Poets times two
The differences between their styles are striking. Yet they have lived together for over 20 years.
He writes a narrative type of poetry, based on historical fact and often about obscure characters from our nation's past.
She composes her poetry about her life and times.
Together they make up a dynamic duo of poetry that both fascinates prose aficionados and delights those that seldom hear rhyme.
Their story is one that reaches clear across the country, from Bayonne, N.J. to Poland, Ohio to Price, Utah. Stops in between included Iowa City, Iowa, Tucson, Ariz. and time in Salt Lake City as well.
Jan Minich and Nancy Takacs smile about their beginnings and their travels, but they call Wellington and the College of Eastern Utah home. They both teach at the small Price school, but their repertoire of poetry is large and far reaching.
Minich just had his second book of poems, The Letters of Silver Dollar, published. His first book, History of a Drowning, was a book about his fascination with water.
"I always find myself drawn to subjects concerning rebels from society," said Minich sitting in his upstairs library puffing on his pipe. "Particularly rebels that were women. Think how hard it must have been to be a woman in those days and be a rebel too."
Those days that Minich speaks about are times when women had few rights and were treated more like property than people. His fascination with historical figures that are women include Etta Place and the Utah women that followed the Robbers Roost gang around as well as Mary Reed and Ann Bonny, women pirates of the early 1700's who ran around with and contributed to the booty that Calico Jack Rackam and his band collected.
But this latest book isn't about someone with an outlaw or pirate background, but a woman who was born wealthy and died nearly a pauper; Rose Mary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor or as she was more commonly known, Silver Dollar.
Her father, Horace Tabor was known in the mid to late 1800's as the silver kind of Colorado. His wealth came to him from grubstaking two miners who discovered the Little Pittsburgh silver mine in Leadville and then ever increasing wealth from the Chrysolite and Matchless mines.
His life, a monetary success, Tabor divorced his wife, Augusta and married a much younger Elizabeth McCourt (known as Baby Doe) in a ceremony in Washington D.C. that attracted everyone from U.S. senators to the President of the United States at the time, Chester A. Arthur.
Two daughters were born of the marriage, Silver Dollar and her sister Lily. People at the time considered them so lucky because of their wealthy father, but in 1893, a financial panic took place and Tabor lost his entire fortune and was working within a year in the very smelter he built for $3 per day. He died in 1899 and by 1902 the girls and their mother had moved to a miners cabin near the Matchless mine which the Tabor widow still owned and worked, but it never was a paying proposition again.
Silver took a hard path of being her own person, becoming a writer for the Denver Times and even wrote a novel called the Star of Blood. She later moved to Chicago and tried to make it as a journalist there but ended up dancing in clubs where she became quite well known. At 35 she died under suspicious circumstances in a cheap boarding house in the Black Belt district of the city.
The little girl who had come into life in such luxury passed away in almost squalor, laying on her floor with her last words purportedly being harsh words to the buildings supervisor to "shut the door or my cats will get out."
Minich became fascinated with her life while on a sabbatical leave a few years ago from CEU. He was looking through a bookstore in Leadville and came across a photo of Silver Dollar shaking hands with Teddy Roosevelt.
"There was so much in that photo," says Minich. "It just fascinated me."
The photo portrays a young Silver Dollar presenting a song she had written to the president called "Our President Roosevelt's Colorado Hunt." Up to that point Minich was thinking of writing a historical biographical novel about the Tabors. Instead he decided he needed to explore the life of this woman more.
The only real history of her day to day life was in the hundreds of letters she and her mother had exchanged over the years after she moved from home. Minich went to a Denver museum to look these letters over and became absorbed by the tale they told.
He found himself however, taken by her ideas and her thoughts as much as the history of her family. As he began to write something happened to his thoughts.
"Her voice came through and the poetry began to flow," says Minich. "Silver could have had the safe, comfortable and middle class life her sister had found with family in Wisconsin, but she wanted more. She wanted acceptance as a writer, but only found acceptance as a dancer."
