Expressing herself in writing wins poet, teacher an award Prize: Anne Caston decided to throw herself 'into the abyss,' and she emerged a winner. Tomorrow, evening, she speaks in Columbia.

November 09, 1997|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

She writes about suicide, cancer, war and wounds, but poet Anne Caston says she's basically a happy person.

The 44-year-old Lexington Park resident says her experiences have given her a full life -- maybe not the kind of life others envy, but one that enabled her to write "Flying Out With the Wounded," a volume of poetry that won the New York University Press Prize for Poetry in May.

Raised in a religious family in the South, Caston was taught that silent little girls are good little girls. She believed but never stopped talking to herself.

"The only listening ear I had was the page," she says, speaking from her office at St. Mary's College. Caston would write daily about what she saw and heard.

Her life took her into the Navy at 18, through an early marriage and pregnancy, into nursing at 24. She says she watched the Vietnam veterans come home to die, mentally or physically, an experience she later turned into some of her most powerful poetry.

She went to St. Mary's College intending to procure her nursing degree, but was drawn to the literary program instead.

After four husbands, five marriages, four children, leukemia, cervical cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, Caston began writing seriously in 1993.

"I finally threw myself into the abyss," she says.

The "Graveyard Shift" poems -- the ones about the Vietnam veterans -- were the hardest to write and the last to be completed, she says, because they involved outsiders, people whose stories she was unsure she had a right to tell.

"But I thought, I've seen a lot of that underworld and if I don't say it, those people will live only there," she says.

Few of her poems express the optimistic side that comes through so clearly in person. Simple words describe the anger over a stillborn child, the frustration at the unseen tumor inside.

"I don't know if poetry is therapy, but I guess it doesn't hurt," she says. "Sometimes just the sheer ability to say something and have it on the page is power enough."

Her poems are composed in scattered fashion, random words written in a little black book, formed into sometimes complete sentences. It may take a week, a month, a year or two before she finishes a poem.

The only reason she applied for the NYU prize was because she was broke and it did not require a fee. When they called to tell her she had won, Caston was scrubbing a closet in an apartment in Madison, Wis.

"I'm standing there and I'm looking in this long mirror and I'm thinking that people are typing or working or eating when they win something, they're not answering the phone in yellow rubber gloves," she says.

Now a writing teacher at St. Mary's College, Caston is unsure of her literary future. She continues to write fiction and poetry.

She calls her lack of direction "a blessing." She is waiting to see what happens next.

Caston will speak to the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society at 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia. Admission is $5. Reservations: 410-730-7524.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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