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Interview: Poet Jeanne Lohmann talks with Peter Menkin on work and life

Jeanne Lohmann, poet of America’s Great Northwest–photo by Grace Duda
Jeanne Lohmann, poet of America’s Great Northwest–photo by Grace Duda

There is no doubt that Jeanne Lohmann, Quaker poet, is a remarkable woman who in her elder years (almost 90) has a warmth and charm that makes talking to her by phone a pleasure. I spoke with her in interview on a number of occasions spending more than an hour developing this conversation about her work and even her life. We started talking, she in her Washington State home in the Great Northwest of the United States, and I just north of San Francisco by about 11 miles in my home located in the small town of Mill Valley near San Francisco. She lives in Olympia, Washington. We began about December 31, 2013 and ended February 8, 2014. It was a friendly conversation and at one time I interrupted her watching the beginning of the Olympics and so had to call back the next day. Another time, before that, the phones didn’t work—hers, we thought.

There is more to this interview than one conversation with the poet. There is also a conversation, brief, with the editor of her publisher Daniel & Daniel, located in California. More on that in a minute. Let me offer this statement on poetry from a packet sent to me by Jeanne Lohmann of her notes and diary material. This Religion Writer wants to set a tone about poetry more than about the article to come, important as that is in this introduction.

The statement on poetry from one of Jeanne Lohmann’s diaries (circa 1978 and beyond):

What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates…vocal chords and song, imagination and word, story and story-teller.

Making use of poetry, adopting the habit of poetry, I write and revise, perform poems…learn how. Practicing poetry: I’m open to invitations from anywhere. I create my own rhythms, plod when I must, fly when I can. Maintaining the habit, I work to forego the habitual, the trite and easy.

Learning poems for my life, they save me over and over. Poetry swings my arms when I walk, spills around me in specific details, insights. Word-music shaping answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask, teaching me to re-think answers I thought I had: how to honor the awkward, the homely, and the broken.

On about December 5, 2013 John Daniel of Daniel & Daniel is noted in my pages as responding by email to questions about the publishing house he started and where he is editor. You will find more of that interview at the end of this conversation below with Jeanne Lohmann. To the first question John Daniel answers:

Yes, we (Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, which includes Fithian Press), do publish poetry. We also publish memoir and fiction, and our most successful line of books consists of mystery novels, which we publish under our Perseverance Press imprint. As for the state of poetry publishing, I observe that it’s becoming more and more a cottage industry. Judging from the number of submissions we receive, compared with the number of books we sell, I get the feeling more people write poetry than read poetry. But we soldier on, publishing books we like, by poets we like. We’re proud of what we do and want to stay that way, which is why we’re so choosy. We reject most of the manuscripts we receive.

But let me tell you more about Jeanne Lohmann. Her most recent poetry book is, “Home Ground” and it has much of her previous work in it. Published by Daniel & Daniel, it is found on Amazon.com here. Much of her work sells, and this over the years. She strikes a chord with people, especially with moving themes of death…death of her husband and love between a man and a woman. Here is an early remark by one reviewer of one poetry book, “Gathering a Life.”

“Lohmann does not wish her husband’s life to be forever fixed in time and place, but to remember him with some charity of truth so that he might return and be the person she loved. This is a diamond, cutting hard.” Written by Sally Bryan, University Meeting/ San Juan Worship Group Society of Friends. (Date unknown).

This Religion Writer’s earnest hope is that the interview will catch something of Jeanne Lohmann’s sensibility and personhood. Without further words, the interview.

INTERVIEW WITH POET JEANNE LOHMANN BY RELIGION WRITER PETER MENKIN

Not sure if I’m a Christian or Quaker poet, what category I fit into — religious, perhaps, my work as poet definitely a vocation, a calling.

