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An interview with Midwestern poet Anne-Marie Oomen
Anne-Marie Oomen

You wouldn't want to be one of those people who only reads poetry during April -- would you? Beat the rush with this interesting double-bill ushering in National Poetry Month at A Room of One's Own this Sunday, March 25, at 2 p.m. Midwestern poets Anne-Marie Oomen and Deborah Keenen will be reading from their new volumes from Milkweed Editions.

Keenen's book, Willow Room, Green Door is a retrospective of new and selected poems culled from her seven previous books of poems, while Uncoded Woman is Anne-Marie Oomen's first full-length book of poetry.

Uncoded Woman is a story told in linked poems about the life of an abuse survivor named Bead, and if that seems oppressive, it's not entirely -- the poems exhibit a thrilling engagement with the natural world.

From "Light has been extinguished":

I come back to the dark place,
to the scrub acres where the cabin sits,
where these cloudy nights work on me

You know, old-timers say it's best
to look at a sky without stars --
it will show you what you are

without any light at all.

Oomen and I spoke by phone in advance of the reading.

The Daily Page: You've written two memoirs previously. Is this a harder "sell"; is there something you do to get past people's resistance to poetry?
Oomen: This collection is easier for many people to get into than most poetry collections, because it tells a story. And it's not me, it's a persona, and the persona is a little rebellious and smart-ass, and has this tender side, too -- I hope.

I think a lot of people perceive poetry as being "all about me," and interior-thinking and all about language. Here, the language is still important, but it's the story that's going to draw people in, and allow them to enter poetry in a different way. And because the poems are all based on different codes from International Code of Maritime Signals, when I introduce that at a reading, I see people nodding, and I realize how strongly we are still associated with the water world.

For some people, that's an entry point, too.

How did you decide to anchor each poem with one of the maritime signals?
By accident. The first poems I wrote were a more conventional approach. I used the codes as a prompt for me. After a while it started to shift. The titles (the names of the codes) spoke to me particularly because of their metaphorical value ["I am afloat," "I am maneuvering with difficulty," etc.]. They grabbed me.

Did you set out to write a narrative and not me-me-me?
I didn't set out to do it, but it's not unfamiliar to me. One of my first works is a verse play called "Northern Belles," which tells the story of seven women farmers. I've always been interested in the place where one genre blurs into another.

But this was more accidental. The maritime titles seemed to suggest a kind of plain language, a straightforward kind of language. That was not necessarily "me." As I played around with keeping the tone and the diction of the titles in the rest of the poem, a voice began to surface. One thing led to another.

There's a great engagement with nature and a sense of place in these poems.
I can't really get away from that, it's just in me. You grow up on a farm, it's just there. This is set in Benzie and Leelanau counties in Michigan, and what's interesting, though the poems don't address it directly, but there's an affluent coastal culture there [along Lake Michigan], and you go inland just a mile or two and it's not so affluent, trailer parks back in the woods.

That's where this is taking place. Art's Bar is not quite Art's Bar, it's also another couple of little dives that are not so well known, and The Narrows, the place where the old trailer is, exists -- it's part of a highway now, it's not as rustic as I've made it. These are places I know, but it was more of a matter of adapting what I already knew to her voice in terms of a sense of place.

Themes of abuse and taking control of your own life as a woman come through here. To your mind, what's the book's relation to feminism?
Bead's is a story of coming into strength. I didn't think of it so much as a feminist book in the beginning, but as I was finishing it, I realized there was self-actualization and she makes decision for herself and she makes mistakes and she is who she is and finally feels a confidence in that.

I think the way that it is most feminist, though, is in that need to celebrate and honor the woman's story. That is where she crosses into the tradition of first-wave feminism, anyway. She learns that nothing stops her. The one poem where she tells her mother the story of her abuse, that's her final letting go.

One last thing, the book is dedicated to the women who work third shift. There was a short time when I worked the third shift in a canning factory. And those women I worked with -- Bead's story is much like stories I heard there, and there was some impulse to honor that.

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