About Emilie Glen (1906-1994)
Preface to The Writings of Emilie Glen 1:
Poems from Chapbooks
IT WAS MY FIRST Greenwich Village poetry reading. One rainy night in the muggy summer of 1969, I ascended the subway stairs from the Christopher Street station for the first time. Like most very, very young poets I carried a heavy ledger book full of most of my poems, a yellow legal pad, and my hand-bound first chapbook. Using the poetry listings in The Village Voice, and the requisite beginner’s street map to Manhattan, I walked several blocks east to the Waverly Theater. I was getting close: the right street, almost the right address. Ah, there it was, on a dark metal door: a hand-lettered sign pointing me in and up. In the dimly-lit loft above, I joined a circle of anxious poets, shuffling their papers and waiting their turn to read. They all seemed to know one another, and they were a motley crew, from hippies to aging Beats, from brawny blue-collar types to wispy graybeards.
At the center of the circle, the poet Emilie Glen presided. She was a tall woman, perhaps in her early fifties (so little did I suspect!) with striking red hair, dressed in an odd assortment of clothes, a cross between Baby Jane Hudson and Lolita. Her voice was refined, every syllable crisp and clear, her poems lithe little narratives of New York life, spiced with delicious word play. She read her poetry with us, as one of us, not as one enthroned as judge, critic, gatekeeper.
Emilie — one of the major doyens of the open poetry scene — was adept at making everyone feel welcome. Beginners, mumblers, hopeless versifiers, stray mental patients, and fine poets jostled elbow to elbow at her readings. Everyone had his or her moment in the sun, either in the open “one around” where everyone warmed up by reading just one poem, or, for those who dared, with a full five minutes of self-glorying performance. There was usually a “featured reader” who did two twenty-minute sets, and, naturally, being featured was to attain the pinnacle, your name listed in the newspapers and your work, perhaps, noticed by some visiting publisher, agent or love-of-your-life. And even though the awful and the truly great presented themselves before her, one sensed that she knew the difference. We were all workers in the vineyard, but there was no confusing Ripple with Moët et Chandon. In the New York poetry scene, one quickly learns that bad art is accorded polite silence, while great art is embraced with an ardor that would shock New Englanders.
This was the 1960s/1970s Manhattan poetry scene. Although venues like St. Mark’s in the East Village had more celebrity status with their indelible associations with the art scene and underground culture, the West Village had numerous poetry outlets, where a wide mix of styles and degrees of talent blossomed. Ree Dragonette, Emilie’s arch-rival, ran a poetry-theatre salon from her loft in Westbeth. Other venues includes St. John’s in the Village; Poetry on the Piers at Gansevoort Pier on the Hudson; Boruk Glasgow’s at his East 14th Street loft, downstairs from a boxing gym (imagine those two groups eyeing one another suspiciously on the stairs!); Risa Korsun’s events at a church at St. Mark’s Place and at the Baha’i Center; and the New York Poets’ Cooperative at various cafes and apartments. Uptown, Marguerite Harris hosted a series at a tavern, Dr. Generosity’s, although she frowned upon featuring poets who read “too frequently below 14th Street.” Poets and poetry lovers in those days had their choice, on any given night, of a good half-dozen poetry events. Many of these organizations and venues came and went; Emilie Glen’s readings and salons, running for more than two decades, outlasted most of them.
The vast majority of these events were listed as “featured and open,” which meant that after hearing the featured poet, members of the audience were welcome to share their work. They did, and the most active poets on the scene had the chance to premiere new work, and get practice in front of live audiences, three or four nights a week.
Emilie welcomed me enthusiastically and we soon became friends. For the next two decades, I would see Emilie weekly, sometimes daily. Emilie hosted poets twice a week – Sunday nights at her 77 Columbia Street apartment, and another night at various West Village lofts or theaters. In addition, we would meet at various old-fashioned restaurants: Schrafft’s, Macy’s Fountain, Rumpelmayers. If I cooked dinner at home, my famous honey-crumb meatloaf was mandatory, after I assured Emilie it contained no “alarming spices.” Fortunately she didn’t inquire about herbs.
