cornelia veenendaal, a quiet force for poetry in massachusetts

by Helena Minton

As Cornelia Veenendaal celebrates the publication of her fourth book of poems, An Argument of Roots, it seems fitting to recognize her contributions to poetry in Massachusetts. Connie, as she is known to friends, is now in her early nineties, and has been a quiet force for poetry for many years, as a teacher, a founder of two small presses, and as a friend and supporter of other poets.

In 1973, with six other poets, Connie founded Alice James Books, a co-operative press with an emphasis on publishing poetry by women, a press which remains one of the country’s longest-lasting and prestigious small presses after almost fifty years.  Named for the sister of William and Henry James, the press evolved out of a Beacon Hill workshop and a weekly poetry reading series at a gallery in Inman Square. The grass roots founders were each involved directly in the publication of her (and sometimes his) own book. Poets helped each other shepherd their books through the publication process, overseeing the selection of cover art and print type, and were responsible for editing, proofreading, and marketing. Working within the group, thoroughly immersing themselves in poetry, Connie says, was “a delightful and encouraging experience.”  The weekly meetings were essential to getting things done.  “The word ‘co-operative’ meant a lot to us.”  Though in 1994 Alice James Books moved its editorial offices from Cambridge to Farmington, Maine, the emphasis on publishing poetry by women, and by diverse voices, remains.
In another house on Beacon Hill, in the early 1980’s, Connie and two other poets founded the Rowan Tree Press, bringing out an unusual, eclectic list that ranged from poetry, to prose by poets,  to  memoir, to a collection of interviews, to books  about the history of cooking. Connie and her partners took great pride in the production of the thirty-one books they published, creating elegant volumes with beautiful covers.

Connie has always understood the solitary poet’s need for community. In the 1990’s, she was instrumental in organizing poetry readings in the Dorchester neighborhood where she lived, and drew from inspiration from, for almost forty years. Readings were held at the Fields Corner branch library and at the local bookstore, the Dorchester Reading Authority. Over the years she has also been an inveterate and faithful participant of several writing workshops, bringing her insight and careful attention to reading the poems of her fellow poets.   The workshops have included the Dot Four in Dorchester, a long-time group that meets in Cambridge and another in Waltham, as well as a group that gathered for years in summer at Skimmilk Farm in southern New Hampshire, and now meets in Portsmouth.  

Connie taught creative writing and literature for twenty-five years at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, beginning at with the writing program’s  inception in 1965.  Her love of literature and her understated, compassionate demeanor in the classroom left a deep impression on many students, some of whom figure in her poems. In “Return,” a poem in her new book, at a farmer’s market in Boston, the speaker encounters Sarah, a student, who, after twenty years, remembers reading

“’about something blue as a heron’s leg…’” The speaker herself, not quite remembering where that image is from, goes home and looks it up, finding it in Stephen Crane’s story, “The Blue Hotel.”   The poem ends with the speaker thinking of “the students in their separate lives/bending over the words—/I can only imagine now—/but here wades the heron on long blue legs.”

In a recent review of An Argument of Roots, in Mantis, the poet Sandra Kohler describes Connie’s poems as “striking and brave… with an extraordinary freshness.”  Not only through her own moving poems, but also through her interactions with others, Connie Veenendaal has made poetry more meaningful in our community.

Besides An Argument of Roots, Cornelia Veenendaal is also the author of The Trans-Siberian Railway and Green Shaded Lamps, published by Alice James, and What Seas What Shores, published by Rowan Tree.

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Helena Minton is the author of The Canal Bed and The Gardener and the Bees.  Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including Merrimack: An Anthology and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace.  Her poems have recently been published in The Listening Eye, Red River Review, and Sou’wester.  She has taught creative writing and composition and worked as a librarian. She serves on the board of the Robert Frost Foundation and lives in North Andover.