My awakening—the discovery that I belong in this world as a poet—arrived by a circuitous route, starting in first grade when I dreamed up wild tales to entertain my three younger sisters. By nine, I wrote and starred in plays on Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, and Hansel and Gretel; at ten, my sister Patsy sent my story, “Inner Happiness,” to Collier’s magazine (gently rejected). All my school years I wrote class skits, stories, even a pageant with a cast of a hundred.
After college and marriage, academic writing consumed decades as I pursued an M.A. and Ph.D. in English, then slid straight into college administration and endless stacks of dry reports. Along the way, I became mother to three children and faced round the clock demands: up at six, down at midnight, no time for the muse.
As the children grew, so did my desire to write creatively. I tried local journalism, but found it superficial and formulaic. Fiction drew me, but an agent advised that non-fiction was easier to publish, so I wrote Urgency Addiction (1991), about time pressures in America. This book sold well, but left my creative urge untapped. I began musing about Nathaniel Hawthorne, subject of my doctoral thesis; images of ancestral sins and passions rose up and led to my novel, The Secret Diary of Cotton Mather. Many publishers nibbled, but none bit, which helped me see that what engaged me was my characters’ passions, not their long stories. Yet poetry didn’t come calling.
That changed in 1994. Eugenia Collier, English chairwoman at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, hired me for their new creative writing program. She sent me, over my protests, to New York University for a workshop taught by poets Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell. Amazingly, they converted me. I’d plunged into the depths, tasted the sweet darkness, never wanted to leave it. I seized every possible moment to write poems.
My creative energy, though, was needed elsewhere. Morgan State being an historically black university, my students’ heritage was African American; that beat was in their souls. Rather than teach them English/American prosody, I read with them Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, listening deeply to the cadences in my students’ lives. I didn’t choose their subjects, impose rules, but tried to hear their voices, help them speak their truths. As they bared their hearts, their suffering, unearthed ancestral memories, a surprising transformation took place in me: I discovered my own beat, re-learned how to consider rhythm, meter, lines and stanzas; free verse took on new meaning.
In that rich period, I wrote my first real poems. On a month’s vacation in Rome, I finally had the leisure to open the door to myself and see what was there. Without conscious intent, I brought to bear my whole spiritual and literary background. Through the voices of Biblical characters, medieval saints, and early Puritans, my poetic identity emerged—from which all my poems have since come to light. “Six Rome Poems” I named them: “The Tenderness of Jeremiah,” “The Dreams of Joseph,” “Elizabeth and Mary,” “Caterina and Teresa,” “Catherine’s Tomb,” “Anne Hutchinson in America.” Their themes mirrored mine—marriage and motherhood, suffering, spiritual aspirations. All were published, followed by “St. Ann’s Knowing,” in 1999.
I’d found my path rather late, but felt sure-footed now. To my delight, the literature I had loved in college and graduate school sprang into service: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Homer, Sophocles and Aeschylus, as well as Lucretius and Catullus—searing writers who had waited patiently deep in my memory. The great novels I’d read when my children were young (letting laundry and dust mop go) returned like an underground stream: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.
In August 2000, I proposed for my sabbatical project a book of poems that would merge my professional, spiritual and creative selves: Dreamers, Mystics, Prophets. But fate intervened. In November 2000, my husband was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer, and died two months later. Shattered, emotionally paralyzed by grief, I couldn’t write a word of poetry.
Needing to flee, I visited my sister in Brazil, where I walked the streets compulsively day and night until I could accept that my husband was gone. Yet I couldn’t bear to stay in Baltimore, where we’d raised our children, where memory assaulted me at every turn. Within a year, I moved to New York as an associate vice president at Fordham University, and soon got a chance to go to China for a month. In this vast and beautiful new world, my poetic self revived. I began to visualize larger spiritual themes, embodied in “Daughters of Beijing” and “Tibetan Boy.”
