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  • Writing in Multiple Genres
  • Maxine Kumin (bio)

Fifty years ago, before I even dared seek validation as a poet, I honed what was to be my craft by writing four and eight-line light verse fillers for the slicks – Ladies' Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, the long-defunct New York Herald Tribune, even the Wall Street Journal. I was at that time a stay-at-home mother with two small children and a third on the way – in the oven, as we say of foals. On the weekends when my sainted spouse took over as minder and bottle washer I escaped into Boston to spend hours in the Medical Library on the Fenway tracking down sources to cite in the papers I ghost-wrote for several doctors at five dollars an hour – munificent pay back then, when baby sitters were for hire at thirty-five cents per hour, fifty if they did the ironing as well. Thank god, we no longer iron.

By the end of the fifties I was a lightly published poet and a part-time instructor in English at Tufts University, one of the first two women ever hired in that department, but only licensed to teach freshman composition to the physical education majors and the dental technicians (but that's another story) . . . Meanwhile, I'd made the switch from light verse to serious. My first book, Halfway, came out in 1961, thanks to the late Dudley Fitts, who was then judging the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. He had chosen George Starbuck but sought out publishers for the finalists. I was one of them and by virtue of his good offices I landed a contract with Holt, Rinehart and Winston. They published a thousand copies; seven hundred of these, it is rumored, were eventually pulped.

By the end of the sixties I had written and published two novels. They each, not too mysteriously, grew out of what I considered overage – leftover material that would not compress into poems. Maybe this is why I never saw a sharp line of demarcation [End Page 5] between poetry and prose. As Enid Shomer has pointed out, "[t]he conceptualization of poetry and prose as essentially different and discrete rather than being part of a larger creative whole may . . . be one of the factors that has produced the flattened out 'McPoem' and the 'McStory.'" I agree; as she puts it, "the engine that drives a piece of writing" is its narrative thrust, and this holds true in every genre.

The narrative thrust for my first novel was direct. My father had recently died; I had written two not very distinguished elegies but there was so much left unsaid about our father–daughter relationship fraught with suppressed emotion that it poured onto the page over a period of eleven months. The typewriter page, I want to add, with the added mess of tending to carbon paper and second sheets. The title was Through Dooms of Love, from the E. E. Cummings poem, "my father moved through dooms of love, through same of am, through haves of give. . . ." Harper & Row published the novel in 1965. The protagonist is a pawnbroker's daughter, which is to say, myself. While organizing for the CIO she is investigated by the FBI; an agent calls on her father, who is outraged and threatens to yank her out of college.

Well, every first novel, it has been said, is autobiographical and certainly mine is no exception. In a poem, you select, invent, abbreviate, heighten, use all the tools of metaphor and meter to bring your poem to fruition. In fiction, it seems to me, you do much the same but you have more room to do it in, which is what makes writing fiction so seductive.

The second novel of that period, The Passions of Uxport, also Harper & Row, came out in 1968. It's a big, sprawling novel that attempts to tie together the lives of two couples, their marriages at crisis point. There are adolescent twins dealing with their own emotional crises, a dying child, and an obsessed, let us say disturbed handyman character, whose compulsion leads him to clean road kill off the...


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