Vivian Shipley on Her Life and Her Poems
Greatest Hits 1974 – 2010 ( Pudding House Press, 2010)
In 1963, at twenty, I experienced what I thought was a major injustice that should have provoked me to write poetry but did not. "Star,” my first poem, is about the afternoon in my junior year at University of Kentucky when I became the Homecoming Queen who was not crowned. Standing in the middle of 50,000 football fans in the UK stadium, I fought off tears. Watching another girl beam while clutching my red roses was the first time as an “adult” that I had not gotten what I had worked for, the victory I deserved. Being crowned later on the sidelines with a broken rhinestone tiara was no consolation.
I learned what real unfairness and real suffering are eleven years later in 1974 when I was thirty-two. “Praying Be Whole,” details the event that compelled me to write poetry. I was pregnant with my second son, had seizures, was rushed to the hospital where labor was induced and Todd was born. Doctors then discovered I had a brain tumor in my right frontal lobe that was almost the size of a small grapefruit and they did not hold out hope of saving me. Heavily medicated and barely conscious before the operation, I did not think I would see my sons, Todd and Eric, again. I had just finished my PhD in English from Vanderbilt and I’d never written poetry before, but when I returned to my family after an extensive stay in the hospital, I could not stop writing poems.
Why did I start writing poetry after the brain tumor? Was it because the tumor was in the right frontal lobe where creativity is located? Or was I trying to translate months of meaningless physical suffering into something positive? Perhaps I began to write poetry to reveal my interior self, what does not show—the loss, the emotions each of us have that are not visible to another’s eye. Most of my skull has been replaced with an acrylic plate, I have a scar that divides my head, but I have hair.
Prior to 1974, I was right on track in a “suitable” career path for a woman. In 1965, a year after I graduated from UK, I got married and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. I taught English in Guilford Junior High for three years. Realizing I didn’t care if students chewed gum or were in the bathroom too long, I enrolled at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. I stayed for a year in order to finish course work for a PhD, returned to New Haven in 1969 and took a full time position at Southern Connecticut State University where I still teach.
Moving to Connecticut when I was twenty-one was very traumatic for me. For several generations, my grandparents on both sides were Kentucky farmers and I spent some time each summer on the Shipley and Todd farms. Since I’d never been far from Kentucky, I’d never experienced the prejudice that many Yankees have about “hillbillies.” Bobbie Ann Mason wrote a great article in The New Yorker some years ago about Kentucky and she referred to “the shoe thing.” I always loved to go barefoot and I still do. When I did begin to write poems, one of my major goals was to preserve my rural heritage and celebrate the honesty and decency of my relatives that still sustain me.
From 1974 when my brain tumor was removed, to 1993 when I turned fifty, I wrote poetry but I submitted few poems for publication. During those years spent caring for three sons, I raised my voice only on soccer fields. I allowed myself to be controlled by expectations and opinions of family and friends about how I should behave as a woman and in particular as a mother. Always tired and unable to mentally and physically multi-task, I wasn’t able to write poems and submit for publication. So, I chose to focus on writing poems and did not revise much or submit to journals. What I needed more than public recognition was to pour out words on paper to preserve what limited emotional sanity I was able to maintain during years of being overwhelmed by work, accompanied by roller coaster emotions created by my conflicting personal needs as a poet and mother.
By 1993, my sons were out and about and I had more time and energy to do revisions. I concentrated on crafting poems, often by introducing metaphor in order to control the emotion. I began to submit the work I had written over the past twenty years. I had a great backlog of material and I was very fortunate that it appealed to editors of journals, anthologies and presses. For a time, it appeared that I was a very prolific poet because I was publishing so much, but that is only because I had so much work squirreled away.
In addition to submitting work to journals, I entered a number of contests. The first major contest I won was the 1995 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from the Master of Professional Writing Program at University of Southern California. The judge was Marge Piercy. This was probably the most personally significant prize I ever won because it gave me confidence in my poetry. The poem, “Fair Haven, Connecticut,” combines my life in Connecticut and Kentucky and details how hard work, whether it is in coal mines or oyster beds, can wear down the body and spirit. I knew first- hand from watching relatives work on farms how physical exhaustion can drain the creative impulse. My personal experience raising three sons, for a time as a single mother, while finishing my PhD from Vanderbilt and teaching four courses a semester at SCSU taught me how too much work can silence the creative voice.
Having spent so many years caring for my sons, I knew that love could be just as draining to the creative spirit as too much hard work. “The Artichoke,” my fourth poem, is about love, which is a complex emotion because it can have a positive or negative impact. It’s very difficult to find what the heart really wants and then have the courage to follow its dictates. In my case, my heart was always in conflict. The need to care for my sons was at war with my desire to express my own identity in poetry. “The Artichoke” won the 1996 Sonora Review Poetry Prize from the University of Arizona.
