Backlit by a late-winter glow and surrounded by books and poetry magazines, Ann Bemis Day, at 92, the oldest member of the Poetry Society of Vermont, recently talked to The Mountain Troubadour about her writing, life, and PSOV, of which she’s been a member since 1959. She joined us via Zoom from her cozy home at RiverMead LifeCare Community in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Her story begins when Day’s parents, Alan C. Bemis and Mary Chapin met at a summer camp in Southern California in 1926. They were married in Santa Barbara in 1928 before moving to Boston, where Day, the first of five girls, was born the next year. Her parents, pacifists, found their love of peace tested as the country transitioned into war in the ’40s. Day’s father was a meteorologist at MIT. Long before it was widely discussed, in 1936, he and other scientists collected raindrops from Mount Washington, lab-tested them, and discovered the presence of acid carried by the rain. Her mother cared for the children and actively dedicated her life to helping people.
The generosity with which Day has come to be known through PSOV stems from her parents, she said. Later in life, she found the care her parents exhibited to others extended to her in their support of her peace work in Nicaragua and use of Knoll Farm on Bragg Hill Farm Road in Fayston as a refugee waystation. Day and her husband Frank had purchased the farm in 1957. There they raised their son, Alan, daughter, Deb, and Highland cattle.
Poetry entered Day’s life at around age 10. While spending time at Alamoosook Camp in Bucksport, Maine, she published her first poem for the camp newspaper, the playful “My Hair Is Straight As A Nail That Isn’t Bent.”
In the late ’40s Day attended Colby Junior College, now Colby-Sawyer, where she met Frank Day, a skier. “He was a beautiful skier,” said Day. She looked up, drawing her hand in a side-to-side motion as if tracing someone coming down the mountain. “He was not fast, but he was very fluid. I have a poem about watching him come down the hill and stop at the bottom beside me.”
After four months of friendship, Frank proposed over Christmas vacation. They had a two-year engagement and were married ten days after graduation in 1950. They began married life moving into a trailer on an organic farm in New Hampshire. Both were professional ski instructors and moved to the Mad River Valley to teach at Mad River Glen. Day lived in the Valley from 1954 to 2014.
Day has been no stranger to tragedy. With her first pregnancy, challenges began. She had a miscarriage and then gave birth to her daughter, Deb. After this, she had a late-term abortion due to complications with the pregnancy. Six months into her fourth pregnancy with her son, Alan, Day was diagnosed with polio. “I still have a weak left leg and a weakness in my hip,” she said. “I was diagnosed with post-polio (syndrome) in 1970.”
That year, her husband died by suicide. She was 41, her children, teenagers. Although loss can be ineffable, Day found a way to write about it in her poem, “Shooting Stars,” which concludes:
In the calm of tonight,
we walk up the hill
to watch shooting stars
in the blue-black sky.
“There he goes! He’s free!”
says my son and we know,
while the cows graze peacefully
in the pasture nearby.
Day has used her words to memorialize her family in many poems: “Cambridge Garden Revisited,” on returning to the gardens she’d visited 40 years earlier with her husband, and in “Pulse Beat,” reflecting on her son’s death from pancreatic cancer. Six months after Alan died, in June 2008, she wrote one of her favorite poems while at the Green Mountain Writers Conference, “Pantoum for Alan.”
“One of the instructors there had us write a pantoum,” said she. “And I wrote it, five verses, just like that. It just worked,” memories of a life captured in art:
So many times each day I find you there
I saw the friend who loved you and your story
and, for a moment, close my eyes and remember.
In late 2021, Deb was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Day looks forward to Deb’s recovery and relocation to Peterborough. Deb, who has two children, Meg and Haven, “is the most important person in my life,” Day said.
Not surprisingly, Day seeks solace in Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” in which the speaker says, “When despair for the world grows in me… I come into the peace of wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” She’s found respite, as she says in her poem, “The Upstairs Room,” by going inward:
I shut my eyes,
pull the comforter over my head
and turn away
from the window toward the softer light of my inner
After her husband’s death, her children helped on the farm, with Deb managing the horse training and riding program and Alan driving the tractor and helping with others’ gardens. Day kept active in her community on school and planning boards. Her love of and respect for the land led her to the Vermont Land Trust, where in 1983, she made one of the earliest conservation agreements. When it was time to leave, in 2001, she auctioned her belongings off to support the American Friends Service Committee and deeded Knoll Farm to a new generation of kindred stewards.
As Day has stewarded the land, she’s stewarded PSOV. “One of Ann’s greatest contributions has been the preservation of the history of the society,” said Carol Milkuhn, PSOV archivist and historian. “Her courage, deep religious faith, and love of the past has inspired me.”
