top of page

Summer Writing Resident James Steck: Constructed Barriers

A photo of James Steck

James Steck is the first writer of the summer 2020 cohort to spend his 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 re-purpose 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.

Read more about James' experience on site below, along with two poems composed during his stay: "Future Song" and "To Frank, Within the Pope-Leighey House." You can read more about James and his fellow residents here.


I did not know what to expect during my time at the Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House Residency. I did not have any plan outlined, no ultimate goal, no research to concentrate on. Rather I wanted to exist in a new space and to be somewhere that cultivated a new angle on what it means to constantly see the world through constructed barriers. Whether those barriers are self-created and internal or external and architectural, I think there is value in exploring what we attempt to have control over (the world or ourselves). However, it appears that control and true free will might be as elusive as the animals that visited me at the Pope-Leighey House. We can’t help but move in one direction through time, we can’t help but react to our past and to new stimuli, we can only reflect on what we experience.

I quickly found myself enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House and spent most of my hours there. I enjoyed being surrounded by trees and animals as opposed to people and concrete in DC. A fox came by to watch me pace along the outside of the house, and a groundhog came by to watch me write. Both make a brief cameo in one of the poems below. Most of my curiosity, though, was driven by Frank Lloyd Wright. I wanted to see how close I could come to finding his “ghost” through writing, and I ended up running circles in my own mind while trying to turn the house into something that has been and always will be gone. This ultimate feeling of frustration, of not being able to reanimate the dead, of not fully knowing a person who is immortalized--only through their constructs--was extremely frustrating. But this frustration proved to be a strong foundation for artistic expression.

I managed to reflect on my own life and on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. I tried to step into his body and view him from the inside out--through the lens of his architecture, which produced a lengthy piece of writing. “Future Song” was also produced during my time at the house and “Love Through a Window Frame” was another poem that I edited during the residency. Each of these pieces will fit into the manuscript that I am very close to completing. Spending hours alone only felt natural given the reality that we all find ourselves in. And despite the anxieties and the uncertainties of the current pandemic, I am grateful for the opportunity to explore another space that felt untouched and removed and quiet. I couldn’t help but think that the fox and the groundhog were grateful to see me, as well; I suppose they would not have stopped by to tap on the window or to watch me from the woods otherwise.

Future Song

Infinite trees

with infinite leaves


to the horizon

and shutter in the wind thick air


Lightning above.

Infinite trees

we live below

look down and see our shadows.

We smoke with our backs against your bark

as your skin falls apart

behind us

hair is rigid on the neck

when we feel the static--

burnt wood.

Infinite trees

in a gasp of lightning:

some belong to families

others belong to houses

some belong to the woods

some belong to children

and some are crushed with vines

others don’t grow just right

some die slowly in the night.

Infinite trees

with infinite leaves

now saturated with rain--

your unyielding smoking wood

we turn into tabletop art--

can’t stop dancing beneath shade

or smoking with backs against bark--

widespread leaves

keep me down below

keep me from climbing

and keep me here.

The infinite trees

with their infinite leaves--

we are skeletons of wood

just like the rest

waiting for a future song

act of alchemy--energy--

your hand that has

just been touched for the first time.

Your smile

that is real beneath the leaves.

There is the smell of thunder

like wet smoke

like your skin absorbing the night

through a window

absorbing quiet humid streets

in the summer heat.

You know what the thunder smells like

but you don’t know me

until the rain is there in the dark.

I don’t know you

but I know what the thunder smells like too.