Boston's Fabled Mid-Century: An Interview with Maxine Kumin

Heather Treseler talks to Maxine Kumin

November 13, 2014

I was lucky to grow up in Boston, where, as an adolescent, I heard readings by Louise Gluck, Rosanna Warren, Robert Pinsky, and Frank Bidart. In college, I began reading the poets from Boston’s fabled mid-century: Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Sylvia Plath, Peter Davison, Anne Sexton, and Maxine Kumin, among others. Only three from this remarkable coterie were alive at the turn of the millennium when my collegiate mentor, Michael Harper, insisted that I learn my “geography”—his shorthand for the literary history of my hometown.

I set out to meet the trio from this older generation of Boston poets, traveling first to New York City to hear Stanley Kunitz, then ninety-five years old, read at the 92nd St. YMCA to a packed, adoring crowd. Armed with an old-fashioned letter of introduction, I next paid a visit to Peter Davison at the old Atlantic Monthly office. Mr. Davison augmented his careful account in The Fading Smile (1994) of Boston’s literary scene with rare bits of gossipy conjecture, sharing his romantic regrets from those years, including his botched courtship of Sylvia Plath (a failure he attributed to Plath’s disapproving mother) and his great admiration for the “wonderfully sane and generous” Maxine Kumin, a poet whose steady achievements, by Davison’s admission, had outdistanced his own.

Approaching Maxine Kumin proved harder. For one thing, her output over four decades had been prodigious by any measure. For another, her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Up Country (1973), featured a gruff New England hermit, and at twenty-four I had not outgrown my shyness. I was daunted by the spare formalism in Kumin’s best poems and the secular homilies in her essays, but drawn to her depictions of girlhood and the New England landscape. Indeed, long before it was in vogue, Kumin was writing an early version of eco-poetics—an unsentimental pastoralism close to that of Thomas Hardy or Robert Frost.

On the morning after Christmas 2005, I drove my small Volkswagen through the snowy hills of New Hampshire. I needed the low gears to make it up the steep incline to the Kumins’ “Po’ Biz Farm,” where blanketed horses stood grazing hay on the hilltop. The spry, gray-haired poet promptly answered my knock and ushered me inside, where we quickly got down to the business of conversation.

In the early days of your career, you were living in the greater Boston area, working with a coterie of poets from John Holmes’s workshop that included Anne Sexton, George Starbuck, and Sam Albert. What was it like to work in that heady mix?

It was marvelous; it was wonderful. We didn’t realize that we were making history; we were just making poems. Our workshop was very argumentative and very noisy. My kids used to say, “Oh, the poets are coming? Can we sleep in the room over the garage?” because we tended to get loud. I’m very grateful that I had those years, and I miss George Starbuck terribly. He was very funny, very intelligent, and very aware of the emotional current in the room. Often, he could sort of calm troubled waters. He was also a presence in our family. He would come out, taking the green line out to Newton Highlands, and stay for supper. Rolfe Humphries had just published his new translation of Metamorphoses and George had edited it, so he came with that, and read sections to [my son] Danny: bedtime stories from Ovid.

Peter Davison’s Fading Smile suggests that Boston had a particularly dynamic milieu of writers in those years.

It was. Anne [Sexton] and I were both desperate to become poets—published poets with some authority—and we both got there, which was a miracle at that time.

Was it difficult to be writing with so few female predecessors?

Yes, it was difficult. And we knew it, and we were desperately trying to break the mold. To get published as a woman was a feat. We were viewed as some species of rare, flightless bird. To get a poem into the New Yorker, to get a poem into Harper's, or to get published in the Atlantic [Monthly] was a huge triumph. Some venues were more hospitable than others. There was a journal back then called the New Orleans Poetry Review run by a physician, and I think Anne and I both had early work in that. That was a place to start off, and Audience, a magazine in Cambridge. But it was having mentors like John Holmes: John gave me a big leg up by taking me to a Poetry Society of America banquet in New York after I had won some little prize. He also took me over to Harper's and introduced me to the poetry editor there, and shortly thereafter I was able to sell a poem to Harper's.

So it doesn’t hurt to have these associations, and I think it taught me how important it is to be a mentor. I have striven in my lifetime to be available to young women and to provide blurbs; nothing irritates me more than these lofty poets who say, “Well, I don’t do blurbs, I can’t be expected to blurb.” Don Hall, who is a good friend of mine, is one of those, and there are others. But being a Luddite and setting yourself apart from humanity—now, please. I remember kindnesses that were paid to me, and I want to extend those kindnesses. Also, I see poetry by women developing in such wonderfully rich, exciting ways, and I want to provide whatever praise and help I can.

