I worked with Diane in the Sowell Collection while finishing my PhD in English. My time with the Collection found me processing Susan Brind Morrow’s fascinating, intricate, and often delightful papers. There, in a stack of typed draft work marked up in pencil, I’d find a grocery list. One list in particular, illuminated with small doodles of flowers, struck me then, as now, like a poem. There was bread and milk, of course, but there were rose hips and apple wine vinegar and the phrase “place settings” with a few well-traced questions marks, as if the issue were a pressing one, and she truly didn’t know how many she needed or if they were needed at all.
I organized, I collated, I puzzled over relationships. I took my time and I took it seriously. Here were hundreds of pages of early draft work for Wolves & Honey and The Names of Things; here, hard Sharpie lines through paragraph after paragraph. I was witness to a mind at work, a mind and a heart and a thousand threads of narrative and thought and feeling she had waded through to write her books, to get it a little bit right. It was an honor to pull the document boxes from storage and spread my findings at the desk. It taught me about hesitation and doubt. I considered her revisions, imagining the desk she worked at. Was she distracted by revisions at the party mentioned in a brief note from a National Geographic editor? I wanted to understand how these particular books came together. Who said what and where? Where are the fortunate accidents and where are the struggles? I had the chance to peel back the cover’s cover, and what I found was a vast mind and a thoughtful heart. I found poems translated into English from Arabic with her own thoughts jotted in pen below the steady-handed writing. From my small, cluttered—but very clean–office in the Special Collections Library, I worked for the future and while Texas Tech paid my stipend, I was working too for Susan Brind Morrow, doing the necessary work to help contextualize hers. Someone, I knew, is going to need to read this stuff one day, and it was my job to put it right for them, those future researchers and poets, that scholar down the line just now coming into focus.
I don’t believe I know Susan Brind Morrow better for my work with the Sowell Collection. Rather, I know a writer’s long shuffling walk toward a finished book. And as I ordered, structured, fretted over, despaired for, celebrated, castigated, quit and picked back up the work of my own book, I thought of the Sowell Collection. There’s that mid-20s me in awe of the product I read but equally in love with the process I found—the mess of it, the necessary hope of it.
My time with the Sowell Collection has made me more patient as a writer and a teacher. It’s a messy business, this getting it right on the page. All draft work, I tell my students, matters. It’s leading somewhere, which might be nowhere, but who knows what the circling back might teach us about ourselves, our world, and—perhaps more humble and all the better for it—the graceful sounds of a sentence just so, one small song and the songs beyond that.
Adam Houle lives in Darlington, South Carolina and teaches English and Creative Writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics. He is the author of STRAY (Lithic Press, 2017), and his poems have appeared in AGNI, Shenandoah, Blackbird, and elsewhere.