A Conversation with Alice Wolf Gilborn
Alice Wolf Gilborn came to the Adirondacks in the 1970s, where she worked as Editor of Books and Publications at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. In 1979, she founded Blueline: A Literary Magazine Devoted to the Spirit of the Adirondacks. Blueline is one of the earliest literary magazines claiming the region, and building on a growing sense (notably argued in Paul Jamieson's The Adirondack Reader (1964)) that the Adirondacks has had its own defining literary tradition.
Out of the Blue: Blueline Essays 1979–1989 (Potsdam College Press, 2016)
Taking Root (Finishing Line Press, 2012)
A North Country Quartet: Alice Wolf Gilborn, Linda Batt, Lorraine Wilson, and Randy Lewis. (Potsdam College Press, 2006)
Adirondack Faces: Mathias Oppersdorff (Syracuse UP, 1991) (Photographs by Oppersdorff)
What Do You Do with a Kinkajou? (J,B. Lippincott, 1976)
Birchsong Poetry Centered in Vermont Vol 2. Ed. by Alice Wolf Gilborn, Carol Cone, David Mook, Marcia Angermann, Peter Bradley and Monica Stillman (The Blueline Press, 2018)
Birchsong Poetry Centered in Vermont Vol 1. Ed. by Alice Wolf Gilborn, Rob Hunder, Carol Cone, Brenda Nicholson, and Monica Stillman (The Blueline Press, 2012)
The Blueline Anthology. Ed. Rick Henry, Anthony Tyler, Myra Gann, Alan Steinberg, Stephanie Coyne-DeGhett, and Alice Wolf Gilborn. (Syracuse UP, 2004)
North Country: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from the Adirondacks and the Upper Hudson Valley. Ed. by Alice Wolf GIlborn and Joseph Bruchac (Greenfield Review Press, 1986)
Rick The general project is regional writing, and whether regions have something special that manifests itself in the arts.
Alice I was a fan of regional writing for a long time. Especially since I came from Colorado. I'm not really familiar with a western body of literature unless it's cowboy stuff. But the southern body is well-known and, of course, New England writing. There’s also a tradition, I guess you'd call it, of local writing.
Rick You open up your essays in Blueline with the sentence "The dramatic possibilities inherent in the Adirondacks have not been fully realized by a writer." Do you still think that?
Alice No, I don't. When I started Blueline in 1979 there was very little regional writing that was evident. There were nineteenth-century authors, like Philander Deming, who wrote about the Adirondacks, and there was plenty of folklore. But I think that the Adirondacks are better now for writing. There's a lot more writing that’s more centralized now. The Adirondack Center for Writing has been responsible for much of this.
Rick Since '79, do any writers particularly come to the foreground in your mind of who might have embodied dramatic possibilities?
Alice Well, the first writer who was my model, and I don't know if he realizes that, was Joe Bruchac, a writer and poet. He published a book about how to start and sustain a literary magazine. It was a step-by-step guide, and I followed it very closely. Mason Smith is one. He's done some good work. And Maurice Kenny.
Rick In an early essay, you're writing about mountains. At one point you're comparing the Colorado Rockies with the Adirondacks. Now you're in Vermont, tucked in between the Green Mountain Range and the Taconics. You now have four 'spirits of the mountains,' so to speak. Do they share something?
Alice I think they do share something. Certainly for me spiritually. But they're also different at the same time. The mountains of Vermont are rounded down and heavily forested with both conifers and deciduous trees, different from the Adirondack forest, which is mainly conifers. Both are remnants of the great northern forest that once covered this part of the continent. The Colorado Rockies are barren up to a certain point. The lower parts aren't so much, but the peaks are jagged and rocky.
I think about the spaciousness of the land out there. It's kind of protective and frightening at the same time. I was born in Denver, and we lived on the outskirts. You could see when I was growing up all the way to the mountains. It wasn't all developed. And the mountains stood up like steps, or a crust, a piecrust, on the horizon. I always liked that. It was calming to me, not threatening.
But these mountains, you know, they have their own personality. There's not much water here in Vermont as in the Adirondacks, except for Lake Champlain. Lots of streams. Not lakes like the Adirondacks.
Sometimes the mountains look very much the same, the way the shadows on them are similar. But they're contoured differently. I'm much more comfortable with mountains than with water and lakes.
When we came from Colorado to the Adirondacks, I missed the space, the expanse of land and sky. In New York, we lived on the side of a mountain above a lake, and the lake was large and open, so that was okay. All the trees were a bit claustrophobic at first.
Rick How do those differences manifest themselves in terms of humans, and human interactions?