Although she rode to her dinner engagements on a bicycle, dressed in short skirts and pink leotards, red hair flying, Emilie was not the rag-tag Village Bohemian she appeared to be. She had been a child of privilege. Taken on the Grand Tour of Europe as a young girl, she had seen Paris, the Harz Mountains, Rome. Later, her family summered at Chautauqua. She trained as a child prodigy under concert pianist Ernest Hutchison, and continued on to Juilliard School in Manhattan under his tutelage.
Unlike the rest of us, Emilie did not have to go to work on Monday. Or Tuesday. She was provided for, modestly but securely. She was able to do what we all dreamt of: to devote her life to poetry.
Emilie was married, but her husband, Charlie Dash, was absent and seldom mentioned. It was clear from Emilie’s carefree ways, and her stunning indifference to financial matters, that her late father, and her indulgent husband, had left her financially independent, at least enough so to continue living in Manhattan to pursue her art full-time.
Emilie’s apartment at 77 Columbia Street was in a respectable high-rise co-op, overlooking the East River. The Lower East Side neighborhood, bordering Delancey Street and the Manhattan Bridge, was quite sinister at night. Yet poets came each Sunday evening, year-round, by cab, car, or subway, in everything from jeans to fur coats. One of the most bedraggled poets, Richard Bush Brown, was repeatedly mugged on his way home from Emilie’s high-rise. All of us had what we imagined to be “close calls” on those nights, but we kept coming back.
The cast of characters at Emilie’s readings was fascinating. There I met the phenomenal Barbara A. Holland, and most of the other New York poets I would later publish, including Donald Lev, Shirley Powell, Boria Sax, Joel Zeltzer, Claudia Dobkins-Dikinis, Boruk Glasgow, and John Burnett Payne.
The sad-sack poet-playwright Richard Davidson was omnipresent, always mooching a sandwich (“Could you spare a slice of bread? Oh, thank you. Some mustard on that would be nice. Would you happen to have a slice of cheese I could put on that? Ah. I see you have some leftover ham there. Could I put a little of that on my bread?…”) Davidson and Glen shared a passion for the theater and she frequently accompanied him to plays. He got free tickets to many off-off Broadway productions in his capacity as drama reviewer for the Daily World (a Marxist newspaper which ironically never paid him a penny for his journalism). I would later direct and publish Davidson’s verse play, Song of Walt Whitman.
Charlie Gould, a paper merchant’s messenger with an unnerving resemblance to Joseph Stalin, doted on Emilie. He gifted Emilie with a handsome pastel he had done, copying one of Doré’s engravings from Dante’s Il Paradiso. Gould broke with Emilie in fury after she depicted him in a poem, “To Let,” revealing that he had taken in a teen runaway girl. He would later run off to live with the Hare Krishnas in West Virginia and came to believe that he had discovered the Ur-Language.
Gustav Davidson, an expert on the mythos of angels, and various officers of the Poetry Society of America, were often there, too, for Emilie was a longtime member of that august group. The PSA, with its headquarters at Gramercy Park, was the domain of effete versifiers and poetic dowagers. Emilie dragged me, squirming, to a couple of its meetings; as I was still in my rebellious Whitman-Ginsberg period, it was excruciating. She was forced to admit it was rather unseemly that the officers kept awarding themselves the PSA’s monthly poetry prize. She resigned from the Poetry Society later when they opened their membership to anyone willing to pay dues. In her day, members had to be recommended, and pass muster with writing samples. Considering the sclerotic sonnetizing I heard at the PSA, Emilie must have been regarded there as a wild, modernist eccentric, one scarcely acceptable to their standards. Perhaps attending Emilie’s readings was the closest some of these elder poets ever came to a “den of Beatniks.”
Poets, translators, scholars, students, and just plain lovers of poetry flocked to Emilie’s salon, dominated by her fine baby grand piano. Some nights she would play her staples, her favorite being the Funeral March from Beethoven’s A-Flat Piano Sonata. When I purchased my first harpsichord and gravitated away from the piano, Emilie was aghast. Bach and Scarlatti and Handel were fine and good, but how could you play Liszt on an instrument with no pedals? Fortunately for our musical accord, I remained just as devoted to the Romantics as to the Baroque. But when Emilie came to my loft, she looked at my two-manual harpsichord rather as one would a cobra in a basket.
