Madeleine Kunin served as Vermont's 77th governor — the first and only woman to hold that position.
The former politician is also a writer who has written four books, touching on subjects such as politics, feminism and aging. Now Kunin is the author of a collection of poems, titled Red Kite, Blue Sky.
It includes reflections on quiet moments of daily life, but also some larger and heavier themes of aging, caregiving, grief and death, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with former Gov. Kunin about her new poetry collection, the state of Vermont’s pension system and women's lack of representation in Congress. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, you've written several books, as I mentioned, but this is your first collection of poetry. How long have you been writing poetry?
Madeleine Kunin: Well, seriously, about four years. [By] seriously, I mean, writing regularly.
I've always loved poetry. And I've written now and then, like for somebody's birthday, or some special event. But as I got older, poetry resonated with me and I began to sort of talk about my inner life and my private life through poems.
Well, many of your poems are quite personal. Many have aging and death as an underlying theme. And I wondered if you would read one poem in particular that stood out to me, which is "Birthday Eighty-Six."
First it was eighty,
Toppling over to eighty-six;
ninety rising on the horizon.
I gave a speech yesterday.
I made them laugh —
They clapped the years away.
How old am I, really?
Hard of hearing afraid of falling.
my knees speak to me when I
go upstairs or down.
I take my medicine,
little white pills and a green one,
every morning and again at night.
But I could suddenly
become like her — over there,
strapped to her wheelchair
waiting to be pushed.
I'm at an age where — I'm now 87, since that poem was written. I'm also optimistic. I go up and down, or in and out of feeling my age, and then I spring back.
Can I read you another one that's a little bit more cheerful?
I wrote this in the midst of COVID. I had been worn down by COVID during the day, and then I went for a walk. And everything changed. This poem is called "Blue Sky."
I have time — a bushel full,
no, a truckload, a storage unit
full of time.
Still, I portion time out carefully,
almost like in the old days,
except, now I stretch my neck
and raise my head
and keep it there until it hurts,
to look at the blue sky.
Long ago before Coronavirus,
I looked at the sky for weather,
or at night for stars.
The blue sky gave me answers,
by the hour.
I didn't even say thank you.
Yesterday I went for a walk
and gazed upward, expecting little.
I looked up at the blue sky.
The longer I looked, I saw more layers of blue.
The blue sky had depth,
a clean teacup of blue without a crack.
I could see through one blue,
to find another blue.
The longer held my head up
blue became more blue,
until I continued my walk
and thanked the sky for being blue.
What effect does it have on your own thoughts about the aging process to write poetry about it and to share that?
Well, I think writing in any form kind of explains you to yourself. I mean, you try to define what you're experiencing. And I realized I was in a new phase of life as I approach my 80s. The book is not only about aging. It's about looking back at my life.
Before we wrap up, I want to ask a couple political questions. First, Vermont is facing a significant funding gap in the state pension system. And according to VT Digger, the underfunding of the pension system began in the later years of your administration around 1989. As you see Vermont lawmakers now grappling with the pension gap, which has grown to over $5 billion, do you take some responsibility for that situation?
Well, I'm not sure it started with me. I think it started even before me that there was some gap.
But we were advised at the time that it could be fixed over a period of time. I guess I should take some responsibility. We were aware of it, but it hadn't reached a crisis point that is appears to have become today.
You've been active in recruiting and training women to run for office. And right now the two chambers of the legislature in Vermont are led by women. Molly Gray is also lieutenant governor. But there hasn't been a female governor in Vermont since you served, and Vermont is the only state in the country that has not sent a woman to Congress. Does it frustrate you at all that there are still gender barriers that haven't been broken in Vermont politics?
Well, it's not gender barriers alone. I mean, it is a little embarrassing for Vermont to have that moniker of being the only state who has not sent a woman to Congress. But I don't think it's entirely due to gender barriers. I mean, there are other factors at work.
Vermonters love their congressmen and senators. We're not a swing state, which creates more openings. And we have just one congressperson. But I think we're on the brink, I hope, of changing that situation. There's so many qualified — by any measure — women who could fill a congressional seat.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again with more conviction: I think the time is right to eliminate this exclusive definition of Vermont as the only state that hasn't sent a woman to Congress.
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