Few people in their 80s are inclined, or able, to feed time and energy into a second career. Elizabeth Schultz is such an anomaly.
As an English professor at the University of Kansas, Schultz was an acclaimed scholar on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” However, just before her retirement in 2001, she felt a pull toward a more creative use of language.
"When I decided to become an English teacher and to get a PhD, I had to learn about what is generically called academic writing," she says. "I had to learn to make arguments, and I had to really put aside a love of the way words sound to focus on just what words mean."
As she told me when we spoke about her new collection of poetry called "Water-Gazers," and about how she made that late-career transition, it all started with a dinner party in the Kansas countryside.
SCHULTZ: "It was an exquisitely beautiful June evening, and we were sitting in an arbor with the sun filling the flowers with loveliness. And there were all kinds of bees, butterflies buzzing around the flowers. We were sitting there talking and evening fell upon us. And then night came and the bees sort of turned into stars. And I just felt that life was so full and enchanted that when I went home, I realized I wanted to send a note of thanks to the hostess of this dinner, which was so golden and so lovely.
I didn’t want to write an ordinary bread-and-butter thank you note. I suddenly had the idea I wanted to write a poem. I wrote a poem every day that summer. And that really turned the tide for me in terms of my writing."
KNIGGENDORF: "You’ve famously studied, written, and taught 'Moby-Dick.' So, I’m wondering what came first: your love of watery places or of the book?"
SCHULTZ: "Well, it was certainly my love of watery places, because I’ve had the very good fortune of being able to spend every summer of my life, except for those when I was abroad, at an exquisitely beautiful lake in Northern Michigan. So, part of 'Water-Gazers' is written in response to my days at Higgins Lake. The other half is written in relationship to voyages I’ve taken at sea.
I’ve really searched for water wherever and however it exists in the world. I’m very definitely a water person, an ocean person, a lake person, as opposed to a mountain person. People ask me, 'Well, how then did you find yourself in Kansas? It looks like dry land.' I think Kansas has its sea of grasses. They say that Kansas has always made the best sailors, or the inland parts of North America have always made the best sailors."
KNIGGENDORF: "Why is that?"
SCHULTZ: "Well, I don’t know, but I think it’s because what prairies share with oceanic worlds is a horizon. It is that horizon that I think is always before us when we are sailing the seas as well as walking the prairies. It’s an opportunity to see the edge of the planet which fills one with wonder."
KNIGGENDORF: "Can we look at the poem 'The Voyeur'? The person in poem is watching herself in reflections and shadows. It’s almost as if she’s observing another person over a period of years. You write: 'She can’t escape me. I know how she pauses, listening to the waves against the shore. I stay with her when she drifts across oceans and continents.' How is this self-voyeurism part of the writing process for you, if it is?"
SCHULTZ: "I think when you are alone at the computer, which I write on, you’re very definitely going into inward spaces. So, it is a kind of voyeuristic experience, the writing of poetry. You go in in order to go out, but you have to pass through that scrim of self.
The germ for this poem was my paddling a canoe along the shoreline of that lake in Northern Michigan, but there I am at the computer in Kansas writing about this experience. So, I could not but think about myself in two places at the same time. And I could not but think, focus, on myself because it was myself who was experiencing the shoreline travel, but it was myself who was also trying to find the words on the computer to describe myself on that journey. So, I found myself looking at myself, which is a voyeuristic endeavor."
KNIGGENDORF: "Now let’s look at the poem 'Pastime.' The woman in the poem is remembering sitting on a dock, painting her nails as a teenager. The girl reaches out and touches the opposite shore, but the current self of the poem says the opposite shore is always out of reach. So, I wondered if you could say what the opposite shore is to each of these selves?"
SCHULTZ: "The opposite shore is the ongoingness of our lives, all of those things that are ahead, that as we go forward we don’t really know about. That may include death itself, of course, but it may simply be the experiences I have at the grocery store tomorrow, or it may be what happens in a relationship I have now, and I don’t know how it will unwind, if it will unwind. So, the opposite shore really is the future in the broadest possible realm. It involves a future of space, a future of light, and I think all of the poems that reference horizon, and there are many that do reference horizon, suggest that opposite shore."
KNIGGENDORF: "If you could share one poem now, what would it be?"
SCHULTZ: "I'd like to read the very first poem in the book, which is called 'The Fluid Line':
In Palmyra, they draw a line
in the sand, and bombs explode
among the columns, restoring
them to dust. You hear that
the archaeologist’s headless
body sways from a lamp post.
An arch, missing its keystone,
frames the desert’s dry light.
Try to live near water. It will
keep you buoyant, said Thoreau.
You cannot draw a line in it.
Water redefines the shoreline
daily. In water, a straight stick
becomes a quivering snake.
Sand at the bottom of a pond,
a lake, a river embodies the waves’
flow. Down through the water,
the sun casts a golden net, rippling
over the sand, catching nothing.
Elizabeth's Schultz's latest collection of poetry is Water-Gazers. She's the featured speaker for the Lawrence Public Library's Local Authors Outside event at 1 p.m., Saturday, January 6, at Prairie Park, 2730 Harper Street, Lawrence, Kansas.