Poet Gives Voice to Epidemic Era

December 1, 1996

Donna Soper

Hearing that her audience might not understand the title of one her poems, poet Ellen Bryant Voigt thought she'd better explain. "This poem is called 'The Diviner,' which is what we, in Vermont, call the person who comes out to your property to determine where you should dig for water."

The crowd, who had assembled in Rogers Memorial Chapel for a reading of Voigt's poetry, stared blankly. So she continued. "Down here, you probably say 'water witch,' which is what we used to say in Virginia, where I was raised." Silence. There was still no trace of comprehension on the part of the audience. Finally, after a few uncomfortable moments, someone broke the stillness and said, "We don't call them anything.

New Orleans is below sea level." "Ah, yes," laughed Voigt. "You probably just have to go outside, stomp your foot and there it is." So began one evening last month in which Voigt, the 12th-annual Zale Writer-in-Residence and the author of five collections of poetry, read selectively from each of her works, offering explanations where the vernacular of Vermont, her current residence, and Virginia, her birthplace, seemed almost foreign at times to the mostly local audience.

The poetry reading was part of Voigt's weeklong schedule as the Zale writer. Funded by a grant from Dana Zale Gerard (N '85) and the Zale Foundation and sponsored by the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, the Zale Writer-in-Residence program brings a woman writer to campus for one week each fall to teach creative writing classes, meet with faculty and students, give a public reading of her works and a meet-the-author interview.

Previous Zale writers have included Dorothy Allison, Lee Smith, Gloria Naylor and Linda Hogan. By all accounts, Voigt proved a most instructive visiting writer. Admittedly tough on the students in the creative writing classes in which she lectured, she was not without criticism of some of her own earliest poems, one of which she said took six years to finish. "Poems are like a child that you sort of rescue," she said.

During a meet-the-author interview with English professor Peter Cooley, a longtime acquaintance, Voigt shed some light on her beginnings as a poet and the development of each of her collections. It wasn't until she was an undergraduate at Converse College in Spartansburg, S.C., heading for a degree in music, that Voigt said she became interested in writing. "I had played the piano since I was three and a half, and my life goal was to be a high school band director," she explained. "So, I enrolled in a college that had a conservatory, and I took nothing but music classes. But, I was not happy."

In search of something more fulfilling, Voigt said she enrolled in an English literature class, and it was then that she realized she was "hungry for something for the mind" and began writing poetry. Eventually, she enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, where she first met Cooley. According to Cooley, the two found themselves in a "badly run graduate writing program." So, they, along with a few other students, formed a literary group called "The Committee," which regularly met during the 1960s. "Ellen was the only Southerner in the group," said Cooley, "and some of the terms in her poems were so unfamiliar to me, I thought she had made them up."

Lyrical in tone, Voigt's first book of poems, Claiming Kin (1976), is primarily a study of various objects. Voigt has become, however, a more narrative poet as she has added The Forces of Plenty (1983), The Lotus Flowers (1987), Two Trees (1992)--winner of the Hanes Prize for Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers--and her most recent collection, Kyrie (1995), to her body of work. In discussing her evolution toward a narrative style, Voigt said, "I had to teach myself how to tell a good story. I have no narrative sensibility."

Part of learning how to tell a good story is developing "trust in your imagination to participate in something," she explained. "You have to learn that process--that is, imagining your own experience after you have it. "Often things happen to us so quickly that we just have to deal with them as they come, and we may never imagine them as they happened," she continued. "And, just the opposite, we can sometimes imagine something so vividly that may never have happened." In Kyrie, which Voigt calls a book-length poem, she tells the story of the largely forgotten influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 from the perspectives of various survivors.

The epidemic, which hit at the conclusion of World War I, killed more than 25 million people worldwide. Acknowledging the parallels her readers have drawn between the influenza epidemic and the current AIDS epidemic, Voigt said she did not intentionally set out to create a metaphor for AIDS.

Her impetus for writing a collection on a seemingly obscure subject came from several other sources, including stories her family had told about surviving the epidemic as well as a book she had read about the pre-antibiotic age of medicine, Voigt said. "I heard the voice of a doctor, then one of an 8-year-old, then one of another survivor and then another," said Voigt. "I went voice by voice, writing sonnets from each of these voices' perspectives."

Still, Voigt recognizes that many question her choice to write about such a dreadful period of history. In the final sonnet of Kyrie she gives voice to this concern. Voigt, who has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, is currently chairperson of the academic board for the MFA for writers at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C.

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