In a funny place.
The vibes poet Michele Leavitt felt during a one-night stay on Hilton Head Island in November 2016 that compelled her to write.
She and her husband were on their way from Gainesville, Fla., to North Carolina where he, an environmental ecologist, had a job interview — exciting.
But the results of the recent presidential election had left them shell-shocked.
And they were staying at a Hilton property on a resort island that, a month earlier, had been blasted by a hurricane, the effects of which were visible beyond the handlebars of the bike she pedaled through the streets like so many tourists before her and so many since.
Later, she wrote about the place — the time — and a surprising motive led her to submit her work for publication.
Her poem, “Hilton Head, November,” which was published Monday, isn’t likely to show up in a collection of rosy verse about vactionland. It’s ironic in spots. Critical, arguably. Bleak, even. It’s her political commentary on post-election America. And it’s a blunt perspective on how a place became what it is, and who’s responsible for it.
Now we see the rich and their secret
tennis courts, swept clean of wreckage
by busy workers. The players
bat the balls, back and forth, back and forth, Leavitt writes in the sixth stanza toward the end of the poem, the full version of which is available at Tuckmagazine.com.
Tuck Magazine, an online publication, bills itself as a “political, human rights, lit, music and arts journal” with a global reach. Leavitt said she submitted the poem there because its editors have a quick turnaround time — and she’s in a competition to get 100 rejection letters by the end of 2017.
“You’ve got 100 rejections, that means you’ve sent out at least 100 things,” Leavitt said Monday during a phone interview. The goal of the competition, she explained, was for writers to embrace the process of sharing their work, regardless of the outcome.
“Hilton Head, November” could have easily been another rejected submission.
Instead, it lives on Tuck’s website, where it juxtaposes images of leisure with destruction, tells of gated communities exposed by Hurricane Matthew and shows how people accustomed to living behind walls are suddenly thrust into public.
“(W)e could see inside places that we would not have ordinarily been allowed or able to see in,” Leavitt said of the damage she saw on her bike ride.
She and her husband talked about the name “Hilton” and the wealth behind it, and they talked about how the beach had changed over decades of development.
“We, meaning people, change it,” she said. “If it’s critical of Hilton Head, it’s critical in a way that I would be, probably, critical of any kind of built environment. Critical, but realizing I’m a player, I’m a consumer — I benefit from all the building and all the investment.”
It’s a poem about privilege, she said — her “acute” awareness that while she might not be wealthy enough to own property on Hilton Head, she still has the means to vacation there.
And, given her feelings after President Donald Trump’s election, the poem is a call to move on.
“(I)f we stop and spend too much time thinking about mistakes we’ve made or losses that we’ve suffered, we’ll just get swept up in whatever conflagration is next,” she said. “That’s the philosophy, I guess, behind the final stanza.”
Someone has heaped
the splintered wood in latent pyres
despite the wildfire warnings
and the smoke pushing east.
The world has been on fire since its birth,
and whoever stops to grieve will surely burn.
More about the poet
Michele Leavitt has been writing poetry for more than two decades and describes herself as a “writer and a teacher.”
She’s the 2013 winner of the inaugural Michael Macklin Poetry Prize, and 2010 winner of the William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize from The Ohio State University.
Her work has appeared in Guernica and The North American Review, among others, and can be found on her website, www.michelejleavitt.com.
She works at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla.