“To see where I came from, I’m looking at stones”: Poet Betsy Sholl visits with her new collection

April 30th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

 

“What if ruin is a good thing? What if each day is built on the ruin of the one before? What if all our attempts to avoid ruin only make us bitter or closed off from what’s around us? What if only by exploring our ruins do we become human?”

The back cover of Betsy Sholl’s new collections of poems, Otherwise Unseeable, begins with this hefty handful of questions. The poems inside show that Sholl, in mining the gritty aspects of life from many angles and perspectives, is not afraid to get in the rubble and get dirty, perhaps in an effort to come clean. She recently visited us to read from and discuss her book, and I was left wading through words like “grit,” “muck,” “rough” and “wound” for days afterward. It’s been somehow a freeing sort of mire.

Sholl began her reading by explaining that even though poetry uses the same words as the newspaper, it’s not the same language. “The language of poetry is the language of metaphor, of association.” It is intended to slow us down, to be more meditative. “It’s a language that is set up with all the speed bumps that Stevens Avenue has,” she joked.

She began by reading “Genealogy,” the first poem in the collection, and prefaced it by explaining that some of her poems are more realistic and some are more metaphorical. Some she can remember the process of writing and some just come to her.

“’Genealogy’ just came to me. If you asked me what it’s about, I don’t know if I could say.” The poem mines two aspects of Sholl’s life ruins, two essential rocks of her own personal rubble. Her father died when she was two, and she says of that, “In a way there is this whole side to who I am that was absent. My mother tried to make him present — I know his favorite foods, I know things he didn’t like — but I don’t know a lot.” The second element that appears in this and other poems is that Sholl is a stutterer.

From “Genealogy”:

One of her parents was a star already gone out,
the other a cup that she carried into the night,
convinced it was fragile.

One of her parents she drank, the other she dreamed.

In the revolving door of her becoming,
one pushed from inside, one from without.
Thus, her troubled birth, her endless stammer.

Class is also a theme in her work. “I grew up in a widow’s household, a family that had been well-to-do and fell on hard times, and I think that must be connected to this next poem, called ‘Alms.’” She described it as realistic, a true vignette about being asked for money by a woman on the street in Portland. In the poem she characterizes the woman’s meek call to her (“Miss, Miss…”) as “voice of pocket lint, frayed button hole,” and later, reflecting that she hadn’t been compelled to give the woman the totality of the seven dollars in her wallet, she reckons with her unconscious withholding. “…so clearly that voice / wasn’t small enough, still someone / else’s sorrow, easy to brush off,” and in her regret she sees it as “a failure, a lack, a lost chance.” Sholl is troubled by the panhandlers so numerous on the streets of Portland these days, saying, “There is no way not to feel indicted, in a way.”

Sholl says that many of the poems in this collection could be characterized as arguments, and the one entitled “The Argument” plays around with those debates she has with herself, when she thinks one thing and then immediately counters with the opposite. The verbal joust between her and a crow centers around her urge to celebrate the beauty of an early autumn day, and the crow’s reminder that it’s the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. The crow voice wants to bring her down, to solemn her heart “for the sake of the murdered, for the sake of the dead / for all that hasn’t happened yet…”, to quandary her in ruins that are not her own, yet perhaps might be.

“Every book of mine has to have a poem with a crow in it,” Sholl remarked, “and every book has to have at least one poem addressed to my sister. She is a musician, and growing up in a sort of grieving widow’s household, my sister would sob as she played the piano, and I thought then, ‘what a dork’. Only as an adult do I realize that all of her grief was going into that.” Sholl read “Tidal,” in which the wailing piano scales played by her sister’s fingers over and over and the wind rattling the roof of a house in a kind of emotional lock-down “…make us / unlatch our wounds, and love our ruins.

During the reading Sholl reflected on what poetry does for her, and mused about how her poems might impact the reader, whether or not what she feels in the poem comes across. “I go to poetry to be expanded in some ways…my thought, my emotions, my view of the world. It’s really hard to tell if your poems do that. Your own poems are in your face. You have no idea if they’re expansive.”

Before turning to discussion, she went on to read a poem for her mother (“Elegy with Morning Glories”); another about the primal tug to trace one’s roots (her to horse thieving Nearys in County Mayo, in “Belmullet”); two poems about sounds and music and musicians (“Wood Shedding” and “Rahsaan”); and one exploring love in the face of inevitable death (“Vanishing Act”), among others.

