I walked up to the classroom door, my mouth dry from a mix of hope and dread. Behind that door, the Irish poet and future Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, would be teaching a poetry workshop. The day before, I’d gone to the organizational meeting for the class. There were many of us there, hoping to be admitted to the workshop—most were Harvard undergrads. A tormenting angel whispered on my shoulder, reminding me of the ways I didn’t belong. I worked on Harvard’s support staff, neither student nor faculty. I was from the Midwest, a “rural girl” whose dad was an underground miner and whose mother grew roses, glistening beside the sauna door. I liked to write about my father’s iron-stained work clothes, those glistening roses—had earned a BA, writing about them. At the organizational meeting, Heaney had explained that he could admit only twelve students. He said we should submit poems. He would place a drop box outside the classroom door, and he would read our poems and decide. He’d said, “I’ll have to be brutal.” I had submitted poems, and now the class list was posted on the forbidding door. I held my breath, narrowed my eyelids, and looked. My name was on it! He’d been brutal, and my name was there. Of course, that meant other names weren’t there.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How someone wins and someone loses, but in the long run, in an ideal situation, both will make their way. Even as a child, I knew that writing was to be my life’s work. I eventually claimed it publicly—chose, for my tools, paper and pencil. Of course, the “ideal situation” isn’t everyone’s situation. With people now marching in the streets to protest inequality and police brutality—with thousands braving exposure to a lethal virus to speak for voices no longer here, to break down all sorts of forbidding doors, my pencil-to-paper efforts feel small. My voice—dare I to use it—would seem a whisper in a hurricane, as that tormenting angel on my shoulder reminds me. You might wonder why I call my tormentor an angel? Because that voice from the ether, as persistent as a horsefly, moves me in ways that are necessary. As I work through its stinging critiques, I always find a better way.
As I think about the many human voices now daring to speak out, my angelic tormentor says, “Who cares about your little story? Your innocuous efforts? There are soul-wrenching stories in abundance—can’t you hear the people in the street?” I do hear, and my tormentor tells me that to tell my story is to render those other stories inconsequential—worse, that it’s presumptuous. That is the last thing I would want. But is it true? I feel like I’m standing again outside that Harvard classroom door, afraid to look at the list, needing to be on that list.
My life has been privileged—doors have opened more readily to me because I happen to have white skin. Today, nearly forty years after Heaney’s workshop, I’ve been struggling to write this post, to speak my experience without privileging my life’s struggles over those of others. Being part of Seamus Heaney’s workshop was pivotal in my life. Looking back now, after decades back in my native Midwest, I can hardly believe I sat so many times at the same table with him. After the class ended, we few nontraditional students who’d been in it would meet Seamus occasionally at a Cambridge pub. Before meeting Seamus, I’d felt intimidated, but once I knew him, I saw his warm and welcoming heart. It didn’t matter to him whether he were welcoming a university president or, like me, an administrative assistant.
I had a lot in common with Seamus as a writer. His early work is rooted in the rural landscape of Ireland, as mine is in the fields and woods of the Midwest, and he encouraged me to write my truth in my own way, never mind what was in vogue. But the poetry that Seamus himself was writing then, when my former classmates and I were peering over a pint with him, had moved to taking a hard look at Ireland’s ongoing “Troubles.” I was thirty years old at the time, was ready to enter into my writing with a sharper eye, and was figuring out what that would mean.
Seamus, having made a transition in his work from domestic subjects to the political, was the teacher I needed, when I needed him. He told me that his transition had come with some struggle. It was the ageless conundrum: is the writer’s task to shape a cultural utterance, or to strive to perfect his craft? I had arrived at Harvard writing poems about roses, glistening, and I hated political poetry, so prone to prioritizing a message over craft or art. Seamus’s work didn’t do that, though. He’d found a way to keep art first, politics second. His ability to balance his message and his craft was important for me to see.
So here’s a “roses, glistening” poem that I had written in a workshop four years before the class with Seamus. If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll recognize my Finnish ancestry, my rural upbringing.
My sisters and I
We have bathed
and are behind the sauna,
in the hayfield.
smells of smoke.
