How many of you remember being read to by your mother or father when you were a child?
When I was a child, I remember my mother reading poetry to my brother and me, and as I grew up, I remember her writing it. During her 20s and 30s, she wrote hundreds of poems. In her late 30s, she went back to work, and her love for writing poetry was set aside.
My mother, Dr. Jean Lisette Brodey, a retired Temple University journalism professor, is now in her 80s. About a year ago, I asked her where her poems were, and she said she feared they were lost. I knew they were not, as I’d seen them in her house. During a visit back to Philadelphia in September 2012, I found the poetry and began making plans to choose 50-some poems for a small collection.
That is how the book My Way to Anywhere began. Most of the poetry, expressed through imagery, abstract concepts, and word portraits, is about people who affected my mother’s life. My favorite poem in the book is called “An Ending.” It is a poem that tells of the death of my mother’s friend’s 27-year-old husband who died of cancer.
Here is an excerpt:
Why do we rend the days with our grief?
He would not have it so
For he respected life
Too much to bewail its passing
And death was too obscure
To have a place in his philosophy.
The thing has been decreed
(he would have said)
So if you have to pause
Let it be to reason
Not to mutter or complain
Then go on to ponder things
That somehow can be explained.
Death is a void, that’s all.
He would not toy with idle questions
For reason was his god and he was twenty-seven.
On a lighter note, there is a section of the book called FOR CHILDREN. Here is one short poem:
A wondrous number is 2.
There’s so much
2 can do!
2’s less than 3
2’s more than 1.
2 is an awful lot of fun!
My Way to Anywhere is not my mother’s first book. In 1983, through Westminster Press, she published Mid-Life Careers.
JAY LENO AND THE CHICKEN WINGS
The heading above is probably the last thing you’d expect in a blog about my mother and her poetry book. Well, let me explain.
When Mid-Life Careers came out, my mother did a great deal of publicity for the book in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.
One of her bookings was on an early morning Los Angeles talk show, and Jay Leno was one of the other guests. I have no idea why, but Jay was cooking up chicken wings on the show. My mother had five minutes to talk about her book, and while on the air, Jay came over to her and said he’d like “the doctor” to taste his chicken wings. My mother wasn’t about to give up her five minutes tasting Jay’s chicken wings and promptly declined, whereupon Jay called her a “party pooper” or something like that. After that, she was never a fan of Jay’s. I think she’s gotten over it, though. But I do remember having to rip off the cover of her TV Guide when he was on it. (And yes, it was the very same cover seen below!)
On a New York talk show, my mother was lucky enough to be a guest along with legendary singer Eartha Kitt and after the show enjoyed a wonderful lunch with her.
But the most memorable moment after the publication of Mid-Life Careers was seeing a downtown Philadelphia bookstore filled with copies of her book. What author wouldn’t love that?
Throughout her career as a tenured professor at Temple University teaching public relations, my mother won many prestigious awards, including induction into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association’s Hall of Fame.
PLEASE MEET DR. JEAN LISETTE BRODEY
Well, enough of my reminiscing. I have interviewed my mother for this blog, and I do hope you’ll enjoy meeting her.
When did your love of poetry begin?
When I was about five years old, my mother read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. It was better than hearing a story. The rhymes delighted me, and I found them to be lots of fun. Because the poems were read to me on a regular basis, they became a part of my young life. I still remember some of the poems by heart, such as “My Shadow” and “The Swing.”
Do you remember when you wrote your first poem?
I don’t remember my first poem. But when I was in the first or second grade, I wrote a poem and showed it to my father. I told him that I had written it, but he didn’t seem to believe me. He asked me again if I had written it and then asked me if I had copied it out of a poetry book. I was pleased that he thought it was that good, but I was also hurt that he didn’t think I had written it.
Did any of your grade school teachers recognize your talent for writing poetry?
I can’t recall which grade it was, but I had a teacher named Mrs. Schulke who liked my poetry so much that she had it illustrated by a talented student named George Logan and put it together in a book for me.
Did your love for poetry continue throughout junior high and high school?
Yes, as a matter of fact, under my photo yearbook in Philadelphia’s General Louis Wagner Junior High School, I stated that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I didn’t really know what journalists did; I just knew that they wrote. And I figured that they wrote poetry.
I remember writing poems for special occasions. A poem I wrote for my aunt Nancy is still in my head. It goes like this:
On Christmas and your birthday,
Any occasion of the year,
You can always depend on stockings,
That come from Nancy dear.
You earned a degree in journalism from Penn State University. What did you hope to do with your degree?
I wanted a job that involved writing, but I had no specific expectations. At a local youth hostel, while attending a meeting for hiking and camping enthusiasts, I met a man who was a job recruiter. Through him, I was hired at the Frank H. Fleer Company in Philadelphia. The company manufactured Double Bubble gum, and I was hired to edit the company’s internal publication and to write facts and fortunes for bubble gum wrappers. During my three years at this company, I got married and then became pregnant with the person interviewing me right now.
When did you seriously begin writing poetry?
Once I stopped working outside the home, my love for writing poetry became more intense.
How did you judge your own work? Did you think you were a good poet? How does one define “good” in terms of poetry?
The answers are complex. For every poem I wrote, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and how I hoped readers would perceive it. Even though I wrote in abstract terms, it was always my hope that my words would stir the reader. My right to use the label “poet” often changed depending on my own feelings about a poem and other people’s comments. Sometimes how I felt had nothing to do with the poetry and everything to do with what was going on in my life.
You felt very strongly about the widow of poet Edgar Lee Masters, Ellen Coyne Masters. She had a great influence on your work. Please tell us more.
I met Mrs. Masters at Penn State (Ogontz campus), where she was teaching an adult class in reading literature. When I first saw her, I had strong negative feelings. But those feelings changed very quickly into positive ones. She had a strong personality, and I suppose not knowing her at first, I perceived her differently.
Shortly after meeting her, I read her late husband’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, which is a collection of fictional epitaphs about a community called Spoon River. I was inspired by the work of Edgar Lee Masters. I even wrote some fictional epitaphs of my own in the same vein. [Two of them are included in My Way to Anywhere.] I also was inspired to write poems about the poet and his wife.
Mrs. Masters was gracious enough to look at my poetry from time to time and encouraged me to write more. Positive reinforcement from her gave me an incredible joie de vivre.
Do you remember the first time one of your poems was accepted for publication?
Yes! My family and I had been away on vacation, and the post office was holding my mail. When I went to collect the mail, I saw a letter from a national poetry magazine. I opened it up and found out that it was an acceptance. I was overjoyed, thrilled, and, most importantly, felt like a poet.
Who are some of your favorite poets to read?
My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. I also love Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, e. e. cummings, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, of course, Edgar Lee Masters.
Your poetry is now being published some 50 to 60 years after you wrote it. How does that make you feel?
Wonderful. I had stopped writing poetry after I went back to work. Several years later, I earned my master’s and doctorate degrees in education and worked until retirement as a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, so there was no time in my life to pursue poetry. Having this collection of my poetry published now makes me realize how important poetry has always been to me.
Thanks for a great interview, Mom!
September 14, 2014: It is with a very heavy heart that I must add that my mother died on April 30, 2014. I was blessed to be with her at the very end.
Buy Links for My Way to Anywhere