Pattern and Variation: A Conversation with Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt
BY Barry Goldstein

ELLEN BRYANT VOIGT is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (2007); Shadow of Heaven (2003), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Kyrie (1996), a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Two Trees (1994); Lotus Flowers (1987); and The Forces of Plenty (1983), all published by W.W Norton; as well as Claiming Kin (Wesleyan University Press, 1976). She has also published a collection of essays on craft and poetry, The Flexible Lyric (University of Georgia Press, 1999).

Voigt’s honors include the 2002 Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, grants from the Vermont Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and a Pushcart Prize. In 1976, she developed and directed the nation’s first low-residency writing program at Goddard College in Vermont. Since 1981 she has taught in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College.

Voigt has worked as an editor for Hammer and Blaze: A Gathering of Contemporary American Poets (with Heather McHugh, 2002), and Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World (with Gregory Orr, 1996). She has served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 2003. She lives in Cabot, Vermont, where she served as the Vermont State Poet from 1999 to 2003.

You grew up on a farm in Virginia; how has that shaped you as a writer? How did you come to live in Vermont?

Any writer is probably the last person to know what has shaped her as a writer — although I’m not sure biographers can uncover that either. We all like a neat explanatory narrative, for almost anything and especially anything elusive and complicated; and certainly growing up on a farm, growing up in close proximity to extended family members (both my parents grew up in large farm families not far from each other), attending a small rural school — all this certainly shaped the person I am, the person who makes the poems. But I can think of other plausible narratives that perhaps would provide equally salient explanations. Weird Kid Likes Solitude. Girl Flees Conventional Repressive South. Middle Child Bucks Family Expectations. Flat-fingered Pianist Stumbles Onto Poetry.

There are parts of that growing up that seem more evident to me in the poems than others — for instance, the rhythms of the King James Bible — traceable particulars from the biography but not exclusive to it. Here’s another: My mother was a first-grade teacher and taught me how to read at a really early age — maybe that shaped me as a writer more than anything else, even though I didn’t act on it, didn’t start making poems, until many years later.

All I can say for sure is that I’m happier when I live in the country. It’s probably why I knew immediately on landing in rural Vermont that this was where I wanted to stay. My husband and I came in 1969 — he had a teaching job at Goddard College.

Were your mother and father musicians? What did they think about your becoming a writer instead of a musician?

My parents were not musicians but music-lovers. My father especially; his parents had met at a shape-note gathering in someone’s kitchen. Shape-note is an old American a capella tradition based on the solfeggio system — do re mi — that allows untrained singers to “read” music, with the literal shape of the note indicating pitch. My father never did learn how to read actual musical notation, but he sang in the church choir and with a male gospel quartet. My parents bought a cheap upright piano on the installment plan, and made sure all three of their children had piano lessons and played in the school band. We were excused from chores to practice. But I don’t think either of them ever expected or even wished for any of us to be professional musicians. Maybe teachers — of something, anything — my mother’s mother thought there was no more noble calling, and all five of her daughters became teachers (the one boy worked the farm). Three of my father’s four sisters were also teachers.

The notion of “becoming a writer” was very foreign to them — and “becoming a poet” even more so. They were quite nervous, with good reason, about how I would support myself.

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