Maxine Kumin:
The poetry of a
New England landscape

An interview by Daina Savage,
October 1994

Maxine Kumin barely has time to catch her breath on an autumn day at her New Hampshire farm.

"I'm off to bring in the horses," the state's Poet Laurete said as she ended a brief phone interview. Evening feedings, mucking stalls, mending fences all call her away.

But it is just these tasks that later find their way into her writings.

The craggy wilderness of her 200-acre farm -- the small meadow that feeds her barnful of horses each summer, the sugar maples that color her fall and fill buckets with their sweet sap each spring -- is the landscape of her verse.

It is a place that raspberries fall off their stems into pails. The woods bloom with mushrooms bursting from the hollows of oak trees. And a strawberry roan mare with the coloring of the freckled variety of redheaded women can stand "swashbuckling the flies and mosquitoes with her bug repellent-larded tail."

It is the place the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet calls home.

"My poetry is pretty much centered in New England, but more poetry of people and animals than of landscape," said the writer whose plain, direct style often evokes comparisons to Robert Frost. "I supposed it could be called pastoral, but not a romanticized pastoral. It has real manure in it and real rain, and real anguish and loss just as much as it has some of the sunny hours."

A prolific writer, Kumin has published 10 volumes of poetry, four novels, a book of short stories, three essays and a number of children's books.

"I think it's good for a poet to write prose, to confront the simple declarative sentence," she said. "So often poets deal in ellipses. It's what we leave out that's important. So it's so easy to forget grammatical structure."

Still, it is the poetry that drives her.

"If the muse came down and said, 'choose,' I would choose poetry," she said.

Her most recent book is Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories. Although she gives poetry readings of her work, she doesn't enjoy them.

In a 1979 interview, Kumin said she thinks "it's a mistake to try to read to an audience poems that you don't have sufficient psychic distance on, even though you may have been ready to write them. Sometimes you're not ready to read them aloud." This is something she still believes -- but she admits it's a useful way to make a living.

"I've gotten rather professional about it," she said. "You can't make a living selling poems, but you can make a pretty good living giving lectures and teaching."

But, despite her own reticence to give them, she is quick to add that readings are important. "I think they're absolutely vital," she said. "It's extremely important to hear poetry in the poet's voice. It brings the poem off the page."

Besides being a form of written expression, poetry is also an oral and aural art, she said. "It's wonderful when we can bring the three together," she said.

"When I heard W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore, as soon as the poet said, 'I'm going to read this poem,' we opened our books to it and followed along." Even now, when she re-reads their works, the memory comes back clearly. "I hear the voice," she said. "It's a wonderful thing. It can still give me shivers."

She tries to touch a few souls herself when she gives readings of her own work. "I'm very evangelical about poetry," she said. "I hope to make some converts to the cause."

[ by Daina Savage ]