Note: This is a re-post of a blog I posted on Kaboomwriters.org at http://kaboomwriters.com/2015/03/letter-to-a-poet-i-will-never-meet/
On the last day of Women’s History Month, I am sending out this letter to a poet I will never meet— Effie Waller Smith: b. January 6, 1879, Chloe Creek, near Pikeville, Kentucky; d. January 2, 1960, Neenah, Wisconsin
First, some of Miss Effie’s words, her poem, “Preparation:”
I have no time for those things now,’ we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now –
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.
—from The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Dear Miss Effie,
I have only found you and your work in this, my sixty-sixth year of life. Though you were a Kentucky poet born and raised 50 miles from my home in Floyd County, Kentucky, I had never heard of you.
It was your poem, “Preparation,” that made me write to you. I heard it read aloud about a month ago when you were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Famein a ceremony in Lexington at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Though the reader, Frank X. Walker, did a fine enough job of presenting the poem, I could not help but wish that a woman had been chosen to read it — any woman, black or white. Though your poem does not declare itself a woman’s poem and could apply equally to men and women, I think that too often it is women who allow the “ceaseless toil” you write of to come between them and “what [they were and are] and yet shall be.” At least when I heard the poem and heard the fact that you had stopped writing at the age of 38 (at which age I was just starting out), I felt that teaching or mothering or other kinds of care-giving had surely pushed your vocation of writing to the side.
Now I have read more about your life — how you moved to Wisconsin to live in a strict religious commune with your mother around 1919, for instance — and I see that your story is more complex than I had imagined. For one thing, it’s clear that you did not let teaching and supporting yourself, moving from place to place, marrying or divorcing stop your important work of crafting poems. You published steadily from at least as early as 1902 — when you were 23 and finishing your course work at the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University — until 1917, when as far as I can tell, you were living again in or near Pike County. You taught in Kentucky and Tennessee during that time. By 1909 you’d been married twice (in 1904 and 1908), each marriage brief, each ending in your divorcing the man. You’d lost your only child (I haven’t been able to find out if it was a boy or a girl) when it was a young child. You’d seen enough violence in the mountains to last you a lifetime, including the murder in 1911 of your ex-husband, Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith, who had also been a lifelong friend.
Your self-possession astounds me, even from the distance of all these years. What I have discovered of your life makes me certain that the more than forty years you spent not publishing poems were a deliberate act, at least to some degree, on your part. Because I am a woman, too, who struggles with how and even whether to continue to pursue publication, after twenty-five years of publishing poems and other writing, I wish I could talk to you. Your last publication, a sonnet you entitled “Autumn Winds,” was in Harpers, for goodness sakes. One of the most prestigious places in the nation. Why did you stop publishing?
Your work itself gives us some clues — its somber mood, its intense religious overtones. And the fact that World War One was raging and that you had lost your only child may have been part of the beginning of your silence. You had to have been weighed down with grief. You moved away from your beloved hills, which has been not only a solace, but a source of imagery and inspiration for you. Was it the convergence of all of these things? I have moved twice this past year and often find myself wordless, unsettled in a world that seems more than ever bent on violence and hatred. Was silence your answer to despair? I don’t want to believe this. Was it an act of faith to relinquish your writing career? Or were there other “hot cares” that kept you from your poems?
Writers and scholars before me have wondered at your disappearance from print, and I am grateful for what they discovered or pieced together about your life. In next week’s blog post I will continue this letter, using the work of David Deskins, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and your adopted daughter, Ruth Smith — as well as your own words — to piece together more of your story.
“Under every deep a lower deep opens.” –Emerson
Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. –Thomas Moore
This has been a hard week of writing for me. I find that I keep telling the same story over and over. The characters don’t change; I don’t change; the same people or forces or traits are still to blame. In short, I see that I am stuck. I seem to be moving (the pen is moving), but I am in a rut. I pick up a book at random and open it up. It’s a book my sister gave me, one I have resisted reading. Since I am resisting writing, I decide to look around it in. To my surprise, I find this passage:
“Whenever a story puts an end to reflection and further story-telling, that story is now serving as a defense. The whole point of a good story is to give birth to other stories and to deeper reflection. . . .The story within and beneath the familiar story is almost always full of insight and new possibility. It may take courage to go another level down, to abandon clarity, however illusory, for confusion and puzzlement. Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. But there is always the opportunity to take our storytelling deeper, always the chance to find the intelligence and comfort we have been seeking at a level far beneath the basement of our expectations.” —Thomas Moore, Original Self.
