What: Write Here — Writers Reading presents Carol Barrett and Judy Montgomery

When: 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Downtown Bend Library, Brooks Room, 601 NW Wall St.

Cost: free

Contact: deschuteslibrary.org or 541-312-1063

Award-winning Bend poets Judith Montgomery and Carol Barrett believe poetry should not be limited to epic tales of romance and tragedy or traditional subjects someone else deems important. Their new collections — Montgomery’s “Litany for Wound and Bloom: Poems” and Barrett’s “Pansies: Vignettes” — use the lenses of motherhood and womanhood to explore universal themes including relationships, trust, pain, fear, maternal love, longing, prejudice and more.

Barrett and Montgomery will read and discuss selections from these books at an event on Sunday in Bend.

“I tell my students you can write poetry (and other forms of writing) about any subject,” said Barrett who teaches in the Humanities and Culture program at Union Institute & University and in the Creativity Studies program at Saybrook University. “Sometimes people have the sense it has to be about love and death, but any subject is an appropriate topic for a poem.”

Despite differences in their style and form, the books are linked by a profound reverence for life and poems about family that elevate domesticity into existential meditations.

Hurting and healing

In its 37 poems, Montgomery’s “Litany for Wound and Bloom” uses different styles of free verse and focuses significantly on women, partly as mothers but also on women’s larger identity and their role in the world. The title reflects some of the subtextual religious imagery present in several of the pieces, along with the overarching themes of emotional and physical injury and the process of rebuilding from those hurts.

“At one point the manuscript was going to be called “Sicatrice,” which is the word for scar, because there’s a lot about wounding,” Montgomery said. “But it’s not just wounding, it’s also about blooming which is recovering from injury and coming back from things.”

Some of the poems spring from the poet’s personal experiences, such as “But You My Son,” about the near death of her adult son after a reaction to a drug administered during his treatment for cancer. Others are based on the writer’s reactions to the world around her, like “Breast, Still,” about a Time magazine cover showing a woman with a mastectomy scar.

Montgomery worked on the poems in “Litany for Wound and Bloom” for almost a decade, before finally finding a successful way to thematically arrange the pieces. They are grouped into three sections: Womb, about trying to become pregnant and what happens once you are; Word, about women being silenced or speaking out and the consequences for doing so; and Witness, about having children and what happens as they venture out into a dangerous world.

Embracing differences

Barrett’s “Pansies” is cast as creative nonfiction and features 30 short vignettes that read like lyrical short stories. These prose poems chronologically tell the true story of Barrett’s hiring of an Apostolic Lutheran teenager to help care for her then 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, for several years.

Abigail (not her real name) was the first person Barrett knew from that conservative religious community whose members are descended from Scandinavian (mostly Finnish) immigrants. They forbid all forms of the arts, including music, dancing, photography, painting, film and television, and do not allow any form of birth control. This results in most families having more than 10 children.

Despite Abigail’s insular upbringing and the wide cultural gap between she and Barrett, it was the latter who was changed as a result of their friendship.

“My stereotypes were eroded by this relationship, and I wanted to transcend my own prejudices,” Barrett said. “What happened for me was this deep appreciation for the way the values of the community are real. They love children, and they take care of their own. I learned a tremendous amount, and I have high regard for the way they honor their own values.”

Most of the vignettes were written contemporaneously when Sarah was a toddler, and Barrett continued to hone them over the past two decades. Taken from the first piece in the collection, the book’s title, “Pansies,” arose from the similarities the poet observed between the Apostolic families and the seemingly delicate, but hardy and prolific, flowers growing on her property.

Paying it forward

Barrett and Montgomery are good friends and also share an interest in the healing potential of writing and reading poetry. In 2017, they led a poetry workshop at the University of Iowa medical school about the therapeutic benefits of poetry. They also conducted a similar workshop recently for the Oregon Poetry Association.

Both poets are members of the Skyhooks critique group, which Montgomery founded in 2001. Each woman credits support and feedback from their fellow Skyhooks poets with helping them continue to improve their writing. With that in mind, Barrett and Montgomery recently started a new group called hummingbards to help mentor three emerging local poets.

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