Stephanie Hart / Review
In Advice on the Writing Life: Edited by Sohnya Sayres—A Tribute to Finvola Drury (Fin)
(And Then Press, 2018), editor Sohnya Sayres
In Advice on the Writing Life editor Sohnya Sayres provides the reader with a compelling tribute to her mentor and friend, Finvola Drury (Fin). Dividing the book into sections according to theme, Sayres includes letters she received from Fin, many of which she titled, Fin's poetry and prose, letters Fin sent to family, friends and students, an interview with the poet, and articles about her. What emerges is a record of Fin's thoughts and reflections over a period of three decades.
Section 1, "What Not to Leave Home Without" Selected shorts on the writing life is composed of letters to Sayres along with a poem that gives a voice to an old Russian woman delegated to the outskirts of society. Fin encourages Sayres to write from the core of her real and imagined experience, a place of action and emotion. According to Fin, this dynamic energy is compatible with feminine compassion. She urges Sayres to let go of self-consciousness and self-censorship, so she can express what is most authentic in herself. Fin considers writing to be a soulful rather than a material endeavor, cautioning that commercialization of the written word denigrates its power to transform society and the self.
In Section 2, "Prose Work", Sayres shares Fin's memoir and poetry. Fin tells of her terror as she runs out of a Detroit pharmacy to escape gun shots, her road trip to the great march on Washington at the moment when a car speeds up and smacks into a van of college students. Fin takes us to a family funeral for a young man killed in Vietnam as his mother wails in sorrow, a sound which touches Fin deeply.
Section 3, "Writing in Context" Critical stance, American culture, men and women, made up of letters to Sayres and responses to Sayres' letters, works as a manifesto of Fin's opinions that criticism is distinctly different from creativity, that Sayre's must discover her own sensibility, and that art has long been a male preserve, which begs for the feminine mind and spirit. Fin maintains that as a society, despite America's belief to the contrary, events such as war, child abuse, and political insurgence have a profound and lasting effect on the individual psyche and should be fodder for writers.
In Section 4, "Family", composed of letters to Sayres and Fin's poetry, Fin stresses the importance of dodging social judgments about what is appropriate at a certain time and place in order to validate one's own experience. She describes her terror and awe watching her mother intercept an attempted rape; she tells of the psychic trauma she faced after the birth of her son in 1953; she reveals the guilt she suffered in 1991 after her daughter's death for not having done enough to save her.
In Section 5, "Teaching Writing", Fin calls on Sayres to examine her own drive to write about her military family and to become cognizant of what her private story has to say about the nation at large. Truth, according to Fin, means going to scary places, discarding other's opinions, and drawing allegories between the personal and the political.
In Section 6, "Reading Others", Fin's letters to Sayres discuss the great writers for confirmation and clarification of her ideas. Like Emerson she wants to replace uniformity with diversity in an America hinged to violence and elitism. She embraces Whitman's spirit of inclusivity. Like her good friend Bob Creely she writes as a feeling witness.
In Section 7, "Overtime", interviews, appreciations, and selected letters, Fin in conversation explains that her need to write poetry is rooted in inquisitiveness: she must ask and attempt to answer questions about what is important in her life and in the world. Since poems are often mirrors of people's thoughts and feelings, she considers writing a participatory rather than isolating activity.
Sohnya Sayre's skillful selection and organization of material allows readers to know Fin intimately as poet, activist, daughter, wife, mother, mentor, friend, scholar, and compassionate woman, who has much to teach us. We are listening.