For the rest of the week I'll be writing mostly about survival: what it means to keep writing even if it looks as if your work will never get published and the difference it makes if it is or isn't professionally published, self-published, read to a group, or left in a drawer. It seems appropriate to start by looking at a forthcoming anthology of poetry (and some prose) by widows—survivors—many of whom have had no training as poets and are being published for the first time. The book is called The Widows’ Handbook, and it will be published in a few months by Kent State University Press. You heard it here first. Putting this book together and getting it published was an inspiring commitment to survival, particularly considering how many publishers declined to read the manuscript. The book was edited by two bereaved women, Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menn. I wrote some questions for them. Lise answered first, then Jacqueline.
Bruce: Are you both widows? Do either of you have experience as editors or creative writers?
Lise: I am a widow; my second husband and I had been happily married for almost twenty years when he died in October 2006. The other editor is Jacqueline Lapidus; she lost her beloved partner, but he was not her husband. Not having the legal status of a widow added in many ways to her burden. As for my editing experience, I’ve co-edited some academic books, but this is my first time editing poetry. I’ve published a few poems in collections of poetry by linguists.
Jacqueline: Not only that, but there was a wife—the Lawful Awful, from whom he had been estranged for years. I have been a professional editor for 50 years (not counting high school newspaper) and have been publishing poems in literary magazines since 1963.
Bruce: How many publishers did you try before finding Kent State Univ. Press?
Lise: Fifteen queries to likely-looking places, resulting in five submissions, all rejected; that’s not counting the publishers who wouldn’t look at a manuscript unless it was submitted through an agent. But after we were in negotiations with KSUP, one of the ones that just didn’t respond eventually showed serious interest.
Bruce: Did you consider self-publishing? Did you reject the idea, and why?
Lise: I did consider it, but Jacqueline, who has been an editor, author, and translator for many years, was unwilling to consider that except as a last resort. She felt that a work this substantial deserved to be a "real book." And now we have it both ways, because KSUP will make it available as an e-book.
Jacqueline: In fact, I wasn’t willing to consider it at all—not even as a last resort! Promoting the book is hard enough without having to do distribution as well, even with online bookstores available. And I couldn’t afford to put any money into such a project.
Bruce: How did you attract manuscripts? Where did you place ads or notices and what did they say?
Lise: Jacqueline is very experienced in this area. She placed ads in Poets & Writers Magazine (print and online) and the Seacoast Writers Association newsletter, worded like this:WIDOWS: Seeking women’s poems and short personal essays (max. 500 words) about experiences of widowhood (de facto or de jure). Bereavement (sudden or following illness/long vigil), mourning rituals, grieving, other people’s responses, coping strategies, spiritual resources, support systems (or lack thereof), evolving social life (isolation, work, friends, dating), rebuilding (including but not limited to finding new love or focus). We are a published poet/editor and a scientist/professor, both widowed. Manuscript will be submitted to trade publishers. Payment: contributor’s copies. Deadline: June 30, 2011. Send with SASE for reply to: The Widows’ Handbook, [followed by Jacqueline’s address].
Jacqueline also contacted numerous poet friends and asked them to spread the word. Some of those friends helped put her in touch with well-known widowed poets (O’Hehir, Gallagher, Gilbert). She also selected a few widows’ poems from the anthology Love Over 60 (eds. Chapman & McCormick, pub. by Mayapple Press in 2010—we both knew Robin Smith Chapman from college and Jacqueline had a poem in that collection) and from their own books.
Bruce: Did you rule out widowers, and if so, why?
Lise: Most women who are widowed – especially older women – face a much harder time financially, socially, and in finding new partners – than men of comparable ages and personal histories. For many women, the social isolation (because some married couples stop inviting widows to join them, leaving you not only lonely but wondering if they ever really liked you at all) and the financial hardship compound the devastation of losing their partners. My late husband had been widowed twice before we met – he lost one young wife in a car accident and the next young woman to breast cancer, and he was deeply traumatized for years by those losses. So I would never consider a man’s grief to be less deep than a woman’s. But…he found new partners as soon as he was ready for them, and it seems that people are always eager to play matchmaker for a nice man who wants a wife. That said, I wish we had included some older gay men who have lost their partners, because they also often experience social isolation and a very limited circle of possible new partners, in addition to their grief. (The "beauty trap" catches them as much as it catches women.)
Jacqueline: As Lise says, in our gendered society the social situation and status of widows differ from that of widowers. There are other books that include both, but there had never been an anthology of poems by widows. I wanted to showcase the aspect of widows’ lives that nobody wants to admit. I conceived The Widows’ Handbook as an anthology of women’s poems, not an anthology about bereavement or grief in general.
Bruce: Did you stick entirely to heterosexual relationships? If so, why?
Lise: Not at all. Both Jacqueline and I have strong ties to the lesbian and bisexual community – my stepdaughter is Susie Bright – and we included two fine poems that were written by lesbian poet Mary Oliver after the death of her partner of more than 40 years.
Jacqueline: We specified “gay and straight” in our call for submissions, and we didn’t always know whether the late partner or spouse of a woman submitting her work was gay or straight. I don’t mind mentioning that I was “out and about” as a lesbian poet and activist for 20 years. When Edward and I got back together in 1995 (we had known each other since 1964 and had a “phase 2” in the 1970s), I had to “come out in reverse” all over Boston, New York, Provincetown and Paris, a process that was more embarrassing to me than “coming out” 20 years earlier had been.
Bruce: Did you stick entirely to people who were married? If so, why?
Lise: No – as I mentioned, Jacqueline herself was not married to the man she loved, and marriage was not an option for our lesbian contributors. Most of the authors in our volume are in fact women whose husbands had died, but we don’t always know – and it doesn’t matter. Love is where you find it.
Jacqueline: Not quite so—some lesbians have been able to marry for the past 10 years—but I know I am not the only TWH contributor not married to her Significant O. For those of us who were not legally married, the grief of widowhood was compounded by a lack of “official” social support—and sometimes, by financial disaster.
Bruce: How is the book a handbook, and how is it not?
Lise: Well, I needed psychotherapy for well over a year for help in living with the terrible, paralyzing sadness I felt when I lost my husband. The title comes from a day when I was trying to explain to my therapist how overwhelming my emotions were and how clueless I felt in trying to figure out how to live with them, and I wailed (there’s no other word for it) at him, “There’s no handbook!” Of course, there can’t be a handbook for dealing with losing the person you love; no one can tell you how to be a widow – that’s the irony of the title. (By the way, there are books about the legal and financial things widowed women need to know, with similar titles.)
But in another sense, it really is a handbook, because we think that many widows will find at least some of their own emotions reflected in it, and validated by it, perhaps despite what people around them are telling them that they ought to feel. And we also created it for people – professional counselors, friends, family members – who are trying to help widows and who need to have some help in comprehending what the widow may be going through. I guess I imagine a woman finding a poem here and an essay there that match how she feels, or that she can use as a point of departure for explaining how things are with her, marking that page, and saying to her son-in-law or her best friend "look, just read this, it’ll give you some idea, I can’t say it better than this."
See, the anthology – it’s got over two hundred poems and short prose pieces – shows a pretty wide sample of the huge range of emotions that different women in different circumstances experience – and that an individual woman experiences at different times (and forget about that "stages of grief" pap). When we made our selection from the 450-odd poetry and short prose submissions and from already-published works containing poems by our contributors Mary Oliver, Sandra Gilbert, Tess Gallagher, and others, we considered not only the poetic quality of the writing, but also the variety of experiences and reactions. One young widow was pregnant; several had small children; some women (of various ages) lost their partners to accidents or suicide; some of the older contributors had tended their partners through extended declines. Some write about men who were alcoholic or had treated them badly in other ways; one writes about the death of an ex-husband with whom she had remained friendly. And in later sections of the book, some of the contributors write about establishing new relationships and the paradoxes of wanting to live full lives again without entirely letting go of what was beautiful and sustaining in their previous relationships.
Bruce: Does the book have an overall theme, and how do the parts support it?
Lise: I think the overall themes that emerge are that losing a beloved partner is devastating beyond what one could have imagined, and that figuring out how to live again is a long process, whether one continues alone or with a new partner. We decided to group the poems this way: I. Bereft, Mourning; II. Memories, Ghosts, Dreams; III. Coping (more or less); and IV. A Different Life. So you might say they are grouped by the acuteness of the sense of loss, which decreases across the four groups, and by the slow development of ways to keep on living and even to find joy again, which increases. That’s how the division into sections makes the themes clear. But there’s no chronology or set of stages intended. Time does change things, and the acute feeling that you have lost half of your own self does, mercifully, fade (if you keep living), but memories and dreams persist, regardless.
Bruce What did you find of value in the poems by nonprofessionals?
Lise: I’m a non-professional too, you know. I’ve written poetry, mostly for friends and lovers, and a little of it was published, but I’ve made my living as a researcher and teacher of linguistics. The superb professional poets in our collection make blazing leaps of the imagination which most of us non-professionals can’t match, but the touchstone we used in choosing among the submissions – and among the reprinted works by the pros, too – was the sense of truth: This is the raw emotion, this is the real thing, this is the voice of the woman who has been there and who can tell us where she has been. The person who reads this will not have to toss it aside in contempt as a platitude, as a generalization irrelevant to her own particular anguish, as a smooth oiliness that some well-meaning fool is attempting to pour over the surface of the almost-unbearable turbulence inside her.
Jacqueline: I would have liked to accept one poem by every woman who submitted her work! However, we agreed to seek not just feeling but also poetic skill in conveying the writer’s experience. We turned down more than half of what we received, largely because it was simply not very good, however sincere. Some of the most moving poems in the anthology are by women who have never been published before.
Bruce: How and when did you get the idea for the book? Is there any competition?
Lise: I was sharing my collected poems about living with grief when I was visiting Jacqueline in Boston a few years ago, and she immediately thought of creating a book, using some of mine, some of hers, and pulling many, many more from other widows. There are some smaller books of writing by widows, but nothing of this scope or professional quality, as far as we know. Our publisher, Kent State University Press, has a very good reputation among Jacqueline’s friends who are poets.
Jacqueline: I had already sent Lise the poems I wrote after my Significant O’s death. I don’t think I would have even had the idea for the anthology if I had been able to get those poems published in literary magazines. But, they kept coming back—presumably because the subject was too “heavy” and/or the editors were too young to “get it.”
We were sitting in a restaurant, waiting for our dinner to arrive as I read Lise’s poems. Then I opened my big mouth and said, “Oh! you know, this would be a wonderful theme for an anthology!” “Sure,” said Lise, “as long as you do most of the work!” In fact, we really did share it, 50-50. Lise is as astute an editor as I am. I received the submissions, copied each one and sent her packets, periodically, so both of us could read everything that came in. We divided them into folders: yes, no, maybe, and disagree. Then Lise came east again and we spent three days discussing the “maybes” and the “disagrees” (with a little haggling here and there), deciding what we wanted to include. Then I arranged the poems in a tentative order and sent that to Lise, she commented, then we revised the order a few times until we were sure it held up as a whole. We compiled our lists of potential publishers from our own files, friends’ and contributors’ suggestions, books we liked. Then we sent out query letters, sometimes a three-page proposal, and on a few occasions when the target press “nibbled,” the entire manuscript for consideration.
Lise again: I was trying to write my own first sole-authored book at the time, a textbook in my field, and I didn’t dare take on another major project until the textbook went to press. After that, yes, I did my share.
Bruce: What exactly do you mean by the placement of the apostrophe?
Lise: That was Jacqueline’s idea. I was calling my own solo collection The Widow’s Handbook, and she wanted to leave the original title for me to use. Besides, the possessive plural emphasizes the fact that many widows – 88, to be precise – helped to create the book, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the Foreword. But of course, I'll have to find a different title when I publish my own little book – there would be too much confusion if the difference between their titles really depended only on where the apostrophe sits.
This book shows that writing is good for you and that reading can be too. Rough times demand words even if the pain goes beyond words. And nonprofessional poets have as much to say, and often say it as well, as professionals. The images, scenes, and lines in these poems are strong and come from the gut. They have that sense of truth of which Lise spoke. The authors take powerful feelings and structure them, put them in an order that works: poetry. Even if one is not a widow or another kind of survivor, the book is intriguing as a collection on a single difficult topic. In a purely literary sense it is valuable for putting amateurs and experts together as they all find ways to say what they must say. I close with some examples.
Sandra Gilbert wrote:
Something turned you into a stone of yourself.
Jessica deKoninck wrote:
Cancer and infection rot
from inside out. Your organ
donor card's a useless stub.
I did not want to look
at you. Contaminated
not even good for parts.
Jacqueline Lapidus wrote:
Imagine having everything that mattered
imagine it gone
Elizabeth von Transehe wrote:
We signed together.
I don't want it alone.
That is not the deal.
Christine Silverstein wrote:
Grief comes to stay. It is a new emotion, a new tenant in your heart with a long lease. Grief is as big and as whole as love. It commands attention. It can ruin your day. Grief takes sadness to new heights and throws it off the cliff.
Tess Gallagher wrote:
Since his feet were still there and my hands
I rubbed them with oil
because it is hard to imagine at first
that the dead don't enjoy those same things they did
when alive. And even if it happened only as a last thing, it
was the right last thing.
Rosalind Kaliden wrote of widows:
And Lise Menn wrote, in Solving an Astronomy Problem:
It's certain, as I had always suspected:
You were my sun and moon and stars;
Not one of them rises anymore.
So then, what is that yellow light that heats my skin
And which occasionally warms me for a moment?
It must be someone else's sun that I can see.
It must be someone else's moon that changes shape.
And those must be their stars: faint, blinking, useless.