Tell me-- what were you drawn to as a child? In terms of what inspired you or what you loved to do?
Well, I loved the library. I really loved reading, and I loved trees. I loved climbing trees. I was born in Austin, Texas. We left during the second world war. Daddy went into the navy, and mother and three children went to live in St. Angelo, which is West Texas, where Daddy had been born and raised. So, Baptist country. I was the oldest kid.
From five to nine, we lived in St. Angelo near my grandparents, and that's when I really fell in love with the ranch-- they had a ranch that they didn't live on - Grandaddy was a doctor so they lived in town. But in his heart, he was a rancher-farmer. So we would go out there and ride, and I just imprinted on that wild land. High Lonesome, my last book of poems, is named for a pasture, a high pasture on that ranch.
We lived there a couple of years, and then Daddy came back from the service, from the Solomon Islands, and we went up to Maine, to a naval base, and so that was our first snow. I loved it. I was very happy to be there. One of the things I remember most clearly about that-- the house we lived in was an old New England house, with a second story, or maybe it was a third story, that was like an attic-- with a regular floor, though. Old, rough. And mother said we could do anything that we wanted there. We could draw on the walls…and we did! It was wonderful to have that kind of freedom, especially in the winter, when you're inside a lot, you know?
What did you like to read?
I always loved Mother Goose, and rhymes. I always loved things that had a cadence to them, you know? And I loved the Grimm's Fairy Tales, the darker the better. The Ice Queen…and Hans Christian Andersen tales…but as I got a little older, I loved Dickens, and Thackeray, and Tennyson, and so when we went to Scotland, when I was twelve, I just kept that up. And I read Shakespeare, I was really into Shakespeare. And they had a series of books that were all classics, that were called The Everyman's Series, which is, many years later, why Everywoman Center is named Everywoman, incidentally.
I loved novels. I loved stories. I still love novels. But I really…the times I was happiest was either when I was reading, because that was my own little bubble, you know? When they'd leave me alone, "they" being my younger siblings, because there were four of us by now… or up in a tree, when nobody knew I was there…or down at the creek. There was a park across from us, very safe, and I would sneak out of the house before anybody else was awake. This was back in Austin. We moved back there the summer before fourth grade.
I would just spend as much time as I could get away with down in the woods and that creek. So that's a theme of my whole life, is loving to live among trees and water. And it shows up in what I write. I've been working on a novel that's based on a ranch in West Texas, in the forties. But the landscape…if I set out to write what it's like to walk along the dirt road, up to the caliche pit--- I can do that. It's embedded. I depend on that sensory body-knowledge, that memory, in writing a lot. And I'll look back on poems, and I'll notice that there are a lot of reference to things in the natural world.
When I was in fifth grade, we were encouraged to start writing, and there was a neighbor, Esther Buffler, who had written children's books, who was published. And I loved her, I loved her kids. And in the sixth grade, she came to our school, our little class, and she offered a prize for the best short story…and I won! It was two dollars and fifty cents. And the budding politician in me went out and bought her book with it, so she would know…(laughs)
What was your story about, do you remember?
It was about my grandfather, about becoming a doctor. But then that encouraged me to keep writing, so I wrote another story, and I showed it to my sixth grade teacher-- who was a wonderful person. But there was something in the story that couldn't have happened.
As in…it wasn't possible?
It wasn't. It was a fantasy, really. And it wouldn't have happened in the ordinary world, but I LOVED the story. It was again about this grandfather character as a boy…he was somehow an icon for me. And so this teacher said, "you know…this doesn't make sense; it could not have happened." And I was embarrassed. I was ashamed about that. And I never really wrote after that for a long time.
When I was going into ninth grade, we moved back to our home in Austin from Scotland; we had rented out the house we bought that had the great big tree in the yard. And that was a real hard entry, because…you know how it is, eighth to ninth grade? …I just felt so out of place. I went through some hard times, and I somehow became very negative. I didn't like anything. Because I wasn't liking myself, you know? And that went on for not even a year, but Mother, I remember, said she could tell I was just miserable. She said, "let me just give you one thing you might try, because I hear you being so negative about everything." She said, "Every time it comes into your mind to criticize something, stop just a moment and see if you can say the opposite, and have it be true.”
