Arts & Literature

Uncorseted

A conversation with the late poet Maxine Kumin


Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AP
Poet Maxine Kumin is shown sitting at a friend's house in Dedham, Ma., on Nov. 5, 1974. Kumin won the U.S. Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1973 for "Up Country." (AP Photo)

Poet Maxine Kumin died at her home in Warner, N.H. on Feb. 6 at age 88. Kumin was the author of almost 20 books of poetry, including Our Time Here Will Be Brief (1982) and The Long Marriage (2001). She also published essays, novels, short stories and children’s books, as well as a powerful memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond (2001).

Valley writer Christian McEwen spoke with Kumin when she came to read at Smith College, on March 28, 2011. The interview is one in a series called Sparks from the Anvil, which will appear in book form in 2015.

Christian McEwen: There’s a line in The Long Marriage where you refer to yourself as a “girl-child parched with my own small longings.” And in another poem you describe Muriel Rukeyser as “the first woman poet I knew who was willing to say the unsaid.” And I wondered if you’d be willing to trace the ways in which simply being female had impacted your own writing.

Maxine Kumin: It’s interesting that you should ask because I am, at the moment, working on a piece for the Folger-Shakespeare library. They’re going to have a program on women writers, and they’re bringing out a chapbook on women writers over five centuries. They asked me to contribute something. So I started a sonnet and then another—so far I have nine of them. What a challenge! I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

 

Part of these “Sonnets Uncorseted” is about Margaret Cavendish, but part is about my own experience. I write about going to college in the forties, during the Second World War. When I was a student at Radcliffe, I never saw a single woman faculty member, not a woman instructor, not even a teaching assistant. Certainly no women full professors. All of the faculty were male. Eventually, I earned my Master’s degree which was my ticket to a teaching job at Tufts University. Alberta Arthurs—she went on to become director for arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation —and I were the only women in the English Department. And because we were women, we were only considered fit to teach Freshmen Composition to the Phys. Ed. majors and the dental technicians. And there was no ladies’ room. We had to fight to get a ladies’ room installed in the building.

To get published was such a struggle at the time. Anne Sexton and I were restless mothers with small children trying to break into the domain of the male pooh-bahs. Eventually, one of us sold a poem to The New Yorker and the other one sold a poem to Harper’s. That was the beginning. But it was really inch by inch. One of my “Sonnets Uncorseted” deals with how we were regarded by the male poets. We met their planes. We took them to their gigs. At the last minute, we drove frantically through traffic so that they could catch their planes for the next gig, and they would say to us admiringly, “You drive like a man.” And if we wrote a poem that they perchance found worthy, they would say, “You write like a man.” It was a long, hard fight. I think that students today have no real concept of what the women’s movement consisted of, or how personal the struggle was.

But that’s just a one-minute capsule of a long and complicated experience.

What women were you reading then?

Of course we read Friedan and of course we read Simone de Beauvoir, although I hated her relationship with Sartre. The women poets that I read were certainly Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich. We were pretty much all of an age, though Muriel was quite a bit older.

When I was Poet Laureate in 1981-82, I had the prerogative of choosing poets to come to give readings each month. Because of the dearth of women poets in my own experience, I was determined to make a broad selection of women representing a variety of ethnic groups and opinions. Two of the most notable were Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. Rich had turned down invitations from male laureates in the past, so I was delighted that she accepted mine. The line for entry to her reading stretched around the block and the overflow crowd had to watch on closed circuit television in an extra room.

I’ve been thinking a lot about slowness in the past few years—the use of slowness as the basis for creativity. Perhaps you could say something about speed and slowness in your own life.

Because we’re quite old now, our lives are a lot more circumscribed than they once were. We no longer travel. I used to teach in Florida in the winter. For many years, we drove down and drove back. We can’t do that anymore. So we have slowed down a lot.

I sit at the computer for hours. I pick away at poems. I usually have a couple of things going at a time. Don Hall is a good friend and we exchange worksheets. We have to do it by fax because Don is a Luddite. He won’t have a computer in the house. But he has a dedicated fax machine that he’s very proud of.

My study is on the ground floor of our old house and it overlooks what we call the sheep pen even though we no longer raise sheep. I’m just surrounded by greenery on three sides. When the snow melts, we begin to walk. We go out through the bottom pastures and then uphill to the woods road, and then over to the vegetable garden and the pond, and farther uphill to the driving ring, and through the upper pasture and then on down. It’s about a 35-minute walk. I hope we’ll both continue to be able to do that. When it’s cold out we walk in the warmest part of the day, and the rest of the time I’m at my desk.

 

It sounds like a good life to me.

I like it.

 

I especially loved your lines, “Poetry is like farming. It’s a calling. It needs constancy and long life.” We’ve been talking about this obliquely—but I wondered if you’d talk more directly about the pleasures, the terrors, the responsibilities of that “long life.”

Terrors, yes, because there is the overwhelming knowledge that one of us is going to die first. We don’t talk about it very much. We just know it’s there. The pleasures of a long life are mixed, because I have a lot of arthritis now. It’s hard for me to get around. That’s only going to go in one direction. But it’s nice to be able to look back over all those good years together. And all of the adventures we’ve had. You know, Victor and I were both competitive trail riders for about 12 years. Over the years we bred and raised 10 of our own horses. The thing I miss most in my life is having a foal in the spring. I always used to say, “A foal in the oven shortens the winter.” It’s such a wonderful thing to look forward to.

We raised some absolutely wonderful horses.•

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