Her latest work is Uncoded Woman, a collection of more than 60 poems. The poems tell the story of a young woman named Bead, who is running away from her life in a stolen pickup.
Bead (short for Beatrice) seems to be seeking shelter from the storm of her life with a new beginning along the coast of Lake Michigan. She picks up a Native American hitch-hiker named Barn and accepts his invitation to stay at his trailer in the Glen Arbor area (we know because they have charred burgers at Arts Bar). Under her new friends guidance, Bead renews her life, learning to fish on Lake Michigan.
Accompanying each poem is a semaphore message from the maritime International Code of Symbols used to signal ships at sea in the days before radio. Bead stumbles across the codebook at the lifesaving station in Glen Haven in Leelanau County and recognizes its blunt signals as metaphors for the perplexities of her own life. When she discovers a body floating in the lake, the cumulative codes help build a sense of drama and suspense in the readers mind. The mystery forces Bead to face her own demons. How will she decode her own life?
I hope I managed to make the metaphors linked to the water and the land and whats a safe harbor, Oomen says of the evocative codes which title each poem (see sidebar).
Like her protagonist, Oomen discovered the International Code of Symbols in the form of a worn old book at the Glen Haven Lifesaving Station, which is now a museum and historical site maintained by the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.
I found these pennants at the old Lifesaving Station and the colors were so vivid, she recalls. I learned that the letters of each pennant made a code used as signals on ships.
She was inspired to use the codebook as a sort of codicil to her poems. Each code (ie. B: I Am Discharging Dangerous Goods) offers a clue or supplementary meaning to its attendant poem.
One poem, for instance, GZ 1: All Persons Lost, tells the story of a graveside visit to a woman who was buried in 1907 without any acknowledgment that she was the mother of a doctors three children. Apparently an unmarried mistress, some blend of shame or defiance kept her grave at a distance from her lovers and her children; hence All Persons Lost.
Anne-Marie Oomen was raised as one of five children on a 200-acre farm in Oceana County, an experience which still provides a wellspring of inspiration for her work. Her memoir, Pulling Down the Barn: Memories of a Rural Childhood, earned a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2005, as did her latest work, House of Fields: Memories of a Rural Education.
I grew up on a farm with humble beginnings and I was very much a reader and what I call a scribbler, she says.
Coming of age in the 60s, she majored in group social studies at what was then Grand Valley College, a hodge-podge of liberal arts disciplines including sociology, anthropology, philosophy. A minor in English led her to a teaching certificate and then a Masters degree from Western Michigan University.
There were subsequent teaching posts in Elk Rapids and Chicago and a growing realization that she wanted to exercise her talents as a writer.
When I moved back to Northern Michigan, I was already writing quite a bit and I began to take it seriously, she says. Like many people, you dream about writing and you dabble until something serious happens in your life that makes it more important to you.
For Oomen, that turning point came with the end of her first marriage in 1985. She began writing plays and poetry for publication and got more involved in the local writing community. Her efforts bore fruit in 1997 when she was accepted as a writer-in-residence for a two-year period at Interlochen Arts Academy (she launched the Dunes Review literary magazine the same year). Then came an offer to chair the schools writing department, which includes notable authors Mike Delp and Jack Driscoll. It was an amazing transition, she says.
PLAYS & POEMS
Through the years, Oomen has explored the mysteries and richness of rural culture -- a world which is increasingly lost to us or rapidly dwindling away. In addition to six published books, she has written as many plays, including works of childrens theatre.
Perhaps her most memorable play is Wives of An American King, about the Morman polygamist, King Strang, who was infamous for his harem on Beaver Island in the early 1800s. Oomen told Strangs story from the wives perspective, offering a feminist insight into an old tale.
In addition to her rural themes, Oomen says shes always been interested in writing about everyday people and their issues. Her character, Bead, for instance was inspired by some of the women she met at a fruit canning plant in Oceana County many years ago.
As Ive become more socially-conscious, Ive both met more women like her and remember women from my childhood, she says. I worked in a canning factory on the third shift right out of high school with women from a lot of different backgrounds. Some were mothers, migrants, locals and runaways. So, a character like Bead comes from an amalgamation of those two forces.
Married to math teacher David Early and stepmom to son Theo, there are a number of creative projects on Oomens horizon. Theres the possibility of adapting her work as screenplays for films, for instance. And shes also interested in tackling a novel, possibly on the environment and the impact of its changing nature on peoples lives. Shed also like to publish a collection of travel essays, and has at least four additional plays in mind.
Ive got notes for so many more plays I want to write, but they take so much time, she says. And of course, her day job teaching creative writing at Interlochen keeps her busy.
But with all those ideas percolating and a stick-to-it farmers work ethic to keep her pen in motion, fans of Anne-Marie Oomen can rest assured that theyll be served with many more works of thoughtful integrity in the years to come.
Semaphore Flag Symbols
Prior to the invention of the radio, sailors used pennants (flags) to signal other boats at sea. Each pennant represented a number or letter which could be deciphered using the International Code of Symbols. Anne-Marie Oomens new book, Uncoded Woman, uses the following codes as titles for her poems:
NE: You should proceed with great caution
LN 1: All lights are out on this coast
QD: I am going ahead
LN: Light has been extinguished
D: Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty
ST: What is your cargo?
HM 1: Survivors are in bad condition
JB: There is danger of explosion
EP: I have lost sight of you
GM: I cannot save my vessel