On a warm and breezy April afternoon, poet Serina Allison Hearn pauses on her central Lawrence porch to talk about poetry but the swirl of activity that is her world doesn't miss a beat. There are home-schooled daughters competing for her attention. There are friends and neighbors, spouses and former spouses coming and going. There are strangers under her roof.
Hearn describes the sort of welcoming, open-door hospitality that she enjoys as commonplace in her native Trinidad and is a reflection of the Caribbean family home to which she repeatedly returns.
"In the Midwest people are friendly but it only goes so deep," she observes. "In London strangers won't make eye contact with you but here people talk to you." Hearn's island upbringing fostered a comfort with a more intimate familiarity than even relaxed Midwesterners are accustomed to.
Hearn's route to Lawrence was, to say the least, circuitous. As a girl, the native of Trinidad imagined that her future lay somewhere else, that part of finding her calling required leaving. As a young woman she seized an offer to be sent to London for a college education, and after several years studying fashion design at the Academy of St. Martins she left to begin designing.
In 1981 she started Haute Couture Fashion House. In 1987 she closed up shop, choosing starting a family over remaining focused on the competitive world of high fashion and the newly married Hearn crossed the Atlantic, bound for New York, with her physicist husband. His academic career took Hearn to Toronto, Ann Arbor, MI, and Princeton, NJ, before arriving in Lawrence.
It was during a turbulent period that led up to the dissolution of her marriage that Hearn returned to writing, an avocation that had been dear to her as a young girl. According to Hearn, who was not yet devoting herself to poetry, she used writing as a means to make sense of the chaos she was experiencing in her life.
It was Kansas University assistant professor Brian Daldorph that first told Hearn, after reading her prose, that she was a poet. Hearn credits Daldorph with pointing her in right direction.
As a poet Hearn doesn't write for publication, the opportunity to publish came to her.
Hearn still uses her writing to make sense of her world. The day she and her second husband wed was chaos, marked by ailing house pets, recalcitrant children and other distractions. Later, when she read her enlarged family the poem she had written to mark the day, her children marveled at her attention to realties they'd imagined being beyond or beneath her awareness.
This sort of record keeping the poem as a remembrance or artifact of a moment or a passage is central to the way Hearn uses poetry. The method is not as an aesthetic conceit, but as a concrete act of communication and documentation.
Recently Hearn, who earns a living rehabilitating, renting or selling old Lawrence homes, reached an impasse with a prospective buyer. They wanted the house but it needed further attention. Hearn was concerned about investing more in the property with no commitment from the buyer. The purchaser was in turn afraid to buy the home on a promise the work would be completed after the sale. The buyer, aware of Hearn's love of poetry, expressed her sincere love of the house by sending Hearn a poem revealing her desire to have the house. This use of poetry as real-world communication, the interjection of creativity into commerce, won Hearn over and the impasse was resolved.
Hearn's first collection of poems, "Dreaming the Bronze Girl," published this year by Mid-America Press came about more as an unfolding of her development as a writer than as a product of aspirations. Like the poems she writes, the book itself is an artifact, a record.
Hearn now calls Lawrence home, having lived here longer than anywhere since leaving London. Though she may be a long way from the islands, she still feels drawn to the sea.
"Kansas is the floor of an ancient sea," notes Hearn. And though the view past the sea stones, coral and ocean flora that fill her windows is of an old central Lawrence neighborhood rather than a vast expanse of prairie, to witness Hearn bridging the distance between the plains and the ocean one need only look as far as her poetry.
In "Mermaid's Lament" she writes, "You smell of wild flowers, freshly dug earth, and sweat, which tastes different than the sea. Sweeter than oysters, or abalone; feverish whispers across my cheek, along my neck, leave me weak."
Serina Hearn and Lawrence Poet Gary Lechliter will be presenting selections from their work at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30 in the auditorium at the Lawrence Public Library. For more information call 843-3833.