Apr 19, 2021

Tammi J. Truax Adds Verse to the Universe

A poet laureate spreads the word about art—and a notable First Lady

By Ed Goldman

While she lives in Eliot, Maine, Tammi J. Truax is the poet laureate of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 

But, she says, “I work in Portsmouth and when I leave my cottage, I can walk to New Hampshire.” Besides, she adds, her job entails her serving as poet laureate “for the entire Sea Coast Region.”

Edgy Cartoon

Truax is part of a proud local tradition: Before her, 11 poets laureate each served two-year terms during which they wrote verse to celebrate or commemorate local events and to comment on the larger world around them. 

I wanted to write about her after my dear friend of more than half a century, Kathy Somssich, interviewed her on Seacoast Currents, the weekly Portsmouth-based show she co-hosts on WSCA Portsmouth Community Radio.  Kathy was still recounting—when I joined the weekly Zoom call she and a number of our high-school theatre buddies make every Friday (thanks to our L.A.-based alum and cyber ringmaster, Steve Schweitzer)—how moved she’d been by one of Truax’s poems when she’d guested on her  show. 

“Every week, the City of Portsmouth posts a city advisory regarding the pandemic,” Kathy reported.  “Tammi was asked to provide a poem every week.” Truax’s pandemic-specific verse may found online.

Just before January 17, 2021, a significant day for the area and the country (read on), Truax wrote “A New Day Dawns for America.”

This week Operation Warp Speed inched out to some of us, as others wrestle for vaccination priority with needle-ready arms.
Meanwhile elsewhere under bright blue waters fish were recorded singing a chorus at dawn.
This week our COVID death toll eclipsed that of all other nations as super-spreaders travelled and huddled to scream spittle-laden lies.
Meanwhile elsewhere under bright blue waters fish were recorded singing a chorus at dawn.
This week panic buttons were removed, advance private tours were granted, plans were made and executed, promises fulfilled, promises broken.
Meanwhile elsewhere under bright blue waters fish were recorded singing a chorus at dawn. 

Truax recently earned her master’s degree in education. Since her modest annual stipend is paid by a nonprofit foundation, not by the city of Portsmouth (which I find surprising), she’s held other jobs and part-time gigs to hold body-of-work and soul together (which I don’t find surprising). She’s taught literacy and poetry classes in the region’s schools, preschools and even an area prison. Her regular day job is working for the Portsmouth School librarian.

Among her many, often simultaneous projects is a two-part historical novel she wrote for publisher Oghma Creative Media about Ona Judge, who was the “body servant” of our country’s very first First Lady, Martha Washington. The job title, while it may have a misleading (and weirdly salacious) aspect, simply means that Judge was with Washington at all  times, tending to her official and personal needs. In fact, the second part of the novel focuses on Washington herself, a formidable figure whose husband’s fame (and if I may, true greatness) had pretty much confined her to being a historical footnote.

I tell Truax that the book sounds like a can’t-miss adaptation for HBO, Lifetime or A&E’s History Channel. She agrees, but without a hint of avarice or that there are mink-lined sugar blossoms dancing in her head at the very mention of Hollywood. Instead, she views the prospect as the artist that she is. “While I was writing it, I found so much of what happened to be visual, and I saw the stories of Ona and Martha unspooling  like a film in my mind,” she says.

Another of Truax’s projects that sparked a personal interest is her featured work in the poetry anthology, “The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival.” Published by Kent State University Press a few years ago, the collection includes a foreword by the late/great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The book’s existence also begs the perhaps obvious question: Did Truax herself survive a terrible illness or terrible loss along the way? “I’m a widow,” she says. “My husband passed 20 years ago.” She pauses and adds, “I was a young widow.”

Truax has two grown children: Spence, who’s 29, and Grace, 24. “They’re both very creative,” she says proudly.

She feels very strongly that immersion in poetry—“or any of the arts, for that matter”—can help people deal with grief. To illustrate her abiding optimism, I close today’s column with an example of one of her brief, Haiku-like poems, “Ursa Minor”:

Stumbling through the year finally, when darkness peaks we see the north star. 

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).