The bad poetry at Emilie’s was truly bad. Two of the worst poets in New York engaged in a poetic romance under our noses, sharing couplets like these before they eloped, married, and vanished (thank the gods!) from the poetry scene:
Tom Eagleton for Vice President ran,
But they said they needed a saner man.
Tom Eagleton really wanted to serve us,
But they said he was too nervous.
For the most part, though, nights at Emilie’s were a delight, and one could hear poems in all styles, translations read in the original and in English, and very lively discussions from many poetic perspectives. Bad poems were politely heard; good poems yielded fervent questioning. Best of all were the “world premieres” of poems written in direct response to a poem heard at Emilie’s the week before.
When Emilie’s folk-singing daughter Glenda married and gave birth to a child, the sudden death of the son-in-law (both alcoholic and epileptic), induced Emilie to make a drastic change in her living conditions: in 1979, she gave up the Columbia Street co-op, and sold her piano, to move into the brownstone tenement building at 77 Barrow Street to help her daughter care for her infant son, John.
Emilie took the apartment adjacent to Glenda’s. It was dark, narrow, only two rooms. The toilet was in the hall. Emilie slept on a narrow bed next to the kitchen, and turned the living room into the best semblance she could of her old parlor. The Sunday night readings resumed. The terrifying night walk down Delancey Street was replaced by the welcoming streets of Cherry Lane and Barrow Street. Walking up five flights of stairs was a small price to pay for the poetic thrills that awaited one. The Village location also meant that poets could repair to a local coffeehouse after the reading was over, for more poetry talk and gossip. Such nights often went on until the cafes closed (the Bohemia we have now lost forever in the Yuppie-infested decades since).
In giving up her piano, Emilie had made the final break with her first Muse. She had trained as a concert pianist, and so long as there was a piano in the house, she was never really severed from that early promise. Now she would only play, with faltering memory, when she came upon a piano in a café or in someone’s home. The piano would now become a ghost, its notes sounding but never dying in her later poems. I never heard Emilie complain about the appalling condition of her apartment, with its bathtub in the kitchen and decrepit stove and refrigerator: only the loss of the piano seemed to diminish her spirit.
Emilie Carolyn Glen was older — older by decades — than she wanted us to believe. When interviewed by a fellow writer, she would terminate the conversation when the delicate question of age came up. In the 1977 International Who’s Who in Poetry, Emilie listed her birth date as 1927. In a later directory, she revised that to read 1937.(1) Actually, Emilie was born around 1906, making her 63 years old when I first met her in 1969.
Early in her career, she worked for Macmillan Publishing Company and did a stint with Fairchild Publications – from what I can gather, as a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily. In a poet biographical note in 1947, she indicates that she “covered fashion shows, visited wholesale houses, and saw child models at work.” (2) In this note, she says that her daughter Glenda was then seven years old.
Her university experience included a full course at Syracuse University. The sorority Alpha Phi Alpha lists her in the graduating class of 1928. Emilie continued to Columbia University and went on with her music studies with Ernest Hutchison at the Juilliard School.
At some point, literature took precedence over music. Emilie was not clear in her own mind why her career as a pianist ended, but the competitiveness and misogyny of the classical music field may have contributed. There were then only a handful of women among the premiere artists of the keyboard, and virtually no women in orchestras. In the literary world women, while embattled, could at least expect a modicum of success.
I suspect Emilie also realized that the choice between being a creative artist and a performing artist was one that had to be made. Many people could play Beethoven and Liszt; only Emilie could write Emilie’s poems.
During the 1940s, Emilie worked on the staff of The New Yorker. Only a single, brief notice, in 1942 (3), credits her as a writer there, however. She may have worked for the publisher as a behind-the-scenes fact-checker. Emilie related to me how The New Yorker checked every reference in every piece they published, even in poems. She recalled that a number of women hired by the magazine in the 1940s were let go at war’s end when “the men came home.”
