“I want to write something that matters”: Eleanor Morse visits with White Dog Fell from the Sky

February 27th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher


In stark contrast to what meets our eyes as we look out our Maine windows these days, the landscape that Eleanor Morse lays out in White Dog Fell from the Sky is one where the water of the ocean is a figment only to be imagined, where “the heat, the dust, the gray-green foliage, the skinny cows, the goats…,” combine to form a backdrop that is, as she says, itself a character in this story of Africa during Apartheid.

Morse made a generous visit to the MWWC last week to discuss her book, and she began by reading from its first chapter. Isaac, a South African medical student, arrives in Botswana near death and is dumped in a dusty heap on the side of the road, having been smuggled across the border in a hearse to escape the wrath of the white South African Defense Force. He awakens to blue sky and the face of White Dog, who assigns herself as his companion for the journey that follows.

After reading from the book, Morse gave some background on the setting. White Dog Fell from the Sky takes place in Botswana in the mid-1970s, about the time that she herself lived there. Botswana was then still a young country, having gained independence from Britain just six years before, in 1970. It was a fortunate country, on a firm financial footing with an educated, enlightened first president — a good place to be in those days. Radically different, however, was the neighboring Republic of South Africa, which at that time was consumed with Apartheid. Refugees were coming into Botswana from South Africa, and though not modeled on anyone in particular, Isaac is one such seeker of safety.

Morse started the discussion with a question possibly on many minds: “How did I get to Botswana?” “Probably the way many people get to places they don’t expect to: love. I met a man from Botswana while I was going to college at Swarthmore and he was in graduate school at Bowdoin.” When they eventually married, Morse moved to Botswana and both she and her husband took on hectic jobs in national offices, working on issues of health, education and literacy. “We were both fortunate to be engaged in work that mattered,” Morse reflected.

The couple returned to the United States in 1975 with their young son, had another child and eventually parted ways. It took Morse these nearly-four decades to write this book, publishing two others in the interim. “Something in me knew that I needed more experience, that I needed a wider vocabulary of emotional range to write the story. I didn’t know what the story was when I started the book but I knew that it was going to require something of me.”

“What was that?” a member of the group probed.

“It required a good deal of courage, for one thing,” explained Morse. “It wasn’t an easy book to write because of what ended up happening to Isaac. Through a series of mishaps, Isaac ends up being sent back over the border to a prison in South Africa. Those are harrowing scenes and they were harrowing to write. I felt as though I needed every bit of courage I had in me to go there.”

Another issue gave Morse pause when approaching the project. “There was a question when I started writing this book as to whether I had the right to tell the story of a black person as a well-educated white woman…Isaac was a well-educated South African man but he’d grown up in a very different culture and in very different circumstances. There was quite a bit of soul searching before I plunged in…but Isaac’s voice kept coming to me.” Morse asked a writing buddy about her dilemma and her friend said, “That’s what writers do. They cross barriers and make worlds come alive that people don’t know or understand.”

Morse shared that during the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, she experienced the abrupt end of a relationship that she had expected would last the rest of her life. The pain of that loss made it “a darker book than it might have been otherwise, but also a deeper book and a better book.”

“How long did it take you to write it?” one guest wanted to know.

“It took three and a half years to write the book and then another year for copy editing, final edits, and deciding on the cover image,” which was quite an engaging process in itself.

Another group member wondered how might the story have changed in the editing process, and Morse described trimming about 14,000 words from the book. “Quite a bit of that was backstory and some broke my heart to let go of…One thing I felt really strongly about was that Botswana and the landscape really be like a character.” Morse was glad that her editor at Penguin was open-minded and honored the frequent reestablishment of setting to keep that character present. And because the editor herself was born in one country and grew up in another, she understood the recurring theme of passing through boundaries that is key to the book.

“I didn’t want the book to be overly political, even though it has to do with the politics of southern Africa at that time. I wanted to be faithful to that but I didn’t want the characters to be existing just to tell a political story.”

