In my desire to share my stories, I created a body of work that would go out into the world and touch the lives of others, especially women, who would read or hear what I had written, and find their own life experiences echoed in mine. I had become, in my own small way, part of a continuum. It is in this context that I consider myself a woman writer, recognizing that, in terms of the personal sense of gender identity that exists today, the definition of woman is more complex.
Poetry as Autobiography
My journey began with a dream—before I had any idea of what changes would come in my life. I wrote it in my journal in 1974.
Old Women’s Shoes
They covered the feet of the women who
Lived for the giving.
All tied up and
Useful to hold in.
To hold on.
I dreamed one night of a field
Dusted in twilight.
Planted with rows and rows of old women’s shoes.
Turned upside down.
Staked to the ground.
Glistening with frost.
Among the potatoes.
This is the first piece I wrote about the end of my marriage:
There should have been a ritual to mark her passing.
Surely, she died.
The woman who lived inside me all those years.
The one who cheerily called out in the morning:
You’ll be late!
Phoned her husband at work, any time of the day:
Hi, Love, can you pick up a loaf of bread on your way home?
Explained to her friends when she turned down their invitations:
I wouldn’t think of going without him.
I remember how frightened she was
when she walked, for the last time,
out the front door of what once had been
Alone. Out of step
Strangers’ faces swimming past.
Too fast! Make it stop!
I need to rest, only for a little while.
Just yesterday I lived…But no, that was when we…
Excuse me; I seem to have lost my way.
Could you tell me how to get back to…?
There should have been mourners
to pay their respects,
file past her casket and whisper,
“She looks well….
I still awake some mornings at dawn
and remember her.
Did you know her?
Excerpt: “Life in Delaware Water Gap.”
(The first place where my son and I lived on our own, in PA.)
Light another cigarette.
(Hadn’t you quit smoking?)
Try another room on for size.
(Have they all shrunk?)
Rain reminds you as it
beats its iciness
against the living room window.
(Had you forgotten?)
You have got to get a job
and pay the rent
and walk the dog
and feed the kid
and buy some clothes
and shoes-we need new shoes
and laugh some more
and live again.
The first job I got, through a federally funded program, was in a Non-Medical Detox Shelter.
Detox Shelter—Case Notes
Hard drinker, not much left of his health.
That’s cool-‘cause he’s got his freedom.
Been to Africa and New Orleans.
Worked on a shrimp boat and an oil rig.
Seen it all. Can’t remember all of it.
There’s a whole world out there, waiting for you.
It’s not all good – but what’s good is real good.
GEORGE: Record of a phone call:
Help me, please help me. You’ve got to help me.
I’m calling from a phone booth
There’s a bar across the street.
I don’t want to go in there.
Oh God, I’m so scared.
I don’t know what to do.
Come and get me please.
Hello, my name is Johnny! Do ya hate me?
Ya think I’m crazy, don’t ya.
I used to work in a carnival!
Tell ya all about Nadine and Albert the Alligator Boy…
God bless ya, child. I can’t do this anymore.
If I could just have something for the pain in my stomach.
Sitting in the waiting room of the rehab, where I’ve placed her.
Old and worn, mind long gone. Not sure where she is.
Bursts into tears as I leave. Holds on to me sobbing.
I should have gone to college.
I’m REALLY gonna do it this time.
The facility doubled as a shelter for women escaping domestic abuse, and for runaways who needed a safe place to stay. The funding was cut, and with it, staff and services. I wrote this when I got off shift one night.
Information Hot Line
Information Hot Line
May I help you?
I have all the answers
You just ask the questions
No need to thank me
I’m just doing my job
You say your husband beats you?
You want to know how to make him stop?
One moment please
I have to put you on hold
Don’t go away
I’ll be right back
Information Hot Line
May I help you?
I have all the answers
You just ask the questions
No need to thank me
I’m just doing my job
You say you’ve run away from home
You want to know where to go?
One moment please
I have to put you on hold
Don’t go away
I’ll be right back
Information Hot Line…………
And then…I moved the kid and the dog and everything I owned to Central Florida, having answered an ad that said: “Wanted Disc Jockey-No Experience Necessary” (It was a Country Western station).
AM LIVING IN CENTRAL FLORIDA- STOP.
BODY ARRIVED IN SEPTEMBER- STOP.
MIND AND SPIRIT NOT YET ARRIVED- STOP.
EVERYTHING’S NEW- STOP.
EVERYTHING’S OLD- PLEASE STOP.
Keep Those Tables Turnin’ – Keep Those Discs a ’Spinnin’
Keep Those Cards and Letters Comin’ in
How are you today?
