With Council's okay, Huntington takes post
Sunday, January 18, 2004
Huntington - Her writing is 'laid out in brawny, unpredictable style.'
Susan Mitchell, a judge for the Levis Poetry Prize, called Hanover poet Cynthia Huntington's newest collection, The Radiant, "a book of awful things - sickness and suffering and betrayal."
The stories Huntington tells are indeed painful: the transforming and mysterious power of chronic illness, the hot rage for a husband's lover and aching recollections of a marriage before its destruction. The dark humor Huntington says usually invades her poems is absent, replaced by moments of self-sustaining strength.
"This is not a book for the faint of heart or for those in search of glib consolations . . .," wrote Mitchell. "No, I don't come back to this book for comfort, I return to it to feel alive."
For Huntington, nominated last week to be New Hampshire's next poet laureate by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and Gov. Craig Benson, life and poetry seem to feed each other. In three poetry books and one prose memoir, the Dartmouth College creative writing professor has written about summers spent on Cape Cod, years spent in a noisy Southern California neighborhood and days spent in hospitals undergoing treatment for multiple sclerosis. Huntington is already at work on a future collection, this one about growing up during the 1950s and '60s in western Pennsylvania, caught in the dramas of what she describes as a "dysfunctional" family.
Huntington's honest poems and sometimes disturbing imagery have won her praise from critics and poetry lovers from New Hampshire and beyond. Her mentor, past New Hampshire poet laureate Donald Hall, wrote in Boston Review's Poetry Sampler that Huntington's work was "poetry of the intellect laid out in a brawny, unpredictable style."
Huntington, 52, came to New Hampshire 15 years ago to teach at Dartmouth. She had grown up in Pennsylvania and spent early adulthood living in various parts of the United States and overseas. This summer, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years. Now, she and her 18-year-old son live in Hanover, a few miles from the college where she works. Huntington's house, once shared with her husband, is now in flux, half bare with his absence, she says.
The poet didn't begin writing until she was in her mid-20s. At the University of Michigan, where her husband was a Sanskrit scholar, Huntington met poet and university professor Donald Hall, who was in the midst of his last year of teaching. Huntington began sliding poems under Hall's office door, one by one, and he would hand them back to her, "full of red marks."
When Hall left the university, Huntington wrote to him, sending samples of her newest work. In time, he began to send copies of his own poems to her. This began a "15 year tutorial," which taught Huntington much of what she knows about writing, she says.
When Huntington first writes, she types on a laptop. Once, she wrote everything by hand, but the muscular weakness caused by her illness has made her handwriting unreadable, even to her, she says. Most often, ideas for poems come "all at once" for several months, she says, but it can take a few years to create a cohesive collection ready for publication. Often when she's looking for inspiration, Huntington heads to the dunes in Provincetown, Mass., where she lived for several years.
"New work tends to come after some real alone time," she says. "I generate a lot through silence."
Ideas also come through Huntington's reading. She is fascinated by "extra-literary" language: legal and medical language and ways of speaking practiced in the past. Some of her new poems - which explore her mother's addiction to prescription medications, her brother's suicide attempts and the nuclear fears and sexual revolution of the 1950s and '60s - will contain passages from the Bible. She is already planning her footnotes.
To Huntington, a completed poem is like a symphony that changes speeds and moods at the start of each movement.
"I'm less worried about the subject matter than whether you move through a poem with an emotional experience," she says. "A poem can be made in many different ways, but it has to finish at a different place than you began."
But writing about such personal subjects can be difficult, she says.
Huntington found she couldn't begin to write about her childhood until after her mother had died.
Writing about multiple sclerosis was also difficult, mainly because
Huntington had to learn how to describe the disease's effects on her body
in imaginative ways. In a poem called "The Rapture," she tells the story
of her first symptoms, which came as she was cooking soup at the stove.
She felt her legs and arms tingle and shake, and she collapsed on the floor,
"legs swimming against the linoleum . . ."
And in that moment I knew everything that would come after:
the vision was complete as it seized me. Without diagnosis,
without history, I knew that my life was changed.
I seemed to have become entirely myself in that instant.
In The Radiant, several scathing poems curse her husband's mistress, while others revisit a time before marital trouble began. Huntington doesn't choose to read these poems aloud locally: "There's a line between expressing my own pain and being unfair," she says.
Her ex-husband knows what the book is about, she says: He read it before it was published. And his painting, Water Gods, is on the cover.
"I feel a funny distance from the book. I know these were my feelings, and I re-experience them when I read it," says Huntington. "When I give readings, I want to say, 'I'm not feeling that way today.' (Writing it) was necessary, it was not a release."
Huntington, whose post will become official this week if she is approved by the Executive Council, isn't sure yet what projects she will undertake as poet laureate, a post held in the past by Maxine Kumin, Jane Kenyon and Marie Harris. Harris, whose five year term ends this spring, has read her work for gubernatorial inauguration ceremonies and organized a "Poetry & Politics" conference, bringing poets laureate from several states to New Hampshire for a series of readings, lectures and discussions.
The fact that the state nominates a poet laureate every few years is evidence that poetry is alive in New Hampshire, says Huntington, that it "didn't end with Robert Frost," whose work she says is much more than just a praise of the New England landscape.
Right now, Huntington enjoys leading workshops for adult poets in addition to her classes at the college. She hopes to explore the possibilities of artistic exchanges with writers from other states, and she says she'd love to be a partner in crime to Vermont's outspoken poet laureate, Grace Paley.
"The post itself is more important than the person," Huntington says.
"It doesn't make me the best poet in New Hampshire, but it does make me
an advocate. I've earned my turn to stand up for poetry."
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