The Writer’s Handful with Anne-Marie Oomen

oomen-0137 copy

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

It is my absolute joy to bring the writer Anne-Marie Oomen to your attention. Again. I say ‘again’ because Anne-Marie graciously allowed me to reprint her essay “Warming the Flue” for my View From the Keyboard series some time ago. Since then, Anne-Marie continues to be hard at work on many projects: a new collection of essays about her time in 4H and all that goes along with that; poems; plays; a little fiction; and a commissioned verse play that will be unveiled in Ireland sometime in the coming months.

She’s also a friend and cheerleader of many writers at all stages of their careers. I could tell you all the times she has supported my work along the way, but I’d rather she got to tell you a little about herself and work.

Welcome, Anne-Marie.

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

I write almost everyday though not always productively.  Or a better way to say it: I don’t always write the writing of my heart. When I’m composing an email or making a list, I’m thinking about how it reads. I’m exercising skills. Practicing. Which perhaps accounts for why I am slow to answer emails; I’ve been known to linger for a quarter of an hour over a sentence simply stating why I will be happy to do a workshop at your library. So whole days when I’m caught up in the function of the world—correspondence, teaching, editing projects, community, grants, etc. Not bad writing, just functional—but it’s still composing.  I’m writing. American Map #3B

Not to be precious, but the question’s variation is: was today’s writing the writing of my heart. Today, I did write in that way. Today, the writing of the heart was a fresh scene for a new play based in Ireland—where I have travelled twice in the past year to participate artistically in the development of a new organization, Foinse, a biological station. The play’s inspired by the environmental and archeological work that three artists did there. I’m pleased with this scene—some real action. Stray Sod, the lead character, almost jumps down a crevasse with her backpack weighted with archeologically significant carved rocks—a nod to Virginia Wolf? I also did some work on a new essay. And an eerie draft of a poem (also Ireland inspired) that may not go anywhere but felt good. Yay.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

When I was ten or eleven, my mother bought a subscription to American Girl magazine for me, and I noticed there was always a piece of writing from a subscriber, an American girl. I was interested in being that girl. On a tear-out sheet from a spiral notebook, I wrote a cliché-ridden description of sunrise over our farm. I took it out to the windmill where my mom was weeding a border of flowers and vegetables, and I showed it to her. She held it in her dirt-stained hands and I know she read it, though her response is gone. I don’t remember if I actually sent it or not, but I remember standing there in the wind of childhood and holding out the tattered paper to her with some kind of hope I had not felt about anything before in my life. That was the beginning.

What are you reading right now?

I suspect I have odd reading habits; I tend to read several books at once, waiting for one or two to rise to the surface. Those are the ones I finish though it doesn’t mean I didn’t love the others. I dip in and out, savor and then move on to the next stack. And they are stacked all over my Think House. I finish only about one in three. Your Temple of Air, Patty McNair, was one I read cover to cover. I just finished all of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins because it’s related to the work I was doing in Ireland and it’s an important book for anyone thinking about the impending environmental crisis. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War—geesh, knocks me out, how she does it in short-shorts is beyond me. Poetry I’m into right now: Nicole Terez Dutton’s If One of Us Should Fall, Dzvinia Orlowsky’s Silvertone, James Arthur’s Charms Against Lightning. Finally, I am actually rereading the new fairy tale Raven Girl by Audrey Niffennegger. Thanks for that one too, Patty.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

I don’t know where to start. I don’t think we get anywhere without good advice. But here’s a writerly one that impressed me because it came after I had been writing for many years. For a final panel at the Interlochen Writer’s Retreat, instructors were asked to discuss that age-old question: our process. I was in teacher mode and was casting about for those prescriptive elements of my process that might be helpful to students. I talked too long without precision, and realized I hadn’t been clear. I couldn’t figure out why I was having trouble because gosh, I know process. I stopped. The next person to speak was Jack Ridl, the amazing poet, and he very quietly said, “I don’t know if I have a process; maybe I don’t.” Of course his answer gained everyone’s attention because from his mouth, the words felt wise. Under prodding by the moderator Jack explained that his process changed for every genre, every poem, for the time of day, his mood, where he was; his job was to simply create the process—if it could be called that—for each piece, not create process for his writing life. He inferred that he would simply be present to the needs of the piece. He led me to teach process as a more malleable practice, not nearly as procedural as I had been thinking. Another fine piece of advice is Meg Kearney’s (Director of Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College) opening statement for the Solstice residencies: If you have a choice between being intelligent or compassionate, be compassionate and the intelligence will follow. As to life advice: my husband, David Early, daily teaches me something that I’m still, and always will be, learning. Practice patience and stay calm.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

