A Visit with Christine Teale Howes

January 25th, 2012 by Catherine Fisher

Last fall Curator Cathleen Miller and I got to thinking that it might be nice to get out and visit with some of the authors whose work makes up the collection, and capture our discussions with them on video to share on the MWWC website featured writers pages. So, in early December we checked out the video equipment from our IT department, had a lesson in how to set it up and make it go and headed to Kennebunk to meet and interview Christine Teale Howes. Howes, now 84, is a poet, former Westbrook College teacher and former columnist for the York Country Coast Star.

Making our way up the walk on that crisp late fall afternoon, we noticed a well-nibbled pumpkin on the grass, obviously a treat kindly set out for the yard’s lucky squirrels and chipmunks. At the door Christine and her husband, Robert Howes, greeted us and invited us into the embrace of a room filled with books and art and made toasty by crackling wood logs in the fireplace. Such hospitality for critters and humans alike…

Once the video camera was expertly arranged we settled in to talk with Howes about her family life, her literary life and her collaborations with visual artists and musicians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born in 1927 in Granby, CT, to a minister come from Wales and his American wife, Christine married Robert M. Howes, a Methodist minister whose call to Kennebunkport’s South Congregational Church brought them to Maine. They had six children and, when Bob retired, they moved from Kennebunkport to Kennebunk.

In our interview Howes recalled launching her writing life at the age of 9 and immersing herself in the study of poetry from that young age. She developed her talents while a creative writing major at Syracuse University, and later attended the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College and took an advanced writing course through Radcliffe College’s continuing education program. “At my first class,” she recalled, “everyone read something, and I have never had a piece of writing so thoroughly torn apart as that one was. It was very therapeutic!”

She taught English composition for a time at University of New England, and has lectured widely, including at Bowdoin and Westbrook colleges. Two of her poems were included in the 1979 SPECTRA I Anthology, published by Westbrook College and The Maine Association of Women in Fine and Performing Arts. In addition to giving many local poetry readings, Howes has also read at the Soiree de Poesie in Quebec and at Mansfield College, Oxford.

Characterized by her adherence to traditional poetic forms, her work is influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Amy Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. She has experimented with various forms, including those of Japanese verse and the 24 official Welsh meters. “Ambage,” a biographical tribute to her late father, is a series of 24 poems composed to fit those old Welsh structures. She is also very inspired by visual art and has collaborated with a number of artists. One example is Archipelago of Light, a beautifully illustrated book collaboration Howes did with painter Catherine Cabaniss of Birmingham, AL. We asked her if she might read a bit from Archipelago for us, which she gladly did, declaring, “I’d read on a street corner if anyone asked me to!” Stay tuned to see this clip once we complete the editing process.

Howes’ collaborative efforts have also extended to musical projects. She was asked for a poem by the Choral Arts Society of Maine, and her piece entitled “AMH” was set to music by the Society as part of the five-movement collection, Changing Perceptions, and performed in March 1995 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. The poem was written for her stillborn son, Arthur McCarey Howes, and by the glow of the fire in the late afternoon light, she read this deeply moving piece for us:


Christine’s husband Bob shared with us his experience of living with a poet, explaining that, “In our bedroom we each have a (gooseneck) reading lamp…and there are nights I’m dimly aware that Christine’s light is on. And I know that, in the morning, she’s going to have poems that she wants to read to me, because she’s been writing through the night. She calls it a “white night.” She’s done that many, many times. I have a feeling that the creative welling-up in her mind – it takes over her life and she just simply has to write. It sort of pours out of her at times like that. It’s also an extremely satisfying experience for her. She’s just so happy – she hasn’t had any sleep all night and she’s been writing poems!” Christine smiles and adds, “It makes me easier to live with.” Bob concludes, “Living with Christine has been a wonderful literary adventure.”

We so enjoyed our time with Christine and Bob, and hope to have the fully-edited video piece up on the website soon. I’m learning iMovie bit by bit, frame by frame, and in the process I’m reliving gratefully this special afternoon of poetry and conversation.

 

Mary Ellen Chase: teacher and author

January 10th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

Mary Ellen Chase in Montana

Recently, a researcher inquired about Mary Ellen Chase’s tenure as a teacher at the Hillside Home School in Hillside, Wisconsin.  It is always a treat to have the opportunity to dig in to a collection that I have only fleeting familiarity with, reading letters and getting a real sense of that author’s thought processes and concerns.  Upon finishing this research, I feel like I have a much better understanding of Chase as a person and a writer.

