Write Your Life
Poet, writer Elisavietta Ritchie brings out the words in you
by Ben Miller
Elisavietta Ritchie has confronted a wolf in Canada, a burglar at midnight and the breakup of her marriage.
In all those confrontations as in an airplane high above Tasmania or a swamped and battered boat hitched to a pier of the Patuxent she finds inspiration and expression.
Ritchie is a poet, a writer and a teacher who claims not to be a teacher.
But in Calvert County, where she has made her home since 1959, she teaches. Irrepressibly, she teaches. She teaches people to observe, to think, to express themselves.
When I called her up I was motivated by more than a story of a person who brings the stories out of people. I wanted to see how she encouraged others in her memoir-writing class at the Calvert Library. I also wanted that encouragement for another new writer, myself.
Ritchie suggested meeting for lunch at Mom’s In the Kitchen Café in Prince Frederick.
Ritchie swept into Mom’s with a style you’d expect in Paris rather than Prince Frederick. In the European tradition, she is an elegant woman for whom age is irrelevant. She is attractive, vigorous and expressive. Very expressive. The urge to express herself her joy in expressing herself is part of Ritchie’s being.
Her travels, her experiences, her observations inspire the expression of her thoughts and ideas.
Ritchie’s father was Russian; her grandmother her babushka escaped to the United States. Her father’s brother died at 19 on the battlefield with the Russian army. Her father’s sister wanted to come to this country, but was trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Growing up, her family moved every year following her restless father. On her own, she kept moving to study in Paris, Ithaca, New York and California; to live with her first husband and her children in Malaysia, Cyprus, Lebanon, France, Canada, Australia and Washington, D.C.
The exotic informs her poetry but does not dominate it.
She is inspired as much by the mundane compost, crabs and dead chickens as by foreign people and places an aunt in Leningrad, a stone at the concentration camp Dachau, a Taoist sage in Malaysia imagined riding a water buffalo.
Ritchie is fearless, as a poet must be. She expresses whatever thoughts she has. No self-censorship here. One of her books, written after the breakup of her first marriage, she calls Elegy for the Other Woman. The subtitle is Selected and New Terribly Female Poems.
Ritchie is tough, self-aware and acute in her observation of the spectrum of behavior.
A poem from her latest book, Awaiting Permission to Land, Poems by Elisavietta Ritchie, published recently shows those qualities.
After the black snake glides
into the bluebird house,
swallows his prize,
bursts the roof, wrecks the box,
he leaves on the lawn the nest
woven of moss, grass, down
plucked from the mother’s breast
and, glistening in the sun, his shed skin.
I have known men like this.
“Poetry is the disruption of order,” Ritchie says.
Re-Writing Your Life
Everyone has a story. Learn how to tell your story in fiction, non-fiction and poetry through Elisavietta Ritchie’s memoir class, Reinventing a Life: Workshop in Creative Memoir, at the Calvert Library, Prince Frederick.
The first class is 2:30pm Wed. Oct. 11, at the library on Duke Street behind the Prince Frederick Shopping Center. Subsequent classes, on the second Wednesday of each month, meet in the new library building on the corner of Route 2/4 and Stoakley Road, to open in late October or early November: 301-855-1862.
A Subversive in the Schools
As a poet and writer, Ritchie not only disrupts the order herself but encourages others to disruption.
At Plum Point Middle School, as part of a poetry-in-the-schools program sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council, Ritchie encourages students to write about “things that don’t say poem.”
“Write for a purpose,” she tells her students.
“Write about something that touches your lives,” she says.
To get the kids going, Ritchie reads her own poems. She reads her poem about confronting a wolf in Canada.
Suddenly a shake
of winter-thickened fur
a timber wolf.
I freeze as still.
We watch each other.
Snowflakes catch on eyelashes.
from Beyond the North Woods
Write about a confrontation you have had, she tells them.
She reads a poem about a baby whale in captivity.
I miss the sea most of all.
It took me some weeks
to realize the whitewashed pool
was not my true home:
from Baby Whale in Captivity, by Norman Rosten
Write about being in captivity, she says.
They do. Brothers in Iraq. Uncles in prison. Hurricane Katrina.
In the night,
I hear the sound
Of something’s footsteps
On the ground.
from Fear, by Kelsey Klein: Plum Point Middle School
The tense feeling as the hurricane flew
My head all scrambled, I didn’t know what to do
I try not to cry, everyone says it will be all right
But what happens if we don’t make it through the night?
from an untitled poem by Shaye Beal: Plum Point Middle School
Some of the students are reluctant.
“The laggards crouch off in the corner writing or typing their poems onto their teacher’s laptop,” says Ritchie.
“Of course their poems were among the best,” she adds.
