreeze, a real town on the coast founded and run by blacks and the only N.C. beach resort open to blacks during segregation, and Chang and Eng Bunker (also  N.C. residents), who died in 1874. But I never get too boxed in by research; the world of the poem echoes the world in which I live though it isn’t bound by it. For instance, I’ve never been engaged to Lisa Marie.

I hope you enjoy listening to me reading the poem. Share what you think or your questions about the content, the process, or anything else. I’ll read and respond throughout the month.