Anyone who has walked on the grounds of the East 40 knows how inspiring it is. The Northampton Community College (NCC) run community garden is surrounded by bee hives, open fields, and shaded woods, accessible through foot paths, which invite walkers, dogs, community members, and visiting college classes. A small collection of functional buildings include an outdoor classroom, a small office, a kiln, and an outhouse tucked neatly within the vast greenery of plants and animals.
From May through July of 2023, I, an English professor at NCC, was lucky enough to be an Artist-in-Residence for the East 40. During those months, I walked, sat, listened, and wrote poetry about my interactions, thoughts, and experiences of being there. My Artist-in-Residency culminated in the East 40 poetry walk, nine poems accessible both on the grounds of the East 40 via posts with QR codes and via the website where you can also read the poems, listen to me read them, and view photos of where each poem was written.
One of the most striking things about this residency was the interaction with nature that occurred almost unintentionally each time I stepped foot on the land. As I wandered about the acreage, it often felt like nature would part for me, with noises and animals scurrying back to their safe havens. But if I sat and was still, after a while, everything would come back. Birds would fly near me, a mouse might pass right by my feet, and the world would forget I was there. I could be part of the background as I observed and drank in all that was presenting itself around me. Poems like “Cleaner,” “Satellite Nature,” and “only these songs,” were born from such experiences. “only these songs” was specifically written in response to the smoke from the Canadian wildfires that drifted down our way this past summer. As I sat huddled in the shelter of the small office near the garden, the smoke burned my eyes, the birds were quiet, and the sun cast eerie shades of orange light about me – much in contrast to the usual sunny, almost noisy with birdsong, type of atmosphere.
Other poems, such as “Truancy” and “Something to Miss,” were written by walking and being in motion as so much of the landscape and all that relies on it is. “I walk out” and “I walk up” begin these poems followed by a description of observations and thoughts recorded during these strolls. “watch your step” was written in response to watching my own steps around the poison ivy in the woods.
At one point in June, I collected, logged, and alphabetized every word I could find in the East 40. It turned out to be about a nine-page document. From that word bank, I created one of the poems, “Welcome to the East 40.” The sarcasm present in that poem is intentional, as so many of the words present in the East 40, largely culled from the bulletin board and repurposed buckets, felt incongruous with the surrounding scenery.
Only two of the poems in the walk were born of conversations with people. “Dogbane Commercial” was written after talking with East 40 Coordinator, Kelly Allen, who explained that dogbane was used for birth control, and in fact, the last lines of it are a quote from him. “Landing in the East 40” was penned after reflecting on my experiences during the residency and what a gift it was to put everything else aside to be fully present there. Of course, all of these observations, experiences, and interactions passed through my own individual lens, meaning these poems are unavoidably steeped in memories and associations from my own life.