On Memorial Day 2011, Fran Castan wrote searingly in this newspaper of the death of her first husband, the Look magazine war correspondent Sam Castan, killed by enemy fire in the highlands of Vietnam, just an hour’s plane ride away from their apartment in Hong Kong. Traumatized, she fled the British colony, where they had happily settled short months before, and returned to the United States, carrying their 13-month-old toddler and a weight of buried memories that would surface many years later in her award-winning poetry. Last month, in recognition of ongoing achievement, Ms. Castan was named 2013 Long Island Poet of the Year by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, an honor she will receive on Sunday afternoon at the association’s headquarters in Huntington.
Back in New York with no idea how she would live after Mr. Castan died, but with a B.A. in English from Brooklyn College and experience gained from working together with him before the war (“a life like Cinderella, only then the ball was over”) to interview such cover-story subjects as Bob Dylan and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Ms. Castan took herself to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.
“I made a list of magazines and started walking north.” The first one she came to, a block away on 43rd, was at the top of the list, The New Yorker.
The magazine “opened the door” to her, she said last week at the house in Barnes Landing, Springs, where she and the painter Lew Zacks, who were married in 1972, have lived year round for 22 years. Never mind that she was hired as an “editorial assistant,” “Mad Men”-era doublespeak for the little fish in the typing pool, where, she remembered ruefully, “every woman had a master’s.” What mattered was the money, and the springboard, and the poetry and fiction editors, “who were grooming me to be a reader.”
Three years at The New Yorker, though, were enough. “I got impatient,” Ms. Castan said. “My life had been a different life, and it was taking too long. I wanted more responsibility and more money, and I’d met Lew.” She quit to become a writer and editor at Scholastic magazine.
Not until she was 40, with a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony behind her and a job as a popular teacher of literature and creative writing at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, did she think of writing poetry.
“It was a language I spoke early on,” she said. “It was part of me, like breathing, but the poets I read were dead white men. I didn’t know any women poets. I thought, ‘I will love this all my life, but it’s not what I will do.’ It wasn’t something I ever thought a woman could or would do. But was I reading it? Was I loving it? Yes!”
“Then these things came to me. I started writing them down. They weren’t prose.”
Most of her early poems, which have been collected under the title “A Widow’s Quilt,” were about Sam and Vietnam. “We have never seen the Vietnam tragedy through such eyes, with such grief, rage, clarity,” the political theorist and editor Robin Morgan, who published some of her work in Ms. magazine, said of the book. But when a visitor asked the poet whether the death of her first husband had been the most important event of her life, she protested, “Do not define a life by a death.” The most “challenging” event, the most “difficult,” the “saddest,” perhaps. The most important, no.
On the 75th anniversary of the Poetry Society of America, Ms. Castan’s poem “Operation Crazy Horse” won the society’s prestigious Lucille Medwick Award:
A grand Kowloon hotel. A hedge
of red hibiscus. A tiled pool.
A masseuse who pressed fragrant
oil of almond into my body
in the full heat of the sun.
Elsewhere, northwest of Saigon,
a man beheld you, and fired.
. . . .
“The Lucille Medwick Award was the highlight for us” in the selection of Ms. Castan as Long Island Poet of the Year, said Cynthia Shor, director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. “The qualifications are threefold: outstanding poetry, teaching of poetry, and general support of poetry on Long Island,” she said, citing the poet’s “five Pushcart Prize nominations and an extended teaching career.” Ms. Castan, the producer of Poetry Pairs, an annual Guild Hall event showcasing one local poet of repute and one with national renown, mentors several younger poets here and often gives readings at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum and elsewhere on the Island.
When he heard about the award, Ms. Castan’s stepson in California, Dan Zacks, sent his congratulations and a rare 1900 edition of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The book has occupied a lot of her time, often midnight to 2 a.m., since.
“I set myself a task to read the whole thing cover to cover before Award Day,” she said. “Reading poetry is not like reading a novel, not simple syntax. I have to read very slowly. There’s so much richness, if it’s good — allusion to other works, music to absorb. It requires attention to detail.”
Reading Whitman in connection with Sunday’s ceremony has brought her back, she said, to her own work, which has a number of themes in common with his; she mentioned war, water, Long Island, relationships, family, and nature among them. Whitman, who, she noted, “was gay when it wasn’t okay,” saw the world as his family; Ms. Castan sees the world in hers, balancing, as her mentor William Matthews wrote in his introduction to “A Widow’s Quilt,” “the private and political with extraordinary dexterity.”
To Hannah VoDinh,
a Young Poet:
. . . .
I will not rest
in this or any other life
until the Vietnamese names
rise on the giant V in Washington
until they are formed
in the same stone of honor as the American names
as you are formed, dear
Lotus, of a single, human moment of transcendence.
“One of my favorite things to do when I write from nature is to go with Lew when he paints and I write, side by side,” Ms. Castan said. Plein-air poetry, she calls it. It can happen anywhere, often at Louse Point in Springs, not far from where they live. In 2010, after the couple spent two summers in Italy, they collaborated on “Venice: City That Paints Itself,” published to acclaim both in paperback and a stylish coffee-table edition.
Getting ready for Sunday’s ceremony, where she will be expected to read from her work, “has kind of got me back to my center,” Ms. Castan said. “Okay, there’s an award, but what does it really mean? It gives you all these opportunities. I am going over old work, unpublished pieces, new work — to see what I’ll be reading that day, to see what’s connected, not just random poems. I want to expose some new work, as well as what some people expect — and then to send things out.”
What with one thing and another — life — she has fallen behind, she acknowledged, in submitting her work for publication.
“In my going through enormous files, I am arranging things into groups, and there are several manuscripts that are due to be looked at, revised, reworked. I write them in white-hot heat and revise for years, and if they don’t reach a certain level I just keep moving along. Unlike other poets I know, I can’t switch readily back and forth. I don’t take the time away from rewriting and revising to send things along.”
“So, this is a good gift from the award.”
The induction ceremony, poetry reading, and meet-the-poet reception honoring Fran Castan will take place on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, Huntington Station.