The Poets of Franklin County: Lynette Baker Varnon
Because she has two young children and a full-time job as a high school English teacher, Lynette Baker Varnon often writes at night. Not surprisingly, her poems often take place at night, too.
Varnon’s poem, “I Rub Her Back in Circles until She Falls Asleep,” which placed second in the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest last year, describes the ritual of sitting on the edge of her daughter’s bed and comforting her by massaging “the full mouth of the opera singer,” “bursting summer poppies,” “mylar balloons and biscuits” on her back.
Each round item in the poem bears a special connection to Varnon’s daughter, or evokes a specific moment in her life. The fiery berries near the end of the poem grew on a bush beside the fountain in the center of South Deerfield, not far from Frontier Regional High School, where Varnon teaches AP English in addition to English curriculum to grades 9–12.
When Aisla was little and Varnon had first returned to work, her husband, Andrew, used to bring their daughter down to a cafe in South Deerfield so the family could have lunch together, a time that Varnon said she looked forward to in her day. After lunch and before Varnon returned to work, the family would go out to the little square in the town’s center and pick berries to throw into the fountain, as a way of distracting Aisla and easing the moment of parting.
“It was very organic for me,” Varnon said, of writing the poem.
The poem does have a natural, flowing feel that evolves from the slowly growing list of round objects, the repetition of the word “rub” and the poem’s intimate, unadorned tone.
A second poem of Varnon’s placed as a finalist in last year’s contest as well. “Muse” is a more complex poem, Varnon said, with more complicated syntax and a more serious tone. It, too, takes place at night, as Varnon’s terrier tracks a possum through the leaves in the family’s small Greenfield backyard.
“The Muse is usually something divine coming to you,” Varnon said. “But no, this is my life. Here’s my yogurt-stained table and there’s my dog out there trying to kill a possum — that’s my life.
“My life is not opera and roses,” she adds, though a vase of red Valentine’s Day roses sits on her kitchen table among the children’s drawings and small spoons and the sticky purple lollipop Aisla put down on a place mat.
Finding time to write while raising Aisla, 6, and Levi, 2, — in addition to grading homework for her classes and trying to keep up with the housework — can be challenging.
“I’d like to say, ‘Oh, I’m a poet, it’s in my blood, I have to do it,’ but life gets in the way,” Varnon said.
“When you’re in an MFA program,” — as Varnon was at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — “you have to pound out a poem for a workshop and then you go talk about it. You write and you write.
“But then you get into the real world and you make sure your kid doesn’t choke on a lollipop or stand up on the toy piano.”
Varnon laughs, though she is also keeping a sharp eye on Levi, who seems ready to commit this second offense in the other room.
In order to keep writing, sometimes it’s necessary to rethink when and where the poetry happens, Varnon says. These days, she might sit on the floor of her daughter’s room and capture a few lines before bed, or jot down the beginnings of a poem in the car when she arrives somewhere, looks in the backseat and realizes her son is asleep.
“Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Oh why am I teaching? I wish I could write,’” Varnon said. She can feel jealous, she admitted, when she thinks of others from her MFA program who seem to have more time to write.
But teaching itself has become a form of poetry for her, Varnon said. Introducing her students to the work of poets through her English curriculum is rewarding and satisfying.
“There are moments when I’m with my students and I’m reading a poem and it’s really a beautiful moment because they’re listening — the whole classroom is quiet. I’m able to show them (poetry). And that for me is really powerful.”
Though she hasn’t yet decided if she will submit to the Poet’s Seat Contest this year, Varnon says she has written a few new poems recently. Her writing process may not be as deliberate as it once was, she said, but has become “more subtle and organic.”
Varnon, who also plays the flute, recalls a time when she complained to her mother that she never had time to play her instrument, going so far as to bemoan that she might never play music again.
Her mother responded, “It’s part of you. It will come back,” Varnon remembered. Similarly, the poems always come back.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.