Process Behind Writing “Old School”

If you haven’t heard me blabbing about it at some point or another, I’m currently working on a Directed Study with Chris Perri. In the CNF workshop I took with him last semester, we had to incorporate some sort of research into our second assignment. As I tried to come up with possible topics, I remembered my mom mentioning something about a village specifically for people with epilepsy when we were driving up to Geneseo, and since my dad has epilepsy—and I had it, growing up—I decided to research that. Since then, it’s spiraled into a year-long research project.

A little backhistory: the Craig Colony for Epileptics (located in Sonyea, which is Exit 6 on 390—like 15 minutes south of Geneseo) opened in 1896 and was the first epileptic colony in the United States. William Pryor Letchworth (of Letchworth State Park) played a huge role in convincing the State Board of Charities to open the colony, with the end goal of removing epileptics (who were at the time considered mentally ill/retarded) from state poorhouses and asylums and giving them a place where (surrounded by other epileptics), they could lead as normal lives as possible. It was basically a self-sustaining little village, with houses and shops and farms—except that patients checked into the colony never really left the colony. As many as 1/3 of the population were children, and more times than not, patients admitted to the colony lived there until they died of old age (or complications from epilepsy/other medical issues). It operated through the late 1980s (but by then was focused more on developmentally disabled adults than epileptics), when the State began to push for community-based group homes over institutions. Now, the buildings from the colony are Groveland Prison.

So far, I’ve interviewed three people about the colony—two nurses who worked/went to school there, and a historian in Leicester who’s been collecting research and data about all colony-related things for the past few decades. I’m hoping to interview a few more nurses (and possibly a former patient or two) by the time this semester’s over. Next semester, I’ll (hopefully) begin drafting the beginning chapters of a book based on all this research.

I just happened to interview June Jones the weekend before my workshop poem for this round was due. June currently lives in Canandaigua, and a few months ago she donated the uniform she was required to wear as a nursing student at the colony to the Livingston County Historical Museum on Center Street. My friend is an intern at the museum, told me about the uniform, and the woman who runs the museum was kind enough to give me June’s phone number so I could reach out to her.

For the most part, the poem that was workshopped today is verbatim transcription from my interview with her—I recorded our conversation on my phone and transcribed it, word for word, onto my laptop. There are a few long pauses between bits of dialogue, and a couple moments when I interjected or asked a question that I decided not to include, but every word in the poem is direct dialogue from June.

Because I’ve been focusing so much on the research aspects of the colony in my directed study—the historical data on how it began and who the patients were and what went on there—I thought it would be cool to focus on a more personal anecdote that came about as a result of the colony’s existence: June’s romantic relationships sprung from her time at the colony, and I was intrigued by that idea. Hence, the poem.

For some reason, it never hit me that I could incorporate my nonfiction research into poetry until we read Copia for class. When Erika was talking about the process behind writing “All that Blue Fire,” I was really intrigued and inspired by how fluid the genre borders are between documentary poetry and new journalism/creative nonfiction, so I decided to do a little experiment. “Old School” is the result.

Wow, this post ended up being really long, I’m sorry. I could go on for ages about all this…if anyone’s interested in documentary poetry-nonfiction crossover/epileptic colonies/eugenics, feel free to track me down sometime. I’d love to talk!

One Reply to “Process Behind Writing “Old School””

  1. I remember your piece very well from nonfiction last semester! It was so great and unique; such a fascinating topic to write about. Thank you for sharing some more about your project though, since I had forgotten some of the details about it.

    Something I was just thinking now, which could be pretty cool (maybe), is if you wrote more of these types of transcription poems and included them in your book? They could be ways to open different chapters, end chapters, or even a section in the middle next to photos. I loved the June Jones poem you wrote, and I think it would make your book very different if you incorporated poetry in it as well! Just an idea 🙂

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