Laura Madeline Wiseman Interviews Margo Taft Stever

Laura Madeline Wiseman: Your newest chapbook The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015) includes a series of poems exploring the life of an ancestor and delving into the historical practices of caring for the mentally ill. Talk about your interest in correcting the historical record and preserving lives buried in texts.

Margo Taft Stever: Though we access only the present, I believe that the past, present, and future conterminously exist. To understand the continuing present, we must unlock and understand the past, especially if it contains buried secrets. Because the realities we hide are painful, many important family lessons are buried. The lives of many innocent people are comingled in the rubble of those hidden secrets, and it is important to free these people from their unsettled graves.

I began work on this project after reading many letters that Peter Rawson Taft, my great grandfather, had written from his earliest childhood until his graduation from Yale. He was judged to be the best student Yale had graduated (Class of 1867). Everyone took the Classics, so such a superlative was apparently possible. Right after he graduated, Peter contracted typhoid fever and never fully recovered. I felt that I had found someone trapped under an avalanche. He was effectively a disappeared person, the pariah, forever hidden from view, covered by stigma. I was compelled to search for understanding what had happened to him, to release him from his perpetual invisibility.

LMW: Your note pages indicate sources for some of the poems in The Lunatic Ball. I know that this chapbook is part of a full-length book manuscript. What kind of research is required to create a historical kinship between family members that includes important figures in U.S. history?

MTS: Some families maintain a strong oral tradition, just as many societies have passed down their histories through song and stories. On my father’s side, I was born into one of the most important political families in Ohio, but no one ever talked about our history. Once my mother joked about my great grandfather, Peter, half-brother to William Howard Taft, as being one of the first Americans to get a divorce. Peter was the second son of Alphonso Taft, an attorney and a judge who served as secretary of war and attorney general in the Grant Administration. Peter’s story about being the best Yale student was published in the local papers. As luck would have it, three months after he graduated, he almost died of typhoid fever and never fully recovered either from the lingering effects of the disease and/or the medicine given for it.

After my father, David Taft, and my first step-father, John Perry, died, my mother married Bob Taft, the great grandson of William Howard Taft and my father’s cousin. Perhaps no one ever talked about how we were related to William H. Taft because no one wanted to discuss Peter Taft, whose madness had become a family secret several generations earlier. It is also conceivable that no one knew anything about him. I recall a letter that I found in the William Howard Taft Papers in which my uncle, Hulbert Taft, asked his own uncle about Peter, and he was told that no one knew anything about him, and that his former wife, Matilda, would not talk about him. I heard that Matilda tore up all the photographs of Peter after he had died.

By chance, in 2004, I embarked on a project to study five volumes of snapshots that Harry Fowler Woods, my great grandfather on my mother’s side, had taken during the 1905 U.S. diplomatic mission to Asia, led by William Howard Taft, then secretary of war in the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. Through the voluminous research that I conducted with my son, James Stever, to create a photography exhibition, museum catalogue, and teachers’ catalogue, I became familiar with the William Howard Taft Papers which include many, and perhaps most, of the family letters for the past six generations. Because of my family’s public service and mostly because of William H. Taft’s presidency, I could study the correspondence from the 1800s.

It should also be said that growing up in the sixties, the NOW generation, did not engender an appreciation of history. When I went to Harvard University, no one ever talked about family or anything related to the past. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to come upon a treasure trove of letters from members of my family who lived in the nineteenth century.

LMW: What was your process for writing poems based on your research of pre-existing texts, while also working on another book? Did you write the poems as you were doing the research for the book? Or did the poems come later? How long did you work on this sequence?

