Cabot Poet On Her MacArthur 'Genius Grant' And Why We Need Poetry

Sep 29, 2015

Vermont poet Ellen Bryant Voight has been named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. The 72-year-old will receive what's informally called the "genius grant" including $625,000 to pursue her work with no strings attached.

Voight joined VPR to talk about her poetry and what this fellowship means to her.

On winning the award

"I was stunned. I had gotten a call asking if I would speak to them to help evaluate a candidate. And I said well, I wasn't sure I could be helpful but I would try," says Voight.

That candidate ended up being herself, and the evaluation was an announcement that she had been awarded a fellowship.

"I just was totally speechless, and then began to kind of weep with joy," says Voight.

Voight is uncertain of what the $625,000 grant will be spent on, but is focusing more on what it "frees [her] to do." A traveling teacher by trade, the money will allow her to take time outside of the classroom to focus on her craft.

"It's what I do not have to do anymore, and that gives me extra time at my desk. That gives me time in my house. That gives me time in Vermont," says Voight.

On Vermont's influence

"Living in Vermont, and living out in the countryside in the midst of all of this natural beauty and having this amount of solitude is very important to me as a person, and to who I am and what my temperament is," says Voight. "It's the person who makes the poems, after all, so it's bound to have a profound influence."

Voight says her work, especially her 2013 book Headwaters, is rooted in this environment.

"Most of the poems are indeed situated in this landscape and draw upon what populates it — both the people and also the animals. The trees, and the seasonal turns. That sense of being close to something that's very elemental," says Voight.

On the what poetry means

"I think [poetry] plays a very important role because it slows us down," says Voight. She claims that although technology is useful for disseminating information, it can often "bombards us" with a kind of information she calls "discursive information."

"The language used to convey [discursive information] really doesn't matter so much. The particular words are dissolving," says Voight.

"What a poem will do is slow us down. In fact, there are more books of poetry being published now than ever. There are more magazines and e-zines and poetry slams and access that would not be the case if people didn't have a hunger for it," says Voight.

Voight is giving a free reading of Headwaters Oct. 7 at the Town and Country Resort in Stowe.