In Altman’s first poetry chapbook, Within Walking Distance, readers can experience the simple pleasures and quirks of small-town living from dual perspectives: that of someone who simultaneously belongs to the community while also considering themselves an outside observer. “I’ve always liked being a little hidden behind a curtain and watching, a perfect recipe—observation steeped in quiet contemplation,” said Altman.
This small collection of 12 poems is accessible to poetry lovers, dog lovers, and even those who are not apt to read poetry. Altman strives to entertain them with what makes small-town living special. Chestertown living permeates Within Walking Distance. She has resided on North Queen Street since 2012. Through her work, she examines her own thoughts, feelings, and resolves about encounters in her community and encourages her readers to do the same.
Except for reciting poems in her youth for family birthday parties, it was only a few short years ago that Altman decided to take a tenuous foray into writing poetry. “As I approached retirement, I thought it would be rewarding to study poetry craft. My career demanded that I write and, with more practice, I became more confident and curious, even though literature and writing had never been easy academic subjects for me,” she said.
Raised in the creative enclave of Chapel Hill, NC, Altman’s first artistic outlet was modern dance—something that still inspires her poetry today. “There is so much about dance that impacts my poetry. Dance is about rhythm and repetition, as well as filling and creating space. These are important aspects of how poems fill up space on a page—a poet must consider what shape the poem needs to be, just as a dancer must consider space in choreographing a dance,” she said.
Altman also finds inspiration in other contemporary poets, including Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Faith Shearin, and Linda Pastan, which is evident in both her style and subjects. In her poem, “Street Smorgasbord,” she writes of her beloved dog, Tato:
. . .
What she is sure to find each day are chicken bones.
Most often they are small weathered bones stripped of meat and gristle.
But on a good day, a pile of wings in the middle of the street
where Queen and High intersect,
and reliably in our neighborhood’s new 7-Eleven parking lot.
And also, in front of our town’s most desirable historic properties on Water Street,
routinely on the sidewalks and in the shrubbery
where crews are restoring and repairing nineteenth-century homes.
On any route, her dog walks are a stroll down an all-you-can-eat cafeteria line.
What’s your secret, I ask,
to your svelte physique when you serve yourself
from every swale, seep, and sweep?
Tack, she whispers, nose to the ground.
Tack, I observe,
the incessant practice of seemingly
nonsensical zigzag maneuvers.
Never head into the wind, she continues,
dart and dash,
tweak and refine,
lust for wander.
Altman’s words on the page are paired beautifully with illustrations from Chestertown artist Emily Kalwaitis. Trusting in Kalwaitis’s artistic expression and shared experience, Altman gave the illustrator free rein in creating visuals for the collection. “I didn’t give her direction on the illustrations, because I knew that her inspiration from reading the poems would be right. I feel very blessed . . . the project was a serendipitous collaboration,” she said.
Altman began writing poetry in 2014 after retiring as the director of the Adkins Arboretum. Within Walking Distance is available at Twigs and Teacups and The Bookplate, as well as online through Amazon.com.
She will be reading poems at The Garfield Theatre’s Open Mic on July 26 and will be signing copies of Within Walking Distance at Twigs and Teacups at Chestertown’s First Friday on August 4.
For more information, contact: Ellie Altman, [email protected]