Charleston Profile: Marjory Wentworth
South Carolina’s poet laureate is spreading the word on all things literary
South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth sits at ease on the end of a row of dignitaries in which she is the only one not wearing a uniform. With a relaxed smile embedded among freckles that belie her 50 years, she faces a sizable audience, which has gathered outdoors on Sullivan’s Island for a ceremony marking the transfer of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service. When the poet stands at the podium, the sun illuminates her strawberry-blonde hair like a stage backlight—a visual cue to the import and drama of this historic event, and others like it across the state, where Wentworth’s words provide a connective underscore for communal moments of consequence.
“‘In the stillness, I see the things that are not visible,’” she reads from her poem “Sand,” written several years ago when she and her family lived on Sullivan’s in an antebellum cottage where the lighthouse beacon pulsed across her bedroom every night. “‘I hear voices no one else can hear except for you.’” Though they are the closing words of a wide-reaching piece that touches upon the island’s turbulent and storied past, those lines also speak to Wentworth’s rapport with her readers and the perceptiveness that resonates with her fans.
As an in-demand public steward, Wentworth is on the move throughout the year, thanks to a packed schedule that prompts arrivals at sundry spots, including classrooms, hospitals, county fairs, memorial services—wherever the occasion warrants her particular literary genius. No matter the venue, Wentworth’s voice draws a crowd. Stirred and inspired, people hush, listen intently, and often linger after her readings in order to talk, one-on-one, with the woman of letters.
Strangers have thrust crumpled, autobiographical poems in her hand and run off again. Once, somebody left an anonymous and surprisingly lengthy ode on her answering machine. Sometimes, people are keen to talk to the poet about their own favorite ditty from childhood or to tell of a distant relative’s great talent with verse. Frequently, individuals approach her in order to relate something more profound: their sense of gratitude that her work speaks insightfully for their own ineffable feelings. “The gift is when you can articulate something as horrible as death or as beautiful as falling in love,” says Wentworth, who, at a young age, experienced loss and heartache. “Poetry is a really good vehicle for complex and overwhelming emotions.”
Born and raised on Massachusetts’ North Shore, Wentworth’s introduction to pain and grief came early, when she was a young girl with a diminutive and medically fragile body. A severe kidney affliction, which necessitated surgery, kept her hospitalized or homebound for long stretches of time. However, encouraged by her literature-loving father, John Heath—who introduced Marjory and her brother, Jack, to his favorite authors, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Frost—Wentworth found that reading helped temper the loneliness and discomfort of her health issues. Her own favorite escapes included Little House on the Prairie and All of a Kind Family, novels in which young heroines live in places, eras, and cultures very different from her own yet overcome their struggles with guidance from loving families that are close-knit like hers.
A purchasing agent for the Parker Brothers game company, Wentworth’s father turned the Heath house into a test site, allowing Marjory, Jack, and their friends to play with all the latest products, like Masterpiece and Nerf balls, before any other kids in the universe. Perhaps growing up in a household in which, literally, work was fun and games gave rise to the playfulness that is part and parcel of her high-spirited personality. But those early years were seminal to Wentworth’s outgoing nature for another reason as well, according to her husband, Peter. “Her family moved all the time when she was young,” he explains. “She became a master at going into an environment where she didn’t know anybody. Have you ever seen her work a room? No one intimidates her.”
By the time Marjory was in middle school, the Heath family had found a home they would settle in, and her physical woes were so far behind her that she was able to become a talented dancer and choreographer. But serious new troubles arrived: Her mother became bedridden with a dire back problem and her father was diagnosed with leukemia. “In our house, where time was hiding/In a box we never found./It seemed that my parents were not running/Toward or away from death,/But reluctantly/Turning their heads in its direction” reads a poem Wentworth wrote about that time in her childhood.
Her mother’s back would eventually heal, but when Marjory was 14 years old, her father passed away. Instinctively, “as a way to deal,” she picked up a pen and journal and started writing poetry and prose. “The creative process has a healing capacity,” says Wentworth, who, more than a decade ago, began sharing that rejuvenating component by founding Expressions of Healing—an eight-week program designed to help cancer patients, survivors, and their loved ones cope—which she continues to lead at Roper Hospital. “You at least make something out of your experience, so the feelings aren’t just floating around recklessly inside of you. Also, writing poems provides a type of respite, because it takes all of your concentration. It really absorbs you.”