Gosh, I love to listen to you
You sound so goooood.
Will you play me a song?
Hello, how are you today?
I’ve been listening to you
You sound so goooood
You really do.
Your voice, it makes me melt.
Will you play my song?
Hey, it’s me again
See…the television isn’t workin’
It needs a new tube
It won’t play at all
And I don’t have the money to fix it
So there’s really not all that much I can do
And the car isn’t workin’ either
So I’m stuck here…I can’t go nowhere
But I guess you can’t do anything about all that
So I was wonderin’ if you could
Play something by the Statler Brothers
You could throw in the Oak Ridge Boys too
Thanks a lot bye!
Hey, Maggie would you play a song for me by Patsy Cline?
I SURE WILL. BY THE WAY, WHERE ARE YOU CALLING FROM?
OH. WELL, WHAT’S THE SONG?
“I Fall to Pieces.” Thanks, Maggie. Bye.
The Old Woman’s Permanent Wave
I meet my neighbors—
the old woman
and her middle-aged daughter—
as we walk back to our apartments
on the narrow, uneven,
red earthen path
unsheltered from the rays of
Central Florida’s sun.
The old woman,
in her best “Up North” dress,
wears all the brooches and rings
that are left
now that her home there is gone.
She caresses the back of her head when she greets me.
Announces she went into town for a perm.
Oh, yes, yes! I can’t see the back,
but they seem to have done a fine job.
“Watch your step here,” I tell her,
As I admire the hairdresser’s work.
Oh, yes, yes! My, my!
I better hold on to your arm. I’m a little woozy.
Haven’t had any lunch since breakfast!
The old woman’s daughter
Struggles with grocery bags.
“MA, YOU ATE, MA!”
“DON’T SAY YOU DIDN’T EAT!”
Oh, yes, yes! My stomach forgot!
We’re walking on the plateau now.
I had my hair done for the wedding I’m not going to.
For when my prince comes.
I didn’t last a full year in Florida. My son wanted to be back with his friends, and I needed the mountains. We moved to Shawnee-on-Delaware, PA, where I stayed, after he went off into his own life years later, and until I moved to NH, in 2004.
First-some unfinished business…
Pears cannot ripen alone,
so we ripened together.
A Play on Words with Apologies to Meredith LeSeur
My engagement ring had a pear-shaped diamond
with two small diamond baguettes on either side.
Some people thought it looked more like a tear drop.
I sold it after the divorce.
The wedding band, too.
For the gold.
White gold, but gold just the same.
Don’t remember how much I got for it,
or for the pear/tear, pair/tear diamond.
Didn’t mattered at the time.
There was no talk of ripening.
In the 1980s, I began to write about my childhood, family/ancestors, and the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern PA, where I was born.
She sits in the tall grass,
Pretends not to smell
The sour smell of water trapped
In bottoms of broken bottles.
Thick, green glass edges
Smoothed by countless summer rains.
She twists a tarnished silver teaspoon
Into the earth still damp and cold
In the afternoon sun.
Lifts up clumps of soil undisturbed
For centuries before her parents breathed her name.
She digs to get dirty.
All over the neighborhood
Sweating women grip
Rough wood handled brushes.
Dip into hot soapy water
In pitted metal buckets
Behind latched kitchen screen doors.
I began writing about family with my father’s sisters.
I run my fingers through my hair
back on one side
then the other.
An unconscious gesture until I remember
how I would watch her
raising her arm
placing her fingers alongside her head
then brushing them through the waves in her hair.
My hands are like hers
not in their deformity
but like hers in family
They called her a cripple
but she was a woman
with the heart and the mind of a child.
She was willful and spoiled
she was quick…she was bright
and could walk if there was someone to take hold of her arm
or if she held on to the edge of the long oak table
as she shuffled her feet to the other side.
Most of the time though
she sat by the window
perched on the faded wine velvet cushion
while she waited for life to come passing by.
Sleep-over With Aunt Ceil in Her Bedroom at Aunt May’s
To reach Aunt Ceil’s bedroom, first I had to
walk past Aunt May’s dining room,
side-board on the left, table on the right.
Then Uncy’s National Geographic Magazines
shelved chronologically behind locked
wood-framed, glass cupboard doors
on both sides of the parlor archway.
Picture portraits of ancestral faces-
their eyes glaring from behind carved
mahogany ovals and squares looming
above the sapphire blue, stuffed velvet sofa-
followed as I entered the chill, dark hallway
that led to the bedrooms.
Aunt May’s on the right.
Aunt Ceil’s at the end.
The bed was soft.
The room was cold.