Morse said, “The hardest part in writing the book for me is the very beginning, because I don’t have a story that I impose on the characters. For me, a book starts with the characters, sometimes with their voices. It’s a period of puzzling things out, asking, who are they? When I sit down to write, I don’t have a firm idea of what I’m creating. I want to be true to what’s emerging. There’s a lot of listening that goes on, open-hearted listening…I didn’t know that a lot of the things that happened in this book were going to happen. I was sorry that some of them did, but that is part of the process.”

Much of the process has to do with being curious, she says. “When I’m teaching I sometimes talk about following the heat or the energy of something…I want to write something that matters. When I think back in my life, I think I’ve always wanted to get under the surface of things… If I knew what was going to happen in a story, I would never write it.”

Morse pointed out that the main characters in all of her three books have a certain marginality about them. “I am much more interested in marginal characters than in mainstream characters, partly because they are just more interesting.” She describes her childhood self as a figure on the margins, having been the new girl in a number of schools as her family moved with her father’s work as an engineer for GE.

Anne Zill asked Morse if she had a favorite of her three books, and if she saw anything in the first two that might relate to this one.

“I like them all for different reasons,” Morse says. “This is the biggest book and I think for that reason, if I had a favorite, it would be this one, because I feel as though I really stretched my legs in this book and opened my heart in a way. I did so in all three books, but I might have had more to work here with because of life experience. It all enters in.”

Learn more about Eleanor Morse and her books at eleanormorse.com.

Martha White visits with E. B. White on Dogs

December 20th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher


“It always surprises me how many people come out for E. B. White’s granddaughter,” Martha White commented to the book discussion group gathered here on December 10. The author and editor came to read from and discuss E. B. White on Dogs, her recent compilation of the best and funniest of his essays, poems, letters, and sketches, depicting over a dozen of White’s various canine companions. In addition to this most recent book, Martha White has edited two previous volumes of her grandfather’s work, and has over 30 years of publication credits in creative fiction, non-fiction, syndicated columns, book reviews, OpEd columns, and essays. She is a longtime contributing editor to Yankee Publishing and The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

White began by giving us some background on her relationship with the famed author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and The Elements of Style. By the time she was born in 1955, Elwyn Brooks White, his wife Katharine (Angell) White and their son Joel (Martha’s father) had been full-time residents of North Brooklin, Maine, for 18 years. Prior to that they had divided their time between Maine and New York, E. B. White’s attachment to the state having been formed during his boyhood summers in the Belgrade Lakes area in the 1930s.  Young Martha and her two brothers spent many happy times at their grandparents’ place, riding their bikes over for a day of chores, followed by a big family dinner. She was 30 when her grandfather died in 1985, and E. B. White on Dogs contains a number of his letters to her.

The first selection Martha White read was called “Dog Training,” a 1940 piece from E. B. White’s “One Man’s Meat” column in Harper’s Magazine. “I like to read books on dog training,” it says. “Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.” White explained that her grandfather didn’t only own dachshunds, but also a collie (his first dog), terriers, beagles and mutts. “They weren’t called ‘rescue dogs’ then,” she said. “Rescue dogs were the St. Bernards who carried the whiskey barrels down the street!” She added, “He would laugh today at our dog costumes, dog boutiques and the commercialism around it all. His dogs always had a place in the barn, unlike the house pets of today. I would love to have known what the dog show people thought about his spoofs.”

To illustrate, White read “Dog Show: A New Showmanship,” a short “Talk of the Town” installment in The New Yorker that everyone found very funny. The essay’s radical revamp of the traditional dog show would have each dog “be made to work for his ribbon, each breed in his own wise. Pointers should have to point, Shepherds should be required to herd a band a sheep…English bull terriers should be made to count up to ten…Scotties chew up old shoes…while St. Bernards carry brandy to anyone in the audience who feels weak, preferably us. Beagles would jolly well have to beagle, or shut up. How about it, dogs–are you dogs, or mice?” Hilarious idea, and with its own logical appeal. “Dog Show Obedience Contest” got an even bigger laugh, with White confessing her favorite line is the last one: “The Dog Show is the only place I know of where you can watch a lady go down on her knees in public to show off the good points of a dog, thus obliterating her own.”

