As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Linda Gregerson in response to a video of her reading her poem “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” aloud. Linda Gregerson wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Linda Gregerson also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear friends of poetry—
Thank you so much for your wonderful letters; I love hearing from you—high school students, grade school students, students from rural school districts, students from big cities all across the country. We poets tend to write in isolation and, even when our poems are published, we may have very little sense of their impact on readers. So it is very heartening indeed to hear about your reactions. I'm also amazed at the freshness and insight with which you are able to relate your own lives to the materials you encounter in a video and on the "page" of a computer screen. The Dear Poets Project is one of my very favorite activities of the year.
A number of you have asked whether "With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath" is based on real events, and you are right to wonder. Your teachers have no doubt taught you that material in a poem may be fictional. The great Emily Dickinson instructed herself and every poet to "tell the truth, but tell it slant." In this particular instance, however, I am happy to report that the ladies-only swimming pond on Hampstead Heath is a real place; I really did find it by accident one summer afternoon when I was on a ramble with my daughter; Emma is a real person. It has been many years since our adventure on the Heath, but Emma continues to teach me, by word and by example, how to live my life more joyously.
I hope you will continue to find a place for poetry in your lives.
Sending you all best wishes for the new school year—
Linda Gregerson reads "With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Linda Gregerson,
Hello! My name is Janice and I recently found out about your poetry through my English class, where we were to participate in this Dear Poet project. Out of all the poems I read through, yours stuck with me the most. The story of you, and who I assume is your daughter, Emma, remind me a lot of me and my own mom. The imagery and the different implications throughout the text make it so vivid and interesting to read.
I loved how everything felt so personal and authentic in your poem. The first two stanzas are relatable, when I was younger my hair was very long, and my mom loved to braid and experiment with all sorts of hairstyles on me. I would always complain when she would pull at it while doing this, like Emma, I was always told to stay still while she worked. Still, it is nice to be cared for as such. When Emma is allowed to navigate to the pond without the help of your map, there is an uncertainty if she will find her way or not, but the gesture is to let her navigate and have some liberty and fun in comparison to all the rules and obligations that come with childhood. I could feel the relief as you realize she was capable of finding the right path all on her own.
The phrase “...honey-colored metric of augmented thirds” (Lines 39-40) struck me as particularly interesting. I first researched what an augmented third was, and the definition I received was “an interval of semitones”. However, upon listening to an augmented third, it invokes a tense feeling. I found it reminiscent of music you would hear played in the background of a suspenseful movie. This is such a contradiction from the words coming right before it. Honey-colored anything implies warmth, light, and a feeling that compliments that. In this poem, it’s clear you’re afraid of letting Emma go, although your time with her is uncertain like the semitones, it is sweet. The word “metric” threw me off just a little, as a unit of measurement I first perceived this line as being about Emma’s hair, and it could be. I'm curious about what’s the meaning you intended behind this line? Although all poetry is subjective, every poet has their own interpretations behind their work, and I’d love to know yours.
On the topic of Emma’s hair, I appreciated the symbolism with her talking about cutting it. My first drastic haircut came when I was about 12, bored with the long hair I had for most of my childhood. It’s a common thing for girls to have long hair when they’re young, because I guess that’s popular among mothers. When kids are old enough to decide and experiment their own styles and preferences, it’s a big part of growing up. You mention earlier that soon she will be a preteen and become increasingly more embarrassed about hanging out with her mother, and the talk about cutting her hair is the first sign of her heading into preteen territory. This also ties in with the French braiding earlier, which if she cut off her hair, you wouldn’t be able to do anymore. My mom also missed my braids when my hair was too short for it.
Finally, the last stanza really hit close for me. I’ve witnessed from my mom the conflict of wanting to hold onto your child a little longer, but not wanting to tell them no when it comes to giving them their freedom. The way you dodge Emma’s negotiations with an offer to do something fun with her, it’s bittersweet. You know in your mind that someday you’ll muster up the strength to do it, but you want to cherish her childhood while you can.
In short, the mood, the imagery, and the meanings behind this poem makes it special and had it hit very close to home for me. Along with my other inquiry, how do you portray feelings so strongly in your work? I have a hobby of writing stories and sharing them with friends, and I want to make them feel as if they’re in the characters’ shoes as they read. Also, if you and Emma remain in contact, how is she doing? Thanks for your time!