And I began doing that, and it turned my entire life around. The energy. It's because I changed the energy. And the other kids were attracted to that! And I started having fun, and so I was fun to be around, you know? I turned it around; I became popular; I was class favorite in the tenth grade.
And did you have any aspirations, did you have a secret dream to be…
I wanted to be a missionary and a doctor. I wanted to be medical missionary. I wanted to be like my father and my grandfather, is really what it was.
When I was fifteen, and my boyfriend-- and I told him, that's what I was going to be training for-- and he began begging me to marry him when we got finished with High School. I somehow fell into that place of just becoming a passive teenage girl. And then I got pregnant, after the eleventh grade-- I was sixteen-- by this boy, who was…he was the most testosterone-boy in our high school. He was the captain of the football team. And we married.
Bill was born when I was seventeen.
So during those years, my creative self was learning how to take are of a baby, dealing with being married, when a lot of my friends' mothers wouldn't let them speak to me…learning how to hold my head up, and to keep a house. You know, I actually enjoyed washing diapers by hand and hanging them on the line. There were things like that that I found great pleasure in. I remember being glad one morning that I needed to refold all those towels in the linen closet because I couldn't think of what else to do. It was like…I was just really stuck. And I found daytime television…I remember watching the Today Show-- this was when I was pregnant. And I hardly went out of the house, except to be with family. So I watched The Today Show, and…"As the World Turns" was the name of this soap opera; I think it continued for fifty years. And what fascinated me were the relationships. So much I didn't know! Even with all that reading I had done, I didn't get a lot about how…it's OKAY to talk about stuff that's hard. I mean, Dickens characters don't do a very good job of it. (laughs) None of the English novelists did a very good job with that.
I remember sometimes just breaking down and sobbing, and sobbing. Big old stomach, sweeping the floor. And just not knowing what to do. I remember one day, David wanted smothered steak for supper. Well, I had no idea how to make smothered steak. I knew what it tasted like; Mother made it all the time. So I called her on the phone. I had gone and gotten the ingredients…I knew it took ground steak. So I called her on the phone, and for two hours, bless her heart, she stayed on that phone, while she was doing her sewing or whatever, and I would go and do what she said and come back-- "okay, now what do I do?" Because she had kids at home; she couldn't just come over. We were in east Austin, you know, twenty minutes away; probably she didn't even have a car at home.
I had not finished high school yet, because they wouldn't let you. You couldn't continue if you were pregnant. Or married, even. The girls. I would've kept on, that semester. I only needed like three electives. I was a national honor society kid. I'd never even taken time for a study hall. I'd just taken all the languages…I was interested in being a doctor! I was taking anatomy and physiology as a senior, when I discovered I was pregnant! The second week of school, senior year. And so I had very little that I had to take-- one was civics, because that was just required, and so I went to night school when I was pregnant and I got that. And then I took a correspondence course for the history, while I was still pregnant. Then in the summer, after Bill was born, I took…let's see..I had two sort of half-credits. One was home economics-- I thought that might come in handy (laughs)-- and the other was speech.
I always loved being a student. I just loved that. Mother, bless her heart, took care of him; he was still tiny, born at the end of April, and this was June. And so I would just be gone a couple of hours in the morning. And it was a huge help to me. But I remember the home ec teacher who would-- and of course, all the teachers knew my story-- and she had taken a great interest. She said, "I would love to visit the homes of some of you students, to see how you're doing with what you're learning here", so she came and visited me. I doubt seriously that she visited very many students. But she watched while I was making dinner. I remember her one suggestion was, "Well, you might sit while you're peeling the carrots, so that you don't get tired." And I said "well, that's a really good idea, but I want to get my figure back, and sitting is not good for your hips." That's what I called them. And she laughed. (laughs) And she was very kind…and useful! I really learned how to clean a bathroom. I'm telling you. I learned how to set a table-- I never knew that you turned the knives a certain direction, and the napkins-- there were those kind of little things, that we had just never learned.
So there was that quality of creative endeavor, which was learning how to have a family. I always thought it would be like Loretta Lynn, you know, coming down the stairs in a swirly skirt and having the candles all lit-- and it wasn't at all like that. (laughs) Not exactly.
