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Siren Songs

Margaret DeRitter is pictured here at Hogsett Lake, the setting of two poems in her book Singing Back to the Sirens. The lake is bordered by Kalamazoo County’s Prairie View Park, where she often launches her kayak. © 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Through poetry, Margaret DeRitter explores life, love and loss

Many sirens inspired Margaret DeRitter’s new book, Singing Back to the Sirens.

Sirens, as you may remember from high school lit class, are lovely women on a rocky isle who sing beautiful songs to lure sailors to their deaths. But DeRitter’s sirens lead her to awareness and resolution instead.

“The title is about taking back my life and individual identity after the death of relationships with women I found alluring,” says DeRitter. “It relates to singing my own songs — writing poems about the joys and passions of my relationships and the grief I felt on losing them. I hope they’re written in such a way that they resonate with anyone who’s experienced love and loss.”

Singing Back to the Sirens, published this month by Unsolicited Press of Portland, Oregon, is DeRitter’s first full-length book of poetry. Her chapbook, Fly Me To Heaven By Way of New Jersey, was a winner in the 2018 Celery City Chapbook Contest, sponsored by Kalamazoo’s Friends of Poetry.

Sitting in DeRitter’s living room in Kalamazoo’s Westnedge Hill neighborhood, she talks of how the book came about. “After hearing me read at the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival, Dean Hauck of Michigan News Agency asked me when she would see my memoir in poems,” DeRitter recalls. “That hit me, got me looking through everything I’d written. And I’m competitive. I was recently joking with my friend Jennifer Clark about her fourth book and how would I ever catch up with her?” (DeRitter is, in fact, so competitive that after knee surgery last year she played extreme croquet with her writing group, using a walker.)

DeRitter spent a summer figuring out which of her poems belonged in the book and where. It felt like the poems divided themselves into two sections, she says. The first section, “So Many Sang to Me,” contains poems about childhood, early crushes, coming out and other lesbian experiences, while the second, “Singing Back to Her,” focuses on the story of one relationship.

“Some poems were written over a long period of time, but the second half I wrote within the past six years,” DeRitter says.

In her carefully constructed, two-part text, sirens appear in the form of her mother, her childhood friends, her women friends, women who became more than friends, and the urge to create.

Bonds to family seem as important to DeRitter as romantic love, and the Calvinism in which she was raised played a role in distancing her, to some extent, from family members. In her poem “How Calvinism Came Between Us,” DeRitter writes that her mother loved her “beyond measure,” but, when it came to DeRitter’s love interests, “couldn’t — wouldn’t — say girlfriend. / Didn’t ask much about those women either.”

In a touching poem about ice skating with one of her older brothers during childhood, DeRitter recalls a “December evening — sunset blazing, / ice cracks booming, my fuzzy mitten / tucked inside his leather glove.” When he stops speaking to her later in life, she loses the “utter joy” of that memory — until they are reconciled: “My brother and I are friends again / and today, at last, I heard him say it: / The best skating experience of my life. / Mine too, Pete. / I remember holding your hand / and flying across the ice.”

DeRitter’s religious upbringing brought her to Michigan in 1975 to attend Calvin College (now Calvin University), where she earned a degree in philosophy, with a minor in English. She worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area for eight years and at the Kalamazoo Gazette for 22 years, from 1988 to 2010. “Dateline Kalamazoo,” one of the best poems in her book, is about saying goodbye to what the newspaper once was: “We were an army then, carriers, accountants, / artists, designers, editors, reporters / the lady on the phone with a real live voice. / We called the new section Today, with no clue / about tomorrow.”

DeRitter has been a feature writer, copy editor and poetry editor at Encore magazine since 2011, but poetry has become her prominent form of writing. “When I write a feature story for Encore, I am trying to understand the person I’ve interviewed, putting the pieces together to form a coherent story. I like the craftsmanship of that, but once I was no longer a full-time journalist I was grateful to have the time to write more poetry,” she says.

“I began studying poetry writing in 1998, in Diane Seuss’s poetry workshop at Portage District Library. Poetry requires you to get into a different mindset. You leave your analytical mind behind and let your creative, emotional side out more. Journalism influenced me to think in stories. This book is a story in poems.”

Seuss, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry, has praised Singing Back to the Sirens, saying, “Taken together, these achingly beautiful and gutsy poems represent an autobiography of love, from early crushes to coming out to a Calvinist mother in a New Jersey landscape and its sea-salt air to the speaker’s erotic coming of age — her first gay bar, first girlfriend — and finally adult love and marriage, and the marriage’s startling dissolution against the mucky inland lakes and icy realms of Michigan. The collection is unflinching, honest and spare in its insistent description of grief’s volatility and its silences.“

Singing Back to the Sirens is not without humor, though, especially at DeRitter’s own expense. In “Thanksgiving Explosion,” for example, a poem about a painful domestic argument, these lines strike me as darkly funny and relatable:“and with that, my head exploded / every grievance spattered on the kitchen walls / the stove, the floor, the cupboards. / Do you really want to do this now? you asked. / Well, yes, yes, I wanted to do it now. / And I did it. Loud. And long.”

DeRitter knows there can be pitfalls in writing about other people in her poetry but says she is aiming to explore her own thoughts and emotions in relation to others, not scrutinize others or hurt people she has loved. “I wrote about how they’ve affected my life, and I tried to be honest about my own feelings.“

“Doesn’t it take bravery to write about your feelings?” I ask.

“I guess it does take a certain bravery to explore emotions,” DeRitter replies. “They can be really painful, but they also make me feel alive, so it seemed natural to me to write this book.”

Elizabeth Kerlikowske

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