The publication of “In the Well” earlier this year confirms Elizabeth Tibbetts’ status as one of our finest poets. For those of us who have read a poem in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Puckerbrush Review, the Cafe Review or any of the other dozen or so journals that have published her work, this collection is long awaited.
The 81-page “In the Well,” which won the Bluestem Poetry Award, contains about 10 years’ worth of work. Tibbetts had been sending the manuscript out to competitions for almost four years, about 100 times, which is not only time-consuming and expensive, but can also be disheartening after a while.
There were some close calls along the way: She was a finalist for the Marianne Moore Prize and a semifinalist for the Walt Whitman Prize, both national competitions run by the Academy of American Poets in New York City.
Other recognition helped fuel the fire. Tibbetts won a Martin Dibner Fellowship and was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize three times. She also published a chapbook, “Perfect Selves,” in 2001. Finally, there were the occasional notes of encouragement that accompanied the manuscript in those self-addressed stamped envelopes that came back to her.
Tibbetts was born and raised in Camden. Her parents still live in the house she grew up in. Her mother’s family, Sawyer, has been in Maine for about 11 generations, with a special concentration Down East (Grand Manan, Addison, Mount Desert Island). Her father’s side, originally from Albany, N.Y., goes back three or four more generations before that.
After going away to boarding school for a year, Tibbetts returned to graduate from Camden High School. She then attended the University of Maine, in Augusta and Orono, majoring in science and nursing.
A first taste of poetry came during Tibbetts’ sophomore year at Camden High. She wrote a group of poems for an English class project, cutting out silhouettes for illustrations. The teacher loved it and encouraged her to keep writing.
While pursuing her nursing degree in Orono, Tibbetts enrolled in every writing course she could fit in her schedule. Her focus was fiction, which she wrote for about five years. She had encouraging professors, including Charles Anderson and the poet Constance Hunting. She started two “bad novels” and wrote “a lot of not-so-good short stories,” but she didn’t stick with it and dropped writing after graduation.
Around the time she and her husband, Jim, settled in Hope in the late ’80s, Tibbetts took up writing poems again. “Poetry felt like something I could fit into a busy life a lot better than fiction,” she explains. She has never had the luxury, in her words, “to just plunk myself down and write.”
The exceptions to this rule have been the writing retreats Tibbetts has attended: Ragdale, in Lake Forest, Ill., the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks and, most recently, Seaside in Seaside, Fla.
“It’s almost a shock to the system to have an entire month to devote to your craft,” Tibbetts explains. She takes along notebooks with “starts” and unfinished poems because, she says, “just sitting down and trying to come up with something out of thin air is very frightening.” While the poet would love to attend a retreat every year – they have been highly productive – her vacation time gets wiped out when she goes away.
Part of Tibbetts’ development as a poet relates to trying to live life fully. She also finds herself in a profession that exposes her to a lot of joy, sorrow and death. She is a floor nurse on a medical surgical unit on the acute-care floor of a hospital.
Tibbetts has been a nurse for going on 25 years. Nursing informs her writing – “There’s no way it wouldn’t,” she says. For one, the day-to-day human connection gives her a sensitivity she feels she might not have if she was doing something else. She pays attention to details and listens to people’s stories, some of which end up as elements in her poetry.
In the poem “A Nurse Reads A Book of Luminous Things,” we encounter some of the patients on the ward. There is the befuddled Mabel, for whom “touch, hot coffee,/a shawl and Xanax haven’t helped,” and Joe, who is lost “inside/Alzheimer’s incessant motion.” Their humanity shines through the nurse’s sense of drudgery and despair.
Tibbetts has mixed feelings about being identified as a “nurse poet,” a label that critics and others have latched onto. When reminded that poet William Carlos Williams was a family physician who was known to scribble a line or two on the back of prescription slips, she notes that she doesn’t have time to think about writing anything while on the job. “Sometimes it’s so busy,” she relates, “that if I hear something that lights up for me, I’ve forgotten it by the end of the shift.”
Another important element in her growth as a writer has been the encouragement and guidance of a circle of poets that Tibbetts has been a part of off and on for a number of years. Kate Barnes, Candice Stover, Kristen Lindquist, Betsy Sholl and Patti D’Angelo were among the poets who met to review each other’s work and share encouragement and criticism. Such feedback, says Tibbetts, is very important, “especially when you’re emerging and are new to something.” She has been particularly close to Barnes, Maine’s first poet laureate (“In the Well” is dedicated to her and to Tibbetts’ parents).
The book is divided into four sections, with the folktale-like title poem, “In the Well,” serving as a kind of introduction (Marion Stocking, editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal, suggested this placement). Tibbetts avoided thematic clusters, like childhood. “I don’t like hammering the reader over the head with a topic,” she explains, “and life is a lot more mixed up than that.”
Several poems in the book evoke the loss of place. “Salvage” opens with the words “In the last week before Rite Aid tears down/our grandfather’s house.” In “The Strip,” a woman recalls Holsteins grazing where a Wal-Mart now stands. “Sight Distance” was inspired by an incident in which road engineers cut down legacy trees along Tibbetts’ property in Hope.
One thematic thread in the book relates to chickens. With a chuckle, Tibbetts acknowledges a lifelong passion for hens. Her father was allergic to cats and dogs, so the family pet ended up being a leghorn, rescued by her mother from the lawn of the Camden Public Library (the pullet may have escaped a poultry truck headed for Belfast). “We had that hen for four years,” Tibbetts recalls. The tame fowl followed Elizabeth and her siblings around like a dog and rode on their shoulders. She developed a “real heart connection” with chickens.
Chickens appear in seven poems in the collection, including the humorously self-referential “The Muse Visits After I’ll Never Write Another Chicken Poem.” They serve as talismanic creatures, like Ted Hughes’ crows, symbols of comfort, pain, revelation. In the stunning “Ida Goes to the Hens,” an old woman roosts with her chickens, finding warmth and sustenance in their company, even when rats sneak into the coop in search of eggs.
Tibbetts often inserts a touch of evil, death or violence in her poems, what her friend Barnes likes to call “the twist of lemon.” Such dark images, the poet finds, “heighten the great tension of life.” Thus, the beginning of the poem “My Brother and I” implies malevolence: “Mother shut us in the corner/cupboard beneath the counter.” Reading on, we learn the children “begged for this,/and fit neatly,” their chins “tucked to our chests beside the big/yellow flour tin.”
When Tibbetts read this poem at a presentation in the Camden area, her mother, who is wonderfully supportive of her work, took exception to the ending, which describes her leaving the kitchen to answer the phone. “She may not have done that,” Tibbetts states. “It’s a poem.”
In recent months, the poet has read from her work at the Camden Public Library, Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta, Compass Rose Bookstore in Castine and at a poetry festival held in Wayne. She will be taking part in a series of group readings around the state organized in conjunction with the publication of “The Maine Poets: A Verse Anthology” published this month by Down East Books. Tibbetts has three poems in the collection.
In the last poem in “In the Well,” the poet imagines the circumstances of her conception, inspired by clues given by her mother and father over the years:
… Sonnets he composed to woo
my mother, the time she lifted his thick
glasses and kissed his eyes, a naked swim,
snippets of life before it bore down….
Tibbetts gave the poem, titled “Conception,” to her dad for Father’s Day last year, but she was too chicken to hand it to him so she left it on the dining room table. “He liked it,” she says, and adds with a smile, “fortunately.”
Carl Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.