Hayden's Ferry Review


Contributor Spotlight: Alexandra Teague

I started writing “The Journalists Set the Record Straight on Sarah Winchester” literally in the midst of researching at the History San Jose archives last summer. After three years of working on a manuscript revolving around Sarah Winchester—writing mostly from secondary sources—I had gotten a University of Idaho seed grant to spend two weeks doing archival research. Finally, I was able to read Sarah Winchester’s own letters to her lawyer and others; to hold the tiny book in which she recorded the list of Christmas gifts she planned to get her staff and relatives; and to look at original copies of pictures of her niece and the house’s grounds at the turn of the century. Amid these wonderful sources, I also encountered a trove of newspaper clippings—spanning from the 1880s (when Sarah first arrived in California) through the 1910s and ‘20s (she died in 1922).

I knew that rumors had been printed during her life that she was communicating with spirits in her large strange house, and was following their directions about building (the same rumors perpetuated by the Winchester Mystery House owners today). But I hadn’t realized how utterly conflicting the accounts of her life were, or how often the same inaccurate “fact” got picked up from article to article over the decades and repeated as truth. And of course as I started seeing these contradictions and outright mistakes, I became both frustrated and intrigued by the way in which the legends about her had built up in as piecemeal of a way as her famous house. The legend says that she was crazy or eccentric (claims I was already very doubtful of after my years of research), but here was page after page of ostensibly credible journalists making contradictory claims.

So—to respond to both my sense of irony and frustration—I started a prose poem that abutted these claims with one another. With a box of clippings in front of my laptop as I typed, I didn’t know where I was going—or if I would really end up anywhere. Very fortunately, the title, which I had uncharacteristically come up with as I started writing, led me to the final line, which felt like the right ending. I spent quite a bit of time playing with rhythm and spacing in the lines, but the basic form and content are still what I wrote that morning at the table in the San Jose Archives—sort of pretending to myself and the wonderful archive curators that I was just typing up notes.

Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography (Persea 2010), winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and 2010 California Book Award, and The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea 2015). Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review and elsewhere. She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided Press. More at www.alexandrateague.com.