Aunt Ceil slept, unaware,
as intermittent light from cars
passing below on Oak Street
entered, undeterred, through lowered window shades.
I lay awake
witnessing the spirits of her favorite saints
out of their porcelain bodies
to envelop the Holy Pictures
nailed on her floral, papered walls then
fall back down into darkness
again, and again.
All night long.
The Last Word
After decades of marital devotion
Aunt May doubtless sat, spine straight,
Across from the lawyer, waiting for the
Words in her husband’s will she had
Every right to expect she would hear.
When Disbelief left her alone that night,
Did she lie sleepless in her bed
Wondering what it was she must do
Or did the answer appear unbidden
Rise up like her bread dough
Ready for baking?
When she bent over the coal stove at dawn
Gripping the hem of her apron to
Lift the metal latch on the oven door
Make the Sign of the Cross over the
Bread pans she shoved onto oven racks
Or when she sat in her rocker and waited to
Slit at its center
Each perfectly crusted loaf
With the tip of her sharpest knife
Steamy aroma set free.
The plan might have entered her mind
When she made for herself what
Once was her late husband’s favorite meal.
Twisted the chicken’s neck,
Oblivious to its final squawk.
Feathery carcass still warm in her hands.
Regardless of how her solution arrived
Past regret, she made the decision:
Dig him up.
Get him out of her family plot.
Let him rot in unsanctified ground.
I Come From Coal
My ears resound with the sound of coal
avalanching down the metal chute
into the basement coal bin
falling over one another
loudly piling up and up
as I stood watching
fearing I’d be swallowed by them
never to breathe again
my mouth packed tight
with rounded chunks of darkness.
Saved by the shriek of metal
as the chute withdrew
I sucked in my breath
and plunged into the pile with my shovel
while my father fed the furnace
its mouth gaping
fiery tongues lashing
red hot nuggets crackling
like the fires of hell.
I come from coal.
My bones are filled with marrow, black.
Liquid carbon fills my veins-
the legacy of men whose faces never saw the light of day.
whose lungs were filled with pockets filled with dust.
whose hearts beat out a rhythm
as they dug into the earth’s jet core.
My mouth tastes of the waiting-
the ritual of women who listened for the warning sound
the shattering of the shaft
as they birthed the children, cooked the meals
pretending not to wait.
Spring winds were blowing hot
cracking open doors long shut
stirring up desires buried under winter snow
raising from the dead the longing to know passion
to be free.
And I remembered the smell of burning
remembered watching fragments of paper
edges glowing orangey red
riding waves of heat
into and around the metal trash can fragile
with holes on the bottom
keeper of the burnings.
I’d stand rooted in early teen aged dusky summer evenings
watching the flames
waiting for the fire to die enough
to make it safe
then carry the heaviness
the heat inside me
to the pizza parlor
the new one on Main Street
where I’d sit with my up-the-street girlfriend
and listen to the mournful sounds of Gogi Grant’s
“The Wayward Wind” come blowing through the jukebox
as we talked about the girls who…you know….
but no…of course…we’d never….no.
The late 1980s brought a different perspective-
This Isn’t What I Pictured When I Planned My Grownup Life
I imagined an English Garden
riotous with color
beyond French Doors open to the fragrant breeze
of a glorious day, late in spring.
Savoring the scent of freshly cut grass
I’d sit, resting my eyes for a moment.
(I’m writing my memoirs of the days I spent on stage and screen,
Respected, Admired, Adored.)
Of course, you’re not disturbing me.
Please, do sit down.
You’re just in time for tea.
I’d pour, seated at a diminutive table
dressed with crisp linen,
serene in my elegant tweed skirt and cashmere sweater set-
cardigan draped over my shoulders-
single strand of genuine and Absolutely Unpretentious pearls
resting below my throat, reflected momentarily
in the silver teapot I’d hold with such grace, as I
filled each delicate, hand-painted porcelain cup.
Here I sit after the usual, quick meal I’ve thrown together-
too tired to eat, let alone savor.
The TV’s blaring another re-run.
The grass needs to be cut.
I never got around to planting flowers this year.
All of my teacups are chipped or broken.
I haven’t written a word in days.
You’ve got to be kidding!
Listen, if you want a cup of tea,
the mugs are on the second shelf in the cupboard over the sink,
next to the one that’s next to the window.
My Hairdresser Says Thirty-Nine Is Worse Than Forty
Are you happy with your life?
I asked as the autumn rain beat down on us.
Are you satisfied with the choices that you’ve made?
I demanded, almost
under the glare of stadium lights.
