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Between the lines: Poet takes news story beyond the page

Poet takes news story beyond the page

  • Shelburne Falls poet Cindy Snow will be launching her new chapbook, Small Ceremonies, Thursday, June 30, 7 p.m. at Arms Library, corner of Bridge and Main streets in Shelburne Falls. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo



For The Recorder
Friday, June 03, 2016

One day about 10 years ago, Shelburne Falls poet Cindy Snow heard a news story about a woman in Uzbekistan who, having been brought the body of her dead son and told by police not to open his coffin, found the courage to disobey, secretly photograph the damage done to him and smuggle the film out to someone who could document his story.

The news story, and Snow’s strong reaction to it, formed the starting point for her poem, “Vira: February 1, 2006.”

The poem appears in Snow’s chapbook, “Small Ceremonies,” published by Slate Roof Press of Northfield. A reading and book signing will be held Thursday, June 30, at 7 p.m. at the Arms Library at the corners of Bridge and Main streets in Shelburne Falls.

Slate Roof books are always beautiful, and Snow’s is no exception. “Small Ceremonies” features die-cut covers of iron-red and brick-red papers, photographs taken by Snow, including cover and title-page images of ceramic redware “pie birds” made by her husband, potter Stephen Earp, and Slate Roof’s signature hand-sewn binding.

Pie birds, also called “pie vents,” are hollow ceramic figures that vent steam from pies, keeping the fillings from overflowing the crusts. Coming upon a grouping of them in her husband’s studio, “With their little beaks open, and they’re all looking up — I thought it looked like a pagan ceremony of some sort,” Snow says with a laugh.

The image reverberated nicely with a phrase that became the book’s title.

While some of the poems are autobiographical — love poems to her husband or poems to her teenaged daughter — many are persona poems, written in the first person from the point of view of a character, often an older woman. Snow likes to explore instances of what she calls “interruption” in these women’s lives. Vira’s interruption is the most obvious, and the most graphic, Snow says.

Thinking back on the news story, she admits, “I don’t remember all the details now … But what I do remember is this was not a drive-by shooting. It was a disappearance.”

Transforming the news story into a poem proved challenging.

“I was grappling with some political issues and I was trying really hard to figure out, ‘How do I get some of this political stuff down on the page, without it being didactic?’” Snow asks.

An early draft was much longer and more graphic — so much so that one reader told Snow she wanted to stop reading it halfway through.

“Someone gave me some good advice ages ago, which was if the material’s particularly graphic or has the potential to be didactic, back-pedaling is usually a good strategy,” Snow says.

So she pared the poem down. There’s an often-expressed (though not always true!) adage in writing workshops that expresses what worked for Snow in this instance: “Less is more.”

“Not giving every single detail,” Snow explains. “Because you can either scare someone off or feel like you’re telling a news story.”

Snow was editor of her high school newspaper and had planned to study journalism in college. She switched majors, choosing history and education, and went on to become a teacher and editor. Her current position is coordinator of writing tutors at Greenfield Community College, where she also teaches developmental reading. But Snow continues to be drawn to reportage, and has long had an interest in political justice. In her 20s, Snow worked as a media contact for Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. The organization was formed to channel outrage at the U.S. government’s funding of right-wing rebels, or “contras,” and brought thousands of volunteers to Nicaragua during the 1980s to witness and publicize the war’s atrocities.

“I think it’s interesting to take on these topics,” I say. “Especially in this really messed-up world we’re in. And to ask, ‘What can poets bring to the problem?’”

“Well, you think of how fleeting news stories are,” Snow says. “Sometimes I’m in the car and I hear something incredibly profound on NPR, but then that’s the only time we hear that story. Maybe it’s in all the papers that day. But usually that’s it, really. But this story really stayed with me. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this could happen to any of us who have children, or loved ones, or parents.’”

Snow’s poem honors Vira’s courage and allows her important message to live long beyond the daily news cycle.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. Crapo is always seeking published poets and writers for her column. She’s interested in books written by Franklin County poets and writers and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at: tcrapo@mac.com