In your poem “Male Privilege,” dedicated to the younger poets “to be cleansed of envy,” you recount the situation of younger women poets being bedded by old bards.

Absolutely: all the young groupies. Go to Bread Loaf.

“Bed Loaf”?

Well yes, it is Bed Loaf! It’s what everybody does. How much poetry can you do? You have to do something else after nine o’clock at night. But this business of giving yourself over to a major male poet or critic in the hope that it’s going to advance your career: in some cases, it works that way, and in others, they just talk about you.

Is literary sexism today different than it was in the ’60s and ’70s?

Let’s just say it’s not going to end any time soon. When I look back, I went through four years at Radcliffe and I never saw a woman instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor—not one. Do you know that old saying, “There was a man so poor he fell in love with jail”? That’s the position that we were in. We didn’t know any better, and we accepted it as a given. I did get a wonderful education, but I was extremely lucky in my professors as a history and literature major. I had Harry Levin, of all people, and I wrote my honors thesis under Harry’s benevolent gaze. It had the most pretentious title, “Amorality and the Protagonist in the Novels of Stendhal and Dostoevsky.”

Many critics credit your generation with broadening the poetic gestalt by writing directly about women’s lived experiences.

I was certainly conscious of it when Jim Dickey attacked Sexton for that poem “In Celebration of My Uterus,” and he announced to the world how disgusted he was by poems about women’s private parts. Of course it was okay for him to write Deliverance with a scene of male buggery—that was perfectly all right—but anything about women’s bodies was repugnant. That was when I really became aware of what we were up against. I can’t say that I ever sat down specifically to write a poem that would broaden any gestalt, but this is what is happening, and this is what I find quite exciting. I wrote a poem, it’s in The Law of Marriage, called “Giving Birth.” It’s about going over to Geneva, Switzerland, to be with my daughter Judith when her son was born. But it’s also about what I went through in becoming a mother and how different it was. You could almost take that difference in the birthing process as a symbol for what has happened in women’s poetry. We have gone from the constriction of being licensed to write little lyrics about God, butterflies, and brownies to this open scene where women can write about giving birth; they can write about nursing babies; they can write about fighting the good fight within the university or the culture at large for equality of recognition. So, yes, to answer your question, I was very aware of what we were up against.

When I interviewed Peter Davison, some years ago, he stated that, from his position as poetry arbiter at the Atlantic Monthly, very few of the poets from your shared milieu have approximated the breadth and quality of your career in letters. Could you comment on what has allowed, inspired, or required you to write?

For one thing, I lucked into a good marriage. Because we were poor and had three children, we had to share the household chores, so we got in the habit of a 50/50 relationship from the outset. [After getting a master's degree at Radcliffe] I ghosted medical articles for doctors. Then I started writing light verse for “The Slicks,” and because I had small children, I turned to writing books for children. The first one came out in the same year as my first poetry book, 1961. And then I was launched. To the side of our poems, Anne [Sexton] and I wrote fanciful children’s books such as Joey and the Birthday Present and The Wizard’s Tears to make money. But we also had a wonderful time writing them. Whoever was at the typewriter had veto rights, and we took turns at the typewriter. Annie had a wonderfully wild imagination, and we meshed beautifully. We had a terribly good time. I was always a writer [even if] these were unorthodox beginnings. I don’t think many poets start out writing light verse for magazines and children’s books, but it helped make me the formalist that I am. Though I’m not quite as formal anymore.

In Jack and Other New Poems, there are a number of riveting dramatic monologues. What is the attraction of this form is for you?

I think it’s the novelist in me that wants to develop these alternate stories. Alan Michael Parker did a book called Imaginary Poets, and he asked me and a bunch of other poets to write in the voice of someone else, and I wrote “Inge in Rehab,” which is about an anorexic girl. For the poem “Magda of Hospice House,” I drew from a story my daughter shared from her work with the United Nations Human Rights Council. She’s the high commissioner on refugees, and she was at that time in charge of the Belgrade office. A lot of Romanians were getting out by way of the Danube, floating across the river on inner tubes, or wading if they could, and the standard procedure was that once they made it into what was then Yugoslavia, they were jailed for a brief period of time, and then freed. And this particular young woman, Magda, spoke several languages and so she got a job in Judith’s office, and I took that as my starting point.

