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.

Still.

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←

View From the Keyboard ~ An Open Call

Is it because I am a writer, or am I just plain nosy? There is something about peeking into other folks’ lives and habitats that I find fascinating. Should I confess? I am a bit of a voyeur.

I remember one winter’s eve when I was writer-in-residence at Interlochen Arts Academy a couple of months after September 11, 2001, and I was in the backseat of a colleague’s Subaru as we headed across snowy landscapes to a restaurant on one of the many small lakes up north in Michigan. All that snow and all that dark, dark sky made the houses, few and far between, loom up from the shadows, their windows bright and glowing from the lights within. And as we passed, I looked in each of them, saw husbands and wives sitting in reclining chairs staring at a television set bringing that time’s bad news from the world. I saw an old man with a messy ring of white hair dressed in a flannel robe sitting by himself at a kitchen table, his face tilted towards a big bowl of something. I saw children reading and children playing video games. I saw empty rooms. And despite the cold and the snow-covered earth and the bleak blackness of the sky and the knowledge that things out there, out in the world beyond the warmth of the Subaru, were a bit out of our–of my–control, I found comfort in these quick, bright glimpses of the lives of others.

I’m in the city now, and at night walking or driving or sitting in my third floor apartment with a unique view of this Chicago neighborhood, I continue to look towards the windows of light, to see what art my neighbors hang on their walls, what is playing on their absurdly wide-screen television sets, where their cats like to sit, what they wear in the evenings, who still has Christmas decorations up (it is, after all, April, folks!) I am drawn to and enamored with these surroundings not my own.

And so, it is in that spirit of voyeurism, maybe, that I invite you, my writerly friends, to submit to me a picture of your writing space. I’ll call this segment of the blog “View From the Keyboard,” but know that I am not limiting submissions to those of you who write on a keyboard. Whatever space you write in, whatever tools you use to write, whatever trinkets or photos or books or animals or libations, etc.,  you surround yourself with can be part of your photo. I’d also like to know what you are writing. And once I start to gather these submissions, I will begin to post them now and again, and share your spaces and your writing with others as well.

The How:

  1. Take a photo of your writing space (with or without you in it.)
  2. Write a brief description/explanation of this space. Say whatever you want about it. Some ideas–why this space? What little thing here inspires you? What can’t we see in the photo? How much time do you spend there? What time of day do you write? And so on. You get the idea.
  3. Submit–if you are willing–no more than 250 words of something you have written in this space.
  4. Self-promote anything you might want to here. Website? Publications? Etc.
  5. Make sure to let me know how to contact you in return.
  6. Send jpeg of photo. Cut and paste text into an email. Send to templeofair@gmail.com
  7. In your email, please put the words “I agree to let Patricia McNair edit this submission for publication on her website/blog.” And don’t submit if you don’t agree to this. I will respect your work and your words as best I can.

The What Next:

  1. Be patient. I will respond as soon as I can. I am hoping to use each submission I get, but may have to discriminate along the way depending on number of submissions and their appropriateness.
  2. I will contact you if I use your submission on my blog, but may post it before you receive and respond to the notification (see #7 above.)
  3. Check back regularly to see what others are posting. Share the site with friends. Expand this community of writers.

Finally;

  • Thanks in advance to everyone who participates in any way, either by submitting, reading, or sharing. Looking forward to hearing from you!