The Haddon Herald: Haddon Life Section
UNCOMMON GEOGRAPHY featured by Jeannie Greenwood, Managing Editor
The Haddon Herald: Haddon Life section, January 5, 2007
Therése Halscheid could likely write a book on the phrase, “art imitates life.” But in the meantime, poetry fans can read her latest collection.
Halscheid, a Haddon Township native whose creative inspirations are culled largely from her surroundings, is the author of Uncommon Geography, released this year by Carpenter Gothic.
The collection chronicles four years of her self-described nomadic endeavors, which include house-sitting stints in a log cabin in the New Jersey pine barrens, a guest house in a swamp in the Florida Panhandle, an adobe home in New Mexico and an elk farm in Pennsylvania.
“In each setting, I stayed open to impressions, poetic images, and lines that came to me by way of walking about,” said Halscheid.
In New Mexico, for instance, one of her tasks was to walk a dog through Native American territory.
“Daily we made our way through a field with two wild horses, crossed the low waters of the Rio Grande, and then hiked through an arroyo, up out onto a mesa which overlooked miles and miles of sacred land. Buffalo roamed below, quiet mountains majestically stood in the distance,” she recalled.
Certain poems, like “Ancient Wealth” and “Modern Maker of Rain,” reflect her observations of Native American mainstays, like nocturnal buffalo dances and petroglyph-inscribed caves.
While living in Florida, she was seduced by the “benevolent” yet dark nature of swamps.
“I gleaned inspiration from kayaking about the mysterious waters, sitting in the thick of giant ferns, by sensing the swamp from inside a screened house on pilings. The swamp held a lot of original power. It had not been subdued by man and its primeval ways,” she said, and added that a section of the book is dedicated to swamp poetry. One of the poems in that series was nominated for a place in the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses series, which is published each year.
Another section sketches her stay at the elk farm, a time she considers particularly special. The poems are coupled with photographs, viewable on her Website: ThereseHalscheid.com.
“My favorite poem in that series ‘Calling the Elk’ is about unspoken communication. The ‘Call’ discerns how humankind and animal-kind can sense each other, send thoughts to each other, so that they might connect. It was beyond spoken language, and worked more with unspoken, sensory experiences,” said Halscheid, who noted that the animals were “quite beautiful and very aware.”
Other poems depict her stay in several other uncommon locations, such as Andrew Wyeth’s homeland and the Brandywine Museum.
Not every poem is based on a specific locale. A few, she said, emerged from small events that took place within that setting, such as a night of fireflies igniting a meadow. Others reflect lessons learned, and yet others feature imaginary places, such as the setting in “The Fever Dream.”
Through her experiences Halscheid has forged an uncanny connection with what she calls the “natural world,” and the cover of Uncommon Geography depicts that very relationship. It features a painting done by an artist who gleans “surreal” images from tree rubbings. The tail-eating snake pictured in the foreground, Halscheid said, is an ancient symbol known as Ouroborus. “It (Ouroborus) was common during the Middle Ages and is the symbol of death and rebirth,” she said. “My publisher and I chose this painting for the cover because symbolically, it reflects the life of a poem, or a collection of poems. The cycle of death and rebirth is what happens each time one poem is finished and another begins, each time I leave one setting and begin another journey, and even in the way one book ends (like closing the chapter to that person’s life) and another begins.”
Geography and journeys likewise drove many poems in Halscheid’s previous collections, Without Home and Powertalk, which contain poems Halscheid wrote about Hopkins Pond, in Haddonfield, Ural Mountains of Russia, and a stay with a Maori tribe of New Zealand, among others.
Halscheid recalls that her earliest surroundings, her attic bedroom in a Cape-Cod style home in Haddon Township where her mother still resides, provided a “special muse” for creativity, with its low sloped ceilings, east and west-facing windows and quiet, gnome-like quality.
“Even now, when I return and stay (with my mother), I write and sleep in the attic,” she said.
Halscheid began writing full time in 1993, after 13 years as a teacher in Franklin and Haddon Township, where she worked at Van Sciver School. At the time, she traded her Haddonfield apartment and most of her possessions for life as house-sitter to support her career as a poet.
While caring for a cottage at the Jersey shore, Halscheid facilitated writing workshops at the Ocean City Art Center and Atlantic Cape Community College, and also formed a creative writing monthly support group at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.
In addition to fodder for poems, the varied settings provided Halscheid with a certain calm that connected her with intense subjects and people, like her father, who suffered from brain damage.
“I lived simply, and rustic settings offered solace and support,” she said.
In 2003, Halscheid received a Fellowship for Poetry from NJ State Council on the Arts.
For the past decade, she has served as poet-in-residence for the Hopkins House, home of the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission, which is headquartered on South Park Drive in Haddon Township. She coordinated readings, workshops, and occasional panel discussions.
This year, she said, the Commission will expand its focus from local artists to nationally-known poets such as Marie Howe, Brian Turner and the Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Jim Haba. And the quarterly series will transition to a monthly series, she said.
As for her own writing, Halscheid will continue to expand and create using a valuable tool – an open mind. “When you stay open to dreams, pay attention to them, commit them to paper, it is as if they know,” she said. “The dreams come then, frequently and vivid.”