Chase Twichell
August 1998

 

Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1950, first child of a troubled marriage that would last another forty years before it came apart in divorce. Her father taught Latin at Choate, a boy's prep school, where he also coached baseball and worked in the administration. Her mother raised the three daughters, then took a job in a book store, where she worked for many years. In the summers and during vacations, the family lived in Keene Valley, New York, in the Adirondacks just south of Montreal, where her father's family had gone for many generations. This early intimacy with wilderness has probably been the single greatest influence on Twichell's life and work.

Twichell attended elementary school in New Haven, then at 14 was sent to St. Timothy's, a small girl's boarding school in Maryland, for four years. It was a brutal place, with little humor and no idle time. First bell rang at 6:45, and every minute was accounted for between then and lights out (no talking) at 9:30 or, for the older girls, a little later. Punishments for breaking the countless rules were bizarre: talking after lights out: two extra hours of study hall before breakfast. Smoking, chewing gum, or leaving the remote campus without permission: expulsion. Not wearing a slip: the offender's skirt was lifted in front of the whole school as the slip-checkers moved down the line. Twichell, who suffered from attention deficit disorder, did poorly at St. Timothy's, finishing in the bottom fifth of her class. But by the time she left, she had committed herself to the secret life of poetry.

She attended five colleges: Mills, Reed, Trinity, Wesleyan, and Cambridge (England), eventually graduating from Trinity in 1973. During these years, she wrote poems, studied with Hugh Ogden at Trinity and Richard Wilbur at Wesleyan, read English literature and Buddhism, and played drums in rock bands. After graduation, she worked for a year in Boston, then attended the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, getting her M.F.A. in 1976. There was a particularly diverse group of poets there at the time; among the students were Brenda Hillman, Mark Jarman, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Spires, Deborah Greger, William Logan, and James Galvin. The faculty included Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Sandra McPherson, Charles Wright, Stanley Plumly, and Carolyn Kizer, plus numerous visitors, readers, and hangers-around. It was a friendly, competitive atmosphere.

While at Iowa, she also studied graphic design and letterpress printing, and worked for both Kim Merker (Windhover Press) and Bonnie O'Connell (Penumbra), and for a bookbinder. Printing and publishing had always intrigued her; as a child she dreamed of owning a Kelsey Tabletop Press, which during the fifties was heavily promoted on the back inside cover of Marvel comics. On receiving her degree, Twichell went to work for Barry Moser at Pennyroyal Press in western Massachusetts, where for nine years she set type, did design and presswork, answered the phone, emptied the wastebaskets, and learned the tools of an archaic trade and some of the rules of the world. During this time she wrote two books (Northern Spy, 1981, and The Odds, 1986, both the University of Pittsburgh Press), and taught occasionally at Hampshire College, as well as at many summer conferences.

In 1985 she was offered a job in the M.F.A. Program at the University of Alabama, and moved to Tuscaloosa, where she lived for three years, spending the summers in the Adirondacks, where she bought a house in 1987. While teaching at the University, Twichell met the novelist Russell Banks, who was there for a semester as the visiting writer. She left Tuscaloosa in 1988 to live with Banks; they were married in 1989. Perdido (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Faber & Faber), published in 1991, is infused with her time in the south, especially time spent on the gulf coast and in the islands of the Caribbean.

For nine years they lived in Princeton, New Jersey during the academic year, teaching in the Creative Writing Program, where Banks had an endowed chair and Twichell an ongoing adjunct arrangement. Summers were spent in the Adirondacks. During this time she co-edited (with Robin Behn) The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach (HarperCollins, 1992), and in 1996 published The Ghost of Eden (Ontario Review Press, Faber and Faber), a series of rages and elegies for the dying planet, influenced by both the New Jersey and the Adirondack landscapes.

In 1998, Twichell and Banks resigned/retired from Princeton and made the Adirondacks their primary home. Twichell is currently teaching in the low-residency M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at Goddard College, and is also starting up Ausable Press, which will publish poetry and regional Adirondackia. A book of poems, The Snow Watcher, will appear in October from Ontario Review Press. This new work is marked by Zen Buddhism, of which Twichell is a student. She is currently working on new poems, several translations, and a book about teaching.


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