Dear Janice –
Thank you so much for your wonderful letter. You show a lot of compassion for “the other side” of the mother-daughter relationship, which is surely a sign that your own family is a very loving and generous one. And you are so savvy about the "dodge" of offering some pleasant distraction from the thing we really aren't ready to allow. So manipulative! I fear we mothers have a lot to answer for sometimes.
How resourcefully you read the line about “honey-colored metrics”! The best readers always have a lot to teach us poets about our own work. I love how you identify the tension between the simple warmth of “honey-colored” and the atonality lurking in the musical term “augmented thirds.” I hope you won’t be disappointed if I confess I was also making something of a pun in those lines. In poetics, "metrics" acknowledges the fact that, like music, spoken language has rhythm. Some syllables are more heavily stressed than others, and in poetry we sometimes assemble those stresses into patterns: This honey-colored metric of augmented / / thirds. This particular poem is written in three-line stanzas, or tercets, so I was also thinking about the three lines of each stanza "rhyming" somehow with the three strands of hair that go into the making of a braid. In a French braid, the strands are "augmented" with some extra hair each time they're incorporated into the braid.
I'm so glad to hear that you write stories and care so much about inviting your readers to experience what it's like to be "inside" your characters. That's why creative writing, in all its varieties, matters at all: it enlarges our powers of empathy and identification.
Finally, thank you for asking about Emma. We certainly are in touch! She and her younger sister are the lights of my life, and I'm happy to report that they're both doing very well. Emma now braids her *own* hair (she has decided she doesn't want it short after all). She was in Pony Club and on equestrian teams in both high school and college and developed quite a sideline in braiding the manes of horses.
Please tell Mr. Jackson I'm very grateful to him for including a unit on poetry in your high school classroom. And keep writing those stories!
Dear Linda Gregerson,
I’m a seventeen-year-old from North Carolina with two sisters, one twin and one younger, and even though I don’t have a daughter, your poem, “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pool on Hampstead Heath”, felt like a window into motherhood. Some poems I’ve read have felt unreachable, but I felt like the scene you paint of your daughter growing up was just behind the words. Did you mean to do that? I feel like people ask such complex questions about literary pieces, but when I write, I don’t tend to think about the line of every t and the dot on every i. Do you?
I did some research, but I could not find out if you had a daughter or not. Is your poem inspired by truth, or is it more about the idea of witnessing a child growing up? When you say, “I do, dear girl, I will/ give up/ this honey-colored metric of augmented/ thirds, but not (shall we climb/ on the raft/ for a while?) not yet,” I get a sense of the nostalgia-softened protective urgency felt by a mother watching her child grow up.
Again, I’m not a mother, but my youngest sister is four years younger than I am. She was born with esophageal atresia, a congenital illness she couldn’t even pronounce, let alone understand. I remember watching her go through surgeries, the twelfth of which was this year. She’s almost fourteen, I’m almost eighteen, and I can hear the seconds ticking away. Seeing her in the hospital, I got a feeling of nostalgia-softened protective urgency, the same feeling that you have woven into your words. Reading your poem was almost cathartic, allowing a visual representation of the internal clock I’ve been feeling. I know this isn’t the same as a mother and child, but was this relatability on purpose? Was your intended tone cathartic, or was the focus more on the elegance of the words themselves? I love the grace and structure of poetry, it’s fluid but still constant. When I write, I like to see it as more of an art than a story; the letters are colors that I like to mix across my page, and I find that more important than whatever story I’m trying to tell. Do you choose your words more for the story or for the colors?
Thank you for publishing this poem and allowing students to access it. I think it’s important that we understand not only our stories but others’ as well. The most important reason to read is to connect through our difficulties and experiences, and I think your poem in particular is a perfect example of the way writing can connect people.
Dear Emily –
Thank you so much for your wonderful letter. I wish I could engrave your words on the walls of every classroom in America: "I think it’s important that we understand not only our stories but others’ as well. The most important reason to read is to connect through our difficulties and experiences." I couldn't agree with you more. I'm convinced that the frightening divisions in our country today would melt away if we truly understood one another's stories, and could bring to them the empathy that you bring to the story in this poem.