Half-time was over
the game had resumed when I saw him
sitting in the stands
looking the way he did
at high school graduation
twenty years ago.
Hey! Stash! How are you? Long time no-see!
My God, where have the years gone?
My oldest is 18!
Mine is 16!
We shake our heads
add up the years
on those rare occasions when we meet.
The questions, our script
spoken word for word each time:
Do you ever hear from Kathy?
Do you think we’ll have a class reunion this year?
But tonight it was different.
Tonight in the rain, fans cheering the home team
our old questions weren’t enough.
It’s my birthday! I shouted.
He grinned. Happy Birthday!
It’s my birthday, and I need to ask,
Are you happy with your life?
If you answer
then maybe I’ll have the courage to say,
I’m not so sure I’m happy with mine.
Sometimes, he said, maybe sometimes
I think I should have gone to college.
It’s too late now. But yeah, I’m happy.
Got my little girl here to keep me going.
What else is there?
Sure! I’m happy!
Mother’s Day Dinner
Table for two.
Our favorite restaurant.
I wear my new suit.
It doesn’t feel right.
I look out the window
beyond my son
who sits across the table
on an island I can’t reach.
I don’t know how to swim.
To my left a woman, older than I
sits across from her grown-up son.
They eat mostly in silence.
He cuts off a piece of his barely-cooked beef
reaches over candle flame and flowers
places it on his mother’s plate.
She calls out to his island.
The other day
after she’d done all her housework,
at night, before sleep,
her fingers throbbed.
Slowly, she butters a dinner roll.
Perhaps It Was Something I Ate
I am caught by my reflection
In a storefront window
On this bright afternoon
Like the kind remembered from childhood
When somebody tells you a nasty truth
Tearing the gauze from your eyes
Making you grow up too soon.
For your own sake
You grow up too soon.
I fear my mouth will remain like this.
Lips pursed. Corners downcast, weighted by bitterness.
Locked in the grimace shared by the women
Whose hearts have dried up like raspberry jam
On the crease of a white damask tablecloth.
When did I join them?
When can I leave?
It’s Never Too Late
She takes a new lover.
No mere diversion or passing fancy⸺
None of her lovers pass fancy.
They stay on forever like run-down clocks
In need of a twist
Or a turn in the road they call Love.
A new glass to gaze in.
A new void to fall
Arriving one day
Back where she began, asking:
Does anyone have the time?
The 1990s brought challenging and rewarding work. It also brought loss.
The most profound was my mother’s passing, in 1997.
Suddenly to be reconnected to that place and those people
With whom I had always felt I never belonged.
Who whispered in doorways on stair-ways
Hands held against sides of faces, shielding words
Hissed out between lips and teeth,
Someone is suffering is dying
Is divorcing deceiving
daring to dig up her roots
disown her dear family and fly!
Always the list of afflictions misfortunes repeated recounted
Reeling along on the morning breeze up the street across the
Chapel Yard down past the factory the silk mill up The Hill
over church spires echoed in the screech of crows
swirling at dusk upon wilted front lawns where garden hoses
linked to sprinklers satisfy the summer thirst of grass and
soil too parched to make it through another day of scorching before
settling down with the darkness that
stifles the creak of rusting front porch swings,
resting at last in the dim light from the curtained
picture window stillness.
Hands brush away mosquitoes,
mouths water, as the scent of Citronella
merges in the shadows with the long-awaited smell of
and the aroma of steaming fresh from the oven
Excerpt: “Laundry: A Work in Four Parts”
I returned to my mother’s.
To the apartment I once lived in
with my husband and son.
We stayed until he was five.
Every day I did the laundry-
running up and down the steps from the second floor,
even in winter,
to hang the clothes, towels, sheets on the line.
Blessed by the cold air, fresh and clean
Sharp as a knife cutting through clouds to bare the sun that
Never really warmed but
Made me feel good.
I arranged my life around the laundry
looking forward to the time my son and I
would spend outside,
within the boundaries of the back yard.
Away for a while from the feeling of suffocation I’d get
when I looked out the kitchen window, facing the clothesline-
the parameters drawn up
never to be broadened
melted into the rest of the world.
It was a life I lived a long time ago.
My Mother’s Favorite Song Was Dancing in the Dark
I had forgotten how
My mother would dance
In the kitchen of my childhood
To music from the radio, late at night.
Twirl in the narrow space
Between cupboards and fridge on one side
Cupboards and stove on the other.
Double sink at the front beneath windows facing out
To the unpaved road showering dust
Through the screens with each passing car.
In a dream
I’m standing at the sink in the second-floor kitchen
In the apartment where she lived after my father died,
Its window overlooking the backyard/clothesline.