Editing a Manhattan-based Congregational Church magazine appears to be Emilie’s last paying job. Several sample copies were among Emilie’s surviving papers.
During the 1940s, Emilie wrote as much prose as poetry, and had her stories published in The Prairie Schooner and H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury. One story chosen by Mencken went on to be included in Best American Short Stories. Her fiction will be included in the second volume of this series.
Emilie showed me her long prose-poem published in 1949 in New Directions, but did not admit to publishing anything earlier. She had a slightly panicked expression, as I examined the book and noted its copyright date. “But you must have been a very young girl when this came out,” I offered. Emilie beamed with delight, and we changed the subject.
The 1950s appear to be a fallow period for the poet. It is possible, though, that tear sheets and manuscripts from the 50s were lost, either in the move to the Columbia Street co-op from her apartment on East 15th Street, or in the calamitous later move to the tenement on Barrow Street. Researching and restoring Emilie’s writings from the 1950s will be an important part of the work for the remaining volumes in this series.
The story of Emilie’s marriage to, and her decades-long separation from, Charles Dash, remains a mystery to me. He was rumored to visit the Columbia Street co-op on weekends, although there was no sign of him at the Sunday night readings. Later we learned that he had been confined to an upstate veterans’ hospital. Emilie did not speak of him to me, and her poetry deals with him only in an evasive manner until her later works (see Dark of Earth and Rails Away). Even in relating his death, as we shall see, the story Emilie told was not necessarily entirely her own.
In the 1960s, the poet found herself a fixture in several Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where she read her poems and played piano. One of her few vitriolic poems of that period, an unpublished denunciation of a Flamenco-playing coffeehouse owner, suggests the bitterness of a failed love affair. In response to requests from patrons at the coffeehouses, starting in 1966, Emilie had little mimeo-graphed chapbooks of her current poems run off and hand-stapled (Coffeehouse Poems, Mad Hatter, Paint and Turpentine, and others). The text of these pre-Poet’s Press productions are included in this volume. I was unable to locate copies of three chapbooks, Painted Door (1967), Just Because (1970) and Laughing Lute and Other Poems (date unknown). If they come to light, I will include the poems in one of the later volumes in this series.
Emilie’s 1969 chapbook, Paint and Turpentine, is a tightly-knit little poem cycle inspired by her friendship with a Czech émigré painter, Niko Mikeska (1903-?). It is a beautiful slice of the painters’ Bohemia of Greenwich Village. Some of the poems are darkly shadowed by the political climate: the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year disturbs Mikeska and shades Emilie’s interpretation of some local high school student art anarchy.
During this period, Emilie collaborated with scholar Norma Crandall on a lecture-reading on the lives and works of the Brontë family. Crandall’s psychological portrait of the Brontë sisters and brother Branwell was countered by Glen’s reading of the poems of Emily Brontë, and her own poem, “Emily,” about her literary namesake. I met Ms. Crandall on a few occasions, and lunching with the two of them was an interesting display of old school high society gossip, a time warp into the world of Edith Wharton.
Emilie performed in children’s theater, most notably playing the Witch in productions of Hansel and Gretel. Stage-struck, she could not resist joining a small theater company on West 14th Street called Dramatis Personae, when they also offered her a Sunday afternoon poetry venue in their theater. Steven Baker, the director, had landed on the gimmick of staging plays with massive nudity, the audience members invited to shed their own clothes, dressed in just-legal “flimsies” as they watched over-endowed actors and actresses simulate Roman orgies, the sins of Sodom, Witches’ Sabbaths and other sexual tableaux vivants. Emilie was the only clothed member of the cast, portraying priestesses, witches, or nuns. Her candid word-portraits of the actors and actresses in Dramatis Personae became the shockingly-titled chapbook Twat Shot.
The stint with Dramatis Personae ended when Baker decided that plays for gay audiences were more lucrative. He fired all the actresses and successive productions were revues titled simply Boys, Boys, Boys. The theater later acquired a reputation for after-hours drinking and drugs.
