Alexis Lathem: Ghost Writer

Alphabet-cover_final_front-copyWords // Lin Stone

Alexis Lathem is an accomplished poet, an environmental journalist and activist, as well as an English and writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont; however, according to Lathem, the writer’s biography is not important to what is on the page. She refers to the first poem in her debut book collection, Alphabet of Bones, as her ars poetica (a poem about writing poetry), where she likens the poet’s craft to that of a ghostwriter—literally.

What matters about the poet is that they learn their craft, she said. “Writing good poetry requires us to live in a certain way—it’s not an activity we just do at our desks,” she said. “It asks for a lot of diligent hard work to live in a different, more attentive way, and to hold a moral engagement with the world. This is why I put this poem, The Ghost Writer, first; it reminds us to stay close and to stay close to death. Someone once said ‘all of poetry is about death,’ which I trust to mean the fully human recognition of our mortality.”

What Lathem reads, studies, thinks and feels is in her poetry. She worries about the planet and lack of consciousness about what is truly happening in the world, she said. “Planet earth is in the midst of mass extinction—enormous changes and upheavals in our ecosystems, and I fear we don’t even notice it.”

Personal experiences led Lathem to write poems about the environment. She grew up in Brooklyn and London, but wanted to get away from her urban life to explore more uncharted areas. She worked for some time on farms in England, Scotland, and France. As she became more involved with the natural world, she became more interested in the environmental movement.

Eventually she came to Vermont, and in the 1990s, traveled to Quebec to learn firsthand how Hydro Quebec would affect that area. She made several extended trips and visited communities near Sept-Îles, Quebec, which is the land of the Innu people. Later, she went further north, to Labrador, into an area that was entirely without roads, except for one rugged dirt road—it took a 19-hour hitchhike and a ferryboat to get to the Innu community—a full two weeks of travel, she said.

“These areas were so remote that the world was not watching them,” she said. “So I wrote a newsletter. I wanted to get the Innu people’s voices out; they were extraordinary interviews. The people snowshoed, pursued caribou, and caught wild salmon. They’re the last generation to live like that.”

Lathem remembers being on the northern coast of Labrador with a small group of people in a tiny rickety boat travelling along a lonely three-hour stretch of coast: no houses, no piers, and no other boats, only wild marine lands. “We would stop to let whales pass,” she said. “Night was falling and the driver of the boat was getting nervous because it was overcast, there were many reefs and rocks, and we could not see. Then the clouds lifted and stars lit our way. There was a big luminescent organism flashing in the water below and overhead, the aurora borealis appeared. And we were there, rocking on the water, alone, surrounded in a pageant of swooping phosphorescent colors—immersed in luminous light from above and below. The most amazing experience of my life.”

Poetry contributes to her life and her environmental activism. Poetry is not a passive function, Lathem said. “It is something we actively do,” she said. “We need to grieve what was lost and cannot be restored. We also need the ability to see the beauty of the world. But that recognition and appreciation follows the ability to grieve.”

Poetry is an interior spiritual journey for Lathem. Images well up from some emotional landscape with deep feelings about her relationship to the natural world, she said. “I trust that this can be included in not just [environmental] journalism, but also in what literature and poetry does too.”