My mother is out there.
She’s alive, vibrant.
Her hair is black.
A beautiful bird, almost black
Flies down to her
With a small bouquet of yellow roses in its beak.
Then the bird opens its wings
Etched with silver and gold
Envelops my mother in its embrace
And they dance.
I’ll end here with two poems that reflect some of what I experienced, during a few of the ensuing years.
I Have Had a Difficult Time Expressing Myself Lately
Single file by the door
Like we waited in first grade,
Miss Saracino’s class.
Time to go home.
First—line-up at the classroom door.
Jutting elbows, unlaced shoes
Twisted trousers, wrinkled dresses
Watching waiting for the signal.
But even after the bell rang
She could still keep us.
The line wasn’t straight enough
Oh, let us out of the room
gloom of an old building
redolent of rotted wood.
Out into the sun!
Potatoes Are Silent, But Stones Have Stories to Tell
The disembodied voice in my dream revealed
while I went about partitioning
a vast, empty landscape-
row after row-
Plain, white string.
The kind gardeners use
to mark off the spaces
before planting seeds.
measuring the distance from
one point to another
before making the final cut.
Was I a gardener?
Imposing order on my garden?
Potatoes here. Stones there.
I might have been a carpenter
marking off the distance between
Silence. My stories.
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to questions to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify as a woman writer?
I didn’t wake up one morning in 1974 and say, “I want to be a writer!” My writing began as letters to absent friends, chronicling the upheaval occurring in my life.
Like many white, middle-class, young women growing up in America, I had followed the script for how to be a good girl and perfect wife, passed down from earlier generations- especially the 1950s. Married straight out of college in the mid-1960s, I played the designated part of help-mate to my husband, the culturally assigned bread-winner of the family, for eleven years, until, at the age of 33, I found myself the divorced, single parent of a pre-teen-aged son, struggling to find a way to build a life I had no idea I would ever have to lead. As for that college education- I was told when I went looking for a job, “Well, that’s all well and good, but can you type?
I never did mail the letters. Instead, I continued writing what became entries in a daily journal, where, aside from reporting on day-to-day happenings, I was attempting to clarify what I was experiencing- the unexpected moments of awareness, and the emotions that seemed out of my control, like the newly surfacing anger that felt overwhelming and baseless. I believed that I was alone in my striving to make sense of what I was going through.
Having been ensconced in the bubble of domesticity, I was only vaguely aware of the second wave of feminism, which though it had started in middle-class America in the late 1960s-early 1970s, was spreading out into the greater world, challenging sexual and social inequities and up-ending the old “rules” for being a woman. “Ordinary housewives,” many of whom had been college educated, were gathering over coffee at kitchen tables. In these “consciousness raising groups,” they were able to articulate the dawning and painful recognition that their lives had little meaning beyond the roles they had assumed as wives and mothers.
Reflecting on the last years of my marriage and asking myself how I could have felt so unhappy, I wrote in my journal: “Look around you. You’ve got it all: the washing machine, the TV set, bright child, handsome husband, faithful German Shepherd…” I can’t begin to convey the shock I felt when I read an observation by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique about how women in their perfect houses, with their perfect husbands and perfect children, with all the up-to-date appliances they could ask for were dead inside, and because of social conditioning were too unable to recognize how desperate they were.
Reading the works of the women poets and writers who were part of that second wave, I discovered I wasn’t alone. How could I be, if every part of my being resonated with what they had written about their own lives, and the lives of countless others.
I read and wrote and before long, I noticed that in each of my spiral-bound notebooks that began to pile up, after a number of pages of recorded daily life, a poem would appear-in its fledgling state at first- but a poem, after all. The time for working on craft would come later.
Without realizing it, I had initiated a life-long writing practice, which I would come to recognize, only could have happened in the absence of a life and marriage built on the cultural/patriarchal constructs that had shaped me.
Over the ensuing years, I wrote not only about my life, but about the experiences I had and the people I met when working at the various jobs I took on in order to pay the bills— in-take staff member at a non-medical detox shelter for drug addicts and alcoholics, night shift operator at a telephone answering service, disc-jockey at a Country and Western radio station in Central Florida, to name a few. I also began to write about the places and people from childhood who shaped my identity and world view- a particular lens, as a result of my having grown up in the Anthracite Coal Region of Northeastern PA. In my desire to share my stories, I created a body of work that would go out into the world and touch the lives of others, especially women, who would read or hear what I had written, and find their own life experiences echoed in mine. I had become, in my own small way, part of a continuum. It is in this context that I consider myself a woman writer, recognizing that, in terms of the personal sense of gender identity that exists today, the definition of woman is more complex.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
During the final days of my marriage, when I was still attempting to “make things work,” holding on to the idea of what my life “should” be, I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry. Poems-Selected and New, 1950-1974, (the first of her many works of poetry and prose I would read over the years), propelled me through the door of change and set me on the path that has led me to where I am today.