Once the discussion began, Sholl was asked how she got started writing poetry. “Well, it really is connected to being a stutterer,” she said. “I was the youngest of sisters, and it was hard to get my word in edgewise, and we had rules about what we could talk about; those three things sent me to words, and putting words on paper.” After college Sholl left a Ph.D. program, saying it was because she wanted to be a poet. “So then I really had to get serious,” she said. Sholl met with a friend to write late into the night, and it was then she began to try to write every day. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, after she had married and had children and was teaching full time, that she went back for her MFA. “I’d published a couple of books and I felt like I had just come to the end of what I could teach myself. I felt like I had hit a brick wall, and either I had to quit, and just say I failed, or put myself in a position to grow. So I went to Vermont College and that was a great experience for me.”

Later in the discussion Sholl addressed the accusation that some make against MFA programs, that they churn out academic poets who all sound the same. “Before they had MFA programs poets had to write in the style of whomever they read and copy and copy and copy until they found their own style. You started as a backup singer. And if you keep at it you might get to the mic. To me it’s the same thing, going to an MFA or staying in a third floor room all the time by yourself with your books. It’s the same thing, and the work is to move beyond that.”

“Do you work at the internal rhymes in your poems? Or do they just come to you?” one guest wanted to know.

“Mostly those just come,” Sholl answered. “I do have to work at structure. When I was in a poetry workshop in Cambridge when I first began to write, most of the poets were 10 or 15 years older than I was. I was like their charity case and they were tough on me. They’d say, “Stop that chiming!” I felt like I had to. And then I began to read Seamus Heaney and I thought, ‘Well, damn, I’m Irish!’ So I began to let that come in again.”

“Do you ever work with fixed forms?” another member of the group asked.

“Well, I do write villanelles from time to time. There’s one in this book. There’s one in my last book. I write a sestina every year and pretty much erase it from my hard drive. I have a sestina and a villanelle that are both about teaching in prison. Isn’t that interesting? The form is sort of a jail…In general, I think it’s connected to class for me. Formal verse, for me, was what all those old guys did who lived in a building on the top of a mountain with a sign outside that said, “No, not you.” Free verse was what an upstart chick with no money could do…And when I try to write in form it just dies on the page.”

“What do you think the work of poetry in the world is? Why the hell write a poem?” MWWC curator and poet Cathleen Miller was curious to hear.

“I was talking about this stuff and a teacher of mine said, “Betsy, we just do what we can do.” I used to live in Roxbury, MA. My husband was a community organizer and he worked with tough kids. And I would think, why am I sitting here at my desk, doing this little stuff, when I could be out saving the world? And what I said to myself was, it’s no worse than working in a shoe factory, you know? You make a pair of shoes and people get to wear those shoes for a little while and then they wear out and they get a new pair. And doing a poem, a few people might wear your poem for a day or two and then look for another one. What more can you say?”

“On the other hand, I think the arts in general speak to our deepest soul and our deepest human roots, and they offer something different from moneymaking, and different from violence. Different from all the forces that tend to dehumanize us. We go to the arts for that expansive experience. To be bigger, deeper or more real than we feel in our day-to-day lives…Poetry is a one-on-one thing. A dialogue between souls. And we need that.”

To learn more about Betsy Sholl and her work, visit www.betsysholl.com.

(Blog post title quote is from the poem “Belmullet”)

 

 

A poem a day

April 16th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

When April comes around, two things are for sure: poetry and taxes (I’m advocating for this order of the universe).  We find ourselves inundated with poets we’ve never heard of, poems we might or might not like, and more readings than we can manage to attend in one day.  Just last week, here at the Collection, we hosted two talks on the same day!  We had a noon reading by Betsy Sholl from her wonderful new book Otherwise Unseeable followed by a generous discussion of poetry and Betsy’s poetic practice.  At 6pm, we hosted Dr. Alexandra Socarides, who wrote a book on Emily Dickinson’s poetic process entitled Dickinson Unbound.  If you know much about Dickinson, you will appreciate how hard it is to write something fresh–that’s just how smart a scholar Alexandra Socarides is.  Her talk on the research she conducted here in the summer of 2012 blew us away.  She discussed 19th century American women’s poetry and poetic conventions and how her work in our small archives led her to explore larger hypotheses about women’s poetry of that time.  Her newest book is one I will be very excited to read when it comes out.

