Thursday, August 01, 2019

Lois Ames at the Wilderness House Literary Retreat (2004)

..... I wrote this article in 2004. At the time I was involved with the Wilderness House Literary Retreat in Littleton, Mass founded by Steve Glines. Lois Ames, who was a confidant of Slyvia Plath and Anne Sexton was our guest at the venue. Ames  wrote the biographical note to Plath's "Bell Jar."

The first event of "The Wilderness House Literary Retreat," located in Littleton, Mass., was a lunch with the late poet Robert Creeley.  That event in Dec. of 2004 provided participants with a rich trove of anecdotes and insight concerning the creative life of Creeley, as well as the Avant-Garde movement in poetry in post World War ll America. The second event on April 9, 2005 was with Lois Ames; held at the headquarters of the New England Forestry Foundation in Littleton, Mass., the temporary home of the Retreat.

   Lois Ames is a poet, biographer, and psychotherapist. She was a confidant of the poet Anne Sexton, and has published many essays on Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath including: "A Biographical Note" in the "Bell Jar" and "Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait In Letters."

   Among the guests for Ames' talk was Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist, and author of the history of McLean Hospital "Gracefully Insane." Also in attendance were Anne Tom, founder of the "Grange Hall Poetry Series", out in Cape Cod, as well as Jean Houlihan, director of the "Concord Poetry Center," in Concord, Mass.

   Ames started her talk with a discussion of what she feels is essential for good poetry: honesty and integrity. Ames feels that a poet has to be honest in his or her work or they will simply not produce good poetry. For Ames, an active spiritual life is a staple for her poetry, as well as her life.
  The poet talked of the defining moments of her life. A social worker, who is and was politically active; she participated in the "March on Washington," in 1963, and marched against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the tumultous 60's. The most memorable poetry event for her was the "International Poetry Festival," in London in 1967. Many of the great poets of the Western World read there like: Neruda, Ginsberg, and Berryman. Allen Ginsberg taught Ames how to clap to get attention ( with her hands cupped, and on a off-beat sequence from the applause of the crowd) in order to support Neruda who she felt was not getting his share of applause..

 Ames has learned a lot from the great writers and poets over the years. From Anne Sexton she learned the business of poetry. Sexton told her to start submitting to the places that pay the best, and go down the line from there, when submitting work. 

 Ames feels that Sexton was the most generous of the poets she has known. She reached out to people from all walks of life, and was very kind to students in her workshops that she ran at Boston University, McLean Hospital and other places. She respected the poets, as well as the psyche of the poets. Ames accompanied Sexton to the first poetry workshop she conducted for patients at McLean Hospital. Sexton wanted Ames to help determine which patients were most vulnerable. She was afraid of hurting these fragile workshop participants. Many of the "poets" in attendance were on suicide watch. The mental health workers with them held their forearms during the sessions. The philosophy at the time was that a suicidal patient had to feel the presence of another person throughout the day, Ames said. Ames was asked why so many poets seemed to be affected by mental illness. She replied: "Writing poetry is an act of creation. It engenders an ecstasy while you are doing it. After you have a sense of loss. This capricious emotional bounce mimics the cycle of Manic-Depression. Perhaps poets have a predilection for being Bi-Polar," Ames opined.

 There was an active Q and A session with Ames and the audience. During the event participants had a chance to visit the 6 bedroom cabin that the "Wilderness House" will occupy in the summer. The Retreat has ambitious plans for longer sessions, and perhaps week-long workshops in the future. The next event April 30th will be with poet Suzanne Berger.


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