We are wet,
and quiet, and flushed,
and rain is falling.
on the sauna roof,
takes on the scent of clover
at our feet.
We hear its cadence
through our skin, tender
and we lift our arms and our
glisten by the sauna door.
I like this little poem, with its musical and quietly ostentatious Finnish voice. It’s just that by the time I was in Seamus’s workshop, something different had opened in me, a yearning to look deeper. My glistening roses poem is autobiographical, its setting the hayfield next to my parents’ sauna. The photo above, taken by my sister Diane, is of the antique roses that used to grow beside the sauna, transplanted now to my sister’s yard. We called them “wild roses.” As you can see, the roses by the sauna were pink, but in the poem they’re not. That is the slippery nature of poetry. My ear needed the sound of “yellow”—my eye, that flash of light that yellow brings.
I used to think, “This is a personal poem.” Today, I see the political.
Because we are social animals, we are also—like it or not—political animals. My written work focuses on the lives of women, our concerns and our struggles. Yes, we are still struggling for equal treatment. At those times when I see someone treating me dismissively because I’m a woman, I dislike it beyond words. This small poem about going to sauna with my sisters is about women standing together. It hints at sexual freedom—is a preserved moment of nakedness, natural and comfortable. Even in this early poem, I am feeling my way forward, finding a voice and my eventual artistic niche.
I have always written in fits and freezes. My subjects emerge suddenly—an image, a thought, a string of words appearing in the mind. Lately, all that will emerge from my subconscious is my distress over our political situation here in the United States. In my last blog post (“Farm Boys: Lessons for the Pandemic”), my distress was over the federal government’s sorry response to this pandemic.
Our resulting national quarantine is my first experience since childhood with having my freedom limited. I don’t like it, even though I know many scientists personally and am following their carefully reasoned advice. Yes, that would be me, behind my inelegant, homemade mask. Ironically, of course, this curtailment of what we think of as basic rights is small—at best a whiff or taste of what black- and brown-skinned people must have experienced throughout their lives. My angelic tormentor rolls her eyes at my impatience with sheltering at home, sighs, and tells me, “You’re whining.”
What’s emerging from my subconscious right now is my agitation over the protests, not the fact of them, but the reasons for them—the million injustices of our social structure and how stubbornly the present systems resist examination and change. My preoccupation with it all is starting to feel like an obsession. My tormenting angel is at me again, now taunting, “Are those your artistic subjects? What happened to that girl who loved roses?”
In part, I grew up. But more specifically, Seamus happened. He did his job and did it well. Through his instruction and his own example, he nudged my classmates and me toward subjects of deeper importance. Looking at my creative work over the years, it’s clear that there’s something somehow political in everything I’ve written. I’m simply more aware of it now, and more intentional. These days, I write more prose than poetry—my blog, a novel, a couple of plays. My woman-oriented stories explore personal issues like family conflict, domestic abuse, relationship troubles, marital infidelity, divorce, and infertility. They also explore societal issues like gun violence, political extremism across the spectrum, the fracturing of government and society, the blowback of political correctness, and the chipping away at civil rights.
Are you wondering? Why I’ve told you this little story about a class I took?
Because there are winners and losers, but there’s not equal opportunity. Some never get the chance to make their way, to find another path. “Making it” in life and in work is hard, even when you walk up to the door you hope to enter, knowing that you have a fair shot. If you haven’t had that privilege—as people of color can attest—making it through your door of choice will be a brutal process. You’ll notice that racial issues are not included above, in the catalogue of my artistic subjects. It’s not for lack of heart for people of color, but because there are many who can speak that truth in a way I could not. My voice—dare I to use it—must stand in empathy and support.
My working title for this essay used to be “Will This Pandemic Kick My Ass? (Or, My 10,000th Time of Thinking I Should Stop Writing).” Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed—that tormenting angel buzzes so devotedly next to my ear. At times, I wish I could just write simple poems about roses, glistening. But I can’t, because long ago, I received a call to make something beautiful, in the perhaps jarring way I understand beauty, to make art that reflects the world in all its troubles.
Will this pandemic kick my ass? No—it makes my pencil burn over the page.