In addition to columns and letters, E. B. White on Dogs contains poems as well. White read “Dog Around the Block” (Dog around the block, sniff, / Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating, / Sniffing, always, starting forward, / Backward, dragging, sniffing backward, /…) about a Scottie that had been given to E. B. White by James Thurber, fellow New Yorker writer and cartoonist. “If he had had his druthers, (my grandfather) would have been a poet,” she said.

Most of the questions asked of Martha White during our gathering focused on her own writing path, rather than on her grandfather. “When did you start writing?” one group member wanted to know. White explained that while she was growing up, Brooklin High School was closed down and the town’s students were sent across the bridge to Deer Isle. Instead, she left for boarding school in Massachusetts, and there “it became apparent that all I wanted to do was read.” At Mount Holyoke College she became an English major, with John Irving as one of her teachers. “What did Irving think of the fact that you were E. B. White’s granddaughter?” a guest asked. “He didn’t bat an eye,” White said. “But he did include a quote from Stuart Little in the front of one of his books, I noticed.”

White realized only once she went away to school what a prominent writer her grandfather was. “(He) was no big deal in Brooklin, Maine. And when I’m asked the question, ‘What was your grandfather like?’ I want to respond, ‘Well, what was your grandfather like?’ To me, he was like everyone’s grandfather, which was a wonderful thing.”

“Did you share your writing with him?” one person wanted to know. “Yes, some of my early embarrassments,” she answered with a smile. And she described receiving a rich literary background from her very attentive, learned grandmother who had a vast library and piled high the books for her granddaughter to read. White has “tried fiction,” she said, but ninety percent of her income comes from her non-fiction articles and editing.

When E. B. White died in 1985 (his wife Katharine White was deceased in 1977,) their son Joel White became his father’s literary executor. But when he died two years later, Martha White took over for her father. (Both her boatbuilding brothers were off on the water.) “It’s a big job,” White says, “and the first thing I did was to reread his entire body of work.” The original 1976 version of The Letters of E. B. White had just gone out of print, and White set about organizing the revised edition to include the last ten years of additional letters, published by HarperCollins in 2006. She then began to cull from all of his published works a selection of quotations for In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers.” Produced for Cornell University Press, it was published in 2011.

It was in the process of compiling those quotations that White noticed the dog section of the manuscript was quite substantial, enough for a volume of its own. It took Tilbury House Publishers of Gardiner no time to decide to publish E. B. White on Dogs when White proposed it. She reflects on her experience working with the material, saying that in the process she began to realize there were many questions she wished she had asked her grandfather. Dogs were such huge characters on the author’s farm, so why did they not appear prominently in his children’s books? “Perhaps he was concerned their big personalities would overpower the story,” she speculates.

“Did your rereading of E. B. White’s work influence your own writing?” was another good question posed. “After a year-and-a-half of doing the dog and pony show for this book, it does take me some time to get back to writing in my own voice.”

Learn more about Martha White at www.marthawhite.net.

Cathie Pelletier visits with The One-Way Bridge

October 29th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher

On a day that mirrored so perfectly the vibrant fall foliage on the cover of Cathie Pelletier’s new novel, The One-Way Bridge, the author made the journey from her home in Allagash to the Collection for a spirited reading and book discussion. Pelletier has recently moved back to her home town and lives with her 94 year-old father in the house in which she was born, with many other members of the Pelletier clan nearby.

From the remove of living for years in Tennessee and then Canada, Pelletier has written five novels set in the fictional Maine town of Mattagash, inspired by Allagash. Some loyal readers may notice that a few of the characters from previous Mattagash novels make cameo appearances in The One-Way Bridge.

