Friends of Theodore Roethke Announce December Virtual Speaker Series

Substantial Progress Being Made With ‘Save the Stone House’ Campaign

Posted In: Culture, , Poetry,   From Issue 905   By: Robert E Martin

19th November, 2020     0

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.”

-        Theodore Roethke, ‘The Waking’

The Christmas holiday season is the one time of year we know more than ever the importance of home, hearth, neighborhood and the nurturing sensibilities that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke and his poetry offer not only to the birthplace of his Saginaw community, but to the entire Great Lakes Bay Region and beyond.

Former Saginaw Mayor and Saginaw Board of Education member Joyce Seals calls the Roethke House, ‘a house of hope’, which is entirely fitting insofar it is a place in time that gives context to where this iconic poet lived and worked, and a sense of placement to the timeless eternity of his poetry, especially during these trying times when the process of healing becomes of paramount importance - offering a place of retreat and starting over.

The Friends of Theodore Roethke is a nonprofit foundation, established in 1999, that maintains and cares for the poet’s childhood home at 1805 Gratiot and the home of his uncle next door at 1795 Gratiot Ave.  The two Roethke Homes were built in 1904 (Stone House) and 1911 (Poet’s White House) and were standing during the Spanish Flu in 1918

Ted was 10 years old and his sister June, 5 years at that time.  Side-by-side the Roethke families weathered an unprecedented epidemic; and for Friends of Roethke Board President and longtime Roethke supporter, Annie Ransford,  “We will also persevere.”

As part of their Tuesday Virtual Speaker Series the Friends of Theodore Roethke will be presenting new poems by Patricia Clark & Fleda Brown on December 1st; followed by new work from Tess Gallagher & Alice Derry on December 8th; and concluding with artist Jessica Farrell who will showcase her Wilderness Diary, which consists of paintings & stories dealing with mental illness on December 15th.  All programs happen at 7:00 PM EST and the public is encouraged to participate by sending their RSVP at www.friendsofroethke.org/blog.

Patricia Clark is poet-in-residence and retired professor from the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, where she was Poet Laureate from 2005 to 2007. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Slate magazines; and she was also invited to open the Library of Congress’s Noon Reading Series in Washington, D.C.   “Patricia has been a good friend of the Roethke Foundation and she has conducted writing workshops for us,” notes Ransford. “When the Roethke Stone House was in jeopardy, Patricia also came forward and connected us with Timothy Chester, a museum consultant from Grand Rapids, who ran the Grand Rapids Museum for 20 years, and who has led us through our strategic plan.”

“Timothy has been an important asset for us because he has helped to expand our vision,” reflects Ransford. “The Roethke Foundation is not just about restoring the homes and celebrating a Pulitzer Prize winning poet that hails from Saginaw; it’s about honoring and reaching out on a statewide, national, and even international level to honor and celebrate the legacy of Roethke’s work and history.  Timothy has taught us that instead of looking locally and inward at the resources we can draw upon, we need to look outward at these higher levels of resources that we can pull in with involvement.”

Fleda Brown was born in Columbia, Missouri, and raised in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 1978 she joined the University of Delaware English Department. There she founded the Poets in the Schools Program, which she directed for more than twelve years. She served as poet laureate of Delaware from 2001 to 2007, when she retired from the University of Delaware and moved to Traverse City, Michigan.

Tess Gallagher and Alice Derry are also two respected world-class poets. Gallagher is an American poet, essayist, and short story writer. Her many honors were a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and she has been honored with a National Endowment for the Arts award and a Maxine Cushing Gray Foundation award.  Alice Derry’s most recent book, Hunger, is a five-part response to hungers of all kinds, with a feminist edge. Social justice has always been a part of her writing, and historical and current issues are addressed often in her work.

Tess Gallagher was in Theodore Roethke’s last class at University of Washington, which makes her extra special to us,” notes Annie. “Tess and Alice are poet friends who walk together, trust one another, and collaborate in talking and writing. “They were at Roethke House about a year ago with a major Michigan Humanities grant that allowed them to travel Michigan reading poetry and meeting with university classes at Delta College, SVSU, Michigan State, and Central Michigan University. Early on the two poets met with twelve Saginaw Public School English students at Roethke House, which is the number of students Roethke would have in his classes, and each student was given an oral critique of their shared poetry. We also published a booklet of their crafted poems.”

“Closing out this series will be Jessica Farrell who is a painter that has been creating portraits of people in the mental health field,” continues Anne. “Theodore Roethke himself was bi-polar and struggled with mental health issues, so our Board feels it’s important to engage and educate with mental health outreach here in Saginaw.”  Currently residing in Delaware County, NY, Jessica  has always been captivated by the people who shared powerful stories of recovery, including that of her Aunt Barbara, who struggled with Bipolar Disorder as a young woman in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, her Aunt kept a diary as she grappled to maintain sanity. Jessica’s advocacy in the community and her Aunt’s writing inspired her to create a series of paintings, which led to a book, The Wilderness Diary. 
 
