Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 28, 2015

Just One Line

Burleigh Muten recently visited my Simmons class on verse novels, where students were grateful for the joy in Miss Emily, amidst other novels that dealt with harsher things than an escapade to see the circus train arrive in the middle of the night. Before the class met, Burleigh and I had tea and cookies, then took a walk to revel in the green-ness that has finally come to Amherst. I spoke about my inspiration for a collection of poems I’m currently writing, telling her about a woman who is credited in books about a far more famous relative, who gets all the rest of the words. “She usually gets one line,” I said.

“One line can be all you need,” Burleigh replied. It’s true. My breath has caught because of a few words tucked in parenthesis, or a footnote that let me glimpse some amazingness that must have happened beyond. In class, Burleigh spoke about part of her inspiration for Miss Emily as a phrase in a memoir written by a boy who lived across the street. These few words served as a guide as Burleigh moved past the myth of the recluse to show the playful side of the poet that children knew.


Writing about women from the past often means drawing from published letters and biographies about brothers, fathers, or husbands, and this is once again the case for me. A single line others must have passed over set off my wonder: what’s not said can be as much a lure as what’s said. My picture book Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon began when I saw a stamp-sized picture of the paleontologist wearing a long dress and holding a hammer in a big book about dinosaurs, and I read the tiny caption.

Such a gift of deep curiosity brings responsibility, as we try to catch hold of a slippery edge and express why and how someone caught our sharp attention. We may not keep the gift just as it came to us – sometimes those inspiring lines slip quite out of view – but the sense of treasure passing from one set of hands to another remains. Something appeared from the past and it seems our cause to bring it back to light. Such a promise keeps us going when that first surprise is gone. There’s a lot of information to collect. Then we remember not to say everything. Looking for answers matters as much as an arrival or conclusion, and we want to keep that sense of quest.

One line is all we need to start. Sure, it has to be the right line, and there will be plenty of fresh false starts along the way. The poems, loosely defined, I’m writing now come from pages and pages of pre-poems, gibberish, junk, and also snippets of scenes and details of setting I’ll snag later. I have about forty pages of writing toward a new book of poems, and in the midst lies half a page of a poem that shows me the voice I want. I’m saving that one piece of a poem, my sign of what is possible, but I’m also patient with the clutter that will take me around and back to that on a long un-poetic path.


  1. “Such a gift of deep curiosity brings responsibility, as we try to catch hold of a slippery edge and express why and how someone caught our sharp attention.” YES! This speaks directly to my Nancy Drew alter ego. I get swept away by a name, a whispering, a link on Ancestry that connects me to relative I never knew about. The creative challenge lies in finding the right way (the right words) to channel that spirit of curiosity into something that entices the reader, same as when I was initially mesmerized.

    Happy to hear that you’re writing more poems. 40 pages’ worth–wow, you’ve been busy!

    • I like how you put the creative challenge, Melodye. Sometimes when I know I’m going on too long, I try to call back that moment I was first hooked, and see it I’m holding to that, and erase what’s extraneous.

      Not 40 pages of poems, but 40 pages of ways toward them. Still, definitely enough, and enthusiasm throughout, to know I’ll work my slow way to an end. Thanks for your happiness!

  2. I’m grateful to you for introducing me to Burleigh Muten.

    And yes, the spark, whatever it is, a line, an object, is enough to set us off and, more importantly, to sustain us, because something deep inside is triggered.

    • Burleigh in persona and Burleigh’s work make me smile, just as you do, Sarah; I hope you get a chance to meet. And I love how you expressed that about the spark, the sort of magic, or at least mystery, in the connection that is, yes, sustaining.

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