Before reading from the book, Pelletier shared a bit of background on both her town and the process of bringing to life the characters it has inspired. There are three one-way bridges in Allagash, we learned: one that crosses the Allagash River, where her grandfather ran the ferry; another stretching over the St. John River; and a third, tiny, one-way bridge across the Little Black River. “I had never put a bridge in my fiction, ever, let alone a one-way bridge,” she said. “A bridge is a metaphor, anyway – a kind of trite metaphor – but a one-way bridge? That means there’s only one way to go, one way to think, one way to live. And if you go against the current, against the bridge, well, then you have a novel.”

It was back in 1991 that Pelletier first conceived of the novel’s main characters, Orville Craft, a local mailman, and Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam Veteran and a thorn in Orville’s side. Late one night in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was then living, Pelletier saw a news clip on CNN about a one-way bridge being swept away “like tinsel in an ice jam.” And it wasn’t just any bridge over any river, but the bridge over the St. John River in her hometown of Allagash, Maine. She made notes for a possible future novel then, telling herself that she really needed to write the book one day. The characters and the project went with her as she moved from Tennessee to the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It was in Canada that she began seriously to write the full draft, completing a version that looked very different from the published book today. “When I returned to Allagash, Maine, in 2009, I did the final draft and deleted 350-plus pages. This novel was hard to write. I’m an organic writer. Most times, I don’t know what’s going to happen until the reader does.”

As she began to read an excerpt from the book, she paused and said, “By the way, I hate to read from a Mattagash book. It’s full of characters and it’s full of stories and plots and it’s difficult to choose what to read. And it’s full of sadness and humor, so what do you read? If I were to choose what to read from this book, I would read the Vietnam passages, but then that’s depressing. I would choose to read the sad stuff.” Pelletier has also written several novels outside of the Mattagash books, both under her own name and the pseudonym K.C. McKinnon, and by comparison, she says that, “When I read from the books I set, say, in Bixley, with only one protagonist, it’s so much easier.”

The Mattagash denizens whose lives she portrays are drawn “out of thin air,” Pelletier says, but as they reveal themselves to her, they become real people. “They come with lives of their own, these characters, and they all converge.” Pelletier is clear that her characters are not portraits of actual citizens of Allagash. “My fictional characters would be so offended if they learned they were being compared to real people!” Paraphrasing novelist Alice Munro’s words on the degree to which fiction displays reality, Pelletier explained, “We all take a little bit of starter clay from the real world. We all do that. It’s usually so minor in my case. It’s usually something about me.” Because there is such a time lag between completing a novel and its actual publication, “you pray that nothing that has happened in the book happens in reality, because people will think that’s where you got it.”

Pelletier’s late mother used to enjoy spotting bits of real life in her daughter’s books. In the pages of Pelletier’s 1986 The Funeral Makers, the first in the Mattagash books, her mother picked up on the appearance of such props as a little red rocking chair and a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nightlight. “That was your little chair! And that was our nightlight,” her mother said. “I still have the rocking chair,” Pelletier says. “Most of these things come from our childhood. Eudora Welty said we write out of the first ten years of our lives. I certainly feel that way; emotionally, anyway.”

In 2010, Pelletier published A is for Allagash, written with her father, Louis Pelletier, as a memoir of his life. “It was a book I did to endorse his life and his ways. For example, my father believes in the curative power of Easter water. Each Easter morning, from the time he was a boy, he would get up before dawn and head for a river or a brook, a place of moving water. He’d dip a pail or jar three times into the stream and keep the water from the third dip. The water’s powers were believed to last forever and they’d use it to treat illness and bless homes. My father also believes you can stop blood if you know the charm. I grew up with this strange mélange of folklore and technology and superstition. And now I realize it was a rich background, a rich canvas.”

Pelletier finds it hard to believe that she’s just sold her 12th book. “My gosh! It feels like yesterday that The Funeral Makers was coming out, but that was 1986!” It became clear that many members of our group had been loyal readers since the beginning.

