Kristina Gaddy was the last writer of this year's 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.
Kristina had her mind set on exploring a different history on the site, but like many of our residents, was enchanted by an entirely different part of the story. She found inspiration in the site's Pope-Leighey House, and in letters between its architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the first owner of the home, Loren Pope. Hear about her journey and read her poem, below.
You can learn more about Kristina and her fellow residents here.
By: Kristina Gaddy
During my residency at the Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey houses, I became enraptured by the idea of erasure. The properties are owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose goal is “to save places where our history happened.” They want to make sure places like this are not erased.
I came intending to focus on a project called Well of Souls, a literary exploration of the early banjo in the Americas and its role as a spiritual device in the hands of enslaved Africans. This earliest banjo history happens before 1820, before the instrument had a wooden rim, when it was exclusively an African American instrument. Much of this history has been erased from our common knowledge.
I knew that being in Woodlawn, an early 19th century mansion, would help me put myself in this time period. Most of the accounts we have come from white men, who lived and visited houses like this. In 1820, ninety-one enslaved Blacks lived at Woodlawn. Few records survive about their lives. Did they play banjos and fiddles? What were their religious rituals and did they involve music? Did they play dance music for balls at the house? When we lose documents from the people who owned this men and women, what have we lost about their history? I thought about these questions as I wrote about a white man writing about Black culture in Suriname, a former Dutch Caribbean colony that often traded with Virginia.
But I never imagined finding so much inspiration about erasure at the Pope-Leighey house. As I started reading about the home, I found irony in the fact that Frank Lloyd Wright used light and dark, optical illusions, and erasure in his architecture, while his creation was at risk of being erased itself. I knew that Loren Pope had written a letter to Wright, desperately asking for Wright to design him a home. When I read Pope’s letter and other things he said about his home and Wright’s work, his poetic language spoke to me.
As I toured the Pope-Leighey house, I began thinking about the intersections between language, light, dark, and beauty. How does language figure into erasure, literally and figuratively? What are the forms of language that can take away actors or actions? What are the ways that we can take away words from a historical document to create new meaning, or accentuate something that already exists?
I extracted Pope’s words about his reverence for the house. I didn’t rearrange them, but inspired by the house and Wright’s construction, I placed them on the page in a way that I hope will illustrate to the reader both Pope’s emotions and what it’s like to be in the house. Pope was also an editor and writer, and I felt that writing it on a typewriter would help me invoke his spirit. I hadn’t realized how much it would help me place the words on the page and in context with one another.
Below is a photograph of the essay titled “Welcome home.” These are the only word’s that don’t belong to Pope; they are the first line of a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright after Pope has informed him of his family’s successful move out of the Wright house to the country, where Pope hoped to have Wright design him a new home.
Kristina Gaddy is an award-winning writer who believes in the power of narrative nonfiction to bring stories from the past to life in order to inform the world we live in today. In her forthcoming nonfiction book Flowers in the Gutter (Dutton 2020), she tells the true story of the teenage Edelweiss Pirates who fought the Nazis. In 2018, Kristina received a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Ruby's Artist Award for Well of Souls, a literary exploration of the little known history of the banjo in the Americas, it's role as a a spiritual device in the hands of enslaved Africans, and the instrument's legacy in today’s culture and society. Her writing explores and highlights forgotten and marginalized histories, and has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Bitch Magazine, Narratively, Proximity, Atlas Obscura, OZY, Shore Monthly and others. Her story about a midwife in 1909 Baltimore was a finalist for Proximity Magazine's 2017 Narrative Journalism Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. Kristina sits on the board of the Baltimore City Historical Society, is on the planning committee of The Banjo Gathering, and is a member of the KnowYourHistory Collective.
Follow Kristina on Instagram @kgadz.