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The Vanishing Point

With Her Second Collection of Poetry, Baltimore's Jane Satterfield Explores Motherhood, Loss, and Exile

By Lizzie Skurnick | Posted 1/7/2004

When the wind came from the east
Their trouble became more pronounced.
So it was no surprise he appeared in a dream,
eyewitness history of the world
resigned to his misfortunes . . .

So begins the title poem of Jane Satterfield's collection, Assignation at Vanishing Point, the second book of verse from the Loyola College professor. It's a poignant examination of the breakup of a marriage, the writing life of a working mother, and the relationship of each writer to the greater community of writers--both in the past and the present.

Satterfield, 39, qualifies as a professional in the ranks of poetry--her first book, Shepherdess With an Automatic, won the 2000 Towson University Prize for Literature, Assignation has already won the Third Annual Book Award from Minnesota's Elixir Press, and she now works as the staff poetry critic for The Antioch Review--but she came late to the world of contemporary poetry. On the path to becoming a journalism major as an undergraduate at Loyola, Satterfield, introduced to 20th-century poets in a creative writing course, was hooked.

"I think I was a freshman in college before I realized that there were living people who worked as poets," Satterfield says. "I had the good fortune to hear Elizabeth Spires read from her first book, and it was really eye-opening to me that someone could spend their life doing that."

The precocious undergrad had her first poem accepted to a major journal--The Antioch Review--as a senior at Loyola in the mid-1980s. "Unfortunately it was about three or four years before I had another poem taken, after that stellar start," she laughs.

Born in England, Satterfield--the child of an American father and an Irish mother--has lived in Maryland her entire life since the age of 2, except for the two years when she attended the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa in the late '80s.

"I was lucky--I went [to Iowa] right out of college," Satterfield says. "I felt that that was too great an opportunity to turn down. When I finished, I was sort of at a loss as to what I was going to do."

She wound up getting married soon thereafter, then teaching freshman composition as an adjunct at Loyola. "I know plenty of people who've done the routine where they're driving all over the Beltway, but I was just fortunate that my job provided some stability and benefits," Satterfield says. "There were actual offices. I also taught a semester at Frederick Community College right after grad school, and there was nowhere to meet your students, and nowhere to store your stuff."

Satterfield also found a vital network of fellow writers in her Loyola colleagues, who include poet Ned Balbo, fiction writer (and drummer for the local group Jazz Caravan) Ron Tanner, and writer-in-residence Lia Purpura. "[Purpura] became a mother shortly after I did, so to have another working writer mother was incredibly sustaining," she says.

Motherhood is one of major themes of Assignation, which Satterfield began in 1994, pregnant and abroad in England with her husband, who was teaching on a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship.

"My first book was very inspired by history, and it's very dense with male voices--its inspirations come from a lot of male artists and male figures," she says. "But I began reading poems as a function of becoming a mother that were a lot more about women's lives, and I was very interested in, how do you maintain a life as an artist when you are besieged by the mundane obligations of motherhood, which are rewarded, but they also take time away from the more reflective work that you do to sustain your writing?"

Satterfield's collection also references a panoply of other writers, ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to critic Greil Marcus to Irish poet Eavan Boland--using their voices and works to examine her own life abroad--and the eventual breakup of her marriage.

"A lot of the poems talk about exile, and I think when a relationship is breaking up, you become exiled from your partner, exiled from your past self--which pregnancy also certainly does," she explains. "As a result of those kinds of things, you can start to feel exiled from the communities you lived in when you're going through these major transitions. Where is your community? Your community comes out of the voices you're reading, the voices you're turning to."

Finding out that European Union laws prevented her from working after six months of pregnancy also led Satterfield down an entirely different path--writing literary nonfiction. "Teaching freshman comp, I got to know the essay as a form inside and out," she says. "I remember sitting in a classroom and the students talking to me about the difficulty of approaching autobiography, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was asking them to do a task that I hadn't done myself in who knows how many years."

Her first attempt at autobiographical nonfiction, an essay titled "Motherland," examined her daughter's birth, midwives, and the national health system of England. Another essay, "Another Country," won the Heekin Foundation's Cuchulain Prize for Rhetoric in the Essay, which allowed Satterfield to continue pursuing her work in nonfiction. After returning to adjunct teaching at Loyola, she was hired in 2001 for a full-time, tenure-track position teaching nonfiction at the North Baltimore university.

"During the process of struggling through the breakup of a marriage, having the book to work on was really a salvation in many ways," Satterfield says. Tentatively titled Motherland, her book of essays is nearing completion.

Currently, Satterfield is delving deep into her teaching at Loyola--as co-director of the reading series, she's also responsible for bringing in other writers--and looking toward her next work. "I think that one of the difficulties of being a writer is that, in order to do so, you have to find a balance between finding people that inspire you and challenge you to grow and develop, and also have enough time to stay and do your work," she says.

And, although Shepherdess took nearly five years to be published, and Assignation more than three, Satterfield is calm about the turtle-slow speed with which the poetical world currently moves.

"If you've pursued writing for any length of time, the rewards do not come fast and furious, so you're not always expecting instant gratification," she says. "You have a more internal sense of where you want to go."

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