MTS: My son, James Stever, was a political history major at Hampshire College, and he also received a Master’s degree in history from Brown University. In 2004, when he came upon the five volumes of 1905 snapshots taken by Harry Fowler Woods, which were kept at an extended family camp in the Adirondacks, he urged the family to work on preserving the photos which had begun to “silverize.” In this organic process, the photographic graying images eventually cease to exist within a totally darkened field. After a protracted argument about whether or not the photographs should forever reside in the Adirondacks, we began the project that would result in five exhibitions, the largest of which took place at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, where we would also present a paper at an international symposium on the U.S. diplomatic mission. Our family donated the original photography collections to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Hong Shen, Zhejiang University professor and conference organizer, encouraged us to work on a project concentrating on the China part of the trip, and we undertook further research for the Looking East book.

Through this research, I was introduced to Peter’s letters. For a long time, I have grappled with the question of how to determine and write about what might have happened to Peter, and while I was debating the question, I did some research about the treatment of people institutionalized in asylums in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the tail end of a humanistic era when patients were encouraged to garden and to attend lunatic balls. I was amazed to read in Peter’s letters that he attended a ball when he briefly resided at the Cincinnati Private Hospital for the Insane. I fell in love with the title, “The Lunatic Ball,” before I wrote the chapbook’s title poem. Since I have never found an actual answer to the question of why Peter was institutionalized, I had to hypothesize an answer; I will consider this project unfinished until I find an explanation for what had happened to convince others that he should have been hospitalized.

Some of the poems in the chapbook, The Lunatic Ball, were written during the time of undertaking the “Looking East” project. In a sense, it is impossible to answer the question about how long I have worked on the sequence because I am still revising the book manuscript, CRACKED PIANO, which includes additional poems about Peter and his situation.

LMW: Did you seek out poets who wrote when these ancestors lived as models to consider as you crafted poems? What contemporary poets do you admire who are doing similar work in retelling the historic?

MTS: When I read in one of Alphonso Taft’s letters that our family is related to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1822), I was fascinated to go back and read his poems such as “Days,” “The Snowstorm,” and “Hamatreya,” and essays such as “The Poet,” which I had not read since adolescence, but which I had always admired. The trajectory of his life in some ways reminded me of Alphonso, and I recalled that Emerson had lectured at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alphonso Taft were Unitarians, both were abolitionists, both believed in the rights of women. The first wives of both men died at a young age, and the death of loved ones tremendously affected the course of their lives.

Contemporary poets who have incorporated history into their poems include Rita Dove, Michael Harper, Laurie Scheck, Derrick Walcott, Natasha Trethaway, Paul Celan, and Kevin Young, Robert Lowell (For the Union Dead and Lord Weary’s Castle) and Seamus Heaney. Reviewing their work will make a great summer reading list for me.

LMW: The majority of your poems are written in free verse, though you sometimes explore variations in experimental and traditional forms—the found poem, the epistle. Was this your conscious choice as a poet? Or did the poems evolve into their more formal structures as part of the process? Is there something about the historic that evokes formal poetic play?

MTS: For those people who did not grow up in the sixties, it is difficult to explain the profound effect of being part of that transformative time. Because I was rebellious, anti-war, anti-establishment, I also veered away from formal verse. These days, I am intrigued by the efforts of poets to create poems that are meaningful and fresh, but which adapt older forms for their expressions. While I do not tend to experiment with formal verse, I do dabble in form from time to time, and a few of these efforts can be found in The Lunatic Ball.

LMW: What are differences in writing about one’s own life, the lives of famous family members, and those who are long dead? What did writing about your ancestors enable you to understand about responses to madness, and the effect of incarceration in insane asylums during that period?

MTS: Because my father died when I was twelve, I grew up more as part of my mother’s family. Because of the detailed nature of the family correspondence, it enables me as a reader to know these remote ancestors. After Peter graduated and at least partly recovered from typhoid fever, he followed his brother, Charles, to Europe, and he lived, studied law, and learned German and French in Germany. Apparently, traveling to Europe was considered part of the education of young men during this period. The correspondence that Peter wrote to Charles, his brother, and his half-brothers gives a window into his soul, a vision of Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, and a sense of his struggles with his unbearable headaches, which were probably a residual effect of typhoid fever. Two years ago, when I was looking for artifacts related to Peter on e-bay, I came upon a medical textbook that had his name on it, which he was clearly reading in an effort to figure out how to cure his illness. I tried to buy the textbook, but I was never able to elicit a response from the person who sold the book.

