Salem professor Metta-Sáma Melvin and the Center for Women Writers hosted poet Natalie Eilbert and author Mecca Jamilah Sullivan on Friday, March 1st, as a part of the Beverley Pritchard Lecture Series. The writers were each informally introduced by Metta-Sáma before presenting a short lecture on their work and on writing and performing a brief reading.
Poet Natalie Eilbert was first on the podium, talking about her book “Indictus,” a powerful exploration of her history of sexual abuse, which came out “on the heels of the #MeToo movement” and was described by critics as “timely.” However, Eilbert made a strong point: “Is it timely to talk about assault in 2018—or is it constant?”
In her lecture, Eilbert referenced a quote from Christine Blasey-Ford, known for her powerful testimony during the Kavanaugh hearings, to launch into a contemplation of assault and memory. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter at my expense,” quoted Eilbert.
She discussed the role of human memory in writing, saying, “I intentionally do not follow narrative in my poetry… obfuscation is poetry’s territory.” Poetry is Eilbert’s art partly because the facts do not have to be simple or straightforward—after all, memory is a tricky and volatile thing, especially where trauma is concerned.
Eilbert read several poems from “Indictus,” including ‘Manhole’ and ‘Black Tourmaline’ as well as several poems from an upcoming project on grief and her brother, who died before she was born.
Eilbert was followed by author Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, who lectured on the inspiration for one of her short stories, the real-life case of the “New Jersey Four,” or the 2006 Greenwich Village Assault Case, where a group of Black lesbians were charged with gang assault of a man who physically and verbally harassed them.
Just as Eilbert quoted Blasey-Ford, Sullivan also offered a few powerful words from Renata Hill, one of the women who were charged. “I stood up for myself. I protected my own life…. This is not how my story will end.”
Sullivan’s fiction explores voice, perspective, and intersectionality. Sullivan was once told in a creative writing class that one can’t write a short story from multiple points of view, because it doesn’t fit in the short form. Of course, being told not to do something only inspired Sullivan to try it. Her story ‘Wolf Pack,’ from her collection “Blue Talking Love,” is based on the case of the New Jersey Four, and explores in several voices the action and impact of racial and homophobic assault.
The lectures were followed by a brief Q&A session, where various audience members, including Salem Creative Writing majors, asked questions about inspiration and process. Eilbert spoke briefly on serial writing, saying that it’s a helpful form to write in when one is stuck considering difficult and emotional subjects like trauma. She encourages the writer to ask, “What am I missing? Am I satisfied with it emotionally?” She continued, saying, “I guess you could think of it as a haunting or obsession…. [finishing it] feels almost like an exorcism.”
Sullivan also commented on avoiding didacticism in prose writing—a story must have something to say, but it also must engage the reader. Metta-Sáma offered a sage conclusion to the evening: “All art is going to teach us something, if it’s doing its job.”
Follow the Center for Women Writers on Instagram @centerforwomenwriters and the two speakers @venusofnatalie and @meccasullivan.