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.
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.
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←