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The Commons
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Diana Whitney

The Arts

Looking back, looking forward

Poems from her past become the foundation of Diana Whitney's debut book, 'Wanting It'

Hear Diana Whitney read essays Brattleboro’s River Garden during the Sept. 5 Gallery Walk, at 7 p.m. She reads her poetry on Sept. 20 at the Burlington Book Festival, and returns to Brattleboro for the Literary Festival, Oct. 2-5.

Originally published in The Commons issue #269 (Wednesday, August 27, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.



BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro writer Diana Whitney’s debut book of poetry, Wanting It, was released in June.

“The title is provocative, but not erotic,” Whitney explains. “It’s the experience of longing, but not necessarily for a lover.”

Whitney’s poems are about longing for some experience other than what one is having: for the next stage of life, for merging with nature, or for excitement. And sometimes, she says, longing means craving material things.

Wanting It is divided into four parts, arranged in seasons. Whitney describes it as reflecting the natural world, with its “life-cycle of blossoming, teeming, dying, then lying fallow.”

Fellow Vermonters may appreciate Whitney’s explanation of the book’s query: “How do we get through the internal darkness mirroring the external darkness?”

“Darkness” is a recurrent theme in Whitney’s writing. In her essays on parenting — which have appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer, the Rutland Herald, the Boston Globe, and soon at The Huffington Post — she often mentions the place where “motherhood rendered her mute: there was no poetry in ‘the baby cave.’”

On her blog, Spilt Milk, Whitney beautifully describes the winter her second child was conceived: “...the gunmetal skies and barren woods of November... Once Daylight Savings Time ended, the nights grew long and velvet dark.”

Whitney also is forthright about another type of darkness: mental illness. In response to the recent suicides of Vermont Law School Professor and VPR commentator Cheryl Hanna, and actor and comedian Robin Williams, she wrote an essay about her own experiences with depression: “Depression: Coming Out of the Happy Closet” (http://bit.ly/VOm1n9).

The piece, which also appeared in The Commons, details the events with starkness and elegance. She notes, “I don’t talk much about depression and rarely write about it, but it exists as a shadow presence in my life, a current below the bright surface. It’s time to come out of the happy closet and open up about the illness.”

While one could be forgiven for assuming darkness is anathema, Whitney seems to disagree. Her recollections of her time spent during the winter in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom reveal a deep appreciation for the quiet peace of a cold, dark season, and the opportunity to focus inward.

Most of the poems in Wanting It — save for the book’s final section, “Channeling,” which consists of new works — were written in the late 1990s, when Whitney moved to the remote section of the state to teach cross-country skiing. One poem in the book, “The Winter Room,” takes place there.

“[The Northeast Kingdom] is a good place for a writer,” Whitney says. “The spaciousness, the vastness, the landscape all allowed for rich writing.”

Although the opposite end of the state provided inspiration for the majority of Wanting It, Whitney’s experiences living in Brattleboro helped turn “poems going back 15 years in a manuscript collecting dust in a drawer” into a published book.

In fact, this community made the book happen, Whitney says.

In 2009, Whitney joined local novelist Suzanne Kingsbury’s Tuesday night writing salon, which is open to writers of any experience — even no experience.

“Through that community of writers, I began writing poetry again,” Whitney says. “That writing group was my catalyst.”

One of Kingsbury’s friends, a poetry editor, helped Whitney sequence her poems into a book. She continued working on the manuscript in 2013 while spending a week at the Vermont Studio Center’s artist retreat. There, Whitney met Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea (www.sydneylea.net).

As Whitney tells the story, the laconic, native Vermonter became her mentor.

Lea suggested Whitney submit her work to Harbor Mountain Press. Peter Money’s non-profit, independent publishing house, based in Brownsville, releases only books of poetry, and only a small handful each year.

Figuring “it would take years,” Whitney sent her manuscript to Money. Barely 12 months after making that “small-state connection” Wanting It was published.

Even the cover art is local. Whitney encountered Westminster West landscape and encaustic painter Julia Jensen’s work on a Gallery Walk, loved what she saw, and approached the artist about having one of her pieces serve as the cover of Whitney’s book.

Whitney, mother of two young children, and the owner/instructor of a yoga and fitness studio attached to the family’s farmhouse, is planning her next book. In addition to writing more poetry and publishing new essays near and far, she’s collecting essays from her blog as Spilt Milk: Making a Mess of Motherhood.

The new book is divided thematically around emotions, including some seldom found in parenting guides: “Judgment in the mothering world, perfectionism, anger,” says Whitney.

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