My Grandmother’s Writings Part One: “Look at all this paper!”

typewritten manuscripts
Unpacking boxes of my grandmother's typewritten manuscripts

In October of 2012, I visited my parents and my dad said to me “ I’ve got some boxes for you.” He gave me three boxes, all of them filled with the entire collected writings by my Grandmother, Elizabeth Kinnett. She wrote essays, poems, short stories, stage-plays  a novel; she kept a journal from the time she was a 12-year-old girl throughout her life; she kept a regular correspondence from the time she was in college throughout her life, with friends, fellow writers, editors, publishers. My dad handed all of it over to me. My initial response was, “Wow, look at all this paper!”

I’m going to catalog, annotate and digitize these writings. Along the way, I’ll blog about the work I do, share what I’ve learned and what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, etc. I hope to have a conversation along the way, about the experience of reading her work, about the technical aspects of taking care of the documents, and of course about her writings themselves.

When I was very young, I would visit Grandma’s house, and inside her coffee table, which is now my coffee table, two small drawers contained an assortment of chapbooks and literary journals where her work had been published. She would show them to me. I never once heard her read her work, though. One of her poems, “The Fields are All Alight” was featured as part of my parents’ wedding ceremony  When my grandmother died, I was still in junior high school, struggling not to forget my first locker combination, and her writings have waited in boxes since then. I’ll write another entire post about my memories of her. This post is just an introduction.

Of all the people in my family to inherit her writings, I suppose it makes sense for it to be me. I am also a writer, with an undergraduate degree in Writing and Communications, so my dad thought that I might be better able to find an answer to my dad’s question: “What do we have here, anyway? Is it good?”

Beyond that, as a writer myself, I might be able to deduce some things about grandma’s process, her personality, feelings and motivations, her aesthetics.. her self, and to help bring that understanding to bear on her work. Although we’re a generation apart, and I only knew my grandma when I was very young, it stands to reason that we might have a few things in common, her and I. It might be worthwhile to explore those things.

There’s also the matter of my day job, which also helps in some ways to equip me for working with her writings. I’m the web developer for a museum, which means that I can have coffee or lunch with archivists, curators, imaging specialists, library scientists and scholars, and I can ask their advice about some of the finer points of the work. I began with so many questions, and I am so grateful to my friends at the museum for their input. I’m also grateful to the great community at Meta Filter for their help with some of the technology-related aspects of this project.

(stupid disclaimer: On that point, I do want to make a disclaimer. I’m going to blog about the work I do with these writings, share what I’ve learned and what I’m doing, but I don’t want this to sound like a professional opinion. Although I do work in a museum, I am not a conservator or an archivist, and although a few of my friends gave me some casual advice, that’s all it was. If you follow along with what I’ve learned, and apply it to any project you might have, with writings or documents from your family or history, I hope you have a wonderful experience. But if you go off and destroy something valuable on my advice, well, let me just say I’m no expert, so be careful! )

Once I got the boxes home and made a careful list of their contents, I decided right away that I wanted to make a new copy of the poems, bound as a book, to give to my Dad for Christmas. This would give me a deadline and a goal to meet, so that I could begin to get through this big stack of writings.

"First Best Poems" by Elizabeth Kinnett
This is the cover of the book I made out of a manuscript, “First Best Poems” by Elizabeth Kinnett

Now that Christmas is over, I can blog about this, without spoiling the surprise for him. He loved the book! It contained 83 poems, which I had digitized from their original draft, which she had tentatively titled “First Best Poems”. I used a scanner to create digital images of each page, OCR software to create digital text from the images, a word processor to make minor corrections, and layout software to design the book. Then I had 3 copies of the book printed, by a print-on-demand online service. Now, the family can easily read her poems! Here’s the introduction I wrote for the book.

The poems collected here were written by Elizabeth “Betty” Kinnett, primarily between 1962-1972 and assembled into a collection. In 1972, according to her notes, these poems were retyped and placed into a manila envelope. It was labeled “Carbons of 50 first best poems”. In 1973, a poem was added to the collection, along with a note on the envelope: “ written 1973”. Between 1973 and 1976, a total of 19 more poems were added. On each, in handwriting, she included a specific date. Those dates are included in the notes at the end of this collection. I have also provided a few notes on key terms, forms and themes.

I have made every effort to present these poems in their original sequence, with only three exceptions. Two of the longer poems were moved once forward in the sequence, to allow them to appear in this book, spanning a spread. The poem was first in a nearly identical collection of poems, which the author used for sending out to publishers. There are still more poems, organized into separate folders. These poems may be incomplete or from other years.

This is not a complete collection of my grandmother’s poems, but it is, in her words, a collection of the “first best poems”. I don’t remember much about her, except that she was always surrounded by music. When she wasn’t playing music on the radio or the television, she was humming it softly to herself. I hope that her song can continue humming, with the creation of this volume.

Dylan Kinnett
Baltimore, Maryland
Autumn, 2012

As I continue working with my grandmother’s writings, I’ll blog about all of this in more detail, but I’d like to close this introduction by inviting conversation. What do you want to know? Do you have anything similar to share?

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