When I finally got to go to college, I took two classes my first semester; I was working half-time so that I could care for Ponteir-- she was the only one not in school full days.
Were you still in Texas?
We were in Austin, and Charles, my second husband, had just finished his PhD. I had worked him through a PhD.
Just to get clear on the chronology-- how old were you? You were able to get out of that first marriage...
…When I was 21. And John was nine months old. And Bill was by then four; a little over four. He was three and a half years older than John. So I went to work for the organization my father had started, which was the Christian Faith and Life Community, it was called.
I was typing Kierkegaard articles, that I had to mimeograph then. Like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer-- really remarkable existential theologians. And that was FABULOUS for me. I mean oh my god, I just felt my brain starting, you know? And so I would go to some of the classes. And so the kids and I rented an apartment right next door, so it was really easier.
And then I married Charles, who I already knew-- Charles is a wonderful man. He was an undergraduate-- he had gone into the marines in order to get the G.I. bill. Had just finished that, and started back to school-- when we married he was a junior…or was he a senior by then? And he always worked as hard as he could, but you know, to be a full-time student is a lot, and so I really did a lot of the support for the family.
And then Pontier was born a year after we were married, so we had three children! And that first year, I worked nights, he worked days, we split…it was a hand-off, because we couldn't afford childcare.
…and I always knew it would be ten years before I went to college. I don't know why, but that just seemed right for me, early, maybe because I was having kids.
I took two courses at UT, and one was English. I had tested out of the first semester. And the second semester, we got to write…not stories, but…ABOUT what we were reading, and at least that was something creative, you know? And Charles was a huge help to me in learning how to write again! I mean, I had to take the SATs, verbal…I'd been out of school so long; in those days, you didn't have to take the math, if you'd been out over ten years, which was very lucky. But the SATs…I thought I'd failed! I felt like my brain was concrete, taking this day-long thing. And out of eight hundred points, I got seven-seventy-six.
That's how far off my understanding of my own ability, and what I did, was. But it was based on the essay for the SATs that I tested out, which was the most they could give me. So I'm happy I took the class, because I needed it-- I took the second semester that way. And that was the second semester. It was 1965, and…oh my god, I was so happy, despite all the guilt I felt about doing something for myself…
One of the women at the community gave me a copy of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique"…and I cried the whole. Way. Through. That big book. I read it every night. And Charles was concerned, you know? So…I told him what it meant to me, how hard it was for me to think about doing what I wanted to do, but this woman was explaining how that would open things up for everybody if you weren't just…martyring yourself! It also explained about consumerism, and this business of staying home and finding eight different kinds of soaps to do your laundry with, because it was all about the marketplace trying to sell to women, so they could stay home and consume more…and that was really true! I was experiencing that!
And he was a real leftist--both of us. He got that, because he was a Thorstein Veblen freak. He understood consumerism from the dark side of what it does to people. And also, about liberty-- I mean, we were both integrationists, you know, we were…unusual, in a way, for how we'd been raised. Although my parents were integrationists. We had a cross burned on our lawn when Daddy integrated the Christian Faith and Life Community before the university was integrated. My sister, who was the queen of the high school, literally, was blackballed by the top sororities, who had always been, you know, petting her like a cat to get her to come to them…as soon as that happened…I mean, this was real stuff, you know? So Charles and I were definitely on that side. So he could get it, you know? The connection between racism and sexism…so he was incredibly supportive, and very, very helpful. He'd help me with papers, you know; he'd explain how sentences worked…just so I could get back into it. And I mean, reading really took off…and the kids, they were great! you know, they liked it that I was doing something like that, because I was so happy. And it took me five and a half years, three different schools…(laughs)…FOUR different schools.
What were the four schools?
I went to UT for one semester, Ithaca College; he took a job in Ithaca when he finished. Because we knew we wanted to come north, to get away from some stuff in the south. So: two semesters at Ithaca College. Two years at Cornell, but a couple of the semesters were part-time, because Bill got really sick, and then John got sick. So when I came to Smith, I still needed two years, and so I spent my last two years there. And I was a guinea pig there, because they'd never had matriculated part-time before.