Minich was raised in the countryside of what now is a bedroom community to Youngstown, Ohio. After graduation from high school he went to the University of Arizona and got a BA in English. His original goal was to be a biologist and went to Bowling Green University for a while, but found that writing was his real love. From Tucson he went to the University of Iowa where he obtained a masters degree in creative writing and that is also where he met Nancy.
After that he and she both taught at Youngstown State University for a couple of years and then he came to the University of Utah to work on his Ph.D. In 1983 he finished that degree and the two of them moved to Carbon County to work at CEU.
Takacs, on the other hand gains her inspiration from every day life and what goes on around her.
"There are poems from various periods of our life together," she says. "There are poems from years ago about my son when he was five weeks old (he is now 17) up to the present time. Many of the poems are family poems, about both this family and my family."
Takacs has a way of looking at things in Carbon County from a different perspective, since she grew up in New Jersey right across the river from New York City.
"I went to St. Anthony's all-girls Catholic school growing up in New Jersey," she says laughingly.
That experience molds her thoughts at times.
"Like all writers, I produce a lot of biographical stuff," she said. "Usually it's about the friends I had or about old boyfriends. A lot of it is about growing up in New Jersey. Actually some of it is really funny."
She also likes to write about nature, particularly of eastern Utah. But there are other things here that make her happy, too.
"I like Price. I know it sounds funny, but actually Price reminds me socially of Bayonne where I grew up," she states. "There are so many ethnic groups here, just like home. I think that may be why it is so easy for me to write; I feel so comfortable here."
Bayonne, N.J., is named after the city France because of all the water that surrounds it. Located on Newark Bay, the city is industrial, but the neighborhood Takacs grew up in was her world when she was a child. Her geographical world was almost the opposite of the countryside Minich was raised in.
"There were probably 300,000 people in a three by two mile area," she said. "But it was still nice. In fact it's still nice today. It hasn't changed all that much."
Takacs knows about being ethnic in an ethnic town. Her grandparents came from Hungary. She grew up in a two family house with her grandparents, aunts and her nuclear family.
"What was interesting about all that is that there was always someone there," she said. "My grandparents never learned to speak English very well so it was hard to get to know them. But there was always someone there when I came home."
The immigrant family experience made a mark on her life.
"Everyone worked in the family just to pay for that house," she said smiling. "My grandparents could not really afford it alone so my aunts and my father really paid for the house. Neither of my aunts ever got married, because they were too busy working."
After Catholic school, Takacs worked in New York and attended New Jersey City University, where she got a bachelor's degree in English.
"At first I wanted to be an artist, like a water color artist," she stated. "But I was not very good. In fact I was pretty bad at that. I took a creative writing class. The instructor liked my poetry and I said to myself I think I want to continue with that. So I asked her where the best place to go on with my education would be and she said I should go to the University of Iowa."
So she ended up at the graduate writing programs on the banks of the Iowa River in the old capitol of the Hawkeye state, Iowa City.
"My family thought it was weird," she said laughing. "They all thought I should just stay home and work. They didn't want me to leave the house much less move to Iowa. I guess they wanted me to pay for the house too."
After she met Jan and they moved to Salt Lake Takacs worked at Sperry-Univac as a tech writer and she taught night classes as adjunct faculty at Westminster College, Columbia College of Salt Lake and the university. She also substitute taught in many of the school districts around the Salt Lake area.
During that entire time, however, Takacs was writing poetry as well as working.
When Jan was almost through with the doctoral program, he found that a professor at CEU was leaving for a year on a sabbatical. He applied for the position and was hired. When the person on sabbatical decided not to come back, he was able to get on permanently. That was 16 years ago and it meant a new life for both of them. Takacs had to find employment, too.
"I had applied for several full time jobs at CEU and didn't get hired," she states. "Then my son was born and I was kind of happy that I didn't have a full time job for the first couple of years of his life."
In the meantime, Takacs worked part time at the college teaching adjunct and as a stringer for the Salt Lake Tribune.