As you suspect, the poem is grounded in an actual relationship and an actual event. Emma is my daughter, quite grown up now, and every bit as marvelous as she was when she was eight. And like you, she is the older sister of a beloved, more vulnerable sibling. Emma's sister Megan suffered a neonatal stroke when she was only three hours old — for a whole week, we didn't know if she would live or not. And like your younger sister, she has had to spend too much of her subsequent life in hospitals and other medical settings. I'll never forget the first time Emma saw her little sister: it was in the neonatal intensive care unit, but all her trepidation fell away when she set eyes on that little baby. I would go so far as to say that love for Megan, and the determination to protect her, has been the defining event of Emma's life. It's clear that you have built your own soul around just such tenderness. Your younger sister is very blessed indeed to have you.
Dear Ms. Linda Gregerson,
My name is Tasnim. I’m a freshman in high school and currently taking English II.
As I scrolled down the list of poems for the Dear Poet project, one immediately caught my eye; in all honesty, I’m not sure what, in particular, drew me to your poem “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath”... whether it was the imagery that the title painted or the use of a name in the title. I pretended as if I could debate my choice on which poem to analyze, yet in the back of my mind I knew with complete certainty that your poem was the one I would choose. I was so enamoured with this poem even though I didn’t know what it meant. I was obsessed with the implications, the potential of everything it could mean.
I didn’t let my confusion deter me. I reread the poem over and over, as ideas slowly took shape in my mind. My thoughts morphed and changed with every passing second, but there was something that wasn’t clicking. I wasn’t sure who the speaker was, and what Emma meant to the speaker. Then, I did a little bit of searching and everything clicked: Emma was your daughter.
After that revelation, my thoughts began to solidify. I was in love with what I was uncovering and I was excited to continue. I was awestruck by the illustrious images you described in your poem, as the coppice of boxwood “disclosed” (21) its path to the swimming pond, like a secret, or a guilty pleasure. I was born and raised in New York City, and more often than not have fallen asleep to the sound of car engines and blaring horns. The imagery in your poem was so peaceful, and serene… I felt nostalgic for a memory I never had.
The speaker’s (which I will assume is you) trust in Emma as she leads her through the woods, not knowing where or what the destination is, beautifully describes the spontaneity of young children and the tender moments that can result from that. (Of course, I say this being a child myself — but ideally being 14 years old is drastically different from being 8 years old.) The recklessness of it all as you both swam in improper swimming attire was touching and goes to show what can happen when a little recklessness is allowed now and then.
When you wrote, “She’s eight now. She will rather die than do this in a year or two / and lobbies, / even as we swim, to be allowed to cut / her hair” (33-37), I felt some indescribable emotion take hold of me. I could see myself as the child who aged “a year or two,” bound by rules and without that treasured spontaneity. I’ve been called uptight and anxious, even as an eight year old. And while I’ve improved, I still definitely edge on the more cautious side. I could never have run to the pond with just the clothing on my back and childlike excitement, which could be why I connect to this poem so strongly; it embodies a memory I never had. While I can connect with the child in your poem, I find myself responding more to the speaker in their “wonted bows to seemliness.” (22)
I noticed the mention of Emma wanting to cut her hair — hair cutting is a timeless symbol, representing a change, or growth of self. This fit perfectly into your poem; I loved the way that you acknowledged that you would eventually have to cut her hair, symbolizing how Emma’s growth was inevitable. But with that you proceeded to write, “but not (shall we climb / on the raft / for a while?) not yet.” (40-42), beautifully describing that while yes, Emma will grow, this moment spurred by childhood spontaneity can still be appreciated while it lasts.
I thought the structure of your poem was interesting; At first, it looked like it had no discernible pattern. With a little bit of digging, I noticed a pattern of 3 lined stanzas, with the middle line of each stanza being smaller than the other two. Was there a purpose or particular meaning behind this structure, or was it to just create a consistent sense of rhythm? This poetic structure is completely unique to me, and I’m interested to see the meaning behind it.
I’m also interested to know whether or not the events in this poem actually happened. Did Emma really lead you to this pond at Hampstead Heath? If so, I think that’s incredibly sweet.