In 2003, the MWWC acquired Pelletier’s papers. Then-curator Cally Gurley was present at this reading, and shared a bit about the process of acquiring the collection, rich with material dating back to the author’s childhood, and continuing to grow in the present day. Pelletier laughed and said, “Cally calls it the archives. I call it the stuff my cats were sleeping on! My mother saved everything I ever wrote.”

Pelletier welcomed questions from the audience, and the first was the simple, direct query, “Why Edna? Why did you name the character Edna? It’s such an old-fashioned name.” “Well, a lot of these names are coming back,” Pelletier answered. “But not Edna!” the guest insisted.

“I named her Edna in the ‘80s. I had to come up with plain names for characters because it was set in rural, rural Maine. My mother would say, ‘They’re going to think that’s Tom so-and-so or Sara so-and-so. Can’t you change that?’” Names of characters are important to Pelletier. “‘Mom,’ I’d say, ‘I can’t name these characters Natasha and Vladimir. I’ve got to use these common names.’”

A 1st and 2nd grade teacher from Durham shared that her students were aware she was coming to hear an author speak that evening, and she asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give to young writers, what would it be?” Pelletier offered to send the teacher some things she wrote when she was that age. “I started really writing when I was nine years old. Reading is very important, of course. We had very few books at home when I was growing up, except for a set of Childcraft books. We had no bookmobile or library in my early school years, so books were really special.”

Pelletier expressed her own awe and respect for teachers, and a certain bewilderment at how others are able to sustain the energy level it takes to teach. “I teach so passionately that I’m ill when it’s over. Then I can’t teach again for five years.”

One man asked Pelletier about her move back to Allagash. “Can you go home again?” he wondered. This is something the author has thought a lot about. “How do you get the past back? That’s what that line means,” said Pelletier. “Physically, you can return home. You can move back. I’m in the house I was born in. The house is mine now. I’ve made my writing room next to the room I was born in. I look out at the river that my great-great-great-grandparents navigated in pirogues as they came looking for white pine with grants from the King of England. The pine would build the masts of English ships. I can’t drive to Fort Kent without passing the graves of my maternal grandparents and several generations of paternal grandparents.” Her mother’s headstone is, so far, the only one in the family graveyard, which sits above Pelletier’s house.  “But emotionally, the past is gone. The feeling of the home is irrevocably lost without my mother there.”

Pelletier would like to fix the place up, plant some trees in the front so it’s private, and turn it into a creative retreat for herself and other artists. “How many of you have been to Allagash?” she asked the group. Seeing that few hands were raised, she said, “Well, we’ll have to change that.”

Learn more about Cathie Pelletier at cathiepelletier.com, and read about her papers on our website, at une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/Cathie-Pelletier.cfm.



Morgan Callan Rogers visits with Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea

June 20th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher


As she took her place on the Jewett couch last Thursday to read from and discuss her first novel, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, Morgan Callan Rogers shared with the large group her special joy in being at the Maine Women Writers Collection. An admirer of Sarah Orne Jewett, she said she was honored to be included in the same library collection with her and so many others, and imagined that from the shelves, “all of our books will be talking to each other at night!”

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is the coming of age story of a spirited young heroine in coastal Maine during the early 1960s. When her mother disappears during a weekend trip, Florine Gilham’s idyllic childhood is turned upside down. Until then she’d been blissfully insulated by the rhythms of family life in small town Maine: watching from the granite cliffs above the sea for her father’s lobster boat to come into port, making bread with her grandmother, and infiltrating the summer tourist camps with her friends. But with her mother gone, the heart falls out of Florine’s life and she and her father are isolated as they struggle to manage their loss, and the additional challenges that come their way.

