Poetry & Conversation: Jane Satterfield

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By Kathleen Neil, Collection Management Department

Jane SatterfieldWhen the Baltimore Book Festival opens its tents on September 27 to 29, the Pratt Library will be there—hosting many authors and events. Poetry will, of course, have a place and the featured poets reading and taking questions regarding the art of poetry on Sunday September 29, from 4-5:30pm, will be Jane Satterfield and Bruce A. Jacobs. In anticipation of the event, Jane Satterfield recently shared some insights on poetry, her latest book, Her Familiars, and a poem reflecting themes of family, love, the precarious outside world and poetry’s value within it.

What are some of the themes present in Her Familiars?
Here are women’s lives—my own and history’s sisters, daughters, mothers—in a world threatened by war and witch hunts but also filled with love, wonder, and a dose of the absurd.

How does reading the work of other poets figure into your writing process?
As I was putting Her Familiars together to send to my editor Dana Curtis at Elixir, my husband and I debated the merits of titles. I remember he asked if had been thinking subconsciously about Anne Sexton’s wonderful poem "Her Kind" when I wrote the title poem. But I hadn’t read Sexton in years. Other books that mattered a good deal to me along the way were Roy Fisher’s The Furnace, Hill’s Mercian Hymns, John Matthias’ Kedging, Larry Levis’ Elegies. Long poems that dig deep into the layered geographies of history. Linda Gregerson’s Waterborne; Allison Joseph’s Kites and Soul Train; Sarah Kennedy’s Home Remedies and A Witch’s Dictionary; Jo Shapcott’s Her Book—and more I know I’m probably forgetting to mention.

Jane Satterfield CoverWho or what inspired you to write this book?
More than thanks are due to my husband—first reader, great talker, mandolin strummer, idea man. As in: "How come you've never written that?" I'm blessed by our on-going dialogue about this gorgeous, embattled world we live in.

My daughter’s kindness, intelligence, and companionship are crucial, too, as is her humor, the baked goods she shares, those well-timed cups of tea.

Beth Kephart’s many vibrant e-mails about reading, writing, and the world of YA literature provided a powerful trigger for the title poem. And the many members of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Seminars were staunch companions along the way.

I’m also indebted to the amazing visual artist, Kiki Smith, whose Familiars adorns the cover.

Reading Billy Collins' "The Names' with My Daughter

Partway through middle school,
partway through the poetry unit
they wonder why read them, why write
as they read, aloud, as a class
Billy Collins' "The Names." I started
to cry
, she says, and I couldn’t
stop myself
. Even now, as she looks
out to our yard from the window seat
next to my desk, she’s tearing up.
The poem, all those names, it’s
so so so sad.
The crying in front
of your classmates, I ask,
or something about the poem?—which
I don’t know and which she reads to me.
It’s unseasonably warm for January.
The window’s open; the robins
and starlings have not yet arrived.
The poem, marking a moment, makes
that moment stretch on past the frame of its making—All sad
she says, going silent. All those names
meaning people. Their lives! But Mom—
I remember so little—
I was six, school stopped, suddenly
and for no reason, the principal over
the loudspeaker and then the teachers
whispering out in the halls. Mrs. Denning
had two girls of her own in another school,
did she worry while she asked us to get
up out of our seats and go to the reading
corner, leaving our math books open?
Then story after story
which I don’t even remember,
just reading like that until parents
arrived, one after another.
We guessed an accident, something
grown-ups wanted
to hide and I still liked my plaid
uniform then, my oxford shoes. An attack
you told me, not a war.
The radio a room
away, out of your hearing—all day I
kept it running. The breeze of the present kicks up;
children trail from the school, small squadrons
in our alley. A poem, she sees, is a monument.
A field of meaning. We witness and we wake.

Jane Satterfield’s most recent book is Her Familiars, published in 2013 by Elixir Press. She is the author of two previous books of poems: Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic, as well as Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the William Faulkner Society's Gold Medal for the Essay, the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, the Mslexia women’s poetry prize, and the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from The Bellingham Review. Satterfield is the literary editor for the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative and teaches at Loyola University Maryland.

For more poetry and conversation, come to the Library Tent at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday, September 29, at 4 pm. Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events sponsored by the Pratt Library, and join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.

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