James Hayman: Perhaps, as T.S. Eliot famously wrote, April is the cruelest month. However, for me and for many other writers in Maine, this year, it feels like May.
The past few weeks have been filled with both beautiful weather and terrible news.
Several hours after midnight on May 7th, the main barn at Bill and Cynthia Thayer’s Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro, a post and beam structure built in 1859, burned to the ground. Eighteen sheep, sixty chicks, three draft horses, two calves and two pigs, all of whom were in the barn, perished in the blaze. Cynthia suffered burns to her face in a brave but futile attempt to rescue some of the animals.
As many of you no doubt know, in addition to running Darthia Farm with her husband Bill, Cynthia is a talented novelist, the author of three fine books, Strong For Potatoes, A Certain Slant of Light and A Brief Lunacy. She is also a good friend and mentor to me and was the first reader of the first half of my first novel, The Cutting.
Jeanne and I initially met Cynthia when she came down to Peaks Island to conduct a writing workshop at the island branch of Portland Public Library. When I was introduced to her I told her that I was hard at work on my first fiction.
“How much have you written?” she asked.
“One hundred and fifty pages,” I replied.
“Would you like me to read it and give you my opinion?”
“I’d be thrilled,” I said, surprised by her generosity.
“I have to warn you,” she said, “I’m not your mother. If I think it’s dreadful, I won’t spare your feelings.”
I told her I wouldn’t want it any other way. I emailed her the manuscript that night and she called me back less than twenty-four hours later.
“I have to tell you,” she said, “You kept me up all night. I think the book’s terrific.” Once again, I was thrilled. These were the first words from anyone whose literary judgment I respected that made me think that maybe, just maybe I might really become a novelist
She then offered a number of suggestions on how to improve the manuscript. In each case, she was right. Her suggestions did improve it.
When the barn burned down, friends of the Thayers set up a fund to help them rebuild and bring in new livestock. Anyone interested in making a donation can do so online at: http://www.giveforward.com/darthiafarmphoenixfund
In addition, Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson, owners of Longfellow Books in Portland have generously set up a fund raising event. Forty Maine writers, including me, will be signing books at the store on Monument Square on First Friday, June 1st from 5 PM till 8 PM with all proceeds going to the Darthia Farm Phoenix Fund. Stop by if you can.
Sadly, the fire at Darthia Farm turned out not to be the either the last or the worst of this month’s bad news. This past Monday, May 21st, I learned that an old friend and colleague, Michael Macklin, died unexpectedly in his sleep while accompanying students from the Waynflete School in Portland to the Breadloaf New England Young Writers Conference at Middlebury, Vermont.
Michael was a carpenter, a poet and a teacher of poetry as well as a fellow board member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. We both joined the board on the same day back in 2006 and since the organization’s by-laws mandate a six-year term limit, we were both scheduled to attend our last board meeting next Tuesday, May 29th.
There is a tradition of opening every MWPA board meeting with the reading of a poem. Over the past six years that pleasant task has fallen most often to either Michael or fellow poet and board member Betsy Sholl. Perhaps my fondest memory of Michael will be the sound of his deep, sonorous voice reading one terrific poem or another at one of the dozens of MWPA meetings and functions we attended together over the years.
Readers of this blog who knew Michael and cared for him might want to attend A Memorial Celebration of Michael Macklin’s Life and Work tomorrow Friday, May 25 at 4:30 PM at the Waynflete School’s Franklin Theater, 360 Spring Street, Portland.