I know this letter has gotten away from me. I have so much more to say, and I could write pages upon pages about this. I’m endlessly glad this project introduced me to you and your poetry; This is the first poem I’ve read of yours and it certainly won’t be the last. I write poems as a hobby occasionally, and I’ve already been able to take so much from your work. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and I truly appreciate you and the messages you deliver in your poetry.
New York, NY
What a beautiful letter you have written! I am both touched and honored to see what careful attention you have devoted to my poem and how deeply you have understood the feeling behind it. You also write beautifully – please be sure to keep a place for writing in your life, however your future studies and your professional plans emerge.
I’m happy to report that Emma and I did indeed come upon the ladies-only swimming pond on Hampstead Heath exactly as the poem describes. The context for our excursion all those years ago was one of our earliest summers in London, where I used sometimes to direct a study abroad program. London is actually remarkable for its green spaces and I adore its urban pleasures, but Emma as a child was determined to approximate countryside as best she could. (She would sympathize with your falling asleep to the sound of sirens and car engines – not her favorite lullabies). The ladies-only swimming pond on Hampstead Heath is not exactly a secret, but it felt like one to us when we came upon it by accident– we hadn’t known of its existence beforehand. This only added to the magic of that lovely summer afternoon.
You say you’ve been described as “uptight and anxious” – welcome to the club! Spontaneity can be a real gift, and thank heaven I’ve had daughters to teach me the loveliness of that approach to the world. But don’t underestimate the advantages of what you describe as your own caution. Shall I tell you a story about eight year olds? It’s a story told to me by the wonderful sociologist Kristin Luker when she knew our eight-year-old Emma. Apparently, when the World Health Organization was working hard some years ago to inoculate rural African communities against malaria and other devastating diseases, they didn’t have adequate written records for earlier rounds of immunization, so they weren’t certain who needed first doses and who needed booster shots. Guess who they found that their most reliable local informants were? Eight year old girls! Girls notice everything – it’s practically a superpower. Eight years old is apparently some kind of peak for such powers, but those powers don’t go away. Clearly yours have remained strong.
Finally, your question about my three line stanza (good noticing!): I spent a long time working it out because I wasn’t happy with the too-regular stanza structure in my earlier poems. I think of that short middle line as a “pivot” line, and it gives me a way to approximate the jagged rhythms I hear when I’m composing poems.
Please tell your teacher that I’m very grateful to her for including a unit on poetry in your high school classroom. Keep writing!
In friendship –
Dear Linda Gregerson:
My name is Vivian, I am sixteen, and I go to the Kinkaid school in Texas. Not unlike most people I know, I feel I have grown up too fast. Reading “With Emma at the Ladies Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” made me nostalgic for childhood experiences I never had.
I did not read but rather listened to “With Emma at the Ladies Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” the first time I came across it. Vivid, impressionist images faded in and out and across my imagination as I took heed of each word: images of woven hair, summer shade, water’s edge, child’s sure footsteps. Each time I read or listened to the poem I would experience a string of new but similar images, never coming fully into focus. This time I’m walking alongside Emma as a child her age. Other times I am the trees watching the narrator, feeling each thought pass through her head. The broken, enjambed line structure of the poem led the poem to read as the narrator’s thoughts: trailing all over the place yet connected in one narrative. I wanted to relive the poem in the way I imagine some individuals want to relive their own childhood; I wish I could be nostalgic for my own experiences the same way I’m nostalgic for Emma’s.
Immediately your line about french braids brought up buried memories of when my mother used to braid my hair. I would have to sit painfully still on the pink marble her vanity counter. All of a sudden I remembered being small and going swimming every other weekend and the prickly boar’s hair brush detangling my hair and feeling safe on that vanity counter the way Emma felt safe leading the way through the forest. I want to think back to times I went to the ladies-only swimming pond and traipsed through the shady forest and submerged in the refreshing water.
Nostalgia aside, I found the most striking line of the poem to be: “I in an ill-fitting borrowed swimsuit.” This stirred up such a distant and wistful-yet-hopeful mixture of emotions for me. I hope everybody has experienced a last-minute decision to go swimming and the feeling of having to borrow a swimsuit that doesn't feel quite right no matter how many times you adjust the straps. You don’t care because you want to hop in the cool water; however, you’re quietly aware of the suit’s odd feeling the whole time. I like to think that is something everybody has gone through but somehow never brought up to each other until this poem.
