Common ground: Ashfield poet Sarah Sousa responds to voices across centuries in a shared landscape

Last modified: 12/15/2015 10:30:53 AM
ASHFIELD — The poem “Independence Day, 1886” is about the life of a woman Sarah Sousa first met in a faded 1886 pocket diary in an antiques store. But that was many years and three books ago for Sousa, an award-winning poet and writing teacher, who has received acclaim for her two books of poetry, “Church of Needles” and “Split the Crow.”

“Church of Needles” received the 2013 Red Mountain Poetry Prize from the Red Mountain Press, which published this book in 2014.

“Split the Crow,” published this year by Parlor Press, explores the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a white Colonial woman captured by Native Americans during King Philip’s War and held captive for 11 weeks until she was ransomed.

But it was the journey of a heretofore unknown 19th century woman that led Sousa into that rabbit hole of “speaking for the voiceless.”

Sousa was living in Phillips, Maine, when she found the red leather diary, with the name “Esther” pencilled in the front, and the tiny pages filled with handwriting in faded pencil and browning ink. She had the diary for about a year before she transcribed and edited “The Diary of Esther Small” while completing her master’s degree.

“Both the ‘Diary’ and ‘Church of Needles’ came out within one month of each other,” said Sousa, who moved from Maine to Ashfield six years ago with her husband, Grammy Award-winning musician Ray LaMontagne, and their two sons.

She saw ‘Diary’ as a companion book to “Church of Needles,” Sousa’s book of poems, which couples diarist Esther Small’s details of 19th century marriage with contemporary themes and voices.

“I really did it because I wanted what I discovered in my research about the diarist to be available,” said Sousa. “She had tenacity and strength. I wanted to give her the voice she didn’t have through writing in her diary.”

“I found the pocket-sized diary in an antiques store in Maine,” she said. “I put it away for awhile, because it was too small to read. She was saying her husband was beating her.”

As it turned out, Sousa discovered Esther had lived just two towns over from where she was living. “I did an online search of cemeteries in the county when I found her. It happened very gradually.”

One of Esther’s diary entries lamented: “Why have I ever come to this small family,” which was an important clue. “The family name was ‘Small,’” Sousa explained. “She moved from New York, where her family was, before she married. She was saying ‘Why did I ever come to this Small family.’”

“I wrote an introduction and an afterward,” she said. “I did a lecture and a paper on her diary for my MFA.”

Sousa said the diary was a straight transcription. “They almost looked like little poems,” she says of the entries. “She wrote about the weather, about churning the butter. She cried because she was so homesick. I like to see the details of (women’s) lives,” Sousa said. “In her diary, she’s pregnant with what turned out to be her last child, at age 42. (But) she never says she’s pregnant in the diary. I looked it up in the census records; then I could see the clues. She talked about getting someone ‘to help her’ because she’s ‘not very well.’”

Sousa said Esther wrote that her husband, William, kicked her while pregnant, because her father-in-law said something about her that enraged him. She later learned that William was a Civil War veteran who served three to four years in the Union Army. William had called Esther “a New York whore,” according to Sousa. “He accused her of flirting with every man in town and kicked her,” she said.

“Some of the poems are very connected to what (Esther) was writing about. She has an almost apostolic voice in the diary, because she’s almost speaking to you, to the reader.”

Sousa calls the poems inspired by Esther Small, Mary Rowlandson and others “persona poems.” “They’re like monologues in another voice,” she said. But to do the poems, “You have to find something in the character that resonates with you. Then you write from your own humanity. You open to your own experience and you draw on a well of feeling inside.”

“I have something with people who are voiceless,” she remarked.

In “Split the Crow” Sousa gives voice to long-ago oppressed people — from captive settler Mary Rowlandson to Native Americans in the earliest days of American history. The notes in the back of the book explain the historical context that inspired the poems.

For instance, Sousa’s notes on the poem “Renaming at Boarding School” quote a school superintendent who says, “The ridiculous and uncouth names that many of our Indian young people have is becoming embarrassing, and I am wondering if it is possible to consider changing some of these names to more modern names that will not, at least, be a handicap to the students.”

In February 1675, Native Americans burned down the houses of English settlers in Lancaster, Mass., taking many survivors captive, including the wounded Mary Rowlandson and her youngest child, Sarah. Eleven weeks later, Rowlandson was redeemed for money, but Sarah had died during the ordeal. Sousa’s poem “Remove” reflects Rowlandson’s own best-selling, 1682 book, “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The are several poems called “Remove” in “Split the Crow;” this one appears on Page 16.

Sousa was born in Lowell, a city whose best-known poet and writer was Jack Kerouac. Sousa first met LaMontagne, her future husband, at age 10, because their parents were friends. They dated in their late teens and later married in their 20s.

Sousa has a master’s of fine arts degree from Bennington College, and has been writing poetry for at least 20 years. One of her poems is inscribed on a stone pillar in Edmunds Park in Newton. She has been published in several poetry journals, including the Massachusetts Review, which has given her a poetry prize for this year. “Split the Crow” won honorable mention in the 2015 New York Book Festival and “The Diary of Esther Small” won the 2014 New England Book Festival Award for Regional Literature. Other honors include: Best of Kore Press 2012, Best New Poets 2010, and nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

When asked if moving from Maine to Ashfield has influenced her poetry, Sousa said, “My poetry still responds to rural things. I still write about nature a lot. If there’s any change, I’m responding to the landscape I’m in now. I’m drawn to Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. I didn’t grow up rural, but it’s in my blood to respond to the landscape.”

Sousa said she has just finished a manuscript. She said the poems are more personal and are “woman- and girl-centric.”

Sousa and LaMontagne’s home-schooled sons are also forging a future in the arts. Tobias, 15, has just won first prize for his entry, “The List,” in this year’s Ashfield Film Festival and is heading a local musical group. Sebastian, 17, is writing short stories and fiction, and is looking at colleges.

When asked how she makes time both for her own writing and for her family, Sousa says she gets up by 5:30 a.m. and writes until about 10 a.m. “The boys are home-schooled. If Ray’s home, we’re all home together. I don’t close my study door. My winning tactic is to get it done in the morning.

“Having children and being married has always informed my poetry. I have been writing more about it lately, because of this phase of mothering.” Sousa said she feels there is a parallel growth between her own, at mid-life, and that of her teen-age sons.

“I have been writing more about that growth,” she remarked. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction, making it into a poem. This is real for me, as far as everyone else’s creativity.”

Sousa said family members respect each other’s work habits and are sensitive to each other’s needs to focus on their work, and celebrate each other’s successes.

Sousa said she’s been often asked if she writes LaMontagne’s song lyrics, or if the couple collaborates on them.

“I don’t write Ray’s songs,” she says. “Ray’s a very, very good songwriter. I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Poetry and music are two different things.”

Besides her own poetry and writing, Sousa will be teaching a “Found Poetry Workshop” in June, as part of the Squam Art Workshops in Rhode Island. “Very few poems are born whole from the poet’s brain; there are found aspects in all poetry,” she says, in an introduction to her workshop. “Perhaps an overheard conversation or song is what sparks the imagination. Or, maybe the inspiration begins from a glance at graffiti, snatches of text, discarded notes, advertisements, lists, letters, an old diary entry ... the source material is endless. The key is to stop and notice how found material can be juxtaposed with other found material, or altered in some way to create something new.”

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes west county. She can be reached at: or: 413-772-0261, ext. 277.


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