BRATTLEBORO — Before Michael Fleming, winner of the latest Sundog Poetry Book Award, left the room at the end of our recent conversation, he noted that I hadn’t asked about Wyoming, the state where he spent the first 18 years of his life.
“My heart is there. That’s where I first learned about poetry,” he said.
Her country of origin is not specifically mentioned in the poems in “Bags and Tools,” the collection that won her the annual Sundog Poetry Center award. But he credits his English teachers there with helping him find his love of words, and the vastness of the landscape for shaping his sensibility. In Wyoming, he said, being the least populated state (Vermont is second), you can be 50 miles from the nearest person.
“Poets are truly voices in the desert, and Wyoming has a lot of desert.”
The Sundog Poetry Center, at Johnson, recently named Fleming, of Brattleboro, winner of the 2021 Sundog Poetry Book Award for the manuscript that became “Bags and Tools,” chosen by poet Vievee Francis. The poetry book, Fleming’s first, is published in conjunction with Green Writers Press in Brattleboro.
At 7 p.m. Friday, in honor of National Poetry Month, there will be a book launch at Next Stage Arts, 15 Kimball Hill, Putney. Fleming will read excerpts from his new book, which will be available for purchase at the event.
Frances Cannon, executive director of the Sundog Poetry Center, said Fleming’s poems reflect a wide range of research topics, from archeology to outer space. A notes section at the end of the book names some of Fleming’s sources.
She compared the book to a collection of myths or fables that can be interpreted in any way.
“Each time I read the book, I come up with a new interpretation, which I think is a really enjoyable reading experience for anyone who might pick up the book. There’s always a new layer,” he said. she stated.
Fleming, 64, lives in town with his partner, psychologist and author Martha Straus (her book dedication reads “for Marti”), and a few cats. A lifelong writer and editor, he was also a teacher, graduate student, and carpenter. He has edited literary anthologies for WW Norton and several books of fiction, non-fiction, prose and poetry.
Born in San Francisco, his family moved to Casper, Wyo., when he was a baby. He attended Princeton University and his first job after college was working in refugee camps in Thailand. He completed his graduate studies at Oxford University and has since lived and worked in Swaziland, California, New York, New Hampshire and, for the past 14 years, Brattleboro.
All of these places informed the “Bags and Tools” poems in one way or another, Fleming said, beginning with the poem from which the title is taken. The poem “Bags and Tools” is the only one in the book written decades before the others and was inspired by a Zen story. While living in Thailand, Fleming immersed himself in Buddhism, which led him to discover the Zen tradition.
Of the places he has traveled, he called the Thai experience the most formative.
“That’s what really dramatically changed my sense of myself and my sense of the world,” he said. “And I really started writing poems there.”
By this time, his exposure to poetry had been mainly through academics. His BA was in English and he won a Rhodes Scholarship which allowed him to study Medieval English at New College, Oxford.
It wasn’t until he met and married a New York poet that he was immersed in the world of living poetry and readings.
“It really opened my eyes when I was living in New York,” he said.
Then, when he moved to Brattleboro, he joined the writing group started by author Suzanne Kingsbury, where many of the “Bags and Tools” poems would be written. He wrote prose for the first few weeks of being in the group, then moved on to poetry, which made it easier for him to finish something within the hour.
“After years of working on a novel – it never seems to be finished – it was so great to get things done,” he said. “I really like the possibility of using poetry as a storytelling medium.”
Among the longest poems in the book is “Corona”, describing line by line how the pandemic has changed our world, with observations such as “At first it was just a word… yet another thing to reflect”. Things start to turn when “It started covering the sun,” a metaphor inspired by a 2017 solar eclipse that Fleming observed from his hometown of Casper.
“It’s a life-changing thing to see a total solar eclipse,” he said.
The poem is divided into seven sections, which is no accident – a group of seven sonnets is called a “crown of sonnets” and “crown” means “crown” in Latin.
When asked how his lines come to him, he said many feel pressure to write in a timed group setting.
“We know that at the end of the hour, we will take turns reading, and that concentrates the mind,” he says. The rest of the time, he keeps a notebook and a pen with him to write down his ideas.
After Fleming’s manuscript was named the winner of the competition, meaning it would be turned into a book, Cannon, the poetry center’s managing director, signed on as an illustrator.
Among the poems she says most inspired her drawing was ‘Otzi’, about Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, discovered in 1991 with an array of weapons and tools from the age Stone. She said Fleming’s poem prompted some of her own research into visual representations of mummy tools.
“He embodies a lot of different voices,” she said of Fleming’s writing. The characters, she says, are both fictional and autobiographical, and each has their own “tools,” both practical and metaphorical.
“It gave me a lot of visual material,” she said.
Cannon, of Burlington, also took the cover photo for the book. She was walking along the waterfront in Charlotte with her dog and partner when she looked into the rock and found what appeared to be pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.
“Part of the reason I shared this with Michael as a potential cover is that I feel like this book is both very accessible on a surface level – it feels really humble and conversational and accessible – but then it has this timeless, ancient depth,” she says.
Friday’s reading will be Fleming’s first time meeting Cannon and others from the Sundog Poetry Center in person. He looks forward to reading his work aloud.
“I think of these as scripts. This is not a poem. It’s the script of a poem. The poem is when it’s a sound in the air and someone listens to that sound,” he said. “And so a reading is what makes the poems real.”