Kumin Offers A Powerful, Empowering Literary Event
by George Fitting '10
January 2, 2010
Stellfox award recipient Maxine Kumin spoke candidly about the underpinnings of and motivations for many of her poems.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maxine Kumin impressed and inspired students, faculty and members of the community when she visited Dickinson this fall as the fifth recipient of the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program award.
Kumin, 84, is a poet, novelist, essayist and writer of short stories and children’s books who was a close friend of the late poet Anne Sexton. Kumin gave a reading of published poems as well as pieces from her upcoming collection, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, participated in a question-and-answer session, had lunch with English Professor Adrienne Su’s Advanced Creative Writing: Poetry students and signed books at the Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle.
At the reading, Sept. 21 in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium, Kumin read 19 poems with topics ranging from dogs and horses to Sexton’s suicide and reflections on aging. Commenting on the profusion of animals in her work, she remarked, “What can one do? You write what you know; you write what you love.” She held nothing back, noting that readers often refer to part two of her 2007 book Still to Mow as “Maxine Kumin’s torture poems.” She then read “Extraordinary Rendition,” which explores the brutality of the war in Iraq.
The next day, Kumin answered questions from an eager audience in Rubendall Recital Hall. She spoke about her writing habits, the difficulties she experienced as a female poet before the women’s movement and her relationship with Anne Sexton. “We grew up as formalist poets, and we were really just housewives trying to make it in a male-centered world,” she said.
She also discussed her poetic origins. While Kumin was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, a professor read a sheaf of her sonnets and told her to “say it with flowers, but for God’s sake don’t write any more poems.”
She heeded this advice for a while but eventually attended an adult poetry workshop at Boston University, where she met Sexton. They took an immediate liking to each other and developed a supportive relationship as their writing flourished.
“Sometimes it was really acrimonious. There was a lot of yelling back and forth about poems, for heaven’s sake,” she said.
When asked if her Jewish heritage influenced her writing, Kumin replied with her usual frankness. “I have a very strong sense of Jewish consciousness. I just happen to be an atheist.”
Poet-in-Residence Adrienne Su, who arranged Kumin’s residency, had been reading Kumin’s work since she was a teenager but had never seen her in person. “I knew that I loved the work, but I didn’t know it would be so powerful,” Su said. “She fully inhabits the poems. They’re honest, they’re real, they come from her life. It had the cumulative power of all those years of writing and also all those years of living.”
Su views Kumin as a role model—a writer who balances her career with family obligations. She noted the similarities between Kumin’s struggle as a female poet and her own. As a young mother, Kumin decided to teach freshman composition at Tufts University. She quickly became the subject of vicious rumors and was considered by her neighbors to be a terrible mother because she allowed a friend to pick up her child from school. “It still goes against the grain of society for mothers to have careers,” Su said.
Aspiring poets also found plenty to admire about Kumin. For Nina Antonsen ’10, a women’s-studies major, it was Kumin’s poise. “She had a really nice presence and spoke very eloquently,” Antonsen said. She was impressed by Kumin’s ability to take rigid, old-fashioned poetic forms like the
villanelle, sestina and pantoum and make them her own. “She had a beautiful tone to her poetry. Everything flowed really smoothly.”
The Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, which funded Kumin’s visit, was endowed by Jean Louise Stellfox ’60. She was inspired to become an English teacher after Robert Frost, another of Kumin’s acquaintances, visited Dickinson in 1959. After her sudden death in 2003, Stellfox’s estate provided a $1.5-million endowment to the college, which yields annual funds to bring major literary figures to the campus. Previous recipients of the award are Ian McEwan, Rita Dove, Edward Albee and Mario Vargas Llosa.