--Jeanne Lohmann in an email to Peter Menkin, February 8, 2014

  1. Now that you’re older and the years have passed, as you approach your 90s, and say you don’t know if you have enough stamina to write another book of poetry: talk to us about stamina. How did this last book of poetry titled Home Ground published by Daniel & Daniel that took a year to do—rank it compared to other works in terms of effort and strength to put together?

“Home Ground” [the book of poetry] took a year to put together because it was so many parts of my life. With Home Ground I was trying to do a broader scope: family and growing up, and in the religious sense what anchors me in the past. It was a combination…so far as doing another book of poetry…I do keep on writing and I have been thinking of putting unpublished poetry in a separate folder and putting that together. But my main concentration is putting together a book of prose.

Its tentative title is, “In Parallel Light” which embodies the two strands of imagination and autobiographical. Its short fiction sketches, creative non-fiction they call it these days. I’m not writing new pieces for this; it’s how sections fit together. It’s not new stuff. There’s a take-off on the fairytale Cinderfeller. A children’s story, “Don’t Worry about It,”… and there are accounts of being hassled on a walk by an old man and I wasn’t interested. There is a piece about a child dying in the hospital of leukemia. The book is a real mix.

Part of my energizing as a writer comes with my working with other writers who are in groups that come to my house. We have a four-time a-year writer workshop where we have new writing and have exercises and set up our projects. I seem to work better in late afternoon. Sometimes I seem to stay up late and take notes. Lately I revise pieces and…enjoy the revision process very much.

I work when the muse comes, but usually give myself an assignment. Sometimes something from memory and that is not always the muse. Without the gift of the muse you wind up, in my experience, with something dead in the water. You need to have something that pushes what you do. It is a matter of exploration for me. What I do is very different from where I started.

In writing a poem, often, I begin with an idea, a line, a phrase and sometimes in writing that poem I will circle round to that beginning and make that poem a complete entity. Sometimes I will leave the poem where the reader wants to go with it—open at the beginning. We do what we can.

2. In 1985 you became a widow and wrote a book (that seemed to me from the reviews I read) to come out of the long bout with sickness suffered by your husband prior to his passing, you wrote of your own grief and entry to widowhood, and even a kind of renewal that your Quaker faith offered, to you. I remember your written statement sent to me in your private collection of notes about the dance you had with your husband in the kitchen (Dancing in the Kitchen). Talk to us some more about grief, about offering strength and love to your husband at the end of his life, if that is a separate matter. Tell us how they connect, and if you have a poem that speaks to the subject?

There are two books I wrote related to this subject. All of my life we were a very fine companionable marriage doing things together—and four children. Looking at life in the same direction, as Rilke puts it. The two books relate directly. Hank’s illness was, “Gathering a Life” and “Granite under Water” (metaphor for the hardness of loss, and water being the faith that came from our family and the Quaker Meeting).

There is a newer book that has more distance on his passing, “As if Words,” published 2011. The title comes from the whole idea as if words could say what the unsayable says. Which is often what poetry is. They are love and grief poems, including a section called living alone. This was published by Daniel and Daniel. This was a well-received book by readers. It had an original press run of 500 or more. The editor has said my books sell well over time. Books get bought and then given to people in similar situations.

The Editor has a good designer who catches the spirit of the book, with covers and inside body design. When people look at books, they often look at especially the cover for poetry books. Daniel and Daniel have been enthusiastic and supportive. I like their work and they are appreciative of the kind of writing I do. It is not a big money making venture for any of us. People come back to me and tell me what it has meant to them (though). John Daniel is the company and he is the editor.

One of the favorites on my husband’s illness and passing was, “Granite Under Water” and, “Shaking the Tree.”

It is the worshiping community that you share; there is silence and spoken ministry. Quakers don’t worship silence, they worship God. Between Silence and Answer – LIVING ALONE

What comes to mind is remembering what I had to do, (so I say of him) I miss you in unlikely things. It is a litany of tasks we shared, that Hank did, and learning to forgive his absence. There is a line in the poem inspired by a phone call from my son who had need of his father, and I had to take that task on myself. I was asked at one time, Where’s the rage… and I also wrote a piece called Rage. It’s not so much anger at a person for his leaving when you love and need him so much. It is anger at the situation.