My writing would be two winged creatures, one ridiculous, one sublime: first, the hen which is the fowl I grew up with, that homely cluck-clucker who herds the chicks under her wing when the dogs are loose, who teaches the little fluffies to scratch and peck for food, to stand on their own ugly feet, to sleep when they’re supposed to and to know they are always essentially chickens. The hen is all about taking care of my writing life. And built into that fowl metaphor is the idea of tending the flock, doing what you can in the community to keep your literary self and colleagues and friends going in this challenging profession, especially the young ones coming up—that’s the “henning” of a teaching writer.

But the other bird is the heron. If some writing (and writers) are mother-henned into being, there’s also the way of the solitary heron. The heron is a totemic bird for me. I’ve watched these tall birds with the ragged crests and cape-like gray wings since I was a little girl. They have a shaggy elegance, a cautious, almost tentative walk through water: so slow, it’s painful. Being heron means looking down for long periods of time to what’s happening below the surface. It’s hoping for clear water to see the slim shadow in the shallows. Hours of hunger. But then, the heron sees it, the slim silver flesh, and lickety-split, she pierces the surface and ricochets back—and you can’t tell if she strikes the fish or if the fish strikes her. Then the struggle to keep it, the long, ugly gulping.  And after all that, it all looks as if nothing happened. The pond is the pond, the surface still.  If that weren’t enough of a metaphor, just watch a heron take flight. They do this little squat, and then they push up, lifting off hard, noisy wings desperate in the air, wild flapping, then finally up, up, trailing legs like long ribboned lines of poems that don’t belong in the poem. It shouldn’t work. Then when they return to earth: a sprawling plop—like when I’m done writing, like me inside, right down to the ones that get away.



Anne-Marie Oomen is author of two memoirs, Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, both Michigan Notable Books, An American Map: Essays  (Wayne State University Press); and a full-length collection of poetry, Uncoded Woman (Milkweed Editions). She is also represented in New Poems of the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry, and edited Looking Over My Shoulder: Reflections on the Twentieth Century, an anthology of seniors’ essays funded by the Michigan Humanities Council. She has written seven plays, including the award-winning Northern Belles (inspired by oral histories of women farmers), and most recently, Secrets of Luuce Talk Tavern, 2012 winner of the CTAM contest. She adapted the meditations of Gwen Frostic for Chaotic Harmony, a choreopoem. She is founding editor of Dunes Review, former president of Michigan Writers, Inc., and serves as instructor of creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy, ICCA Writer’s Retreat, and Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College, MA.


→Thanks, Anne-Marie. Always a great delight to speak with you. And thanks to everyone for reading. -PMc←


Beautiful Sentence #4 ~ Fleda Brown

“They come in airy flotillas / on each stem, little flower- / blimps, propellers / of petals at their back ends, / which makes me aware of how heavy with history / we are, and how alone, thus forgivably / prone to personification / of the gods.”  – Fleda Brown, from the poem “Bladder Campion”

→ Thanks to Anne-Marie Oomen for sharing this sentence with me. Send beautiful sentences and their sources to templeofair -at- Thanks for reading! -PMc←

Warming the Flue ~ Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard

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 PressPulling 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.

And, she’s a total babe. 

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←

Words in the Woods ~ Returning to Northern Michigan

Gail Wallace Bozzano at Sleeping Bear Dunes, image from ICCA

So here we are again in Northern Michigan; have I told you before how much I love it up here? Beautiful, beautiful place: trees, sky, lakes, hills. And such interesting and talented people. Is it any wonder that Michigan fosters so many great writers? And not just the big names—Jim Harrison, Thomas Lynch, Ernest Hemingway—but those you may only be starting to know: Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michael Delp, Jack Driscoll, Anne-Marie Oomen, Fleda Brown, Jack Ridl, Aaron Stander, Alison Swan and and and…the list is far too long for this post.

