When the Twin Towers came down, Molly decided to make a change. She quit her job, started writing, and eventually found her way to poetry. She is now a published poet with several books and anthologies in print.
Tell us a little about your background…
As long as I can remember I was a curious, busy learner, an educator, a leader of activities, a community organizer and an activist.
I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut in a home fronting woods and located on the grounds of the Hartford Theological Seminary, where my father was a professor. It was during World War II, therefore missionaries were recalled home from their assignments in Africa, India, the Philippines, China, Hawaii, really from throughout the world. It was considered too dangerous for U.S. citizens to live abroad.
The seminary was teeming with families crammed into tiny apartments, rich in fun and songs and games and strong in service and community connection, but lacking in money. I grew up with the missionaries, playing with kids of all ages. Whoever showed up was welcome to join in. Hour after hour, we were on our own, using our collective imaginations and found materials. Everyone was taught to be good to each other and we were mostly kind and cooperative and inclusive; I never remember bullying or meanness. The seminary bubble seemed a perfect life to me. At eight, I organized a lending library of my personal books, an after-school school, and an annual circus. I was the leader. I do not know why, but kids turned to me, so I led. Throughout, I carried a black and white composition book and took notes, recorded memories, and listed questions.
No one was surprised when I became an educator, teaching and directing all kinds of schools. My kids explain it this way: I started teaching preschool when they were in preschool, and by the time they were in graduate school I was teaching for Antioch/New England Graduate School. Following that, I was founding institutes and working nationally and internationally on inquiry-based learning projects with experienced teachers as I supported them in joining the computer age—using technology as a tool for thinking and creative expression with their students. All these projects were funded by soft money: foundations and government agencies, often the National Science Foundation.
I worked nationally and internationally with leadership teams in schools to support changing practices around teaching and learning. I also worked with leadership teams in hospitals around changing practices regarding decisions near the end of life and changing practices in pain management.
I met my husband of more than 40 years, Daniel Lynn Watt, at a hands-on workshop for educators, where he and I were both on the staff. He had just finished making an Appalachian dulcimer. I owned a dulcimer that was made for me by Jethro Ambergey in Hindman, Kentucky. Dan and I enjoyed immediate bonds: educational leadership, recreational folk music of Appalachia and conversation in a corner over a mug of coffee.
Through the years, I continued carrying little notebooks to jot down ideas and memories and yearned for time to make sense of this precious life through writing. I wanted to share some of the amazing times I’d lived through. Yes, in the mayhem of living my life, I was crushing my introvert self who wanted to express herself. I wanted to write, I’d always wanted to write, and I couldn’t figure out how to fit it in.
When did you decide to make a change?
The day after the twin towers fell, I quit my job. I was working as a facilitator for educational leadership teams for The Best Schools Project in New Hampshire. My daughters were college graduates with their own children and jobs by then, and I had managed to have a bit of savings. But I wasn’t thinking about anything practical at the time. The fall of the towers reminded me life can flip in a second. If I wanted to be a writer, I had to put writing at the top of my to-do list. I had to do it.
What is your next act?
I am a poet. In 2007, when I was turning 69, my first book of poems, Shadow People was published by Ibbetson Street Press.
My book was blurbed by Fred Marchant, Director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center and author of four books of poetry. He said, “Shadow People begins far away and takes us on a journey home. We move from the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to the Redline in Boston. We begin among the Yup’ik craftspeople, and travel toward the heart of family life, sometimes in painful memory, sometimes in loving recognition. We begin as observers but by the end of the book we have joined Molly Watt in the dance of her life and our own.”
Shortly afterwards, my extended persona poem, “Consider This,” on the theme of incest, was published as a chapbook (a small booklet, often hand-made) and performed by three dancers to choreography by Joan Green. It was danced to two sold-out performances as part of the Dance Across the Ages Concert. The dance did not illustrate scenes in the many faceted poem but rather flowed with the moods and transitions as the poem was read by two voices, the “she” voice by my husband, Dan, and the “I” voice by myself, the voices serving as the music for the dancers.
In 2014, the story that had been gnawing inside me—the catalyst for my transformed lifestyle—was published as a memoir in poems, On Wings of Song, by Ibbetson Street Press.
Afaa M. Weaver, receiver of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and author of nine books of poetry, blurbed the book, “On Wings of Song is a journey into the heart, the place of deep caring for the state of being human. Watt has written with the sincere and sympathetic hand to mark a path for the reader to return to the Civil Rights Era of the 50’s and 60’s, a history that never leaves us. As she writes, ‘…there is no time for fear…’ In the inscape of her journey we see the time for caring is now. These are gentle but sure lines of conviction, lines worthy of a standing applause.”
Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote about my intention:
I want to write a poem
the way a jazz man
composes on his feet
sways in rhythm
taps a syncopated beat
I want to bend contort riff
twist and pound like thunder
crack and shatter like glass
drip blood in the gutter
scat sorrow to the moon
I want to howl and growl
to a bottle neck slide
pulse with rage and heat
rap a wild wind run
and blast away injustice
A short version of JAZZ RIFF won a place in a competition and will soon become part of a Cambridge sidewalk. I consider this a way to publish in the same way my poems regularly displayed in the CVS window and the O’Neill Library are published.
I work in poetry because I love how condensed it is: 50 words instead of 5,000, getting to the essence with a few well-chosen images instead of every incident. I find it exciting to choose the images that move the work forward. I can carry the feather weight of a poem in my pocket and work on it over a period of time. I cannot carry a manuscript for a memoir around; it takes longer to dig into it, there is more weight to carry in my knapsack and my head.
I am part of a large community of poets. We love each other, encourage each other’s work, invite each other to publish and give readings. I write poems partially because there are readings and open mics. As a poet primarily giving witness with written and spoken words, I move with immediacy from the page to the hearts of others by reading my poems in public. I can comment on tough subjects, such as the Occupy Movement, the Marathon Bombing and Black Lives Matter, and the poems do not sit on a publisher’s table marinating for years!
How did you become a writer and poet?
After I quit my job, I started writing. I learned to write by writing. I joined a local writing group meeting weekly and did free writing for hours a day, filling numerous notebooks. Often I would type up and condense the work later, or even shape it and sometimes publish it.
Jane Eklund was in that first writing group and was an editor of the weekly newspaper in my part of New Hampshire, The Monadnock Ledger. Later, she started the monthly journal The Occasional Moose, where I continued to write features. We enjoyed each other’s writing, and she knew I had an appetite for adventure.
Jane invited me to write Day Trip columns for the Ledger, and then the Moose. I did, many. I loved doing the exploration and even more the romance of writing them up. While those publications have merged with the Peterborough Transcript and the stories are no longer archived on line. I am including a link to a travel piece I wrote about the same time for the Boston Globe: “Birds, Beer and Baseball in the States’ Golden Heart,” dateline Fairbanks, Alaska.
Friends who participated in the William Joiner Institute Writer’s Workshop at the University of Massachusetts Boston every June, encouraged me to apply. I was accepted and able to study with extraordinary writers and teachers in an intensive immersion. Over the many years I’ve been attending, I’ve studied with a cast of stars: Naomi Ayala, Martha Collins, Marilyn Nelson, Fred Marchant, Danielle Legros Georges, Lady Borton, Bruce Weigl, Naomi Shihib Nye, Demetria Martinez, Brian Turner, Macdara Woods, Tim O’Brien, Regie O’Hare Gibson, Doug Anderson, Charles Dumas, Amir Al-Azraki, Eva Bourke, Yusef Komunyakaa, Martin Espada, Nguyen Ba Chung, Grace Paley, Kevin Bowen, Larry Heinemann, Afaa Michael Weaver and many more.
I listened to these extraordinary human beings and writers read from works-in-progress and give commentary on mine. And I bought and read their books, and read them over and over. I enjoy their mentorship and friendship and generosity. They embrace writing as a form of witness. (Witness poetry leaves a trace of an event so that it cannot be forgotten, it must be considered.)
I began writing poetry when the poet and teacher Fred Marchant took me under his wing and helped me get a toehold transferring my little memories and observations into poems. It’s as if I fell asleep and awakened into a whole new life.
I hung out with other poets and writers. The Bagel Bards meet every Saturday morning at Au Bon Pain in Davis Square in Somerville to schmooze and network. The Joiner community permeates Boston and the world and we gather and re-gather. At Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, we hold a Poets Round Table, where we share our poems and study others. I was honored to facilitate this for 12 years and be elected poet laureate for a year.
It was a surprise to me how much community plays a role in the so-called, lonely life of a writer – writing has not been one bit lonely!
How did you first publish your poetry?
Before I had a manuscript, I prepared and sent out poems to hundreds of journals and literary magazines. I received rejections of a hundred times ten, but also about 70 acceptances. I achieved recognition as a poet by publishing poems as well as being invited to read. I built an audience where people sometimes were as curious about what I might write next as I was.
When I actually had a manuscript shaped, I researched all the many publishers reading manuscripts, and in the end, I went with one I’d known all along. Doug Holder, co-founder of the Bagel Bards, has a small, respected press and I was honored when Ibbetson Street Press accepted my first full-length poetry manuscript, Shadow People.
