Inspired Lives: Poet Maxine Kumin

Sep 5, 2012

Maxine Kumin’s career has spanned over half a century. She's the recipient of  awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Kumin was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and has taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and Columbia. Despite traveling away from home to lecture at schools and universities around the United States, Kumin has retained close ties with her farmhouse in rural New Hampshire. In an interview with Joan Norris published in Crazy Horse, the poet disclosed, “Practically all of [my poems] have come out of this geography and this state of mind.”


MAXINE KUMIN: I started writing poetry, I think, about as soon as I was literate.

You know, I went through a very bad patch, which I've written about, when I was a freshman at Radcliffe, in 1942.   Wallace Stegner, who was only a little older than I, was the instructor.  I gave him a sheaf of poems.  They were all, sort of lovelorn.  I had written them the previous summer.  He handed them back to me, and across the top in red pencil he had written, "Say it with flowers, but, for God's sake, don't write any more poems about it."  I didn't write another poem for about seven or eight years. 

It really wasn't until I was married, and I was, again, writing poetry, but in the closet.  I wasn't showing it to anybody, not even to him.  That went on for a number of years.  When I was pregnant with my third child, I found a book called, "Writing Light Verse," by Richard Armour.  I think it was for sale for $3.95, and I bought it, and I started writing light verse poems and sending them out.  I made myself a promise that if I hadn't sold anything before this third child was born, I would turn my back on this whole thing.  Well, in March, the Christian Science Monitor took a little poem of mine, of four or six lines, and I was paid $5.00, thereby recouping the cost of the book, and it launched me on a cottage industry.  I did this until 1957, when a friend of the family put me onto a poetry workshop being taught at the Boston Center for Adult Education.  That was the stepping stone to seriously writing poetry. 

Sometimes I'm referred to as a pastoral poet, which I don't mind.  It's all right.  I think of myself as pastoral and anti-pastoral, combined.  But living here, raising horses, and tending a vegetable garden, which feeds us all winter- the garden has to be tended every day.  Just as the horses have to be tended to, but morning, noon, and night.  The writing, I think, exerts the same kind of discipline.  A day without sitting down at my desk seriously is a day

The full interview with Maxine Kumin can be heard on the Story Preservation Initiative website.