Is the narrator Emma’s mother? So many of the narrator’s passing thoughts dwell on Emma like it’s a casual habit. They dwell on Emma in a way I think a mother would dwell on a child. I looked it up online and happily discovered there is a real life ladies-only swimming pond on Hampstead Heath. Have you ever been? The pictures looked delightful.
Wishing you lots of calm walks in the woods,
Dear Vivian –
Thank you for your wonderful letter, and for the attention and imagination you brought to my poem. All poets hope their poems will find such kind and appreciative readers.
Why do we mothers torment our daughters with the ritual braiding of hair? Maybe it’s our own nostalgia for youth. In any case, I’m glad you remember those sessions as ones of safety as well as painful stillness. For what it’s worth, in high school and college my Emma became an expert in French braids herself, and was called upon by all her friends for inventive hairdos (including a whole-scalp spiraling French braid!).
You are absolutely right when you hypothesize that the narrator in my poem is Emma’s mother: the voice is, in fact, an only slightly distanced version of my own. You have no doubt been taught, quite correctly, to make no simple assumptions about equating the “I” in poems with the actual person of the poet – it’s always useful to keep in mind that, while poets often borrow from personal experience, they also rely upon invention. Truth-telling, and truth-seeking, in a poem is not the same as “just the facts.” That said, a poet has many ways to signal her or his proximity to a poetic speaker. Sometimes we’ll use transparently autobiographical details (like the names of parents or children or home towns). But the main point is to signal, one way or another, emotional investment in details of the poem. I think of those signals as invitations to the reader: welcome in! Feel free to be invested too! An invitation you beautifully agreed to accept!
The ladies-only swimming pond in Hampstead Heath is just as wonderful as you imagine it to be. (And the water is surprisingly cold, even in the height of summer.) I would not have found it all those years ago without my eight-year-old daughter.
Please tell your teacher that I’m very grateful to her or him for including a unit on poetry in your high school classroom. I hope poems will have a continuing place in your life.
Dear Linda Gregerson,
I adore this poem. The reminiscent, soft imagery is phenomenal and brings up pleasant memories of summer and youth. I spend much of my summers in Cape Cod floating in the green water of the lakes and ponds as the ocean is always too cold to swim in. The description of the pond in your masterpiece perfectly matches my fond recollections of the chaos and adventure of the little out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the waters. The desperate wish to hang onto the carefree, almost shameless nature of youth for as long as possible is something I can relate to as I grow up. I am not the most spontaneous or ‘outdoorsy’ person, but like the speaker of this poem, I too always enjoy the times I get taken out of my comfort zone and live on the edge. This poem kind of reminded me of John Keats’ writing which I’ve studied in my English class. The type of vivid imagery and metaphors you utilize in your poem is very similar. It paints a picture, it sets a stage, the reader can visualize the scene unfolding. It also, surprisingly, brought up visions of William Blake. He wrote poems about innocence and experience, how they coexist and compare. The speaker in your poem seems to be much older and more jaded and matured, but Emma is the epitome of innocence and purity. Your poem explores the interactions and comparisons between the two in a way that reminded me of his work. The way you spoke the poem aloud, with the twinkle of nostalgia in your eye and small pauses and knowing smiles really made for a whole separate experience than reading it on paper. I smiled a bit to myself when I heard it for the first time, and then the second and third, as it sounded like such a cherished memory, as if I was being told a secret story. I think we all want to preserve and protect the innocence of 8 years old. To enjoy it for a bit before society’s rules and expectations begin to weigh our sense of adventure down. I do find myself longing for the simplicity of this time here and there, the freedom of the naivety of youth. I suppose I am still young though.
Thanks so much, I loved both reading and listening to your work.
New York, NY
Dear Ms. Gregerson,
After reading your poem the first ten times I didn’t see it. But after reading it another ten times it blew me away. I’ve lived/am living a mirror image of the story this poem tells. I am thankful for this assignment given to me by my Composition teacher Ms. Elizabeth Jorgensen because without it I wouldn’t have discovered this poem that reminded me of so many experiences of my childhood. I find it remarkable that now as a senior in high school these memories which seemed so distant aren’t actually that long ago. Every time I read this poem I draw a comparison to my best friend of ten years, Jenna. There are so many lines that remind me of experiences I had with my best friend when we were young kids. The line about Emma wanting to cut her hair brings me back to when Jenna and I were in third grade and she and I cut her hair short. We braided it into pigtails and took scissors and chopped them off. I can still remember the jagged ends of her hair and the look on her mother’s face when she saw what did. Not one of our finest moments.
