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Guilford poet Dolores Hayden has crafted poems of risk, reward, and daredevil antics into a historical fiction, Exuberance, a celebration of the death-defying days—and characters—of early aviation. Readers can join Dolores at a book launch at Breakwater Books in Guilford at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 14. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
The famous crash that inspired Guilford poet Dolores Hayden to pen Exuberance, a page-turner celebrating America’s daring early aviators, had nothing to do with flying.
“I intended to write a book about risk. And I thought I might write about the 1929 Great Crash of the stock market—so I read up a bit about it,” says Dolores.
For Dolores, what jumped out was the language writers were using to describe the failing economy.
“Over and over, there were words like nosedive, tailspin, Doomsday Cycle,” she says. “I realized those words came from aviation—and indeed, they came from the barnstormers and the exhibition pilots’ slang of the previous 20 years before 1929. So I thought perhaps I should just look into who these barnstormers were.
“I was not a pilot. I hadn’t read a lot about aviation,” she continues. “But as soon as I discovered the exhibition pilots and their daring, and the barnstormers offering rides to people all over America in their airplanes—rides for people who had never seen an airplane -- I thought, this is actually much, much more interesting than writing about Wall Street!”
It was the beginning of a seven-year odyssey of research and writing for Dolores.
“I began by going to some aviation museums and looking at antique airplanes; and I realized how tremendously fragile airplanes were. They were made of cloth and wire and wood,” she says.
After a few years, she had a solid collection of 10 poems, but her work continued until she had devised 44 poems to tell the story of Exuberance (Red Hen Press, May 2019).
With Exuberance, Dolores rekindles the spirit and stories centered around a collection of early American aviators—men and women—with names mostly lost to history, but historic in their time. For helping her to craft her poems into a story told in the span of a slim, 73-page volume, Dolores is grateful to her editor, Kate Gale, at Red Hen Press, and many others, including her daughter, Laura Marris, a notable author, poet, translator, and Boston University’s director of the Favorite Poem Project.
On Tuesday, May 14, at 7 p.m. Breakwater Books at 81 Whitfield Street, Guilford, invites the public to a launch party for Exuberance. Dolores will read from her new book and answer questions from guests. (Please RSVP in advance for this free event at email@example.com or 203-453-4141).
Breakwater Books is one of many locations in this area and across the country where Dolores, an award-winning poet, author, and historian of American landscapes, will be reading and discussing Exuberance in the coming months.
A Yale University professor emerita of architecture, urbanism, and American studies, Dolores is as much known for her six non-fiction books on the American landscape (she’s been a Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of an American Library Association Notable Book Award) as she is for authoring her three poetry collections.
Dolores’ poetry has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and New England Poetry Club, and poetry residencies from Djerassi, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Noepe. Her poems have also appeared journals and anthologies including Poetry, Raritan, Ecotone, Yale Review, The Common, and Best American Poetry.
A New Perspective
With Exuberance, Dolores holds onto her knowledge of the American landscape as she spins a lyric story of fearless flyers, adoring crowds, empty fields, the built landscape as viewed from above, views into the world of clouds, and many lessons learned and shared.
“What was different about this project is I could write about the American landscape as seen from the air, and also cloudscapes, seen by people up in the sky. So it offered a new angle on subjects that I had been working on for a very long time. And I think that piqued my interest,” she says.
To write the poems in the voices of the pilots, Dolores traveled to museums to see planes and pilots’ trappings, turned up old newspaper interviews and reports, and located barnstorming advertisements and air circus circulars.
“I think what intrigued me was there was a lot of information, but most of these people are not well known. I was also fascinated by all of the stories about where these people came from,” she says, “And I think, having been a professor of both architecture and American studies, I was fascinated that people came from all over the country. Some of them were from very prominent families and could afford airplanes and hire people to teach them to fly. And other people came from relatively poor backgrounds, and flying for them was a way of making some money and having the possibility of traveling.”
Among this extremely diverse group, Dolores found a common thread.
