July 25, 2021

A Lifetime of Listening to Language> Constance Hunting serves as editor, teacher and mentor

Connie Hunting was riding the bus from her house on Main Street in Orono to her office in the English department of the University of Maine. The distance is about a mile, but for a woman with a poet’s ears, a bus ride can be a trip around the world.

This day, Hunting overheard someone say: “Leave no strings unlocked.” And she boastfully took the line into her creative writing class.

“Do you hear that?” she asked, her eyebrows perched in fascination. “Isn’t that lovely?”

Hunting, who has been a professor of creative writing for more than 20 years, has lived a most literary life. She founded Puckerbrush Press, a small publishing company she runs from her home. She is editor of the Puckerbrush Review, a literary magazine that comes out twice a year. She has written books of literary criticism and inquiry such as “The Experience of Art: Selected Essays and Interviews,” which came out last year.

Her work with Maine writers — at both the professional and student levels — is renowned among the state’s literati. She is an editor extraordinaire, and the verb “adore” often comes up when writers speak of her.

For these reasons and more, Hunting was given the University of Maine’s prestigious Maryann Hartman Award for women whose achievement is marked by courage, wisdom and self-determination. Hunting was a natural candidate, say her colleagues, many of whom were present for the November presentation.

“She has been an outstanding influence in Maine literature and literature throughout the nation,” said Nancy MacKnight, also a professor of English at UM.

Farther afield, Elizabeth Hardwick, founder and editor of the New York Review of Books, said she admires Hunting very much.

“I think it’s mostly through Maine that certain distinguished people like Mary McCarthy met Connie Hunting and realized her worth,” Hardwick said from New York City. Hardwick also has a summer home in Castine. “Her most outstanding thing is her work at the university in keeping the creative aspect of literature alive.”

MacKnight and Hardwick agreed, however, that the nexus for all of Hunting’s work is poetry.

“Poetry is the center of Connie’s essence,” said MacKnight.

“She’s a very good poet,” said Hardwick. “She hasn’t published many books of poetry, but I was struck by the professional talent and seriousness of her work. She’s extremely sophisticated.”

Back in Hunting’s classroom, it is the last day of class for the semester. Hunting is talking to her students about the skills they have developed in such a short time.

“Emotion,” one student says. “I’ve learned to set the scene and be careful about wording.”

“And what about dialogue?” asks Hunting.

“Yes,” he answers. “And choosing the words.”

Hunting nods and squints a knowing eye.

“That’s what it comes down to, right?” she assures. “It comes down to choosing the words, choosing the words to get the emotions in.”

Hunting’s own affair with words began when she was a girl reading classic literature in Providence, R.I., where she grew up.

“Words are very much alive to me,” she says, speaking now in her stately farmhouse, which has letters, newspapers and books on most surfaces. “They’re dimensional. They have resonance. I honor them.”

Anyone who knows Hunting knows of her passion for the works of Virginia Woolf and for the Bloomsbury group, a coterie of English writers, philosophers and artists who met in the early part of this century. Hunting’s late husband, Rob Hunting, who also taught English, loved the works of Jane Austen. They had two children and theirs was a household of unabashed bibliophilia and anglophilia — with dictionaries in the kitchen and yearly visits to London and Sussex.

Here in America, Hunting became a specialist in the works of the late American poet May Sarton, who also lived in Maine and whose persona was distinctly European. Hunting also has published novels by Maine writer Sanford Phippen and the poets Patricia Ranzoni, Farnham Blair and Candice Stover. In recent years, however, the poets in Puckerbrush Review have come from all over the world. Next year, she will — proudly, no doubt — publish a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf’s niece, Angelica Garnett, who grew up among the Bloomsbury players.

“I love it,” says Hunting of the nudging she does with writers. “I look at the work and try not to inflict my own views. I let it breathe. I say, `Listen to the story and it will tell you.’ I believe in diffidence before the work, in front of the work, towards the work.”

At the award ceremony in November, Jennifer Pixley, a UM instructor who nominated Hunting for the award, said Hunting’s “concern for work and its creator demonstrates her generosity.”

For Hunting, this is not particularly connected to her role as a woman.

“I was very proud and am,” she says of her Hartman Award. “However, I do not so far put my name only into women’s directories because I like to be in the world, and I prefer a mixed world. I realize a lot of women have made it possible for me to be this way. They are wonderful women. And it’s my son who says I am a great feminist poet.”

And she pauses.

“Virginia Woolf was also primarily an artist — although she did lick envelopes for letters about feminists.”

There’s something about Hunting that both goes beyond and entirely embraces the specifics of her gender. She is a soft-voiced woman, a birdlike woman who wears tweed jackets and elegant gold jewelry. Her close-cropped blond hair is smart and sharp. Her eyes are lit with the most admirable impetuosity. When she speaks, there is always something surprising and spunky about the language she chooses.

“Elizabeth Hardwick said art is experience,” says Hunting. “The artist’s responsibility is to the art. The reader or viewer’s responsibility is to respond to the art or artist. It’s a state of mind. That’s all I know to say. Listen.”

Which is what Hunting’s writers feel she has done with them.

“She’s like my best fan,” said Peggy Bryant, a writer in Winter Harbor. “She’s so wonderful. I adore her. She has given me the most encouragement at times when I want to give up. I love people — especially women — when they can be blunt. She takes a pen and slashes through whole chapters. Then she loads me down with self-confidence. She knows good writing.”

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