CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE POETS (26): May Sarton … when poet becomes woman, “Sisters, My Sisters”

May Sarton (1912-1995), American poet, memoirist and novelist
May Sarton (1912-1995), American poet, memoirist and novelist

“The creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes. Under all the superficial praise of the “creative” is the desire to kill. It is the old war between the mystic and the nonmystic, a war to the death.”  May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Eleanore Marie Sarton – nom de plume, May Sarton – was born in Ghent in Belgium to an English portrait-artist and interior-designer mother, Mabel Eleanor Elwes, and George Alfred Leon Sarton, a chemist and historian renown as the father of science history.

When the German invasion of Belgium began in August 1914 the family escaped to Mabel Sarton’s mother’s home in Ipswich, England. From there they traveled to America and settled in Boston so George Sarton could teach at Harvard University. May came from a family of gentle nonconformists and her maternal grandfather was among the original Fabians.

“Perhaps every true poem is a dialogue with God … when we are able to write a poem we become for a few hours part of Creation itself.” May Sarton in The Practice of Two Crafts, Christian Science Monitor (1974)

51ryhQbcxtL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_May Sarton’s parents did not belong to any church but she seemed to feel that her parent’s views were not inconsistent with those of the Unitarian Church.

Interviewed in The World in 1987, she told Michael Finley, “My father and mother believed that, though Jesus was not God, he was a mighty leader, and the spirit of Jesus, the logos of him, is the worship of God and the spirit of man.

“At the age of ten May was introduced to the Unitarian church by her neighborhood friend Barbara Runkle, whose family attended the First Parish in Cambridge. May was impressed by the minister, Samuel McChord Crothers, whose sermons she thought “full of quiet wisdom.” One sermon in particular, she recalled in her memoir At Seventy, 1984, “made a great impression on me—and really marked me for life. I can hear him saying, ‘Go into the inner chamber of your soul—and shut the door.’ The slight pause after ‘soul’ did it. A revelation to the child who heard it and who never has forgotten it.” The Encyclopedia of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

May began writing early and her first poems – sonnets – were published in Poetry magazine in 1930. Her other love was theatre and she abandoned a scholarship to Vassar to study theatre and to eventually found  a theatre company. However, in I Knew a Phoenix, Sketches for an Autobiography she wrote that when her first collection was published she focused on writing and “never looked back.”

Her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears Mermaids Singing is considered a “coming out” book and her work was then labeled lesbian and featured in women’s studies classes. She regretted the label seeing it as limiting, which it is.  May Sarton wrote about the experiences, fears and other emotions that are part of being human. Journal of Solitude, for example, is a meditation on aging and the changes aging brings to life, on solitude ( a frequent theme in her work), on love affairs and creativity. May Sarton’s true gifts are poetry and memoir and not to be missed. Her novels – as she knew and admitted – were good but not top-notch.

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”  May Sarton, Journey of Solitude

The following poem, Sisters, My Sisters, is one of May Sarton’s most well know poems. She reads it herself in this video. It was originally published in Kenyon Review in 1943 and is in Selected Poems of May Sarton.

If you are reading this in email, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view it.

cover57866-medium“Nous que voulions poser, image ineffaceable
Comme un delta divin notre main sur le sable”
– Anna de Noaille

Dorothy Wordsworth, dying, did not want to read,
“I am too busy with my own feelings,” she said.

And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout

Are strange monsters who renounce the measure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.

Dickinson, Rossetti, Sappho — they all know it,
Something is lost, strained, unforgiven in the poet.

She abducts from life or like George Sand
Suffers from mortality in an immortal hand,

Loves too much, spends a whole life to discover
She was born a good grandmother, not a good lover.

Too powerful for men: Madame de Stael. Too sensitive:
Madame de Sevigne, who burned where she meant to give

Delicate as that burden was and so supremely lovely,
It was too heavy for her daughter, much too heavy.

Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation
Did any one succeed or learn to fuse emotion

– May Sarton, excerpt from Selected Poems of May Sarton (recommended)


“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
― May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude 

© portrait, Don Cadoret; poem, Sarton estate

“GRABBING THE APPLE” … or how a regional (New York) anthology of women poets was created and successfully launched


Thanks to poet, writer and anthologist, M. J. Tenerelli, for sharing this story with us today.