Long-time members fondly recount PSOV events at Knoll Farm in Fayston: barn readings were highly popular. Another of Day’s contributions was “her incorporation of Knoll Farm…into the fabric of the PSOV,” said Milkuhn. “For years, we held our summer workshop at Knoll Farm; in fact, the cover of our last anthology, Brighten the Barn (the title taken from one of Day’s poems), says it all. We would gather there each summer, enjoying a poetry reading, participating in the Waitsfield Festival of the Arts—what a joy and a pleasure. Green was our Valley.”
Day in a field at Knoll Farm
The brightness was tempered with what became a difficult marriage, with Bill Heinzerling. Later, she met and began a 30-year friendship with Larry Grinnell, who partnered with her in her love of the farm, nature, and her peace work in Nicaragua until he died in 2018.
Every poet’s writing process differs, but what every poet has in common is putting the pen to paper. Day explores her poetry by first tapping into the surrounding nature and attuning herself to it. “I’m a big walker,” she said. “I like to wander about the woods by myself.” She connects words to images she encounters and records. “I’ll see something like winterberries on the ground, and I always have my camera, so I take a lot of pictures to either go with a poem or to remind me of what I saw. It’s really important to carry a pencil and a pad of paper with you because ideas come and then I lose it if I don’t write it down.”
Former president George Longenecker recalls Day’s poem “Renewal” in Writing the Land Northeast as emblematic of her sensitivity to the natural world. “It’s a lovely lyric poem” he said, quoting:
In the mist, I saw the silhouette of a crow on top
of a butternut tree. It lifted off and, silently
with feather fanned, it slid away into the fog,
fading black to gray to gone.
“I can hear Ann’s voice when I think of her,” he says, urging, “Ann, keep on writing the land. You are a beloved member and poet.”
Her poems begin with an idea or an experience. Each poem takes shape in its own unique way; while “Pantoum for Alan” came in half an hour, she can spend weeks on a sonnet. Nature has played a role: trees, insects, animals, and the sensations related to them have all shaped Day’s poetry. Day continues to write a nature column for The Valley Reporter, for which she’s written 50 years. Sometimes, a poem bridges gaps and expresses her passion for the natural world.
Since 1936, she’s written well over 400 poems, which in addition to the Troubadour, have appeared in the Lyric, TIME, and Line-by-Line from the Otter Creek workshop in Middlebury, of which she’s still a member. Other publications include the Killington Arts Guild’s Gathering of Poets and Pebbles from the Stream: A Collection of Poems from the Mad River Poets. She is also active with and has published through a poet-land trust collaboration, Writing the Land.
Day has published more poems in The Mountain Troubadour than any other member at 161; her friend Inga Potter is next with 119. Day’s first published poem in The Mountain Troubadour was “Winter” in Fall 1974; she won her first
prize, the Goldstein Memorial Award, in spring 1975 for “My Garden Versus Verses.”
“That was a really exciting time for me because I’d been a member since ‘59,” said Day. “I was going to meetings and everything, and I felt like I didn’t know anything compared to all these (poets).” But, she adds, her writing has never been for herself. “My greatest joy about writing is sharing it. Being able to get what’s inside, out, for myself and for other people.”
One poet Day has shared a writing life with is former PSOV VP and long-time Troubadour editorial board member, Carol Johnson Collins, who conceived the “Pebbles” anthology; they’ve been friends for 51 years, since shortly after Frank took his life. Collins was teaching English and creative writing at Harwood Union High School in Duxbury; then-principal Don Jamieson suggested she invite Day to read her poems and show slides of her nature photos to her students. “I did, and I did like her poems, and I loved her photos. I was inspired by her love of the beauty of nature and her enthusiasm about PSOV. Of course she wanted me to join, and I did.”
“Ann picked me up and gave me a ride with her to early PSOV meetings (in the 1970s) because my husband and I only had one car. I won’t say I felt totally at ease with her driving style. I won’t say that she was unsafe in her driving, but it was jumpy and bumpy because if she saw something that caught her eye and would make a good photograph, she would screech to a halt and grab her camera (always carried it nearby), jump out and take a few shots, then climb back in to the driver’s seat and drive on.”
Collins said she was “honored” when Day asked her to be the photographer for Day’s 90th birthday celebration at the farm. “My interest in photography was heightened by her excitement. I even started screeching to a halt and jumping out of the car when I was driving and needed to catch a certain moment/landscape/animal….It was like a full circle of mentorship and friendship coming around.”
Mary Rose Dougherty, Editor and Ben Nardin, Intern
As published in The Mountain Troubadour, 2022