by Len Lear
Sondra Zeidenstein, an energetic 82-year-old poet and publisher who has become a virtual spokesperson for older writers in the U.S., will appear at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy, on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2 p.m. Her publishing firm, Chicory Blue, has just published “Speaking for My Self: Twelve Women Poets in their 70s and 80s,” two of whom will also be present Saturday.
Zeidenstein started Chicory Blue Press 28 years ago. She named it for the weed that flourishes on the roadside in rural Connecticut, where she lives, starting in July and slowing in September. “I named it really for the particular color,” she said last week, “the kind of blue that the flower opens to only in sunlight, one of the most saturated colors I’ve seen. I can’t say more about the connection with that and the literature I respond to than that, or else I’ll have to write a poem.
“From the beginning I wanted my press to focus, whenever possible, on writing by older women. Women, because I was a feminist who knew that women’s voices had not been heard as much as men’s and that men writers seemed to get more chance at publication than women. Older because I was beginning to write at the age of 50 in an established literary culture that didn’t think one could start a creative life so late, a publishing world that didn’t like to take a chance on someone starting late.”
Chicory Blue Press also focuses on the creative output of older writers because, according to Zeidenstein, “There is no better source of information as well as courage and beauty than what comes from the creative old … Every woman who writes is a survivor, said Adrienne Rich. Every woman who keeps on writing is showing us a way …
“I publish older women writers because I need company. I have always believed that how we imagine our lives, how we make meaning of living, comes largely from literature. The older I get, the more I find myself seeking older women writers to tell me about myself. I am still acutely aware of how skewed my understanding of myself was in the years of growing up, entering womanhood, married life, motherhood, when there were not many writers in whose work the texture of my life, my feelings, ‘my’ side of the story as a woman had been transformed by the imagination.”
The first book published by Chicory Blue Press, “A Wider Giving: Women Writing After a Long Silence,” is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays by 12 women who started their writing careers after the age of 45. First published in 1988, the book made it into several other printings.
Chicory Blue has also published numerous other anthologies that focus on the work of elderly writers.
Zeidenstein’s most recent title, “Speaking for my Self,” celebrates creativity in age. “I chose their poems,” she explained, “which are about loss, justice, compassion, connectedness, art, love, creativity for the authenticity of voice each of them has found within her generation, for her courage to look life in the face, for her emotion, passion, conviction, for as much nakedness as she dares.”
Zeidenstein was born and raised in Pittsburgh but left there in 1953, after college, to marry. She has lived in Cambridge, MA, three of the New York boroughs, Kathmandu, Nepal, Dhaka, Bangladesh and for the last 36 years in Goshen, Connecticut.
“I loved poetry and all forms of literature from the time I started reading when I was three years old. The two careers I considered when I was growing up were being a librarian and teaching literature. Both careers had to do with books, obviously; both employed women back in the 1930s when I began to think of a future. I read constantly, but I never wrote. I had hardly heard of a woman writer in those days, though there were a few. I guess their names rarely came up in school.”
Zeidenstein graduated from college in 1953, married and went to graduate school at Harvard University for a master’s degree while her husband was in law school. She had two children, who are now 58 and 59, took a job teaching literature in Bronx Community College and at the same time enrolled at Columbia University, where she earned a PhD in Modern American Literature.
When her husband’s career took them to Nepal and Bangladesh, she taught literature there at Tribubhan and Dhaka universities. After returning to the U.S., she stopped teaching in 1976 and was strongly influenced by the Women’s Movement and a period of psychotherapy, “which ‘unthawed’ my frozen creativity” and exploded into an outpouring of poetry.
In this era of mobile devices and the slow death of traditional books, is there really a future for poetry? “I believe there is a tremendous audience for poetry,” insisted Zeidenstein. “Wherever I give talks and participate in readings and speak to members of the audience afterward and ask them about themselves, there isn’t a one who doesn’t, though often shyly, admit to writing poems. Poems are where her ‘self’ resides. I am happy with the increased inclusiveness of literature today, though it can never be inclusive enough while the old and other marginal groups are invisible.”