Giving love and support for my husband was a separate matter. It was not. We did that all our lives through a 37 year marriage, giving love and support to each other.

The Capitol city of Washington State, Olympia Washington, a lovely rather new house my daughter and son and law built for me that is white in this dark weather. Upper part is rented as a studio to a friend of ours-- an artist, who doesn’t live there. I have lived (in the house) ten years now, if I am right.

  1. We do not hear so much of the life of being a mother, of a wife. You lived that in part of your life. I see in your poem, “What You Almost Remember,” that you speak to love in the dance of relationship between man and woman with your husband. Again a theme of yours. Talk to us again of this man-woman relationship that was cherishment in your life.

It’s the relationship we were blessed with and we were married 37--years married in a Quaker meeting in Chicago. I have written not only about the wonderful parts, but the troublesome parts. The way to make it through is by holding on. In one we were very concerned with service projects. In other ways we were concerned with a picket line and it was Valentine’s Day; we went out walking with (undistinguishable) that would not admit black ladies to have babies in Lying-in (University Hospital). And this was about our … “my need was charity…” It was indicative of how there is tension in any marriage.

These are poems about our relationships in the book, “As if Words,” that includes love poems. [Let us turn to the poem, “What You Almost Remember”]

The last stanza of this poem is a dance with death. I don’t look at this poem the way you do. This is a poem of rejoicing and praise. This is a poem of later life is why you almost remember, for I almost don’t remember to be grateful. It is a Quaker poem in a way. It is a poem of return to a mystery you remember: A prayer of last resort.

I think this poem fits in the anchoring aspects of this book which is an expansive kind of book that fits in family and growing up and the Home Ground anchoring of faith. When faith is real, even the arguing we do, the arguing we do is the power of God. The wonderful side of faith is the gold in the throat metaphor, is the gold in the throat metaphor being able to hear that music. The music in the throat is being able to give words to praise. I feel that is about God that there is a voice that is a gift of the muse. Poetry is in this instance the poetry of praise.

As I grow older there is more of this kind, poetry of thanksgiving--a praise.

The muse comes as a gift, as a surprise, when a poem begins and we don’t know where it is going to go…we are accompanied by the muse to go some unaccompanied, beautiful place. …The muse can take the reader to an unexpected place. The muse was one of the Greek Gods and in the Christian tradition and the Song of Solomon and the Biblical literature has acted as a muse to much of my writing. These two lines from the poem are moved to be written by the muse: “… and around you such elegant music/you never in this world could have chosen…”

Those two lines speak to me; because those two lines speak to me, but we aren’t always ready to hear.

You wrote in part in Home Ground:

So in love we are

With the robust joy of our lives

even our cries and curses

a raging torrent of praise

but try not to think of the words

you are weeping and shouting

attend if you will, if you can,

to silence where voice begins

and returns, a mystery

you hardly remember,

prayer first and last resort

try not to think of the trumpet

but of gold in the throat

then the bones of your feet

will move toward dance,

your partner the Lady Death

you’ve spent your whole life looking for,

and around you such elegant music

you never in this world could have chosen

4. Let’s go on with the Quaker in you, what some people call the simple life. This poem in your new book Home Ground caught me with its wise statement on preaching and especially a comment on a sermon. Will you tell us where you were and how this sermon of the bird spoke to you? How it was a sweet song? Here is the poem titled, “Theology Seminar.”

While educated voices drone on

talking of many gods, the various

parts of belief, rational ideas

of self and the soul,

outside my window

lark song pierces the sky,

and during last night’s sermon,

laughter in the dark.

Not to disparage preachers and their

libraries of most important books,

but to wrap the grand themes

in some human garment,

a sweater from the hall closet,

a raincoat, perhaps,

the comforting

simple story.

