Question, “Marty, how did you happen to compose poems as Belle for Paul’s novel and how did the creative process work between the two of you?”
Paul Dimond and I have been friends since the seventh grade. Because he knew I was a writer and poet, several years ago he asked me to write five haikus for another novel he was writing. I did, and he liked the poems. When he put down his unfinished Widower’s Song, to begin drafting The Belle of Two Arbors in 2010 after years of historical research, he asked me to compose Belle’s poems. I was truly honored and very excited about the challenge of writing poetry in the voice of a fictional character.
Like Belle, I had written poetry since my teens. Also like Belle, I had a writing circle to critique my poems—but no Robert Frost! I also have spent summers Up North since 1973, although not in the area of Lake Michigan where Belle lived. As I came to know Belle better, I would learn that we also shared a number of similar life experiences: chauvinistic fathers, a younger sibling we helped to rear, athletic ability (for me, golf), a love of nature, as well as loss of an ill mother way too young, and several broken hearts.
To write in Belle’s voice I first had to get to know Belle, which meant reading the early drafts of Paul’s novel. As I read and immersed myself in Belle’s persona, I noted a number of parentheticals strewn throughout the text in which Paul described the kind of poem he wanted to complement the plot. Sometimes his description would be so rich, it made writing the requested poem very easy. Other times, Paul would write, “I need a villanelle about up north” or “I need an elegy for Papa—how about a sonnet?” And this evening, Belle’s “Up North” anthem (and lament) that I recited serves in the novel as a model to inspire two of the most acclaimed villanelles of all, Roethke’s second “Waking” and Auden’s “If I could Tell You.” Similarly, “Papa’s Goodbye” is one of Belle’s s several elegies I recited in the course of Belle sharing drafts of such remembrances with Frost, Roethke and Auden.
Later in the process, as Paul rewrote, revised and tightened the novel, he would send an email suggesting a particular poem. Often, he would include a proposed title for the poem he wanted me to compose.
I would try to comply with what Paul wanted, but sometimes I wrote what ”we” felt, especially as I started to “become Belle.” When this occurred, Paul would often revise his text so that the plot fit the new poem better. The interesting part of this creative dynamic is that both Paul and I had to become Belle; however, since she is a woman and I am a woman, the way “we” responded to certain events sometimes did not correspond with how Paul, as a male, envisioned Belle’s reactions. He and I had a few debates, and together we arrived at what read more authentically as Belle’s point of view, both for the poetry and the prose.
Many of Belle’s poems deal with universal experience: nature, love, loss of love, bereavement, hope, etc. Often, I would respond based on my own experiences—and they would become Belle’s response, too. In fact, halfway through the project, I sifted through the stash of poems I had written over a lifetime and pulled out several, which I sent to Paul. “Can you use any of these?” I asked. And indeed, some he could, and they appear in the novel. One such is “November Hike” that I recited this evening as a counterpart to Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Roethke’s “Big Wind.”
I was challenged by a couple of Paul’s requests, and the resulting poems I did not like--one in particular is “Conservation Conversation.” Its construction as a dialogue is not natural for my writing style. However, since Belle wrote the poem, its success or failure is on her! Some of Belle’s poems are first drafts, and this works because the novel is actually based on her personal journal written over her lifetime and edited and published a quarter century after Belle’s death by the niece she raised as if her daughter. Other poems, more carefully crafted and deepened as Frost would suggest, benefitted from critiquing from my poetry circle, Paper Kite, and advice from Paul.
Some readers of The Belle of Two Arbors have asked if Belle is a real person. For Paul and for me she definitely is—a testament to Paul’s ability to create a character of depth and passion. By the end of the novel, as Belle was dying, I was weeping. Her death is like losing a part of myself.
Download the full remarks for the presentation and poetry reading by Paul Dimond and Martha Buhr Grimes titled A Feast of Poetry. The event took place at Madonna University, April 18, 2017.
Watch the video shown at the Madonna University event: Poetry at Michigan: Then and Now.