"...to say something true that has body."Henri Cole, poet in residence at Smith College, 2004.
"What is poetry, if not His face touched/by the brutality of things."Adelia Prado, "Guide," from the Alphabet in the Park, trans. Ellen D. Watson.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"Mary Oliver
A spirited kid with a knack for theatrics, and a gift for words, Ellen Dore Watson was not about to settle in life for the "beige" Methodist faith of her minister father or the safe and comfortable middle-class ethos in which she was raised in surburban New York.
"She didn't know hunger," Watson writes autobiographically in a poem from her first published collection, We Live in Bodies,
" but she had a bad case/of the wants."
These wants at the first drew her to theater, later to wide and various wanderings, and eventually, somewhat belatedly she confesses, to her life's true vocation as a poet. She landed in the Valley in the early 1970s to finish her B.A. at UMass, and then went on immediately to earn her M.F.A.
Watson, 54, of Conway, has won prizes for both of her two published volumes of poetry and wide acclaim for a third book of translations from the marvelous earthy and ecstatic work of Catholic Brazilian poet Adelia Prado. A book of new poems of her own and a second, selections from Prado's, are in the works, if she can ever muster the time to give these projects the proper attention.
It's a continuing struggle for her, she opines, to find the right balance between her creative work and her professional obligations as an editor (at the Massachusetts Review and with the collective Alice James Books, the publisher of her first two volumes of poetry), as a poetry workshop leader, and, for the past five years, as the director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, a job that she says has been wonderfully fulfilling andthe inevitable down sidepretty much all-consuming.
"I don't know where I got the word thing," Watson told me in an interview in the center's bright and sunny, booklined reading room in Wright Hall on the college campus. "My father's least favorite part of the job was the sermon."
She remembers with a sly grin of aumsement how as a kid it was through a bit of subterfuge that she clued in to the power of the written word. She had discovered that she could, with a minimal effort, compose notes compelling enough to get her out of trouble with her parents.
"I saw that words could help me weasel out of things." As time went on, her parents "got a little more charmed, and punished me a little less." She learned that, not so much what you say, "but the way you say something matters." Fortunately her literary ruse became a budding talent that found plenty of healthy outlet and nurturance in the Plainview, N.Y. public schools. Even though "Walt Whitman" was mainly know in that area as a shopping mall, the town had excellent schools and some inspired teachers.
The passionate perspective and emotional chronicle of a woman juggling the multiple roles of lover, wife, daughter, and mother is the terrain which Watson chiefly explores in her intensely personal poetry. Many of her poems also take on the burden of the pain and suffering of others who tend not to share her privileged upbringing. She has, like many middle class Americans of her generation, sought out experiences and relationships outside of her comfort zone. Towards this end she volunteered for many years as an emergency medical technician in her adopted hometown of Conway. There is a whole category of her poems which she refers to simply as her "EMT poems."
Watson writes about the existential suffering, befuddlement, strangeness, slapstick antics and exultation of embodied life. What Prado says of herself could be said of Watson's poetic person: she's "a creature of the body." What she writes about Prado applies equally well to her: "She has a desire to embrace everything in sightas well as things invisible."
Religious motifs and echoes of church life surface in her poetryso deeply are they embedded in her consciousnessbut when they do, you can almost hear Watson's verbal antibodies heating up to keep them in check. She's not an atheist, she says, she just happens to think that "spiritual reality" includes more than most organized religion usually allows for. She writes with an urgent, propulsive energy, a sinewy physicality. Her imagery is visceral and erotic in the full and complete sense of that word. You can sense her presence behind Prado's line: "It's the soul that's erotic."
"If I pray," her poem entitled "You Know Who You Are" concludes, "it will be to you who find a way/to live with a clenched fist, a clean heart."
Many of her poems almost seem to be saying back over their shoulders to organized Christian religion, how do you like this for incarnation? They are crowded with the haphazard details and ordinary catastrophes of everyday living; with perspiration, desperation, depression, sex; the "brokenness" of existence.
"I want things whole, but I love things broken," she writes in "Broken Railings."
"The feather" she writes of in the poem by that namean address to a woman who appears to have been physically abused and is struggling to express her suppressed painis the poet itself: "You wear your feather with a vengeance./The quill of it drilled into the soft cup of flesh/at the root of speech, at the crux of breath./At the precise fork of who you are."
One would be hard put to find a clearer, more incisive credo than this for the art of experimental, confessional, lyrical poetry of the kind that is being written and published, read and "performed" by a burgeoning number of practitioners in all kinds of traditional and not-so-traditional venues here in the Valley and across the country.
Watson finds herself right in the middle of this fascinating, mass phenomenon in poetry as director of the Poetry Center at Smith.
The idea for the center was first proposed in 1996 by Annie Edwards Boutelle, a poet and critic and senior lecturer in English at the college. It was sparked by a challenge that Ruth Simmons, the president at the time, had made to the faculty to reflect upon and "dream dreams" about the future of the college.