Once Emilie was established at the Barrow Street address, she was able to attract a large and diverse group of poets and listeners to her weekly or twice-weekly salons (Sundays and Tuesdays). If she found a loft, atelier or theater space willing to host her, the Sunday events shifted to the other venue. Listed in The Village Voice and partially funded by grant money, Emilie attracted a big crowd and was able to pay her featured poets. The mix was eclectic, and one could hear a stodgy college professor followed by a longshoreman. Emilie fed everyone with juices and snacks, which the modest pass-the-hat donations scarcely covered.
Emilie was an avid bird-watcher, and for many years haunted Central Park with binoculars, a member of that elite society of The Rambles. Ornithology informs her poems, and even extends into one of her best pieces, “Up to Us Chickens,” where she contemplates a feathered rebellion against chicken farming. I dubbed this poem “The Chicken Manifesto,” and the hen became a symbol of our friendship. Each Christmas, I would search for some object to give Emilie, either decorated with, or in the shape of, a chicken.
Emilie’s love for cats seemed to her non-contradictory, so long as the cats stayed indoors, the birds safely out. There were always cats in Emilie’s apartment, an amalgam of hers and those left behind by her daughter. Hundreds of poems from her pen on animal topics found their way into print. Poems about birds and cats are, admittedly, rather easy to place, but Glen’s best animal poems rise above the crowd of bourgeois robins and mewling kittens. Her other animal poems contain some powerful anti-hunting sentiments and border at times on animal rights issues. Glenda edited the chapbook, Glenda’s Ark, which was subtitled Mostly Cats (No Birds).
Although Emilie had not traveled abroad since childhood, she, like Thoreau, travelled much where she lived. Emilie’s bicycle was spotted in all boroughs, and she would even venture by subway and bicycle to Far Rockaway. She was a year-round swimmer, and swam with the Polar Bears Club. Her stamina was incredible, as was her resistance to doctors and medicine. Once, crossing a Village Street, Emilie and I were both thrown to the ground by a sudden and terrific wind. She picked herself up and resumed the walk as though nothing had happened. For days she sported an alarming lump on her forehead, but nothing would persuade her to visit a doctor or emergency room. I would have suspected her of a Christian Science upbringing, but I never heard a conventionally religious word from her. We both shared a gagging disdain for poets who came to her readings with little hymns and mini-sermons.
Casual visitors to Emilie’s salons did not always get a consistent impression of the quality of her work. Emilie typically read off the top of her manuscript pile. Her listeners developed favorites, however, and she nearly always had her “warhorses” at hand. When she did featured readings elsewhere, they were typically a mix of “top of the work pile” selections along with poems from the published chapbooks. I think having the chapbooks served her well because they kept her focused on developing a reading repertory of her own best works.
Emilie would write three to half-a-dozen short poems around one idea or theme, and send them all off to magazines simultaneously. Longer, narrative poems — her very best productions — were one-of-a-kind creations.
Emilie’s forte is the narrative poem. There is always a speaking voice, a character depicted, a story told. She freely crosses gender, race, and class, choosing outsiders, eccentrics, dreamers, losers. Some poems are character portraits, some miniature two- or three-voice plays, like the sad romance of the mail-room manager with the runaway girl who dotes on harps in “Hall of Harps.”
Emilie seemingly had little interest in formal poems. She would listen politely as guest poets regaled us with pantoums, villanelles and sonnets. She was friendly with, and featured, Madeline Mason, creator of a renowned sonnet variant (4). She certainly knew the classic poets, but her own poetry never imitated the past. Her technique was free verse, centered on anaphora (word repetition), rhythm, image, and a child-like sense of word play. Bursts of alliteration appear with childlike delight. It is a telegraphic style, a shorthand, almost unpunctuated.
Her writings, often sparsely punctuated and with many levels of indentations, have a modernist “free verse” look about them, but only at first glance. Read aloud, her poems are completely coherent. Her orthography is a blueprint, just like a music score, for coherent oral interpretation. The extra spaces within lines are caesura, musical rests. Line breaks substitute for punctuation, yet suggest a modern “stream of consciousness” style.
