Thu Nguyen is the first writer of the summer 2019 cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and repurpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Thu writes to tell us about her experience, finding most palpably the sense and shift in time -- from one hour to one century changed. She also connects in many ways with Nelly Custis. Included below are two of the poems Thu wrote in residence, "The Opinion of the Wise" and "The Most Backward Spring". You can read more about Thu and her fellow residents here.
With No Time To Waste
By: Thu Anh Nguyen
What I notice when I first begin my writing residency at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey is that it affords me precious time because I can feel the quality of time here, with no particular time I have to be anywhere. No children’s lunches to pack, no appointments to rush to. Instead, I can watch the shade I am under shorten, and know that my time here--while completely comfortable--will come to an end.
My second day, at Pope-Leighey House, I spend my time watching the wood cut-outs of the windows make shadows on everything in the house: first on the wall, then on the carpet, and back up the wall. It takes all day, and it is a privilege to be there to witness it the whole day, to tell time in that slow way.
On my third day, I spend the entire afternoon out of doors. What was a bustling farm camp at Arcadia the other days is suddenly quiet this afternoon. I find soft grass to sit in, and I read all of Nelly Custis Lewis’ 189 letters to her lifelong friend Elizabeth. I only occasionally look at my watch, so engrossed am I in my reading, and am always surprised to see how much time has passed.
My entire time at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey, I watch groups of brides methodically explore the grounds. I see them plot and picture exactly where they are going to stand and pose. They are trying to envision the day that is supposed to be the most important of their lives. Meanwhile, the days at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey have been very hot, and those same brides are sweaty--not romantic. It makes me think of all the ideas we have about our idealized futures, and we are so busy imagining them that we forget, or are at least trying hard to re-envision, where we are presently.
I can’t help making a connection between the thriving wedding business at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey with the fact that marriage is what began Nelly’s decline. The Woodlawn estate was given to her as a gift, so I think of it as her home. I wasn’t expecting to be so fascinated by Eleanor Custis Lewis--even though I admire her needlework and painting skills that are on display at Woodlawn--but when I read her letters, I fall in love with her writing. She has such joy in those early years. She loves horseback riding, the country, her friends, her political causes, etc. She just loves life. Period.
But then--out of the blue--Nelly meets Lawrence Lewis, and everything she said before with such conviction is called into question. Not only does he restrict her from doing many of the things he loves, but the joy in her writing vanishes.
At my luncheon with my kind stewards at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey, no one has an answer for why Nelly chose Lawrence, and know one knows for sure why she seemingly gave up so much of herself for him. Could she have taken over the plantation since Lawrence didn’t enjoy it there anyway? Could she have thrived, felt purposeful?
Maybe the way in which she does thrive is in her private life of letters. That feels familiar to me: being most alive in writing. As I read Nelly’s letters, I keep taking notes of what she is saying, how she says it. Does she know she is a poet? There’s a poem in the book that she writes while she is grieving the loss of one of her beloved children, but there’s also poetry in so many of her sentences describing where she lives, and what she loves. She inspires me to use her words in my own poems. I have never written found poetry or erasure poems this extensively before, and I find joy in this new endeavor. It seems fitting that someone as adventurous as Nelly would inspire it in me.
I end my time at Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey with eight new poems that are Nelly’s words, stitched together by me. It is not what I was expecting at all. I entered the residency thinking that I was going to be much more interested in Arcadia, and the work of turning the plantation into a working farm and center for sustainable architecture. When thinking about the themes of my own poetry, however, I see so many connections between my words and Nelly’s. We are both interested in womanhood, its limits as well as its capacity. Maybe later on, I will put some of my poems next to these new found poems from Nelly’s words for comparison. I find myself wanting to make up for the time Nelly lost. I want to be productive for her, find joy in my work for her. That, in the end, is how I know I spend in the best way possible.
The Opinion of the Wise
is very erroneous & ridiculous.
I now it by experience, which is by far a better teacher.
I shall ever feel an interest & sincere regard, but as to being in love,
it is entirely out of the question.
Therefore I shall certainly never be engaged or married to him;
as whoever is my Husband I must first love him
with all my Heart—that is not romantically,
but esteem & prefer him before all others,
that Man I am not yet acquainted with—perhaps never may be,
if so—then I remain Spinster for life.
The Most Backward Spring
It is necessary to cast off all vanities:
I am in no danger of being
captivated by any one here.
I assure you I am quite domesticated,
fixed in a charming situation,
with an elegant and commanding view.
What will this world come to: I have never
heard of so many marriages as have taken place.
Pray from whence did they spring?
The spring with smiling face is seen
but this has been the most backward spring,
The fruit is much injured from the unseasonable weather.
Thu Anh Nguyen is a poet, essayist, calligrapher, painter, teacher, and life-long student. Her day job is teaching English and Social Studies to students at Sidwell Friends Middle School, where she was also the Equity, Justice, and Community Coordinator for the past two years. Her essays about diversifying literature choices have been published in the November 2018 and June 2019 issues of Literacy Today. Her poetry has been published in The Crab Orchard Review, The Salt River Review, and on RapGenius. She is collaborating on a daily art blog that can be found at thuandbecky365.art. She is also writing a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes with her brother, and that can be found at momsvietkitchen.com. After her Inner Loop Writers Residency, she will be painting in a tiny house for a Getaway House Residency. She hopes that this summer’s work will bear fruit in beautiful, hand-made books of her writing.
Follow Thu on social | Twitter @thuanhpoet | Instagram @madebythuanh