Jane Mead dies at 61; poet’s work was inspired by the natural world


Jane Mead, an American poet whose work was largely inspired by her love of nature and the interconnections between organisms and their environments, has died.

Mead died of endometrial cancer Sept. 8 in her home in Napa, said her friend Kathleen Finneran. She was 61.

In a literary career that spanned more than 20 years, Mead wrote five poetry collections and her work was regularly published in anthologies and journals.

She was a Griffin Poetry Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for her 2016 book “World of Made and Unmade,” about her mother’s death. It also was long-listed for the National Book Award. Former Times poetry contributor Carol Muske-Dukes wrote in 2017 that “Mead’s poems reveal a compassionate aesthetic imagination.”


In an excerpt from the book, Mead writes:

The third time my mother fell
she stopped saying she wanted to die.

Saying you want to die
is one thing, she pointed out
but dying is quite another.

And then she went to bed.

Her previous book “Money Money Money Water Water Water,” a work of ecopoetry, explores the widespread destruction of the natural world.

In a 2014 interview with the now-defunct literary blog Bookslut, Mead talks about the relationship between poetry and nature: “Given the nearly complete destruction of an entire planet, the overpowering by greed of any sense of the basic logic of survival, or valuation of beauty — it would be odd if the urgency of this situation were not reflected in our poetry.”

She spoke also about the influence poetry can have in preserving nature: “But poetry has the potential to move people, which is where the potential for growth and change of a certain kind enters the picture.”

Remembered as gentle and intelligent, she was admired for her deep compassion.

“She was a poet who had a very singular voice,” said Anne Marie Macari, a poet and friend. “That’s one of the ways you know someone is a good poet. They are who they are…. She was authentic and tender and even though she was brilliant, that wasn’t the most important part of her work…. It was the compassion she felt for other creatures … the way she was grounded by the natural world.

“She brought that to her work” along with her love for her dogs, Macari said.

Mead’s acclaimed work earned her grants from the Lannan Foundation, a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

Jane Whitaker Mead was born Aug. 13, 1958, in Baltimore, Md.. Her father, Giles, was a Harvard professor of ichthyology and former director of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Her mother, Nancy, owned a pecan farm in southern New Mexico.

Mead earned her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, a master’s from Syracuse University and an MFA from the University of Iowa, where she studied in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She held many teaching positions through her career and across the country, including Colby College in Maine, Southwest Texas State University, Washington University and New England College, among others, and was a poet-in-residence for many years at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.


While living in Iowa, she co-owned an independent bookstore called Prairie Lights with a fellow poet. When her father died in 2003, Mead left her residency at Wake Forest and moved west to manage her family’s vineyard in Napa. She lived out her days on the land, growing closer to it.

She is survived by siblings Parry, Giles, Richie and Gale.