The detailed content of Peter’s letters give insight into the treatment provided to mental patients during this era. Elizabeth Burk, poet and psychologist, states in her review of The Lunatic Ball (Valley Voices, V15, Spring 2015) about the found poem, “Causes of Mortification,” in which the superintendent of the sanitarium advises Alphonso Taft that his son must stay by himself in solitude to extricate himself from friends and family, “One cannot help but contrast this astonishing advice with modern psychiatry’s focus on in-depth exploration of self and family dynamics.”

One of the lessons that I learned from these letters is the role of blame in a family. Especially his wife, Matilda, and her side of the family, blamed Peter for his illness. I think that his internalization of that dynamic could have driven him to become a hermit. He effectively became the pariah of the family even though at his funeral, Harry, one of his brothers, reportedly recalled to Alphonso that Peter had been the happiest one of all of them in earlier days. Peter died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four.

LMW: Talk about the emotional connection that you feel towards your ancestors after writing such a series.

MTS: When I was growing up, I did not want to have anything to do with being part of the Taft family. Even though I knew little about the family, I felt that it was aligned with the right wing, and I definitely did not identify with Republicans. It was instructive to discover that Alphonso Taft wrote a seminal opinion on the separation of church and state which was so unpopular at the time that he could never run for political office, but which helped to lay the groundwork for future opinions that kept the church out of affairs of the state. He was an abolitionist. He believed in the rights of women. Suddenly, I had to revise my views on what constituted being a Republican in the early days of the party’s existence and what it meant to be part of the Taft family.

For most people, a great grandparent is an iconic family figure in a photograph. It is heartbreaking to read about a family member who was at the top of his game and who fell apart as a result of physical illness. More importantly, I found myself wanting to reach back in time to communicate with Peter and Alphonso, with Matilda, and so many other characters in the past, but mostly, I was interested in a talking with Peter. Through reading these letters, I realized that his struggles, and those of his family, were not different from ours today despite the passage of centuries.

LMW: If Peter were living in our era, how do you imagine that his life would have turned out differently?

MTS: First of all, with the advances in the state of public health in the United States today, Peter would never have contracted typhoid fever. When I spoke with a librarian at Yale, he pointed out that Peter’s class was much smaller than the Yale classes of today, so he might not have graduated first, but he would have graduated close to the top of his class since he seemed to be a serious workaholic. If he were married, given the statistics of today, he may or may not have been divorced, but it would not have the same stigma that existed in those days. If he had gone to Europe, he would have received an international education. He would probably have come back to the United States, and he would have prospered. As many others of his time, due to illness, Peter was also the recipient of a short straw.

LMW: If you could share a meal with Peter R. Taft, II, what would you eat and why?

MTS: I would provide an organic vegetarian dinner with sustainable wild-caught fish. For dessert, I would make an apple pie with organic tart apples with the help of my husband, who is the pastry chef in our family. My reasons for eating organic food are to support agriculture that can heal the earth from the scars that factory farms and big agriculture are making on the land and animals that have to suffer within them. Although many fish populations are dwindling as a result of the war on fish that Americans are committing, I would look for a fish for our dinner that is not threatened with extinction.

LMW: If you could give Peter any advice, what would it be?

MTS: I would like to tell him not to listen to what the so-called experts were saying, and to strike out on his own just as Emerson and Thoreau did, and to write about what he felt and saw. Maybe, he could start over in a new place, maybe in the country, and find another woman who could love him for who he was rather than the socialite or the hail-fellow-well-met that Matilda had wanted him to be. Perhaps he could become a farmer, as his own grandfather had been. I would tell him not to accept the blame that people assigned to him.


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