Alice The Rocky Mountains ... I was a child then ... people were pretty well spread out. Now there are areas, especially around Denver, that are heavily developed. In the Adirondacks, people cluster in small towns and depend on one another. It's the same n Vermont, clusters of towns and villages. But in the Adirondacks much more of the country is uninhabited. In Vermont, there are farms, and more land is occupied, though still rural. Sometimes you don't realize it when people are scattered.
We live in a little town on the edge of Manchester. It's got two streets and a handful of residences, a small neighborhood that used to be much larger when there was marble mining on the mountain above it. We're never far from any sort of wildlife and wilderness. We have deer coming through the yard and bear. All those critters are still around. We didn't have them so much in Colorado, though we lived on a farm, but maybe it was too close to the city.
Rick Does that allow for a different kind of dramatic possibility for a situation of a poem, or a situation of a story or an essay?
Alice Yes, it does. And I'm still trying to define what it is. I've written a long poem, which I’ve shown to just a few people. It's an autobiographical poem about my years from zero to about twelve, anyway, after the Second World War. I start with the mountains, and try to compare the different ranges I know. I think if I ever revise this poem I might throw that part out, because it's too solemn in a way. I really haven't come to terms with what mountains mean to me. They keep appearing in my poetry. I guess because they're so ingrained in me.
Rick One thing you've suggested in Blueline is that you not just talk about the mountains and the people, but to get into the imagination. That the goal was to discover the 'inarticulate truth of the imagination.' Is there an imagination specific to these places? To the regions? To the south? To the west?
Alice I do believe there is an imagination specific to these regions reflected in the literature and art particular to them. A micro-culture you could say. But as an observer and a writer, it takes skill to find and convey the core of a certain place or region, its spiritual as well as its physical identity. Faulkner found it, so did Hawthorne.
I had a hard time when I went to school, to college. That was the first time I'd really left home for any period of time. And I was miserable for at least two years. I really missed the west. I dreamed of the west. I dreamed of the life I'd had there. So I was very aware of the different areas, New England versus Colorado.
I don't know if I found that truth for myself. I think it would be the west still, until the end of my life, probably. But I do think there is an imaginative truth, no matter where you live. Have you read any of Jeanne Robert Foster's thoughts and poems?
Rick Only those reprinted in Paul Jamieson's The Adirondack Reader, and even then only because I'd read your two essays on her ["A Woman of Parts" and "The Poetry of Place"]. You consider her to be an Adirondack writer. Paul Jamieson includes her in his anthology. I am curious what makes her so.
Alice I think because she gives such a honest picture of life in an Adirondack village. She’s a realist. She was brought up in Chesterton, and she knew the people. She doesn’t write about the landscapes, she writes about the villagers, her neighbors. It took imagination to capture the essence of the individuals she wrote about. Those portraits corresponded to our experience living 28 years in the Adirondacks, to many of the people, the local people we knew. Of course, Foster’s "neighbors of yesterday" were a century earlier, but they still rang true.
She moved out of the Adirondacks and became quite a figure in the art world, not because of her poetry. She was still writing, but her poems were very different. They didn't have the same quality, the authenticity, they had before.
Rick How are the people different, across these different regions?
Alice A lot of Vermonters are like Adirondackers. The families of many Adirondackers first settled in Vermont then moved north. There's a real connection here. Where we are is south central. We're at the beginning of the "Valley of Vermont." The landscape is different. Now I don't know about the values ... I'm not talking about the people who have second homes here.
I’m talking about working class neighborhoods and the working people who have lived here for generations. These are farmers, loggers, miners, as well as mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, etc. They keep things running, and they have a certain way of doing things.
Rick You've mentioned the people who live and work within the region, and then the seasonal people who come in, and that there is a difference in terms their writing about the region.
Alice The seasonal people are the ones who join organizations, frequent bookstores and cafes, go to art exhibits and so forth. Many have large houses on ample tracts of land but not all. Often they come for the skiing then buy second homes here. They tend to be very loyal and supportive of Vermont. They’re an important part of its culture, as well as the natives.
I don't know if you knew that I've edited two anthologies of Vermont writing. I received poems from all over the state. The people I knew who had been brought up in Vermont weren't those who were contributing to poetry anthologies. Our contributors were mostly either teaching at one of the colleges or here for other reasons. It's hard for people to live here full time when employment is not good. A lot of people move here after they’ve retired if they have enough money, but for younger people with families, to find work is hard.
Rick You describe a number of writings by the seasonal writers who come to the Adirondacks, who write the 'ode to the sunset over the lake' or something of that nature, something highly romanticized. Are you seeing in Vermont dramatic tensions between development and nature in the literature?
Alice I'm not sure that I'm seeing much of it. I know when collecting poems from Vermont for the anthologies, a poem that had some sort of dramatic tension like that would probably be accepted if it were well written. The predominant poetry that I noted, and in the Adirondacks, too, were odes to the grace, the beauty of nature. Which is fine, but there's a lot of it.
