Our Lives in Paper

Reflections on memorabilia and curating an archive.

Our Lives in Paper

Our lives are chronicled in paper, much of it only meaningful to ourselves. I pondered this while going through my mother-in-law’s memorabilia after she died. It seems she kept every card and letter ever sent to her. Every table of smiling guests at weddings and graduations was captured in a photograph and saved. Her scrupulous financial records went back decades. In the end, we salvaged only what reminded us of her: family documents, journals, pictures from her theatrical career.

It was against this backdrop that I read My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera by Beth Kephart. What begins as a tribute to Dard Hunter, master craftsman of handmade paper, gradually becomes a heartbreaking and highly original memoir of her own, told in scrapbooks, recipes, photographs, sheet music, sewing patterns, and other physical records found while going through her mother’s estate.

“What do the ticket stubs we never tossed out mean?” Kephart asks. “The address book that has lost its proper binding? The antique library card? The receipt for last year’s boots? Why do we steal our mother’s paper doilies? Why do we keep the uncashed checks? What will be our final tally? Who will preserve what we thought to keep? Who will write our history? What will be our measure?”

But there’s a huge difference between this kind of personal memorabilia and an archive of public interest, as I’ve seen firsthand while working on the archive of poet and memoirist Carolyn Forché. Her archive is to be housed in a permanent library collection, but first, every piece of paper — professional and private — must be unfolded, scrutinized, and its relevance considered.

Naturally, Carolyn wishes she’d done this as she went along. It was only during the pandemic that she found time to devote to it, and that’s where I came in. Half-jokingly, she blames Robert Creeley. He told her to keep everything when he was organizing his archive, and she took him at his word.

So, together, Carolyn and I have sifted through mountains of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, travel itineraries, event fliers, posters, and programs. We’ve organized articles and interviews and sorted contracts, editorial correspondence, published and unpublished manuscripts, early drafts, and notebooks.

Carolyn’s meticulous paper-saving will undoubtedly serve her legacy well, but going through your life in paper takes a toll. When she has doubts about how much any of it matters, I remind her that women of letters must take their archives as seriously as men have traditionally taken theirs. People should know the breadth of her work. Besides, as the world becomes increasingly digital, how many more such archives will there be?

Sometimes, Carolyn comes across unpublished poems or journal entries and reads them aloud. “What do you think?” she may ask me.

“Incredible!” I may respond. Or, “That should be published.” And she puts it in a separate pile to look at more carefully later. There’s a rawness to some of what she hasn’t used. It often has a freshness and immediacy because it hasn’t yet been revised.

In the process of sorting Carolyn’s archive, I’ve heard all kinds of stories about her adventures and fellow writers. I’ve learned about her work on human rights. Sometimes, she might go very quiet on account of painful memories. When that happens, we usually end for the day.

“This is for my next memoir,” she might say about some document or other. We’ve set aside several shelves in her library for that material.

Then there are the stacks of photos — and not just those taken by her husband, photographer Harry Mattison. There are some of young Carolyn in Taos with Native American Teles Good Morning around the time she wrote Gathering the Tribes; there’s Carolyn at thirtysomething in front of bombed-out buildings in Beirut; there’s her at her Yale Younger Poets reading, a babushka on her head. (“Why did I wear it?” she wonders.) There’s her looking glamorous on the cover of a 1981 American Poetry Review — “Carolyn Forché Witness in El Salvador” reads the headline.

In My Life in Paper, Kephart writes poignantly about old photographs:

“They are our ourselves, our perfect strangers, shoved in with the cutlery we never polish, tucked away as bookmarks, secure within the folder of blue-ink letters. They are the trick of the past we have been beaten to. A cause of shock or shame. A wrenching up of the was of us, instructions on what might have been.”

I’ve saved the best for last: Carolyn’s treasure trove of correspondence, hundreds and hundreds of letters, is a who’s who of late-20th-century writers. To name just a few off the top of my head, she has notes from Margaret (signing herself Peggy) Atwood, June Jordan, Kenneth Rexroth, W.S. Merwin, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Brodsky, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Kunitz, and Tim O’Brien. Occasionally, we might be tempted to toss out what looks like an unremarkable stash. But we must be careful; we’ve come across surprising gems.

There was the blue airmail letter from Martha Gellhorn encouraging Carolyn’s journalism, and the small typewritten card from Anaïs Nin’s partner Rupert Pole, thanking Carolyn for sustaining Anaïs with poetry during her final illness. There was a personal letter from Jimmy Carter on White House stationery praising her collection The Country Between Us.

Our findings go from the sublime to the ridiculous — from hilarious Derek Walcott letters to a snarky note from Robert Bly’s wife, Carol, offering pointers on Carolyn’s reading style. All these treasures have been carefully sorted into archival sleeves and stacked in piles of labeled boxes. The archive will preserve the rich and productive life of an important 20th-century poet and human-rights activist, teacher, translator, and memoirist.

Still, I’m continually astonished by the sheer volume of the work. How was there time for even half of it? And yet, in the compiling of this archive, something elusive will still be lost. Whether public or private, collecting papers and pictures is a way of holding onto elements of life in the face of the larger inevitable loss that comes for everyone and everything. Kephart concludes My Life in Paper with this moving passage addressed to papermaker Hunter:

“You don’t know me, Dard. You’ll never know me. But you have brought me here, to the end of this chase, through the ephemera of paper. I am what I have found in the files, boxes, bags. I am also every page that slipped away, will be forever missing.”

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and poetry editor for the Independent and the voice of “Read Me a Poem,” a podcast of the American Scholar.

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