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For Love of Language

Photo by Monty Rand

For Love of Language
Poet and publisher Constance Hunting on the melody and mystery of writing

About the Photo: Language is a feast to which everyone is invited, according to Constance Hunting.

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A poet and widely published author, owner of one of the foremost small presses in Maine and founder of the state's first literary magazine, a teacher and mentor to countless numbers of University of Maine students through the years, Hunting continues to make her distinctive mark on the literary world.

She is a champion of language, a true apostle of the integrity of words. Much of what she has accomplished — the influence she has brought to bear on the literary community in Maine and beyond — has been in the name of language and literature.

In an information age, Hunting's dedication to the deliberateness of language and commitment to create a lyrical artform rather than just communicate may seem out of time. Amid the onslaught of verbiage in our lives, Hunting asks us to hear the words and to feel their meaning, based on her conviction that language has a melody and mystery all its own, that good writing requires no thesauri, and that writers of all ages are on the same literary path, but at different stages.

"I like to look and listen," says Hunting of her love of language. "Place and landscape are important to me, just as Maine is in my work. I remember standing for 15 minutes beside a stream in autumn and just watching the leaves. What a luxury — the color, motion and shapes."

by Constance Hunting

My grandfather once saw a black-
snake in the act
of swallowing a frog.
Quick as lightning Grandfather
fetched the axe,
smote that snake like thunder.
The frog sprang out and sprang away
across the meadow — likely to start
a new religion. Grandfather said
you never saw a frog
leap so high!

New England
by Constance Hunting

are the sheep of these
and fog
is the wool of these stones

A native of Rhode Island, Hunting pursued her interests in music and writing from an early age. At 7, she started taking piano lessons. She also wrote her first poem. It was about a November sunset.

"That was my track — music, and always reading and always writing," she says.

At Brown University, Hunting studied music and English. When she married and began a family, her training as a classical pianist took a backseat. But not her writing.

"You can't practice (piano) four to six hours a day, but you can write in your head," she says. "Children go to bed early when they're young; then they go to school."

Now, as it was then, says Hunting, "there is never a time that I'm away from the writing. It's always in the back of my head."

In 1960, Hunting's first adult poem, "After the Stravinsky Concert," was published. By the end of that decade, her first book of poems by the same title was published by Scribners.

Of the poem, Iconic poet William Carlos Williams noted that "something clicked for me and when that happens I hope I have sense enough to recognize it as a rare occurrence."

Poet and novelist May Sarton once said of Hunting's poetry: "I stay puzzled, fascinated, unused to a magic door that has such sudden entrances."

Hunting was named poet laureate of Indiana before moving with her family to Orono in 1968. Her husband, Robert, a scholar of 18th-century literature, served as head of the English Department during his first eight years at UMaine.

"The milestones in poetry are the people who teach you," says Hunting. "They are not necessarily professors but those who make you say, ‘Oh, I see,' when you read them. For me, those people included Wordsworth, Shakespeare, of course, and the romantics generally; and T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop. Virginia Woolf was the highest for me in her prose, criticism, novels and diaries. I started reading her when I was 17. She also makes it seem so easy while, at the same time, so many things are going on in the work — a lot of simultaneous mental action."

Throughout her life, Hunting read a lot of fiction, but it was poetry that struck a chord.

"It had to do with the chimes of the sound," she says. "My poetry is very musical, people say. Playing with that sound is the core of my work. I doubt it would be the poetry that it is without the music and its composition — the repetition, themes, sound, transition of keys.

"Some people think poetry is the communication of ideas. I regard it as a much higher example of the possibilities of the human being. If you want to (simply) communicate, send a memo."

Language, says Hunting, is a mystery. Writing — how an author knows which word or combination of words to use to convey meaning — is not an exact science. How one views words and their usage means the difference between communication and creativity.

"Some people use thesauri and think synonyms are equal," says Hunting, who was one of six writers of Maine tapped last year for the debut of "A Good Read: Writers on Writing," a Maine Public Broadcasting series, hosted by author Sanford Phippen. "As a result, they are attempting to communicate rather than to make something. Part of the mystery of language is the cluster of resonance that surrounds a certain word like an aura."