The negative impact of love and its power to silence is also the subject of my fifth poem. The gypsy poet, Bronislawa Wajs, accepted banishment because her poems were published. She buried her emotional and creative spirit and was silenced by her loyalty, her love for her gypsy tribe. In 1997, “Doll: Papuza, GI Joe, Barbie, Madame Alexander” won the Lucille Medwick Award from the Poetry Society of America judged by Patti Ann Rogers. In poems like this one about the gypsy poet, I see myself as a poet of witness who writes about subjects in order to preserve their identity, their struggle and preserve events of lives that might otherwise be forgotten. By writing poems that incorporate both historical information and specific places, I hope to record voices that would disappear without a throat to channel them, without printed words to preserve them.
The next three poems in Greatest Hits are poems of witness for people who suffered tragic deaths because they were passionate about what they believed and refused to let the voice in their heart be silenced. Elizabeth Atwood from Ipswich, Massachusetts was hung at gallows’ lot on Pingrey’s Plain on June 23, 1720, for concealing the death of her new born illegitimate son. The site of Atwood’s death is now famous for the Clam Box (NYT, 9/ 21/ 2001) and people come not to remember her, but to buy deep-fried Ipswich clams from Marina Aggelakis, better known as Chickie. In 1998, “May 17, 1720: Superiour Court Justice Counsels Elizabeth Atwood in His Chambers before Sentencing Her to Hang,” was awarded the Eclectic: The Literary and Art Magazine of the State University of West Georgia Poetry Prize by Evan Boland.
Place is central to the poem about Elizabeth Atwood and to “Kachino, Russia: Perm 36” about Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet who was tortured to death in a Soviet gulag labor camp one month before the Nobel Prize he had been nominated for was announced in Stockholm. In 1998, this poem won the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize from Passages North at Northern Michigan University.
The eighth poem in Greatest Hits, “Reading: Poet Laureate of Connecticut,” is about Charlotte Mew and it won the 1999 Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award. Because Charlotte Mew and Emily Dickinson’s poems were saved, their inner life and their identity were preserved. Most people, in particular women, leave no records, diaries, or letters. Hopefully, my poems of witness about subject like Vasyl Stus, Elizabeth Atwood and Bronsilawa Wajs will keep their names from being anonymous like the grave markers on the open plains.
In writing these poems, I could find no answer for why certain people suffered so and others were spared. The evil in hearts that causes people, say Sadam Hussein or suicide bombers in Afghanistan, to destroy others, also remains a mystery. The ninth poem, “Confess Gluttony,” is about these questions and was prompted by my interest in cormorants created by Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost who sat like a cormorant in the Tree of Life preparing to work mischief in Eden. In 2000, it was chosen by the judge Beth Ann Fennelly for the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from The William Faulkner Society.
My daily life and the subject of my poems changed abruptly when I moved my parents from Kentucky to my home in Connecticut in order to care for my father for two years as he fought prostate cancer. After his death in 2000, I tried to bring what comfort I could to my mother who had Alzheimer’s until her death in 2005. I wrote poems in order to help myself accept their illness and death. To control the raw emotion in these poems, I tried to find a metaphor with interesting information to express the central idea of the poem. The emotions in the poems about my parents are real, but often the choice of the metaphor I use to convey them creates a fictional situation. For instance, in “Herring Gulls Are Decisive,” which won the 2000 Thin Air Magazine Poetry Prize from Northern Arizona University, goldenrod is the controlling metaphor. My father and I didn’t have a discussion about goldenrod, which is Kentucky’s state flower, but his failure to eat and his desire to return to Kentucky which prompted me to write the poem were true. By writing poems about my parents, I helped myself come to terms with their inevitable aging and death
“First Ice” is a literal description of my experience picking out a grave stone for my father’s grave. The story my father’s boyhood friend, Hansel Pile, told me about his donkey became a metaphor for how my grief over my father’s death was beginning to scab and not be so raw. In Kentucky, we had a game to see who would be first to find first ice, which was ice that we could walk on. I was a sissy cat and never won because I was afraid of falling through into the pond. The challenge that I faced in writing the poem was controlling the emotion, to find first ice to skate on to avoid wading in self pity. To see if I had accomplished that, I entered “First Ice” in a contest. I was reassured when Baron Wormser chose it for the 2001 Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Prize.
I write poems to help my heart come to terms with what my mind can understand but my heart can’t accept. By creating a form in order to contain emotion I put on paper, I gain control of feelings in order to help myself heal. Like the poem about my father’s grave, my final poem, “Mango Season in Cambodia,” is about healing and how the acceptance of loss, of grief can ultimately teach us to savor life in a deeper way. I wrote this poem in order to accept the death of my mother—not a tragic one like the continued deaths of our young soldiers—she was 89 but her death was devastating to me. I utilized the metaphor of a mango to create a fictional situation in Cambodia. It won the 2007 New Millennium Poetry Prize judged by Marilyn Kallet.
My hope is that in sharing my efforts to heal in these poems, I will help others find their own peace. I write to bear witness and record the struggle of the heart, the mind, the body ensnared by powers that cannot be understood or controlled. Unlike a priest, I have only words to give a deeply troubled world. Writing poems is a trip I start each day to find meaning for my individual life. The spiritual quest is universal unlike the physical one of the body which is personal. Poetry can ease the journey because when words are placed on a page, are given the permanence of print, the spirit has prevailed, will endure.
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