After her graduation from the University of Maine in 1909, Chase was encouraged by a teacher to head West to find work.  She taught in boarding and public schools in Wisconsin, Chicago and Montana before her entry into a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, where she taught while she studied.  In 1926, she was hired by Smith College, where she remained for the entirety of her professorial career.

In a 1936 interview in the Portland Sunday Telegram, Chase declared,
“My writing of books is a sideline.  It is not my main job or the one I like most to be identified with.  I love to teach, and only occasionally love to write.  But I do write, largely because I want to acquaint others with the background of Maine life, with the splendid character of Maine people, and with the unsurpassed loveliness of Maine fields, shores and sea. . . .  Next to my teaching I love best to roam around the country at home or in England and study flowers.  I have learned a fair amount both in England and in Maine, although I cannot claim to be an authority.  I love to cook and to sew, and I must admit my tastes lie far more in ordinary walks of life than in authorship.  I have read all my life; and my chief worry about the next world (wherever and whatever it is) is that my favorite books may not be among its blessings!”

Her letters from the Hillside Home School discuss another ordinary pleasure of her life–being in the company of young people.  She writes of longing for children of her own, how much she looks forward to settling into the role of wife and mother.

I found Chase’s longing for motherhood particularly interesting since, after her arrival at Smith, she met Eleanor Shipley Duckett, who would be her life-long companion.  I should not have been surprised by Chase’s desire for marriage and children, as even if she had found herself attracted to other women during her youth, there were no role models of happy same-gendered couples.  It seems, though, that Chase settled into a contented life with Duckett, despite the absence of children in their household.  Duckett’s portrait of Chase for the March 1962 issue of the Colby Library Quarterly describes their comfortable routine together at home, and offers great insight into Chase’s character.

Duckett wrote, “For more than thirty years Mary Ellen Chase and I have shared a home on the campus of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.  Together we have crossed the Atlantic more often than we can recall.  Year by year we have walked the Meadows from Cambridge to Grantchester; year by year we have climbed the Mendip hills in Somerset. . . .  And then we have come home again, I and my friend Mary, to teach in Smith, to plan for our students, to write our books, to watch the fortunes of war and peace in our world.

How am I to picture her?  Perhaps to those who talk with her their first experience comes through her amazing vitality.  From the days when as a child she stood swaying upon the white gate before the house in Blue Hill, Maine, looking for whatsoever excitement might chance to come or go along the road outside, “between the sky and the sea,” she has seized every moment that called to her fro action or decision or debate.  It is Mary who may be counted on to keep a dinner party alive with laughter; to speak with courage at a time of horrid crisis; to rise from a sick-bed to write another chapter of her book in a hospital chair; to argue vehemently and in all pleasantness questions of world politics.” (pp. 1-2)

Chase’s complexity comes through in all of the biographies of her included in the collection.  Her sister-in-law, Evelyn Hyman Chase, shared the following perspective on Chase’s life in the Summer 1987 issue of Smith Alumnae Quaterly:

“On subsequent days and in subsequent years class discussions led to Mary’s revealing why she made own choice between the two accepted routes toward life’s gratifications: marriage or career.  She had chosen the path of career; had chosen to remain unmarried.  When the Smith girls asked if she were satisfied with her choice, she said, “I don’t need to get married; instead of my own child, I have my youngest brother Newton to nurture and guide.”  …  “And every time I finish a book,” Mary went on, “it is as if I had had another child.”  She said her novels about life on the Maine coast and its sailing ships were just as satisfactory children to her as Newton.  These books…all described several generations of women–women whose roles were chosen for them by custom, women who triumphed over the forces and challenges of nature but all within a social structure dictated by unchanging Puritan tradition–a structure that Mary did not question.” (pp. 18-19)

While it is unclear what the true nature of the companionship was between Duckett and Chase, the certainty is that Chase’s choice to be a writer and teacher over a mother and wife set her apart from most of her peers.  Evelyn Hyman Chase’s biography of Mary Ellen Chase recounts Chase’s reaction to reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  Chase believed that this book should be required reading for all undergraduates, and she wrote to Friedan to tell her so.  Mary Ellen Chase lived just long enough to see women’s liberation take off (she died in 1973).  I wonder what she would say to the developments that have happened for women over the past 50 years.