Of course, swimming in poetic language these last few weeks has me thinking about the poets in our collection.  I have been tweeting lines from poems every day I can (follow me on twitter for a sampler of poems: @MEWomenWriters), which has had me dipping into books I have never before read.  Our book collection contains a wide range of poetic voices from the ordinary to the downright stunning, and represents the many types of writing that women have done over the past several centuries in Maine.  I started to wonder about common threads in Maine women’s writing and considered the question of place.  While no convention is applicable across the board, it does feel like place gets into our bodies and weaves itself into images and sounds in the poems we make.  I spent some time examining poems that speak from this place and capture a specific moment in time, and I thought I would share a sampling with you.

from Riverstones by Patricia White
(Seemed fitting for today, when we woke up to find snow on the ground after a lovely weekend.)
…………………………….

from Prayers, Poems, and Pathways by Ssipsis
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from Where the Deer Were  by Kate Barnes
……………………………………..

from Hibernaculum & other North-Natured Poems by Patricia Smith Ranzoni
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from Four Corners of the Circle by Jean Webster
……………………………………….

from Corn Dance by Jeri Theriault
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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.

Visions and words: A selection from the Maine Association of Women in the Fine and Performing Arts

April 5th, 2013 by Ashley Sklar

Sarah Knock (Cumberland, Maine).  A Day in June. Photograph.

Medora Hearn Batstone (Addison, Maine).  Hitching.

Edy Bishop (Portland, Maine).  Beginnings. Marble sculpture.

Beverly N. Greenspan (Maine).  Pictures of the Island.

Karen Saum, producer (Union, Maine). Video still from Working Women of Waldo County – Today.

Mary Ann Meade (Shrewsbury, Massachusetts).  A Natural Process.

Maria Jimena Lasansky, dancer (St. George, Maine).  Photograph by Anne Elzas-O’Keefe (Maine).  Featured in the Portland Press Herald on Thursday, April 26, 1979.

Lee Sharkey (Skowhegan, Maine).  progenitor.

With fresh eyes: The Maine Association of Women in the Fine and Performing Arts

April 3rd, 2013 by Ashley Sklar

Having arrived in Maine last spring with only a vague notion of how I would spend my time, only a few short months went by before I found the Maine Women Writers Collection.  After a couple conversations on archives, life and women with Cathleen and Catherine, I realized this was where I was supposed to land.  I was a two semesters into my masters in library and information science program with Drexel University where I was focusing on archival studies.  As the program was entirely virtual, the MWWC offered a venue for learning the hands-on art of processing an archival collection.  With an art history background and experience working the nonprofit arts world, Cathleen said they had the perfect collection for me.   The papers from an all women fine and performing arts organization had been in their backlog waiting to be fully processed for years.  It was a perfect match.

The Maine Association of Women in the Fine and Performing Arts (MAWFPA) grew out of the energy following the Women in the Arts Workshop held in Augusta in June 1977 at the Maine State Meeting of the Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.  After attending this meeting, there was a desire by attendees to know more about the activities of women artists around the state.  Later on that same year, Anne Hazelwood-Brady founded MAWFPA as a statewide nonprofit organization whose mission was to support Maine women artists.

In the spring of 1979, MAWFPA organized a three-day arts festival and conference at what was then Westbrook College in Portland called Spectra 1.  MAWFPA received a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) towards their efforts.  With Hazelwood-Brady serving as Director, Eric MacLeod as Artistic Director and Janet Beerits as President of the Board, they put forth a panel of impressive jurors: May Sarton for poetry and literature, Dahlov Ipcar for painting, Andrea Stark for dance and Bernice Abbott for photography.  The Joan Whitney Payson Gallery on campus held the Spectra 1 art exhibition of painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography and film.  Along side the visual arts was a publication of poetry and prose and four performances of music, theater and dance.  There were workshops for artists and a printed catalogue for the fine arts.

As Spectra 1 came to an end, the desire for connection and community among female artists in Maine remained.  After that spring, small regional meetings of MAWFPA were held across the state with the intention of maintaining a shared artistic community in the more isolated areas of Maine.  In addition, MAWFPA organized statewide annual meetings open to all members.

In 1981 with nearly 200 members, thoughts towards another Spectra began to emerge.  In October of 1982, after many months of meetings, planning and fundraising, the month-long arts celebration Spectra 2 opened at the University of Maine at Orono with Anne Elzas-O’Keefe at the helm as Project Director.  Once again Spectra 2 consisted of a multitude of media: a visual arts catalogue, an anthology of poetry and prose and an abundance of performances, workshops and events.

Although MAWFPA elected a Board in 1983, Beerits resigned as President and the activities of the statewide organization seem to have come to an end.  In 1989, Hazelwood-Brady asked Beerits to write a brief history of MAWFPA capturing her time as President from late 1979 through January 1983.  She concludes by writing, “At its peak, about 300 paid members made MAWFPA a real force in the life of women artists of Maine.”

Carrying on the tradition of MAWFPA, the Maine Women in the Arts, one of the original small regional groups, continues to meet in Kennebunkport and can be explored online at www.mainewomenarts.com.