When I consider how profoundly travel has influenced my poetry, it amuses me to recall my spur-of-the-moment trip to Antarctica, where I found myself entranced. Before trip’s end, I asked my friend, Pat Roach, to collaborate on a book of her photos and my poems. I conceived of Antarctic Visions (2011) as a hymn of praise to the Creator for this majestic white continent, and included poems on early explorers Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, and Roald Amundsen.
An even closer collaboration developed in Colorado when a lifelong friend, Myrna Nabors, brought her sister, painter Jeanine Malaney, and me together for a weekend. As we explored how faith in God and love of Nature nourished us, an artistic kinship formed; soon Jeanine was designing The Jeremiah Tree (2011), a full-color book of her paintings and my poems.
Then a remarkable poet entered my life—almost by chance. After an editor noted that my Biblical poems reminded her of midrash, which I’d never heard of, I found Alicia Ostriker in New York and joined her workshops on poetic midrash, a technique she adapted from rabbinical analysis. Alicia ushered me into the depths of Moses, Miriam, Zipporah, Sarah, and Naomi, who appeared in my next poetry collection: Spirit Ascending (2016).
When Light & Glory (2018) was published, my daughter Marguerite, a Shakespeare scholar, wrote to me: “The book covers so much of your life, even before birth, and carries on through your travels around the world to the present. The circular image of the eclipsed sun [on the cover] seems to represent so well your coming full circle through the dark with light always present. Loved the Odysseus poem—that’s certainly a full circle epic! It is a tremendous thing to find the words to make such beautiful poems!”
Her praise delighted me, but even more her insight, which had eluded me. I do have a sense of having come full circle. In my grief poems of losing the man who had been my other self since I was eighteen, one part of my life ended. Now I feel newly grounded in poetry, my spiritual and creative selves united at my core. I imagine the poems yet to be written as arrows shooting straight toward unknown places. I am braced, ready.
The title of my work in progress, Love Songs to God, “dropped down on me,” as my other titles have. I tried to dismiss it as entirely too daunting. Of course, much of my poetry has risen from religious feeling. What did I expect? I go forward with what the muse sends me. My new poems continue to spring from characters who stop me in my tracks. Whether ancient or modern, local or distant, real or imagined—doesn’t matter. I take on the persona, move into darkness. While my imagination is realistic in that I’m not interested in fantasy or science fiction, at the same time I love not being constrained by facts or chronology, time or space. Only an inner coherence is needed. Maybe this explains why poetry is my true home.
Suffering figures largely. Why are we cruel to one another? Are we getting more depraved through lies, greed, rage? Or do we simply seem worse, since technology lets us see everything horrible at once? How can a loving God allow human suffering? Two poems in early form are emerging from opposite human extremes. “Grace” began as a photo in The New York Times of a girl severely maimed by soldiers’ machetes. “Annunciation” originated in an image of the Virgin Mary as a stocky peasant girl in a picture book of roadside shrines in Italy. What they have in common to reveal remains a mystery—the most compelling feature of poetry for me.
Ideas for poems come easily, out of nowhere, on the wind—as an image, a phrase, an intriguing memory. A genuine poetic idea, as opposed to a flitting thought, strikes suddenly: a small, insistent spark, followed by intense, sustained effort. Recently I heard myself say to a friend, “Your words were like a balm from Gilead.” I knew it signaled a new poem, but where did I get that? Memory brought up opera stars Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman, singing the spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” then Jeremiah the prophet appeared, followed by Joseph and his brothers, all inhabiting the same space: a hot desert. The poem, as rarely happens, flowed from my mind almost ready-made— the genre: ancient lament; the theme: slavery in Egypt, Africa and America. The meters and stanzas move along unevenly, the pace imitating the poem’s internal progress.