After reading a passage from the book — a scene featuring Maine women characters based on Rogers’ father’s relatives, selected in honor of our venue — Rogers gave us some background on the genesis of the book. Raised in the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine, her sense of the coast and its villages deeply informed the setting and characters of the tale. While enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, she needed a story idea to fulfill an assignment and the characters of Florine and Dottie came to her right away. From that short piece, Florine emerged to become the young narrator of Red Ruby Heart, with Dottie as her best friend. “Florine drives the story,” Rogers explained, and later mentioned that she’s at work on a sequel, allowing Florine to continue her role as protagonist. Throughout the discussion Rogers referred to the voice of Florine in her mind as a real and formidable presence who would correct her if she wrote something not in keeping with what the heroine would do, say or want.

One guest described the book as “very visual,” and this is so true, especially in terms of color. The vibrance of the multi-hued title and vivid blue, brown and green dust jacket is carried through to the text inside, with its consistent yet simple mention of color in nearly every scene. Rogers explained that she had “sprinkled that in afterward” and was pleased it worked.

Another guest was aware that before it was even published in the U. S., Rogers’ book was already doing very well in Germany, and she wondered what that was like for the author. Rogers explained that an international publisher had happened across her manuscript as it lay on her agent’s desk and decided to publish it abroad. She took it to the Frankfurt Fair and it became the third best-selling book in Germany for 2010-2011. “I was surprised…flummoxed!” And Rogers feels that the German translation of the Maine colloquialisms is pretty good, reluctant to criticize because it’s been such a good experience to work with them. She thinks the story appeals to the German publishers “because they have a romantic streak. But they also get things done with efficiency and grace.”

Following the novel’s success abroad, Viking bought the U. S. rights and the book is now in print all over the world. “I couldn’t be more excited and thrilled.” “And by the way,” she added, “At the same time all of that was happening, I also fell in love and moved to South Dakota.” Quite a year!

One member of the group thought Rogers took some risks with the plot, especially in the case of Carlie, Florine’s mother. “One of the things I wanted to explore with Carlie going missing was not to write a mystery, but rather to write what it was like for Florine to grow up missing someone — without closure.” This divergence from a more typical plot structure creates suspense for the reader. “I kept waiting for something to happen,” the woman said.

A member of the group who shared that she grew up in both Ireland and the U. S. pointed out that there is a generation of women that is slipping away, a generation that did not have a lot of personal power. Rogers concurred, adding that women really had to get out there and find the resources they needed to survive. One of her grandmothers found work in a jewelry store; the other was deserted in Boston at a very young age, and danced on the street with her brother for pennies before being taken to Maine. “We take our opportunities for granted,” she said, and agrees it’s important to sit down with those of that generation and listen.

Anne Zill asked the author how she incorporated details from her own life into the novel. In addition to setting it in the 1960s, Rogers said she dug deep to her roots in Phippsburg and Bath, and drew on other long-familiar sites such as Wolf’s Neck State Park and Small Point, pointing out that the setting and the narrator’s age was familiar, but not the characters. Her youth was not characterized by the kind of trauma that Florine experiences, and laughed, “If I had done half the stuff she did, I would have been grounded forever!” But on the other hand, “(The character of) Dottie IS my sister. She just is.” And Rogers’ real-life family did cherish a collection of red ruby glass.

Rogers began writing at the age of eight, mostly about gangs of kids in the vein of the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew series she enjoyed. Sharing a vivid memory of a pivotal experience so crucial to her writing life, she said that one night in bed she had begun to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Being afraid of the dark at that time, she was in the habit of playing the radio as she went to sleep. By some creepy coincidence that night, she heard the voice on the radio describe a scene so similar to the one she happened to be reading at that moment, in very nearly the same words. Terrified, she slammed the book shut and “couldn’t sleep for the next three years.” As she lay awake, then, night after night, she created a world of imaginary characters and furthered the story until she could fall asleep. “That’s what got me into the practice of developing character and plot,” she reflected.

A number of members of the group enjoyed the personification of nature in the text, and one asked the author if she consciously included the metaphors about the seasons. “I make them living things because nature is a living thing.” And she consciously worked to see and describe it the way Florine would. Reinforcing her sense Florine was with her all the time, she added, “We wrote the book together.”

