I met Patricia in the early 2000s when we were both teaching at Howard Community College. We’ve since shared many lovely days together and often share our poems with each other. Hope you enjoy this interview with my dear friend. Contact Patricia through her blog if you’d like to purchase one of her books. https://wrenhousepress.online/books/
Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your lovely new poetry collection, Refuge Heart: A Verse Memoir. I love the way you’ve woven stories together around the themes of loss and family. Tell me how the book came together for you.
Patricia VanAmburg (PVA): Thank you Ann. The book actually came together in a number of ways. One of those was a mention by two of my friends of the Trebus Project—a study of elderly dementia patients in Great Britain. One surprise outcome of this study was that so many patients with short term memory loss retained vivid memories of earlier life on poor farms. This information certainly caught my attention because my mother so often mentioned the American poor house circa 1830-1930.
AB: Those of us who had parents of a certain age will remember them referring to the poor house, but many readers may not be familiar with the history and purpose of poor houses. Tell me about where the idea for your poem, “My Mother Goes to The Poor House”, came from and give a bit of background on the poor house you researched.
PVA: In the last decade of her life, my mother refused to discuss her dwindling finances. She would reply to any of my attempts at such a conversation with an angry “Just send me to the poor house.” Usually, I remained silent in order to avoid further confrontation, but one day I said to her “You know there isn’t any poor house.” She responded “Oh really” in a voice I knew she saved for lunatics and liars. More frustrated than usual, I soon typed “poor house” into a Google search—adding “Berrien County Michigan” because that is where my mother grew up. To my great surprise, I uncovered a treasure trove of information including a roster of poor house residents; several poor house census reports listing nationality/race and occupation; notes from the poor house infirmary; and several local newspaper articles written about the poor house residents who were called “inmates.” How could I ignore such a treasure? I began to write poems—beginning with my mother’s poor house obsession.
AB: “Peaches in Poor Weather” is as much a lament for crop loss as it is a bit of significant history. What was your process in writing that poem?
PVA: Along with all the specific poor house information, I uncovered an early history of Berrien County chronicling European colonization, native American conflict, and agricultural development. I wanted to know more about why the poor house was built because, to this day, Berrien County remains a Michigan fruit basket. I remember well the delicious peaches of my own childhood. I let peaches become emblematic for the agricultural economy of southwestern Michigan and found a helpful article from 1993 by William John Armstrong titled “Berrien County’s Great Peach Boom.” Armstrong’s work helped me understand how Michigan’s fluctuating temperatures combined with peach production in warmer climates, and the rail age, to cause problems for the Michigan peach industry which had previously enjoyed a kind of privileged position in midwestern fruit production. I also understood how a competitive fruit market combined with an influx of European farm labor—caused loss of farm ownership and the necessity for county poor houses throughout Michigan and the rural United States.
AB: “James Hewitt’s Nose” tells the story of cancer that used to be commonplace, but due to modern treatments, rarely happens in our country now. How did you come upon this story?
PVA: “James Hewitt’s Nose” came from two sources— one was my possession of the poor house infirmary notes which gave me a broad perspective on all of the resident health problems and diseases. The second was the trove of period newspaper articles I mentioned earlier. One of them told the story of resident James Hewitt age 63 who had a form of cancer that had eaten away his nose. The story went on to mention that a worker at the poor farm had met a Miss Hewitt who remembered that her father had a spot on his nose years earlier when he disappeared. At the end of the article father and daughter are reunited—my poem takes a bit of poetic license with that reunion.
AB: The second part of your book deals with your family members who came to the United States from Croatia. How were you able to reconstruct their stories in such detail?
PVA: Yes, the second half of my book goes in a new direction at the suggestion of Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri who thought I might want to write about “something a little different than but related to” the poor house and its refugees. About that time through DNA testing, I became aware of and met several new cousins from my father’s side of the family. Eventually, two of my cousins invited me to go to Croatia with them. Their grandmother was a sister to my grandfather, and we were all searching for our grandparents’ journey to the United States during the Croatian diaspora which straddled two World Wars. So, the second half of the book retells my grandparent’s life as refugees and my search to uncover it.
AB: I love the playfulness in the poem “Departure 1950.” You capture so much of the innocence and charm of the two cousins getting into mischief. Say more about the poem and your cousin.
PVA: As refugees, my paternal grandparents had a pretty hard life including my grandpa’s first job as a copper miner in upper Michigan and my grandma’s loss of several children before they reached adulthood. Eventually they had to leave their grape farm in southern Michigan when neither of their adult sons wanted to stay and work. Still, I enjoyed visiting the house they moved to in a small town—especially when my two cousins were there. Departure 1950 recalls one of my earliest memories of my six-year-old cousin and I “driving” my grandpa’s antiquated Chrysler through the wall of my grandma’s chicken coop. We actually popped it into gear and drifted through the wall. Though the memory might have some tragic elements, I remember it as being quite wondrous with light streaming through the gapped wall alive with chicken feathers and dust motes. Even at age three and a half, I knew as soon as we crawled unharmed out of the car through broken glass and timber that we probably weren’t going to get in trouble for our little trip.
AB: Patricia, I really enjoyed reading “Refugee Heart.” Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I think I have a favorite poem from each of the halves.
From the poor house poems, I would have to choose the very simple little poem, “Samuel Ray Steps Out”, which tells the story of an 80-year-old resident who wanders away for a few precious hours. I took most of the poem’s visuals from my own childhood memories of the small southern Michigan town of my mother’s youth, but the voice is purely Samuel Ray. In this poem and the others that I wrote from the articles, I often thought I could hear the featured subjects telling stories in their own words.
From part two, I would have to choose my cousins’ unanimous favorite, “Two Mladens Walk in Lokve”, which describes all that my grandparents left behind: lichen covered rocks in the virgin forests; fish with mottled skin swimming in a river that flows through the bottom of a deep cave; smokey mist rising against dark green mountains; and the beautiful hilltop cemetery full of vigil candles and pine cones.
And thank you for your mention of the title poem, “Refugee Heart”, Ann. Even before I finished it, I knew it had less to do with either poor house refugees or my grandparents than it does with worldwide refugees today. May they find new lives and peace. May we all help. That is the message.
Bio: Patricia Vanamburg retired emerta from Howard Community College where she taught literature and creative writing. She was also affiliated with the Little Patuxent Review literary journal.