Book Notes: Poet Sydney Lea to Read in Hanover

  • Vermont poet laureate Sydney Lea is photographed at his home in Newbury, Vt., on January 30, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Libby March

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2017 12:05:02 AM
Modified: 6/16/2017 12:05:03 AM

Sydney Lea was getting his hair trimmed when the inspiration hit for his forthcoming poetry collection, his 13th.

At the time of this haircut, Vermont’s former poet laureate, who will read from his recent work at Hanover’s Howe Library on Tuesday evening at 7, was tenuously on the mend from an intense health scare that began last August. Weeks after doctors had placed a stent into a blocked coronary artery, Lea got sick again; this time it took longer to nail down the problem, let alone the solution.

He had ehrlichiosis, contracted from an infected Lone Star tick. Even after the right dose of antibiotics broke his fever, slowed his racing heart and clarified his blurry vision, doctors said it might take up to a year for Lea to get over the fatigue.

“Slowly but surely,” he said in a phone interview this week from his cabin in rural Maine, “I felt myself getting better.”

In mid-March, as he was staring at his reflection in the barbershop mirror, it hit him.

“Suddenly I said, ‘And after all that, I’m still right here.’ It really whacked me in the head. I’d never really thought about that before, and that experience brought my writing into a very close focus.”

Here begins with the line, “Here at summer’s end … ” and is slated for publication in early 2018.

Writing the collection was an exercise in hindsight, Lea said, involving “looking back over life, and realizing what was important and what wasn’t.”

When he was in his 20s, for example, he was overly concerned with professional reputation and material possessions. Now, at 74, his priorities are now much more oriented toward family. To that end, Here contains “an embarrassingly large number of grandfatherly poems,” said Lea, who is “absolutely crazy” about his six grandchildren. “There are also quite a few love poems for my wife of almost four decades.”

Though some poems from Here are likely to make an appearance at Lea’s reading on Tuesday, much of the work he plans to share is even more recent. Ever since the election of President Trump, Lea has been moved to write poetry in response to political events — something he’s never felt moved to do before. This departure from his norm as a nature poet, he said, speaks to the urgency of the times.

Lea, a longtime Newbury, Vt., resident, has primarily been a poet of place, inspired by the connection between humanity and the wild. Even in his cabin in Maine, “where there’s not a soul in sight, and the mosquitoes are like you’ve never seen before,” he regards the natural world as a “storehouse of metaphors,” always well-stocked.

Not that he lets himself fall into the easy trap of anthropomorphizing the wild: “I’m not one of those people who go around saying woodchucks are little people in fur coats,” he said. “It’s one thing to be aware of nature as nature reveals itself to you. But you have to remember, it’s not what you romanticize it to be. It’s what it is.”

So too are Lea’s political leanings — they are what they are, which is why Lea has tended to shy away from writing political poetry. His thinking has been that when poetry has an agenda, “you already know what you think before you start writing, so there’s no surprise, no discovery, you’re simply writing to illustrate a point,” he said. “I’ve always thought that a letter to the editor — of which I am guilty of many — gets that job done better.”

But lately, Lea said he’s noticed that politics is changing the field of poetry, including his own. “I think a lot of people have always thought of poetry as apolitical. But there’s no escaping it now,” he said.

Part of Lea’s sense that there’s no escape from the political arena comes from his own personal investment in it; three of his six grandchildren are half-black, half-white. True to his “absolutely crazy” love for them, and his increasing focus on family as he ages, he finds himself preoccupied with racism more than ever before.

“There’s a dangerous tendency in American culture, which hasn’t just developed overnight, where we don’t talk to each other about things that are hard for us to talk about,” he said. “It’s a real lousy situation for a nation to be in.”

But Lea feels that poetry, more than any other genre, can gently nudge those difficult but productive conversations into the light. Poetry allows for a uniquely subtle critique of systems of power, which is less alienating than the more aggressive criticisms that tend to emerge in prose, he said.

“In poetry, I myself don’t make any direct attacks on any one person in the administration, even the one with the dead cat on his head,” Lea said, adding that he is rarely oblique in his non-poetic modes of communication. “In poetry, the attack is implied, rather than said outright.”

Lea’s belief in poetry as a delicate but powerful tool is at the heart of another book he has in the works, News That Stays News, in whose pages Valley News readers may find familiar content.