The earliest voices that fed me when I was a young woman- before my undergraduate studies- were those of the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets whose words went somewhere deep inside. Their visual images and musicality of language, even though I was reading them in translation, had the power to carry me to a place that felt like “home.” And then, in college, I fell in love with the voice of Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work still gives me chills of recognition. Although I never forgot my love for these poets, I gave them little attention during my marriage. When I started my life outside that structure, I re-read their work, especially my favorite passages, and reconnected with what once had been my passion.
In addition to Lorca and Rich, I have been and continue to be nurtured by the works of Denise Levertov, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, May Sarton, Anna Akhmatova, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendlyn Brooks, H.D. (Hilda Dolittle), Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Daley, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, Nikki Giovanni, Muriel Rukeyser, Meridel LeSeur, Ntozake Shanga, Joy Harjo, Alicia Ostriker, Rilke, Zora Neal Hurston, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Sappho, Lucille Clifton.
(My vague awareness of feminism’s second wave included my not knowing, in 1974, about the rifts, caused by issues of elitism, class, race, and sexual identity, that had begun in the movement between 1970 and 1973. Consequently, I read writers whose work spoke to me, regardless of the differences in our life experiences.)
At the age of 60, I entered the MFA Program for Poetry at New England College, Henniker, NH. I was only able to complete one semester, but I was fortunate to have had Alicia Ostriker as my mentor and guide. With her prompting, I studied Emily Dickinson, and read Judy Grahn and Diane di Prima for the first time. Although I was reading poetry with a critical, scholarly eye, I was still able to relate to it as something that had the power to move me out of my comfort zone, as well as provide the mental, emotional, and spiritual connection I needed.
In preparing to answer the questions this forum has asked, I re-read newspaper clippings of my interviews over the course of my writing life, beginning in the 1980s. The interviewers invariably asked whose poetry influenced me the most, and what inspired me to write my own work. My answers always included the importance of the Eastern poets, Lorca, and Adrienne Rich to my process, and how hearing or reading the words of a contemporary poet, especially someone whose work was new to me, could inspire me to write. But never once did I say I could not connect, in any meaningful way, with the new poetry I was reading or hearing.
It was only in recent years that I noticed something about my engagement with poetry had changed, irrespective of what might have been happening with my personal process. For a time, I no longer felt the heart/mind/body response I associated with the art.
I was helped to that realization when I came across Emily Dickinson’s letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, describing her definition of poetry: If I read a book [and]it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
In conversations with fellow poets and writers, no matter their gender, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my perception that poets and their work were being marketed, resulting in a sense of poetry as a commodity, devoid of the very qualities that we had come to rely on it providing. However, in the past year or so, thanks to some on-line poetry sites and Zoom offerings, I have seen a return to the works of the very poets who inspired me, along with the emergence of young poets who, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender identification, or academic standing, are telling their truths with language that goes beyond artifice, honoring their life experiences as they create connections that speak to the human spirit.
I am delighted to say that as the result of a personal connection with a young poet from China, I have come full circle, geographically and aesthetically, in my love for poetry and the belief in its ability to enter and transform one’s being. I met Cai Ying Ming, (her poetry name is Sian), when she was one of the presenters at Poetry Bridging Continents, an international symposium held at New England College in Henniker, in 2019. She was twenty years old at the time. I was 74.
Over the course of the conference, Ming, and I established a relationship that went beyond poets/friends. I became, in her words, her “Granny,” and she became my literary granddaughter- a relationship we have maintained, via email, ever since. Reading Ming’s work, especially the poems she submitted to Off the Margins, I had no choice but to remember what it was like to feel poetry.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
I first felt the power of poetry when I stood at the black board, in first grade. It was 1949. I was five years old. I had been selected to memorize a poem, recite it, and “write” it on the board with red and green chalk, as part of the Christmas presentation for Parents’ Night. Wearing my starched white dress with red and green trim, I spoke with poise, clarity, and purpose, sensing the palpable connection with my audience. That feeling stayed with me into young adulthood, propelling me to major in Speech Arts, with a concentration in Oral Interpretation, when I went to college. Aside from critically analyzing the work of poets and writers, we were required to stage formal readings in front of audiences. I was in my element.
