Late poet Burn Thompson’s arrival in Juneau could hardly be described as auspicious.
Soon after she got off the ferry in the late 1980s, the Virginia native was robbed of most of her belongings while staying at a local hotel. With no connections to draw on, she found herself homeless and spent the next year at the Glory Hole and Thane Campground. At the campground, she was robbed again.
Still, she stayed, despite the added hardship and physical challenge of living with cerebral palsy. And over the next 25 years she found a way to flourish.
Friends say two main sources of strength were her church — the Cathedral of the Nativity — and her poetry, which she shared with the community through L’attitude, a former Juneau Empire publication, and through the Poetry Omnibus program. Thompson was disciplined about her writing, attending a local writing group for more than 10 years and serving as the group’s leader since 2007.
“She was very faithful about that and very serious,” said longtime participant Mary Lou Spartz, a local writer.
Thompson’s commitment to the weekly meetings and her writing spurred others to produce work on a regular basis and kept the group going through some lean years. Other participants also benefitted from Thompson’s command of poetic form; one of her two master’s degrees was in creative writing.
“Burn had a command of poetic technique like nobody else I’ve ever known,” Spartz said. “She understood all of the finer points of form, which I have never waded into with any confidence.”
Upon her death this past fall, the group was renamed the Burn Thompson Writing Group in her honor. It continues to meet on Mondays (except in the summer) at the downtown library, steered by Spartz and another longtime participant, local poet Richard Stokes.
“I have a genuine interest in keeping the group going,” Stokes said. “I think it’s an important little pocket in town.”
‘It’s a lonely business’
The weekly meeting, previously known as the Focus Writing Group, was originally established by former Juneau Empire reporter Kristen Hutchison in 2003. Thompson, Spartz and Stokes began attending in those early days. For Stokes, who is primarily a poet, feedback for his work has always been the main draw.
“I think feedback is certainly the most important part of it,” he said, adding that his wife, local artist Jane Stokes, doesn’t really like to critique his poems.
“It’s a lonely business,” Spartz agreed. “It’s very hard to grab somebody and say, ‘I just finished this poem and I want you to tell me what you think about it.’”
“And ‘don’t be too critical,’” Stokes added.
“It’s important to be with like minds, even though we’re not — any of us — headed in the same direction,” Spartz said. “But at least we can say to each other, please read this and let me know if you think I’m going in some direction or just need to throw this one out and start again.”
Though Thompson had tossed around the idea of group readings in the past, the group has not yet held a public event. However, the Poetry Omnibus program organizes an annual public reading, and Spartz and Stokes have taken part in the Woosh Kinaadeiyí Poetry Slam, overcoming their concerns about fitting in with the boisterous, youthful crowd the slams tend to attract.
“It’s more intimidating than a sedate reading,” Stokes said.
“I said, ‘Richard, if you go, I’ll go,’” Spartz said with a laugh.
The first slam the poets attended, held at Thunder Mountain High School, really impressed them both.
“It was excellent work. Just really excellent,” Spartz said.
Both poets have also participated in the slam, though Stokes said he thinks his poems may be better approached on the page.
“I’m sure Robert Frost would argue his work was made to be read too,” he said. “But I think mine probably comes across better reading than spoken. I don’t know.”
Stokes recently won first prize in the Fairbanks Arts Association’s Statewide Poetry Contest for his poem “Turning the Wheel.” Spartz’ other writing projects include, most recently, a fictional play based on the true story of the sinking of the Princess Sophia, which was presented at the Alaska State Library through a staged reading in October. At the Monday writers’ meetings, Spartz said she tries to “get out of my own way” and make herself clear.
“My poetry, I believe, it’s about as simple as anything gets,” she said. “Obscurity isn’t what I’m after and I don’t intend to mislead the reader, if I can help it.”
‘A gentle bunch’
At this week’s meeting, attended by nine writers, clarity was a common goal. Poets made adjustments to their language and imagery after hearing feedback from the group, which was delivered in a supportive and respectful atmosphere.
“We are a gentle bunch,” Spartz said. “We don’t go in for blood. We’re not going to go in there and kick, bite and scratch.”
Former leader Thompson was not the easiest poet to critique, Spartz and Stokes said, in part because of her emphasis on form. She kept close track of the syllabic rhythm in her poems, and was reluctant to change too many words in part for that reason.
“We’d read the poems, and Richard would maybe make a suggestion about changing a word here or there. And she’d say ‘I can’t do that. It has x number of syllables,” Spartz said.
Thompson’s poems could also be difficult to critique because they were so personal, Stokes said, often drawing on imagery from her childhood in Appalachia and other experiences, as well as referring to another one of her loves: physics (see poem below). That was Thompson’s major before switching to writing.
But despite the difficulties of critique, Thompson was an inspiration to her fellow writers, not just for her work, but for her personal strength and courage. In her final year, in addition to the constant challenges of cerebral palsy, she was also dealing with cancer treatment. Still, she kept coming to meetings and didn’t complain.
“She was in terrible health, and had been fighting cancer for at least a year, that we knew of. But she was always upbeat,” Stokes said.
Her only fear, as far as he could tell, walked on four legs.
“She was deathly frightened of bears,” he said. “But it seemed to me that was the only thing she was frightened of.”
The group will continue to meet most Mondays at 6 p.m. at the Downtown Library, honoring Thompson’s memory through its name, and in its goal of creating the work that was part of her life’s sustenance.
Physics at Hollins: A Woman’s College
by Burn Thompson
In high school, I kept charts of
the smallest particles. I have dreamt about particles which
move faster than light. With a spoon in my soup
I caught tiny lentils — I read about particles too small
for sight. My geometry teacher said, “boys are good
at math.” My physics teacher said, “you, a girl and crippled too.”
That a girl could understand physics, he laughed.
I enjoy physics and mathematics too. Never one
disposed to fight prejudice –
just if I could manage without a fight –
justice. Finding a way, I enroll in a woman’s college and move
my jeans and things into the dorm. All over my dorm room walls
I make a collage —
here no slugs eating roots like a prejudice worm. Students and teachers
talk of physics while hiking. Still I spend long hours
inside in labs while some
other students spend their time
biking – the cut my soul
received in high school now scabs. One day
on a bridge near where jack
in the pulpits grow, my friends and I stand and watch
Carvin’s Creek flow. I connect organ pipe covers to air tubes
in a lab — send air through the covers – making music. I compose
music while I beat my feet to ragtime in the lab – how I love
physics and music. On a fall day, Hoang and I used my bed —
our table. Here we solve problems
in electromagnetism. Then in the chapel social room, we watch cable
with teachers –
between students and teachers, a magnetism.
We make together a solution —
saline. My emotions bounce to a height as on a trampoline.
This poem was the second-place winner in the Juneau Empire’s L’attitude poetry contest in February 2011. Thompson also won first place, for her poem, “All the Way from the Blue Ridge to the Coast Mountains.”