Ruth Bass: Onetime photographer finds her niche in award-winning poetry

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RICHMOND — Leslie Harrison, aka Leslie Noyes hereabouts, focused her camera on so many Berkshire people and places as she recorded one event after another for The Berkshire Eagle many moons ago. And then one day, words that apparently had been simmering quietly bubbled their way up to her conscious mind, and she turned to writing. The strength of that emergence of words over pictures reached a high point last year when Leslie, who now teaches writing at Towson University in Maryland, received a call from a friend congratulating her.

"For what?" she said.

"For making the long list of the National Book Foundation."

She was stunned, ecstatic — and confesses that she burst into tears. Her first book of poetry came out several years ago. Her new book, "The Book of Endings," published by the University of Akron Press, came out in 2017, and now had vaulted her into the National Book Awards' list of the top 10 poets in the nation. When the next cut came, creating the so-called short list of five poets, her name was still there.

Leslie didn't win, and she's delighted with the poet who did. At the National Book Awards' ceremony, she received a medal and considers it a kind of Olympics of writing. Plus she loved the ceremonial events on the awards weekend, especially meeting the other writers and doing a reading. It's heady stuff, but in our telephone talk, she`s the same Leslie who once pointed her camera at the county's fires, sunsets, criminals and upright citizens — and then sighed sometimes when an editor opted for her least favorite photo of the day. She has the same easy laugh, the same sense of humor, the same openness, the same willingness to take a stand that she shared with reporters and editors all those years ago when she came to The Eagle from Foster's Daily Democrat in her native New Hampshire. Her photo credit was Leslie Noyes for several years here, but she changed back to her birth name after her divorce.

None of us back then thought of her as a writer. We were just grateful that she provided terrific photos and literate captions with names spelled correctly. We were also grateful that she and Joel Librizzi, recognizing young talent, recommended the hiring of Craig Walker, who has gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes with his camera. And we appreciated Leslie's photographer's eye.

The eye is still there. It now translates into words that spill over small pages without punctuation and will puzzle those who wish for rhyming couplets. The language is filled with visuals of ice, water, stars, fireflies, birds whose wings have a "faint capillary flutter," trees with "dendritic roots," branches against "the quilted sky."

Sadness and disappointment live in these poems, written in what Leslie describes as "the free verse spectrum." Each starts with a capital letter and then flows without hesitation to the end of the page — and each one is a challenge, a page too filled with thought to be digested in a single reading. And yet, even as the poet seems to write from a broken heart, Leslie says she's not a pessimist, that when she was grieving after her mother's death, she "asked my poems to carry the sadness." Her verses will seem without form to some readers — one critic described them as "messy" — but she is always interested in structure, just doesn't "want the bones to show." Her acceptance in the world of poets is obvious, not only because of the new award, but because of a long list of prestigious journals that have published her work.

She professes to "love joyful poems" even if she doesn't write them. "The joyful is just not that interesting," she says. Certainly in her first career she would have preferred an assignment to cover an earthquake rather than a wedding, as would her fellow photojournalists. Before moving to Maryland, where she can hear traffic outside her house, she lived in the woods in Sandisfield and wrote in the atmosphere she prefers — "quiet and calm and stillness." Despite Baltimore's lack of silence, she has 20 or 30 poems under way, some with innumerable versions.

"Some of them never come right," she says.

But many certainly have. This book of endings looks like beginnings from here.

Ruth Bass writes only prose. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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