I don’t know that I was in any particular place. I was at a Friends Meeting. A disturbed woman was talking about how cold she was. A young woman stood up and put her coat around her. And it was such a simple, wordless gesture that spoke to me that I remembered how sermons I’d heard contrasted with this gesture that spoke to me…the image of a lark song spoke to me as a Wordsworth as a song that a sermon speaks to us in so many different guises. It’s not in so many books, that’s for sure.

This was at the Friends Meeting in Olympia Washington. I’ve been going there about ten years. The longest I’ve gone to a Meeting is San Francisco.

Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve gone to a Quaker Meeting.

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which I loved. Preachers there were a great influence in my life. They were men I admired a great deal in my life. I loved the hymns and the Christmas candlelight services and carols—coming into the candlelit services, a healing time for me that I loved. My mother was a seeker who was interested in trying to find a time for her spirit and a community of faith for her spirit. I admired her questing spirit. My father was brought up Irish Catholic and they went to Church together, and they went to the Unitarian Church.

5. It seems this Religion Writer has come quickly to the end of the questions. Thank you for allowing us to make your acquaintance this way. Now is the time for you to talk to us about something we may have missed, or something you’d like to say. Please do so.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the Quaker in me. I’ve been thinking about several poems that relate to this: “Meeting for Worship.” One is the lives of Quakers which inspire me.

“Meeting for Worship”

Beyond compassions reach,

Our guilt or pride,

Is hurt so huge our human mercies numb.

Such grief must go where only God is guide.

END NOTE

  • When I go into the space of worship and need to put aside all this things I cannot put aside. It is a common thing of the worshipping community. We bring our griefs and joys to the worshipping place. “Now, for this space, I put them all aside all the awesome things for which no words will come.”
  • The poem is on page 17 in the book, “Silence and Answer”.
  • The Addendum poem, "Soaring," grew from a Friend's experience of hang gliding. "Rites of Departure" came from my travel to the Soviet Union in 1987 on a Quaker Peace Tour. "Discernment" is a poem prompted by Young Friends asking me to serve on a panel with the theme of "Discerning God's Will in Our Lives." I was sitting on our second story back porch in San Francisco looking out the window into a tall evergreen, and "The smallest branch began to move before I saw a bird climb up that bough," which became a metaphor announcing holy Presence. (See p. 28, SHAKING THE TREE.)
  • “Discernment” was a poem that came out of discerning God’s will out of our lives when on a panel in a Quaker group. I was sitting on the porch looking at a tree when it came to me: “The smallest branch began to move before I saw a bird climb up that bow…” That became a metaphor for me telling (of) news of Gods announcing Presence. This is on P28 in “Shaking the Tree”.
  • I am sure that the conclusion of Quaker worship has shaped the world--I write, my family, and the way I see.
  • We were married in a Quaker marriage in Chicago: We say ourselves in the vow, In the presence of God and with these friends, I Jeanne take thee Henry to be my Husband, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful wife so long as we both shall live. Our loving community signed the marriage certificate which included this promise.

INTERVIEW WITH EDITOR JOHN DANIEL BY RELIGION WRITER PETER MENKIN

  1. Let’s talk poetry publishing a little bit. I note your Fithian Press publishes poetry, and is this your main group that does your poetry publishing in your small house? But more, let’s turn to a broader question of the world of poetry: What would you say is the state of poetry publishing in general and what is the place of your house in it? Yes, a hard question and somewhat both general and specific.

Yes, we (Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, which includes Fithian Press), do publish poetry. We also publish memoir and fiction, and our most successful line of books consists of mystery novels, which we publish under our Perseverance Press imprint. As for the state of poetry publishing, I observe that it’s becoming more and more a cottage industry. Judging from the number of submissions we receive, compared with the number of books we sell, I get the feeling more people write poetry than read poetry. But we soldier on, publishing books we like, by poets we like. We’re proud of what we do and want to stay that way, which is why we’re so choosy. We reject most of the manuscripts we receive.

