By Fran Czuk
I am cloaked in the invisibility that comes
to women at a certain point. The bay
curves like a hand closing on something fragile.
I’ve driven past but never stopped before.
I have time on my hands, too much, too little,
Depending. Mine is a body at rest remaining.”
– Excerpt from “Omena Bay Testament,” the title poem of Gail Griffin’s first full-length poetry collection
With these lines, Kalamazoo College Professor of English Emerita Gail Griffin begins and sets the tone for her first full-length poetry collection, Omena Bay Testament, published by Two Sylvias Press in spring 2023.
“It’s very much a book by an older woman,” Griffin said. “It’s about standing on the brink in old age, looking around and looking back, considering a lot of loss and much beauty. When you get closer to death, you start to see things very clearly. I hope I’m not that close to death, but it’s not like when you’re 20 and you think you’re going to live forever, not at all. You spend a lot of time evaluating where you’ve been, what you’ve been through, what you’ve kept and held onto, and what you’ve lost. That’s what this book is about.”
Griffin taught at Kalamazoo College from 1977 to 2013 and was instrumental in founding what is now the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program. She was twice selected by students as the recipient of the Frances Diebold Award for faculty involvement in student life. She received both the Florence J. Lucasse Lectureship for Excellence in Teaching, in 1989–90, and the Florence J. Lucasse Fellowship for Excellence in Creative Work, Research or Publication, in 1998–99. In 1995, Griffin was selected Michigan Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She received the 2010 Lux Esto Award of Excellence for exemplifying the spirit of Kalamazoo College through excellent leadership, selfless dedication and goodwill. In 2017, she received the Weimer K. Hicks Award for long-term support to the College beyond the call of duty and excellent service in the performance of her job.
Despite the extensive accolades, Griffin is down to earth and approachable, openly sharing her fears and her excitement about Omena Bay Testament in her husky voice. Having previously published four nonfiction books as well as many individual poems and a poetry chapbook, Griffin is thrilled to have published her first full-length poetry collection at the age of 72.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in the ’80s. Some of those early poems are in this book, which I’m a little nervous about, because they’re old. Conrad Hilberry was the heart and soul of the English department and the one-man, creative-writing program when I came to K. He and his whole family were tremendously warm and wonderful to me. And Con’s view of poetry was sort of the opposite of the popular view that it’s this effete, exclusive language that only special people speak. Con felt poetry was for everybody, and he made it an open door. And he just insisted that I start writing—‘Write something, Griff’—so, I started writing poems and showing them to him.
Are there reasons you hadn’t published a full-length poetry collection before this?
By the time I retired, I’d published about 30 or 35 poems. I had this thought in my head along the way, ‘You know, that’s almost half a book.’ I had friends, including Diane Seuss ’78, who’s one of our most famous graduates, who were putting books together. I thought to myself, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ And it was because I was devoting myself to these nonfiction books. I had fallen in love with creative nonfiction. Poetry was something I did on the side. Another reason was that I had been writing these poems sort of randomly throughout the years without any design. I thought, ‘These are not going to come together into a book. They don’t have anything to do with each other.’ I kept thinking about it and then turning away from it as a project.
What brought you to put the collection together when you did?
It was summer of ’21. We were still locked down (for the pandemic). I needed a project for the summer, or I was going to go nuts. I said, ‘All right. This is the moment. Get all those poems together and see if there’s a book there.’
What was your process like?
I spent most of the summer gathering the poems. I was very methodical about it; I surprised myself. I labeled them one, two or three. Three meant, put this in the shredder right now, don’t ever look at it again because it’s embarrassing. Two was, I don’t know. Let’s go back and look at this. One was, oh my god, this is pretty good. And then, because I’m a shilly-shallier—I always found it very difficult to assign grades to students, because it was always somewhere between an A and a B, between a B and a C—I had some one-slash-twos and two-slash-threes. Going through that group was hard, but eventually I had this final group, and I counted them up, and there were 72 pages, which is just about perfect.
Then, I went through and read them all, and as I did, put them in piles around subject matter. One group was about aging and mortality. One seemed to be about innocence and loss of innocence and growing up. That includes several poems about teaching at K and my responses to my students. A third pile was about my relationship with my husband and his death; he died very suddenly in 2008. The fourth pile was about the weirdness and painfulness of the world we’re living in. I thought, ‘Well, son of a gun,’ and I began to see that they hung together in certain ways.
How did you decide on a title?
The first poem in the book is the title poem, ‘Omena Bay Testament.’ Several years ago, before the pandemic, I was up north, in the Leelanau Peninsula. I was finishing up my last book, the memoir—Grief’s Country. I got tired of writing one day and went for a drive up the peninsula. About halfway up, there’s a little bay called Omena Bay. If you blink, you miss it. I just hit the brakes, because there was a restaurant overlooking the water, and I wanted to have a beer and sit and watch the water. I did that, and this poem came to me. It’s a statement of where I was in my life, late in my life. What’s good about it, what’s lost forever. People have told me it makes them very sad. I also think it’s supposed to be funny, but what do I know? I sometimes think I write funny things, and people start crying. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this poem should come first, and then I realized its title should be the title of the book.