Boutelle had a vision of some sort of entitya placethat would promote the reading, writing, study and appreciation of poetry across the college and in the surrounding community in a threefold way: through public readings by leading poets representing a broad spectrum demographically and artistically; through informal seminars between these visiting poets and interested faculty and students; and through community "outreach" efforts especially aimed at the public schools and social agencies.
The vision was partly inspired and informed by the catalytic effect that W.H. Auden's visit to Smith in 1953 seemed to have had upon one special student, the future poet Sylvia Plathwho wrote in her journal of the thrill of hearing the "burlap-textured voice and the crackling brilliant utterances" of the great English poet whom she referred to, scribbling with sophomoric intensity in her journal, as one of the "god-eyed, tall-minded ones."
The 89 readings the center has hosted to date have included brilliant poets of lesser fame and a slew of famous ones including Stanley Kunitz, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, W.S. Merwin, Derek Walcott, James Tate, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur. The venues have been mobbed most of the time.
By 1999, when the time came to hire a director, Watson walked in as the obvious choice. She brought not only artistic and intellectual credentials to the position, but also an entrepreneurial gift that has served the enterprise well.
For a spell in the late 70s, before she went on an extended study sojourn to Brazil with her then husband, poet Paul Jenkins, she had launched and successfully operated a retail shoe store called Strut in downtown Northampton along with a couple of fellow UMass MFA graduates.
Then in the early 90s, having become weary of the hermit's life of a full-time translatorwhich she had been at for a dozen years, with a dozen works of Brazilian fiction and nonfiction poetry to show for itshe took a job as a clerk at Mark Bromberg's former Globe Bookshop on Pleasant Street. She soon was given responsibility to run the shop's reading series there. She made hay with that assignment.
"First I learned that if you have enough chutzpah you can get the poets to come," she told me in an interview one sunny day in the book-lined, flower-bedecked Poetry Center.
"We rapidly got a reputation as a place where poets like to come to read because, first, we took them out to a really nice dinner, andmore to the pointwe had a great audience. This area has a great audience for poetry. (The late poet) Bill Matthews told me that he felt the quality of the silence at the Globe was of the kind that you knew people were really listening, that they had a very high level of commitment to listening. That's the Valley. People who come to readings, a lot of them, have that intensity about their listening."
Watson did not mention, but she might have added, that another of the perks that attracted poets to the Globe was knowing that their work would be introduced there intelligently and knowingly and with great passion and lyricism.
Watson has elevated the introduction of poets to an art in itself, says Boutelle. It's just one of the many ways she has contributed to the success of the center. Boutelle also mentions Watson's "passion," the exhaustive research that she does in selecting the visiting poets and preparing for their visits, her having brought in more poets writing in languages other than English, her skills as a teacher, and her "phenomenal aptitude for organization."
Watson's organizational side actually shows up in her poetry, Boutelle says, partly in jest.
"Ellen says she writes in free verse," and indeed, says Boutelle, the poems are very free in the sense of being "fast paced, with many unexpected jumps. You're never anywhere for a very long time (in one of her poems) before you're whirled into something else."
And yet, Boutelle continues, "her poems dont' look like free verse. They're very neat. All the lines are the same length."
I asked both Boutelle and Watson why they think so many people are writing poetry and so many flocking to poetry workshops and poetry readings and poetry slams in these times.
"There is a huge hunger," Watson told me. "Poetry answers a certain need people have for spirituality, for just being with the big questions, with the unknown...It answers this need in a way that prose cannot," in a way that no other art can, in a way that religion has failed to do perhaps because so often doctrine gets in the way of letting the questions simply "be," she said.
Boutelle described the mass movement in poetry as "truly a worldwide phenomenon" that has developed in response, she believes, to the daily assault on the integrity of language by the "hype" and "spin" and downright mendacity of advertising and publicity that has infected political speech and seemingly every other kind of speech in a consumerist, media-saturated society.
"We have a need as human beings for language to be precise, to be used with respect," she said.
Poetry "also fulfills a spiritual need, I think," she said. "It's like a secular spirituality. In times that are as confusing and troubling as these are, when we learn of the most appalling things happening all over the world instantly with images and sound, there is something very reassuring about being in a community of people who are listening in selence with laughter and tears to someone not scared to speak hard truths." It's a "kind of communion," she said, "so private and so public at the same time."
Watson, despite her unapologetic rejection of organized Protestant religion, owns up to having a weakness for preaching, even a missionary impulse, when it comes to spreading the small "w" word of power of poetry to change people's lives, if not the world.
"Yes, I admit to my students to being a 'zealot' about poetry," she says.
It is gratifying when poetswho no doubt comprise a healthy percentage of the audience for poetrypraise your work after a reading, she told me. More deeply rewarding, however, is when "some regular person comes up and says, 'Thank you for saying that. I needed to hear it said. I needed to understand how to say it, this feeling I have.' That's the best!"
Free-lance writer Judson Brown, a resident of Northampton, is a former newspaper reporter.