When senior Kristen Gunther peruses the U.S. travel section in a bookstore, she usually notices that one section is conspicuously missing.
"You get down to Philly, and it skips right down to D.C.—there's nothing on Baltimore," she said.
Gunther, a Hydes, Md., native, said that most people know Baltimore as the setting for the popular TV crime shows "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets." However, she aims to bring a new kind of attention to the city through her senior honors project. She is composing a book of poems, written either explicitly or indirectly about Baltimore. The book, which will be about 75 pages long and titled "Mobtown", will include poetry and prose poetry of various styles and lengths.
In addition to wanting to give Baltimore more deserved attention, Gunther said she chose to write about the city because of her family's rich history there. Both her mother and father grew up in the city, and she is the fourth generation of her family to live in the area.
"Pretty much everybody I'm descended from got off the boat in Baltimore," Gunther said.
Gunther began her project working mostly from family stories and personal experiences, which inevitably overlapped with stories of the city itself. She decided to broaden her topic and write about Baltimore through the lenses of its people and history. She said she has had an abundance of material to work from.
To inform both the style and content of her writing, Gunther, an English and Environmental Studies double major, has read works by other authors, such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Wolcott, and conducted research on the history of the city. She also interviewed relatives and a number of other people about their experience and knowledge of Baltimore. Among her interviewees were a man who hosts a weekly radio segment on Baltimore history and a former mayor of the city, Tommy D'Alesandro III.
One of Gunther's poems is about the cathedral in Baltimore where her parents were married and her siblings were baptized. She wrote the poem based on a story that her grandparents told her about why it was built. In 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire swept through the city, destroying huge sections of town. According to the story, one shop owner saw the flames coming toward his store, and he pleaded with God that if his building were saved from the fire, he would build a cathedral in return.
"Everything around was charred and burned, but his store was absolutely fine," Gunther said, adding that she has seen photographic evidence of the store's survival.
So, when the shop owner died, he willed a large sum of money to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, with specific instructions to build a cathedral. By writing the story of this legendary cathedral, Gunther is able to weave her personal and family history into the fabric of the city's history.
"The story of my parents is in the book," she said, explaining that she has invoked many of her relatives as characters in the poems.
Gunther also cited her experience studying in Karatu, Tanzania, last spring as influential in her thinking about Baltimore. "I thought a lot about colonialism," she said.
While colonial Tanzania was very different from colonial Baltimore, Gunther said that the concept of colonialism has informed the way she thinks about the cross-section of different cultures in present-day Baltimore. "There's a similar meshing of different traditions," she said.
This phenomenon of distinct populations residing in the same city is the overarching theme of Gunther's book. "Its really interesting to take those pieces and tell a big story," she added.
Gunther keeps a map of the city hanging on the wall in her dorm room, next to the desk where she does much of her writing when she's not working at the beach or in downtown diners. She uses the map as a visual aid to consider the different experiences and histories of people in various neighborhoods, saying, "It's a place with a million different stories, in some sense you think of it as fractured."
Gunther takes on a variety of voices in her poems, sometimes telling stories from the perspectives of historical figures like Edgar Allen Poe and Johns Hopkins. In other instances, she uses a more familiar voice. "The guy hailing the cab might have an interesting story to tell, too," she said.
Gunther will spend the next few weeks finalizing the book before presenting it to a committee in the English department for evaluation in early May. Gunther does not have concrete post-grad plans at this point, but she doubts she would ever make a living writing poetry.
"You can't really have a career in [poetry]," Gunther said, adding, "Wallace Stevens was a lawyer."
Still, Gunther knows that writing poetry is not something she will give up.
"It's a life pursuit, it's not something you stop doing," she said.
Original poetry by Kristen Gunther '09
Night WatchThe street faced by a plate-front office building
seems almost dead. A body bulked at the intersection -
"Look, the night watch" - a driver's jest at rutted
Baltimore turns true, the homeless man sleeps still as asphalt
rippling with the deafened tramp of old riots,
quick clipping cavalry horses, the screech of streetcars -
hissing echoes of each layer's ossification.
Paca Street lays uneven as always, sentinel streetlights
shadow and shine its heaves and falls, the curves
that impeach such hard corners, a night watch
that denudes the steel-cut sky of all easy meanings,
constellations more like glares on the unlevel avenue.
Cherry Hill (an excerpt)On a summer day
the public park sparkles
with the glint of dropped needles,
but Hanover Street
has my favorite bridge,
the brown Patapsco.
Clear shoals mirror the still July skies,
a boy in the water where the crab traps lie -
the centerboard caught the watery weeds
and tipped the boat's slow tack to capsize. ii.
Shadow breaks across hummocky fields,
darkening tall grass to a churning sea:
do land and sky make their own horizons?
And what gives light its gravity?