Lucy Adkins on Historical Characters

How did your chapbook, One Life Shining: Addie Finch, Farmwife, begin? Tell me more about the character of Addie Finch, as well as the supporting characters—her husband William, the daughters, the landlord, and the neighbors. How did you come up with the character of Addie? Is she a historical figure, an ancestor, or pure imagination? What was the process like to create a chapbook framed around her life?

For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been attracted to the idea of writing in another person’s skin. There’s a certain freedom about it, the excitement of playing pretend, living out challenges and having experiences I wouldn’t have in my own life. And I can write whatever bold, but utterly honest thing that comes to my mind, no matter what. It isn’t me writing it, after all, it is the character in the poem. I don’t always write in persona, of course, but when I do, more often than not, I like the results.

A few years ago, I re-read Bill Kloefkorn’s Alvin Turner as Farmer—a book written from the point of view of a farmer living during hard times in Kansas in the early 1900’s, and something clicked. I grew up in rural Nebraska, and I, too, wanted to write poems of people of the land—people loving it, wresting a living from it, and being betrayed by it. And when that happened, finding a way to go on.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I started writing poems using the viewpoint of women I knew growing up—my mother, my grandmothers, aunts, neighbor women, even the teachers I knew attending country schools. The first poem I wrote in this vein was “Butchering,” about a farm woman doing the hard work of cutting up hog fat and rendering lard, while the man in her life admonished her to stay in the kitchen, do her work and thus be “protected” from the brutality of the killing. But of course she is not protected. There are too many other hard facts in her life, and she cannot help but be involved in it all.

After “Butchering,” similar pieces followed, and I set a goal of writing a series of such poems. They would be from the perspective of a farm wife married to a tenant farmer in Nebraska, and the time frame would be the 1950’s and 60’s. I chose the name of Addie Finch, and when I wrote, I could become Addie, live her life, and write the poems that only she would write.

I used some of the poems already written as ‘core poems’ and spent another year writing new poems to complete the series. One poem followed the other, and I found myself in a little flood of creativity. I loved it, and altogether wrote about 45 poems in Addie’s voice. Ultimately I cut this number down to 27 to make up the manuscript.

Addie Finch is an amalgam of the voices of the women described above. Primarily, she is my mother, and of course, some of her sensibilities and dreams and wants are my own, projected onto her. The character of William is my father; the four daughters are my three sisters and myself, and the landlord poem is representative of the landlords of the various tenant farms where we lived. The neighbors were our neighbors, and most, if not all, of the events described are actual events.

How did you decide upon the order of the poems, the narrative arc, and the various themes such as the those you introduce in the opening poem “We were married in a drought year” and continue to develop in others such as “It was a beautiful spring day”? Tell me about the final poem “Saying Yes”.

Basically, the book is linear in nature, the poems following in what I hope is a natural order. It begins with a wedding, the bride a young woman from a small town who will move to the country and become a farm wife. She grows a garden and learns to clean chickens. She has encounters with rats, windstorms, and drought, and with a landlord whose presence reminds her of where she and her family are ranked in the social order of the time. She looks for meaning in all this, in a land where the Pawnee once lived and raised their children and now are gone, and realizes “we are all tenants here.” And in the course of this, she raises four daughters.

The opening poem, “We were married in a drought year” might serve to represent the life she will live–a hard life, but a beautiful one, and one steeped in love. But I don’t want to analyze my own poem, I just wrote it. Or maybe it’s better to say that I put my pen on the paper and that was what came out. And the ending poem, “Saying Yes” is (perhaps) her realization of the joy she has found. But let me say something else about “Saying Yes.” I love that poem—the newborn lambs and baby pigs in cardboard boxes behind the stove—I knew that as a little girl, and I wish for all children growing up the occasional newborn lamb in the kitchen, once in a while a baby pig!!

How much time did you spend to find a home for One Life Shining?

It took about two years (or was it three?) to find a home for the chapbook. Some of the earlier poems had already been published, and I began submitting individual poems to various journals. It’s nice if a fair number of the poems can be published in journals before submitting in chapbook form. But in deciding which poems went into the chapbook, their ability to tell Addie’s story was more important.

In regards to the process of bringing the book to print, I submitted to several publishers, but in the beginning had a good feeling about Pudding House. I had had a poem accepted in a journal they once published; and I’ve seen (and purchased) other chapbooks they put together. And they were speedy. Once the manuscript was accepted, copies of the book were in my hands within six or seven months.

I’m not concerned about winning chapbook contests, though I do enter them. I do so because a contest deadline encourages me to complete what I am working on. I look at each piece with fresh eyes, find a way to put them in the best order, and discover what poems seem to be missing. And yes, it would be nice to win, but in the meantime I am doing my work as a writer, and that is enough. My advice to other writers would be to go ahead and enter contests if it suits your needs. But let those needs be based on what will work to encourage you to write and to improve your writing.

What current projects are you working on?

Right now I am working on another collection—poems about the two years I lived in Selma, Alabama five years after the Civil Rights turbulence of the 60’s. That was a long time ago, and it was as if I had forgotten all that. But in the last couple of years, poems have been coming, and I am now intentionally working to write more poems and form them into a book. And in the back of my mind are two other projects—one about “A Crazy Little Thing” (called love) and the other about experiences I had and people I knew when I was a child. Also, along with my writing partner, Becky Breed, I have just completed a non-fiction book about the creative process, and am looking for a publisher for it. So I have lots of irons in the fire—which is wonderful. I am so lucky to be able to do what I love.

I am also lucky that I live in a city which has a supportive community of writers. I belong to several writing groups which have encouraged me to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep trying to put books together. Most of these groups are generative in nature. That is, each time we meet, we generate new work. It’s a kind of magic, I think, something about the meeting of minds and the expectation that you will write and then read aloud what you have written. And when we do read, we find that what we have written is pretty darn good.

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