Lucien Darjeun Meadows is a writer and Ph.D. student at the University of Denver. Born in Virginia and raised in West Virginia, he is the current poetry editor for The Hopper, and managing editor for Denver Quarterly. His poetry collection In the Hands of the River was released on Tuesday, September 13th.
Enjoy our conversation about reclaiming the word holler, imagining death as the ultimate baptism, and fostering kinship with the plants, animals, and places, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: How does this poetry project differ from your nonfiction work? Have you always used poetry as a medium or did you turn to it to satisfy some unmet need?
Lucien Darjeun Meadows: My earliest memories of writing are of poetry — I don’t remember as much as I would like about those early years, but I clearly remember riding my bike (still with training wheels) in circles around the field out back, in West Virginia, and composing a poem to my cat that I copied out later that day. In fourth grade, one of my few years not homeschooled, we had a poetry-writing unit, and I loved every minute. I kept those rough little poems (some about being a pony!) until my early twenties. Now, I wish I had kept them longer. With poetry, I enjoy the compression and intensity, and the separation between “writer” and “speaker.” I appreciate how, in a poem, I don’t have to — and readers, usually, wouldn’t want me to — explain. The images can evoke and reverberate, without me (or anyone!) knowing exactly what is happening or why. That said, I have been doing more nonfiction writing in my Ph.D. program, and while I still bring lyrical and image-driven language into the nonfiction, in contrast, I also enjoy how prose offers more room to speak around the subject and to the reader.
DY: You wrote in your essay “Ariel” about settling into the academic setting and learning to embrace the hard-won influences of your youth (in this case, Sylvia Plath). At this point, you’re working on a Ph.D. far from your West Virginia upbringing, and you’re a published and award-winning writer. Where do you currently stand in that battle against shame and elitism? Do you ever catch yourself feeling naive these days?
LDM: Always! Even now, I wonder if I have the right to claim your lovely and generous description of me. It has been a challenge to feel like I fully belong either in academia or back home. I have been in academic situations that encouraged me to be ashamed of being from West Virginia. In family gatherings, I have felt at times ashamed of getting multiple degrees (let alone degrees in creative writing!). But, if I ever felt like I entirely belonged and had “arrived” somewhere, chances are I have stopped learning, and I wouldn’t ever want that — so these frictions feel necessary. My challenges of belonging are heightened by language. I’m far from the first to talk about having different voices for different communities, and the challenges of code-switching, or shifting voices, depending on the situation. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my homeplace in my poetry collection has shifted from being a “holler,” the only word I knew, for years, for where I was raised; to a “hollow,” when first sharing the poems in workshops and journals; to now, with more confidence in needing to honor the environment who raised me, happily, back to a “holler.”
DY: I’d love to talk a little about “Rust,” the opening poem of your collection. In the last stanza, you write:
“Sometimes, beneath the moonlight, we lie down
In our plastic pools to rest, to wait – if the rain fell right,
This whole holler could be wiped clean in a night.”
What does it mean to see death as “the ultimate baptism”? How do rusted plastic swimming pools fit into that desire for rebirth?
LDM: I was raised to see baptism as a death — the you who was is washed away, and you are reborn anew. Yet, baptism, as described to me, focused on exchanging one life for another — the emphasis on rebirth, rather than death or dissolving. So, what might it mean, then, for death to be the ultimate manifestation of what baptism seeks to offer? In some ways, death is the ultimate transcendent experience — we might believe, and some of us perhaps with strong faith, that we know what happens when we die, but we cannot go there and come back just as we were before (let alone in the same clothes, on the same day, with the same knowledges, as in baptism). Death holds tremendous mystery. Death is the immersion without resurfacing, and, as I was raised in a steep holler, that makes me think of living with the constant possibility of catastrophic flooding — and of how different it is to try to “stand tall” and “stand against” these natural forces or, in contrast, to lie down in the only little pool you have, on your back, waiting for — and welcoming — the rain, the immersion, and whatever might come.
DY: In the Hands of the River is in many ways a portrait of your Appalachian childhood, and in your essay “Circling Eloh: A Meditation” you take up the history of the Dixon Canyon Dam and Horsetooth Reservoir near your current home in northern Colorado. Where does that instinct – or choice? – to center place and landscape come from?
LDM: I don’t know who, or how, or when, I am without looking to — and being in relationship with — the lands and ecological relatives. Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, a citizen of the Kul Wicasa Oyate, wrote, “To live in kinship with the lands, is to live in kinship with each other.” Yes. I love my human communities, but as someone raised in a rural environment, homeschooled all but a few years, and passionate about spending time with the lands and the beyond-human kin, I find when and how and who I am through relating with place.
Especially over these last two pandemic years (and counting), I have spent far more time with plant and animal kin than with humans. Now, seeing an early-season gardener digging makes me think of a prairie dog, and I hear magpies in the laughter of two hikers. Here, now, I know we’re in late summer because the wild plums are ripening, and the grasses are drying and turning red and gold. The land forms us, sustains us, and reminds us that we are all deeply connected. The land is perhaps the wisest elder I know, and I can’t help but center them in my thought and writing.
DY: Lastly, I’m curious about what you’re studying and working on now, and what you’re turning to for inspiration.
LDM: Here in my final year of the Ph.D., I’m finishing my dissertation on how nineteenth-century British writers speak with, about, and as clouds in their poems. Using research in ecology and philosophy, I argue that these cloud writings help disrupt human subject/environmental object relationships in favor of more mutual, respectful, interconnected subject/subject relationships. I’m prioritizing working-class poets in this project, which has been so inspiring! Meanwhile, I’m working on my next creative manuscript, which uses poetry and short prose to consider place, memory, trauma, and survival through completing an ultramarathon. So, I’m in love with Noé Álvarez’s memoir Spirit Run (2020), which discusses being Indigenous and working-class, and running a 6,000-mile group ultramarathon. These days I’m also turning to writers who work in both poetry and prose, often centering place, such as Marisol Cortez, Louise Erdrich, and Jody Gladding. And, I cannot get enough of Neema Avashia’s collection of essays Another Appalachia and Lisa Kwong’s poetry collection Becoming AppalAsian, both published this year and both doing crucial work to show the vital diversity of voices in Appalachian literature.
UPDATE: This post was revised 11/20/23 to reflect Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ concerns about how he describes his cultural identity.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.