Transplanted NY poet in search of bar to read poems

by Jordan Green

Some poets come from trailer parks. And if they succeed maybe they read their poems in bars, their words carrying over the clink of bottles with cadences connecting to the sorrow, celebration and forgetting of real life.

Rodger LeGrand is such a one. He grew up in the village of Liverpool, outside Syracuse, NY, the son of a factory worker-turned-correctional officer, got his master of fine arts at Sarah Lawrence College outside of New York City, taught writing in Philadelphia, and followed his partner to Greensboro.

His partner, Ani Vosbikian, studies human development and family studies at UNCG. LeGrand had a small book of poems, his first, published in August by a modest publishing house in Kentucky. The book is called Various Ways of Thinking About the Universe. He teaches composition writing at NC State University in Raleigh. When he and Vosbikian first got together, they struck a deal: if one were going to school the other would follow.

Standing on the sidewalk on the woody slope outside the apartment he shares with his partner in a brown, suede jacket, chinos and round glasses he looks more like a modest academic than a product of rough-and-tumble poverty. But the 28-year-old LeGrand’s ear for language and attention to detail came from the trailer park, not the academy. Down the slope and across Battleground Avenue sits a Wal-Mart discount store, the emblem of the urban sprawl. All his life, LeGrand says, he’s lived on the outside of cities.

‘“Trailers are so close you can hear everything,’” LeGrand says. ‘“People’s syntax would change when they would yell. Inflection would change. I remember sitting there listening to these arguments. Hostility can be on the rise, but there’s also an extreme opposite.

‘“Cars breaking down is a big thing,’” he continues. ‘“I can distinctly remember people dropping what they’re doing and driving someone to work. Somebody might set a lawn chair next to your trailer and all hell could break loose. But the same person’s car breaks down and that’s set aside. Not forgotten.’”

The close quarters of the trailer park brought the tensions of the corrections establishment and the criminal world into relief.

‘“My father worked at a factory and then got laid off, so he got a job as a correctional officer,’” he says. ‘“There were some former inmates living in the trailer park. It could get awkward. One of the guys was yelling at my dad because he didn’t cut him any breaks when he was incarcerated ‘— not that he should have. Then the next day he was totally cool.’”

In LeGrand’s ‘“Onion Angel,’” the intimacy and claustrophobia of the trailer park hangs heavily around the lines of the poem about a woman silenced by domestic abuse: ‘“To get/ her fists, delicate bulbs, through the skin, bury them in the esophagus,/ her drunk husband’s esophagus, change his/ breathing for once. What can she do? Talk? Write letters?/ Wrap her fist around a pencil and scratch across a page?/ Words get nowhere. They mean nothing if no one listens./ They fix her in place and she turns to stone,/ a statue with small onion-shaped fists’…’”

Another poem, ‘“Sometimes I Can’t Think of Myself as Being A Person,’” written for his partner, invokes more lovely moments. ‘“Nothing,’” he writes, ‘“not even the smell of rain in your hair/ amazes me more than knowing you exist.’”

‘“I’m definitely interested in what we take for granted,’” he says. ‘“Treating people poorly ‘— that really pisses me off. Forgetting to call someone back. Mortality is a big thing in my poems: thinking about how we live our lives until we die. A lot of the important things happen between the big events.’”

Now LeGrand finds himself in North Carolina, as far south as he has ever lived. Sometimes he has a difficult time understanding what people are saying, and likewise others struggle to comprehend his diction. His ears are pricked though.

‘“The language and accent, the culture here is fascinating,’” he says. ‘“Apparently a car is a whip and a trunk is a boot. Liver mush is a big breakfast item. I don’t know if I’ll ever put that in a poem. The cultural difference is extreme. There’s a lot of blues on the radio at night and that’s great. We used to have a blues festival in Syracuse.’”

LeGrand has just completed his first semester of teaching at NC State after he and his partner arrived in North Carolina in June. When classes are in session the job requires him to drive to Raleigh four times a week. Being new to the job and the area, he put aside reading his poems in public this past year. That’s something he plans to change.

‘“I’m of the strong belief that poems should be read,’” he says. ‘“We should hear them and feel them in our mouths.’”

LeGrand has made preliminary inquiries to bars and art galleries.

‘“I’d be happy to read anywhere,’” he says. ‘“I think it’d be great to read in a pub. Anyplace that would be open to reading poems should have poems. It’s that simple and that complicated.’”

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