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Summer Writing Resident Indigo Eriksen: Home, Now

Indigo Eriksen at Woodlawn
The author, a white woman, is reflected in the glass in this black and white photograph. She reclines in a chair with her legs crossed, an arm bent upward, and one hand cupping her neck. A notebook sits on her lap. In the reflection the viewer can also see the frame of the window pane and the balcony railing. Photo courtesy of the author.

Indigo Eriksen is the first writer of the Summer 2021 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 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 Indigo's experience below. You can read more about Indigo and her fellow residents (past and current) here.


shadows on wall in Woodlawn
Room at Woodlawn. Antique chair in shadow against a sage green wall. Light is reflected against the wall. Part of an antique table visible on right. Portion of fireplace mantel visible on left. Photo courtesy of the author.

Arriving to the mansion at Woodlawn for the first day of my residency, I was in low spirits in a way I think of as writerly (in naming it, the inertia serves a purpose, somehow). I didn’t want to write. I didn’t know what to do with the time given to me to write, the time I’d asked for. In my daily reflections I wrote “Slogged through inertia to get myself here, even though all I wanted was not to come.” But then I met Diane, a retired AP History teacher with a smart, direct humor. She oriented me to the space and answered a whole lotta preliminary questions decorated with her own commentary, which created more questions. I sat down at a bare round table, the kind reserved for modern party functions that would normally be covered with linen and china plates, and wrote the first four pages of my book-length poem.

Just like that.

I’d been agonizing over how to start this project, which is why I applied for the residency. I didn’t know how or where to begin this 100-page poem, but suddenly there I was, writing it.

Rainy day at Woodlawn
A cushioned folding chair sits on top of a wood-planked floor. On the chair is an open notebook. The chair faces a large windowed-door that opens onto a balcony and tree tops. It is a rainy day. Photo courtesy of the author.

Over the course of the week I wrote five poems in addition to the on-going book length poem. I delved into the histories layering the site; waited impatiently for the thunderstorm I knew was coming Thursday; wandered the rooms in the morning, the afternoon; asked a lot of questions; became merrily lost in the rambling maze of preliminary internet research; learned more about the complexity of slavery in Virginia (for example, in 1806 enslaved people, if freed, were required to leave the state lest they be legally enslaved again; dower slaves belonged to the estate and could not be freed by women whose husbands had left no will).

The Enslaved History at Woodlawn Presentation by Cassandra Good

It was the question of slavery and anti-slavery activists that obsessed me the most here. In 1846 Woodlawn was sold to Troth-Gillingham, a Quaker company from the North who were interested in Woodlawn for two reasons: the ample supply of trees that could be used in their ship-building business, and the scientific and social experiment of scientific farming without slavery. The farming methods of southern plantations had stripped the land of its nutrients, which decreased the value of land and created a false narrative that farming could only be productive through the forced labor of enslaved people. Troth-Gillingham wanted to prove that this was not true. Using “scientific farming,” with practices such as crop rotation, composting, and manure, farmers were able to bring the land back to health. Troth-Gillingham sold parcels of Woodlawn, an estate just over 2000 acres first given to Nelly Parke Custis and husband Lawrence Lewis by George Washington (part of his Mount Vernon estate) on the occasion of their marriage, to free Black and Quaker farmers. They lived, farmed, and joined in fellowship together in the integrated “free labor colony,” and proved that farming could be profitable without slavery.

if a man is kind to the people he enslaves

is he a good man?

--excerpt from author’s book-length poem,

currently untitled and a work-in-progress.

It sometimes seems as if good ideas don’t go uncorrupted for long in this country, however. During WWI, the US Government via its Army, took over much of this land. In WWII, it took even more. Fort Belvoir now occupies the land that was once the free labor colony.

roots of a tree
The photograph was taken at ground-level and shows the roots of a tree on the left and a red brick path on the right. The red bricks are not level, due to the roots growing underneath. Photo courtesy of the author.

The opportunity to write, and avoid writing, at the Woodlawn Pope-Leighey House, also the site of the Quaker Meeting House and Arcadia Farm, was a powerful experience. I knew a week would not be enough time to untangle my own family’s history of denying our past as enslavers while celebrating our genealogical connection to Stonewall Jackson, let alone work through the United States’ dedication to white supremacy, which resonates throughout this site. Yet being here allowed me to ask some big questions and get lost in the genealogy of it all.

and the cemeteries.

that was our purpose.

to witness the graves

and remember

who we are. where

we came from.

even me, prodigal

great granddaughter,

heir to a selective history

--excerpt from author’s book-length poem,

currently untitled and a work-in-progress.


Raised in Colorado and Virginia, J. Indigo Eriksen earned her BA from Lewis & Clark College before moving to Guatemala and Mexico. She received her MFA from Mills College and MA in Comparative Literature from San Francisco State University. She is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University in Virginia, where she lives again, and Associate Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. Her creative work has appeared in the Texas Review Press (forthcoming, 2022), District Fray (July 2020), The Northern Virginia Review,  Scratching Against the Fabric, Endlessly Rocking, and TYCA-SE Journal. She was awarded the 2019 Mary Roberts Rinehart prize in nonfiction from GMU. Her work work explores feminism, oppression, and loss. Indigo is a dedicated whiskey drinker.

Follow Indigo on social | @violet_on_the_inside

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