In working on the sequel to the story, Rogers is cranking right now, she says, thanks to being in Maine for the summer. She finds that living and writing in the South Dakota landscape is very different, concluding that she’s not a Western writer. Here, she muses, nature is softer, greener. There is flexibility offered by the ocean, and privacy afforded in the seclusion of the woods. Out there, she says, you can have all the space you want, but you are exposed. The landscape, nature, the climate are all in your face. “Out there, you have to redefine the word ‘lonely.’”

Asked to expand on her work at the moment, Rogers confessed that the other day, she wrote the ending to the sequel, even though she’s only two-thirds of the way through the book. “I just trust that the next step will come. I trust in the universe.” And it seems she can also, always, trust in Florine.

To learn more about Morgan Callan Rogers, visit her website: morgancallanrogers.com.



Annie Finch debuts SPELLS

April 22nd, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

Posted on behalf of Catherine Fisher, MWWC Assistant

Annie Finch made her visit to the MWWC book discussion group on the fourth day of National Poetry Month, and on the “second day of life,” as she put it, of her new book, Spells: New and Selected Poems. With a pristine copy from which to read at this, their first outing together, Finch began with the spell, “A Blessing on the Poets.” When she finished reading, she paused and then told the audience, “It’s the poet in you that feels the poetry. Any time you feel moved by a poem you are being a poet. You’re increasing the power of poetry in the world. And that is a kind of magic to me. Poetry had its origin in magic, and that’s one of the reasons I call my book ‘Spells.’  The original poets were not just entertainers, not just word spinners. They were spinners of reality.”

Finch’s poetry is rather unique today in that it conforms to traditional poetic forms and celebrates meter. She comes to her work with a deep consciousness of the poetry and poets of earlier times. “They had access to truth that others in the community didn’t have. Going back to my own roots, to the ancient Celtic bards, there was no one allowed to criticize the king except for a poet.” Meter, rhyme and repetition, Finch says, bring us back to a time of spells, when the poem and poet enjoyed a position of influence. “As a poet, my job is to make language as powerful as possible, to adjust reality to make it more in line with our hearts.” Within the lines of the second poem Finch read, “Earth Day,” we heard the counsel, “All we need is to live with the memory of a future we want to imagine.”

In the formulation of her spells, Finch is careful to avoid getting into or dwelling on the negative. In poems that speak to the precarious existence of bee colonies, prairie grasses and other of the earth’s fragile inhabitants, she fashions spells to strengthen and protect her subjects, rather than devoting energy to indicting the negative forces that imperil them. In the case of threatened apiaric colonies, she explains, “I want to inhabit the spirit of the bee and to use the tools of the poetry and the repetition to move it forward into a very powerful place. That’s the kind of spell that I want to do with my poems.” The beneficiaries of her spells receive her passion for their triumph, not her anger or despair at their demise.

Finch finds that her poems and incantations happen to her, in a way. “Rather than have the attitude, ‘I can get a poem out of that,’” she says, “I want the poem to be walking around getting me.” “When my daughter Althea was in my womb, I was in a nature preserve with many species of butterflies. From this came the poem, ‘Butterfly Lullaby,’” which Finch then sang for us. Finch also draws much inspiration from the work of other women poets, and has two poems dedicated to Emily Dickinson in this collection. She read “Tribute for Emily Dickinson” twice, allowing the lines to unfurl and her voice to hang on the air. At the request of a guest (whose dog happens to be named for Dickinson!) Finch later gave us the other poem as well.

Next came Finch’s reading of a piece in the poetic form known as a “carol,” which was traditionally sung by people dancing in celebration, and was at one point outlawed by the Church. It was written for poet Carolyn Kaiser, in gratitude for Kaiser’s helpful response to Finch’s first book. “Carolyn said I was writing in form because I was mad, and it was a way for me to ‘contain the madness.’” Kaiser encouraged her to see the spells as poems and include them in her books.

