From this acreage and upward -- An afternoon with poet Verandah Porche
Verandah serves us each a bowl of home-canned peaches from a thick glass jar. She gives me the softened disc of ginger that flavored the syrup. We spoon Greek yogurt over the fruit, and she settles next to the wood stove, her winterberry red pants soft and bright against the fabric of the couch.
"The title poem of my book is about canning peaches," she says. "'Sudden Eden.'" Her voice is droll and musical, with old New Jersey vowels sliding up against 44 Vermont years.
She looks over the top of her reading glasses, then pulls them off. A small laptop computer glows faintly beside her. A pale-blue-green journal, made by a friend, sits on the coffee table, next to a loose crossword of Scrabble tiles, arranged during a game that Verandah and her daughter, Emily, made up. "Quoth" connects to "gout," which leads to "puny" and "panda" and later on to "home."
A painting of two black birds hangs on the wall above Verandah's head. One seems to be singing, the other listening to the first bird's song.
"I was at a writer's conference for young people in Saranac Lake and the kids wanted to write a poem about fruit," she says. "So I said, let's choose one fruit and we can all improvise."
The group chose peaches, and Verandah found herself writing about her first years in Vermont in the late 1960s. She and group of politically active, passionate and idealistic friends, fleeing the disastrous mainstream culture they saw around them, moved en masse to a hillside farm in Guilford and set up a commune of sorts that they eventually called Total Loss Farm.
"We bought the place because it had a peach orchard. It was as if we had come to our own Eden," she says.
Verandah grins. "My joke was that I'd never been outdoors before. And here I was canning peaches. With the first draft I wrote came such a flood of --" she pauses, mentally auditioning the words, "mythic clarity about what that time meant."
She laughs a little. Sometimes Verandah talks in prose poems, as phrases tap and shimmy until a whole story flares out like the hem of a swishy swing dance skirt. Then she changes speed, sees a joke, finds a pattern in a word's sound or spots a weakness in an analogy's link. Her mind never stops looking for the heart of music. She can't help but make poems.
This was true when she was a little girl singing songs in the bathtub, and true when she was a grade school student writing reports in verse doggerel (Lillian Wald was particularly feted).
But poetry, with its demands for honesty, emotional risk and imagination, didn't square with Verandah's parents, especially her mother.
"I grew up in a secular Jewish family," she says. "My grandparents, who came over from Russian Poland, and my parents all experienced real danger and difficulty, real loss and pain. They were idealistic people, but they valued the inconspicuous. Self-expression was dangerous to them. I mean, my parents lived through McCarthyism. Keeping us safe and comfortable was so important."
Verandah both resisted and retreated from her parents' careful lives. Her mother called her heedless. She fell into books and stories, imagining new names for herself based on the heroines she read about.
As she became an adult, she decided she needed a new name altogether. "In 1965, I began to publish my poems and I didn't want my parents to read them. I needed a new personality," she says. "Reading Doris Lessing's 'African Stories,' I took to Verandah as a name, and I was sitting on the porch. And the 'porch' needed an 'e' to go with Verandah's 'h.'"
Ten years later, when Verandah published her first book, "The Body Symmetry," in 1975 with Harper and Row, a major publisher, she did show the poems to her mother.
"She asked, "Why would you publish such a disgusting advertisement for yourself?'" Verandah gives a small shrug. "I knew she would say that. It sat in a drawer for a few years, then she would take it out every once in a while to show it to friends."
The book had come into being on a surge of mainstream interest in the back-to-the-land movement. Then, as now, though, publishers had little enthusiasm or money to promote a volume of poetry. Verandah was given a gas allowance and told she could organize a book tour on her own.
She did -- with her first child, then a toddler, in tow. Brave and desperate, running on nerve and friendships, forsaking a safe life, Verandah traveled the country to read her poems at colleges and underground newspapers.
At the University of Iowa, she read her work to a group of silently skeptical graduate students. "I'm sure they thought my ardor and ingenuousness were some form of satire," she remembers.
The teacher, also a poet, asked Verandah to come to her office after the class.
"She said, "You can tell, me, you didn't write these poems.'" The teacher assumed Verandah was a beard for two well-known male poets who disregarded female poets and said they would mockingly write a book of poems under a woman's name.
Verandah recoiled from this bizarre, demeaning literary culture. She could not follow the typical career path of a poet, submitting her work to magazines and contests and networking with the right people and enrolling in MFA programs to get recognition, prizes, book deals and blurbs. Though her rejection of this path meant her work would likely lack a large audience, it was not how she could be herself in the world.
So Verandah returned to the place she felt most real. She went home to Guilford and the peach orchard on the hill.
"The picture of me on the cover of this new book is from that time. Someone asked me what that young woman is saying."
She looks at it a moment. "There is a quandary in the brow. It was by the back barn, where we had a few cows along with the other animals in the menagerie. She's on her stoop, with much to ponder. But also, she's rooted. Whatever else is going to happen, she's going to draw from this acreage and upward. She is at the source."
Now with two kids, Verandah once again applied nerve to need, this time to invent a livelihood to support her family. She became a poet-in-residence, a poet mentor, a guide to language and rhythm. She created Muse for Hire, writing poems commissioned for special occasions. Poetry, always her calling, became her career, and listening did, too. In schools, prisons, taverns, oncology wards, nursing homes, rural industrial towns and her own hometown, she befriended people, and she helped draw forth poems from their lives.
"It seemed so right for me and my generation to encourage expression, after my parents' generation did not." She considers the wood stove wryly. "The joke is that our kids will want us to take up silent meditation instead."
It was not a safe, predictable or gushingly remunerative career -- no easy Eden here -- but it was rich with meaning and connection. It was a steep and endless path of integrity.
Meanwhile, Verandah's own poems, insisting on existing despite the tremendous work of life, grew into thick piles. There were villanelles and anagrams, couplets and odes, such honed music. Finally, after years, she inched toward another book.
She speaks quietly now. "The poems were lonely. And I felt like, now it's my turn. And a friend took the piles and read through them every day on her vacation and gave them back marked with an ‘x', an exclamation point or a check mark."
More friends helped and cheered, reading her work deeply, designing pages, serving as publisher, gathering advance reviews.
Now "Sudden Eden" exists, a galley proof on the coffee table pushing up against the Scrabble tiles so that new words form in the meeting. Masterful, humane and beautiful, the book includes poems about family, the land, "love and un-love," as she puts it, work, politics, crisis and connection.
Second to last is "Song of the Uninsured," and all of Verandah's wit and tenderness, her wisdom and heedlessness, her fear and grit and delight in words fuel the poem to its end: "Risk is the lien on all I own or owe. / Luck is my doctor: touch and go."
Verandah scoops the last slick peach from her now-empty bowl. She rises and fills another with water and lentils to soak for dinner. It's a life's work here. The birds sing on.
To purchase "Sudden Eden" or learn more about the book, contact Verandah at 802-254-2442.
Bartleby's Books in Wilmington will host a launch party for "Sudden Eden" on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m. Verandah will give a short reading and songwriter Patty Carpenter will join her for a few songs the two wrote together. For more information, call 802-464-5425 or email email@example.com.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. Learn more about her writing services at www.lifestorycompany.com. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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