"That didn't work out too well," she explained. "They would call me up and say I needed to go here or I needed to go there, about any time of the day. Well they wanted me to go right when they called, but I didn't have a baby sitter to take care of our son. Besides, for the hassle the money wasn't worth it."
Then she got a half time position at the college which eventually led to a full time professorship. For several years, she and Jan made up two-thirds of the English department at CEU since there was only one other professor, Larry Severeid.
"Then the college started to grow again by leaps and bounds and the department grew along with it," declared Takacs.
But poetry was always important in her life.
"When I actually began writing I was writing fiction. Before I ever took a creative writing class I would follow my friends around and write stories about our experiences in high school," she states. "When I look back I realize that I had probably always wanted to write, but all of my friends thought I was weird. They felt that way mostly because I would write stories about what we would do and be very truthful about it. They didn't like that truth part too much; it told to many secrets. "
When she took a creative writing class at college, the instructor said her fiction wasn't very good.
"But she really liked my poetry," reveals Takacs. "So I decided to write more of it and I liked writing it. I had done some in high school and hated it, but this was different because she wanted us to do free form poetry and I really like it."
Takacs sees poetry as a snapshot of a place in time.
"I like to capture a moment in time," she explains. "I write a lot of autobiographical poetry. For instance, I have a poem about my son that is called 'Thirteen.' It's about when he was 13 years old, but it is only based on the experiences I had with him when he was that age and anyone can relate to it if they have had a child that was thirteen. In it I tried to capture him at that age so I will always have that part of him. Actually I try to capture the simplicity and the complexity of the subject at the same time."
In a sense, the poetry she writes is truthful, but not factual.
"I'm trying to gain truth in poetry by taking a complex subject such as my son and putting down the truth on paper in simple terms that people can understand," she states. "It's almost as if I'm afraid of losing time. I sometimes want to retrieve something from the past, such as some facet of the relationship I had with my mother, and I want to put it down in front of me and experience it again. I get that not only through the process of writing about it, but it is there anytime I want to go back to it."
Emotion is a factor in her writing.
"I don't go through too many emotions when I am writing most of the time. But when my mother died a few years ago, I was having a hard time then," she says. "It was almost like there was this barrier and I couldn't write anything about anybody. I tried, but there was just something there that I couldn't break through. I find I do writing better in retrospect rather than at the time of the occurrence I am writing about."
Poets write not only to express themselves, but so others can share their thoughts.
"A problem I see with poetry today is that people who come into our classes think that poets write their poetry so it is inaccessible to others," she says. "Poetry is not written so you can't understand it. Why would an author do that? They want others to read it and to interpret it. All you've got to do is think about it and feel what the poet is saying."
Then there is the subject of what she writes her poems about. She often talks about her "New Jersey poetry" and her "Utah poetry."
"The New Jersey poems are a different chapter in my life," she states. "They have to do with growing up in a metropolitan atmosphere and my Hungarian background. Everyone there drank a lot; that ties in with family gatherings and friends. Drinking was a part of life for everyone I knew, old and young. Some of my poems deal specifically with that aspect of life."
Utah poems tend to be more about nature and the way life proceeds. Her poem "Owling" captures a time when she, Jan and their son went down the road to see some baby owls that sat on the powerline wires. The adult owls would take off and fly around them, but the babies would watch because they had no fear of humans. One day the owls were gone. They found out kids with BB guns had killed the birds because the little ones would not move when people came around.
Takacs still writes about nature, but also about women's issues and love. She has written thousands of poems.
Takacs first book of poetry, Pale Blue Wings, was published by Limberlost Press in Boise, Ida. last year. Consequently it was recently reviewed in the Salt Lake Tribune and got a very good rating from that papers review editor.
The fact is that poetry is not a money making endeavor. Published books usually number at most in the hundreds, but the art that is produced by poets such as Takacs and Minich is timeless.
Two poets and two ways of creating the art they love coming from one life together.
That's almost poetry in of itself.