How do you get your manuscript published?
Poetry publishing is very different from nonfiction or fiction publishing. Poetry doesn’t sell at all. There’s no market. It’s mostly very small presses. Mostly you get a first book published through contests. They charge submission fees, and that’s how they get the money to publish a book. I had this calendar of deadlines of book contests. I chose a lot of contests for first poetry books, because that narrows the competition a little bit. Books by women—that narrows the competition. Then there’s this Wilder Prize from Two Sylvias Press, that I knew about because a friend of mine (Gail Martin ’74) had won it. The Wilder Prize honors a manuscript by a woman over 50. That really narrows the competition. I liked that they’re supporting the writing of older women, because very often, publishing is about the new. It’s the young people who are saying new things and talking about current events and current identity issues. If you’re older, it’s hard to break in, because you’re seeing the world differently. I know what I was interested in writing about when I was 30, and I’m now 73, and I’m not writing about those same things. (The manuscript) was rejected a couple places. It was a semifinalist at a couple places. Then the Wilder Prize notified me in March (2022) that I had won. And I just did backflips. I couldn’t believe it.
I think it’s really important when you retire, to be retiring to something as well as from something.
How are you feeling about publishing your first full-length poetry collection at 72?
I’m so excited. I feel very affirmed. I always thought of myself as a decent writer of poetry, but I didn’t really ever call myself a poet. I wasn’t that sure about it. I called myself a prose writer, an essayist, a memoirist. I have always felt a little insecure as a poet. That ends here.
What do you want readers to know about Omena Bay Testament?
I think this book is more revealing about me than the personal writing I’ve done, the memoirs. Poetry is very intimate. There are some poems in here that are really, really close to exactly who I am, that I think might surprise people. They surprised me a little, scared me a little. I think of parts of this book, the first part especially, as a very intimate self-portrait.
It’s pretty easy to put personal writing out there until you imagine people reading it. I taught a class on memoir here at K. The students were immediately frantic about that, just frantic, and I always said, ‘You’re not publishing this. You’re writing for a class. I’m not going to call your mother and say you’re angry at her. Honest. This is all among us.’ Still, some of them didn’t want to write about certain things, and I always said, ‘Don’t write about anything you really don’t want to write about.’ Sometimes I’ve chosen not to publish things, because it would be damaging to somebody I care about. I just keep it for myself. There’s a poem about my mother in this book I would never have published while she was alive, ever, because it would have been so painful for her. And the thing is, it’s just one aspect of my relationship with my mother. It’s one poem. It’s not the whole thing at all. Con Hilberry used to say people are more important than poems, and he was right. So, there’s nothing in here that will hurt anybody who’s alive.
What’s next for you?
I have a chapbook ready to send out. I have macular degeneration—a lot of older people are prone to it, and it’s very genetic. My mother had it, her mother had it, and what it does, in my case, is eat away your central vision. If I look straight at you, your face disappears. If I look over to the side, then I see your face more clearly. It’s hard to write and it’s hard to read without central vision. Writing and putting together a book under those conditions is very challenging. The meaningful thing in my life is writing, and that’s the thing that’s challenged by my eye condition. Continuing to do those things, despite the disability, is something I’ve worked hard at, and I’m really proud of. My book is called De/Generation. It’s about 24 pages now of poems using the metaphors of vision and vision loss. For instance, I have a condition called geographic atrophy, and I turn that idea into a map and walk around my own eyes. Turning the disease into metaphor allows me to have some control over it and explore it as a creative source.
I’ve still been writing nonfiction, too. I’m working on a longer essay on the TV westerns I grew up on, called My Cowboys, and I recently published an essay on the attack on school curriculums because studying racism makes white students nervous. I talked about race a lot at K. I saw lots of nervous white students, and it would never have occurred to me to stop teaching about race because it was making people uncomfortable. I have about five or six essays that are generally about race. I might be working toward a collection of essays on whiteness, we’ll see. I think people who have any kind of privilege, race privilege, class privilege, gender privilege, sexuality, whatever, privilege is comfort. When your privilege is disrupted, of course you’re uncomfortable, and that’s good. That means your world is opening up.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I knew a lot of people who went into retirement very reluctantly, because they didn’t know what they were going to do with their time. I never had a similar question about that. I think it’s really important when you retire, to be retiring to something as well as from something. I always knew, the purpose here is to devote more time to writing, and indeed, I have published a lot since I retired. It’s important for people to know, especially young people, that you go on being creative, you go on learning, you go on being productive, you don’t just wither away and die. I’ve been learning and growing, talking to people and reading and writing like crazy for the past 10 years since I retired. I want alums to know that their former faculty who are now retired are doing lots of interesting things and staying active. Writers don’t ever quit. You die with a pen in your hand or a mouse in your hand or something. That’s important for me. And if I never write another book of poetry, that’s fine. I’m just really glad I got this one done.