K A R I E   F R I E D M A N

I was the eldest of four children and grew up in a series of towns around Los Angeles—Ontario, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, and Van Nuys.  We also spent many summers near Santa Barbara at the lemon ranch of our maternal grandparents, who had a guest house for family visits. Our mother was briefly a dance and PE teacher, but became a writer of novels for middle school readers.  Our Boston-born father taught English at the high school level, then in a community college while he was a graduate student at UCLA.  When he received his doctorate, he took a job at the University of Texas, and the family moved to Austin, but by then I had gone off to college.


I attended Reed College with a major in French and English literature.  The curriculum was rigorous and the students up to the challenge.  We enjoyed overstuffed reading lists of plays, poems, philosophy, and novels.  My favorites among the poets we read were Villon, Baudelaire, the Anglo Saxon author of Beowulf, and Andrew Marvell. The fact that almost everyone whose work we read was a dead white male was not remarkable for the times, nor did we think much about there being only three women on the whole faculty.


Reed didn’t offer a major for creative writers, but writing was the recreation of the literary crowd.  We critiqued one another’s poems and stories in a haze of smoke at the college café and at soirées held by a visiting professor from Keele University, W. J. (John) Harvey.  Making allowances for the natural pretensions of college kids—lots of worldly ennui and irony laid on with a trowel—I still questioned the notion that the best poems could only be produced by those who were tormented, dissolute, and possibly bipolar.  Certainly the fashionable topics were very dark—war, violence, bitterness towards one’s parents, anger towards past lovers, suicide, the void—while the favored images were of the Furies, Medusa, blood, and broken glass. All of these were rather far from my experience.  I  was more interested in daily life, less melodramatic human interactions, poems of place, and glimpses of transcendence through ordinary things.  There were plenty of poets out there writing on these topics, but I had not yet heard of most of them.  Exceptions were Ruth Stone—whose quiet, witty poems were dismissed at the time as “domestic”—and  William Stafford, who taught at a rival college across town.  I regret that I did not have the sense to go over and audit his classes.  I did, however, go to readings by him and other west-coast poets.


Upon graduation, having not a clue about making my way as a writer, I took the first job I could find, as a clerk-typist, and soon gravitated to work in publishing, within the world of small academic journals and university presses. Formal training for poets or fiction writers was in its infancy, the prevailing model being to write “in a garret” until you were discovered, and there was no Internet then, where one might seek information, kindred spirits, or jobs to support a writing habit. I became a copy editor, then a managing editor, then an editor, and found that not only was I good at it, but that, as a way to earn a living, it was rarely dull and often satisfying.  Polishing the English of non-native speakers became one of my specialties. 


Meanwhile, I had married a fellow student who went on to become a professor of medieval literature (I edited his professional writing, too).  Resolving not to let academic life make us stodgy, we toured Scandinavia and France by motorcycle the first summer after he joined the Connecticut College faculty.  Our biker period was very short, brought to a close by my getting pregnant the following year.  Still thirsty for adventure, we bought a tumble-down farm in Maine and spent our vacations learning new skills like soldering together copper plumbing, shingling, driving a tractor, cooking on a wood stove, tending a veggie garden, and (over spring break) making maple syrup.


This was at the beginning of the back-to-the-land movement, and our part of Maine, where land was cheap and many places abandoned, saw a huge influx of green, idealistic homesteaders, some of whom survived and became lifelong friends.  During the years that followed, we had two daughters and lived in several parts of the U.S. as well as in Montreal, Cambridge, and Poitiers, but always spent our summers at the farm.  Migrating between hippy-esque rural life and academia, we found ourselves with two sets of clothes, two sets of mutually exclusive friends, and I, at least, with the sense of never quite belonging in either milieu, but observing from the margins.


During those years I kept a journal, read contemporary poets with a voyeur's hunger, and made sporadic efforts at getting up early to write poems in my office—there being no desk for me at home—but got nowhere with it, partly I suspect from sleep deprivation and more importantly from feeling that I was writing in a vacuum.  It did not occur to me that the garret-to-brilliant-emergence model was not a good fit for me.  I needed to go public with my intention to write, to claim time and space for it, as well as the company and feedback of peers.  My husband and I knew other writers, who were beginning to have some measure of professional recognition, but I was shy about admitting to them that I wanted to do what they were doing.  I had not yet grasped that, at least in the beginning, entering the literary life requires as much bravado as talent.


In 1987, my husband and I divorced.  Two consequences of the split-up were that (a) I moved out and one of the first pieces of furniture I bought for my new place was a desk, at which I wrote daily, and (b) the farm became wholly mine. Here I must put in a word of gratitude to my then boss, David Pines, the Editor of Reviews of Modern Physics.  His example, encouragement, and support gave me the confidence to assume more responsibility at the journal, while his promoting me to Assistant Editor helped materially in setting me on my feet as a newly single woman.  I feel extremely lucky to have had him and his wife Suzy as friends through this rough period and beyond. 


