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.