Judith Vollmer, author of The Apollonia Poems, reflects on writing poems while concentrating on place—city in particular—as a lens to perceive and listen to spaces and the people inside them. Vollmer’s new book is published this week in the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series and is the winner of the 2016 Four Lakes Prize.
To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong?
—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
The plate glass window facing the street shimmered opalescent blue earlier this morning. Now the glass shifts and resumes the scratched-pearl gray our Pittsburgh sky customarily displays, steady, our mid-Atlantic temperate-zone nerve system holding its own in all seasons. I come here to read, mostly, and write in my notebooks at a quiet table with a hot Americano en route to its second refill. The café is standard issue: black and white tile, no-frills countertop and tables, bright bulbs in every wall lamp: sit, here, uninterrupted with a good book.
Tiny cousin to Rome, whose centro storico is nearly identical in size and population to ours, my city accumulates and shows off layers equally breathtaking and ruined; writing over and etching onto stories and designs with every emerging generation. Apollonia, literal and apocryphal ancestor and muse, is both woman and city, saint and destroyer, arrived from the ancient worlds of the Mediterranean and of Eastern Europe; she is a singer of women’s songs and lost stories, and lives on in my Pittsburgh. She is my harsh teacher and eternal mother—if my city is, in fact, female, and I sense she is. Through this lens and container of culture, I can see outward and listen in on voices familial, neighbored, or new and accented with a language I don’t know. When I walk to and back home from this table, I too am incised with the complexities of our small radius: both Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs praised Pittsburgh’s ideal scale as that of a “human city.” I see, daily, our harshly cut and carved class/race zones, smack up against freshly made green pockets; hipster-chef entrepreneur-immigrants happy with our rents and plentiful local farms; the homesteads of Rachel Carson and of August Wilson; and the in-plain-sight beauty of three rivers and the crooked street-mazes rimming them.
Daily I’m aware of this place whose indigenous peoples hunted, fished, and settled here more than 5,000 years ago; time’s arc stretched far to the blood-labor workers who built the steel empire in the nineteenth century and whose children were bankrupted when steel left. I sit and listen for another way into the next poem and wander Apollonia’s visions of Palmyra, Sozopol, Chaco, and Rzeszow, of countless other containers not so different from this one.
Level Green, The Door Open to the Fire, Black Butterfly, Reactor, and The Water Books. She teaches in the MFA Program in Poetry & Poetry in Translation at Drew University and has been an artist in residence at Yaddo and a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.is the author of the award-winning poetry collections