For decades I have been quasi-obsessed with palimpsests both on the page and in the great “out there”. Yet, until conferring with Jack West while attending the 2018 AWP conference in Tampa, I had no idea there was an official name for what I had been seeing/feeling all this time. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a palimpsest is: “writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased.” Or “something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.” Examples of palimsests that they use are: “Canada … is a palimpsest, an overlay of classes and generations.” —Margaret Atwood and “too short a time to get to know the palimpsest of Genevan societies, let alone those of Switzerland.” —George Steiner https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/palimpsest
Palimsests exist as parchments scraped clean to write on again that still bear the original writing underneath. Perhaps this original work is only visible through scans and scientific wizardry, but it can also be as simple as crossing out the original texts and writing between the lines. Apparently a good sheet of paper was awfully hard to come by in the way back when. Or maybe it was how the ancients backed up their early drafts of saga and sacred.
They also exist in the landscape and buildings we know. Just read any issue of Archaeology and you will find something built on something else that is standing atop a village from the Bronze Age. Richard the III was buried under a car park for how long? The jungle life over grew ancient cities that are now being found only by landscape anomalies picked up using aerial reconnaissance.
Locally, in Faulkner County, there are footprints, palimpsests, too. The irregular large lot next to the old Smith Ford building (now housing Kings Live Music) used to be the Old Conway Theater, site of many movies and Conway Community Arts productions. (Yours Truly trod the boards as “Lucy” in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and as the Gypsy Woman in Neil Simon’s, “The Good Doctor.”) It was featured in the movie, “9 30 55,” but even that didn’t save it from the wrecking ball. The building was too far gone to save, as pigeons had been roosting in the rafters for years and created a heavy flooring of guano, 9-12 inches deep in the attic. It was a fire hazard and death trap and much beloved by a generation of misfit theatre nerds that found a home. Everything about that building is gone save its peculiar dog-legged footprint and a few ceramic tiles stuck to the brick near what was once the front entrance.
Even in the ghostly there/not there that is the realm of the palimpsest, the Old Conway Theater has its subset of memory hauntings. Segregation. Though I do not know the specific dates that racially divided every aspect of living in Conway, Arkansas, I do know that black movie goers were only allowed in the balcony. (Conway desegregated its schools in the 1965-66 school year. They combined the Pine Street Community Schools and Conway Public Schools starting with the high school and then each school year afterwards desegregating lower grades.) What does this say about us? Should the structure be mourned? No. And. Yes.
We theatre waifs and weirds re-purposed it and made it a place of the creative other. A liminal space with portals and dangers and mothers who trusted us to wander safely. It was a haven, precariously housed under tons of pigeon guano and the poops of many species. It should have been allowed to out grow its segregated past. Should its history be written about? Yes. Absolutely. All of it. The good, bad, ugly and unearthed.