Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Poet Lisa Beatman: A Poet for the unsung workers of the Ames Safety Envelope Factory.
Lisa Beatman has penned a new poetry collection “Manufacturing America: Poems from the Factory Floor ( Ibbetson Press) that was inspired by her stint as an Adult Literacy teacher at the Ames Paper Factory in Somerville, Mass. Beatman, after being outsourced from the factory, now manages the adult literacy program at the Harriet Tubman House in Boston. Beatman has won honorable mention for the 2004 Miriam Landberg International Poetry Peace Prize, and was awarded a Mass. Cultural Council Grant, as well as a fellowship to Sacatar Institute in Brazil. Her work has appeared in Lonely Planet, Lilith, Harvard Pacific Review, Rhino, Ibbetson Street and others. Her first collection of poetry was titled “Ladies Night at the Blue Hill Spa.” I spoke with Beatman on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: What was it about the immigrant workers in a factory that made you want to write about them?
Lisa Beatman: There are so many different ways to answer that question. I’ll start by saying that I found so, so many stories compelling while I was at this manufacturing plant. The individual workers’ lives, the stories of immigration, and also the story of manufacturing. In the book there is a piece about my own family working in manufacturing in my hometown of New Britain Connecticut. It used to be called “Hardware City,” when it was in its heyday as a manufacturing center. Although most of the people in my family at this point are working in teaching, psychology, etc… I still have a great reverence for people working with their hands and produce things. I wish, at the end of the day I can hold something that I produced. Something very tangible.
DH: Has there been a reaction from the workers who were a subject of this book?
LB: On thing about teaching is that you develop a very close relationship with many students. This is especially true when adults are teaching adults. Some of the poems were inspired by individual employees, and I did show them individually. I was hired to teach English as a Second Language to line workers whose English wasn’t very good. Poetry is not always easy to get even for native speakers. Even though I tried to explain the poems to them they weren’t in a position to really tell their own stories. So I tried my best.
DH: How did they feel about someone who took the time to write the stories?
LB: It was very mixed. They tried to understand it. They always appreciated the time I took with them.
I worked with a wide variety of immigrants from many different countries. Some of them were very literate and some of them were not. Somebody who is not literate even in their own language and does not read at all, well, it is just a different orientation they have.
DH: You are a graduate of the Harvard School of Government. Does this explain the “social mission” in your work?
LB: I have spent my whole life both working in Adult Literacy, and also working inter-culturally. I spent several years working in various Latin American countries and in Spain. I do have a sense of mission in terms of communication, in terms of bringing people together, in terms of having as many people as possible from different walks of life communicate with each other.
DH: When you were in school did you ever think of poetry as a way of reaching people; as a cohesive force?
LB: I was not as much a poet then. Really it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30’s that I started writing. So it was after the Kennedy School.
DH: In your first collection “Ladies’ Night at the Blue Hill Spa” you write about a group of woman in a steam room in Norwood, Mass. In fact you did a reading there only adorned in a towel. Tell us a bit about this.
LB: I love reading theme poetry. I love linking ideas together. I like to link tangible ideas. “Ladies Night…” was inspired by an old fashioned steam room. Women would come together and let it all “hang out” so to speak. The spa in essence was the inner lives of these women, and the community of women. I realized in some ways I was writing about my mother. My mother, and the generation of women in her circle, would go to a beauty salon every Friday. In fact my mother had one of the last beehive hairdos. She was a small woman and I think she felt it gave her stature. I was rebelling against all that in the 70’s. But I have come to realize that my mother’s generation had these rituals to get away from the kids, husband, from being a mother, wife, etc… They could get pampered for once.
DH: What is your view of industrial America? You have worked both in academia and industry.
LB: Magic really happens when you bring sections together. Each of these sections has their strengths. I had the good fortune of being in this manufacturing plant that was part of the backbone of the American economy. To be in that milieu when the factory is dying in America, well, I felt compelled to document it.
DH: Characterize these workers you wrote about?
LB: I worked with line worker. Everyone is hard working. They worked overtime, moonlighted, most worked Saturdays, etc… The managers were not “Fat Cats” They were lean physically and worked very hard. Everyone had a strong work ethic.
DH: You run the Adult Literacy program at the Harriet Tubman House in Boston. Tell us about this?
LB: It is one of the oldest settlement house in the United States. We have programs for youth, adults, and seniors. And we have many other programs also. I run the Adult Literacy program. We are very practical. We help people to learn to read and write, get their GED’s etc…
To order book go to http://www.ibbetsonpress.com or order through http://www.lulu.com