  1. In a few words speak to us of the characteristics of the kind of book of poetry your house likes to publish? I understand you prefer not to publish religious poetry. Talk to us about what you mean by religious poetry, and the why you don’t publish it. Of course, this interests me as a religion writer.

My taste in poetry is finicky. I’m the editor who decides what poetry manuscripts we will publish, and I’m hard to please. I need to respect the poet’s intelligence, and be convinced of his or her sense of wonder. I need to admire the poet’s keen eye for details and keen ear for language. It isn’t strictly true that we don’t publish religious poetry, but if I feel the work is evangelistic or ecstatic or doctrinal I’m not interested. I suppose I am a humanist, and that’s that.

  1. Will you tell us where your house is located physically, and something of where it is located on the literary map, too?

Our “house,” which for the past ten years has been a literal as well as a literary term, since my wife Susan and I run the business from our home, is located in McKinleyville, California. That’s in Humboldt County, on the rocky North Coast, where the redwood trees grow. (Humboldt County is also known for another crop, but we steer clear of that.) I don’t know what a literary map is, but when we started publishing in 1985, a lot of our authors and customers were in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I had lived for 20 years and had been associated with the Stanford University writing community. Gradually, as we published in Santa Barbara, California, we were part of the vibrant writing and publishing scene there. Since 2003, we’ve lived in Humboldt County, but our authors and their audiences are spread out around the U.S.

  1. What of your personal interest in poetry? What is your own taste, that is what have you liked most, especially as a student or young person?

It may surprise you to hear that I don’t write poetry and I don’t even read much poetry. I have a fondness for strict formal verse (following rules of meter and rhyme), and I like doggerel provided it’s intelligent, witty, and not sloppy with form. My favorite poets are the lyricists who wrote the Great American Songbook, writers like Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, E. Y. Harburg, Alan Jay Lerner, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, and many more. (I have no use for rap, I hasten to add.)

There are a couple of other points I’d like to make. First, my position in Daniel & Daniel is editor, which means I acquire manuscripts and edit them as needed. But heavy lifting in our company is done by my wife and partner, Susan Daniel, who is the business manager, the production manager, and the manager of sales and marketing. It’s thanks to her that we’ve survived the perilous path of small-press publishing for more than 25 years.

Second, I feel it’s important to say we already have a stable of poets whom we publish successfully, and given our financial situation, we’re not eager to expand. Although I will review and respond (by email) to any submission I receive, I must stress that the chances of being published by Daniel & Daniel are slim.

ADDENDUM I

December Morning

The weather changes, and the world

becomes more than it is, as if

that were not enough. Luminous

and ringing, the cold day

begins, and I go to the windows

to see if this is really the light

of day, and it is

winter light I had forgotten

could come over the houses

before the sun comes. To be able

to get out of bed and see

this particular color

and then to watch it fade

is for a moment

to be given a glimpse

of the unimaginable world.

Being here in these changes

is to wear the sky like a wedding ring,

a promise of common daylight after all,

one more chance to praise

by breathing everything in.

Shaking the Tree: New and Selected Poems by Jeanne Lohmann

Fithian Press, 2010

In the Dark, Repreating Names

Remember me, but let me go…

--Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth

No matter how often I tell these stories,

the faces blur, the lovely details

of bodies and voices disappear.

Past age and change, having watched

my yurzheit candle burn off into smoke,

having done what they came here to do,

the dead slide into a litany of names—

Shirley, Elizabeth, Henry, Eleanor, John.

So many and so fast I almost forget

who they were, and can no longer

count on them to comfort me

to the restless dark before deep.

One after another they leave,

and there’s not time enough

to learn what it means when I say

I am letting them go.