Several years ago I did a show for the Northport Arts Coalition highlighting the work of well established women poets. I thought at that time that pulling together a collection of passionate, local women’s voices in a book of poetry would be a wonderful thing to do. There were so many talented women I knew on the New York circuit, giving profoundly moving performances, sharing really fine work. Two years ago my friend and co-editor, Terri Muuss, suggested that we get together and produce what became Grabbing the Apple, and anthology of New York women poets. And so a two-year project began.

The idea behind the book was to share what we believed was the unique voice of the New York woman, informed by place as well as a particular confidence, savvy, and passion. Terri and I wanted the book to serve as a conduit for these women, allowing them to define themselves as opposed to the traditional definitions existing in male-created literature, including the bible. Eve from Eve’s perspective.

First we needed a title. We wanted something that reflected the concept of women defining themselves. We turned to the original story of creation in the bible, where the mother of us all begins the downfall of man by plucking an apple from a tree. With Grabbing the Apple, we believed we had a title that turned that creation story upside down. Yes, the first woman, embraced wisdom, and that did not make her a monster but rather a heroine and a role model. The poets in the book define themselves and the lives and concerns of women, forcefully and without shame. We felt the anthology’s title embodied that. And of course “Apple” brings to mind New York.

Call for Submissions: We used social media, college websites and word of mouth to solicit submissions. We emailed the women poets we personally knew. The amount of work that poured in amazed us. I think the concept of the book really spoke to these writers, and they wanted to be heard. We culled 47 pieces from hundreds of submissions. It wasn’t easy. With the help of poet Matt Pasca, Terri’s husband, we instituted a blind process. Matt oversaw the email submission box, and printed out the poems for us, minus the writers’ names. Terri and I both had complete copies of the submissions to read through and consider. I don’t think we understood at the time just how long it would take to come up with a book we were satisfied with–to do right by the poets and the idea behind the book.

Reading and Selecting: I spent a lot of time with the work. As a mother with a full-time job, I spent many lunch hours in my car, and on the couch after work, reading poetry. It was far from a chore. The work energized me, moved me, and surprised me again and again. I started to feel honored to be stewarding these pieces into publication. It was often hard to choose what to accept and what to leave behind. Terri was also reading and considering. We each had a form to work with, where we gave each poem, identified only by number, a yes, no, or maybe. Then we would meet to compare our opinions.

In pizza restaurants, cafes, and often in Terri’s spacious living room, we would have “Apple” meetings. Often we agreed on what needed to go into the book. But not always. Sometimes one or the other of us would make a strong case for a poem we were passionate about. There were negotiations. It was never contentious. We respect each other as writers and editors, and are good friends. So we really listened to what the other had to say. It worked. We came up with a manuscript we could both stand behind. When it came to our own work, I picked a poem of Terri’s that I thought was perfect for the book, and Terri chose a piece that I had done. The next step was to create an order for the poems.

Terri suggested dividing the book into three parts, “Eden,” “The Fall,” and “After the Garden.” I loved the idea, but worried the poems we had wouldn’t lend themselves to the categories. It turned out to be needless worry. Whether loosely or specifically, each poem fits under one of the headings. I remember one night crawling around on Terri’s living room floor with the work spread out in front of us, moving poems around like puzzle pieces into each of the three sections. Again, there was a lot of consideration and some negotiating, but in the end we had groupings that made us both happy. We high fived each other and then celebrated with brownies! We had our poems and we had an order. We weren’t quite done though.

Finalizing and Publishing: We were our own proofreaders. There were a hundred plus pages to pour over. We wanted to get everything right. This took time, and in the end there were a few mistakes but we did our best. We proofed alone and together. We sent the manuscript to the publisher, corrected galleys, and up to the day before publication were still proofing! While we had input into the layout and design, it was the artist Janine DiNatale who created and did the layout for the front and back covers, and the publisher, J.B. Stillwater, who provided the beautiful finished book. I remember cradling the first copy sent to us and feeling like a proud mother. The final step was to get the collection out into the world.

Our initial book launch was at Cyrus Chai, in Bay Shore, New York. So many of the poets in the book came to read. For me, this was the defining moment. The poems I’d been living with for so long came to life. The electricity, love, and sisterhood in the room were palpable. The words sang. We’d accomplished what we set out to do, with more launches planned throughout the Summer.

© 2015, article and portrait (below), Mary Jane Tenerell;  bookcover art © Muuss and Tenerelli, All rights reserved

Grabbing the Apple is on Amazon where you can have a peek inside and sample a poem or two.

