Virginia's poet laureate uses poetry the way a surgeon uses a scalpel: to cut, to lay bare, to heal.
The Power of Words
stroke struck my father dumb and lame before I learned to talk. For a year we jabbered the same wild tongue. That was before memory, before dreams. Soon I couldn't unscramble his speech, though he would repeat until his patience shredded, his tongue thick as cold butter. I never brought anyone home to play. I wanted him to disappear ...
From "Speech Lessons"
Doesn't seem like such sad words could pop out of a place like this: a tree-shrouded home on the placid campus of Hampden-Sydney College, wing chairs, family photos and books on top of books.
Or out of Grace Simpson. A retired English teacher, wife of a professor emeritus of English.
Seems like nothing but Southern hospitalities could come from such a smile. Not talk of suicide, death, loneliness.
But, as Simpson says, hands folded neatly in her lap, we all have the longings, the sorrows, the joys, the intangibles.
But not everyone can pluck them out of the air and pin them down as Simpson does. After years of quietly crafting more than 200 sonnets and free verse, Simpson's star is rising. Last year, she was named Virginia's poet laureate. Her first book, "Dancing the Bones," was released this spring. She was one of more than 50 award-winning authors and illustrators who attended the first National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, hosted by first lady Laura Bush.
She takes all the attention quietly. She doesn't know what the fuss is about. They're just poems, therapeutic ramblings, simply putting thoughts into physical words.
But, she admits on the eve of her 70th birthday, it is nice to have your work embraced.
"There are the opportunities that weren't there before," Simpson says, smile flashing. "I feel like my life is just beginning."
Poetry began back home in Georgetown, S.C., and much of "Dancing the Bones" includes youthful impressions: childhood playmates, Daddy's stroke and confinement to bed. His death before Simpson was 9. Brother's late-night asthma attacks and later suicide. Loves, losses, hope, renewal.
Simpson doesn't shy away from the deep and dark. "There are things that are just as terrible and I haven't put them in there," Simpson says. Then pauses. "I might have to one day."
Nursery rhymes thrilled her as a child, the cadence and perfect rhyme. But much of her search for words came in trying to grasp what she missed with the stroke-restricted relationship with her dad.
"I never really knew him," Simpson says. "I think that's what drove me a lot, to understand him, to get to know him as a person."
Simpson studied English at Winthrop University in South Carolina, and it was during college that she met and married Hassell Simpson, another lover of words. It's also where a professor held a sonnet contest and read the top five entries from class. All were hers.
"He looked at me and said, 'You are a poet!'" Simpson says, emphasizing the last words. "How could you not be after someone says that?"
She'd write but it was often an after-hours excursion, after her three sons were old enough and in school, after grading papers in her later work as a teacher. The family moved throughout the South before settling in Virginia in 1962 when her husband began teaching at Hampden-Sydney. She taught English, creative writing and journalism at Prince Edward County High School for 15 years before retiring in 1988.
For years, Simpson would send her work to small literary publications and win contests. But it wasn't until recently that she gave in to her husband's push to put them into a book.
Meanwhile, the Poetry Society of Virginia took nominations for poet laureate from its membership and Simpson's name emerged in the top three. When the governor's office called her after selection, she didn't believe it.
"I thought it was a joke, a mistake," Simpson says.
She is a "penetrating" poet, says local poetry society member and friend James McNally. Her work is known for its poignancy, using language that's sparse yet powerful.
Being poet laureate carries no salary. No budget. Simpson's only official duty would have been Sept. 15 when she was to present honors at the fourth annual Library of Virginia Awards. But the awards were canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Her term ends next summer.
But she's staying busier than that. She'll talk to educators about the importance of students memorizing poetry. She recently created the "Favorite Poems Project," which polled society members for their favorites. If nothing else, it will serve as a good suggested reading list, Simpson says.
And poet laureates must create new works. So she writes every day, sitting in a white bamboo recliner in the back room, with yellow legal pad and pencil.
It takes about three weeks to complete a poem. Some take 100 revisions.
She needs her inspirations. Photos of Monet and other artists have created a series of poems on art. She's beginning a series of work on places she's traveled: Greece, Jerusalem.
And, of course, the workings inside. Many of the "Bones" poems are not even her memories. They're those of friends, stories that touched her deeply.
"It's a truth," she says, quietly. "Not the truth."
From "Born Again"
I was made of stardust A dying supernova flared and slammed atomic nuclei together, spewing calcium, oxygen, iron into the universe. In that bright eruption my bones, my breath and blood began to cook. The glowing core cooled down and forged my brain, neutrinos energized my pulse. When I climbed down from the table, I was daughter of the cosmos, sister to the
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