Poets of Franklin County: ‘Clear mental space’
Poet Jody Cothey, who writes under the name Pamela Stewart, has run Tregelly’s Fiber Farm in Hawley with her husband Ed Cothey for 18 years. The farm, which Stewart describes as “winding down now,” at one time produced beautiful natural-dyed wools and yarns.
“I used to have six or seven breeds of sheep, now we just have ‘hanging-out’ sheep,” Stewart said. In addition, Stewart has four goats, a camel, two donkeys, five or six llamas, one aged alpaca, some rescue pigs, cows and a few yaks. “Oh, and chickens, a turkey and one emu,” she adds. Not surprisingly, Stewart finds it hard to get daily blocks of time in which to write.
“I’m not a disciplined writer,” she says. “I don’t practice the way some people do.” Stewart’s writing comes together in bits and pieces, often scribbled on small scraps of paper — when she was living in Cornwall on a Guggenheim fellowship in the 1980s, she wrote on a small pad designed for “totting up fish catches at a fish co-op because my husband was a share fisherman.”
Later, when she has a “clear mental space,” Stewart will look over the scraps and, “I’ll start to fashion as though I’m putting together a quilt or a recipe. I’m not a very clear thinker,” she adds, “I have no sense of theory or anything. Actually, my education’s pretty pitiful.”
Stewart says this in spite of having attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at Iowa University, one of the most prestigious writing workshops in the country. But arriving at Iowa from Vermont’s Goddard Adult Degree Program, Stewart says she felt an outsider. “I got there and rented this little room,” she remembered. “I had bologna sandwiches and Iron City beer and kind of braved it without knowing anything.”
The years in Iowa led to her becoming what she jokingly called, “a little somebody. I was even on the cover of APR once ... To me that was a huge landmark. I mean, ‘Look everybody, here I am!’ And I was thinner and all those things.” But not long after the 1980 American Poetry Review cover, Stewart said she moved away and “drifted out of the system and I never came back fully into it.”
Stewart never stopped writing, however, and has continued to win acclaim for her poems, including two Pushcart Prizes. Her most recent collection, “Ghost Farm,” released in August of 2010, is her sixth book. Many of its poems are rooted in the landscape of her Hawley farm and draw from the imagery and vocabulary of shearing, spinning and weaving.
One poem, “A Small Window,” stood out to me because of the abstract quality that begins in the first line, in which a window is described as being “the size of a cigarette paper.”
“What’s going on there?” I asked.
Stewart had never really thought of the poem as abstract. “Of course the window isn’t really the size of a cigarette paper or he wouldn’t be able to see what little he can see,” she said, “but it feels like it, I guess.”
“The (Greek) poet Yannos Ritsos, when he was imprisoned as a political prisoner, wrote his poems on cigarette papers and smuggled them out,” Stewart told me. A poem on a cigarette paper created another kind of window, we agreed.
She was probably thinking of Yannos Ritsos when she wrote the poem, Stewart said, but also Michael, a prisoner whom she corresponded with and visited, who later became a writer through prison writing programs, as well as Tibetans she has met in Hawley who have been imprisoned by the Chinese or have friends or family who have been.
“I used to dream a lot that I had been imprisoned,” Stewart added. “And so the whole issue of what a prison is and what it does and what it doesn’t do — it’s crazy. It’s very complicated for me emotionally.”
When she was younger, Stewart fantasized about writing a novel called “Prison Ordained,” based on a line from Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” but “I have no sense of narrative structure,” she said. “I’m not really a storyteller. I’m an anecdote teller and through the anecdote, I’ll create an image or sensation or a cinematic scene. And maybe the scene will move two or three paces but it won’t do too much more. There’s not a sense of beginning, middle and end. Though in some of my earlier poems there’s more of it.”
“Well, but that just sounds like finding a form,” I said. “You’re talking about it almost as if it came from a lack of being able to do some other things but really, you found your form.”
“Well, now I know that!” Stewart said, laughing. “Now that I’ve hit 66 years old, I’ve woken up and said to myself, ‘I can only write the poems I write. I cannot be Jorie Graham, I can not compete with Mary Oliver. I will never write an epic.’ You can forget about it.”
“I’ve never written a sonnet,” she said. “And guess what, I’m very unlikely to. I don’t want to play with that kind of thing. I don’t mind working with that kind of length. But I don’t know where I’m going, so I’m happy to let myself be undisciplined now.”
Stewart said that lately she has been feeling a restlessness she recognizes as the urge to write.
“So there might be another book coming?” I asked
“Oh, not for a long time.”
“Well, let’s put it this way, there’s another poem coming,” I suggested.
Stewart smiled. “There is another poem coming,” she agreed.
“Ghost Farm” by Pamela Stewart was published in August, 2010 by Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press. Contact:
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
e_SSLqA Small Window’
The size of a cigarette paper
lets him look through.
His feet hold hard to the cold floor.
The light beyond
presses along three small hills
and a thread-thin glint of river.
He must keep still to see anything at all.
Off to the west
he hears stone being continually broken
and driven away. If the wind rises
it smells of diesel and dust.
Sometimes a child’s voice catches at the still
and a bird
quivers at the corner of his eye.
— Pamela Stewart