Technique has become an intense focus, a painstaking, dauntless effort to build the parts of a poem into a whole. I’ve always worked in free verse (knowing it isn’t free), which means I can consult the entire range of poetry in English to find the right form for a poem. I’m not a theoretician, but I think Robert Frost’s expression is perfect: the sound of sense, the sense of sound. I tend to feel my way through a poem like a blind person. In composing, I’m always listening, feeling, trying out combinations of words that perfectly match the poem’s action. Rhythm, rhyme, meter, all the devices, are present, but not in an obvious, traditional pattern. I also take into account the weight of words, as Latin and Anglo-Saxon metrics did. Sounds matter not only as rhymes (mate and relate) but as carriers of feeling and meaning: care and fair convey different moods from lake and quake, entirely apart from denotations and connotations. Like a family, every word depends on all the other words. There’s the challenge.
At my best in the morning, I sit down at my desk to write after breakfast and a workout at the gym, then write on the computer for a solid three to five hours. I schedule everything else for later. If I miss a day, or am dissatisfied with a session, I work on weekends. I’m never happier or more alive than when totally immersed in writing. The world and its cares are blessedly removed from me, as I am somehow removed from myself, and only the thing, the poem-in-the-making, exists. True bliss! Near my computer I keep this lyric by my poetic soulmate, although she is at her best in the evening:
When at night I wait for her to come
Life, it seems, hangs by a single strand.
What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison
With the dear welcome guest, a flute in hand.
She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,
She stares through me with her attentiveness.
I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,
Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’
In trying to perfect a poem, I tend to over-edit, finding to my dismay that I’ve squeezed the life out of a fragile creature. As a safety net, I make a list of “discarded lines,” and often rescue my best lines. My desire to write the best possible poems calls for fresh language—so difficult, as clichés usually pop up first. But I want to be accessible too. I don’t write to impress other poets, but simply to move readers to apprehend truth and beauty. When my sister says, “It gave me the shivers,” or a friend comments, “That brought me to tears,” I feel that’s a good sign. What I love most (after the writing) is to read my poems aloud to others and to feel an electric connection between us.
My own favorite poems are those I’ve not yet written. In finding a marvelous new poem by another poet, I’m inspired to try harder, trust my imagination, believe that better poems are still to come. If I have any regrets, it is that my novel, The Secret Diary of Cotton Mather, was stillborn. I’ve re-written the deathbed stream of consciousness in the last chapter into a long poem and included it in Light & Glory as “Cotton Mather’s Last Conversation with God.”
Much as I love the solitude of writing, I’m happy to have a support group of two poet-friends with whom I exchange drafts of poems, which we critique—honestly but not ruthlessly. I also belong to Poets @St. Paul’s, a group of New Yorkers led by Father Tom Holahan, a priest/poet; we meet monthly to read and respond lightly to one another’s work.
For pleasure and camaraderie, six of us discuss a work of fiction monthly. Recently we enjoyed Amos Oz’s Judas, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. On my nightstand is a stack of non-fiction for myself: Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America, Timothy Egan’s The Immortal Irishman, and Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire.
Again and again I return to my most-loved poets: Pablo Neruda, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, Joseph Brodsky, Stanley Kunitz. Now I’m reading poets who stay near me as “spirit friends” for my poems-in-progress: St. John of the Cross, Anna Akhmatova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan and some mystics (ed. Scott Cairns, Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics).
I feel that my poetic identity is prophetic, and was always so. A prophetic poem doesn’t predict anything, as I understand it. Rather, such a poem is closely related to the heartbeat, as a child in the womb takes comfort in its mother’s heartbeat. In fact, the poem is a heartbeat that reflects and is in harmony with the universe. It has to do with that ultimate movement which undergirds the cosmos. The prophetic identity of a poem is its pulsing microcosmic imitation of the action that is being, as I believe Aristotle meant about theater. It is sure of resting in being. Like a prism, it reflects, all at once, what was and what will be: the eternal is. The thing is to make that prism into a small gem of a poem. I know this is an impossible aim for my fragile beings. But why else would I be a poet?
My website: www.ninatassi.com.
Poetry books: The Jeremiah Tree (2011); AntarcticVisions (2011); Spirit Ascending (2016); Light & Glory (2018).
Copyright©2018 by Nina Carey Tassi