M. J. Tennerelli
M. J. Tennerelli

M.J. Tenerelli is a poet and a legal writer. She has worked as an editor of trade magazines and text books for the cosmetology, cosmetics and fragrance industries in New York City. She writes legal briefs for a Social Security Disability law firm and hosts a monthly poetry reading for the Northport Arts Coalition in Northport, NY. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including Cat’s Breath and Estrellas En El Fuego, both by Rogue Scholars Press. Her poems have been published in a number of print and electronic journals, including The Feminist Wire; Poetry Bay; Alaska Quarterly Review; The Improper Hamptonian; Zuzu’s Petals; The Mom Egg; Blue Fifth Review; Poetry Kit; Poetry Super Highway; Big City Lit; American Muse and Parameter. She is a former editor of the art and literary magazine The Wormwood Press. She is the co-editor of the recently published poetry anthology Grabbing the Apple.

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (19): Silva Zanoyan Merjanian, Borrowed Sugar Borrowed Time – from war-torn Lebanon to peace in California

Armenian/Lebanese American poet, Silva Zanoyan Merjanian
Silva Zanoyan Merjanian

Silva Zanoyan Merjanian is an Armenian ethnic who was born in Lebanon. She escaped the civil war there and lived for a time in Geneva, ultimately settling to build a family life in California. Silva has two published collections. Most recently Rumor (Cold Water Press, 2015), which received the Best Book Award from NABE in the 2015. Three poems from Rumor were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Silva’s first collection is Uncoil a Night (CreateSpace, 2013).



In rind of wishes sticky on lips
and sermons’ echo on facepsalms slipping
in envies squirted on spruce and cedar
whims twirling, spiraled, speckled
gossamer visions of friendships withered
in crevices of an upbeat mien
Your name hidden in prayer embers
I mend among buds of poems
flying on a trapeze
with no one at the other end

Rumor is a stunning tour de force of passionate, life-affirming poetry. Silva Merjanian evokes time and place with both grace and authority. Poetry is obviously a tool for her own healing and in that she brings us face to face with the human condition in all its complexity, beautiful and loving and devastating cruel, and she does so totally without pretension.

Mornings arriving
Me alone
Poems half written and done
Poems between toes and toast
‘Round Midnight and Monk
Right reasons
Brave decisions
Thoughts that glow in the light
Just love
Always, in absence of rats and such
fresh sheets and I
between over and under

from Between the Sheets

She writes with immediacy of war:

bounce of gold crosses between breasts
colorful hijabs ’round others’ bare face
friendships seeded in borrowed sugar, borrowed time
she, unaware of borrowed wailers on their way
makes plans on a sunny balcony as she hangs
her blue jeans on a clothesline
moments before war drums ripple through crisp calm

from Borrowed Sugar Borrowed Time


JAMIE:  Silva, Rumor is a remarkable collection with many poems that stay with one. It’s also quite generous of you to donate proceeds to the Syrian-Amenian Relief Fund (SARF). How are sales going and how is the fundraising?

SILVA: Thank you Jamie. I did not have an event or a formal fundraising with Rumor. The sales were a result of readings, speeches, word of mouth and some ads in newspapers and on Facebook. In July there will be an ad for it in Poets & Writers and it will also be included in five book fairs this summer.

My publisher, Dave Boles of Cold River Press, will release the e-book version soon. He is kind enough to donate all proceeds from the e-book also to the SARF. So with all these developments I expect a boost in sales.

JAMIE: When did you fall in love with poetry? When did you realize you are a poet?

SILVA: I am a late bloomer. I started writing in 2011 and my first book was released in 2013. Even though we grew up with the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats, etc.. and many Armenian poets, the thought of writing poetry hadn’t occurred to me. My education is in Business Administration not Fine Art. It was almost like catching the bug of poetry, very unexpected, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. I didn’t write to be published at first, it was just for the pleasure of it, later when I saw friends publishing books, the idea came to me to publish and make it count for something by donating the proceeds.

JAMIE: What are the reactions to your work that surprise you most?

SILVA: I didn’t expect the level of appreciation for my poetry that I received. Especially from those who themselves write and/or are well read in poetry. I have to thank the Irish first for this recognition. They have such talented poets and they recognized my potential first.

I also didn’t expect the difficulty to be accepted as a writer in the Armenian community. It was almost like they waited for me to be respected in the foreign circles before they’d acknowledge me, instead of reading my work and appreciating it themselves. I am disappointed in that respect.