Rick You have written about John Gardner and his book On Moral Fiction, where he was writing about the responsibility of the writer. Gardner argued that it should be responsible to the world, morality, and social interaction. When you're looking at the Adirondack literature, does it feel responsible to anything?
Alice My impression of it is that it's responsible primarily to nature. I haven't read that much lately, so it may have changed. What strikes you first about the Adirondacks is the place. And then possibly the people. Though I’ve read some good narrative poems similar in some ways to the Jeanne Robert Foster portraits.
Rick With these little nested communities, there a different kind of small town morality, or dramatic possibility?
Alice In the Adirondacks? Mason Smith is probably the best person to answer that question. He and I both lived in the same small town. Many native Adirondackers are interesting types. You can pinpoint some of them as material for fiction, which Mason has done in his books. I never tried to do that, because I felt out of my element. In Vermont, there are also native Vermonters who have been here for generations and are not inclined to move out of their little clusters of family and towns. Family connections are very strong. But the two are very similar in what their opinions are and how they respond to people. You have to be careful about the tendency to categorize, however.
Rick What are the possibilities for transcendence? Is it a universal thing for people, or is it based in time and place? What have you seen of it at all in the Adirondack literature? Or in your own writing.
Alice That's a question I can’t answer because I don't think I have seen it in particular. It’s not in my own writing. There's a certain groundedness in Adirondack literature. It’s not Emersonian or anything like that. More like Thoreau perhaps.
Rick To what extent is your own poetry reflective of mountains, time, space, villages.
Alice My own poetry is ... I don't know quite how to define it or put myself in a category. I tell stories. If I get an idea for a poem, it normally comes from something that has happened to me or happened elsewhere. It's not particularly abstract or philosophical, it's just reporting in a way, though I like to tap into a universal experience if possible. And yes, usually there are mountains, or nature, worked into everything. I write about my own neighborhood. Many of my poems concern animals, either as subject or metaphor.
Rick But they are also dramatic, in that you usually have a conflict that the poem or the essay hinges on.
Alice That's true. I try not to be merely descriptive, I try to make a point somehow. Not to tell it but to show it as vividly as possible with the right words. I haven't written many essays lately. But there's a poet here, a fairly new guy. I sent him a poem I’d written, and he suggested I put it into essay form, which is interesting. I don't think I'll do it, however.
Rick Would you consider your writing 'nostalgic?' So many of the paeans to nature written by the summer folk seem to be looking for a lost time. Are you feeling nostalgic in any way, or would you put that in a box. Here's my box of nostalgic poems and here's my box of something else.
Alice I've probably put nostalgia into many poems. I don't like to write out specific emotions. They may come out in the poems, but ... I have a lot of poems about loss. Everyone experiences losses. It's a universal phenomenon. I don't always mean to do that, but sometimes my poems end up that way.
Rick In the nearly thirty years that you were in the Adirondacks, how much did it change? How much was lost in that regard, or opened up?
Alice Because of the park, the Adirondack Park, change was slow coming, if it came. Since its beginning, there has been a conflict between residents of the park and Adirondack Park Agency, which they believed dictated what they could and could not do with their property. That didn’t change when we lived there, and it’s probably going on still. But the towns changed--I saw it in Indian Lake. The town had a grocery store, a movie house, restaurants in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, the grocery store and the movie house were gone, as well as other establishments. The school lost children nearly every year, which was a problem for the whole town because the school was central. The towns seemed to be shriveling up.
We were in a unique situation because we were living in a museum, literally, on the grounds. It was supported by people mainly from out-of-state with the means and the experience to do it. It was a very seasonal kind of thing. We had a whole different crowd of people in the summer than in the winter when the people were local and not as many. We see-sawed between this shrunken existence and cold in the winter and then in the summer, everything seemed to expand—nature, black flies, summer residents, vacationers. These people were our friends, but they weren't us. We were somewhere in the middle.
My husband's boss, Harold Hochschild, founder of the Adirondack Musuem, owned property on Blue Mountain Lake as well as in Princeton, N.J. He was a very interesting person with friends the world over whom he invited to his family "camp" on the lake. Some even built their own camps nearby. He made his money in mining. His son, Adam Hochschild, is a writer who started the magazine Mother Jones.
But anyway. It's hard for me to say. I didn't really have my finger on the pulse of what was going on at that point. I also had an infant daughter.
Raising children in the Adirondacks was no easy job. No support system except within families. Fortunately there was a local family who took in all the kids in town during the preschool years. But schools were ... one of the reasons we left the Adirondacks was the situation with the schools. My husband Craig had retired from his job, but we couldn’t stay in the Adirondacks when our daughter had only four in her class. That just didn't work.