When I began writing my own work, once I moved beyond the initial journal entries, I read it to a few trusted listeners who encouraged me to share it in public. My first reading, during a “Brown Bag Lunch” at the local university’s Women’s Center, was the starting point for years of reading in poetry series throughout my home state and beyond. By then, I had attended workshops with well-known poets and learned from mentors who encouraged me to continually grow in my craft.
In addition to presentations of my work in traditional readings or as a visiting poet in schools, I collaborated with classical and jazz musicians, dancers, and visual artists, resulting in award winning, multi-media performances for the stage, as well as programs for nursing home residents, and special needs populations. I even ran my own poetry and performance series for over eight years. Long before the term “Spoken Word Poetry” became fashionable, I knew the importance of connecting on a visceral level with my audience. Of course, it doesn’t mean that when I was published, I wasn’t excited to see my words in print!
It became evident that my voice, the poetry I read- whether my own or of poets whose work inspired me- had the ability to soothe and heal, as well as create a context for creativity and emotional growth. We don’t think twice, today, about how poetry, music, movement, and visual art contribute to our well-being; but, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, not much credence was given to the healing power of the arts, especially in medical and academic circles. Since I wasn’t affiliated with any institution, I had the freedom to follow my own path, and in so doing, I became known for not only my writing, but my workshops and teaching. So now I was a poet/writer/performer/educator who offered poetry as a healing art for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Before I knew it, I was being invited to conduct writing workshops, in addition to those I was offering on my own-especially at my kitchen table- where invariably, some of the participants uncovered places of hurt, grief, suffering, unfelt perhaps for years. The more they wrote the truth of their lives, the more they opened up to the possibility of healing.
In time, the very institutions that had questioned the validity of what I was offering became the biggest supporters of my work. A notable example is my tenure as poet-in-residence at a VA hospital from 1994 to 2004, when I moved from my home state of PA to NH. I did this work for over twenty-five years before the move, and continued for a year afterwards, with hospitalized cancer patients.
Some of the most profound periods during my writing process, however, have been the times of silence. Identifying as a poet, a writer, an artist, a healer did not preclude me from my own suffering, especially during an illness that prevented me from making sense of words. What, for decades, had filled me with excitement, even joy, left me cold. Poetry had no power to grace me with solace. I was being called to take my turn in a journey that, once again, would require I relinquish what I had come to rely on for comfort, as well as the labels that defined who I was in the world. My illness, which began in 2005, was the catalyst for letting go of the old structures of my life, my work, my identity.
Sinking into those dark, silent places, I encountered the fear, anger, grief I had not allowed myself to truly feel while I was busy facilitating the work of others, with less and less time or energy for my own writing. But if I’m truthful about my writing process, I have to admit that one of the ways I didn’t allow myself to experience, for example, the depth of the grief of loss, especially after my mother’s death in 1997, was that I felt the need to be “poetic,” to write about what I was feeling as a way to not actually feel. Some of the poems I wrote during that time were published, but the interior work that needed to be done would only come when I entered the darkness.
In my search for something that would sustain and guide me, aware that it would have to come from a source beyond my limited, human cognition, I turned to the teachings of the Mystics, from the East and the West; the lives and works of the Saints, especially Hildegarde of Bingen and St. Brigit, the Patron Saint of poets; and the lives and myths of the Goddesses, like Helen and Inanna, who were presenting themselves in my dreams. And I began to truly connect with Nature—paying attention to the wind in the trees, the sounds of the river, the birds, cloud formations, rocks and stones that arrived on my path. All with something to teach me about the Sacred.
I also went back to the poets and writers whose poems, essays, revelations had ignited the desire to speak the truth of my life. In this re-engagement, I saw more clearly, and in some cases for the first time, how many of them had used mystic and mythic sources, dreams, encounters with Natural and Supernatural Forces, the Sacred, in their writing. Their words, spanning decades, reflected back to me the profound inner work they had done grappling with suffering, redemption, and the possibility for resurrection. Comforted by the knowledge that others had gone before me and left behind, if not a road map, at least a record of their journeys, I was able to honor my own experience.
I feel that the life I once lived, the words I once wrote have served and continue to serve a purpose. But as is the case with any work, in life or art, it must be renewed.
I am drawn to this passage from The Art of Writing: Teachings from the Chinese Masters:
Perhaps thoughts and words blend into a lucid beauty, a lush growth; they flame like a bright brocade, poignant as a string orchestra. But if you fail to make it new you can only repeat the past.
I am still finding my way in my gradual reengagement with the world and my work-with writing new.
