It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.
I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.
What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?
My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life. I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.
More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.
Some of the contributors to this book are quite well known — names like Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Others I’m less familiar with. How did you go about finding contributors for this anthology? How long did you take to collect submissions?
One contributor’s prose poems inspired me to write my own—she had been my late partner’s neighbor. Most of the poems in the book were sent to us by widows who saw our call for submissions in Poets & Writers Magazine. Some heard about it from friends, other widows, other poets. Some of the poems I found in poets’ own published collections, then asked them for permission to reprint. I didn’t know that Maxine Kumin wasn’t widowed when I first read her “Widow and Dog”—that’s why it appears at the end of the anthology, with an editors’ note. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a friend of my late mother’s, so I knew her personally and had also met her husband. When he died, I was saddened all over again and I wanted to include her in the anthology. I’m grateful that she found the time to write the foreword.
What was it like to review submissions for this collection?
We started the project nearly five years after Edward’s death, so I don’t think reading the submissions churned my own grief up all that much. Having already buried both parents and mourned all but one of my uncles and aunts, plus several friends, I knew I would get through my mourning for Edward too, however long that might take, even if I couldn’t imagine the life I might have in the future. I knew there were others who understood–the friends named in that footnote to “Widows” were mostly widowed before I was, and many of them had talked with me about it. What really forced me to get out of bed in the morning was having meaningful things to do that had to get done. And when we found really good poetry, it resonated, whether or not the experience or theme the author chose was also in my own poems. I felt great empathy with the poets who sent us work. Indeed, I longed to publish one poem by everyone who submitted, but we had to let go of that idea, in the interest of the quality of the book.
Most of the poems were sent to my address. I read them, then photocopied them and sent packets of those copies to my co-editor Lise Menn every few weeks. That way, both of us read everything that was submitted or that one of us had found elsewhere and wanted considered. I sorted submissions into four folders: Yes, No, Maybe, and Disagree (we were discussing some of the poems via e-mail as we went along). Finally, Lise came east from Colorado and we spent three days at my place discussing the folders and negotiating the “maybes” and “disagrees.” That whole phase took almost a year, and it wasn’t easy…but it was fun! We received more than 500 poems and accepted about 225 of them.
The different sections of the book take us on a journey that seems to mirror the stages of grieving. How did you come upon this framework for the collection?
Both Lise and I dislike that “stages of grief” idea. Grief is not linear! Not everybody “progresses” from disbelief to deep mourning to anger to acceptance. It’s different for different people. There’s no “normal” time for grief to subside or become bearable, and it’s not something we “get over.” Some widows are able to function sooner; some of us take a lot longer. Sometimes acute sorrow surges up and knocks us flat, even years after the funeral. Still, as we read the poems we noticed that there were common experiences among the contributors: early reactions and life changes, looking back on our past before bereavement, learning to cope with our new circumstances, and eventually, realizing that we had in fact made a different life for ourselves.
In your poem “Widows,” you say “I now prefer loneliness to chatter / After he died, I became invisible.” It’s a common complaint of older women that they become invisible to society. Did you and your co-editor Lise Menn create this book in part to ameliorate this complaint?
Those lines are a friend’s, quoted in my poem, but yes, we both felt that we were invisible as widows and as women of a certain age. Even many of the young widows in the book noticed that they were ignored, shunted aside, after their husbands’ death. In our introduction, we call it “social demotion.” We wanted other widows, family, friends, helping professionals, everyone to know how unjust and hurtful that was, and common to so many women.
Do you think the experience of widowhood is different for men than for women? Or for straight than for gay people?
Yes, I do. Men are in the one-up position. When a man’s wife or partner dies, people sympathize with his grief of course, but instead of leaving him out of everything, friends and neighbors tend to rush in to take care of the needs that his late spouse used to meet. They line up with casseroles for the fridge and offers to introduce him to somebody. Men’s prestige and position don’t diminish with widowhood.
Gay people’s situation is evolving right now with the legalization of same-sex marriage. A lesbian widow (or a gay widower) may be entitled to the same spousal benefits as a straight one. That’s still uncertain, though, because some benefits depend on employment in private enterprises and some on states that refuse to give straight and gay spouses equal treatment, in spite of recent Supreme Court decisions upholding equality in federal law. Lesbian widows may not get the family and social support that their straight counterparts expect, especially if they are not “out” to everyone in their lives. And women who (like me) were not legally married to their late partners may have little or no social support as widows– and/or be excluded from inheritance if their partners died without a will. Also, Americans have pretty much forgotten the traditional, visual symbols of mourning (such as wearing black) that tell the surrounding community that a woman needs special attention because of her bereavement.
Widowhood is a particularly gendered state in American society. While men can be widowers, the archetype of the widow carries with it certain connotations. What do you think these connotations say about traditional gender roles?
Those stereotypes are part of the definition of traditional gender roles! A woman without a man becomes vulnerable, less important. Everyone assumes that widows don’t know how to deal with the world all by themselves. Scammers frequently target widows who may, in fact, have to take over the deceased spouse’s tasks—especially managing finances, repairing things, and dealing with institutions—before they’re emotionally ready to make decisions. Widowers, as I note above, are not excluded in the way widows are. They don’t lose their social value. They are expected to do whatever they did before, plus, they are now courted in social situations, they’re “available single men.” I do know widowers who were left to bring up young children or were swindled by gold-diggers, but those are the exceptions.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
“Consider”? I’ve been a feminist activist since the early 1970s because women were treated like second-class citizens in so many ways (although not always the same ways in each country). The word “feminist” denotes somebody who considers women to be full-fledged human beings with a right to the same status, respect, opportunities and autonomy as anyone else. I participated in my first street demonstration, in favor of abortion rights, in Paris in 1971, before abortion was legal in either France or the United States. I joined my first feminist group in 1973. By 1975 I was involved in an international network of feminist groups that brought together women from the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Brazil, and several Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. If women today are able to get an education, earn a living, protect themselves and their children without a male partner, conduct business, participate in government at all levels, and make decisions about our own lives and bodies, it’s because women in earlier generations spoke out and fought for our right to do so. To any woman who says, “I’m not a feminist, but…” I say: You are standing on our shoulders.
Tell me about your own writing practice. What does it look like today?
I’m not writing at all, now—not “creative” writing, anyway. Truth is, I don’t care if I never write another line of poetry. It’s too hard to get it out there once it’s written, and I don’t feel a need to do it for myself. What I say is, “if G-d gives me the lines, I will serve the work.” But, you have to remember that it’s work. And I’m old enough to be retired, not just re-tired.
If you could say one thing to a newly grieving widow, what would it be?
You are not alone—we’ve been there, too, and we get it.