During his tenure as poet laureate from 2011 to 2015, Lea wrote a monthly column for several Vermont newspapers, which he’s amassed and organized by topic: The importance of accessibility in poetry is one; some older poets, who Lea feels deserve greater attention, is another.

“But what makes poetry a vehicle for modes of discourse that other mediums lack, what it can do that prose can’t do — that’s the principal theme, I think,” Lea said.

As the newly political poet continues to make strides in his medical recovery, he also newly appreciates the power of seemingly innocuous moments — like going to the barber — to suddenly enrich one’s perspective.

“Sometimes,” he said, “even the most perfectly normal experiences can seem to be almost miraculous.”

Sydney Lea will read from and discuss his recent work at the Howe Library in Hanover this Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Norwich Bookstore will provide copies of Lea’s books for purchase and signing at the event.

Book Discussions

The Howe Library will host a discussion of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski this Saturday from 7 to 8 p.m. The human-animal interactions in the book helped inspired Ann Carlson’s conceptual performance art piece, Doggie Hamlet, which premieres on the Dartmouth Green on June 29 at 4:30 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. as part of a collaboration between the Howe and the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

Copies of Edgar Sawtelle are available (not just to those with Howe Library cards, but to any Upper Valley resident) at the Howe on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, contact the Howe at 603-643-4120 or

The Quechee Library will hold a discussion of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a nonfiction account of the author’s two-month sojourn in the Himalayas to find the eponymous big cat, on Monday. The discussion is the first in a series about pilgrimages, and starts at 5:30 p.m. Copies of the book are available for borrowing.

The Quechee Library will also hold its monthly science fiction book group on June 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Up for discussion is Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of short stories by James Tiptree Jr. Copies are available at the Quechee Library. The discussion is free to attend.

For more information about these events, contact the library at 802-295-1232 or

Richards Free Library in Newport will host a discussion of Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos, which follows three small-town siblings in the wake of their mother’s disappearance, on Wednesday. Copies of the book are available from the library. The discussion starts at 7 p.m. For more information, call the library at 603-863-3430.

Richards Free Library will also host its monthly Books on Tap discussion at Salt hill Pub in Newport, on June 27. This month’s book is Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Copies of the book are available at the library. The discussion starts at 6:30 p.m.

Of Interest

Richards Free Library in Newport will hold a Poetry Night on Thursday. Attendees are invited to share poems they love. The free event starts at 7 p.m.

Writer’s Night Out, part of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, will take place at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon on July 3. The event, held on the first Monday of every month, offers both established and aspiring writers the chance to discuss the industry and share work.

The event is free, and starts at 7 p.m. To learn more, visit or email

Author Events

Vermont author Gary Shattuck will present a lecture based on his book, Green Mountain Opium Eaters, which traces the long history of opiate addiction in Vermont, this Monday at the Woodstock History Center. The lecture will run from 7 to 8 p.m. and is free to attend. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing. For more information contact the Woodstock History Society at or 802-457-1822.

Woodstock-based author Bruce Coffin will read from his book, The Long Light of Those Days, this afternoon at the F.H. Gillingham & Sons general store in Woodstock. The book recounts Coffin’s experiences growing up in Woodstock in the mid-20th century, and was reprinted from Swallow Tail Press. The event is free, and will take place from 1 to 3.

Norwich children’s author/illustrator Lizi Boyd will sign copies of her new picture book, I Wrote You a Note, at the Norwich Bookstore this Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. Kids will have the opportunity to create their own notes at the event.

A StoryWalk based on Boyd’s book also goes up on Saturday and runs through July 1. Created by the Norwich Bookstore and the Norwich Public Library, the StoryWalk consists of pages from I Wrote You a Note, posted around the Norwich Square.

Longtime Hanover resident Sheila Harvey Tanzer reads from and talks about Mingled Souls, her family history built around her parents’ courtship-by-mail a century ago, in the basement of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, on June 25 at 11 a.m.

Copies of the book are available at the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover and at the Norwich Bookstore. Tanzer said this week that she also has about 30 copies of the book at home, which she is happy to give in return for a donation to the church. Checks payable to the church can be sent to St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 9 West Wheelock St., Hanover, N.H. 03755.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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