I have taught workshops using Emilie’s “Late to the Kitchen.” This wonderful poem is a fantasy about a housewife who goes out to the ocean every afternoon, swimming, staying longer and longer, until her husband suspects she has a “beach boy lover.” Finally she becomes a mermaid and leaves her domestic life behind. Any poet might have attempted this piece, but Emilie, like Jules Verne, researches the undersea world so that she can describe her incipient mermaid’s experience in language of pinpoint beauty and scientific accuracy:
I swim across the continental shelf
To a drop so deep
I have yet to pressure
Two miles down to the night of the sea floor,
The globigerina ooze of diatoms and radiolarian,
And the dust of shooting stars:
I am discovering mountains and valleys,
Sea meadows blooming
with lilies and anemones,
Sea palms sea grasses,
Whenever I like I can go down
Into the dark red belly of a whale:
Fierce fish pass me by,
I’m not their food and they’re not mine,
I hear the sea creatures,
And they seem to note my bubbling voice:
Plankton always plankton,
I nibble on diatoms and sea lettuce,
Nothing needs cooking in the sea
This poem demonstrates the subject research that went into Emilie’s nature poetry. She was a voracious reader. Near her door always were two piles of library books, one heap on the way back, the other waiting to be devoured. Her daily reading was natural history, biography, history, science. She was omnivorous in her quest for knowledge about things and people.
Given Emilie’s age and upbringing, readers and listeners were surprised at the Chaucerian, almost Petronian, range of her depictions. Living through the sexual explosions of the 1960s hurtled Emilie into places the pampered little girl, summering in Paris before World War I, would never have anticipated. Emilie plays with sexuality and profanity, quite often turning on her discovery of some previously unutterable or unprintable word, phrase or practice. As our everyday language vulgarized, Emilie unbuttoned.
As a chronicler, she did not turn away from even the grisliest events. She writes about seeing a human head atop a garbage can; complains about the smell of her dead lover, rotting in a trunk in the closet; imagines choosing famous men to father her children, like Isadora Duncan; becomes a black boy who trains his Doberman to help commit muggings; plunges herself into a burning welfare hotel; contemplates becoming an assassin; and perhaps the biggest stretch for her, inhabits the mind of a gay actor. She is impersonator, journalist, and humanist.
After I started up The Poet’s Press in 1971, I quickly became Emilie Glen’s publisher. Some of the chapbooks we did together went through multiple printings. Emilie typically chose the poems for a book, and I chose the order, sometimes asking for additional poems if I felt an imbalance in the content.
Our most ambitious project was the 1984 book, Roast Swan. This 67-poem volume, which went through several printings, was actually made up of eight separate “sets,” each the equivalent of a small chapbook. I have included most of the poems here, retaining the section titles. Since most of the piano-related poems from “In B-Flat Minor” were re-used, to better effect, in Glenda and Her Guitar/ Emilie and Her Piano, I retained only the single piano poem not in that collection. All told, seven poems from Roast Swan were removed since they were duplicated elsewhere in this volume.
I invited Emilie and another friend to attend a gala performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, scheduled for Easter Sunday 1983. Emilie arrived uncharacteristically late for our dinner at a French bistro near Carnegie Hall. She appeared distracted, but she was full of childlike wonder as we found our way to the fourth-row seats in the concert hall, with a very close view of the harp. Emilie read the program notes and said, darkly, “Resurrection, indeed.” When we got to Barrow Street, she moved to get out of my friend’s car, and thanked me for the concert, for helping her through a terrible day.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s Glenda,” she answered.
Glenda, a recovering alcoholic, had become addicted to over-the-counter cough medicines, and suffered an overdose. Although she needed to get into a detox situation, she was instead discharged from the St. Vincent Hospital emergency room and sent home. A few hours later, Glenda was dead.
Over the succeeding years, Glenda’s death prompted a flood of new poems. Emilie wanted them all together in a book, but they were so unremittingly gloomy (and, what I could not say, so slanted in omitting her daughter’s self-destructive behavior) that I could not picture a book of them, especially after we had done Dark of Earth and Rails Away, both funereal in tone. There was a real danger of Emilie typecasting herself as the “doom and gloom” poet.
