Although I did not begin Mattaponi Queen until after graduate school, after moving from Virginia to California to New York, I believe that its seeds were planted in a poetry class I took as a college freshman.
My first year of college, like a lot of people’s, was confusing. Avoiding the dorms, I moved to the cheapest two-bedroom apartment I could find near campus. I got a roommate, and she dropped out of college on the first day. I signed up for the most ridiculous schedule–8:00 a.m. classes and 7:00 p.m. classes in the same day–and was always looking for ways to make money. I dressed up as a bear at an amusement park, worked a retail job I was terrible at, and even tried being a guinea pig for medical experiments (I was not good at that, either).
Though I wasn’t far from home, I still found it very comforting to take classes with the poet Gary Sange, who happened to live in Walkerton (and still does), just down the road from my parents. He invited me to take an advanced poetry seminar in the spring of my freshman year. I remember the first poem I wrote for class was about catching baby painted turtles in Aylett Mill Pond with my brother; later, for my graduate school recommendation, Gary fondly misremembered it as a poem about gigging frogs.
Near the end of the semester, Gary took our small seminar to Walkerton. He paired each of us with a town eccentric–someone with Scott of Scott’s Store, someone with opinionated Rose, someone with the old, old couple who lived behind the post office. The idea was to inspire a poem. I remember feeling relieved that no one was paired with my mother.
I got to spend my day with Wilbur White, who delivered eggs to my family and other people in Walkerton. Wilbur and I had a good day talking and feeding his chickens, and later I found out that just about everyone in Walkerton gossiped to the other students about Gary’s own eccentric tendencies: how he liked to jog along the road (this was very odd to them), the clothes he wore for his jogging, the fact that he owned a pet donkey (named Don Quixote).
I’m grateful to Gary for providing the space he did for all of us in that class, which was my favorite thing about freshman year. I wrote the last story in Mattaponi Queen, “Youngest Daughter,” first, but not until years later. It was inspired by Wilbur, who died a few years ago. His gentle presence is still missed.