An Artist Turns to Poetry

"Out in May Back by October” (2023) by Summer Hart

"Out in May Back by October” (2023) by Summer Hart

New collection is product of pandemic

In a 2018 interview with Summer Hart for The Current, we touched upon many topics: printing, patterning, nature, geometry. The focus was a new installation with cascading “living walls” of Tyvek that expressed what the Philipstown resident called “a vision of a ghostly nature, creeping in through any breach, fissure or opportunity.” 

There was not a word about writing. Yet, a few years later, following the isolation of the pandemic, Hart is a published poet. Her collection, Boomhouse, will be released with a party on Friday (Sept. 22) at Split Rock Books.

Summer Hart

Summer Hart (Photo provided)

Hart, who grew up in Maine, is the 2022 Hellen Ingram Plummer Fellow at MacDowell, an artists’ residency program in New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared in Bedfellows, Heavy Feather Review, The Massachusetts Review, Northern New England Review and Waxwing. This month she was recognized with a fellowship in poetry by the New York State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts.

As a member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, she says her written and visual narratives are influenced by “folklore, superstition, divination and forgotten territories reclaimed by nature.”

The genesis for Hart’s exploration of verse came when she joined an online poetry group in 2020. “It was a fake-it-till-you-make-it moment, given that I didn’t know anybody and they were all serious and well-known poets,” she recalls. “We met once a week to workshop each other’s poems, which was a new experience. But I was writing all the time and they were my first audience.” 

That led to 11 Triptychs, a collaboration with Sandra Simonds, who came from Florida in May 2022 for the book launch. “It was the first time we met outside of the rectangle” of Zoom, says Hart. “We were like, ‘Hello!’ and sewed [the bindings of] 100 books containing her poems and my drawings.”

That there were (at least) two artistic sides of Hart became clearer when she was invited to Bennington College this past spring for its visiting artist lecture series. She spoke about her piece, “Out in May Back by October,” in which she made beads by tearing, weighing and repulping paper reclaimed from a mill in East Millinocket, Maine. During the lecture, she read poems from Boomhouse. 

Boomhouse“Before the talk, I visited a drawing class,” she recalls. “The instructor had circulated my poem, ‘Winter Island,’ and asked me to share some older visual work. I chose a series of ink-and-watercolor drawings, Notes to a Love Lost in the Forest, Notes to a Love Lost at Sea. 

“The drawings are of two sisters connected by their hair,” she says. “In the middle of the night one of the girls cuts the braid and slips out the window. The other follows. Adventure ensues. The imagery is rich with bears and beasts and botanicals. The ‘ah ha’ moment was realizing the drawings looked startlingly like the world I describe in ‘Winter Island.’ I had unconsciously written the poem the way that I draw.

“I’ve been curious about my family mythology my whole life,” she adds. “Every poem contains a kernel of truth: a memory, experience, observation or anecdote. I mix these kernels with the things I obsess about: personal and regional superstitions, Maine foraging wisdom, auguries, folk remedies, The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

A man is the longest moon in this respect

He is gone when the wasps wake in the rafters, when

the swifts

                  lay in the flue

He returns to find the animals fat. Trees decked in

shed velvet.

                     Oysters, fruiting through bark.

She rolls enough pennies for one ticket

on the Greyhound.

Pockets full of promise. I promise. 

When she was younger, she counted her years by winters.

                    Moose tracks mapped the frozen river,

frostfish solid underneath.

                   The seasons it takes a man to drink himself snow-


To research Boomhouse, she reviewed records of the Great Northern Paper Co. at the University of Maine; visited lakes and dams and villages; read the history of Millinocket and reference books on Mi’gmaq medicines; and interviewed a retired tugboat captain who worked for her uncle. 

“He told me how the tugs would move across the lake at 1 mile per hour for 24 hours a day, towing 3,500 to 5,000 cords of 4-foot pulp lumber in a giant chain called a boom, in the shape of a teardrop,” she says. “That teardrop is the final image in Boomhouse.

“The retired captain told me how at night on a new moon, the only light on the lake was the red glow of the compass. That anecdote became the poem, ‘A Man is the Red Glow of a Compass in this Respect,’ although I didn’t set out that day to write a poem about a compass, or any poem at all.” 

Her grandmother, like many Native Americans of her generation, was forced to speak English and dress like a European, Hart says. “The saying was, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’ She was devoutly Catholic. It was only when she was 99 years old and in memory care that her language came back and she would only speak Mi’gmaq. That’s the poem ‘Salt for the Stain.’ ”

Asked if visual art influences her writing, and vice versa, Hart says: “My poems and visual work live in the same town but don’t know each other.” Her Maine heritage contributes to both, with words like puckerbrush and frostfish making appearances. “Maine vernacular!” she says. “Those are words I grew up with.”

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