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A poet word-renowned

Taking her page from nature

Erica Funkhouser of Essex, a poet and a lecturer at MIT, won a Guggenheim Fellowship last month. Her fifth book of poems will be published next year. Erica Funkhouser of Essex, a poet and a lecturer at MIT, won a Guggenheim Fellowship last month. Her fifth book of poems will be published next year. (JANET KNOTT/GLOBE STAFF)

ESSEX -- Beneath a steel-gray sky, Erica Funkhouser seems at peace with the world in her backyard. "That's where we play softball," she says, walking toward a big open field behind her farmhouse. She stares at her garden and at the thick woods behind her home.

Since she was a child, Funkhouser has been observing nature and writing poetry about what she has seen and heard. At 57, she has written four poetry volumes, including the acclaimed first-person narrative trilogy of Sacagawea (a Shoshone Indian woman who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition), Louisa May Alcott, and Annie Oakley in "Sure Shot and Other Poems."

A writer who combines keen precision and intense emotion, Funkhouser's work is more popular than ever. Last month she became one of 189 artists, scholars, and scientists to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. According to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the winners will receive about $40,000 each to develop their craft.

While Funkhouser is honored by the award, she's not sitting back and reflecting on her past work. "I plan to do a lot more writing," she says, sipping tea in her kitchen and looking out at the woods. Her fifth book, "Earthly," will be published next year, and during that time she'll take a break from her lecturer's post in the department of writing and humanistic studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

James Paradis, who heads the department at MIT, compares Funkhouser's work with that of Robert Frost. "There's subtlety and power to her poetry that's surprising and very human," says Paradis.

Funkhouser grew up on a farm in Concord and says the combination of doing chores and roaming the woods helped shape her love for words. Her first poem, at age 7, was about spaghetti. "I think I was just doing it for fun then," says Funkhouser, who moved to Essex 30 years ago and has also taught at several other area colleges, including Salem State and Boston University.

"I thought that words were so much fun to move around and to play around and to invent, and I think I felt free to make up my own words when the right ones didn't seem to be available. And I just liked the music of words, the kind of clang of them together and the sound and the playfulness of them. So that's really how I started writing poetry."

After earning degrees from Vassar and Stanford, she settled in Boston and started submitting her poems to large publications. In the mid-'70s, she sent two unsolicited poems to The Paris Review, a literary magazine that introduced Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac. Funkouser's poems were published.

"It was a big deal," she says.

Though it has never been a lucrative profession, for Funkhouser the act of writing poetry brings her closer to her own soul.

"I think I don't really know who I am, or what I think, or what I believe unless I'm in the process of writing," she says. "That's where all of my discovery takes place, that's where all of my confrontation takes place -- I would say not just with my own interior life but with the exterior life, the rest of the world. I wouldn't know what I thought, or who I was, or what I cared about, or what was going on in my imagination if I weren't writing. That's how I find out."

Although Funkhouser gets her inspiration from nature, she does her writing indoors. Most of her work is done longhand; she prefers a fountain pen but isn't too fussy about the type of paper. She tries to write every day, and her ideas come from stories and conversations she overhears. She does not own a television.

Her poems "also sometimes come from putting a few words together that I never put together like that before," she says.

It's rare that she'll finish a poem in a day. During the process she'll always read her work aloud.

Her poetry also shows her practical side. In "The Story We Tell," a group of people who are burying a pheasant that has been struck by a car change their mind, decide it would make a "delicious meal," and place the bird in a paper bag; in "Why I Did Not Bring the Roses," Funkhouser explains that roses should not be clipped and separated from the earth. "I couldn't carry them into the house like rags and go looking for somewhere to put them," she writes.

Funkhouser, who has two grown children, says the most important lesson she learned from her parents was not to be afraid of failing.

"I think the way you get to be a good writer is to practice your craft with the magic combination of chutzpah and humility," she says. "I mean, on the one hand, you have to be brave enough to try things, and on the other hand . . . you have to know when you fail . . . . I say this to my students all of the time: It takes just as much work to write something that is a failure as it takes to write something that is good.

"You just might not know until the end of it that your idea wasn't a good one and that it's a failure, but you have to see it through."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.

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