Since Glenda had been a folksinger, I proposed instead a book titled Glenda and Her Guitar/ Emilie and Her Piano, in which Emilie would counter the lament poems for Glenda with various poems she had written over the years about her childhood as a piano prodigy. The resulting book, published in 1991, was our last collaboration. I kept Emilie supplied with books to sell after that, but they were reprints, not new collections. I had moved to Providence, and I was not on hand to see Emilie’s latest writings.
Emilie had amassed a large number of free-association poems based on “The Flying Spirit Pencil,” a device she was perhaps using to break out of her familiar narrative mold. There is no extant manuscript of them, but they might only be pieced together from published sources, a project for Volume 3 of this series. As it stands there are just two of them in the present volume, from the 1986 chapbook, A Dream of Amethyst, edited by Michel Duncan Merle. I would like to thank Merle for stepping in to publish his own selection of Emilie’s best poems, a limited edition book which he also illustrated.
I brought Emilie to Providence once to do a reading at the series I was running at my house on Transit Street. She came with her grandson and one of his schoolmates. We had a splendid visit and Emilie charmed everyone with her reading; but it was evident that dementia was taking its toll. Friends in New York began taking an active interest in Emilie’s welfare, most notably poet Vivanna Grell. Others who became aware that Emilie’s finances had run out sent “care packages” of food. The poetry readings became chaotic as Emilie lost control of her scheduling, and sometimes two or even three poets would show up, each thinking him- or herself the featured reader.
Thanks to the inept management of her finances by her bankers, what had been a secure income from interest was turned into a charge account which Emilie and her grandson quickly exhausted: every time she ran up the credit card to the limit, her financial “advisor” sold off more stock. Finally, Emilie was left nearly destitute, and as dementia set in, she could no longer find her way even a few blocks from her house without becoming hopelessly lost. Diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s, she was committed to a nursing home. There, she gradually lost all interest in poetry, and in a final act of will, stopped taking food. She died on the last day of 1994.
I can look back now over Emilie’s body of poems and perceive how certain silences and evasions characterize her writing. Emilie the poet is frequently disembodied. She possesses the subject of her poem, but is seldom herself the subject. She invents and casts off personae, cannot be pinned down. And when she does delve into the autobiographical, she evades the reader still. Although Emilie describes the death of her daughter and son-in-law (both alcoholics), she whitewashes their responsibility for their own behavior.
Beyond this, Emilie conceals her own age in most of her poems about her young grandson, by refusing to denote herself as a grandmother. In poem after poem, young John is her son. This comes to a head in her ostensibly autobiographical long poem, Rails Away. Rail journeys up the Hudson, with the hypnotic mechanical noises of the moving train, pull her into overlapping memories, almost Woolfian, of a first love, then her soldier husband. The “son” who rides in the train with her as she brings her husband home from a VA hospital for his final days is actually John, her grandson. To sustain her evasion, Emilie cancels her daughter. In her desperation to conceal her own age, she may also have changed World War II to the Korean War, but even this is insufficient to correct the anachronism of the “son,” whose Star Wars toys throw even the invented chronology a-kilter.
Emilie’s poems can be appreciated regardless of the underlying facts, and the vast majority of her poems are not autobiographical at all. I elaborate on these details here because I stand, as Emilie’s friend and publisher, as one of the last persons able to put the pieces together while Emilie’s memory is still fresh. She wouldn’t want anyone to know she was born in 1906. When we know it, though, we know the why of Emilie’s perplexing evasions. An actress herself, the “younger” Emilie was her greatest performance, one she sustained with remarkable success.
The Emilie Glen I prefer to remember — Emilie as she was from the 1940s through the 1980s — was the poet’s poet. Every writer who knew her stood in awe of her ability to work day after day, year after year, without a “block.” Rejections that would throw other writers into a depression just rolled off her. She typed and mailed out a dozen or more poems every day. Each day’s mail contained rejection slips, acceptances, tear sheets, printed magazines with her poems in them, and, once in a great while, a tiny check. On and on and on, for four decades she had done this, untiring, unremitting.