JAMIE: Tell us something about your travels: How did your family arrive in Lebanon and why did they move from there. How did you end up in the U.S.?

SILVA:  My grandparents had to flee their homes twice, trying to survive the Armenian Genocide. If you are familiar with the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Austrian -Bohemian writer Franz Werfel, first published in German in 1933, it is the story of my grandparents. The French helped the population of seven villages escape and relocate as refugees in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. So my grandparents did live under refugee tents for a whole year. Now the area is a buzzing town with three churches and schools and commerce.

I left Lebanon after experiencing eight years of the civil war*. Geneva was the city I healed from the war scars. Later I settled in California to raise my sons with my husband.

JAMIE: What do you think most Westerners don’t understand about the Middle East? What do you know and understand that you would like everyone to know?

SILVA: What most don’t understand about Lebanon, and to a degree parts of the Middle East, is that the vast majority of the people are just the nicest fun loving, peace loving, hard working families. They want for their children everything an American family wants. The number of innocent people who are collateral damage to the events in that part of the world is just heartbreaking.

JAMIE: I understand that your brother is a novelist. Does your family have a history of poets and writers?

SILVA: My brother has two volumes of poetry in Armenian. He is writing his third novel. I am not aware of anyone else in my family who has published books, except a volume of translations by my father.

JAMIE:  You have two well-received collections completed. Where to now?

SILVA:  That’s a question I’ve been asking myself. I think I will keep writing and hope a third book will be in the future for me.

* Lebanese Civil War – 1975-1990

© 2016, portrait, poems, bookcover art and responses to questions, Silva Merjanian, All rights reserved

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (7): Chirlane McCay, New York City’s First Lady

Chirlane McCray by Kelly Weill, NYU Local.com
Chirlane McCray by Kelly Weill, NYU Local.com

CHIRLANE McCAY is a writer and poet, a speechwriter and wife of New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. She is also the mother of two children, Chiara and Dante.

According to her bio on de Blasio’s website,

“Chirlane began writing at a young age. In high school she discovered ways to use writing as a tool for activism. While studying at Wellesley College and the famed Radcliffe Publishing Course, Chirlane became a member of the Combahee River Collective, a pioneering black feminist collective, which inspired her to write groundbreaking prose and poetry.”

The poem below is the one – according to the man himself – that made de Blasio fall in love with her. It is from Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology].

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio kisses his wife Chirlane McCray after voting in the New York City mayoral primary on September 10, 2013 (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY: Former public Advocate and then mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio kisses his wife, Chirlane, after voting in the mayoral primary on September 10, 2013 (Photogrpah by Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

I Used To Think

I used to think
I can’t be a poet
because a poem is being everything you can be
in one moment,
speaking with lightning protest
unveiling a fiery intellect
or letting the words drift feather-soft
into the ears of strangers
who will suddenly understand
my beautiful and tortured soul.
But, I’ve spent my life as a Black girl
a nappy-headed, no-haired,
big-bottomed Black girl
and the poem will surely come out wrong
like me.

And, I don’t want everyone looking at me.

If I could be a cream-colored lovely
with gypsy curls,
someone’s pecan dream and sweet sensation,
I’d be

poetry in motion
without saying a word
and wouldn’t have to make sense if I did.
If I were beautiful, I could be angry and cute
instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch
a nigger woman, passed over
conquested and passed over,
a nigger woman
to do it to in the bushes.

My mother tells me
I used to run home crying
that I wanted to be light like my sisters.
She shook her head and told me
there was nothing wrong with my color.
She didn’t tell me I was pretty
(so my head wouldn’t swell up).

Black girls cannot afford to
have illusions of grandeur,
not ass-kicking, too-loud-laughing,
mean and loose Black girls.

And even though in Afrika
I was mistaken for someone’s fine sister or cousin
or neighbor down the way,
even though I swore
never again to walk with my head down,
never to care
that those people who celebrate
the popular brand of beauty
don’t see me,
it still matters.

Looking for a job, it matters.
Standing next to my lover
when someone light gets that
“she ain’t nothin come home with me” expression
it matters.

But it’s not so bad now.
I can laugh about it,
trade stories and write poems
about all those put-downs,
my rage and hiding.
I’m through waiting for minds to change,
the 60’s didn’t put me on a throne
and as many years as I’ve been
Black like ebony
Black like the night
I have seen in the mirror
and the eyes of my sisters
that pretty is the woman in darkness
who flowers with loving

– Chirlane McCray