The place she goes to foster such total absorption is her downtown Charleston studio, a quaint writing room secreted away in a top corner spot of an historic Broad Street building. Centered by a massive green courtyard with a giant oak at its heart, the unique space offers Wentworth a plethora of inspiration among its three levels of aged brick and thick mortar. An idyllic balcony offers a thought-provoking view of the sky above the Four Corners of Law—a horizon of shapely rooflines and treetops punctuated by a white church spire, a tall builder’s crane, and multiple flapping flags.
“The things that rise, and the monuments we erect: these are objects imbued with meaning,” notes Wentworth, who is working on a new book of poems, The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle, which is a line from the novel Snow by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. “This collection attempts to celebrate the small miracles that happen all around us each day.”
Inside her office, the scent of old wood and the sight of speckled paint form a backdrop for the writer’s intimate décor—a collage of notes, photos, poems, and various memorial talismans that speak for her influences both literary and personal. Wentworth loves to come here very early in the morning. “On Sundays, in particular, the church bells ring, the breeze picks up, then the sounds of the horses going by and the birds singing combine in such a way that I am transported back in time.”
The peaceful setting provides a crucial antidote to the fast-paced bustle of her life as a book publicist—the job that pays the bills. Wentworth PR, the company she runs with Peter, often necessitates seven-day workweeks and 10- to 12-hour days to manage publisher clients with authors—including Dottie Frank, Mary Alice Monroe, and Gary Smith—who appear on Oprah, The Today Show, The Early Show, NPR, and just about every national media outlet. “It’s enormously time-consuming,” she admits. “Plus, we have three sons. What a thrill it would be to live long enough to experience writer’s block. In my dreams.”
Poetry began to flow prolifically when Wentworth was in college and singled out by professors as a gifted writer—first at Mount Holyoke, then in 1983 when she entered New York University’s M.A. writing program. A graduate student at night, Wentworth had a job as a refugee resettlement worker by day, an experience that fueled the poet’s lifelong passion for language as a strike against inhumanity. “I previously had worked at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees when the victims of the Cambodian genocide were beginning to flee Southeast Asia,” she explains. “The stories of collective suffering that I heard daily were overwhelming. Finding a way to write about these things was enormously important to me.”
Guiding and encouraging Wentworth at the time were a Who’s Who of the country’s finest poets and her professors at NYU, including Galway Kinnell, Phil Levine, Joseph Brodsky, and Carolyn Forché. Recently, in her bimonthly column for the Post and Courier, Wentworth took the opportunity to praise and thank some of the teachers who gave her early encouragement—many of whom have become mentors and lifelong friends. “A truly great poet has the capacity to speak for the rest of us in ways that matter,” Wentworth wrote. “There is an attention and sensitivity to things that others might ignore.”
Her own work illustrates that truth. Published extensively and nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, her poems penetrate the tender, connective tissue between the human psyche and the natural world. Personal, political, and steeped in sense of place, Wentworth’s work often explores the ghosts and glories of the past, themes which render her oeuvre exceptionally akin to the Palmetto State, where, since 1989, she has lived with her husband and their three sons, Hunter, age 23; Oliver, 19; and Taylor, 18.
Wentworth’s writing is layered with the emotion and iconography that accompanies her loving perspective as a mother of three rising filmmakers, giving testimony—more accurately, perhaps, than anything else—to her unique outlook and relationship with the world; but her broad reach, and the significance of her life calling, are boldly manifest as well, in her passionate commitment to promoting the power of words.
Soon after her 2003 lifetime appointment by Governor Sanford to the now unpaid but high-profile poet laureate position, Wentworth started, with fellow poet Carol Ann Davis, the Lowcountry Initiative for Literary Arts (LILA), a nonprofit that connects, educates, and promotes writers and readers on all levels.
“Marjory has incredibly high energy: She’s a Renaissance woman who is just plain brilliant,” says batik artist Mary Edna Fraser, a friend who collaborated with the poet on the book What the Water Gives Me. “But the thing I admire most about her is her compassion. She is sincerely tenderhearted—just, kind, and gentle in how she receives people.”
Wentworth says her altruistic inclination is inspired by the exceptionally generous heart of her mother, Mary Kneeland Heath, who has always modeled unadulterated kindness, assisted the underdog, and selflessly taken those in need into her home. “Empathy, the human element, and that intense connection to people—that really is my mother,” says the poet laureate. “In the end it’s what we do, not what we say.”