Under the direction of teacher Sally Ayres, the student poets have produced an anthology.
Ritchie is impressed. “Children want to do art. Kids are thinking beyond the ordinary,” she says.
Unlocking the Flood Gates
Ritchie also teaches a memoir-writing class at Calvert Library in Prince Frederick. These students, mostly retired folk, are “non-writers who yearn to write,” says Ritchie. They are looking for confidence and experience.
At the class Ritchie cites a poem of her own the one about a compost pile to illustrate that “you never know from where the poem is going to come.”
“You don’t have to start when you were born. You can be spurred by something in your life,” Ritchie says.
One woman reads a story about being in a car wreck when she was six. She describes her memories and those of her aunt who was also in the car. No one was killed, but her aunt suffered injuries from which she never fully recovered.
A man writes about the birth of his son.
Ritchie comments on their writing. She demands details, research and anecdotes.
Ritchie says she is “tough on the class. She wants writers to write what could be published.”
She produces a Swiss Army knife. “Cut, cut, cut, and then trim,” she says.
Her students are enthusiastic. As the two-hour class ends, she urges them to “write some ideas that you got today. Look for inspiration in experiences, in other’s stories, in looking at something from a different perspective.”
As Ritchie’s child poets have produced an anthology, her adult students have published as well. Lill Caplins took Ritchie’s poetry class at the Calvert Library. Her poem “Tobacco Farm Tenant” submitted for the Calvert Heritage Poetry Contest won a place in Poems of Calvert County.
Childhood spent as tenant
on tobacco farm.
There were not many extras
Outhouse was in vogue, cold in winter.
from Tobacco Farm Tenant, by Lill Caplins
After Ritchie’s memoir class, Alison Gay Norville published her father Hugh ‘Bill’ Gay’s memories of the D-Day invasion in the Bay Weekly’s Memorial Day Memories in 2004:
The noise of machine gun fire was deafening as Hugh and the Russian shouted encouragement to the infantrymen struggling toward the cliffs rising at the end of the sand. As Hugh raised the ramp for the return run, many more floating bodies dyed the breaking waves crimson. Only snags that could damage the craft were avoided in his haste to scurry beyond the machine guns’ range. (http://www.bayweekly.com/old-site/year04/issuexii23/lifexii23.html)
Bay Weekly writer Helena Mann-Melnitchenko wrote a memoir about her childhood experiences of World War II and delved into her memories in Ritchie’s memoir class. “The Girl Who Forgot Christmas” was published in Bay Weekly’s Christmas issue last year.
Our home after the war ended was a large room divided by olive drab blankets stamped U.S. Army. I still had trouble sleeping the year we heard the all-clear for the last time. I had just started first grade. The Second World War was over, but the bombs still screeched in my head. I was afraid to fall asleep, expecting the sirens to start wailing again, ready to run to the air shelter or to the dark forest. Turning over and over on the top bunk, the ceiling pressing close, I tried to still the echoes in my head and erase the images inside my tightly shut eyes. (http://www.bayweekly.com/old-site/year05/issuexiii51/leadxiii51_1.html)
Ritchie claims not to be a teacher, but a teacher she is. She is a writer who teaches and a writer who teaches through her writing. She teaches observation, perception and expression, ladled out of a kettle of creativity with plenty of understanding of life.
Elisavietta Ritchie is, to steal a phrase from her poem, “Offering,” “fertile with verse.”
The last two stanzas of her poem, “Trying to Track Lao-Tse,” explain how she sees herself.
Outside the electric fence,
in Maryland now, I watch herds
of Angus and Herefords graze the fields
more docile but nobody rides them,
not even a kid with rodeo dreams.
No scribes behind, I pencil my own
words on tatters of paper but leave
no insights for anyone.
Ritchie does not compare herself to the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tse. Her words are not copied down by disciples, she says. But she offers her words to others and she teaches others to offer theirs. Once the words are on paper, readers must find the meaning the insights that is theirs alone.
Ritchie lives on the Patuxent River at Broomes Island. She has published books of poetry, stories and fiction; contributed to newspapers, reviews and anthologies; given readings and taught classes. Her husband, Clyde Farnsworth, is a novelist and former reporter for The New York Times. She has one daughter, two sons and two stepsons. Her latest book of poems, Awaiting Permission to Land, was published in March by Cherry Grove Collections. Find it on amazon.com.
Hear Ritchie read her poetry in the monthly fourth Friday poetry night from 6:30-8:30pm Fri., Sept. 22 at Ahh, Coffee!, 1015 Bay Ridge Ave. Annapolis: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Retired from his career designing exhibits for the National Park Service, Ben Miller was seeking his own words when he sought out Elisavietta Ritchie. He has since become Bay Weekly’s museum, monument and park reviewer.