Today’s View From the Keyboard is something special. ANNE-MARIE OOMEN, a very dear friend of mine (and of many, many writers, young and old) shares with us a glimpse into her workspace, The Think House. Up in Leelanau County in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Anne-Marie divides her time as a teacher in the Solstice Low Residency MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts and at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts high school that lures exceptional young writers to its Creative Writing program.
When not dedicating her time to her students, Anne-Marie is writing, writing, writing: essays, poems, plays, and recently her first published short story. Two of her memoirs published by Wayne State University Press, Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, were selected as Michigan Notable Books. Her plays, poems, and essays have been collected, anthologized, produced, published, and honored with many awards; among these literary accomplishments is her well-received poetry collection Uncoded Woman (Milkweed Editions), An American Map: Essays (Wayne State University Press) and the recent play, “Secrets of the Luce Talk Tavern.”
Yes, she has the chops. Yes, she is a very, very good writer. She is also a very good person. Anne-Marie Oomen’s work is often in service not just to her art and not just to her students, but often to the community in which she lives, to the land and waters that surround her.
Here then, is Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard essay, “Warming the Flue,” in its entirety, reprinted (with permission) from An American Map.
Warming the Flue:
The Think House, Empire, Michigan
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Elliot. Four Quartets
Tucked as it is in a Michigan woods thick with tall maple and ash, the Think House eddies with chill in winter, and remains too-cool and shaded in the summer.
So I build a fire in the woodstove.
A decade ago in Leelanau County, my David and I built by hand this sixteen by twenty cabin out of mostly recycled, damaged or deeply discounted goods. As a result, each autumn we seal leaky windows with plastic and stuff insulation strips around the eternally peeling though still partly brilliant red door. The small black Jotel perches in the corner—inadequate against drafts—and dusty pine bookcases filled to bending line the walls—doing double duty as insulation when the cold comes on. A butcher-block table views the insect-spotted window, a second-hand desk holds a newer computer, a school chair leans toward the woodstove. Here is a Depression era rocker, three dictionaries—two unabridged, one belonging to my grandmother, and more books—revealing an obsession for having them as much as for reading.
I wad newspaper into rough coils and place them side by side in the chamber. I pile shards of pine and scrap walnut on the wasted news, criss-crossing them like highways on a map. Then I realize it’s so cold that I have to warm the flue before I start the fire. I roll a full sheet of newspaper into a long crinkled tube. I light one end with a wooden match, hold it into the firebox, seeking that small invisible place where a hint of draft should pull. I sit back on my heels.
In this room, turkey feathers tuck into cracks, lake stones rest on sills, Petoskey fossils serve as doorstops. The place is rough on all its edges, messy with piles and it lacks any plumbing—though the electricity works most of the time. It is too quiet—except for wind, the voice that always enters this place.
Here is the place where the stories and poems take root. But even before that, where does the process begin? At what point is the imagination sparked? Just as there must be fuel to warm the cold stove’s firebox, there must be inspiration for the imagination to warm.
Will the fire take? I wait in the cold. Sometimes when the chimney is too cold, the warm smoke is trapped and backpuffs, filling the cluttered room. Then there is only coughing and ugly haze.
I’ve worked in this room for years, fired this stove every cold day that needed warming. I know the ways of this stove I bend to: I also know how my thinking goes. It doesn’t always work, this attempted combustion of air and tinder—or its parallel in imagination and language. The writing doesn’t come from nowhere. Other routes, like the tube of flaming paper to channel fire and warm the flue, must warm the mind. The fuel of travel, the experience of other places and their people inspire me.
For me, this desire to seek out new places is not simple; despite an innate curiosity, I love home and isolation. Solitude. The chill of the Think House, the wind against it. In contrast, the intensity of New York City unnerves me, the Mexican border disturbs me, Culebra’s wild surf shakes me. Always I feel uncertain and often lonely opening the door on new territory, following new routes away from old roots. It feels blank and nerve-wracking and yes, I thrive on it. I pack.
The tube of old news flutters, unwilling. I bend to it. Fire grows from fire, small to large. But nothing happens without the air, the oxygen drawing across it to feed it. I blow a little.
Lately I have been thinking about how discrete places, and perhaps country with it, might become place-less. No, not place-less, for that is more or less impossible, but how places might lose their individuality, lose their meaning. I sense the disquiet, the loss of place, the unplace-ness that may be happening in my America. Will we one day alter Pete Seeger’s melancholy anthem: where have all the places gone?
Are they still out there—places where meaning and geographies are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity, that make us a people? We can still find them, can’t we?
I imagine the inside of the chimney, the clash of warm air pushing against the cold air still holding in the upper regions of the pipe. Fire too has this restlessness in its nature, the built-in imperative to move into unexplored space, to taste new air.
The tubed flame, held into the firebox like food for a shy pet, is accepted at last. With sudden decision, the draft pulls, the drifting smoke is routed all at once, a poof into the flue and up to the open, its heat warming the cold chimney, warming interior chambers with its draw, preparing it for fire.
Metaphor arrives, its small miracle puffing.
I am rooted in place in my Think House with its warming stove. I follow routes of place out into the open. But I also root out places—as the farmer pulls plants to understand growth—and I root as a baby does, paradoxically seeking the nourishment from—not a mother—but from places all over the country, the mother country.
Through the writing, I enter still another form of rooting out, of making and remaking these places in language, in words that seek to fire the imagination of others. Place-making. And in reimagining the faraway places here at home, I root out, through my own mother tongue, what place might mean, not simply a specific place, but the idea and meaning of place. Place-meaning. And in this process, discovering, thinking, and writing, rooting out place and places in my America, feeding the fire, my anxiety eases. I can work. A kind of compassion comes.
My country ‘tis of thee…
Reprinted from An American Map by Anne-Marie Oomen. (c) 2010 Wayne State University Press
→Anne-Marie, thank you for letting us into your Think House, and Wayne State University Press, thank you, too, for permitting this reprint. Everyone else, thanks, as always, for reading. -PMc←