image: Travis Commeau

Ciona Rouse

Making Nashville a poetry town

For poet Ciona Rouse, a new poem can have its start anywhere — an overheard conversation, a radio program, a docent’s remarks during a museum tour, a photograph. Also there’s that swing in the front yard of the Inglewood home she shares with her partner Patrick Luther.

“Patrick got me a swing for my birthday, and I told him, ‘This is the poetry maker, this swing,’” she says with a laugh. “So we have it hanging from our maple, and I go out there pretty much every day and swing. It ends up now either starting a poem, or if I’m editing a poem and I’m stuck, I’ll go out to the swing. There’s something about that rhythm.” But most often for Rouse, words beget other words. “I think that reading kicks off a poem for me most often, especially reading poetry, though not only poetry. Still, it almost feels impossible not to want to write a poem if I’m reading poetry.”

And though she can tell you pretty easily what starts a poem, she can’t really tell when a poem is finished. The night she received a Louisa Nelson award, given annually by Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery to Nashville women of “achievement, inspiration, and vision,” Rouse came home after the event and started working on some poems she had in progress.

“I thought, hmm, these poems feel finished; maybe they’re finished,” she says, then pauses. “But I don’t know.” She sighs. “The work doesn’t ever feel really finished finished. I mean, I still mark up my copy of Vantablack,” Rouse laughs, pointing to a copy of her poetry chapbook published in 2017 by Third
Man Books.

It’s not necessarily an overriding sense of perfectionism that drives her continuous editing and revision (though maybe there’s a little of that); it’s that Rouse sees poetry as a living part of a vibrant, evolving community. “To me that’s the humbling aspect of the work,” she says. “A poem is an artifact, yes, but it’s a living breathing thing that can change over time, or the way people see it can change because it’s alive. It’s part of something much bigger and important.”

Rouse is known in Nashville as much for her live poetry performances and curated poetry events as for what she puts on the page. In 2012 she founded and still hosts the monthly poetry salon Lyrical Brew at Barnes & Noble. Less than a year later she founded the interactive poetry reading/writing series Writings on the Wall at Atmalogy Café. Along with poet Kendra DeColo, Rouse co-hosts the poetry podcast Re\VERB for Third Man Books, which features interviews with critically acclaimed poets. She participates in Versify too, the WPLN podcast pairing poets with regular folks for some collaborative, lyrical storytelling. Over the past couple of years, Rouse also has collaborated with musicians and composers in performances at The Frist Art Museum and OZ Arts Nashville, and she’s worked closely with Chicago-based visual artist Nick Cave and several area non-profits in a community-wide collaboration based on Cave’s 2017-2018 Frist exhibition Nick Cave: Feat Nashville. That effort culminated in her appearance with the 2018 Nick Cave: Feat Nashville performance at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a show that brought her a Nashville Scene Writers’ Choice Award for Best Poetry Performance.

For Rouse, poetry isn’t just something between the covers of a book. Though books matter, of course, she wants people to see, hear, and feel poetry with the same kind of intensity she recalls having some years ago when she saw composer and musician K.S. Rhoads perform.

“It was just amazing, a total experience because he is a total artist,” Rouse says. “I kept asking people the next day if they knew him and kept telling them about the show. I just talked about it so much because I loved it so much. I want poetry to be in the world in that way — you’re so moved by something, surprised by something, something has spoken to you in that way, that you want to talk about it to everyone you know the next day.”

Though Rouse has always loved reading poetry and has been writing it since she was a child, she locates the source of her professional poetic aspirations in a place many musicians, especially vocalists, locate theirs — church. The daughter of a United Methodist Church minister, Rouse grew up in South Carolina and came to Nashville in the early 2000s to direct youth and young adult programs for the church. In 2005 she was invited to attend a workshop on writing church liturgy, which can be very poetic. “That weekend is when I thought: ‘I’ve always loved poetry; I’ve always wanted to be a poet; why am I not a poet?’” Not long after, Rouse began looking for other poets to connect with in Nashville. She attended poetry workshops, went to open mics and readings, published some poems, and started to think of herself as a poet. “But I was still terrified to call myself a poet, or to think I could do that as a main thing,” she says.