Our visit here will begin with a recording for an interview for IPR’s Michigan Writers on the Air with Aaron Stander this afternoon, which will be followed with a 3-way reading at Brilliant Books in Traverse City. Join me, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Alison Swan at 7 PM (Friday, June 15.)

Tomorrow, Saturday, I will be signing books at Mclean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey from 1 – 3 PM. The Biennial Hemingway Society Conference will start up in this lovely little town on Sunday, for you EH fans.

On Sunday, Michigan Writers will host their awards reading for the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest. I had the wonderful opportunity to judge this year’s fiction selection, and I am honored to be able to participate in this event by introducing the winner of the fiction category.

On Monday, the Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat gets underway. This is a really fine retreat, focusing on generating work—as opposed to others where the focus is on tearing work apart. Some very fine teaching writers will be running the workshops: Anne-Marie Oomen in creative nonfiction, Jaimy Gordon (National Book Award Winner) in fiction, A. Van Jordan in poetry, Philip Hartigan and I in Journal and Sketchbook. (There are still some spots available for the retreat by the way.) All of this will be directed by the fine and nomadic writer, Katey Schultz.

Following the Interlochen Writers’ Retreat, Philip will be teaching a printmaking workshop in Interlochen, and during this time I will retreat into my own writing.

Am I lucky, or what?

Once again, thanks for reading! -PMc

A Still Point ~ Lucricia Hall’s View From the Keyboard

One of the best things that happens when you attend the Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat in Interlochen, Michigan, is that you meet a whole new circle of writers. Sure, there will be some you knew before, or at least have read and admired–Tony Ardizzone, Fleda Brown, Anne-Marie Oomen, Katey Schultz–but I am referring to the others here. Those writers who are in the early stages of their work, some having turned their backs on their creative life in order to raise families, start careers, follow more traditional paths. And those others who didn’t know they had writing in them, but who have discovered through their love of reading and sharing stories that maybe it is time to try this writing thing out themselves. I so enjoy these new (or newish, or returning) writers. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Their desire is great. Their talent is surfacing in ways they might never have imagined.

This past summer I met many of these writers, among them, Lucricia Hall. She and her husband Sam added so much to the retreat (including Sam’s considerable talent as an opera singer–he serenaded us one evening and brought many of us to tears.) They sat side-by-side at each event, faces turned upward, listening keenly, laughing, nodding, taking it all in. And since this retreat escape, Lucricia has made a commitment to her writing life, in spite of her busy other-life of being a mother, a nurse, a contributing partner. And now it brings me great joy to introduce Lucricia Hall to you all. Here she is:

Lucricia: When people ask me what I do, my knee-jerk reaction is to answer I’m a nurse. But what I “do” is write. I am not a published author; I don’t have an agent; I’m not making any money…but I write. I write because the stories whisper to me and I have the privilege of hearing them and bringing cohesion to the various bits. I write for the joy of creating something entirely my own. I share it on my blog in the hopes that people will enjoy my creation. And if they don’t enjoy it then maybe it will make them think, talk or write.

Yep, this is where it happens. One day I will have a space of my own but for now the dining table will do. I work full time so my writing happens in the evenings. I carry my journal with me everywhere because I never know when an idea will present itself. Painful past experience has taught me that I will NOT remember it later. From the journal to the blog. Repeat daily.

Here’s an excerpt from my blog The Still Point.

Didn’t I Already Do This?

I am exhausted! What have I been doing you ask? Training for a marathon? Saving puppies from burning buildings? Making sweet love to my husband?

NO! I am babysitting my niece, Lizzy, age 10 and my nephew, Kael, age 6. Now, my kids are 19 (the twins) and 15. I have not had to wipe a poopy butt, fix a lunch, get a drink of water, or “entertain” my kids in years. I am woefully out of practice!

First of all, you have to have the stamina of an Iron Man athlete to keep up with young kids. I think my stamina is that of a sloth or, on a good day, a koala. I have come to enjoy a life of leisure and it has been completely ripped from me this weekend.

