Hidden Herstories: Marie Ponsot

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Once a week I sit at a desk in publishing, next to the City Lights archive, which as you might imagine is pretty hard to resist investigating. Old copies of Ed Saunders Peace Eye, and our own Journal for the Protection of All Beings sit there vibrating silently, beckoning… Well, last week whilst surreptitiously flipping through the pages of one of our older publications, my coworker Bobby asked me if I knew about Marie Ponsot, who has the distinction of writing the rarest City Lights publication. True Minds was number five in the Pocket Poets series, published in between Ginsberg’s Howl and Denise Levertov’s Here and Now. Only 500 were printed, and it is now very difficult to find. I immediately started reading her work, and hunting down interviews with her, and entirely fell in love with her words and her mind. If you too are looking to fall in love with a poet, I would suggest starting with this interview, and continuing from there!

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens in 1921; she studied 17th century literature at Columbia, before moving to Paris and marrying the painter Claude Ponsot. She met Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the boat on the way to Paris; Ferlinghetti was going to study in Paris on the GI Bill

Megan O’Grady: Your first book of poetry, True Minds, was published by City Lights Books in 1957, in the same series as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. You were already a mother then. I can’t imagine that balancing the two was very easy. 

Marie Ponsot: What a fate! I had just had my sixth child, so I had a houseful. Larry [Lawrence Ferlinghetti] had done this wonderful thing and put together a chapbook. He and I had known each other in Paris, and we used to exchange poems and talk about them, and he had held on to them and wrote to say that he wanted to do a book. He asked me to send anything else I had, and I did, any scraps that were lying around. You can read them now and see they’re much less rewritten than anything I’ve done since. I was writing in between everything else. I think I didn’t write much less in those years than I did before I started having children; I just wasn’t free to do it for as long as I might have liked once I got started. But the impulse to do it was constant, and I always found it an energizing thing to do. If you make something, you feel better about yourself and the world. I did learn one great, crucial thing, though, that I think every writer should be taught: that you can always find ten minutes in the day to write.” (Ref) 

Her next book, Admit Impediment, was not published until 1981.

“Nobody spoke to me about it and it certainly didn’t occur to me. You really have to believe me when I say my dissociation from the idea of publication was not deliberate, contemptuous or passive-aggressive; it just didn’t occur to me. Think of all those seventeenth-century cavalier poets who had no interest in publishing their work-it didn’t occur to them either. Frequent publication of poems is a nineteenth-century development.” (Ref)

“Writing poems is a luxury, a triumph! While doing it one is exultant and grateful and cheerful and pleased. You don’t wait for someone to approve. If you go on doing it and enjoying it, well, what have you done? You have spent time enjoying what your language makes of you. Very often this makes for a more comfortable self than any other you’ll ever meet.”

A Visit

By Marie Ponsot

“Fine bitches all, and Molly Dance…”
—Djuna Barnes

Come for duty’s sake (as girls do) we watch
The sly very old woman wile away from her pious
And stagger-blind friend, their daily split of gin.
She pours big drinks. We think of what
Has crumpled, folded, slumped her flesh in
And muddied her once tumbling blood that, young,
Sped her, threaded with brave power: a Tower,
Now Babel, then of ivory, of the Shulamite,
Collapsed to this keen dame moving among
Herself. She hums, she plays with used bright
Ghosts, makes real dolls, and drinking sings Come here
My child, and feeling it, dear. A crooking finger
Shows how hot the oven is.
(Also she is alive with hate.
Also she is afraid of hell. Also, we wish
We might, illiberal, uncompassionate,
Run from her smell, her teeth in the dish.)
Even dying, her life riots in her. We stand stock still
Though aswarm with itches under her disreputable smiles.
We manage to mean well. We endure, and more.
We learn time’s pleasure, catch our future and its cure.
We’re dear blood daughters to this every hag, and near kin
To any after this of those our mirrors tell us foolishly envy us,
Presuming us, who are young, to be beautiful, kind, and sure.
March 1958
If you have not clicked on the interview mentioned in my introduction please do so now! Witness Marie Ponsot discussing the power and radical nature of teaching, obscure modernist writers including Mary Butts, and many beautiful and technical aspects of creating poetry.
“It’s very interesting to be able to compare moments of reality, now and then. The coincidence is fascinating. How you can drop, in memory, back into a place and imagine it as if it were present. Imagination is always in the present. Memory remembered is in the present. Imagination is in the present. No matter whether it’s of the dimmest past or the second-hand, overheard past. It’s still nonetheless in the present tense being imagined right now. “

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