So, we came here in '68-- I graduated in '70-- and instead of going on to graduate school, I became a full-time worker in the women's movement. Because by then, I had really learned what feminism was, and I helped organize at Smith-- Women Against the War, with Kate Millet, and Gloria Steinem was an alum; we were on panels together…Charles changed his whole feeling about housework…because I'd been trying to do everything….so it was a time of huge change, and great stuff. We started a women's center in Northampton, and then we started the one at UMass…it's still there, forty years later.
So…I never did go to graduate school, until I went back for an MFA. I just kept working at things that meant a lot to me…the women's movement; anything having to do with women and justice and equality…and then up here, I worked in the whole area of women in agriculture. And economic development-- you know, Hilltown CDC; I raised the money that started that, when I was at UMass working as a rural specialist.
You've done so much!
Many different things. But always things that were a part of what I needed. I don't think I've ever worked at anything that I didn't need also. It's the only way I could trust it.
When did you start writing poetry, then?
It wasn't until I started writing with Pat Schneider that I really started writing creatively. And that was '85, ’84. I was director of Hilltown CDC, and was elected county commissioner. So that was maybe…'85? So I was very busy.
But my son had died eight years before-- Bill-- I'd never written about, except in my journal I wrote about it. I really didn't talk about it. And I went to a therapist and… I was just so guilty that I hadn't been able to save my son. You know, grief struck…so I worked real hard, just to get away from that feeling, I guess. But Carol Edelstein, who was my son's best friend-- we were both doing our laundry, down in Northampton-- in '85, I guess-- and she came over, and she said, "you ought to go to a writing workshop." And I said, "Yes." Immediately. (laughs)
So I went to Pat Schneider's writing group for nine years. And about the third time-- the third meeting, I think it was, she passed around a tray of objects as writing prompts. And there was a spent shotgun shell on that tray, and it just took me instantly to the October before Bill died, in February. he had already tried to take his life. I knew he was in real trouble. He was up in Franklin County, so I knew he was safe. But I was really having a hard time, and I was working, and the other kids-- Pontier was living with her Dad down the street, and John was with me. And it was very hard on the family. Pontier was scared to death of Bill, because he would just…schizophrenics have a…you can't trust what's going to happen. And she was, you know, younger by quite a bit. But I knew he was, for the moment, all right. And a friend of mine, from Everywoman Center days, had a house on Brewster, on the cape, and she said, "why don't you go down there?”
I'd never been to the cape. We didn't even own a car; we were so poor. I borrowed a car, went there, and went all the way out to the end of the cape and found the dunes…and walked along them. The night before, I had had a dream that I walked through a swinging door into a pantry, from a kitchen, and Bill was in a high-chair behind the door, and he was dead. And that dream was with me when I took off and went to the dunes…I was just weeping. I saw this dune-grass on the sand, and it was making these beautiful shapes, you know? The calligraphy, like Japanese art-calligraphy. And I was so comforted somehow by that…and I walked along, and in the middle of one of these circles, was a spent shotgun shell. So it was that that the shell took me to. And I started writing a story-- it was in third-person-- and it was partly this story. It was fiction, but it was the feeling of this story.
So…I was just crying the whole time I was writing the damn thing. I mean I was in her living room. So she calls us all back into the circle, and I went in, you know. I didn't know what to do. I mean I was so new to the group, you know? And I was so scared. And everybody else read…and I learned so much from this experience about how to lead a group in a crisis…and she did not say, "Patricia, would you like to read?" She said, "would anyone else like to read?" And I said, "I'm going to try.”
I cried the whole way through the damn thing. And instead of…this is how I learned what it means to have a writing group, instead of a therapy group-- nobody said "there-there", nobody put their arm around me. Pat just said, "what stays with you about this writing? What do you remember?" And I have no idea what people said. But I remember knowing that I could write anything now, and they would treat it as a story. And not an autobiographical statement by a guilty mother, or a bad mother, which is of course what I felt. And how could you stop after that? It's definitely why I started leading the groups.
Talk about that process. The Amherst Writers & Artists process is a very particular formula.
