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The City and the Writer: In Atlanta with Erica Wright

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Atlanta as you feel/see it?

In a Paris Review interview, Donald Barthelme said, “I think writers like old cities and are made very nervous by new cities.” This is from a 1981 issue, but I happened to read it recently. Atlanta is about two centuries younger than the US’s northeastern metropolises, and its mood could be described as teenager-esque. Changeable, lively, and yes, nervous. But if we ignore the angst, aren’t those teenage years—from first drives to first loves—downright explosive? And that nervous energy here in Atlanta leads to a lot of innovation. It’s exciting, really, how many young artists are in the city, creating their own spaces, not beholden to institutions or worried about lineage.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Atlanta and I recently celebrated our one-year anniversary, so we’re still in the honeymoon period. No heartbreak, yet, but one of my most disappointing moments occurred when I missed General Beauregard Lee’s prognostication on Groundhog Day. Georgia doesn’t trust Punxsutawney Bill, so the Yellow River Game Ranch, a wildlife rehabilitation center, has its own psychic critter. After moving to Atlanta, I wanted to write about some of the festivals in the area—the Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, the National Grits Festival, the Possum Drop. Groundhog Day was my first foray. I even roped two skeptics into joining me, and we rose before dawn to drive out to Lilburn. The parking lot was packed, and by the time we found a spot, we had missed the official announcement. One of my friends joked that my festival essays’ theme would be failure. We saw the general, though, scurrying about his pen, confused by the hubbub.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

If you drive just outside the city perimeter, you might stumble across the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha Mandir, a Hindu place of worship. According to the Web site, the over 34,000 hand-carved pieces of stone were shipped from India then assembled here in Georgia. A friend took me, and I was worried about being seen as an intruder. Everyone was welcoming, though. No photographs are allowed inside, so I stocked up on postcards. Otherwise, I was afraid people might think I had gone off my rocker as I tried to describe this towering, palace-like building.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of young artists shaking things up. Gina Myers recently published a new book of poems, Holding It Down, and Amy McDaniel started a chapbook press, 421 Atlanta. Right now I’m reading Charles McNair’s new novel, Pickett’s Charge, about a 114-year-old Civil War veteran. Like me, Jericho Brown is a newish Atlanta transplant, and I’m eager to read his collection The New Testament, out later this year. Sandra Meek is down the road in Rome, Georgia.

Is there a place here you return to often?

In general, Piedmont Park. More specifically, the dog run there. I have dog fever, but travel too much to adopt one right now.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I’ve been told by those in the know that Manuel’s Tavern is the best place to hang out with local literary hotshots. Go for the Brunswick stew, stay for the moleskin notebooks?

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

What a perfect question for Atlanta, which seems to be nothing but hidden cities. When I first moved here from New York City, I would become restless, unused to limited sidewalks and public transportation. It seemed as if each neighborhood was caged in, and I stalked the perimeters. Then I learned to appreciate the feeling of making a conscious rather than accidental decision to explore—the Highland Ballroom in Poncey-Highland for readings, Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Little Five Points for throat-scaldingly delicious chai.

Where does passion live here?

The passion’s in the politics. You can’t live two miles from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and ignore the lingering inequalities that exist here and elsewhere in the US. This year, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Center will open downtown, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate location. Right now another Atlanta institution, the Center for Disease Control, is sponsoring an exhibition called “Health Is a Human Right: Race and Place in America,” and there are a lot of Black History month events planned around the city.

What is the title of one of your works about Atlanta and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “The Year the Devil Set His Sights on Savannah” is not, obviously, inspired by Atlanta, but by Savannah, a few hours south. A brief overnight stay in this coastal city captured my imagination with its Spanish moss, quaint squares, and bloody history. It’s sometimes called “The Most Haunted City in America,” and there are nightly ghost tours to be had on foot, carriage, or car. My travel buddy and I chose foot and were treated to stories about abductions, grave robberies, and one death by sunburn. One legend goes that during the yellow fever epidemic, countless people fell into comas and were buried alive. I’m not a believer in the devil, but he’s easy to blame for such horrors.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Atlanta does an outside exist?”

I want to say that Atlanta feels less restricted by its history than other southern cities, that being destroyed by the Civil War means fewer reminders, but maybe it’s just me that feels less restricted. Growing up in rural Tennessee, I felt bound to the landscape, the beauty of foothills but also the violence of poverty. How could I write about anything else? But this giant city is constantly in flux. The airport’s been the world’s busiest for over a decade, and “Midnight Train to Georgia” still plays on the radio forty years after its release. Atlanta lives on departures as much as arrivals.

 

Erica Wright is the author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). Her debut crime novel The Red Chameleon, will be published this year by Pegasus Books. Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor at Guernica Magazine and has taught creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College and New York University's continuing studies program.


Published Oct 10, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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