In 2010, Rouse attended Split this Rock in Washington D.C., one of the country’s most important biennial poetry festivals. “They create a lot of spaces for poetry in that city; there are so many venues, and they are also in a good place to speak to power, so to be a poet in D.C., you feel you’re right there in the midst of it, and poetry matters,” Rouse observes. “On the last day of the festival, there was a workshop on how to make your town a poetry town, and I went. It was actually a last minute decision to go, and I’m so glad I did, because it changed everything for me,” Rouse says. The workshop encouraged her to create spaces for poets and poetry back home, and she’s been working with other poets and artists to make Nashville a poetry town
ever since.

Her work with Nick Cave was another great source of inspiration for those community-driven efforts. “That elevated my life, the ekphrasis aspect of it, just being with his work, I would just go there [to the Frist] and sit and write,” Rouse recalls. But equally inspiring was the work she got to do with local community groups in creating wearable art under Cave’s direction for the Schermerhorn performance. “He could just as easily have said ‘Just write poetry to my art,’ but instead he had people out in the community making art, and [the poets] were asked to go and sit with those people while they were creating the art. That really pushed me to thinking about what it means to be an artist in the world. I think seeing each other is perhaps our hardest task, and I feel that poetry is that way of seeing each other. I allow myself to be seen, or I allow someone else to be seen through the words, or I allow myself to see someone else in writing it or reading it.”

Rouse’s poems invite readers to see what is beautiful, and what is bleak, and to find beauty growing out of bleakness. She’s holding to that approach in one of her current projects, a collection of poems about a series of child murders in Atlanta in the late 1970s.

What compelled her to take on such a subject? “The first two bodies of black children who were murdered were found on July 28, 1979. I was born in Atlanta on July 25, 1979, which was the day one of the boys went missing just a few miles from the hospital where I was born. My parents were terrified, and I think I grew up with that story of the children, and their fear, just as part of our story.” In total, an estimated 30 children were murdered, and although a suspect was finally convicted of two murders, and the rest attributed to him, many people believe the cases have not been fully investigated or solved. In fact, the investigations were reopened just this year by order of the
Atlanta mayor.

Rouse wants those children to be seen, not just as murder victims, but as real children who were lost. She’s read extensively about the cases and has visited some of the places where children were abducted or where their bodies were found. But she doesn’t want her poems to deal only with the dark, grim details of their murders. “I’ve focused a lot the delightful elements of their lives, to bring some light to them and, in some ways, that almost makes it more painful.”

Light and darkness are themes she is addressing as well in The Longest Night, a multimedia performance of a winter solstice story she helped write, and which played to sold-out audiences in December 2018 at OZ Arts. The show will be reprised this December at OZ, with a few changes. “What we did was give bones to the show last year, but there are elements that can move in and out, so there will be some new things in it,” Rouse explains. “It’s evolving.”

Another 2018 collaboration, the Blair House Collective, involved Nashville-based musician/songwriter Adia Victoria and poet Caroline Randall Williams. Rouse, Randall and Victoria together wrote a series of pieces about an imagined early 20th century blues woman, a project that led them to craft poems about Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday for the NPR Music series Turning the Tables.

“It’s a lot,” Rouse admits, when the work is tallied up before her, and the list keeps growing. Like when we add in her mentoring other poets through workshops with The Porch, a center for writing here in Nashville, and with The Makery, an online writing studio at The Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky. “But all of it is so creatively sustaining. I think of poetry as being communal now, in a way I didn’t used to. When I was younger, I thought it was just about self- expression, but it’s more than that for me now. Poets can tell a much bigger story, not just about themselves, but about who we are as a community, and who we can be.”

