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A Poet’s Place – Amy Clampitt’s home is a reprieve for writers

Jessica Piazza walks through each room with a sense of familiarity, even intimacy. She has been living in Amy Clampitt’s home for five months now. She picks up objects and imagines how they got there, who used them. She knows Clampitt loved hats; she uncovered three boxes of them in the closet. She knows Clampitt was a voracious reader by the hundreds of books that fill the numerous bookshelves; a thrift store shopper by the odd trinkets found on the tables; a nature lover by the beauty right in the backyard, where the poet’s ashes are buried.

Above the fireplace is a clear box that contains sea glass that Clampitt collected and famously wrote about. “My ex-husband proposed to me with sea glass because it’s one of my favorite things,” says Piazza. “I love that Amy loved what I love. She can’t know that she gave me a gift, but she did.”

This unassuming home of this renown poet, nestled within the town of Lenox, serves as a refuge for other poets, like Piazza, to step aside from their daily life.

Clampitt, whose childhood was spent in the small farming village of New Providence, Iowa, spent most of her time in New York City. She lived in the Berkshires for the last few years of her life, not far from Edith Wharton’s summer residence. She emerged as a significant poet when she was older, publishing her first major book of poetry, The Kingfisher,  when she was 63. And she published other collections: What the Light Was Like, Archaic Figure, Westward, A Silence Opens.

In 1994, she died of ovarian cancer. Seven years later, her husband, legal scholar Harold Korn, passed away and left the house and estate to a trust overseen by close friend and fellow poet Karen Chase; Mary Jo Salter, who discovered Clampitt; and Ann Close, her editor. The Amy Clampitt Fund, housed at the Berkshire Taconic Foundation, enables writers, like Piazza, to take residence in the home for six months, or a year, fostering the study, promotion, and writing of poetry.

Since 2003, there have been 26 poets who receive a monthly stipend and can have family join them. A memorial reading is held annually at the Mount.

What makes it so unique is that the poets live in the home that still contains so much of Clampitt. “We’d rather have her books and other items available to people who are living,” says Chase, who met Clampitt when they were residents at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in northern Italy in 1992. “We would do walks in the junkyards or cemetery. We were curious about the teens who were working there and talked to them.”

When they returned to the U.S., Clampitt, her husband, and his mother made a stop in Lenox to visit Chase on their way to Maine. The day after they left, there was a front-page article in The Berkshire Eagle that said Clampitt was named a MacArthur fellow. Chase called to tell her. “She thought I was kidding her and didn’t think it was true.”

It was. Clampitt later asked Chase to help her find a house in Lenox that she bought with part of the award. The little home became Clampitt, and she became the home. “She liked to watch the birds at the bird feeder. She didn’t like hobnobbing,” says Chase. “Amy was extremely funny. She was birdlike, full of life, so smart.”

One of Clampitt’s favorite authors was Wharton. Chase had never read Wharton, and Clampitt wouldn’t have that. “She said Summer is the one you’ll love, and she was right. I was also not drawn to Amy’s poetry before I met her, but once I became her friend, I let myself get into the poems instead of resisting them. I grew to love many of them.”

And so, Clampitt, who would have been 99 on June 15, continues to impact poets within the space she so loved. (Willard Spiegelman, the first poet in residence, is writing her biography for Knopf.)

“Some residents are complete hermits and settle in and don’t do much but their work,” says Chase. “Some people are very extroverted and become a part of the community.”

Piazza, of the latter, is a professor at USC. The timing for the residency couldn’t have been better. She found out two weeks after she split with her husband that she was selected, and she was still recovering from a broken leg when she arrived.

On the drive from LA to the Berkshires, she questioned whether her big personality would work in a small town, or whether her work would benefit from being there.

It has. “This place has affected me incredibly deeply, and it’s trickled into my work,” she says.

Piazza is writing a collection of poems called Woman, 41, an exploration of what it’s like to be a woman that age today, thematically delving into feminism and gender, race and culture, personal milestones and thresholds, body image, ageism, career, marriage, motherhood, divorce. She’s also writing a historical fiction novel, set in Japanese-occupied China during World War II.   

What she savors most about her surroundings is sitting on the back stoop with her morning coffee, in view of a Catalpa tree that Clampitt’s friends planted after she died; writing at her desk; touching her straw hat, or the globe by the window; reading books filled with her marginalia. The old photos, the trinkets, the beach glass. “She is not from this world, and I understand that,” says Piazza. “This was her Shangri La.”

Piazza will hold a handful of talks:

The Writers Read at the Lee Library on Tuesday, May 28, at 5:30 p.m.

Kripalu in Lenox on Tuesday, June 18, at 9  a.m. during its Best of the Berkshires Week.

The Bookstore in Lenox on Friday, June 28, at 5:30 p.m.  




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