The Wilderness Diary features the recovery stories of people who have experienced struggles with mental health. Despite living with a greatly misunderstood condition, they advocate for those struggling today. Their words shatter negative stereotypes and authentically tell the real experience of living with a serious mental health struggle. Many are peer recovery specialists Farrell has worked with in her community.  
 
Currently, Farrell is making a recording of her Aunt’s diary to share with the public. During the Roethke Foundation talk she will read several of her Aunt’s diary entries, speak about her family connection to mental illness and advocacy efforts in upstate NY. Ultimately, The Wilderness Diary is about triumph over great adversity. It speaks to Farrell’s interest in creating an honest dialog around one of the most pressing issues of our time—mental health care.

After each of their talks the public will be able to contact each of these authors directly to purchase their books and Roethke House will list their contact information on their website at  www.friendsofroethke.org.

Because COVID-19 forced their Summer Picnic Series, which is usually held in the backyard of Roethke House to go virtual, while the intimacy of human interaction and direct contact was missing, overall the virtual series went surprisingly well.   “We’ve held our Poet Picnics in the Backyard for 20 years now, but I think we had a lot more people joining us online this year chilling at home with their glass of wine and having their friends join them,” reflects Ransford.  “Because of this increased virtual participation, people commented that we needed to add the time zone into our advertising because we are getting participants involved from all over the United States, which falls into line with the way our involvement is growing nationally and internationally.”

Roethke Stone House Progress Report

With a new Board of Directors consisting of Annie Ransford, Joyce Seals, Fred Overdier, Bill Keys, Sherrin Frances, Tess Gallagher, Mary McDonnell, Alex deParry, Anita Skeen, Wardene Tally, and Jane Ward, the overall composition of The Friends of Roethke Foundation has grown more national in scope as well, with several members possessing Saginaw roots yet living in places like New York, Ann Arbor, and other regions of the country and state. 

“Our newly formed Board members bring their own special abilities that advance our mission, ranging from visual artists, poets, and teachers, to business and construction leaders, lawyers and mental health experts,” states Annie. “Collectively, we are committed to fulfilling our mission to restore both family residences, because having both homes operational will extend our potential to serve Saginaw in so many unique ways.”

Over a year ago, when the former Board of Directors voted to remove the Stone House at 1759 Gratiot, voices rose to stop the demolition and today the foundation is stronger than ever.  Indeed, this past summer numerous college students helped clean out the stone house, filling a 30-yard dumpster that was donated by Billy’s Contracting.

“The Stone House now has a new roof, new water and electrical service, exterior painting in its original colors is ongoing, and window and boiler restorations are underway,” enthuses Annie. “We could not have come this far if it weren’t for our community of supporters rising up to stop the demolition, but there is still much work to do.  We know that saving the Stone House rests on our shoulders as a Board of Directors and it is vital that we seek support by writing grants and holding fundraising events, but we are turning to our Saginaw community of supporters and beyond to help us step up to these many challenges that lie ahead.”

“One thing I am thrilled to announce is the receipt of a very generous $30,000 gift from the estate of Jean Grey in support of Saving the Stone House. Jean was a well-loved educator and administrator within Saginaw Public Schools, and loved the concept of a teaching house here in our community. She was also a voracious reader. Thus, the front parlor, containing a built-in library with leaded glass doors, will be named the Jean Grey Reading Room in honor of her generous contribution towards making the Stone House a place where literary endeavors blossom.”

“Our new electric connection is now underground instead of having outside hanging wires and the interior is being painted in historic colors, seeing as the house built in 1904,” explains Annie. “Tom Trombley from The Castle Museum and Mary McDonnell combined forces and came up with a painting scheme that totally transforms the house.  Alex DeParry now has most windows sealed and has the boiler working like a charm, so now we’ll be able to work inside the Stone House this winter.”

“This continues to be a very exciting project,” concludes Annie. “I remember when Beatrice Roethke, who was married to Ted, once said to me, ‘Aren’t you tired of that poet yet?’  And I said, ‘No, this project is still fun and my passion for this project keeps me going.  We’ve got a security system as well. so in one year we’ve made a lot of progress that people can see. What we’re offering is a community resource for our city. Once the Stone House is completed we can conduct Children’s’ Poetry classes, plus we’ll have three bedrooms where visiting scholars and teachers can stay.”

“In one year, we’ve made incredible progress,” concludes Anne.   “Our location gives us the vantage point of being noticed and we have received so many positive comments as the community drives by on Gratiot Avenue. Yes, in this dark time of COVID-19 it’s hard to imagine being together again, but we will. Just like Theodore Roethke and his family survived the 1918 Spanish Flu, we too shall endure.”

“Like Roethke wrote: ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

People interested in contributing the Save the Stone House Fund can go to friendsofroethke.org or send their check to Friends of Theodore Roethke, P.O. Box 6001, Saginaw, MI 48608. 

 

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