DO THE CRAZY THING

Do the crazy

thing

The hard to imagine

but somehow you did

thing

The brings you

to your knees

thing

The no one would ever

do it that way

thing

The safety net

would not even matter

thing

The it could kill you

but not trying is

another kind of death

thing

The thing

on your heart, do it

and let them gasp

right before they call it

a thing of wonder

ciona d. rouse

Flavor of a Place

There aren’t many ethnics here.

He said. And we remembered

it’s hard to feel at home when
it’s not in the flavor of a place.

And because Cuba doesn’t
pulse through the blood

of this soil the way it inflates
the heart of South Florida. And

because we wanted guava paste
for pastries more than we wanted

to rock any boats in the aisle

of Publix. Because we have come

to expect it. Here. Because grace.

Because perhaps he didn’t

mean ethnic to stick

in his mouth the way it does

naturally. The way you can’t
say it without your tongue

touching your teeth just like it
would if you were to spit on a thing.

He was a helpful man. After all.
And we found guava marmalade

instead. And we returned home.
Refuge. Where even though we

drove Ole Betsy to Nashville two
years ago and settled in, we still

unpack the politics and peculiar
of the south and its exhausting,

unapologetic unknowing. Where we
hang the green imagery of Nick’s

northwest. Where we mix
black beans the way we learned

from Wendy’s Mima. Where when
people ask about Nashville’s best

Cuban food, we smile

and simply say, Come over.

Because wherever we land,
however our family grows,

the flavors of home go with us.

The table is welcome. The table is

celebration. Pass the plate of picadillo
rich with heat, soaked in heritage.

ciona d. rouse
may2016
From
Casa Azafran
Poetry on Demand

ON THE SIDEWALK OF TROY, TN, 1904

Black man walk on the sidewalk, dread on the sidewalk, good speed, god speed, God
save him as he walks.

White girl on the sidewalk. Cross to the other side, man. Drop into the ditch, man. Don’t look into her eyes,

man, on the sidewalk.

Ditch the pavement. Don’t pave a way that’s not for you. I mean the ditch, the ditch is for you. Walk down

and low, eyes bowed.

Walk low and down step around, I pray. Step around or else

your body lined in chalk.

I said step aside or get chalked. Or hanged. Neck cracked in permanent supplication by
the sidewalk. Sway, sway. Or stay,

black man, on the sidewalk.

Split the altar of her ego on the pavement of the where you walk. I mean, pave a way that frees her from this lie,

the old snake still whispers, still slides, still makes her eat that peculiar fruit. You must

walk on thesidewalk.

Let me hear the click and clack of your heels on the sidewalk. Drive your stake through humanity and claim it as you walk.

Head erect, sun in eyes, forward and never to the

side. walk.

ciona d. rouse
From Vantablack

THE SITUATION IN OUR CITY

I could write about rain.

I could write about rain and how it fell

for 24 hours straight in Alvin, Tx, on July 25, 1979.

This is not about rain.

This is not about weather or a storm and

especially not Alvin, Tx, where I’ve never been before.

I’ve been to Atlanta,

Georgia. I was there first. I learned

of light and breath in Atlanta on July 25, 1979.

I was born

while children died. Murdered.

A black child left his house five miles away

as I came to be.

But he never came home.

He never again dragged flakes of caked up mud

from the sole

of his shoes into his apartment.

Never again ordered a handful of Big Bols

at the mart

up the road, never again

wore the 9pm scent of 13-year-old boy.

Truth is this

is about a storm.

It’s about a thunder that dropped black mamas to their knees

a lightning

that cracked necks

left bodies floating, dragged from rivers.

How the rain

fell for 24 whole months

and nobody could see through sheets of sorrow

and fear.

I came here when the situation in the city

meant my daddy looked everyone in the eyes and shot daggers.

My mama

showed me the world

while squeezing my body too tight. Everywhere we’d go

my body

close to hers. So close to feel

my breath wet her skin. So close to keep me breathing.

ciona d. rouse