Yes, I’m Lea Wait. But once upon a time I was Ellie. And many moons ago, when I was a junior at Chatham College (now university) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one quiet Saturday evening I decided one wall of my dorm room looked empty. So, being a writer, I wrote a poem, cut out the stanzas as though they were clouds, and posted it so they filled the wall.
Decorating done, I went back to studying. Several months later I read about a national poetry contest for college students and decided to enter it. I sent in several poems, including the one on the wall. Ellie: An Inventory of Being, won first prize and was published in Story: The Yearbook of Discovery – 1968, edited by Whit and Hallie Burnett. Marianne Moore, who judged the poetry entries, wrote of me, “She is uninhibited, curious, retentive, and takes trouble.” Whit Burnett added, “What better might be said of a worker in the arts!”
I was thrilled. I spent the $50 prize money on one long-distance telephone call to my boyfriend, who lived in Boston. We broke up.
I put the book on a shelf, and went on with my life.
Until 2005, when by a chance Google discovery I learned that my little poem had been alive all these years. It had been used — and is still being used — in high school and college creative writing classes in the United States, Canada and Asia, often with a note that no one knew who “Eleanor Wait” was, or what had happened to her. Ironically, the answer is in the poem. After I graduated from college I changed my name to “Lea Wait.”
When I found out what had happened to “Ellie,” I posted the poem on my website, and began hearing from people all over the world who had written their own “Ellie” poems. One educator had written an essay on “the poetry of random facts about ourselves,” a school of poetry, which she felt began with my “Ellie.” (She’d even footnoted my poem.) One couple from Nova Scotia shared that they’d exchanged “Ellie Poems” on their first date .. went on to get married .. and read a joint “Ellie Poem” at their wedding.
In 2008 I was honored when Chatham College awarded me their Cornerstone Award for lifetime achievement in literature, and I read part of the poem in my acceptance speech, bringing the poem back to where it started, on that college campus, on a Saturday night.
With memories of the Ellie Wait who was once 20 years old, here is part of that poem …
Ellie: An Inventory of Being
I am Ellie.
I am twenty years old.
I am a student, but never a co-ed. A girl, afraid to be a woman.
If I stand very tall I am 62 inches high. I have blue eyes streaked with gray,
And tarnished brown hair that gets in them. Sometimes I wear it in a bun and am Emily Dickinson or Louisa Alcott. Or in pigtails, and play hopscotch in front of Mellon Institute. Or just let it hang, and run down Chapel Hill anyway.
I am a student, and a lady, and a child; Almost a woman, but always a girl.
I love rare steak and burnt potato chips.
I am older than Neenie, Younger than Lea; I love the smell of Arpege and mud flats.
I drink tea with lemon and sugar with coffee. Daffodils laugh, but blue-bells depress me. I’m afraid of trolls.
I like raisins in oatmeal and in the sun. I work best under pressure.
I like shiny fingernails and jazz , but I hate Altman’s and mini-skirts.
I like small rooms lined with books, and braided rugs, and Pillows, because I like to sit on the floor.
If the world were a stage I’d feel more comfortable in it.
I’m a loner, but I love being lonely.
I’m a conformist, except when I think. I have horrible nightmares and wild daydreams. And I couldn’t live without either. I spend too much money on velvet hair ribbons and funny cards and books of plays. Hamlet and Antigone are my ideals, but Creon and I are one.
I think too fast. I hate greasepaint, but I love crowds. I love Degas, but I don’t think I like horses or ballet.
I’ve always wanted to be the first woman president, and a marine biologist, and a literary lioness, and an archaeologist. But I’m allergic to dust.
I don’t want anyone to understand me. But people think they do, and They’re probably right.
If I were rich the first place I’d go would be Scotland. The second would be Stratford. And the third would be Disneyland.
I need someone to need me, because then I need them, too. I’m a deadly realist, but I pretend to be idealistic. I used to think there was no such thing as love. Now I’m not so sure.
I never want to go to the moon, but I’d love to see penguins. I’ve always felt horses were incomplete zebras.
I’m funny. But most of the time it’s intentional.
I get migraine heartaches.
I either love or hate October and March; I haven’t decided yet. I like men who know that women are people, too. And I hate crew cuts and red hair. I’m a drama major because there are only five of us.
I love to see the sun rise, but hate to get up in the morning.
I’m perennially frustrated because I can’t know everything.
And I’m annually concerned about self.
My name is Ellie, and this is 1967.
There are parts of the poem that would not have been true of me a year later, or five years later – but every time I read them and cringe, I remember that last line. I wrote them in 1967. I changed. And — a writer has to be true to who he or she is at the moment. If you’d like to read the entire poem, it’s on my website, http://www.leawait.com, listed separately under the “Books” heading.