Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Judy, in memorium

I have been thinking about my friend Judy Strasser, who along with me and three others founded a poetry manuscript group in 1989. We were five women who wanted to be serious about our writing. We were strangers to each other, but had somehow heard about each other and hooked up because of a mutual desire to take our writing seriously. 

I was the youngest and, I believe, the only one who had not published anything. Yet I matched the others in determination to get somewhere with my writing. Each of us had a personal variation on our writing goals, but we wanted the same thing: To write. To find her voice. To write and make herself heard, then to listen so she would know who she was. 

Sue Wicks soon moved back to England and the four of us continued. Robin Chapmen, Alison Townsend, Judith Strasser and me. We met alternately at Judy’s or Robin’s or Alison’s house, never mine and I don’t remember why. I can only imagine it had to do with some awkwardness I felt about my husband. He was supportive enough but, well, he took up so much space in the house it seemed stuffy to try to have the manuscript group there. Judy, Robin and Alison were divorced. Their houses were women’s houses. Open and airy and free to sit up in until all hours with no television on in a distant room, no husband shuffling through and eating from our cakes, no big men’s shoes to stumble on as we came and went. 

Judy had a cabin in Door County, Wisconsin, which we used for a summer poetry retreat. I think I wrote my first poem there, come to think of it. I had a little tiny bedroom in the upper floor of the cabin, and as I was about to go to bed the stink of a skunk came wafting through the screen of the window. It was a night in June, dark, cicada filled. I was immediately thrown back to a memory from my childhood in Tennessee, when skunks used to come around our lawn at night and my mother would gather us in the window to watch them. 

I wrote a poem called “Family” and it was my first publication. Came out in a journal in Kentucky. Sometime after that Judy had been away somewhere and brought us all back little gifts. Mine was a ceramic worry stone, glazed with an image of a skunk. Looking back, the time spent at Judy’s cabin was fundamental to not only my writing, but to those central years of my adulthood. I was at the age when you are supposed to know everything and think you do, but are starting to get a faint inkling that maybe you don’t. It rocks the foundation. If you don’t know everything your parents didn’t either. Soon the cornerstones of age and maturity and wisdom crack and crumble and mingle into rubble, a new gritty stuff from which you build the rest of your life. This time knowing it is right to have questions that aren’t answered. 

When our poetry group started in 1989, Judy had just gotten divorced. She wanted to turn her diary of the last year of her marriage into a memoir called Black Eye, but it was not something we heard much about. We were strictly poets, anyone writing prose had to join some kind of parallel manuscript group. The literary atmosphere at that time was that you either belonged to one camp or another, poetry or prose, but not both.

Judy belonged to both. She showed me early on that both were possible from the same voice. She wrote radio scripts too, she was a program host on To the Best of Our Knowledge on national public radio. She wrote grants. She wrote essays. When we sat discussing diction in poetry, she always had her 3 volume hard cover set of Oxford dictionaries at hand. From Judy I learned a deep respect for words. I am pleased that one of Judy’s last published pieces appeared in an anthology alongside mine last year. Both of us were writing about the poetry manuscript group. About how the group did, and did not, influence the final versions of our poems. The essays are in a book called Poem, Revised. 

Judy died two days ago. Her death was not a surprise. She had cancer, and had lived longer than anyone expected. Last year she wrote that she was sorry she wouldn’t live to see the outcome of Hillary vs. Obama. Then she did, and her last visit to the oncologist was on Inauguration day. She watched Obama take his oath on a television in the radiology waiting room, along with other patients who had not thought they would live to see that historical day. 

I find myself thinking of Judy and the poet’s group, and what they mean to me. What we writers mean to each other, which is something more evident with time and distance, and yes, with the shock of death. I’ve been reading some of Judy’s books. Black Eye, the memoir, and Facing Fear, her views on politics, cancer, and the arts. Her voice is so strong, so mature, and yet I can’t help remembering when both she and I were young writers, just learning how to speak by means of a pen. How tenacious we were. How determined we were in our belief that writing would make a difference, and that we had to do it.

The poet’s group is still meeting. Has been weekly since 1989. Until now, I was the only one of the four original members who was not in it. Now there are two. Alison and Robin are still there, with a handful of others. The group will go on meeting, but not at Judy’s house. That is a very strange thought. Judy’s death was expected, but like all deaths it came with sudden finality. It does seem a light has been turned off, a pen capped, a voice silenced in the world. It makes me want to write all the more, to keep my voice going and growing, for my own sake and in honor of Judy, who listened and kept listening to me, when all my writing could do was cough and stutter and whisper. 

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This entry was posted on 01/02/2009 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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