Lauren Russell is a research assistant professor and assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. Her first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in 2017. A Cave Canem fellow, she was the 2014-2015 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she was the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School. Her chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone came out from Brooklyn Arts Press in 2012, and her work has appeared in boundary 2, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others, and is forthcoming in the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015. She holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.
When I got the call about the NEA fellowship, I was stunned. Receiving this vote of confidence in my work at this particular moment, personally and historically, was like a $25,000 kick in the rear. I saw it as evidence of two realities: A.) The NEA still exists, there is still support for the arts in this country, and we, as creative people, have the power and the responsibility to make art/literature/possibility/community/space; and B.) Like arts administrators and educators everywhere, I had been prioritizing everyone’s work but my own, but here was a representative of the NEA on the phone telling me that that my writing matters.
For the past couple of years, I have been working on a manuscript tentatively entitled Descent. The project began when I acquired a copy of the diary of my great-great-grandfather, a white Confederate veteran who fathered twenty children by three of his former slaves, black women who have been silenced by history. It has been about two-thirds done for the last year, and though I chip away at the manuscript, I have struggled to find the sustained time to finish it. With the fellowship, I am planning some modest research trips related to the project and also expect to carve out some expansive time and space to write over the next couple summers, so I can finish this book and perhaps let that kick in the rear propel me toward the next one.
Heard a whippoorwill holler this morning for the first time this spring. Heard a whippoorwill holler. All hands choking cotton. Heard a holler, a whimper. Heard a will whip her. Will heard a whip. Whip or will. Will heard. Herding hers. Whipping herds. Sowing oats. Whipping whores. Stripping cane or— whelped her willed her a well and a hold. Dank of the dark of the hell of the hold. Choking cotton. Caught in. A yoke and a pull. Stripped and caned for— Heard her holler, caught her, held her hand to the— whipped out your— held her head to the— whipped out the billfold. Heard a whimper this spring. Choked or— heard a holler, a hollowed-out hold, whipped to a wheelbarrow, hell-bent toward a hole, ripped from a wrapped in a gutwrench sugarhold.