Seaver graduate Alex Ashford pays tribute to family and memories with her award-winning poetry collection, Danke Schoen.
Autumn sun has baked September into the apple trees, and they shine like vermilion clouds afloat on kerosene. The weight
of the earth starts here, on a narrow slice of wind between us and the hearth. If we are searching for a burial place then why not this cloud?
Entombment means many things: cocooned silence before rain, festooned blue sky cornered by the space that warns against catastrophe.
The apples look blue beneath this moonlight, cool caress pulling shadows across the tendrils of our willow tree.
The sky is sliced in half by a star that will not burn out. The other half is black, the darkness that comes
when light hides itself from the world, leaving ghosts of the world before, afterglow of the dead.
Every April in rural Mississippi, as the winter rain clears and the mid-spring sun shines in through the windows, Alex Ashford ('10) and her female relatives act out a longstanding family tradition of putting up peach preserves.
Born from this experience is the title poem of her first cohesive collection, Danke Schoen, inspired by the contrast she noticed between the strong family tradition and the music they enjoyed while doing so. Listening to Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen," which translates from German as "thank you very much" or "thanks pretty," Ashford thought, "What are we saying 'thank you' for?"
"As we sang we were, unknowingly, moving farther away from our mothers, from the ancestry and tradition we thought we were preserving," she explains. "The collection is an admittance of our shortcomings concerning the preservation of what our mothers taught us. I'm re-remembering the women I have never known, that are—at every moment—boiling in my blood."
Shortly before graduating from Seaver College in May, the creative writing major was named the winner of the Prize Americana for Poetry 2010 for Danke Schoen. Like the title poem, the collection deals with themes of identity—of gender, race, talent, family—and remembrance. The legacy of her ancestors' struggles pervades Ashford's work, as well as the complexity of hope that is found in simply putting one foot in front of the other, like Job in the Bible, who "kept walking when he should've lost his cotton-pickin' mind" ("Danke Schoen," Danke Schoen).
"The collection as a whole is nostalgic and reminiscent; I'm remembering the things I've lost in an effort to always keep them with me," describes Ashford, who recently learned that her work will be published as a book ("I was definitely in shock for a couple of days," she says of the achievement).
The news of the book culminates a winning year for Ashford. In 2009-2010 she was the editor of Pepperdine's literary magazine, Expressionists; she was published in the literary online magazine Rose; she won a Lilly Graduate Fellowship providing mentoring and funding for graduate school, and the Jack Kent Cooke Continuing Graduate Scholar award; and she spent a month in London studying theatre and writing magazine articles for Youthwork. However far she goes in this life, however, her poetry helps her to always remember from where she came, and the women in her family who helped shape her identity and her writing.
"My poetry is about loss, being a woman, being Southern, being black, being confused, and being allowed to be all these things. I'm probably the definition of a 'tortured artist' if there ever was one!" Ashford exclaims. "Everything seems to devastate me. Fortunately, I'm able to express that in my writing. I want my writing to leave people with a sense of hope; I want people to know restoration is always possible."