The Myth of Water

Award-winning poet Jeanie Thompson just released The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller. I sat down with her recently to her life as a poet and how she was able to such a beautiful and moving collection of poems.

Jeanie Thompson's most recent collection of stunning poetry.

Jeanie Thompson’s most recent collection of stunning poetry.

What inspired you to write from Helen Keller’s point of view?

I was inspired to write from Helen Keller’s point of view after I read the biography Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann.  The fact that Helen experienced one of her most heart-wrenching moments a few blocks from where I was living at the time I read about her life seemed like a sign to me as a writer. Then, of course, I withdrew from the idea because it seemed too obvious a subject to me.

What books, resources and people did you find most informative and helpful?

It was incredibly helpful to read Helen’s own writings (Helen Keller’s Journal, MidStream, and Teacher are three) to gather details, emotions, a sense of setting, and her sense of herself as a woman and a writer.

Did you know much about the depth and breadth of Keller’s life before you began? What did you discover about her you didn’t know before you started?

I think I had a slight sense of Helen’s spiritual power first — after reading A Light in My Darkness, which is considered her “religious” writing.  From there, I went to Hermann’s biography.  It was a process of learning, researching, discovering. I had no idea where I was going, or where I might end up.

Your goal in this collection is “to reveal a woman less known than the famous then the world citizen the public adored.” What do most people not know about Helen Keller? Do you touch upon any of these aspects in your poetry?

One of the main things people don’t know about Helen Keller is that she was an emotionally developed woman who had all the hopes and dreams any woman would have. Also, she was driven to help others overcome their disabilities.  Helen was a very public person because she chose to speak out when the time seemed right.  People have tried to tag her with labels like socialist, etc., but she really was a patriot of the soul.

In your introduction, you write, “Keller chose her very public life as much as it chose her.” What do you mean by that?

I suppose I meant that she was not afraid to go in front of the public to push for what she believed is right. Once a person goes on the path of public advocacy, it does become a chosen path.

How do you define what you describe as “historical person poems?”

Poems that reveal a character from history through short speeches, vignettes, or portraits that reveal personality. The closest analogue I can think of is the monologue or soliloquy in literature. These days poets are finding ways to express themselves through another character’s voice and work specific poetic techniques.

How did you choose which moments, events and relationships to explore from such an extraordinary life?

I chose moments that I felt I could’ve lived myself.  This is a more direct way of saying, moments with which I empathized.  If I don’t feel a very strong identification with material, I won’t be called to write a persona poem.

Was there an area or subject you wanted to explore but couldn’t for some reason?

I wanted to explore further her life as an older woman. Her books Midstream and Teacher (the bio of Annie Sullivan Macy) are much more reflective and revealing than The Story of My Life, which is so well known, but is a very young person’s book.

What was her relationship like with her mother? Father?  

I wish I had spent more time on Kate, Helen’s mother. I didn’t consciously decide not to write about that, but most people know the story of how Helen’s mother found Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, which ultimately led to Annie Sullivan traveling from Boston to Tuscumbia to take on the challenge of Helen Keller. So Kate Keller was indeed the catalytic hero.  My sense of Helen’s father is that he was from an older era, but he believed in his wife’s determination to help their daughter. If I had gone too deeply into the family, I don’t think I would’ve made it to the places I did go with the poems. I do regret that in some way, but there’s always time to write more poems and I have actually thought of a sequel in which I go back and pick up some of those threads I had to drop.

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer's Forum: Jeanie Thompson

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer’s Forum: Jeanie Thompson

You write much of Keller’s life was spent mourning the loss of Anne Sullivan. I thought some of the most powerful pieces were in the section  “Coming through Fire: Circa 1955.” How were you able to illuminate such a unique relationship with the images you used?

That’s a terrific question to ponder. I don’t know how exactly, but I can tell you that this was the last poem I wrote for the book. My dear friend Louie Skipper suggested that I needed one poem that would tie up the manuscript, would summarize in a way who Helen was and how she and Annie were entwined (he didn’t say it like that though!). So I looked through the book and pulled one poem and then wrote the rest around it. I remember letting myself go stylistically with this poem, returning to a much looser line. Also, I drew upon my own memories of landscapes that could’ve been scenes for Helen and Annie — in north Alabama by the Tennessee River and also in South Alabama, in Mobile, and on the Eastern Shore.  The image of the inside of the muscle shell being a gateway through touch into light was a gift of that process.  It’s awkward, cumbersome to discuss after the process, but I would have to say this is an extended, lyrical moment in the book for me, not just the longest poem. When I read it for my colleagues at Spalding (the first and only time I’ve read the whole poem aloud to date), the response shocked me.  Many women came up to me and told me how it moved them.  This really boosted my confidence that it was right for the book. Sometimes poetry needs to be long, meditative, and more engrossing to fully develop an idea or a relationship. We are so addicted to short blurts these days. I see the fragment, the truncated line being exhausted. That’s fine, but it shouldn’t erase the poet’s access to a more complex syntax and thought pattern, tempered by compression and style.

Why didn’t Peter Fagan show up when he was supposed to marry Keller?

I have no idea, but the biographies pose various theories and Helen herself deals with it sort of obliquely in Midstream.  She said that she had known a

“Little Island of Joy” through her love of Peter. I feel sure it was consummated, but again, I have no written evidence. She was 36 and he was 29. But an island suggests a surrounding ocean of separation to me. Many of the letters that might’ve shed some light perished when Helen’s home at Arcan Ridge burned years later. The main take-away for me is that something like this would never have happened if Helen had been born about 50 or 60 years later.  Her family sought to protect her, which is understandable, from what they thought was a threat. Unfortunately, she never got to find her way as a wife and mother.  And she does address that loss in her writing. The WHY of the situation wasn’t the point of the poems. I wanted to portray how she experienced and coped with the loss.

How were your skills as a writer and poet stretched writing from Keller’s point of view?

To some extent once I got the first three poems down, I felt comfortable with her persona. I have written in this mode since I was a graduate student — not to date myself but before “persona poems” we’re in vogue as they are now.  I find it very comfortable.  The trick for me was to decide how to use some received forms for Helen’s story.

What did you discover about yourself as a writer that you didn’t know before this project?

I discovered that I wanted to try things that ultimately didn’t fit and that I needed to trust the skills I had developed.

“In Terra Cotta” is a powerful way to end the collection. How did this idea find you?

When I saw a NY Times story about an art exhibition featuring items that survived the 911 attack in New York, there was a photograph of the terra cotta bust of Helen. It had been singed, but survived. This show traveled the country in several versions, and part of it came to Mobile, but unfortunately, the bust didn’t. I hope to see it one day at the relocated Helen Keller International office in NYC.  Many precious documents were consumed in that fire, but the bust of Helen, a gift from the Japanese, withstood terrorism — it seemed like a symbol of Helen’s fortitude and belief in mankind helping mankind.  For me, Helen was the embodiment of optimism. Not some sappy kind, but the urgent force that impels us to care about, and work for, others.

 

 


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