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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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OUR NATIONAL TREASURE,

MARIE SHEPPARD WILLIAMS

 


 

Marie, by Photographer Mary Hansen


 

PRAISE FOR MARIE SHEPPARD WILLIAMS

AND HER WORK

 

 

About ten years ago, a small, 70-ish woman turned up in one of my Loft poetry classes, whom I knew for the next few weeks, chiefly by her remarkable ability to write a full, finished poem in the sometimes frustratingly brief periods I allot for in-class writing exercises. Now, with a decade of teaching under my belt, I still can't think of a single student of mine (and I have been privileged with some gifted ones) who possessed that peculiar capacity for speed and coherence in their composition process.

Later, I found out that Marie Sheppard Williams also wrote fiction, in fact largely fiction, several published books of hers praised by the late progressive historian Howard Zinn and Minnesota writer Bill Holm (whom Robert Bly called one of the best essayists of his generation), both huge fans of Marie's work. Still when Marie says she is not primarily a poet, we must take that with a very large grain of salt, say the size of a Volkswagen. Lucky for us, Marie is as good a storyteller in poetry as she is in prose; a natural-born storyteller, as the poems in this issue of Grey Sparrow demonstrate.

Marie's ability to quickly reach the speed limit from a standstill and then stop on a dime when the clock is called wouldn't count for much if there wasn't so much quality and substance in the work thereby produced. But, not to worry. Like her prose, her poetry sparkles with human substance and interest, has no fat on it, and never, ever wastes the reader's time. She is one of our treasures and, in the marvelous way that teaching sometimes invites, I've learned at least as much from this student as she has from me.

 

Thomas R. Smith

 


 

THOUGHTS ON POETRY

 

 

 

People ask me all the time why I haven't gone further, done more, with my writing.  I tell them: because I don't want to pay the price.  If I do one, or occasionally two readings for each new book, that's all I can handle.  (Too bad, I'm a really good reader!)

I write stories because God made me a story-teller.  I write them as I do—first person and wandering all over the place, partly true and partly invented, and wouldn't you like to know which is which?—because that's the way my father told stories to me when I was a child.  I've tried to write novels, but they all turned out to be nothing but a series of anecdotes.

I became a poet—or rather, a writer of poems, I think very few get to call themselves poets—at about age 70 or 75.  Poetry, to me, is an art form surpassed only by music, and music is not one of my gifts.  One day I thought to myself: What the hell, people decide to become plumbers or electricians, why can't I decide to become a writer of poems?  So I did, with a fair amount of success, I think.  My mentor for poetry is Thomas R. Smith, who teaches in the Foreword Program at the Loft.

I believe that the greatest gift God can give to a human being is the ability to create—anything, stories, novels, poems, art, music—because it is always there, through thick and thin, bad times and good, always a consolation for life.

 

                                                                                                                                                                 ―Marie Sheppard Williams

 


 

EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK OF JO: AN ELEGY

 

One Time She Gave Me a Button That Said: 

ART IS ANYTHING YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH

 

I first laid eyes on Jo

where I worked.

An agency for

blind folks.

I was shocked

sideways.

Merlin


our psychologist hired her as a typing teacher.

Why in God's

name?  I said.

I mean, there

she was, stomping

around the typing

classroom in huge

rough boots

masses of

red hair hanging

to her waist

scowling and laughing

out loud.

                    I asked

her, said Merlin,

laughing too,

what her qualifications

were.   I can type

and I can see,

she said.

 

Marie Sheppard Williams


CHRYSALIS

I met Jo for

the second time

in a women's meeting

held at Chrysalis

the women's center

here in our town.

Chrysalis.  Appropriate,

I think, in view of

what she would

become:  dead, or

a butterfly, depending

on your view

of things.

 

Marie Sheppard Williams

 

TRUST

Jo spent two years

in Anoka State Hospital.

They called me schizoid,

she said.  Schizoid—that

meant she was a little

saner than me.  After

Jo died, our friend Myrt told me

that Jo was schizophrenic.

She told me schizoid, I

said.  She told me schizophrenic,

said Myrt.  One more vote

of No Confidence.

 

Marie Sheppard Williams



FRINGE PEOPLE

 

Fringe people,
we called ourselves.
Call.  Nothing has
changed.  Many of
us have spent time
in mental wards.
Some have been in
jail.  One was a
former member of
the—what?  SLA?
the crowd that took
Patty Hearst, anyway.
What we know together
that makes it possible is
that we all have human hearts—half saint,
half suicide-bomber.

Marie Sheppard Williams

 

 

SOME

 

Folks are

not suited

to the world.

I loved her but

I could not stay with

her emanation

of stranger.

She spoke

an alien tongue

that I could not

decipher

well enough to

give her any

comfort.

Was there comfort

for her anywhere

on Earth?

 

Marie Sheppard Williams



PEOPLE LIKE US

 

Jo

would say.

In the last days

we went to a

choral concert,

in a church.  I sat

next to her.

She got up

after a while, left.

I followed,

found her

collapsed on the

concrete base of

a saint-statue.

 

I put my arms

around her.  She

sobbed:  I'm

glad it's you…

Marie Sheppard Williams

 

 

SURPRISE

 

One day she went

to the hospital

and the next day

she died.  The docs

were astonished.  They

did not expect it

just then.  I think,

said Carol, that

she decided to leave, she'd

had enough of it.

 

Marie Sheppard Williams

 

 

WHY?

It's hard work

being a writer, Jo,

I said.  Don't think

it just happens or

anything.  You have

to work hard

at it.

 

Jo leaned back on her

elbows.  Her head bowed

forward.

Waterfall hair

dropped straight over her face:

mysterious

lazy

sleepy

hidden.

Uhhhhhhhh, she sighed

though the waterfall

blowing away

strands of hair

and said:  If

it's so

hard, why

bother?

 

Marie Sheppard Williams