Melissa Range

2013 Baron Fellow
Appleton, WI

Research at AAS

I was a Robert and Charlotte Baron Fellow in 2013. At AAS, I began research for my third collection of poems (which I’m still working on!), which is about the abolitionist movement in the United States in the nineteenth century. Many of the poems in my manuscript-in-progress explore the role of print culture in the movement. The working title of the collection is Printer’s Fist, a name I thought of after seeing manicules—also called “printer’s fists,” which are those tiny pointing fingers in the margins of old newspapers, placed to draw a reader’s attention to something in the text—in so many of the newspapers I looked at while I was at AAS. My time at AAS was my entry point into the practice of an archival poetics. As I have continued my research and writing over the past seven years (whether at other physical archives, or, as is more often the case these days, working with digital archives), I continue to be grateful to the AAS for this fellowship and to its wonderful staff for their expertise, wisdom, and support.


Elizabeth Margaret Chandler Passes on Dessert

I have always written about history, but my fellowship at AAS helped me understand myself as an archival poet. One way this has manifested in my current poetry project is the way I’m using archival text in the poems. Sometimes this has a lighter touch, as in “Elizabeth Margaret Chandler Passes on Dessert,” the very first poem I wrote for the manuscript, way back in 2013. Chandler was an abolitionist poet whose work I first encountered at AAS while reading the newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation, edited by Benjamin Lundy. I use rhymes and images from Chandler’s poem “The Sugar-Plums,” as well as ideas about boycotting goods made by enslaved people from her abolitionist prose pieces, “Letters to Isabel,” to imagine the poet at a dinner party during the dessert course. In a way, I am imagining Chandler having the idea for her poem while sitting at the table, refusing to eat dessert. "Elizabeth Margaret Chandler Passes on Dessert" originally appeared on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts.


John B. Russwurm, Editor of Freedom’s Journal, Reverses his Position, New York, February, 1829

As the years of work on this project have continued, I have begun incorporating more actual text from archival sources into the poems. This kind of archival poetics appeals to me more and more as I seek to understand who these abolitionists were and what they believed. For example, in “John B. Russwurm, Editor of Freedom’s Journal, Reverses his Position, New York, February, 1829,” I incorporated the words of Russwurm from multiple issues of Freedom’s Journal, co-edited by Russwurm and Samuel B. Cornish, which is the first known African American newspaper in the United States. (For some context on my slow process: I read issues of Freedom’s Journal for the first time at AAS in 2013 but didn’t write this poem about Russwurm until 2019!) Russwurm is a controversial figure. He began his abolitionist career aligned with the position of most other Black abolitionists in the 1820s and thereafter: they were agitating for immediate emancipation for all enslaved people, as well as equal rights for all people of color. However, in 1829, Russwurm announced his support of colonization, a controversial (and, to most Black and white abolitionists, traitorous) proposal to send free African American people to colonize Liberia. Russwurm became a movement pariah after publishing his pro-colonization editorial. Freedom’s Journal also folded, as Samuel B. Cornish could no longer in good conscience work with Russwurm. In my poem, I explore the racist ideas behind the colonization movement, as well as attempt to understand—through Russwurm’s own words—why Russwurm might be interested in this movement despite its extreme unpopularity. In this poem, italicized phrases are taken from issues of Freedom’s Journal.

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