“What they had in common was a certain absolute fearlessness and willingness to throw themselves into the sky,” she says.
They also had to have “quite a lot of mechanical ingenuity,” Dolores adds.
“If anything went wrong with the plane, the pilot usually had to fix it on the fly. And that was something that the women demonstrated. Betty Scott, for example, who was the first woman to fly, in 1910, had previously been a woman who sold automobiles. And she drove a car across the country with a commercial sponsor. She knew how to deal with an engine that wasn’t working. She switched from automobiles to an airplane because she found that most exciting.”
The book’s cast of fliers (Dolores uses their first names or nicknames) help tell the story of Exuberance as “historical fiction,” she notes.
Their full names and short biographies appear in the book’s reference section.
“With historical fiction, there’s a lot more space to explore the personalities, and these persona poems are fiction. My attempt was to portray their inner life, which is not going to be something you can trace without a lot of creative suggestions about what their motivations are,” she says.
Dolores especially enjoyed poring over first-person reports by female flyer Harriet Quimby, who goes by “Harriet” in Exuberance.
“Harriet Quimby was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the U.S. And not only was she a very glamorous person, she had been a reporter,” says Dolores. “So I was able to read her articles. She was very articulate.”
Dolores also pulls in people who came into contact with the pilots, worked with them, and, in the case of the promoter character “Champ,” exploited them.
Additionally, she creates a sense of order, and adds variety, with seven “flying lessons.”
“They’re in the voice of the instructor, telling them in the imperative to do this,” says Dolores. “There’s also one parachute jumper in [the book], who flies with different pilots. She’s a different character, in a way.”
Before Exuberance carries the reader into its precarious, thrilling world, the opening poem; “Kitty Hawk 1900” (as told by Kitty Hawk, North Carolina postmistress Addie Tate), pieces together an early attempt by the Wright brothers to build and fly a glider:
Wilbur unrolled white French sateen
cut on the bias for strength, lined
with fifteen narrow pockets for the ash ribs
He borrowed my sewing machine
Dolores writes of the 12 flight attempts made that year, achieving “barely two minutes in the air.” Wright ends his experiment in October, telling Tate he’ll return with a “new machine” next year. He also invites her to salvage what she’d like from the wreck.
“So she makes dresses for her two daughters out of the sateen, which is very beautiful cloth, and their father throws the wood from the ribs and spars into the fire for the winter,” says Dolores. “So it looks like nothing will ever fly. But that’s very early. That’s the prologue to all the successful flight and daring that comes later.”
The book’s cover design depicts the Wright Flyer III in flight, tilting low above onlookers.
“This is Orville Wright flying in 1908. I chose the photograph because the people had on these phenomenally old fashioned clothes—long skirts and big hats, and top hats on the men and tailcoats,” says Dolores. “It seemed to me to capture the very sense of the 19th century and the 20th century together. People are looking at some remarkable mechanical construction in the sky—and someone is flying it.”
Of course, all good things must end; and the daring age of the early aviators was eventually brought to ground by regulations.
“In late ‘20s, the U.S. Department of Commerce decided it had to regulate aviation,” says Dolores. “They saw it as transportation for people and they saw its commercial possibilities, and the last thing they wanted people thinking is that it was this scary, amusement-park activity where people sometimes died. So they started to shut it down.”
Dolores closes Exuberance with the crash that put her on the path to writing the book. The title poem first celebrates an era awash in bathtub gin, flirty flappers, get-rich-quick Wall Street schemes and, course, the antics of the fearless aviators flying high above it all, and heads toward its conclusion with talk of Wall Street “wing walking,” when soon, “the bankers and the brokers will steal the aviators’ lexicon, claim their own tailspins, nosedives, crack-ups.”
Exuberance, Dolores Hayden Poems, $16.95, Red Hen Press, (May 2019) is available at www.redhen.org or Breakwater Books (www.breakwaterbooks.net). For more on Hayden’s work, visit www.doloreshayden.com.