At 6 pm, it’s black. At sunset, a thumbnail of red under the umber ribbed clouds as the western sky runs pink and gold across the Bagaduce River estuary at the mouth of Penobscot Bay. The sky is not the dull orange my friends from the Bay Area describe, keeping them inside, with breath muted, away from smoke and ash from the fires. We have water and air here, alongside the proposed treaty-busting of the Penobscot Nation’s water rights, set in motion by our departing governor who threatens to bring in the Feds to carry through on his bullying. This fight is local, and many river towns have voted to support the Penobscot, and defy the former Maine governor’s arbitrary pronouncement. And Poland Springs, Maine’s infamous water company, brings nothing to the town of Poland Springs, except the threat of poison. The springs ran dry fifty years ago, and the remaining Maine sources are close to human waste dumps, landfill or toxic petroleum dump sites. It’s all in the air, and back at my house, a little after 6pm, I meet with young poet filmmaker Matt to talk poetry.
Matt wants to hear stories of early queer days–Maine, California, NYC, poet stories of any kind. He jokes that’s what he’s here for, talking trash, smiles. He dropped into my life out of the sky and works at the local bookstore where we started talking… He asked if we could talk about poems together, and we’re working a trade. We have different literacies, and he’s helping me do things I have no idea how to do: making a flexible text/photo inventory for an archive of Granite Press (Maine and Brooklyn, 1975 -1989), and hopalong press (Monterey, Massachusetts, 1973–75). The inventory covers my letterpress print shop and small press publishing life as a lesbian feminist poetry publisher. I’ll send the inventory to interested institutions to showcase Book Arts. The Book Arts portion of the story is made up of design/layouts of chapbooks, broadsides and books—accompanying PR, print ephemera for/by friends, and books as objects. As we go through the material–another life–histories emerge: lesbians in Maine in the 70s, building one-room houses with lofts from scrap on granite hillsides; the 90’s NYC scene at A Different Light, the early NYC lgbtq bookstore where I ran the Poetry Series; remembering sweet gay/lesbian alliances while packing books and talking with Assotto Saint about publishing his first anthology, 100 Gay Black Poets, as he debuted Galiens Press at Boston’s OutWrite. It’s endless, all the relations.
I built three print shops – all with the help of friends– and I could write a book about moving equipment. The first print shop was built with the help of my brother, a mystery writer (see Best American Mysteries 2018!) with a talent for carpentry and making things work with his hands. hopalong press was in an old barn in Monterey, rent-free, as long as the owner could print his Christmas card on the press. The materials for building the print shop within the beautiful old barn came from the basement expansion of Alice’s Restaurant, then in Housatonic, where I had worked, and more came from the remains of a caved-in caretaker’s cottage in the woods out back.
My blacksmith friend, Gerry, orchestrated moving the type cases and printing equipment in the fall from the Great Barrington print shop owned by 79-year-old Mrs Fred Colby who said she wanted it to go to a real printer. Gerry made a special tool to remove the flywheel and five of us got the platen press on the back of the truck. On her 80th birthday, Mrs. Fred Colby came to visit in a snowstorm with her grandson to be sure I kept my word, as a letterpress ally, and indeed was printing. Gerry would be dead within the year–alcohol not the later plague. Gerry and I were both bi, at the time, living out our young horizons, admitting hidden desires to each other. I am keenly aware, even in this skeletal outline, that the stories glide in and out of each other, abbreviated beyond recognition. The poet filmmaker Matt wants to hear it all.
At 6, it is pitch black and we meet at my house. He picks up pizza from the popular brick oven bakery down the road and I pull the last arugula from my garden with a headlamp strapped on before the next day’s chill. I got the garlic in on the last full-bodied warm day, when the ground was still soft. The water table’s back up after rain pretty much every two days over the last two months. This has meant not finishing outside painting on my house—no time for it to dry. The house will hold – it has since 1835. The Perkins family planted the Cape on the lip of a barely cresting hill, good drainage, set back from the road and looking towards the meadow and woods on the south side, the Bagaduce River estuary to the north across the way. House is another story that goes through changes every season and requires preparation, maintenance and caring. Owning a house, something I came to after 50. When I leave, I say Goodbye, House and Thank you, House.
Back to Matt who brings the pizza in steaming. Matt is a book lover, filmmaker, poet, teaching film at a nearby college when they can hire him. I let him know the juggling of jobs and work will not end, but he likes doing too much at once. A natural. We are both jugglers, and talking poems around a shared meal is a sweet pleasure. He has Chicago, Mount Desert Island and the Hudson Valley where he worked at a terrific bookstore in his background and he loves the work of our own MFA sister Rachael Pollack! All the places have touched him and helped form his changing self. This weekend, he’s going with his boyfriend to an experimental film festival in Northampton Mass. He gets out and about which is a trick not everyone here knows. When we travel, we come back with stories.