Another line that brought me back to my childhood: “I’d started my late learning in applied french braids.” No matter how many times my mother tried to teach me I never could grasp it, until Jenna taught me how to braid. I remember she taught me to braid on her Barbie dolls. After that we spent our days braiding, braiding, braiding, and more braiding. Today we still do some braiding. Finally, I did finish my studies in braids and moved up to applied braids with real hair. This poem reminds me so much of my experiences and friendship with Jenna and even my newer friendships today. Because of these connections between Emma and Jenna, I am curious to know more about where this friendship went. Where is Emma now? Are the narrator and Emma still friends? Did Emma eventually cut her hair? I’m sure just as my own friendship evolved, Emma’s evolved as well. Jenna’s family moved to Florida and now we only see each other in the summer. But our summers are spent together swimming at our own version of the “Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath.” We spend them at the “Best Friends-Only Lake House in West Bend.” We spend our days laid out on the dock basking in the sun, swimming in the frigid water, splashing each other, and relishing each other's company. I relish these moments every year because I know that every year is one year closer to our last summer spent together. Our last time laying out on the dock and breathing in the lake air, our last time giggling and whispering about our crushes, our last time together. I can imagine that the narrator felt similarly about not returning to the swimming pond. There is a nostalgia that comes from the places we spend our childhood and when those places disappear it's like a part of our childhood disappears. It’s the same with the people who we spend our childhoods with.
Your poem evokes many feelings within myself, nostalgia being one. I wonder what emotions you hoped to evoke in your readers with this poem? Is this poem based on your own personal experience? Thank you for reading such an intriguing poem, I have found that no matter how many times I read it, it always reminds me of a new memory. Thank you for reading this letter and I look forward to hearing from you.
Dear Ms. Gregerson,
My name is Meaghan and I’m a junior at Edina High School studying AP U.S. Literature. My teacher, Ms. Degener, is an avid poetry reader and has inspired my recent interest in women’s poetry. I’ve always had an intense interest in women’s history and am just starting to dive into past and current women’s literature. I especially enjoyed reading your poem, “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” because of the simplicity and the way the relationship between the mother and the daughter is portrayed.
I love this poem because it follows the mother’s journey in being taught something by her daughter, which is a reversal of typical roles. The wording of “In payment” (line 1) and “to make some small amends” (7) suggest that the mother feels she owes Emma something, perhaps lost time? This wonder drove me to keep reading and to keep exploring their relationship. This role reversal solidified in line 12 when the mother “let Emma lead”, which was precursed with “I did as I was told for once” (10). I believe that you captured perfectly the moment that mothers can have when they realize that their daughters have something to teach them. In this poem, I interpreted that lesson as being freedom.
I interpreted this freedom as being one that is gained by carelessness. The mother is conditioned to being courteous, and slowly loses this in lines 23-24 when she says that their “wonted bows to seemliness seemed / poor excuse”. The manners that had been engraved into her being slowly unraveled as she allows herself to learn from Emma. This pattern of freedom is paralleled between Emma and her mother in what they wear to the pond, with “Emma in her underwear and I / in an ill- / fitting borrowed suit” (28-31). All of this culminates in the meaning of the pond itself, which is a symbol of freedom. The pond provides a safe space for women of all ages to relax and be themselves, which is exactly what Emma teaches her mother through this trip to the pond.
I wonder what inspired you to show this journey? This poem felt very powerful to me, although that may be due to the fact that I wish I could have this experience with my own mother. To you, is this poem more about a mother-daughter relationship, or about women’s empowerment? I also can’t help but wonder about the purpose of the line spacing. Is this to capture the internal wonder? Or to capture the patterns of their life? What was the purpose?
I noticed how you received your PhD from Stanford, and teach at Michigan. Do you have any advice for receiving a doctorate? It has always been a dream of mine to work to earn a PhD in law. This is a long way aways, but I would love any advice I could get. I’m also curious about your experience in being a woman in a male populated field. Has this been difficult at times? I think that I will remember this poem as I continue on in the academic field, as well as in the professional field as a reminder that I can always learn from others.