After the reading, Finch engaged the group in conversation.

One member commented that when listening to poetry, often a particular phrase or two will stand out to her. From the reading she had just heard she cited the lines, “Now I am the one with eyes,” and “Did I have a face? And did it lie in shadow?” Finch was pleased and explained, “I think some poems have a mental glacier under the tip, and some have an emotional glacier under the tip.” “Now I am the one with eyes” has as its mental underpinnings in Finch’s study of feminist theory and women’s poetry. “Did I have a face? And did it lie in shadow?” from “A Dusk Song,” stems from the more emotional issues of seeing and being seen, and knowing how to exist in relationships. In creating the poem, she says, feelings must be transformed to thoughts, to ideas, and “little nuggets happen at the intersection between the feeling and the thought… and when they connect there is a spark.”

On the subject of giving poetry readings, Finch said that she loves reading her work. She agreed with poet Stanley Kunitz’s reflection that, for an author, enjoyment of reading is grounded in his/her own appreciation of the work. It was such a pleasure to see the joy Finch took in re-meeting and greeting her poems as she flipped through her new collection (it having been long “a long gestation,” she said), even affectionately cooing to one, “Hi, sweetie!”

Finch wants the reader to be able to have the same experience of the work as she does, and she finds that reading the poem aloud allows one to make it one’s own, as if one is playing a piece of music on the piano. Finch promises that it is not difficult to learn how to read her poems aloud; it simply takes developing the habit of checking in at the end of a line. “With free verse, you’re supposed to ignore the line breaks. With meter, you have to acknowledge the line break is there. The only knack to it is knowing when to end.”

To demonstrate, Finch invited a volunteer from the audience to read one of her poems to the group. The woman who came forward flipped through Spells to make her selection at random, and before beginning she grinned and shared she’d never done such a thing before! She did a lovely job and enjoyed the experience.

Bridget Healy, daughter-in-law of the founder of the Maine Women Writers Collection, asked Finch, “Is a poem a mini-drama?” “In a way it is,” Finch replied, “especially with lyric poetry. And if you’re reading it alone, it can be a dramatic performance for yourself.”

Another member of the group commented, “I write fiction and essays, and am woefully ignorant when it comes to poetry. I find your poetry very accessible…I find poems in the New Yorker so obscure, they infuriate me.” Finch’s fascinating response included both an historical context for the current trend toward the complex in poetry, and her own evolution from free verse to meter.

“My feeling is that poets like to have challenges; they like difficulty…Poets are partly puzzle-solvers…and partly what you want to do is to make something clear and beautiful out of conflict and paradox and difficulty… And my feeling is that, in every culture all over the world throughout human history, the difficulty and the challenge has been provided through form. Meter, rhyme.” To illustrate, Finch shared that an eight-line poem in Celtic form in Spells took her months to write. “It strikes me that poetry began to get so obscure at exactly the same time that poets stopped writing in meter. I feel that the difficulty of understanding it is a replacement for the difficulty of meter. I know that’s true because, when I started writing in meter, my poetry became much less difficult, much more accessible.”

Finch outlined her theory on why meter was abandoned, explaining that iambic pentameter had become so prevalent, so restrictive, so dominant, and the goal of poets such as Ezra Pound became to “break the pentameter!” In the process, Finch laments, they ended up breaking all the meters. Poets then turned to obscurity to make poems, to fill the vacuum. “People are in a bind right now and I think they are satisfying their difficulty jones by writing obscure language.”

From her own personal experience, she is certain that, “If it weren’t for form, I don’t think I would have survived. I physically need it, as a poet…Some poets need it. Not all poets, but some poets physically need it. It’s how we’re built…If you don’t have meter, you don’t have part of your pulse.”

To learn about opportunities to hear Finch read from Spells, and to explore Finch’s poetry, prose and collaborations, visit her website: anniefinch.com.