BRATTLEBORO — Dede Cummings always longed to publish a book of her poetry, but it wasn't until she was in her 60s that her dream came true.
On April 11, To Look Out From, her debut and the winner of the 2016 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize, will be available in hardcover ($24.95) and paperback ($16.95) online and in bookstores.
According to acclaimed poet Clarence Major, “Dede Cummings' poems in To Look Out From are breathtakingly vivid. Deeply felt, they often chronicle the relationship between self and the natural world, between self and others.”
Billy Collins, poet laureate of the U.S. from 2001 to 2003, writes, “Even her poems of memory and family are driven by curiosity and enlivened by quick maneuvers and spritely turns.”
Cummings is a writer, literary agent/publisher, and commentator for Vermont Public Radio. She lives in Brattleboro, where she designs books and is the founder and director of Green Writers Press.
The work of many decades
With no hyperbole, Cummings can say that To Look Out From was a lifetime in the making.
“In a volume with 40 poems, 12 have already been published in magazines and journals over the past 30 years,” Cummings says. “The book represents my work over many decades. I invited to an upcoming reading my freshman poetry professor and his wife, who are remarkably enough still around.”
On April 7, at 7 p.m., at Next Stage in Putney, Cummings will read her poetry, as part of Green Writers Press Book Launch Celebration.
Although Cummings is the founder and director of a publishing house herself, she didn't want to publish her own book, and instead took on the arduous task of getting her first book of poetry published elsewhere.
“As with any new book, or any book of creative writing for that matter, I had a struggle to find a publisher,” Cummings admits. “And to find someone to publish your poetry is especially crazy.”
Cummings began seriously to put her book together only a year ago when at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, where she was awarded a writer's grant and a partial fellowship in 2016.
“To support my three-week stay, I also did work-study,” Cummings says. “Actually kitchen duty became my favorite part of the experience. I did the dishes with a young poet and we spent many wonderful hours discussing the art of poetry.”
Cummings came to the Vermont Studio Center prepared.
“I actually carried my huge desktop computer with me,” she says. “I also brought other writings, such as my handwritten journals. I printed and laid out my poems on the floor in my room so Icould arrange the way I wanted them in a book.”
A pay-to-play system
The reality is that, with the cost of mailings - and many journals now charging a fee for submissions - getting poetry accepted for publication can be expensive. Searching for a publisher, Cummings stuck to a budget.
“I only allowed myself $100 to spend,” she confesses. “I sent it out to around five publishing contests and basically forgot about it.”
When Cummings was the winner of the 2016 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize, she was surprised and ecstatic. Her astonishment may have come from the fact that she never felt sure of herself as a writer.
“I often would ask myself 'why bother to write poetry with so much already in the world,'” Cummings concedes.
“Willa Cather, a wonderful novelist who wrote many beautiful stories, gave some good advice: There may be in the world only three or four stories told over and over, but a writer's job is to go on as if they never happened. To write at all, I had to learn to ignore the critic on my shoulder insisting that I was a terrible writer.”
Cummings also feared she was now too old to publish.
“But then I thought, 'Alice Munro started publishing around 50 and won the Nobel Prize at 80,'” she says.
Through all her doubts, Cummings had one staunch supporter of her writing: her mother.
“She always was eager to read whatever I had written, so I would give my latest piece to her, cigarette in her hand and smoke around her head,” Cummings says.
Cummings feels genuinely humbled that she finally has a book to offer, and hesitates even now to label herself a poet.
“When I first started out, I had come from college where I was something of a coddled poet,” she says.
While she was a student at Middlebury College, she was the recipient of the Mary Dunning Thwing Award, attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as an undergraduate writer, and studied with Hayden Carruth at the Bennington Writers' Workshop.
“I also was up for a Mademoiselle (magazine) guest editorship, following in the footsteps of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath,” she adds. “In the end, it came down to two girls and the other one got the job. I really had expected everything was going to be easy as a poet. The magazine paid what seemed at the time a lot of money for my poem. And I thought, 'Wow, this is me, I'm a poet.'”
Cummings soon found out that this was a difficult world in which to be a poet.
“I was accepted to graduate school, but I couldn't afford to go,” she explains. “Since I literally had no money, I had to become a waitress to support myself. I couldn't expect anything from my family, since they did not approve of me living with my boyfriend.”
So Cummings drifted into publishing and started to raise a family of her own - and discovered that she no longer could find enough time to write poetry.
“I did write some, often feverishly at night,” Cummings says. And she kept everything that she wrote. “I have my writings everywhere, even on files in [such old] computers that I cannot even retrieve the material anymore.”
However, when Cummings turned 50, her situation changed. She was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease and spent a month in the hospital, which gave her a new perspective on her life. Also her children were now all raised and, finally, she had time to write.
“Now, almost everyday, I take a 2- or 3-mile walk in the woods,” Cummings says. “There I do my work as a poet. I listen to the water and get inspiration from the natural world.”
Keats and Wordsworth
Cummings considers herself to be foremost a nature poet.
“Central to everything I write is the natural world,” she says. “That is the subject where I feel most comfortable. I mix the personal and quotidian with the big picture. I may focus on day-to-day realities but I try to make them universal.”
Cummings was deeply influenced by the Romantic poets, especially John Keats and William Wordsworth, whom she studied in college.
“The Romantics' way of looking at nature greatly informed my writing,” Cummings says. “Even in the early 1800s, Wordsworth was mourning the destruction of nature by man. He had a great reverence for the natural world.”
Cummings also was influenced by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats.
“I was particularly struck by the way he infused meaning into the natural world,” she explains. “In Yeats, the rocks in a stream become symbolic of the Irish revolution.”
Yet these were all men. What about the female writers?
“I was never taught any women or minority writers when I was in college,” Cummings says. “It was all about the white male canon back then. Yet in my senior year at college, I discovered Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich and was blown away by the power of women poets.”
Cummings has since come to love many women poets.
“For instance, Vermont's Grace Paley is one of my favorite writers, and she is someone not afraid to state her politics,” says Cummings, whose own poetry is about the connections between politics and the environment.
“In the last 10 years, the specter of terrorism has also become a part of what I write,” she continues. “After Trump's election, poetry.org reported more activity than it ever had before. Actually that makes a lot of sense. Poetry helps work through grief and other powerful emotions. That is probably why it is read at some of the major events in our life, like weddings or funerals. Poetry is a powerful tool of communication.”