As if they were mine to keep or give.

they are not mine, and if I say

that they were—my mother, my friend,

my lover, my child—my claims can only

affirm how clearly we belong to each other,

how difficult to shape the heart into syllables,

translate the meaning of adieu and adios,

the dark and hopeful language of goodbye.

Shaking the Tree: New and Selected Poems by Jeanne Lohmann

Fithian Press, 2010

Soaring

For the sake of a single verse . . .

One must feel how the birds fly

Rainer Maria Rilke

No invitation’s strong enough. I will not

Take to air or glide down currents of wind.

I will not climb and fall in those dangerous

directions. Yet I knew a man once who flew

soaring eye to eye with a red-tailed hawk

high riding streams of air up and over

valleys between bare hills and the trees.

the eye of the flying bird, he said,

met his eye flying beside.

O as he told what it meant to him

then to be man, solitary, out of element, steadily

looked at level with the creature in space, I was

lifted and carried there where the red-tailed bird

flashed by. Wind was a rush in my hair and captive,

I was hooded by light. The hawk’s eye held me

holy and dark, mild and strange in the morning air.

Four: how I love this world, how it opens

Between Silence and Answer, Jeanne Lohmann, 1994, Pendle Hill Publications (out of print)

Sidewalk Café

Late August in the evening light
Zurich found a mildness now
it was closing time. Theaters
were out, the traffic gone.
The waiters knew their work
was nearly done, and greeted us
with less than grace,
though expert charm stayed easy,
almost warm. This final night
we had no need of wine,
but weary and at ease
were quite content, and watched
how light reflected from the stone.

Tomorrow’s flight would take us home.
We’d walked these foreign cobbled streets
the length of summer long, and here
our talk was full of all the day
had been, presents we had found,
and suitcase room for packing them,
our children we would see. Your hand
was on my own. Familiar quiet settled down.

Two women near us rose to leave,
and stopping by our table, asked
if they might interrupt to tell
how seeing us, they paused.
They came, they said, to praise
the ways we looked our love, some joy
we might not know shone through.
For this our language had no words.
We thanked these strangers for their gift,
and smiled. All that we knew
we could not ever say.

Jeanne Lohmann, As If Words, Fithian Press, 2012

Rites of Departure

In Takshken I learn an old belief: after death

carrion eat the sins of our flesh, and we proceed

without this burden. Already the buzzards and vultures

circle. Coyotes howl at the edges of my life, the rats

come closer. I notice small white grubs at work in a tree

on the forest gloor, its trunk huge as my carnal sings.

There may be food enough if I live long enough, even

my pride in saying this an obvious failure. But my most

grievous faults have nothing to do with flesh. My uneasy

spirit anticipates good appetite from scavengers, wants them

hungry also for my heart, that they make it light enough

to leave without envy or malice, without meanness.

One: The language of our tribe

Between Silence and Answer, Jeanne Lohmann, 1994, Pendle Hill Publications (out of print)

Man on the Corner

The Bal Shem teaches us that no encounter with a being or a thing, in the course of our life lacks a hidden significance.

--Martin Buber, The Way of Man

If the homeless man on my corner

with his sign and downcast gaze

is significant for my life as I

for his, may we together live

in such rightness

as the world requires.

If we are meant to help each being

to perfection, and I have need of him,

as he of me, O may I not

avert my eyes or hurry past

the stranger on the sidewalk

for whom my coins

can never be enough.

Home Ground: new and selected poems, Jeanne Lohmann; 2013. Fithian Press

Chant to the Night Sky

Teach me to sing, teach me ancient songs.

let there be music in me past words,

past words let there be music. Roughen

my language, clear me of falsehood.

teach me the quiet of stars

and of duff under redwoods.

let me hear the many voices of the sea,

let the sea be loud in my ears.

teach me songs I don’t know.

bring memory back in music of the drums,

the pounding feet in circles of dance.

call he druids home.

call the wise women home from the sea.

Home Ground: new and selected poems, Jeanne Lohmann; 2013. Fithian Press