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Poet May Sarton Recalls 40 Years With Her Muse

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On the way to breakfast a few days ago, writer May Sarton talked rather grimly about what lay ahead on her “last poetry-reading tour.”

“I’m 75. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said. Enough, she implied, was enough.

In Los Angeles for three readings before traveling to Santa Barbara and Palo Alto to give two more performances, Sarton--the York, Me., author of 42 books including poetry, fiction, journals and memoirs--seemed to find her public appearances gratifying and exhausting.

She was honored by the Woman’s Building and the West Hollywood Connexxus Women’s Center with a lifetime achievement award and had a day (April 10) proclaimed in her honor by Mayor Tom Bradley.

The award was given, according to Woman’s Building spokesperson Terry Wolverton, because of Sarton’s long career, productivity and ability to “put her artistic work above everything else.”

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Poet Eloise Klein Healy, who presented the award, said Sarton is also important to many women because of the “visibility of her alternative life style” through her books’ open acknowledgement of her lesbian love affairs.

That “openness about her feminine muse” gained her one of her loyal followings, wrote Sarton’s friend, the critic Doris Grumbach. But her fiction, nonfiction and poetry have a broad range and audience, encompassing the personal impacts of political events, the nature of marriages and friendships, the experiences of aging and illness, and the deaths of friends.

In her autobiographical work, Sarton described her main struggle not in the context of being female, but as “that between art and life.”

“Her books on living alone, like ‘Journal of Solitude’ have brought her another public,” Grumbach wrote, “persons who value her thoughts about dealing with solitude and loneliness and who empathize with the poet-novelist when she confesses the joys and rewards, the difficulties and pains, of the creative and solitary existence.”

Sarton--who will be 75 on Sunday--was pleased to be celebrated.

Collection of Honors

“I haven’t been spoiled by prizes or things like that. I’ve never won any of the (major literary) prizes,” she said. She has, however, received 12 honorary doctorates, a Guggenheim fellowship and other awards.

Yet, anticipating another day of signing books and meeting admiring strangers, she said that “it’s a great thing for my readers, to meet me, and they want to tell me how my books helped them.” But she said it’s difficult for her to listen to such intimate praise while asking, “How do you spell your name?”

“It’s one person right after another, (requiring) instant giving,” she said. That takes time and energy that are difficult for her to summon now.

In February, 1986, Sarton suffered a stroke and then learned that she has heart trouble. Those illnesses debilitated her for nine months. Some of her most recent poems speak of “where I am now, as a woman of 75, who has really faced growing old for the first time,” she said.

Last year, “the hardest thing for me was that I couldn’t write poetry . . . that part of me just wasn’t there after the stroke,” Sarton said.

Happily Writing Again

In despair, she considered suicide, she said, but her condition slowly improved. She still tires easily and “I feel extremely ill, all the time. I’m never well,” she said.

However, she added, “I am, you see, able to function. I can write again.” In fact, she has just finished a new journal, “After the Stroke,” which she said Norton, her publisher of the last 20 years, will probably release next year.

Sarton said the new book, written while she recovered alone in her house by the sea, “will be like coming home for those who’ve read the other journals, because all the same things are there except that Tamas, my dog, is dead and Bramble, my cat, is dead. Now I have a new cat, Pierrot, a Himalayan who’s very macho and very beautiful.”

She’s also about to acquire a wire-haired miniature dachshund puppy named Grizzle, she said.

Sarton’s long career has gained her a large and devoted audience. The Immaculate Heart High School auditorium where she read on May Sarton Day was packed with a responsive crowd of about 700 people, mostly women.

Career Built Slowly

“One of the curious things about my career is that it’s built very slowly, mostly from people telling each other about my books,” Sarton said. She’s accustomed to drawing big audiences in small towns like Moscow, Idaho, as well as in major metropolises, she added.

Born in Wondelgem, Belgium, in 1912, Sarton came to the United States with her parents in 1914 and grew up in Cambridge, Mass. She began writing poetry at 16, and at 17 she became an apprentice actress with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City. Later, she also directed plays and ran her own Associated Actors Theatre for several years.

Sarton’s first book was a collection of poems, “Encounter in April,” and over the years she has published 14 such collections. She still considers herself primarily a poet: “If you’re a poet, you’re a poet first ,” she said.

However, her prose works--18 novels, six journals, two essay collections and two children’s books--have brought Sarton a much larger audience than the poetry.

Novels All Autobiographical

Every novel she’s written, Sarton said, “has in some way come out of an experience of my own--but translated.”

In 1965 she published “Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,” in which she “came out” about her bisexuality. In that short novel Sarton presented her ideas about human relationships--heterosexual, homosexual and platonic--and the sources of poetic inspiration through the thoughts and words of a fictional poet, Hilary Stevens.

Sarton’s most recent novel, “The Magnificent Spinster,” is also strongly autobiographical. In that book, the writer speaks through the character of Cam, an aging historian looking back on her life and her friendship with a teacher, Jane Reid (based on Anne Longfellow Thorp, one of Sarton’s early teachers).

Another important relationship described in the book is the long-term love affair between Cam and a character named Ruth.

Like a Marriage

“I wanted to show a lesbian relationship that was not primarily sexual, but a bonding, as in a marriage,” Sarton said. Most contemporary depictions of lesbian affairs place “far too much emphasis on sex,” she said. Such an affair “may begin in a passionate, sexual relationship--it should begin there--but it doesn’t end there,” Sarton said.

“If you ask people in a 20-year marriage what’s most important to them, they don’t say ‘sex;’ they say ‘companionship, sharing.’ ” However, she added, “people really don’t think of homosexual relationships as marriages, (which) they really are, at their best.

“Times are changing, but there’s a tremendous amount of homophobia” still to be faced in America, Sarton said. Heterosexual women artists also face hard battles if they try to have a family and a career, Sarton said.

“It has been proven that you can get married and have children and still be a great writer, but it’s still rare. The price is enormously high for a woman, there’s no question about that.

‘Women Don’t Get a Break’

“With little children, for about five years you give (them) your physical flesh of energy, and where do you get the energy to create?” she asked. What’s more, Sarton said, “women (writers) don’t get a break with the reviewers, women don’t get a break in jobs, in the university, in the amount of money they make. It’s a long, long way from equality.”

Critics have often ignored Sarton (“I’m nowhere with the literary establishment--nowhere!” she said), but “finally, at 70, I began to make money. Last year I made $80,000,” mainly from royalties on her many steadily selling books.

“Very few writers, except best sellers, make that kind of money,” Sarton noted; her books have never been best sellers.

In recent years, film options have been taken on two Sarton novels. One of these, “A Reckoning” (1978), is about a woman’s attempt to come to terms with her life while dying from lung cancer. The other, “Kinds of Love” (1970), is the story of a woman tending her ailing husband and renewing and deepening long-term friendships in a poverty-stricken New Hampshire town.

Planning ‘Last Novel’

Still another movie company has been talking to Sarton about making a film version of “As We Are Now,” her powerful 1973 novel about an elderly woman’s struggle to stay intellectually and emotionally alive in a nursing home.

Sarton said she’d like to see those films materialize, but she’s more interested in starting “a last novel, which is called ‘Exemplary Lives,’ about how many lives cross each other in a women’s bookstore. It’s haunted me for eight years.” The book, she said, is “not at all” thought out yet, for “no book is formed in my mind” in advance.

“I don’t think I’ll have the energy” to write another novel after “Exemplary Lives,” Sarton said, but she’ll continue to write poems for the rest of her life. “It’s been an extremely demanding life, but I like that. I don’t rest, in the sense of relaxing, ever.”


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