“I’ve been calling Frances [May] the ‘unofficial Poet Laureate’ for over 20 years,” said Door County author and artist Norbert Blei. “When they started talking about naming a Laureate, I thought, ‘the very first time goes to Frances; let’s do that, then officially open it to everyone.’”
On Tuesday, October 26 the County Board appointed the late Frances May the first official Door County Poet Laureate. May will hold the position until March 31, 2011, after which a living poet will be named in April, National Poetry Month, to serve a two-year term.
According to “Resolution 2010-87,” the Poet Laureate of Door County “is to provide leadership in development of occasional poems which celebrate what it is like to live and work in the community of Door County, Wisconsin.” The Poet Laureate is also expected to visit local schools, teach workshops, and represent Door County in regional and/or national poetry conferences.
Though May will not execute those duties, her poems are a living testament to her talent and the power of poetry. In an interview featured in Blei’s book Door to Door, May stated, “If you’re not going to write about the things most important to you, that have done the most to you, you’re not going to write anything important” (pg. 127).
May’s work attests to her statement. To read her poems is to visit scenes and experiences of her life; poems that do well to imply much more than one may discover upon the first read. Her poems often feature a bold frankness, a detailed account of subjects ranging from her childhood beatings to her husband’s drinking.
Through her rich scenes, the reader experiences May’s childhood in Michigan, her journey to Wisconsin – alone, at age 17 – after her stepfather attacked her, her marriage to Joe (called Jake in her poetry), and people and places she encounters.
“Frances in the final years was going back to things she handled [in her poetry],” said Blei. “She was always a good poet from the very beginning, but got sharper as time went on. She was a bright, brilliant lady until the end.”
When May spoke to Blei about good poetry versus bad poetry in his interview, she said bad poetry is “Something that’s just sentimental…too sentimental. Nostalgic. Something in me says that’s not so. I like the truth in a poem. I like strong, true poems. No poem is too hard, too tough for me to read. If it’s hard, life is hard” (pg. 131).
May takes those hard moments along with uncomfortable, painful memories and creates exceptional poems ranging in style, length, and tone. She writes of such things as a teacher switching her pencil from her left to her right hand, a neighbor woman bathing outside her trailer, a Sunday of lovemaking with her husband, and her childhood conviction of being a horse in another life – fine, personal details that make her poetry lovely and accessible.
As Door County’s first Poet Laureate, her challenge to this community of poets, writers, and artists may be as simple as reaching inside, pulling out the intense, the awkward, the painful, the joyful, the haunting, and the personal memories of the past to create art; a challenge which in all actuality is enormously difficult.
Source: Blei, Norbert. Door to Door (Ellis Press, 1985).
To read more of May’s poetry, look for her books at local books sellers: Night Letters (Staton & Lee, 1971), Tell Me About the People (Door Mouse Press, 1985), The Summer I Was A Horse (Door Mouse Press, 1989), The Poet’s Cat (Fireweed Press, 1990), Signposts (Black Hat Press, 1996), Rain Barrel (Cross Roads Press, 1999).