The People's Poet
Windham Correction Center
They call me Babe and make a kissing noise
from inside their bars and inside their rage.
Most of them are men, though they act like boys
who've played too hard and broken all their toys.
Now they're trying to break their metal cage.
They yell out Babe, make that loud kissing noise
as if their catcalls mean they have a voice
routines and bells can't break. "It's just a phase,"
their parents must have said, when they were boys.
Don't ask what they're in for; let them enjoy
their small audience, their short time on stage:
"Hey, Babe, how about — " then that kissing noise.
In class they want to rhyme, their way to destroy
all evidence of anguish on the page.
They can't bear to remember being boys.
Some study law, some use a another ploy,
daydreaming they'll do time, but never age.
"Hey, Babe," means "kiss off" to that cellblock noise,
to broken men, in here since they were boys.
For Betsy Sholl, a poem starts with juxtaposition: a beautiful sunset during which you hear someone screaming at his kids, or an elegant woman in an evening dress at 10 a.m., her sequins falling onto a seedy Atlantic City boardwalk. "They're two things at odds, and yet they go together," she says. "And so I try to figure out why."
The end result of that figuring is an impressive body of work: six books of poetry, inclusion in numerous anthologies, a raft of awards, and, most recently, selection as Maine's poet laureate. For Sholl, though, all the hoopla is a bit distracting; rather than dwell on it, she'd prefer to work on her writing, connect with her students at the University of Southern Maine and Vermont College, or spend time with her family, including two young grandchildren. And rather than brag about what she's achieved, in conversation the Portland poet makes self-deprecating references to the content and style of her work, saying, for example, that writing poems based on pure language or thought, as opposed to taking inspiration from experience, as she does, is "the grown-up way" to create.
So it's no wonder that conversations with numerous luminaries in Maine's vibrant poetry scene reveal universal admiration for Sholl. Words like "generosity" and "humility" pop up frequently, as do expressions of appreciation for her skill as a teacher — which is attributable, no doubt, to those two abstract nouns used so frequently to describe her.
"She is open to experience and open to people at all levels — she really listens to them and pays attention and cares enough to make poetry of them," says Marion Stocking, a Lamoine resident who is the former editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. "That famous artistic ego is not there."
Sholl credits her upbringing on the central New Jersey shore for her approach to writing and, it seems, life. "Those elegant poems [by other writers] — I admire them and I think when I grow up maybe I can do that, but I come back to being a Jersey girl," she says, affecting a Joisey accent for those last two words.
Of course, for the last twenty-three years Sholl has been a Portlander. She and her husband, Doug Sholl, moved to Maine in 1983 after stints in Boston and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Doug, a Cleveland, Ohio, native, had recently completed a doctorate in family and marriage therapy; the couple was drawn to Maine by the opportunity for him to practice in partnership with his brother, who'd just opened a family medical center in Biddeford. Their new home also made sense, Sholl says, on a spiritual level. "The two big geographical zones that really move me the most are the shore and cities. I grew up on the shore, and I became a city person when we lived in Boston, so being in Portland is kind of like the best of both worlds," she says. "To smell salt air in the fog, to turn a corner and see the water and the light on the water — that's just in my blood."
By the time she moved to Maine, Sholl had already published two books. Her 1974 debut collection, Changing Faces, focused, as its jacket describes, on "mother, father, lover, in-laws, students, sisters, the baby, household interiors, ghost-town slums, the New Jersey Turnpike." It was published by Alice James Books, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, cooperative Sholl co-founded with six other poets. The experience of starting the press from the ground up, she says, was a heady one, not least because the organization put a special emphasis on publishing poetry written by women. "There really were attitudes that made it hard for women to publish," Sholl says. "There weren't a lot of women being published, and male editors tended to be pretty disdainful." (Alice James Books, which is now housed at the University of Maine at Farmington, continues to thrive today "beyond our wildest expectations," according to Sholl.)
Juggling that creative work with the daily tasks associated with raising young children — some magical, some mundane — required not only a supportive husband but a certain strength of character. Kate Barnes, the Appleton poet who was Maine's first poet laureate, remembers a story Sholl told her about those early years, when she would take a few hours in the morning to write while Doug watched the children.
As Barnes tells it — and as Sholl later confirms — Sholl's son, a toddler at the time, banged on the door of the study, crying and calling for his mother. "Betsy had the strength not to open the door — and you know how loving Betsy is," Barnes says. "Her son was resentful for a little while, but then he came round to feeling that his mother had given him a great gift of believing in oneself and one's own work." ("I didn't work," Sholl remembers of that moment. "I sat there feeling horrible.")
Over the years, Sholl has spread that message to myriad students, ranging from inmates in the state's prisons to master of fine arts candidates at Vermont College. (This semester, she's on leave from Vermont, where she's been on the faculty since 1993, in order to teach a second course at USM.) Teaching poetry, an art form that has become the province of an educated elite rather than the populace at large, to such a diverse group of people has been intentional. "I've just always thought that our work in the world is to reach out and to break out of barriers, and to draw bigger and bigger circles of who we can be connected to, and who we can identify with and see ourselves in and see in ourselves," Sholl says.
In "Here," from Sholl's most recent collection, Late Psalm, the narrator even sees herself in connection to "Wharves with their warehouses sagging / on wooden slats, windows steamed up and beaded with rain." Like much of Sholl's work, the piece sounds simple; as Gary Lawless, the poet who owns Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, puts it, "You don't have to know the work of six French philosophers to read one of Betsy's poems."
But that doesn't mean her work is obvious or na?ve — far from it. "Here," for example, tackles nothing less than mortality and impermanence. Sholl's poems, says Stocking, "sound like somebody talking about everyday things, but when you look at them closely they have enormous literary depth."
Sholl's five-year post as Maine's third poet laureate, after Barnes and Baron Wormser of Hallowell, is likely to demand that she expand her circle of connections even further, despite the fact that the honor officially requires absolutely nothing of the laureate. That's because the position also provides absolutely no compensation, a provision that was written into the legislation establishing the post as a way to ensure that financial considerations didn't stop the legislature from approving it.
"The principle is that until the legislature in its infinite wisdom sees fit to establish some kind of remuneration, the state has no right to ask its laureate to do anything except be the top poet in the state," says Stocking, who wrote the statute establishing the position.
In practice, though, the laureate is expected to serve as an ambassador for poetry to audiences across the state. And Sholl notes that since her March appointment the requests have already begun to mount. "Everyone's saying, 'Congratulations — what are you going to do for us?' " she says with a wry laugh.
Lawless feels that the most important thing Sholl can do as the state's poet laureate is to show young people that poetry didn't die with Longfellow, Dickinson, and Frost. "The idea that there are living, practicing poets among us who you can see at the supermarket helps kids," he says, "along with the idea that you don't have to be a superhero to be able to write well."
And that's an idea that Sholl, the Jersey girl, the teacher, the occasionally ribald grandmother, would surely support.