Natalie Peeterse was adrift in Washington, D.C., when she first developed an affinity for the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. No matter that the book she identified with was Lorca's Poet in New York. What he described of the Big Apple's streets in the 1930s resonated with her as she walked through Capitol Hill in the early 2000s. She was teaching high school students by day and college composition at night. She had graduated from the University of Montana with an MFA in poetry, and the shift from Missoula's comfortable valley to the city was a shock, especially on the Hill where neighborhoods were so starkly divided between rich and poor, black and white. She saw the gentrification, of which she was a part. In Lorca, she found a poet bearing witness to it all, writing about the reptilian nature of Wall Street and the haves and have nots in vulgar but always beautifully visceral detail.
"I was familiar with his work, but in that time and place, that book rocked me," she says. "I thought, 'Someone else has seen this before.' And the surreal qualities he used to describe it—the spiders and the alligators, the absurdity of it all, I just loved it."
That was just the beginning of Peeterse's journey with Lorca. She was miserable in D.C. but she had her close friend, Nicole, living with her. That comfort collapsed when Nicole left to work for the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan and was murdered by Taliban two months later. Peeterse turned to Lorca's words to pull her from the emotional wreckage. And a few years later, after she moved back to Montana, she also took fresh aim at some of her own poems with which she'd been struggling. The book that came out of that experience was Black Birds : Blue Horse, An Elegy, which is both a collection about loss and an exploration of her time in the nation's capital.
"I had this manuscript of poems about D.C., but they kind of didn't have a heart," she says. "So my first book was really an elegy to Nicole, but it was also about me wandering D.C.where I didn't live anymore but where I had lived with her—just trying to figure out that place. And grief, it's kind of like vertigo, you know? So Lorca helped me through that book."
Two years ago, Peeterse and poet Henrietta Goodman started the Open Country Reading Series, a program showcasing regional writers (and musicians and artists) with curated events throughout the year. The name "Open Country" is a reference to a line in Lorca's poem "Landscape of a Pissing Multitude," from A Poet in New York, where he writes, "We will have to journey through the eyes of idiots, open country where the tame cobras hiss in a daze, landscapes full of graves that yield the freshest apples ..."
This week, Open Country is launching a collection of prose and poetry, Verde Que Te Quiero Verde: Poems After Federico Garcia Lorca. It includes original works by both Peeterse and Goodman, plus several other regional stalwarts—M.L. Smoker, Shann Ray, Sharma Shields, Amy Ratto Parks and Chris Dombrowski, to name a few. There is also an award-winning translation of Lorca's "Deep Songs" included, from Los Angeles poet Ralph Angel. And there's an incredibly jarring piece from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds, written specifically for this collection, which includes toilet and penis imagery in the spirit of Lorca's sometimes crude language.
Verde Que Te Quiero Verde didn't rise from the ashes of Peeterse's D.C. experience. It took yet another encounter with the poet for the book to materialize. Last June, when Peeterse was occupied with other things besides Lorca, including a pregnancy, she came across a Facebook post from Sharma Shields. It was a link to an article in the Guardian about the poet, in which recovered police documents finally proved that Lorca's death in 1936 had been a police hit, a reaction to Lorca's controversial political views and his homosexuality.
"It was something everyone already knew had happened, but it finally confirmed Lorca's assassination," Peeterse says. "I think because of my history with him I felt a bolt of lighting, like I was reading news of a friend. In my pregnant haze I was thinking, 'What does this mean to other people?'"
For the book, Peeterse asked writers to address that question, and the answers—not surprisingly—are complicated and diverse. One piece, by Miles Waggener, demystifies Lorca by detailing how he often failed miserably (in poetry and human interactions). He wasn't a martyr to be romanticized, Waggener insists. He was like any one of us; he didn't want to die.
Goodman's poem, "After So Long," is an intimate piece that reaches to Lorca across space and time, through his own metaphors: "Sometimes the wind sends white petals flying," she writes, "and I am still the girl I was, though he is years gone."
Other writers take political turns, like in Arlene Biala's "Tell Me Again," which quotes a line from Lorca about water and then veers head-on into the travesty of Flint, Michigan's water crisis.
"For this book, I think some of the writers attached to the images they associate with Lorca and some people attached to the idea of his spirit and some people attached to what they thought his work stood for," Peeterse says. "Some are really centered around the idea that the poet is an important observer of the times."
It was only a few weeks after Peeterse started soliciting writers for the book that several African-Americans were massacred at a South Carolina church by a white kid with a gun.
Peeterse's poem, "Guerras Civiles/Civil Wars," is written for both Lorca and Rev. Clementa Pickney, who was killed during the prayer service.
"Let us each look up and find a sanctuary," Peeterse writes, "unlock a cloud and open it: find in it an act of righteous indignation."
Verde Que Te Quiero Verde is a collaboration with other writers but also a conversation with Lorca. It addresses what Lorca might write about if he were walking the streets today, whether it be New York, D.C. or Missoula.
"A lot has been happening," Peeterse says. "Policy brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement. And I was thinking, 'What do we have to say as poets?' Because Lorca took a risk to be who he was, and it was dangerous, but he was his flawed self anyway. So what is it that poets are up to? Trying to win a book prize? Let's redirect from the fly-fishing poems. Let's engage with the world."
Open Country presents writers reading from Verde Que Te Quiero Verde, plus Lorca poems, at the Crystal Sat., March 12, at 7 PM. Free.