Some Closing Thoughts:
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Maura MacNeil for inviting me to contribute to Off the Margins. I am honored to share this space with the women who have written and will write here. Working on this project meant reconnecting not only with the poems, essays, or performance pieces I have written, or the things I accomplished over the years, but to the person I was at my core. It has allowed me to reflect and acknowledge the times I listened and allowed myself to be guided to the next step, and acted upon that guidance, even when it was uncomfortable, at best, and frightening, at most-going against everything my mind told me was logical or possible. But nothing I have accomplished has been without the support of family, friends, the community of poets and artists who have enriched my life.
The poems that I have chosen to share with you are reflective of the narratives I wrote about my life experiences, and speak to my perception of the world through a particular lens. I didn’t realize, until I went back and re-read my response about standing at the blackboard to give my first poetry presentation in kindergarten, in 1949, that it was the year one of the most important books of the second wave of feminism had been published- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I also hadn’t been aware that H.D.’s Trilogy, about World War II, for which I felt a profound connection when I read it at the age of 60, had been written in 1944, the year I was born. I recognized that my life, my awareness, my writing had occurred in an historical as well as literary context, and although that isn’t a great revelation, it had meaning for me, beyond, “Oh, how interesting.”
Which is why I feel I can’t ignore the historical context that is occurring presently.
During the time I have been writing my reflections about my life and work in these pages, we have entered the third year of a pandemic that has affected the lives of everyone on the planet.
Most notable, however, is the fact that when I ended my submission with the words:
I am still finding my way in my gradual engagement with the world and my work-with writing new, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine. In a matter of days, once again, the world is facing the devastation of war. And once again, I return to the past- to the words of a woman writer for inspiration I might use now.
Perhaps women like me of another generation are a bridge. Pass over us, use the energy of the root in our witness and our singing.
So we will never be gone.
You have more tools now. The fog is lifting over the illusions. You have begun to tell it.
You will bear witness. Be Bold. Tell it all. Don’t spare the horses.
The earth is waiting to hear you. All the children and all the ancients are waiting.
We shall come home together.
I have always believed that poetry must be accessible- not something for an elite few, and have spent my life making it so- breaking down barriers, even in the arts, while still upholding the standards of excellence that I embrace. I was known as “The Poetry Lady,” in many of the places where I worked to share my love for it. I knew that when someone called me by that name, it meant they had overcome their fear or discomfort, or their long-held belief that poetry was something for people who were rich, or went to college, or were better than they. I knew that poetry had made a difference in their lives.
Maggie Martin has been a poet, writer, performer, and educator, for almost forty years. Her work has appeared in anthologies, print journals and magazines, and on-line literary journals. She was the recipient of several Arts Council grants and fellowships, both for solo and collaborative performances, in her native state of PA, before moving to New England in 2004. She lives in Henniker, NH, where she has had the opportunity to become part of a rich, literary community.
Publications/Performances, (Informal Citation for “Poetry as Autobiography.”)
“Information Hot Line:” Virginia Country Magazine, April 1985.
“My Hairdresser Says Thirty-Nine Is Worse Than Forty:” Virginia Country Magazine,
Volume XIIL, Number 2, 1990.
“Ceclia:” The Writer in All of US, June Gould, Ph. D., E. P. Dutton Press, 1989.
“I Come from Coal:” Coalseam: Poems from the Anthracite Region, Ed. Karen Blomain,
University of Scranton Press, 1993. Also, from the chapbook, Old Stories, Niobe Press, 2004.
“Called Home:” Via, Perdue University Press, 1997.
“Old Women’s Shoes:” Via, Perdue University Press, 1997. Palpable Clock, University of Scranton Press, 2003.
“Dirt,” “Sleep-Over with Aunt Ceil…,” “The Last Word,” “My Mother’s Favorite Song…:”
From the chapbook, Old Stories, Niobe Press, 2004.
“Keep Those Tables Turnin’…”: Title for, and part of an essay in the anthology about radio titled Air. Hippocampus Magazine and Books, 2019.
Excerpt: “Laundry: A Work in Four Parts,” from: Women’s Work in Five Movements-
A multi-media performance with four other women artists. Recipient of PA Council on the Arts Performance Grant, 1990.
“This Isn’t What I Pictured…”: Excerpt from: Who Was Sarah Bernhardt and What on Earth
Does She Have to Do with Me? Original creation performed on stage: Hofstra University, New York, 1994.Solo stage performance: East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, PA. 1995.
On Air: WVIA Public Radion, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA. 1996.
“It’s Never Too Late,” Originally titled, “Modern Romance,” Chosen for display in New Hampshire Writers Project: Poetry in Windows, 2012.
Photograph Credit: Marky Kauffmann