Liz and Kael got here Saturday around noon. I needed a nap by 1:45 but plowed through the fatigue and sleepiness to blow bubbles, color, play soccer, make bracelets, get 7 glasses of water, make dinner and then reheat pizza because “I don’t like this” was sung in chorus, make beds in the living room, play with Legos, play Wii, watch Avatar (the cartoon), announce that it is bedtime, get 3 more glasses of water, make Kael go to the bathroom before laying down a third time, kisses on the head, I love you’s whispered, threats of death if you get up ONE MORE TIME and then the sweet oblivion of sleep!

Sunday: See Above.

Read the rest:


Lucricia, thanks for finding the time to share your work space with us. Good luck with the blog and the babysitting, and with the writing life juggle. -PMc←

Oh, Interlochen, I Miss You So ~ A Brief Summary of a Writers’ Retreat

How could it possibly have gone by so fast? Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat of 2011 was four days full of writers reading, talking, writing, eating, imbibing, walking, sharing, sleeping (just a little,) listening, and yes, drawing.

We are back at our house in Mt. Carroll, IL, and are happy for our own bed, our two crazy cats, our full-size refrigerator, our own cooker (as the British, Philip’s people, call it.) What I am missing, though, is so much. Of course, the trees. The beautiful smells of Northern Michigan, the lakes that are small and great. The creative aura that is Interlochen Center for the Arts.

I find myself thinking back to moments and people;

  • Ava and Philip with their heads down over their work on the reduction linocut print for the dedication of the Mallory-Towsley Building.
  • Dinner with Matt and Angela, their delightful children making us laugh and marvel.
  • Walking along Diamond Park Road and into the collection of houses near the lake, amidst the wetlands–a path I ran daily during my residency at Interlochen in 2001. A place that appears in my stories.
  • Meeting, talking with, and hearing the fine, fine work of my fellow faculty: Fleda Brown, Tony Ardizzone, Katey Schultz, and of course, Anne-Marie Oomen. (Oh yeah, and Philip, too.)
  • Annie finding her way in the poetry workshop.
  • Linda showing her chops as a real writer.
  • Jo Anne’s kind face and beautiful drawings, her collections of memories about travels and places important to her.
  • Joan lighting up like one of her own students as she made new discoveries.
  • Lindsey doing what she always does, writing her way toward understanding, and doing it so well.
  • Lynn celebrating her birthday with ballet turns, new drawings, a new section of work-in-progress, and plastic rings and cupcakes. (Oh, and two dead mice!)
  • Viki surprising me deeply and delightfully, despite my having known her for–could it be?–nearly two decades now.
  • Ferdy taking the risk and reading his work off his phone.
  • Theresa, Lindsay, John, Terry, leaving me lost in their worlds after their readings.
  • Lucricia and Sam, such a dear couple, each following their dreams and holding hands on the way.
  • Opera on the lakefront in the dark.
  • And Gail, dear Gail, on the other side of the wall, putting up with Philip’s high jinx and giving comfort and camaraderie just by being there. (And her writing!)
  • John and Meredith making the trek to hear us read and to hang for a while after.
  • Selling and signing books. Felt a little like Sally Field: “You like me! You really like me!”
  • Talking blogs with Kristen, whose own is both beautiful and mouthwatering.
  • Rachel making me feel as though my stories can move even the toughest of customers, and hearing her own affecting novel-in-progress.
  • Sharkie.
  • A hug from Delp, whom I adore.
  • An escape the weekend before the retreat (pre-retreat retreat) with Philip to Empire, watching the great lake roll toward the shore, eating marvelous food and watching junk tv and…well, you get the picture.
  • Dinner with a crowd of excited new friends at the conclusion of the week.
  • And perhaps most of all, dinner before it all started with Anne-Marie and David, two of the world’s best people (no hyperbole here) who are such a joy to be with. Anne-Marie has shown me so much about how to live a writing life of meaning, and David is evidence of how to live the rest of your life, too, with warmth and compassion, with generosity and good deeds. What a couple!
Yes, I’m gushing. And there is likely more to gush about. But for now, that’s what you get. If you don’t believe me, then you should see for yourself. It’s an annual thing.
Sharkita holding court at the dinner table. Everyone likes a big fish story.