In my new life, I continued to read the work of contemporary poets, but also, something I had not done before, to pay more attention to the po-biz scene.  This included learning the current pecking order, the A-list publishers and magazines, who judged contests, and whose poems seemed the work of frauds and poseurs.  Thanks to the efforts of others more feisty and tenacious than I, the U. S. poetic community had evolved remarkably since my college days and now represented a more diverse sampling of society, concerned with a broader range of issues, so that I felt encouraged  to add my own voice.


Meanwhile, I was holding down two jobs, one editing at Reviews of Modern Physics, and one moonlighting in the dispatch room of a trucking firm that shipped pallets of vegetables, cheese puffs, and toilet paper to IGA stores. The world of trucking was different from any I had known up till then, and I enjoyed learning about it.  However, this schedule did not leave a great deal of time for writing.


When David Pines retired, Reviews of Modern Physics moved from Illinois to Washington state, and its new editor, George Bertsch, invited me to come out to Seattle and continue as Assistant Editor, which I was glad to do.  There, a meeting of the board of Associate Editors was responsible for my next big adventure—at least, it seemed big to me.  Two of the board members had just returned from a professional meeting in New Zealand, which they extended by going for a hike on a famous World Heritage track.  They were showing photos on their laptops of where they had been.  The scenery was breathtaking.  I decided I had to go see this country for myself and began saving for the trip.  Two years later, I did go.  Hiked the Queen Charlotte Track in a group, then wandered around the South Island on my own by train, bus, air, and boat for 18 days.  Loved it.


As for the farm, at first I rented it out, making quick trips during vacations to do maintenance, have the fields bush hogged, and turn it around between renters.  My plan, however, was always to settle in Maine and write full-time, which eventually I did.


By 2005 I had saved enough to settle at the farm year-round and enter a low-residency MFA program.  I chose New England College (NEC) in Henniker, New Hampshire for their all-star faculty (now largely defected to Drew University) and the fact that their whole program was devoted to poetry, no other genres.  It was everything I had hoped.  And talk about role models!  The women faculty included Carol Frost, Maxine Kumin, Joan Larkin, Anne Marie Macari, Alicia Ostriker, Judith Vollmer, and Anne Waldman. Among the men were Chard DeNiord, Ross Gay, Ilya Kaminsky, Ira Sadoff, Gerald Stern, and Michael Waters.  My only wish was that I’d taken this course much earlier, but low-residency MFA programs are a fairly recent development, and this one was only a few years old. 


So how does it feel to be one of the world’s oldest debut poets?  When I attended NEC, I must confess I was pretty defensive about it, though there were two students older than I.   And I sensed that at least one of my mentors was just jollying me along, shooing me through because I’d paid the tuition but not willing to invest much energy in someone with a shorter life expectancy than her own.  Others, however, took my writing seriously, and I learned a great deal from them.  By the end of the two years, I was able at last to say, when asked what I did, “I write poems.”  I can’t overemphasize how good that feels.


Yes, the thought of poems that never got written, that I might have produced when my neurons were moving faster and my passions hotter, does sadden me.   What a dope I was not to assert myself, etc.  On the other hand, my peripatetic life, with its personal ups and downs and varied roles as a motorcycle tourist, back-to-the-lander, mother, faculty wife, truck dispatcher, landlady, and editor, plus a few others I haven't mentioned, have fed my writing and continue to do so.  Now that I’m underway, coming up on the age of Amy Clampitt when she published The Kingfisher, I’m making a run for it.


The Farm.  This section is here for my distant friends who refer to my “cabin in the woods.”  My place is situated in rolling farm country between the towns of Freedom and Liberty.  It comprises 100 acres of woodlot, fields, barn, outbuildings, and a white-clapboard saltbox house built around 1820.  Although the house does have a woodstove in the living room, as do most Maine houses, it is hardly primitive and certainly NOT A CABIN!  I don't know much about its early owners beyond their names, but they have left both physical traces and invisible resonances.  Living in a house that has seen births and deaths over almost two centuries means that one feels less alone than in a newer, less seasoned space.


What I do when not writing.  Over the years I have brought the farm from derelict wasteland to its present state of high-maintenance exuberant seediness.  It has a kitchen garden, multiple flower beds, several young fruit trees, a two-gas-tank lawn, chronically weedy brick walks, a hill pasture with mown path up to a wild blueberry patch, another field where a neighbor keeps his cows, an allée of maples underplanted with shade-loving perennials, and a teahouse/ writing retreat surrounded by ferns and other woodland plants.  For one person to stay on top of everything would be impossible, but tending different areas on different days keeps me out of trouble when I am not at my desk.


I also enjoy reading, of course, listening to jazz by small ensembles, cooking for friends, including the members of my critique group, and learning languages—French being the most practiced, owing to a three-year stay in Montreal, followed in descending order of competence by Swedish, which I can read but speak only haltingly, Danish, now fading, Latin (high school), Greek (one year in college that I barely passed), and Chinese, completely forgotten, which was studied for a planned trip to Xian that never took place.  Anyone truly multilingual has my deepest respect—I imagine such people as wearing Superman tee shirts under their regular clothing.  


Family.  Two grown daughters and two granddaughters whom I love dearly live in distant states.  My daughter Jayne helped me create this web site.