Boomers: Poetry a way of life for Beth Tornes
It doesn’t take long to realize when meeting Beth Tornes, and when reading her poetry, that northern Wisconsin is in her blood. In fact, judging from her work in Snowbound, a chapbook of poems that she published last year, it seems natural to just assume that Beth grew up in this area. Her masterfully chosen words put the reader into the deep snow, dark woods and clear waters of which she writes, and several of her poems pay tribute to the Native American heritage of Lac du Flambeau. But when she reveals over a glass of iced tea that she’s actually a transplant from Columbus, Ohio, it’s a surprise. “I’ve lived here full-time since 1996,” she says, explaining that it only took a year for a summer home she bought here to become her permanent residence.
But Beth’s path didn’t initially lead her right to northern Wisconsin. There was college in Ohio and Utah, and in her twenties, she lived in France (and is fluent in French, even though, she says, “I lost my French accent and now I just sound like an American speaking French”). Her poetry has been there through it all, and regardless of her Ohio roots, that poetry makes it clear that northern Wisconsin is her home.
Beth has cultivated her talent for poetry since the age of 12 and was influenced by poets like William Carlos Williams, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. “When I went to college, I took a creative writing class,” she explains, adding that since then, she has felt that writing is her calling. She was 19 when she was published for the first time in a literary magazine and admits that it felt like winning the lottery. “It encouraged me to keep writing,” she says. “I think it’s important that young people get that positive reinforcement early on.”
Writing has figured prominently in her life for many years. She writes free verse and formal poetry for the pleasure of it, and to make a living, she currently works as a grant writer with the Great Lakes Inter-tribal Council. Before her job with GLITC, she also wrote articles for the Lac du Flambeau News and News from Indian Country. Writing grant applications and articles for newspapers may seem at first glance to be very different from poetry, but that’s really not the case. All three forms of writing require precision. Poetry for her, says Beth, “was very much a natural combination with journalism. It’s paying attention and witnessing the world in a similar way to journalism, and using language in a very concise manner. There’s a precision and density to language in poetry.”
Writing isn’t Beth’s only calling. “I love teaching,” she says. “I’m always inspired by the students.” While earning a PhD at the University of Utah, she taught creative writing. She has also taught at Beloit College and at writing workshops in Madison. She’s also scheduled to teach a poetry workshop in September at Dillman’s Bay in Lac du Flambeau (www.dillmans.com).
“One of the best ways to learn about poetry,” she advises, “is to read poetry.” Those wanting to write it, she says, should read the great poets or any poets whose work resonates with them. Reading poetry often inspires Beth to write her own poems, but she also has other methods for mining her subconscious for ideas. For example, she keeps a pen and paper next to her bed in case she awakens during the night with an idea. “I’ve actually dreamt complete poems a couple of times,” she says, adding that she keeps a journal. “I carry a little notebook around with me so I can jot down thoughts immediately.” Nature itself provides plenty of inspiration, as evidenced by her work in Snowbound. “I love just walking around in the woods, observing and absorbing images.”
Beth also edited Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders, published in 2004. It was a memorable project, one on which she worked on for six years. “It was a huge honor to do the tribal elders book,” she says. The University of Wisconsin Press published that book, but Beth self-published Snowbound. A chapbook such as Snowbound is a small publication, usually no more than 40 pages or so. It’s a format that’s relatively inexpensive to produce and lends itself well to small press runs. A chapbook, Beth feels, is a great way to get poetry out to readers. “I really think self-publishing is a very good option for writers,” she says, adding that there are a lot of online resources available to help those who are considering self-publishing. As it turned out, Snowbound won first prize in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Award-a prize that paid for a second printing of the book.
Between her full-time job, her upcoming workshop at Dillman’s Bay and her poetry, Beth is busy, but it doesn’t look as if she’s about to slow down. She’s working on a full-length book of poems, and she’d like to broaden her horizons even more.
“I’d like to try my hand at longer, more philosophical poems. I’ve been reading a lot of Wallace Stevens lately and I admire his ability to address big ideas in the form of a poem. Some of my more recent work attempts to take on bigger questions,” Beth says. “Not that I’ll find any answers, but I guess we can ask the questions.”
For more information about Beth’s chapbook, Snowbound, contact her at [email protected].
Editor’s note: In the printed version of this article, it was incorrectly reported that Beth Tornes worked on the book Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders for two years. She actually worked on this book for six years. Her collection of poetry, Snowbound, won first place in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook contest, a fact that was inadvertently left out of the article. We apologize for these errors.