In her poetry, which ranges from imagist lyrics to a verse novella, Hunting is in constant pursuit of "the only word — no easy phrases unless they're the right ones, no dipping into the basket of cliches."

"All that makes me a slow writer," she says. "In some ways, it's like listening to the oracle. You wait and some words come up from the well. It is not a journal but a mysterious process. It's an exploration."

Hunting's first book was published in 1969. "The royalties were hot in my pocket," she remembers. "I told myself I'd redecorate some rooms of the house. But I'd always been interested in small presses like Woolf's in London. Then one day a book came into my hands in the library stacks about presses. I sat on the floor and read it.

"After that, I would wake up every morning thinking, ‘How can I start a press?' People told me, ‘You're crazy,' and that just reinforced the idea."

Hunting founded Puckerbrush Press in 1971. Seven years later, she started a biannual literary magazine, Puckerbrush Review. As a result, Hunting has fostered the aspirations of more than 50 book authors, and countless other writers whose works have been published in the Review.

"The press fills a great interest in my life. I like to read stories and poems, and I know certain things need to be in print."

Hunting knows some of the authors she publishes; many she has never met. Literature published by Puckerbrush contains either Maine or English/European threads.

The press receives up to 40 manuscripts each month. Those chosen for publication are in keeping with Hunting's definition of good literature. "I look for writing that's clear but fresh, that is at once new and recognizable," she says.

One of the hallmarks of the Puckerbrush legacy is the publication of authors who subsequently went on to even wider literary recognition. It has published works by and about renowned writer May Sarton, and debuted such authors as James Kelman, Carolyn Chute, Tema Nason and Lee Sharkey.

Hunting characterizes a small press like hers as "a pleasant little fillip in the literary world." For those who know Hunting, Puckerbrush is the vehicle through which she successfully champions writing in Maine.

"For me, it's a kind of a missionary thing, opening up language to people," says Hunting, who received Westbrook College's Deborah Morton Award for Literary and Cultural Contributions to Maine in 1992. "These are books that are not going to be on a national best-seller list. Instead, they are part of a literary enterprise — experimental, probably elitist, and done for the love of literature."

Hunting also champions writing in Maine through her work in the classroom, where she has been teaching English full-time since 1978. Students come away from her classes with a new appreciation for language, the self-confidence to find their voices, and a full understanding of Hunting's knowledge of good writing.

"Teaching, reading poetry, creative writing with students are part of experiencing the whole spectrum," she says. "I love to get people who are starting this amazing path."

The journey's goal is "to find out what language is all about," says Hunting, who helped found the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. "When you have students and see that first light in their eyes when they're talking about a word with connotations, it's rather thrilling."

Hunting thrives on students' freedom to approach literature with fresh perspectives, and the ability of poetry to be timeless.

"I can't teach the same poem in the same way twice. My notes are not yellowed in that I have no notes. I have the source — the poem. When students see the teacher thinking right there with them, they realize (the literature is) alive."

In the past three decades, Hunting has had 14 books of her own prose and poetry published.

In 1991, The Myth of Horizon, a selection of more than 30 poems, placed her in the international literary spotlight. That year found her giving a poetry reading at Harvard, a poetry workshop at the New School in Manhattan and a residency at The Mount in Yorkshire, England.

Hunting's most recent book, Natural Things: Collected Poems 1969-1998, was published two years ago by the National Poetry Foundation, based at The University of Maine.

Next year, Puckerbrush will publish An Amazement, a book of new poems by Hunting. Also next year from Puckerbrush: a two-volume set of some of May Sarton's earliest poems and journal writing.

"I love the life and being here," says Hunting of her career in Maine. "I just don't want to miss anything and think later, ‘I wish I had tried that.' I see my life as a crystal, multifaceted, so that when you hold it up to the light, you see different patterns."

by Margaret Nagle
December, 2001/January, 2002

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