Emilie saw literally thousands of her poems published. Until the sorrows of her family life overcame her, she had the privilege of being a full-time poet. She kept herself free of romantic entanglements, her mind free from cant and religion, and never touched alcohol or drugs. She knew exactly what the Muse required, and Nature had endowed her with prodigious health.
Well might we ask why Emilie’s work was never sought out by a major book publisher. Emilie was more widely-published than many more famous poets, but she ran against the current of modernism. She concealed herself while revealing others in her narratives. She never seethed with rage, proposed revolution, traded in the threat of suicide, revealed lovers’ secrets, or offered to solve the world’s problems. Even confronted with death, she never saw a ghost or offered a prayer to invisible deities. She lived for the poem, for its making and its sharing, not for the “I” of the maker. The grief that shadows her late poetry — for brother, husband, daughter — never dims her quest for the beautiful word, the image, the moment. The pure life force that she carried comes through in the simple poem, “Enough,” in which the gift of consciousness itself, of the everyday sensations of life in the city, suffices.
Reader, consider this, too: all the poems in this volume were written, so far as I know, after the poet had entered her sixth decade of life. What never-aging curiosity, what continual reinvention of narrative voice, what child-like quest for sense and order and beauty! Age was irrelevant after all. Time was deceived, and smiled. Death was deferred until the pen had been put down, the last “tone-stone” rolled uphill. Emilie’s poems are her triumph over mortality.
As a New York personality and friend of poets, Emilie Glen was one of the happiest lights of Greenwich Village in what we now know to be its literary Indian Summer.
I do not know if critics will ever get around to Emilie’s poetry, or whether they have already consigned her to a “midcentury” footnote. Emilie Glen’s poetry is not addressed to critics and scarcely needs them. Her strength, and the key to the endurance of her work, is that she still believed in, and wrote for, the common reader. A posterity beyond us will decide if her choices were the better ones, as new readers discover her poetry. The publication of these volumes helps to mark her place, and it is an honor to do so.
I miss Emilie, my first friend in New York, and the first poet to welcome me to the larger community of poets.
—Brett Rutherford / Providence, January 18, 2009
Writings of Emilie Glen 1: Poems from Chapbooks
is a new book, gathered from long out-of-print chapbooks. This volume
gathers together all of the chapbooks published by The Poet's Press and
others from the 1960s through the last years of Glen's amazingly
productive poetic career. This 460-page volume is the first of four
volumes, with a biographical and critical essay and annotations by
Brett Rutherford. Future volumes in this series will be Volume 2 —
Fiction, Prose Poems and Early Poems; Volume 3 — Poems from Magazines;
and Volume 4 — Poems from Manuscripts. 02/2009
Up to Us Chickens. An Adobe
Acrobat book: Emilie Glen's out-of-print chapbook of New York life in
the 1970s, replete with the scandalous goings-on of an all-nude theater
company, a boy who trains his Doberman as a mugging partner, and
Emilie's great fantasy of liberated chickens. One of our favorite
little chapbooks. Click over the title above to open and download this
Glenda and Her Guitar/ Emilie and Her Piano. Emilie Glen’s last big collection. A riveting book that contrasts the poet’s childhood as a young piano prodigy against the tragic death of her grown-up daughter, a folk singer. This text in HTML for your browsing. 01/2005
HEAR EMILIE GLEN READING HER POEMS.
Click on file name and play with your browser's default media player for MP3s.
1) Emilie was listed in Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors and Poets, 2nd edition 1988, and in successive editions through 1995-96. Her birthdate there was listed as 1937! She was also listed in Who’s Who of American Women, 2nd edition, 1961-62 and 1964-65. I would be grateful to receive photocopies or transcripts of these listings.
2) Epoch, Cornell University, 1947.
3) Russell Maloney, “Comment”, The New Yorker, October 24, 1942, p. 11
4) A Mason sonnet is in iambic pentameter, with the following rhyme scheme: abc, abc, cbd, badda,