Monday, July 11, 2011

Chicory-Blue Woman: Sondra Zeidenstein

      (From the Way-Back Files – Poets & Writers, July-Aug. 1996.)

       In northern countries only few wild plants flower in November, but the gradually drying stems of the chicory plant persist even in cold winters. The piercing blue flowers appear from late spring right through to late autumn and the strong, deep roots and the flat leaf rosettes protect the plant through the winter. No wonder the chicory was the symbol of perseverance and endless waiting….The growth of chicory on roadsides was regarded as a symbol of its magic.
                                       -- Riklef Kandeler & Wolfram R. Ullrich

Poet and publisher Sondra Zeidenstein knows firsthand about the difficulty of coming to writing later in life. She didn’t begin writing poetry until she was in her late 40s and only then as the result of therapy and a writing workshop that she was taking with poet Honor Moore. “‘OK,’ I said, ‘I will sit down and write for a year and see where I am,’” she recalls. “When Honor seemed amused that one year could reveal much of anything, I said, ‘OK, five years. Then, if I can’t do that, I’ll do something that’s been in the back of my mind and that I know I can do: I’ll start a small press and publish others’ writing.’”

Zeidenstein made good on her word and, in 1987, started Chicory Blue Press, a feminist press, in rural Goshen, Connecticut. She named it for the wildflower that grows in the field at the corner of her street, a plant that appealed to her because of its “very pure, strong blue flower that opens only in the sun and closes at night.”

The first book published by her press, A Wider Giving: Women Writing After a Long Silence, is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays by 12 women who started their writing careers after 45. First published in 1988, the book is now in its third printing. “A Wider Giving came out of my own experience,” explains Zeidenstein, now 62, “as well as a publisher looking for her first book to publish and finding it in the experience of being a late-developing writer.”

Chicory Blue Press followed up with Memoir (1988), a collection of poems by Moore, and Heart of the Flower: Poems for the Sensuous Gardener (1991), which dealt with Zeidenstein’s “other great passion – gardening.” The press has also published a series of chapbooks by women writers over 60. “I’m looking for older women who are writing and who are looking for another publishing opportunity,” Zeidenstein explains. Despite the differences in styles and genres among the writers published so far, “they all have an accumulation of years and issues [that] come from having been around a long time and having a lot to think about.”

The first chapbook in the series, Zeidenstein’s own Late Afternoon Woman, appeared in December 1991. Since then, the press has published six others: Carrie Allen McCray’s Piece of Time (1993), Tema Nason’s Full Moon (1993), Rita Kiefer’s Unveiling (1993), Estelle Leontief’s Sellie and Dee: A Friendship (1993), Anneliese Wagner’s Murderous Music (1993), and Carol Lee Sanchez’s she)poems (1995). Alvia Golden’s Acts of Love is in production, and a chapbook of poetry by Nellie Wong is forthcoming.

All of the chapbooks have a similar format. The poetry or fiction is followed by a five- to eight-page afterword in which the woman “talks about what’s on her mind as a writer.” Zeidenstein debated for some time about whether to let the work stand by itself, then decided that she wanted the authors’ personal voices to come into play “after the creative writing has been read and experienced….What I wanted was to reach the readers of literature, of course, but also people who are writing so that they can be stimulated, supported, encouraged, or get ideas from the writers.” Once she has, say, seven or eight chapbooks out, Zeidenstein intends to put them all together in an anthology format – a weaving together of genres very similar to A Wider Giving.

So far, so good. The response to the chapbooks has been “encouraging.” Two of the books have gone into second printings, and almost all of them have been reviewed in such publications as Poet, Brookline Citizen, and The Women’s Times. McCray’s Piece of Time inspired an entire page of reflections on older women as role models in Gloria Steinem’s Moving Beyond Words (Simon & Schuster, 1994). “Even though this is a small print run and, at the moment, chapbook [format], I think that each of the writers is finding an audience and the work is getting out in a way that it wasn’t before,” reflects Zeidenstein. “So, that is very satisfying to me.”

It’s all the more satisfying because of what she has long seen as a trend in literature: the underrepresentation of older women’s voices. Although she doesn’t have any hard evidence for her belief that commercial publishers are less committed to working with 60- or 70-year-old writers as opposed to up-and-coming 20-year-old ones, she’s pretty damn sure this is the case. “Look at any anthology or listing of books being published,” she insists. “The ration of older female writers being published to young writers of either sex or even to older male writers is quite skewed.”

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with female writers stopping for long periods of time to raise children. But readers still need to hear these particular voices. Especially women readers. “We women enter our older years without having heard from older women what life looks like to them, what their perspective is,” says Zeidenstein. “It doesn’t matter that they write about age or not, but that they write as older and old women. If we don’t have those voices in our literature, it’s as if the cycle in life or the continuity of the generations is broken, and we have a very unrealistic or fragmented experience. And we need the history, we need the voices.”

Zeidenstein’s network is primarily European-American at present: only one chapbook author, McCray, is African-American. She has been reaching out to Native American, Latino, and Asian-American women writers because she has been “very excited” by their work. For her, “it’s not a matter of being politically correct. It’s a matter of wanting some of this writing because it’s meant so much to me as a poet.”

Ultimately, though, what Zeidenstein’s looking for is “recent writing that is also the writer’s strongest writing. I’m also looking for what I call strong, emotionally honest writing. The words can be very simple – they can be the most common words – but if they come from the writer’s authentic feelings, they carry tremendous power.

“The press has found its niche,” she continues. “I see myself, for the near and far future, as doing chapbooks. And though I say I’m looking for writing by women past 60, in my heart of hearts, I’m reaching for women in their 80s – if I can find them.”

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