Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My bad day with Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin loved horses. 
 I guess she thought everybody else did, too.

It was a beautiful fall morning in 2000 or 2001 when I drove north to Warner, N.H., to spend the day with Maxine Kumin. I was working on a profile of Kumin for The Larcom Review, a literary journal published by author Susan Oleksiw.

Reading last week about Kumin’s death at the age of 88, I thought back to that absolutely horrid afternoon at her farm in Warner. It was the worst interview experience in my career as a journalist. It provided me with a new truth: I could not salvage something just because I put my mind to it. My usual tools — research, persistence, compassion, curiosity — were as useless as my questions that she slapped down, one after the other.  By the time I left that farmhouse, Kumin was sputtering.

I was motivated to do the interview because I’d recently read and reviewed her unforgettable memoir, “Inside the Halo and Beyond,” about her arduous recovery from a broken neck and numerous broken ribs. One of her most beloved horses was pulling the carriage she was racing when a truck spooked him. Kumin flew off the carriage and the horse pulled the carriage over her. More than a year had passed. She and her husband were back to maintaining their farm and her horses. I remember her saying she had no intention of ever leaving there.

A few years before that, Kumin had been keynote speaker at a small writers conference I attended in New Hampshire. She spoke about her close friendship with Anne Sexton and about her profound grief after Sexton’s suicide. She was so honest and heartfelt the whole room felt a connection. Kumin was a feminist, a part of history, a survivor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as the U.S. poet laureate. I loved her. After reading her book, I had to see and hear from the person who beat 95 percent odds. Not only had she lived but she walked and she wrote and she farmed. I wanted to see that kind of will up close.

The first thing she did was introduce me to her horses. “Come out back and say hello,” she said. Was this a test? Or did everybody but me want to snuggle up with a bunch of horses?

I didn’t have time to put down my purse or my notebook. We walked to the corral in back of her farmhouse. The horse who’d been spooked by a truck was among the six or seven horses gathered there. I was paralyzed with fear when all of them — so much taller than I, it seemed — galloped over to greet us. We got into a bit of a tussle over who would get to have my reporter’s notebook. They nudged, nuzzled and bonked me repeatedly. I could barely keep my balance as Kumin stood back, smiling as her brood enthusiastically welcomed me. Words like stampede and crushed and horseflesh were whirling through my anxiety. I tried, of course, to conceal my terror but I’m sure it was obvious. By the time we left the corral, I smelled like wet hay and mud and manure. My reporter’s notebook was slimy. My Ferragamo flats were caked with dirt. I slipped into the living room, ahead of Kumin, to find her husband on his knees, tending the fire.

Though my stated purpose that day was to follow up on the accident and see how a working writer had found her way back to the writing, Kumin wanted to elevate the discussion. She wanted to talk about her poetry. I could not oblige her. Despite the serious homework I had done, I’m no scholar and no poet. And even though I lived with a poet, I had no insights that could carry me through this excruciating mismatch.

Of course my intention was never to annoy or frustrate Maxine Kumin. But I had. I persisted with the questions she didn’t want to answer. Call me inflexible. I took notes. I acted like everything was okay when, in fact, I was assuring that this fiasco would fully fledge and that I would bring her down with me. Guess what? Sometimes you just have to give it up and walk away.

I left at dusk, spent the night at a local B&B, explored the fabulous bookstore and somewhere around midnight, after a couple of glasses of wine, I stopped shaking. When I got back to Massachusetts, I called my editor and said, “I’m going to write about Andre Dubus III going on the Oprah show instead.”

I saved my notes from the Maxine Kumin interview, not for whatever value they may have, but to never forget. I don't want to forget her, and what she means to me. And I don't want to forget the lesson she taught me: There are times when I will fail. But there are good and bad ways to fail.

It's always good if you can see it coming before the horses slobber all over you.


  1. Great blog, Rae. I remember your telling me you wouldn't write the piece, and I always wondered why. t wish you'd given us this for the Larcom.

    You should know that she didn't hold any of the experience against you. She nominated The Larcom Review to be included in the list of publications for the Pushcart Prize. Thanks to you, some of our writers were in fact nominees the next year.

    I don't see this experience as a failure, just something different from what you expected. Thanks for writing it up, even at this late date.

  2. Great post! Loved every word and am now struggling with how best to share it with the world.

  3. Sometimes the worst experiences lead to the best writing, and that's what happened here! This post is stark and vivid. I love it. Now where can I find the Andre Dubus III piece -- love his writing!