Ann Townsend
July 2001

 

Ann Townsend was born in 1962 in Pittsburgh, and spent her childhood traveling between parents in Pittsburgh and New Orleans. She received her B.A. from Denison University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Her first collection of poems, Dime Store Erotics, was published in 1998. Her individual poems, stories and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, and many other magazines. She is a winner of the "Discovery"/The Nation Prize for poetry (1994), a Pushcart Prize in Poetry (1995), an Individual Artist’s grant from the Ohio Arts Council (1996), and a fellowship in poetry from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (1998). She has published three chapbooks of poetry: Modern Love (Bottom Dog Press, 1995), Holding Katherine (with David Baker, Main Traveled Roads Press, 1996), and The Braille Woods (St. Louis Poetry Center, 1997). She lives with her husband, David Baker, and their daughter in Granville, Ohio, where she is an associate professor of English at Denison University, and offers courses in creative writing, 20th century literature, and environmental studies.

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I am in the midst of finishing a second book of poetry, and that means I am thinking hard about what my poems hope to do not only one by one, but collectively. Though poems must finally speak for themselves, I will speak for them, temporarily, here. Or, perhaps more accurately, I will say some words about where my poems come from.

I inherited a love for storytelling from both of my parents. My father could spin a story to keep us captured for long afternoons at a time. Most of the stories he told contained some version of truth, but it was never clear what parts were true, what parts weren't, and what parts were influenced by what he was drinking at the time. He was hugely entertaining. My mother keeps her stories to herself, like a spy, so, as a child, I had to learn to ask the right kinds of questions, and sometimes my questions would elicit a story. Most of these were scandalous character studies, unlike my father's tall tales, so from her I discovered my Great Aunt Cora, who fell off a cliff, a long removed cousin, whose name might have been George, who joined the circus and traveled as a clown, and my grandmother's first born son, who died at birth and was kept a family secret for thirty years. Perhaps she told me the whole story. Perhaps she didn't. Perhaps these were tall tales, too. But because I was never sure about the authenticity of these stories, I became interested in what goes into a story, and what stays out, what remains absent, the blurry line between the lie and the truth.

If I am a storyteller, I am as equally a singer as well. I studied voice for many years, growing up in Pittsburgh. I traveled across town every week to train with a very cranky woman, the daughter of a famous opera singer. She had her studio at the top of her tall row house, and, once inside, I climbed the steps past heaps of musical scores, bits of colored glass laid in rows on the stairs, and discarded plates of cake. I never practiced for the lessons, being naturally lazy. I preferred to simply open my mouth and let the nice sounds come out. I was regularly humiliated. My cruel voice teacher used to say to me, "anyone can make a pretty noise." She meant, of course, that I would never really sing the song if I ignored the words in favor of the melody. I try to keep that in mind when I write poems. Her insult joins naturally with what Robert Frost says about good poems, that they should make "the sound of sense." I like to work toward a poetry that can be at once lyric and narrative, that can contain a story told intensely.

 

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