Judith A. Hartley, a poet enjoying her senior years in Traverse City, lives with fibromyalgia and can barely get around anymore, but she is a tough woman who still manages to create beautiful poetry. Interviewing her brought me to tears with her gut wrenching honesty about poetry, humanity, and her struggles with mental illness and loneliness while discussing her work.
Judith uses a free form style for most poems but can be found to play with more structured verse throughout her works. She deals with topics like death, love, longing, and spirituality. She also works some quirk and humor into her poetry which makes it easier to relate to her and her verse. She wrote, “my poetry is born from a deep need to find the divine in the everyday experiences of a good life.” Her poetry flows straight from her heart. She said in our interview that without poetry in her life, she wouldn’t still be here today. Each poem is a life preserver.
How did you start writing poetry?
I started writing when I was 22; I think it was a broken heart. When you are young with unrequited love, you know, you’re dating and it doesn’t work out. I had a son in my teenage years, I had a teenage marriage that didn’t last very long. So at 22 my son [Scott] was five years old and I was looking for a good job to support both of us. I found a secretarial job at GM and it paid good money so I took it and I worked there 4 ½ years and I made good money but I didn’t stay there because I was a round peg in a square hole! I wasn’t suited for GM, I was a poet! I was trying to go to college and raise my son and occasional go out on a date and it was all too much. My son always came first. After a while Scott started crying when I went out. I asked him if I could go out when he was asleep but he said he wanted me with him all the time so I stopped dating and stopped going to college. That’s when I started writing poetry; there was a lot of stress and depression in my life which plagued me for many years. They [doctors] tried so many medications on me and they didn’t work. I was in and out of mental wards for many years and my mother had to take over raising Scott because I wasn’t stable enough to raise him. In the mean time I was taking jobs and struggling and paying my mother to take care of Scott. I kept writing and eventually went back to school. I was on a special program through Lyndon Johnson called New Frontiers, a program for patients with mental illness and drug addiction, and it paid for my education and even my textbooks. I worked 20 hours a week and went to school 20 hours a week. I did graduate from Oakland University with a BA in English with a concentration in Psychology and Sociology, it took me 10 years! I just kept persevering.
Then I got a good job with the state of Michigan as an interviewer of people with disabilities who were trying to get help with finding jobs. It was a wonderful work. I really liked working with people who had disabilities, especially depression because I knew what to ask and how to help them cope. We really need to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in this country, people think that mentally ill people are violent but they are not. Most of the people I worked with, people with schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, were simply afraid.
About that time they transfer me up to Traverse City. I was originally working in the Pontiac area but I was having dreams of water and rocks, I knew I was going somewhere special. Poets are prophets they say! I went up to TC by myself, didn’t know anyone, and I loved it. I was driving around and wondered why people didn’t have smiles on their faces! They should be smiling all the time, it’s so beautiful! The landscape brought me to tears. I worked at a rehab for about 8 years. I retired to focus on writing and devote all of my attention to poetry. So here I am, retired and doing exactly what I wanted to do.
Which poets have influenced you?
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. I t’s funny, they are so opposite, Whitman goes on and on and Dickinson is so succinct. Also Wallace Stevens cause you have to think with him and he’s very deep. I didn’t like Robert Frost too much.
How has your poetry changed over the years?
I don’t think it has changed much at all. I just thought about my son, you know how mothers brag about their sons. When he was nine months old I was worried because he hadn’t walked yet and then at a year old he just popped up and started walking. I was very professional, I didn’t wobble around or feel my way, I just started and I was top grade. I don’t think I’ve changed much, I don’t really. I was in my 30s and that’s when I was having serious depression and that was when I was writing the most. I went to a psychologist at some point and he said the best way to cope with anything is to create something. So I was staying stable by creating poems. It was then that I produced the most and the best poems.
What type of books do you read? What books are on your nightstand right now?
I like deep books and I like spiritual books. I read spiritual books mostly and I am a student of the bible. When there was nothing else there was always the Lord. And Non-fiction, I’m not a patient anymore with fiction. I don’t like stories, I want the truth! I’m between books now! Someone gave me a book about ice skaters, it’s about Russian Ice skaters and that was interesting. I like biographies and autobiographies. I like people who have overcome odds, like Marie Curie and Helen Keller. I like strong woman, and strong men too, people who are heroes and heroines. I’ve done that since I was a small child. I’ve always looked for the people who succeeded despite handicaps.
If you were a Dewey Decimal Number, which would you be and why?
Between 100 and 200 because those are the ones that I studied in university and that’s where my brain my goes, that is my mental position.