Did it help that I was a good member of the community, hosting many Bards and Ibbetson Street Writers at the Fireside Readings I curated? Or that I supported the publishing of the work of others by becoming the founding editor of the anthology Bagels with the Bards? I think my book stood on its own merits, but honestly, the press had hundreds of manuscripts to choose from, so maybe my participation gave me a tiny advantage. Whether my personal connections helped or not, I do not know, but they helped me grow as a writer. I never thought I’d have a poetry book published when I first started writing.
Somehow I’d made a whole new life, yet I brought with me all the experiences and reflections I’d gathered up over years in those notebooks and in my soul. I used my skills and knowledge of supporting groups in this new life of playing with words and wordsmithing.
How can someone change overnight to another profession? That is what many thought I had done, but I know I put in the 10,000 hours of practice and then some that Malcolm Gladwell tells us makes for mastery. And I know I was both lucky and plucky.
How did you come to be an editor of other people’s poetry?
I am a member of several thriving writers’ communities. I wanted to be a contributing member, so I became a support to unlocking other poet’s voices and helping them to be heard through publishing their poems.
I edited the Transition House Kent Street Writers Anthology, the poetry in Harvard’s Institute for Learning in Retirement, HILR Review. And I was founding editor and edited the first four volumes of the Bagelbards Anthology.
I curated the monthly Fireside Poetry Series open to the public for 12 years in my cohousing living room.
I lived, ate, and regurgitated poems, witness poems, gritty poems, tender poems, poems to create the world I dreamed could be. I enjoyed leading a few poetry workshops. I hold a wide respect for the many voices of contemporary poetry. Editing the work of others was a position colleagues, peers and students asked me to take on.
For the HILR Review, I often rejected poems on the end of life, believing despite age, older people bring the same vitality as a person of any age and I insisted on preserving a range of hopeful participation and fresh ways of seeing, even in grief.
For the Bagelbard Anthology, I wanted to ensure the urban voice was well represented. If a poem was situated in Somerville’s Davis Square during the Honk Festival, it was more viable for the anthology than one set at Lanikai Beach on Oahu.
For the Kent Street Writers Anthology, the poems could be about the view from a bedroom window after a period of homelessness, or setting up a home again in safety, or the death of a pet bird. These poets were dealing with small moments of tremendous consequence.
Of course all poets expressed universal experiences and truths rooted in moments and images.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband, Dan, was amazingly supportive. One day, I announced, “I will live anywhere, if money is the issue. But from now on, I will live my life by what I feel I need to do to complete my own dreams, rather than pay the bills.” Eventually, he took a similar plunge and joined me in the writing life.
For the past ten years, he has been working on a memoir, almost ready to publish. History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family. Read an excerpt here.
Plus we made a radio play together, George & Ruth: Songs & Letters of the Spanish Civil War. It is based on his parents’ correspondence and we often perform it as a political Love Letters with music; it is available on CD Baby.
Now Dan and I enjoy living the writer’s life in our third floor condo in Cambridge Cohousing and sometimes our neighbors attend our readings.
I do not know how our daughters feel about my writing. They are busy with their own life adventures as they should be. One is in charge of a prestigious membership room and corresponds with leaders in the arts and sciences. The other is a professor of cognitive psychology at a state university supporting her students in thinking critically. I believe they are happy to see me continuing to engage and grow and contribute. In fact, I believe they expect nothing less!
Why did you choose cohousing?
My husband and I talked about better ways to live in our world during our courtship. We each grew up in devoted communities sharing resources, I in the bosom of the Hartford Theological Seminary and he in a Communist family central to the activities of families in that movement.
I regret the concept of cohousing did not arrive in the U.S. from Denmark in time to raise our daughters in a community like the one I live in now.
After they had grown we heard of a group meeting in the Cambridge Friends Meeting House with the intention of forming a cohousing community from the ground up! We joined the long process of consensus decision-making and became (with about 40 others) founding members of what is now known as Cambridge Cohousing.
We moved from New Hampshire to live in this cohousing community partly because of its Quaker values; Dan and I are what many call convinced friends. We were attracted to the missions of sustainability, diversity and inclusiveness, intergenerational living, and we love living in Cambridge near the T and where bicycle riding is encouraged. We find the general meetings for consensus decision-making give everyone’s voice an opportunity to be heard and we like living close to good friends and sharing the conversation along with the workload. We believe the world is muddling toward learning to be a better place and this is one starting place, in the same way the women’s movement addressed the politics of power and voice among family members.
My granddaughter says cohousing is my response to the Vietnam War, determined to learn not to let misunderstandings escalate. It continues to be hard work. I tend to shy away from conflict and somehow can’t find the right storage place for my canoe, but I would not want to live any other way. I have no envy for the large homes some friends live in, I find the smallness of my apartment cozy and appropriate to my needs. The scale is just right. Of course we have plenty of shared spaces expanding our footprint! Our community maintains two lovely guestrooms where we can host family and friends.
What challenges do you encounter in your writing practice?
