Women's poetry collected in new book

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Connie Wanek
Connie Wanek is a nationally recognized poet who helped edit "To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets From Pre-Territorial Days to the Present."
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Minnesota is home to a lot of good poets. And a lot of them are women.

Three of Minnesota's best contemporary poets decided to compile an anthology.

Duluth poet Connie Wanek says when she started on the project, the only early writer she knew about was Meridel Le Sueur.

Ellie Schoenfeld
Ellie Schoenfeld's poem, If I Were the Moon, is included in the anthology.
MPR Photo

"And I knew that couldn't be the full story," she says. "So who else was there? I had no idea who they were, what they wrote, what they wrote about."

Wanek, and collaborators Joyce Sutphen and Thom Tammaro, spent hours in the Minnesota Historical Society Library. They were surprised at the quality of work that Minnesota women had published.

"And thrilled, really, to think we would be bringing back into publication people who had really not been read for 50 or 80 years," Wanek says. "(They) had had big reputations at the time -- had several books from New York publishers, and published in Poetry and Atlantic Monthly, and had good careers, solid credentials, and were instantly forgotten when they died."

To confront that oblivion, the book includes short biographies describing the lives of the contributors. They range from missionary Harriet Bishop, born in 1817, to Hmong writer May Lee, born in 1979.

These days we tend to think of poems that rhyme, or follow a strict meter, as old-fashioned. But Connie Wanek says they can still be still powerful. Like one by Louise Leighton, who had three sons who fought in World War II.

To American Mothers

Now that the war is done,

Let us bury an unknown child

At Arlington.

A child who died alone

On a Chinese street, his body a pitiful

Cage of bone,

Or a child who lived in Greece,

Who cowered in caves and never knew

The ways of peace;

Or take a Jewish child

Whose delicate flesh was burned away

At Buchenwald.

Oh, let us bury here

A child without a name or a nation,

Kneel at the bier,

Never again supine,

But in bitter shame and grief, whispering:

This child was mine.

And not all the writers of the past felt compelled to make their poems rhyme. One of Connie Wanek's favorite poems was written by Hazel Hall, who was born in 1896, and died in 1924.

Lingerie

To-day my hands have been flattered

With the cool-finger touch of thin linen.

And I have unwound

Yards of soft, folded nainsook

From a stiff bolt.

Also I have held a piece of lawn

While it marbled with light

In a sudden quiver of sun.

So to-night I know of the delicate pleasure

Of white-handed women

Who like to touch smooth linen handkerchiefs,

And of the baby's tactual surprise

In closing its fist

Over a handful of nainsook,

And even something of the secret pride of the girl

As the folds of her soft lawn nightgown

Breathe against her body.

Hazel Hall was a seamstress, who needed to use a wheelchair. When her eyes began to fail she turned to poetry to support her family.

"What an idea, to turn to poetry to make some money!" says Ellie Schoenfeld. She's a Duluth writer whose poem, If I were the Moon, is included in the anthology.

"I feel like part of a historical record, so that 'instantly forgotten when I die' -- at least there'll be a poem," Schoenfeld says with a laugh.

If I were the moon

If I were the moon

I would turn your tide. You would draw maps of me,

would want to learn everything about my topography,

you would lick me to see

if I am made of green cheese or not.

You would memorize the names

of my mountains and seas.

If I were the moon

you would watch for me,

you would study my face and my curves

and the way my movements

make shadow pictures on your walls.

If I were the moon

you would smile at me

and I would climb in through your window.

I would fill your room

with my own particular madness inducing

lunacy producing light.

I would shine on you and make you howl

until I could taste my name

on your lips and in your mouth.

Ellie Schoenfeld's poem appears in the new book "To Sing Along the Way," published by New Rivers Press. She and other contributors will read their work at the College of St. Scholastica Saturday night.