Dear Ms. Gregerson,
My Creative Writing 2 class is participating in the Dear Poet Project 2016 on Poets.org. We went through each video of the poets speaking their poems during class, and the first we listened to was “Heliotrope.” I knew after hearing it that I had found the author I was to write this letter to. I immediately went back to read it a couple of more times through, and fell in love with the language and the structure of your poem.
Another thing that I did right away was google search the theatre you were referencing, and seeing the seats dressed in their heliotrope-colored upholstery, I was awestruck. A question for you entered my mind. Did you witness the theatre yourself or did you simply hear about it? What inspired you to choose this theatre to be the central muse of your poem? Because, even based on the images, I know that if I were there in person witnessing the violet colored seats, row after row, I would have surely been inspired to write a poem about them.
I really enjoyed the way that you personified the seats, bringing them to life, and speaking in first person was definitely very interesting. This led me to believe that perhaps you connected with the seats in some way, that you maybe saw yourself in them. I sensed a deeper, underlying meaning while reading through this poem, yet I am still unsure of what exactly it is. I interpreted it as referencing a lost love, or someone who had touched your life.
One line, in particular though, I loved so much I could actually taste it on my tongue: “I / was in his throat, / among the folds and ridges and / beyond them to / the very dome upon whose curve / the heart resides.” The language you use is beautifully constructed and this shows in some of your other poems as well, specifically “The Weavers,” which was rich and eloquently written. I thought overall you did a wonderful job with describing the seats, and giving them a mind of their own. I wanted to write to you to inform you that you are an amazing poet and I really felt connected to this poem.
Thank you for your kind letter and for your thoughtful questions about “Heliotrope.”
And to answer first things first, yes indeed I have been inside the Olivier Theatre in London, and have spent many enthralling hours there. I will confess, however, that I had no idea the lovely color of upholstery on the seats there was known as “heliotrope,” rather than something boring like “lilac” or “pale purple,” until I took a group of students on a tour of the theatre – this was many years ago – and learned as much from the tour guide. What I also learned was that the color was chosen because it was the favorite color of Laurence Olivier, the great 20th century actor for whom the theatre is named. Have you ever seen Laurence Olivier on film? I will never forget the one and only time I actually saw him on stage. He was playing Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and parts of that performance are absolutely seared into my brain.
What the tour guide also told us was that Olivier also loved the word “heliotrope,” and would sing it, shout it, trill it, project it up and down the scales from the stage during his vocal warmups before a performance. So: a beautiful color and a beautiful set of sounds made usable in two different ways. Olivier had been dead for many years when we had our tour of the theatre he helped to build, but these stories made him vivid again, and tied to the place in more than name.
Heliotropes are also a kind of flowering plant, of course, with heads of many blossoms, and it was actually the flower to which I meant the poem to be giving voice. (Do look up “heliotrope” images on your computer or a computer at your school if you haven’t done so already. They’re very beautiful.) Ovid tells a story in The Metamorphoses about a nymph who loved the Sun God Apollo: when he rejected her, she sat on the bare ground weeping for nine days and nights, refusing all food and drink, until her limbs became rooted in the earth and she became a flower that turns its blossoms to face the sun through its trajectory from east to west each day. (Sunflowers, poppies, daisies and marigolds do this as well.) Helios is another name for the sun god, and trope means turn, so heliotrope is named for that phenomenon. And Ovid’s myth-of-origin gives us a lovely, if less-than-scientific, way of understanding that longing-for-the-sun.
My very best to you,
read more dear poet letters 2016