Q and A with Anne-Marie Oomen, LOVE, SEX, AND 4-H
An overview of Love, Sex, and 4-H from Wayne State University Press, Made in Michigan Writers Series: "As the 1960s dawned in small-town Michigan, Anne-Marie Oomen was a naive farm girl whose mother was determined to keep her out of trouble— by keeping her in 4-H. In Love, Sex, and 4-H, Oomen sets the wholesomeness of her domestic lessons in 4-H club from 1959 to 1969 against the political and sexual revolution of the time. Between sewing her first dish towel and finishing the yellow dress she wears to senior prom, Oomen brings readers along as she falls in and out of love, wins her first prize, learns to kiss, survives her first heartbreak, and makes almost all of her clothes.
"Love, Sex, and 4-H begins as Oomen struggles to sew a straight seam and works hard to embody the 4-H pledge of loyalty, service, and better living. But even as she wins her first modeling competition and masters more difficult stitches and patterns, Oomen finds that she is not immune to the chaos of the outside world. After the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and her own short stay in a convent, Oomen encounters the biggest change of all—public school. In this new world of school dances, short skirts, and raging hormones, Oomen’s orderly life will be complicated by her first kiss, first boyfriend, first store-bought dress, and finally, first love. All the while, she must negotiate her mother’s expectations, her identity as a good 4-H girl, and her awareness of growing social and political unrest.
"Oomen brings an insightful and humorous eye to her evolving sexuality, religious beliefs, and sense of self. Fans of memoir will appreciate the honest portrayal of growing up between rebellion and tradition in Love, Sex, and 4-H."
One section of this memoir I was lucky enough to hear you read last summer at the Interlochen Arts Academy - a very funny and engaging coming-of-age story about you as a teenager longing to have a first kiss. How have your friends and family members responded to this essay and the book as a whole? Thanks for asking this. Actually, they shrug and nod, as if to say, "Well, there she goes again." But they don't object; they've learned, because we've talked, that I'm working with my memory, and my memory is different, even when it overlaps, from theirs. One member of my family did ask, "How can you stand having people know that much about you?" I don't think of it as people knowing me as ME because as a writer, I know that the persona on the page is me but also, not me--that persona is a version of me shaped in language (an incomplete medium), and that version is shaped with the intention of supporting the larger truth of this book. Not to get too woo-woo, but I think humans are large and varied beings; I suspect we have several, maybe infinite, "beings" in us that are related to but not necessarily a complete picture of a "self."
Just compare the young speaker in Love, Sex, and 4-H to the persona I use in An American Map, a more philosophical and worldly speaker. Those are both "me" but incomplete. So I feel both a part of and separate from the character on the page, and in this odd way, that helps keep me from feeling so vulnerable that I wouldn't be able to write about tender things. As to the kissing: A couple of people have hinted that if you don’t know that 4-H refers to the 4-H Clubs that thrive throughout Michigan, it sounds kinky. But the truth is, if you are looking for sex in this book, you will be disappointed—except for the kissing—there is a lot of kissing, and that was characteristic of my youth. The love and sex of the title refers to the times, the sixties, the reputation of that era—all that free love stuff. 4-H club was the opposite; it represented the reliable solid Midwest, more reserved and stoic and reticent. Those forces collide in a big way in the book, and that’s the story.
Love, Sex, and 4-H is an evocative, surprising title. Did it arrive before you wrote most of the essays included in this collection or did it come after you'd assembled the manuscript? The original title in my mind, way back when the book consisted of itchy scribbles, was the very bland Sewing Lessons. I had this turn-it-on-its head thought that the book would be a mockery of those staid lessons on how to sew. As always, the writing led me away from the superficial (I hope anyway!) to the tension: the conflicts and changes of the sixties set against the traditional, wholesome and solid values of my farm life, exemplified by 4-H Club. That boundary was much more interesting and true. I may also have been influenced by other three-part titles; Susan Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love or even Leary's Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.
You're both an accomplished poet and essayist. How do you see these two disciplines informing each other creatively? I started as a poet and continue to love reading and writing it, but I'm just not as good a poet as a prose-writer. I still love it, but gosh, to do it well takes a laser focus and I'm a wanderer. But poetry heightens the practice of rhythm and music in my language. I've learned to follow the lesser road, and take my practice of poetry as a way of enriching my prose. Poetry's density and economy is a discipline I have to apply and re-apply because I tend to be a classic over-writer, and in my early drafts I follow every willow-the-wisp down every rabbit hole to every wonderland. Thinking like a Poet forces me to seek the heart of an issue, and to think it metaphorically. I read somewhere that Toni Morrison wrote passages of Beloved as poetry, then revised into prose form. Working like that takes a long time, but it explained to me some of the dense music of her work. I'm no match, but sometimes I try that, and honestly, it helps the prose and leads to creative insights about what the language is doing.
What are some of your main influences as an essayist? As a poet?
As a writer (poet and prose), I am influenced by rural culture, by dirt, harvests, seasons, living under sky, moving over the "field-place" or home ground if you will. Even though Love, Sex and 4-H focuses on more public experiences of the sixties, under it all is the road home to the farm. That sounds almost cliched now because there is so much sentimentality and nostalgia about farm life, but it is one of the least sentimental life-styles a being can choose. It's pretty harsh and can be brutal, close to the bone in practicality and, interestingly, in language--which is what I most appreciate. In more recent years, I've been trying to bring more consciousness about the environment to that writing, especially as I've seen the farm world change. As to literary influences, as a poet, I read all sorts, but have been especially moved by young award-winning black poets (Patricia Smith, Francine Harris, Nicole Terez Dutton) who are exceptional. That said, I usually return to the ecstatic poets: Rumi, John Donne, Whitman, Dickinson, some of the Romantics, and for prose, to any number of women essayists who are writing about environment and spiritual connections, especially those related to place and travel: Gretel Ehrlich, Kathleen Jamie, Rebecca Solnit, Terry Tempest Williams.
What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?
Other than trying to support Love, Sex and 4-H? You know what that's like. When I have time, I'm actually beginning several collaborative projects: writing scripts, stories, and poems with artists, dancers, even anthropologists. That said, the writing project that has my immediate focus right now comes directly from my mother's life. My mother is 94, living in a home for the aged, and in the midst of a long, slow decline that, because of medical wonders, will be the fate of many of us. I'm tracking a deeply personal take on what's it's like to care for her when I can, to be a daughter (along with my sister) permanently on call, and to think about being her someday. I'm trying to show the privilege and struggle of being a caretaker, but also what she is, being so old and physically challenged. It's a pervasive, but oddly invisible experience in our culture, and one that seems to dominate my side-thinking right now--as opposed to my laser focus...jk.