Forty years ago, standing shyly in the corner of a cocktail party graced by a few of America’s literary luminaries at Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont—Galway Kinnell, Harry Crews, Maxine Kumin and Miller Williams, to name a few—who regaled each other with salacious literary anecdotes and spontaneous outbursts of iconic poetry stanzas, I soothed my growing intimidation by wandering into the kitchen. I was 20 and just been asked by the esteemed poet, Maxine Kumin, what I wrote. Suddenly I wasn’t sure, but I did a lot of it.
I wasn’t alone seeking refuge. A young, slightly gawky, wheat-haired and bright-faced girl sat on the linoleum floor, elbows on knees, leaning back against the sink cabinet. She also seemed relieved to be free of the din. The August heat lingered into the early evening and the floor was cool.
Her father was one of the poets—Miller Williams, a well-published poet and translator from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She talked about Arkansas, traveling to writer’s conferences with her father, the tedium of school, the usual youthful talking points for two young people flailing around trying to discover a mutual experience or a vantage point to share. Clever and quick, with a sense of humor that challenged the clichés of first conversations with strangers, she could turn a phrase on its edge and make it dance. After all, there was poetry in her family.
At one point I must have been babbling. After 25, a four-year age difference between two people seems little more than a shade. At 16 and 20, four years requires a cryptologist, at least it did for me that day, sitting on the floor of a Vermont farmhouse.
I remember her staring at me and saying, “Mean what you say and say what you mean.” She didn’t hold back. I’ve not forgotten that or what was about to happen next.
I noticed a guitar lying on the floor next to her and encouraged her to play something. I didn’t know what to expect, but at 16 I thought “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” was about to be cued up, that I would have feign condescending appreciation, and then gently excuse myself to search for solace in beer.
Little did I know.
Something happens when you are surprised by life. A little tectonic shift in the solar plexus, something that is added suddenly to your core, something that etches itself on a molecular level to be read the rest of your life. It’s like the addition of a primary color to the spectrum of your worldview or the way an astronomer might feel discovering the faint pinpoint of light promising the discovery of a new star or galaxy.
She strummed a few chords. Then she sang.
And for a few minutes the kitchen turned into a honkey-tonk cathedral. Her voice, ascending and descending through octaves the way one knows the rooms of their house in the dark— and it was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was splashed with tinctures of Lorca’s duende and Delta blackstrap molasses, as though wood-smoke, silk and sheet-lightning wove a voice inside a sixteen year old’s throat..
Finally, after finding my own voice and the few words I could construct into a whole sentence, I asked her name.
“Lucinda, Lucinda Williams.”
I wondered if I would ever hear that name again or if she would forever just keep that gift to herself and a few lost boys sitting on the floors of summer kitchens.
Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
8 pm (doors 7:30)
40 E Dover St
Easton, MD 21601
410 822 7299