Following the discussion of cohousing, I have to say shutting my door and disengaging from the community for periods of time is a prime challenge.
Moving back in time, I wanted to write because I had some things to say, but I had done no literary writing since college. I had to study writing. Having something to say was not enough, it helped, but I had to begin a writing practice, to think creatively and critically about words I choose and how I place them on the page.
I continue to be a bit defensive, and this can get in the way of hearing useful suggestions. I try to keep my learner’s hat on and listen; this helps me let the ideas of others in, and it supports me in becoming a better writer at expressing what I want to say.
I say “I became a poet by putting in my 10,000 hours and more”, however I can hear the difference between my poems, the good ones, and the poems of those who have written for decades. I was at the top of anyone’s game in the field of education, but as a poet, I will always be “emerging” and that is ok with me, it has to be. I admire the poets who are my age and chose poetry when they were young and stayed with it. I feel it a privilege to be able to enter into this world as a poet colleague, and it is satisfying to my soul.
How do poets and literary writers make ends meet?
Before the towers fell, I frequently did professional writing about education in magazines and newspapers and I was paid modest amounts. It was an eye-opener to find how little if anything most writers are paid for literary writing. It is an economic hardship to do this work, but totally worth it for me. (My children are through college, which helps it be ok.)
Of course it is a matter of making a choice; writing for magazines pays better than poetry. I used to write the “Ask Molly” column in Teaching and Computers Magazine and I made three times as much for that column as my day trip columns paid. Interesting work, but not as satisfying to my soul. Most writers I hang out with have a day job, a partner supporting them, teaching and writing gigs, editing gigs, speaking gigs, or, when lucky, grants. It is a fulltime job to write and to find the funding needed to support that lifestyle. I am a paid usher, leaving the daytime for writing (and cohousing tasks). Ushering provides the added value of seeing many literary works performed, priming my own thinking.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that what I did before becoming a poet helps my writing; I never started from scratch. I’d lived poetically and now I write poems that others attend to. I was thrilled when the Dallas Public Schools chose my poem, “Civil Rights Update” to pair with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as required reading for all ninth graders. I guess I’m saying, I make a difference without travelling because my written words speak to others.
I am more productive when I am part of an ongoing workshop or writing group. I am inspired by the words of others and cherish having others who will help me birth my preemie poems.
I learned I could have this life after I thought it too late. I just had to decide to start and do the hard, fun work.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
This next step is a bonus step for you, a time to open up to dreams:
I encourage you —tie on your learner’s hat
I encourage you—leave your ego behind
I encourage you— follow your passion
I encourage you— be patient with uneven progress
I encourage you— surround yourself with encouragement
I encourage you— share and listen
I encourage you—be not reined in by fear
I encourage you— be exhilarated by the bumpy ride
I encourage you—enjoy your adventure
What about advice for pursuing the writer’s life?
I think it all starts with intention and keeps on with persistence, lots of persistence.
I have previously mentioned the William Joiner Institute Writers’ Workshop. But talk to the writers who live near you and listen to their journeys, tell them your hopes, ask their advice. Go to the local library for the books and periodicals addressed to writers. You’ll find many institutes for writers all over the world listed in these. Find a writing group of one or more to join. Connect. You’ll find local resources and workshops and adult education courses and many, many wonderful bits of writing to remind you what you want to write about and ways you might get started.
What are some resources to help would-be poets?
I was inspired by William Stafford’s Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Unlocking the Poem by Ottone M. Riccio and Ellen Beth Siegel.
What’s next for you?
Of course I’m working on another book of poems but one cannot see the future. Perhaps Consider This, my poem with an incest theme, will be the title poem. My husband and I are working to get the script of George and Ruth: Songs and Letters of the Spanish Civil War published; this is the start of its 80th anniversary.
Recently, Dan and I have taken up the democratic little ukulele, anyone can pick one up and make music with others from the first time you strum. We lead a Sing and Strum Circle every week at Cambridge Co-housing and soon our fourth annual Ukulele Festival at World Fellowship Center. We lead an annual sing and strum session at the New England Folk Festival. This highlights another huge teenage dream of mine: to be a folk-singer & songwriter, so I see the ukulele as a toe-in-the-door; we are dog-paddling our way, three chords at a time and love performing at meet-ups in the Greater Boston area!
I continue schmoozing with the Bagel Bards on Saturday mornings and Tuesday mornings finds me in Suzanne Berger’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Sometimes I dream of buying a letterpress and hand setting my own chapbooks. There are so many possibilities and reasons to get up each day and get to work. I don’t know what is around the corner to lure me!
We live in amazing times and our lives are precious. Each day is an adventure of making art and living our values as fully as we are able.
Contact Molly Lynn Watt at MollyWatt@comcast.net or 617-354-8242