09 Feb Remembering May
When I discovered I was on the short list for the Sarton book award for memoir, May flashed in my mind. Eighty years old, shock white hair, owl-eye glasses that looked probingly out at the world. It was l992, on the occasion of her birthday; I’d been invited to Portland, Maine for a conference and reading in celebration of her special day. It turned out that this was the last reading she would give. She died in l995.
The May Sarton book awards are given annually for memoir, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and young adult and new adult fiction. The sponsor, the Story Circle Network, is an international nonprofit association of women writers honoring women’s lives through workshops and story circles throughout the United States and Canada. Because May Sarton championed the lives of women through her poetry and prose for over sixty years, the awards, fittingly, are named for her.
Seventeen books of poetry; twenty novels; thirteen nonfiction works; two children’s books. And the last of her novels and journals were done despite a stroke which limited her ability to write and breast cancer which took her life. It’s easy to forget (and many people have never known this) that historically publishing women writers have been few, especially in the serious book world. Not so many years before Sarton was born, Marietta Holley (another proponent of women’s rights and women’s writing) had her main character’s husband ask when he discovered his wife was writing a book on “wimmen’s rites”: “But Samantha, who’ll read the book when it’s rote?” And the intellectual, Carolyn Heilbrun, Columbia University Professor of English, in the early l970s wrote a piece for the Atlantic called “The Masculine Wilderness of the American Novel.”
Sarton’s many works treated the subjects of aging and death, women’s creativity, identity, love of nature, lesbianism, isolation, self-doubt, friendship. For women like myself, coming to age in the 60s, joining the work force in the 70s, she was a beacon for those of us seeking the creative life and full lives as women.
So May, I do remember. Not only the poems, the journals, but the day in which I sat next to you in your flower adorned living room after the conference. I gave a paper on your forty years of correspondence with the New Mexico poet, Peggy Church, letters full of vital and revealing exchanges between two writing women. Oh, you checked it out to be sure. I had to submit the paper to you personally before the conference when some of the content of the letters would be publicly revealed. Could I pass muster? Later, I thought I might be in the hot seat, sitting there in that room. Church had questioned your ambition, your “falcon’s eye,” as she said in a poem addressed to you. She, shyer and less well-known, cautioned: “We cannot soar/ like birds toward the sun. We must endure/ the weight of winter and the darkened moon,/not like Van Gogh who was devoured by light/ until his brush bled fire.”
But the afternoon was pleasant. You seemed pleased with the proceedings. There was champagne and chameleons in this House By the Sea in York, Maine– your yellow clapboard house whose graces included a path to the ocean and that salty air.
I hear your voice, that weight, such strength. Oh, how you could read. And what you have said about poetry and its commonality with memoir. And that the poem, the good one, the given lines, come and operate from the subconscious, nothing forced, foreseen. Remembering thoughts like this make me so happy to be a writer.
Thank you, May.