Dear Linda Gregerson,
My name is Sarah and I am an 11th grade student at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, Maryland. I recently read your poem, “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath,” for an at-home assignment for my English class, and I was absolutely amazed. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the spacing. I have never seen anything written like it before. I could not help but wonder why you organized this poem the way it is formatted. Also, your capitalization of “Just” and “Hush” and other words in the middle of a sentence. Is there a reason for this formatting?
There is not a specific quote I can reference because the whole poem is so beautiful. It at first made me remember my childhood when nothing mattered: not the way I looked or the way I talked, laughed, smiled, not who I hung out with, not the way I ran around. When you wrote, “But when the coppice of sheltering boxwood disclosed its path and posted rules, our wonted bows to seemliness seemed poor excuse,” that longing for childhood nostalgia ended and I remembered that growing up is a part of life. To me, in “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pong on Hampstead Heath,” you successfully capture how everyone wants to have that freedom of being a child and having no worries but growing up and adulthood can take that giddiness and easy-going happiness away. Is this poem a memory of yours? Thank you for writing this poem.
Dear Professor Gregerson,
As a young woman (forgoing age-based definitions), your poem about a girl practically dragging a woman/ the speaker to accompany her to a pond resonated with personal experiences. “With Emma at the Ladies-Only Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath” reminded me of traits lost in the conditioning of maturity, and whether this loss is recuperable.
We learn that the day’s adventure was an exception to the typical routine of the speaker when she lists her reasons for accompanying the girl on this occasion:
To make small amends for every reg
ed bathtime and short-drifted goodnight kiss (lines 7-9)
The enjambment of “regimented” accentuates the time channeled into routines and aesthetics. How often am I twenty minutes late to a gathering because I feel unkept? Do we gain more from concealed eyebags than from 20 minutes in good company?
The juxtaposition of the woman with the girl, Emma, reveals an ironic side-effect of maturity; the girl is the leader. As the speaker allows Emma to steer her through the woods, she humorously describes Emma as leading them “by instinct, as the drunkard knew” (14). Whereas Emma leads by instinct without a map, the speaker self-diagnoses herself as “summer’s dullest hand / at un-premeditated moves” (17-18). Though Emma relies on her instinct, which is perceived as illogical and akin to a “drunkard”, she is notably more decisive than the speaker. Does the comparison between Emma’s confidence and a drunkard reflect the fear that excess confidence in girls is a “slippery slope” isolating them from others? Though perceived as impulsive, Emma took the lead on the adventure, resulting in a timeless memory. Perhaps not every decision requires prolonged planning; to lead, one should occasionally embody spontaneity.
The imagery in line 24, “The ladies in their lumpy variety lay” reminded me of a girls’ cabin trip; 2 weeks before junior year, my girlfriends introduced me to diaper bopping. The concept is simple: We inserted our legs into the arm holes of lifejackets. We jog-waddled to the dock, phenomenally recreating our own first steps as infants. We jumped, briefly sank, and triumphantly bopped right back up. Had we ever yearned for the vantage point of an apple in a water bucket, that curiosity was satiated. We appropriated the duckling formation, bopping along the lake shore. This was one of the rare moments in which we wore swimsuits uniquely for fun, forsaking concerns of sexual appeal, self worth, or beauty. Especially now, with the frequent use of cell phones for photography, there’s consistent pressure to live photogenically. Consequently, partial importance is attributed to visual beauty in pictures. We abhor leaving the house without mascara, not wanting to look mouselike in a photo. Instead of selecting clothing on the basis of favorite colors or functionality, we consider which shades and shapes negate our pale complexions, shapes, and shapelessness in digital photos. We spend time pursuing photogenic qualities, sometimes at the expense of relationships, happiness, and self esteem. Your poem inspires me to pursue more moments like diaper bopping or swimming at a ladies’ only swimming pond, experiences that save us from taking life too seriously.
I am interested in learning about your inspiration for this poem. Have you known a girl as headstrong and confident as Emma? Is the Swimming Pond on Hampstead Heath real or does it represent a place dear to you?
All the best,