In reading these personae poems, I was thinking about Robert Hayden’s notion of the “psychograph,” and his letter-poem in the voice of Phillis Wheatley, addressing her sister. It’s the poet’s capacity to—

To “imaginate,” to create something beyond experience. We once had a carpenter named Woodrow Wilson Crabtree who went by Woody Crabtree. And he put this house’s kitchen, an old-fashioned kitchen, together for us. Woody was in the US Cavalry in the 1930s, and he told me this wonderful story. They were in Arkansas and it was really hot. And the sergeant said, “Men, I want you all to dismount and crawl across this field. There’s an imaginary enemy on the other side of this field.” Woody got down and he started to crawl, but they were in short-sleeved summer issue, and it was all ground blackberry, you know, dewberries we call them, plants that are enormously prickly. And he said, “The hell with this!” and got up and simply walked across the field. The sergeant yelled at him and said, ‘Crabtree! Don’t you know there’s an imaginary enemy over there?” And Woody yelled back, “Sergeant, I just imaginated a big rock betwixt him and me.” So that’s where my sense of “imaginate” comes from, but it fits for what we are talking about.

Many of the poems in this recent collection, while not as formal as your early work, incorporate rhyme schemes and meter. But you’re also working with vernacular speech, blending colloquial idiom with form. It results in poems that sound “talkative,” though they are also deftly crafted.

That was certainly my aim. The harder the subject is to write about, the more likely I am to fit it in a formal bag. For example, there is that final poem “Sonnet in So Many Words,” which I don’t think I could otherwise have written. At other times, writing in form is more or less playful, as in that opening sonnet about the redpolls, “The Highwaymen.” In general, I like to write tight poems.

One poem concludes, “Never to say what one feels, and yet, this is a love poem, can you taste it?” which suggests a certain teasing reticence.

Writing a love poem is . . . my God, you have to be . . . you have to be tangentially off to one side, I think. You can’t write a love poem straight out. Or at least I can’t. I feel very strongly that you have to come at it from some unexpected angle. “We are Lovelier” is one attempt. “Love’s little mellow frogs take the sun.” The unexpected, the details, are what make it go, and it’s a poem of desperation. We’re making a Marvellian run for it.

Death, in earlier poems and in this book, is unaccompanied by its usual blandishments. But there’s also a sense of an endearing, enduring tension with the departed. In “The Sunday Phone Call,” there are lines in the voice of a father, addressing his daughter: “I may be dead, but I’m not clairvoyant—behave yourself.”

Wasn’t that lucky, that line? “I may be dead, but I’m not clairvoyant.” That line the muse gave me; I didn’t have to fight for that at all. It’s funny, but on my desk I have two new poems about my father, as if I can’t ever be done with that subject. And maybe you never are. Or maybe I’m just going back through—reviewing my life, I don’t know.

In poems such as the “The Pawnbroker,” you describe a tenacious work ethic.

I think I got that from my father. My father who would say on a Sunday evening with a sigh of satisfaction, “Well, I murdered this day.” It’s a form of Jewish Calvinism I think. Grace through good works, and good work through application.

My final question is about what you’re reading these days.

I read omnivorously. I just read Anthony Walton’s Mississippi, which was superb. Then I read Brothers in Arms, the book Walton coauthored with Abdul-Jabbar about the all-black tank regiment in World War II. Before that, I’d been reading Edith Wharton because I had actually never read her, and I was rereading a lot of Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. What else? Of course I read poetry all the time, and I read whatever fiction my daughters hand on to me. I’m a stalwart fan of Alice Munro, Gail Godwin, Margaret Drabble, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jane Smiley. In fiction, it seems I read mostly women, but I’m not against reading men. I’m crazy about Russell Banks, for example.

Would you take one more question? Are there advantages to inhabiting a geographic periphery?

There are definite advantages. I could not survive in New York City and live alongside the poetry mafia. I’m very happy to be on the outskirts, even if it means being on the outs sometimes. I do have moments of sheer jealousy when I see what’s going on at Poets House [in New York City], but I’m not unhappy. If I couldn’t open the front door and put my feet on actual ground, I think I would go crazy. [Looking out her window] Yes, I don’t think I could live anywhere else.

Your Horatian remove here on Po’ Biz Farm reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s seventeen years in Brazil, her writing studio built beside a waterfall, and how she characterized those years as her most productive and fulfilling—

Well, she was also in love. That helps.

Heather Treseler's full-length interview of Maxine Kumin appears in Notre Dame Review, No. 39, Winter/Spring 2015.