Maybe I am stuck because I long ago decided who all these people in my story are (or were). What if I decided I didn’t know them so well? What else would I need to imagine about them? Most of what I do know about the inner life, the character of my characters is imagined— even if these “characters” are the real people in my memoir rather than the ones I create for fiction.
Stories work because someone does not get what he or she wants. What motivates the people I’m trying to write about? What does each one want most? What keeps him/her from getting it?
“Just tell me what happened,” I say to writers in workshop. Go back to that physical space, that moment in time you want to create and TELL ME A STORY. Who said what? What did she really want? How can I tell? Where was he standing when I saw something I’d never noticed about him?
The mystery of our lives — and of our characters lives — lies embedded in the ordinary details of the story. I have a page from an old Zen calendar tucked into the blotter on my desk: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Recreate the reality of your experience.
And, oh yes, let yourself fail. I have to remember that I am going to be stuck, that in fact there may be a good reason for me to be stuck. Do I expect the mysterious not to push me away? Do I believe that I can look directly at the light waiting in those bushes around the old house where I came into myself? the ones that burn in memory? There is a reason that I resist writing.
If I can say, “Oh, I see that I am really not wanting to write,” then I have brought that resistance out of the shadows. I am free to say, “Well, so what?” Most of the time I do resist writing. And when I do write, I am dissatisfied with what I have written.
Writing is about letting ourselves NOT do it right – It is about not doing the “assignment,” about failing to produce what we thought we were “supposed to” be doing. It’s okay to write badly, to write the same thing over and over. It’s also okay to start again to tell the story, especially if that means I abandon clarity in the trust that there are uncomfortable places to traverse before I reach the deeper work calling me to the page.
You have to hold your mouth right. It’s what my dad said when we fished. The fish won’t bite unless you do. And if one of us didn’t catch any, “Guess you weren’t holding your mouth right.” No one ever said what “right” meant, and of course we didn’t ask. It was another adult thing that we were supposed to intuit or figure out. Holding your mouth right means closed, as in No Talking. That much was clear.
I experimented with pursing my lips, the way fish lips looked to me, then held my mouth at a slant, one side lower than the other, like a fish’s grimace when you dragged it out of the water. I couldn’t tell that either one helped any, but getting still enough tot try these out, I noticed things. Movements at the surface of the pond and where the deeper water seemed to start. Half-submerged logs and branches we called “stick-up’s” near Dad’s red and white bobber. I slid my line closer to his.
Focused on how I held my mouth, I was too busy to pull my line out every minute or two to see if I had caught anything. All of which made catching a fish more likely. Working out the puzzle of how to hold my mouth, I forgot to be anxious.
It occurs to me that I can apply the same strategy to writing — especially in this time when the words are slow to bite. If I hold my mouth just right, I might notice where the water shifts hues and dip my a line into a deeper spot, attend to that edge where shallow mets deep. There’s often food for thought there. And perhaps I’ll look more closely at what’s pushing through the surface — “stick-up’s” and menacing logs I’ve avoided approaching in words.
How does a writer hold her mouth? closed? pursed? askew? Does she bite the tip of her tongue, lick her lips? All of the above — and more. The writer mostly allows her mouth to rest at its ease as she listens to street sounds, to the person across from her or the one behind her in line, to the wind between branches or buildings, to a remembered voice still alive in her somewhere. And especially to children — or anyone — speaking in language fresh and mysterious as words are to her when they first start to bite, when the tug of their life at the end of her line is almost more of delight and deep joy than she can land.
Engaged this trail of thoughts, I don’t put the pen down every five minutes, convinced I can’t write anything that matters. Trying to figure out how a writer holds her mouth takes my mind off the need to produce a first draft worthy of the effort, as if all first drafts aren’t meant to be returned to the water to grow a while.
On the bank of that pond I once pulled up a sleek bass. Iridescent as it came free of green water, the fish bowed its length to a furious arc, stippled and streaked blue-gray-jade, fierce as fire. I pulled the bass close, lifted it from the hook with a light hand. I slipped it back into the bright patch of sky caught in the pond and took myself home in the dusk.
Author’s note: Writing this post made me go looking for William Stafford’s essay, “A Way of Writing” (from Writing the Australian Crawl.) I remembered that Stafford compared his daily writing ritual to fishing. I’m glad I sought out the essay, which I had not read for years. It richly repaid my search. You can read it online here http://ualr.edu/rmburns/RB/staffort.html and more about Stafford and his work here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-e-stafford
I’ve written about fishing before. Larkspur Press www.larkspurpress.com/ published one of my fishing poems, “Fishing with my Father in the Middle Field Pond,” as a broadside. Carolyn Whitesel did the gorgeous illustration.