The Collegian
Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Native poet explores race relations, coming of age in Richmond

Collegian Reporter

Margaret Gibson, one of America's preeminent poets, came to Richmond on Tuesday, Oct. 21 as part of the 2008-09 Writer Series.

Gibson, a Richmond native, spoke at 7 p.m. in Keller Hall Reception Room about her new book, "The Prodigal Daughter," a memoir of her childhood growing up in the city of Richmond. Associate English Professor David Stevens introduced Gibson to the audience as an author with the ability to reconcile the free spirit of poetry with the rooted nature of prose with an impeccable fluidity. "The Prodigal Daughter" is a perfect example of her versatility as a writer.

"The book doesn't pull any punches in its representation of the city in the 1950s, where race, class and institutionalized religion were often used as a means to divide people from one another," Stevens said. "But Gibson offers her descriptions with such a poetic eye that it is difficult not to find beauty and insight even in certain moments of cultural 'ugliness.'"

Between reading excerpts of her memoir, Gibson offered insight into the inspiration and the insight that she gained from her own writing, about herself, her family and about society at the time.

Gibson revealed very private moments from her life in her writing, but these memories were necessary because of their relevance. She read to the audience the moment in which she had her first understanding, at the age of 10, about the society she was growing up in.

Gibson said it was embarrassing to admit that she had her first major epiphany while she was reading a "Reader's Digest" in the bathroom.

"Colored people kiss," Gibson read from the chapter entitled "Fitting In." "I was shocked. If they kiss, they are just like us. Did anyone in Richmond know this?"

It was then that Gibson realized that people did know, however the knowledge didn't make a difference.

Gibson read many other selections from "The Prodigal Daughter" that uncovered "the secret underneath the secret," in the words of Eudora Welty. The secret that Gibson uncovered was the difference in 1950s Richmond and the firm racial, gender and class barriers that were in place. "The Prodigal Daughter" is Gibson's way of making peace with her past as well as an accurate portrayal of the urban southern society of the past.

"The Prodigal Daughter" is a story about both coming of age and coming to terms with a place and time that, whatever the author's misgivings, helped shape her outlook on the world, Stevens said. "We thought a Richmond audience would be especially interested in it."

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After the reading, the audience had many questions. One woman in the audience asked about the role of religion in Gibson's life today as it played a major role in her memoir.

"I was a Quaker for a while, but that wasn't hard enough," Gibson joked.

Desiring a more rigorous meditation aspect in her life, Gibson is now a Zen Buddhist. But she attributes her discovery of faith and practice to the Quaker religion. It was the commitment to nonviolence and tolerance that drew her to the Quaker religion, Gibson said.

Another audience member asked Gibson how she was able to remember all the details from her childhood so vividly. Gibson said that through writing and stepping into the persona of herself as a child, the brain unlocked the memories it had stored away.

Gibson ended her visit with a reading of her poem "One Body" by request of the audience. "One Body," also the title of her latest book of poetry published in 2007, is a poem about the inner-self.

"I am a storm of voices," Gibson read from her poem. It was a statement that every member of the audience could agree with at the end of Gibson's reading.

Senior Sam Cutler, a student in Stevens' fiction writing class this semester, said that as a new student of creative writing, it was interesting to see Gibson's interaction of poetry and prose, as it creates a new level of lyricism in her narrative voice.

Gibson is currently Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and lives in Preston, Conn. In addition to "The Prodigal Daughter," Gibson is the author of nine books of poetry. Gibson is a five-time Pulitzer nominee, and winner of the 1983 Lamont Prize, an NEA grant, a LilaWallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes.

Contact reporter Brittany Combs at brittany.combs@richmond.edu

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