Creative senior I.S.: A loving eulogy to Chattanooga

By Virginia Henry, Staff Writer

Perhaps you’re familiar with the question, “How did you end up at Wooster?” During my four years here, I’ve been asked this same thing countless times. I typically respond by saying that I liked the independent academic environment and that the encouraging, student-focused atmosphere was an attractive counter to big university education. But I will let you in on a little secret: that’s a lie.

As a high school senior choosing a college, I only cared about two things: getting out of the Deep South and going to an unintimidating school. I didn’t hear about Independent Study until first-year orientation, and I had no idea what wonderful opportunities I would find here.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear that I was running from the pressure-filled, distinctly Southern atmosphere of my all-girls, private high school. But I have grown and changed a lot in four years, and my senior I.S. has turned into a metaphorical return home, one that will preface my actual homecoming following graduation.

Perhaps I should have outgrown my high school attitude a little quicker, because my first year I thought I knew something for sure: I was not going to major in English. When I decided to major in English my sophomore year, I knew for sure I would not write a creative I.S. And when I decided to write a creative I.S. this summer, I knew for sure I was not going to write about my hometown.

So of course, I spend every night at my keyboard typing and thinking about my hometown. For my senior project, I’m creating a poetry series that revolves around my childhood home, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga is a little goldmine of interesting history. Because of its geography and location, the city has shone in many American milestone moments. For example, during the Civil War, significant battles erupted in Chickamauga, on Missionary Ridge and on Lookout Mountain ó all landmarks just miles from my parents’ house.

More personally, Chattanooga is important because it has been home to my family for generations. I’ve been hearing stories about grandparents and great-grandparents since I was a little girl. I’ve now begun to realize that these stories are rooted as deeply in the city’s soil as they are in my family’s memory. The ghosts of my ancestors have burrowed into the ridges like the ghosts of the Civil War. The history and the land are part of my heritage and I have sprung like a weed from the Chattanooga Valley.

My poetry series has turned into a sort of old country wheel. I think of it as a wheel because it has a solid center with a number of divided lines that constantly rotate to form a cycle that has no clear beginning or end.

The theme of place, of Chattanooga as a physical and metaphysical space, is the axel. The individual poems ó lines about the local insane asylum, the Trail of Tears and childhood monsters ó are the spokes. The flow of my series is the circular frame, the way the poems overlap while still moving forward. I would like to think the series progresses, and mirrors a development within me, but sometimes I think I’m just spinning wheels.

Many of my poems deal with heavy issues like loss, prejudice and ambivalence. However, as I continue to roll along, I have begun to see the hope and rebirth that rise from decay. One of the things I love most about poetry is its ability to hold paradoxes ó light and dark, life and death ó within one poem, individual lines and even singular words. I think of the many pieces I wrote at the beginning of this journey are simply negative while, as my writing improved and my I.S. progressed, my recent work has become more complex.

Though home is the unifying theme between the poems, there are several alternate motifs that continue to appear throughout my series. These subsequent patterns have evolved in an organic way, without much intentionality on my part. As a poet, I have many obsessions ó things that continually appear in my poems regardless of subject matter or form. One such obsession, and consequently one motif, is food. In one of my poems I wrote, “Your veins turned to cold bacon, streaked/by smoke and elbow grease. The good stuffó/babies, nicotine, hard work, Godósuddenly clogged/then split like an egg in the pan.” Another says, “She smelled/of potpourri and Huddle House cooks/who wooed her with their Diet Cokes.” Yet another reads, “Fat hangs like pockets turned out, dense/like meat and potatoes, like secondhand smoke.” At this point, I should mention that heart disease and lung cancer are also common themes. Not surprisingly, considering the high cholesterol diets, the focus on history and the retelling of family legends, many of my works are eulogies. Again, the series comes full circle because, in many ways, it is a eulogy to Chattanooga itself.

But of course, the city is not dead. On the contrary, it thrives, despite and because of the history and people it has lost. Perhaps another one of my poems best summarizes my feelings toward my hometown and my I.S. It is a consideration of the past and an expectation toward the future: “She digs a grave/the size of a fist, a cup of wetness rimmed by ripped roots.//At the dimple in the land, her fingers falter/between what is now and what will be. Like the hills,//her history is rolling, turning over and over in her hands.” As I look into the horizon of my post-college self, I want to think of myself as this girl, holding my life in my hands, contemplating it as a rotating whole.

At the end of my first year at Wooster, a wise old senior told me that I.S. was about the journey, not the destination. Sure, she said, it will be nice to finish with an impressive project, but the process is where the true value lies. Throughout my I.S. drive, I’ve learned she was right. For me, the act of writing is even more significant than that the poems themselves, and I know of no other undergraduate experience that would allow me to pursue poetry in such an in-depth but flexible way.

Besides the time to read and write and generally do what I love to do, I.S. has given me a chance to work closely with an amazing editor, professor Dan Bourne. The Copeland Fund awarded me a grant to study poetry and place in a new environment: I leave for San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in a week. I’ve learned to be creative on demand and to edit like a fiend. I’ve learned that some days you need coffee and some days you need wine. Mostly I’ve learned that you’ve got to keep the wheel turning, even when you think you’re stuck in the mud.

My wheel turned me from home and spun me through four years of college. Now, loaded with nicks and scars and many poems, it’s beginning to close the circle ó rolling away from these Ohio plains, back toward Tennessee’s mountains.