Well, at that time, she was really developing it-- it didn't have a name. But she had guidelines-- that we kept everything in confidence. That was real important. That we listen with our whole hearts. That we responded only with what we liked and what we remembered; what stayed with us, and never with what we wish might have been different. That we were a WRITING group, and that we cared about each other, and therefore, we would stick with the writing. And while writing was healing, the real point was our writing. And that we would not use our own anecdotes to respond-- this was the writer's time. Those kind of things were there, and became more and more explicit as time went on, and then she was able to write the book, you know? That wonderful book, "Writing Alone and with Others." And so I felt very, very safe. And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and began reading poetry. But mostly, I learned from hearing other people in the group write. There were some very experienced writers in there, Carol Edelstein being one; an amazing poet.
So…listening to how people wrote their stories. How did she write that so that I could see her hand go up to the rear view mirror of that car and fix it so she could see that person behind her? How did she do that? That sort of thing. And I took other workshops during the time, and I just kept at it. A lot-- I went to Omega. I worked one summer there, so I could take Carolyn Forche's weeklong seminar in experimental poetry, which STILL informs my work. And a short course by the proprioceptive writing people. Still use one of their methods in every retreat I lead, as a way of enlarging and revising something, deepening it…You go back into something you've written, or you can do it as you're writing-- you just use these five words: "What I mean by BLANK…is…" and you just go in. Like, if you've written something that has a pair of glasses sitting on a table, and you're pretty sure that it stands for something, but you don't know what…you go back in, and you see how the sentences are. And then you find that place: "What I mean by 'glasses sitting on a table' is…" and see what it's connected to. ALWAYS. It's like that trapdoor that Ray Bradbury talks about in Zen and the Art of Writing, which is one of the best. So it's like the trapdoor. You say, "What I mean by…" and you will be amazed at both where it takes you in terms of the depth of meaning, and places that you were afraid to go.
So that's what I learned that very summer of 1990. And then Carolyn Forche …so many things I learned. About how you write in a nonlinear way. How you allow images to speak to one another. And how not to be afraid of not making sense while you're getting there.
And it was as a result of that-- learning the various things that I learned that summer-- that I invited Pat Schneider and Carol Edelstein, and Genie Zeiger, I think… other women who were by then leading writing groups…and my friend Anne Jones, who was a nonfiction writer but happened to be here… I invited them up for a little workshop! Just us. You know, "I'm excited about what I've just learned, and I'd love to share it with you." So it was a fun afternoon. But it was the first time Pat Schneider had ever been up here. And not long after that, she called and said, "you know, I've started doing these day-long retreats on Saturday once a month, but I am so overwhelmed." She was leading many things, and trying to write this book… she said "I think people would really like coming to Patchwork Farm." And I'd gone through the training by then, the one training she'd ever led. Plus I'd been with her for years. (laughs)
So I got out the word, and did a little retreat up here, and LOVED it. I was so scared; I scheduled out every minute. (laughs) And…oh my god. But it really started me on my way, you know? And after a while somebody said, "couldn't we just go for two days?" You know? So then I added Sunday. And somebody else said, "I really would like it if we could do an evening; I can't do weekends, but I'd really like an evening workshop." Well, I don't know, okay…but I live way out here…it's important to feed people, and I don't like staying up late, so, okay, we'll do it from six to nine, or six thirty to nine thirty, with supper at six…and that's how it got going.
I'm not so creative in the sense of the "original idea", I think. I'm a good adopter. I recognize a good idea. And if it resonates with me somewhere deeply, then I'm motivated to bring it into the world. And that, I think, is a way of being creative. It isn't…if I'd gotten on the track of becoming a sculptor, maybe I would have a lot of sculptures to show for it. But mine has been more working with people, getting the resources to put something in place that wasn't there before, that supports whatever-it-is to get done by them.
But also, the writing...There's nothing like being able to sit down and write something that you know is really true. And not just the sense of…that it tells some truth, but in language that's really alive. There's something really special about that.
One of the women in the community gave me a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and I cried the whole way through. That big book. I read it every night. And my husband was concerned, you know? So…I told him what it meant to me, how hard it was for me to think about doing what I wanted to do, and how the author was explaining how things would open up for everybody if you weren’t just…martyring yourself!
It also explained about consumerism, and this business of staying home and finding eight different kinds of soaps to do your laundry with, because it was all about the marketplace trying to sell to women, so they could stay home and consume more…and that was really true! I was experiencing that!
— Patricia Lee Lewis