Inspired by a story about Helen Keller’s heartbreak, Decatur native Jeanie Thompson researched the Alabama icon’s life, letters and writings to pen a book of persona poetry.
Thompson will read from “The Myth of Water” today at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center on Church Street Northeast. A featured event of Read Alabama, a literary series celebrating the state’s bicentennial, the free reading will begin at 3 p.m.
“She was a very public figure. People knew her as this lady of courage and the star of ‘The Miracle Worker,’ but there was an ordinary, fallible human being there,” Thompson said. “That’s what I was interested in, in trying to speak about the love and grief she experienced. I was writing about the authentic, passionate, concerned citizen and woman Helen Keller was.”
Thompson, executive director of the Montgomery-based Alabama Writers’ Forum, became interested in Keller as a subject of poetry after reading Dorothy Hermann’s biography. In “Helen Keller: A Life,” Thompson learned of Keller’s romantic involvement with Peter Fagan, their planned elopement and her subsequent heartbreak.
“Because of their concerns for Helen, her family prevented her from being with him. The night Peter Fagan was supposed to elope with her, he did not show up. She was 36 at the time. That was so moving to me,” Thompson said.
After initially wanting to depict Keller’s story as a movie or a play, Thompson returned to her first love — poetry.
Influenced by the poetic songwriters of her youth — Bob Dylan, Richard Harris and Joni Mitchell — Thompson developed a love for poetry at Decatur High School.
“There were these great poets writing songs, and we were listening to this as our popular music,” Thompson said. “I started writing poems as a freshman in high school. I discovered that writing poems was something that made me understand a little better about who I was. Expressing myself in images and lines felt very natural. I love the sound of language.”
At the University of Alabama, Thompson studied poetry and graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts. Her works include “The Seasons Bear Us,” “White for Harvest: New and Selected Poems,” “Witness,” “Litany for a Vanishing Landscape,” “How to Enter the River” and “Lotus and Psalm.”
In creating “The Myth of Water,” a book of historical persona poems, Thompson combined her own experiences and writing style with Keller’s life.
“Anytime a poet has something to say, the poet is going to try for the most authentic voice. I brought my considerable number of years as a poet into this project. I don’t know that what I’m saying from Helen’s point of view is 100% authentic. It’s a creation. I was trying to get inside the mind and heart of Helen Keller that was not so public,” Thompson said.
During today’s reading, Thompson plans on selecting poems from throughout Keller’s life — from her romance with Fagan to her relationship with Anne Sullivan to her connection with Alabama.
For more information about Thompson and the book of poems, visit jeaniethompson.net.