In traveling with him and his poems, I’ve brought him voices he has not fully met–Muriel Rukeyser, Jean Valentine, Tomas Transtromer, Federico Garcia Lorca, James Schuyler, and Adrienne Rich. He reads to me – his own poems and work by the poets he’s studying, chooses among particular intensities. We listen together, then talk.
As we start in on the pizza, we have to talk about who’s working at Tinderhearth now, picking up orders and how the bakery’s doing compared to summertime, when popularity forced them to build a parking lot the size of two barns. We have become groovy in the town where I live. It used to be that when people came here, they drove around and around in circles, and left, frustrated, unable to find the center. There is no center. It’s a circle. We waved goodbye. Now, we live in a place where people say, Oh, Tinderhearth is there, and the oyster farm. Here’s to local enterprise and slow growth.
I’ve introduced Matt to Jean Valentine’s work, her short poems of abiding mystery. I want him to learn something that she taught me: we are writing towards the poem, alert to it. It may be ahead of us, so we need to wait, listening to find it. We have to enter the space and allow the charge, the flickers to lead, change and become the poem. It is there. It may not be what we think. I ask him to notice how she uses the colon, little punctuation and lineation that builds to the unique stabbing exactitude of a dream. He falls in love with Jean Valentine, while saying, sometimes he doesn’t understand the poems. He describes the sensation of being lost. Yes I know, I say, she always takes me somewhere I’ve never been. I may not know where I am, but I discover something about where I am. From Little Boat, and the poem, “I wanted to be sure to reach you”: “–But to go away!/ And I wanted to be sure to reach you!… / But to you now I offer—forgive me, River–/ what I could never then give over.”
Jean was the first poet I ever talked to about poems. I was a teenager and it shaped my life. She wrote tiny handwritten comments on my poems in pencil. Matt’s poems are beginning to grow towards startling endings, and I think this is Jean talking to his poems. In our last meeting, sharp cold outside, we talked about the poem “Shooting Scripts” from Adrienne Rich’s The Will to Change. Although it might seem obvious to give him this to read as a filmmaker, I felt he needed to be playing more with sequence in his poems before reading Rich. I wasn’t even sure if we would read her. He would need to gather some faith between lyric and narrative beforehand. He came over with The Complete Poems which is about an inch and a half thick and really does have everything in it. I didn’t ask about his conception or preconception of Rich, and he said she had been circling nearby for quite a while. But the reading of this poem is a beginning that will serve him and pull his own poems out into a more expansive relationship of elements within the poem – within broken stanzas – within line breaks – and into a more fluid motion between imagery and narrative. The first line opened my chest to sorrow and joy. I had forgotten the pitch and intensity: “We are bound on the wheel of an endless conversation…” It woke me to our present, and the long story behind, what the poems meant in 1968, when we discovered the same conversation expanding before us, and how the times made that happen. Thinking of how we need the poems now, the possibility. I came from that possible form, from those open, hard questions of that time. They shaped me. And the other night as he read the first line, I saw her again as she took the heat and power of the poem forward to another place.
I asked Matt for a few words about what her poems brought to him. He offered, movement, intense tone, openness, pieces of things moving, lines against and with each other. The conversation continues, the temperature drops. When I ask him for a few words about our conversation over these months, he kindly offers praise. Because I have been given the same kind of space from my teachers, poets all, I pass it on: She’s allowed me to be in the space of what I’m writing, and what others are writing: the true room of it. The respect she gives to my writing … the sharpness and openness of her reading in my work along with the direction she prompts me in feels true. This getting into what the poem wants is refreshing from past close reading and speaks to what I strive toward in my filmmaking. I was given similar room to imagine into by Jean Valentine and my other teachers–Jane Cooper, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich.
Here in Maine, on these nights, this infusion of elder and younger queer poets, sharing good talk and making our way has made the fall lighter. This is the virtue of reading poetry aloud and asking the poems for direction. We note all the changes around us from the ground to the sky, from the hardening underfoot to the orange sky in the west where I will be going in March, and he asks about my safety. I wonder about his juggling, risk taking in his poems, and fluid comfort of the visual.
The trunk of the oak out front is large enough to accommodate twelve standing—I measured it with my body. It’s almost leafless and the red brown leaves cover the front yard with what is now remaining color. The stars are bright and when I see Orion, I think of Adrienne and her love for that constellation, and her telling the bright dark true of the moment, the ways she speaks to our situation. We need to follow many different legacies. And not be afraid to dream, and name the dreaming as far out as we can go, beyond the usual edges, like Jean.
It’s clear to me that Matt and I enjoy different literacies, born from ways of experiencing hearing and seeing, focus and opening out. As we talk, we find the spaces where poems live and cross worlds. We can thank Jean Valentine, Adrienne Rich and all the others who give us poetry to pass on, notes “of an endless conversation.”