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Woodstock's Partridge Boswell Gets Good Buzz as a New Poet

Friday, April 12, 2013
Like any poet, Partridge Boswell is a collector: of words, images and overheard conversations that the universe throws to him. Camped out at a table in the back of a Woodstock coffee house, Boswell bends over a notebook in which he writes down ideas and phrases before they escape him. Sometimes he catches them in time, sometimes not; he has four children, ages 4 through 19, who also require his attention.

Two years ago, his wife Polly Davenport died of breast cancer at 41, and it’s to her that his book of poetry, Some Far Country, a recipient of the 2013 Grolier Discovery Award, is dedicated.

The Grolier Bookshop was founded in 1927 near Harvard Square in Cambridge and went through a few owners before it was acquired in the late 1970s by Louisa Solano who decided to turn it into a store that focused on poetry alone. It’s regarded as one of the temples, if not the Parthenon, of American poetry.

Over the years nearly every major American poet, from Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore to Natasha Tretheway, U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2013, has walked through the Grolier’s doors to give a reading, to browse or just to talk. Donald Hall hailed it as the center of the poetic universe.

But poetry, as its practitioners can tell you, doesn’t always pay the bills. In 2006, according to a recent article on the Grolier in The Paris Review, Solano, in debt and in poor health, sold it to its current owner, Ifeanyi Menkiti, a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. It was Menkiti who initiated the Grolier Discovery Award in 2011 as a way to recognize poets of promise whose works hadn’t yet been published in book form.

To say that Boswell was surprised by the news would be an understatement. “It’s almost bewildering what to make of it,” he said, looking genuinely flummoxed. “I am pleased and not a little astonished how that came about.” He had never before submitted a manuscript, although he’d had numerous individual poems published in periodicals.

In the fall of 2011, Peter Money, the director of Harbor Mountain Press in Brownsville, where Boswell is a managing editor, asked him whether he’d considered sending his poems to the Grolier Discovery Award. Boswell mailed off the manuscript with little expectation, and in January 2012, he got a letter in the mail telling him he was a recipient of the award. A phone call from Menkiti followed. Both Boswell and Cambridge poet Spring Berman were named Discovery Award winners.

But due to a production delay, Some Far Country was not actually published until last month. For this reason Berman was cited as the Grolier Discovery for 2012, while the later release of Boswell’s book gives him the title for 2013. Some Far Country has a foreword by Menkiti, and blurbs on the back from poets Marie Howe, Norman Dubie, Roland Pease and Stephen Dunn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2001.

Although there’s no money attached to the award, the book is being rolled out with a flourish. In a realm of literature that has produced towering geniuses, Nobel prizes and fierce devotees, but little in the way of flush royalty statements, to have an institution like the Grolier at your back is a good thing, said Jim Schley, a poet and editor at Tupelo Press who lives in Strafford.

“This is a new, prestigious prize that is confirmation that taking that fork in the road was worth (Boswell’s) effort,” Schley said.

Money wrote this about Boswell’s work in an email: “There is precision and rage — somehow (and this is poetry’s trick on the poet) with enough levity and cunning to get both author and reader through tough parts. And this is precisely why we publish.”

Nearly half the poems in the book were written after Polly Davenport’s death, an event that only intensified his “own seeking and questions,” Boswell said. His poems “attempt to say the unsayable within the context of loss.” Some are terse, some longer and jazzy in their rhythms, some acerbic, some radiate melancholy.

In Game Night at Fenway, a woman on her way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance drifts in and out of consciousness while the EMTs follow GPS, which misdirects them to a parking lot behind Fenway on game night.

In Quiz , a doctor asks a dying woman, “What month is it? The drab room vibrated with your silence.”

In Mirror, “I had an errand to do/ away from your bed/had to refill your scripts/get you your meds/I straightened my hair in/ the mirror you scowled/Vanity was all you said.”

Nearly two years since his wife’s death, Boswell, who lives with their children in their home in Woodstock, has not had time for wallowing. “In my experience it all hinged on keeping things going for the kids. You don’t have a choice.” Still, there are those moments when, he said, “You can’t help thinking, if their mother were around.”

Boswell grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and began writing poems in high school. He majored in American literature at Middlebury College, where he also was diverted by writing song lyrics, singing in a band called, aptly for Vermont, The Cows. “Some poems are songs, and some songs are poems, and where they converge is real interesting,” he observed.

After college, he tried law school: “It was an opportunity to learn what I didn’t want to do.” While in law school he met his wife on the slopes at Suicide Six in Pomfret. They married in 1992. Boswell has worked as an arts administrator at both Pentangle Council for the Arts in Woodstock and the Lebanon Opera House — where he was known as Buzz Boswell — and is also one of the organizers of Bookstock, the annual literary festival in Woodstock.

Polly Davenport was a native Vermonter, preschool teacher and potter who studied with Miranda Thomas in Bridgewater. Just as crucial, she was a mother, both to her own children and to those she taught, inside the classroom and out. “Being a mother was just a great passion for her, it was absolutely essential and vital,” Boswell said. “That was a very big part of who she was, and there are a lot of kids on whom she left a pretty indelible impression, and not just our own.”

Boswell began writing poems again after the birth of their first child, and squeezed in time where he could. After his wife’s death, though, he turned to poetry with a driven intensity, to articulate what, perhaps, couldn’t be said in any other form, and as a way to give her voice.

“That’s what a lot of elegies attempt to do,” he said. “Speak for whoever is missing.” That said, although some readers have seen Some Far Country as being specifically elegiac, Boswell is reluctant to pin that label alone to it. “I just see them as a book of poems, love poems. Every poem is a love poem to the world.”

∎ He’s polite and soft-spoken, to a point. Beneath the modesty there’s a distinct confidence. And while he might have been reserved about showing his work when he took up writing poetry as an adult, his “wife’s death has redefined questions like that.”

Now he writes and sends off poems in the faith that something will happen to them somewhere along the line. (A new poem has been accepted by The American Poetry Review.)

e_STnS“I’ve had a number of doors open to me,” he said, “and when they open you have to walk through them.”

Boswell will read from “Some Far Country” on April 24 at 7 p.m. at the Norwich Bookstore. Reservations are recommended. Call 802-649-1114 or email

He will give another reading on May 1 at 7 p.m. at the Blue Horse Inn in Woodstock. No reservations needed. Call 802-457-7159.

Nicola Smith can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

“It’s almost bewildering what to make of it. ... I am pleased and not a little astonished how that came about.” e_SRitPartridge Boswell on winning the Grolier Discovery Award

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