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The recipients of this year's MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called Genius Grants, have been announced. They include Jazz saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt and historian Pamela Long. All 21 of them will receive $625,000 over five years no strings attached. And that got us wondering what past MacArthur Fellows have done with their money. Andrea Shea, of member station WBUR, reports on one 1992 winner, the late poet Amy Clampitt, whose MacArthur legacy continues to live on.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Poet Amy Clampitt was on vacation when she got the news from her friend, writer Karen Chase.
KAREN CHASE: And she was furious with me 'cause she thought I was teasing her and by the end of the conversation she said, I'm going to buy a house in Lenox.
SHEA: Lenox, Massachusetts, home of Edith Wharton, one of Clampitt's favorite writers. Chase helped Clampitt find the small clapboard house.
CHASE: This was her Olivetti typewriter. And this on the mantelpiece is a collection of her beach glass.
SHEA: The house was the 72-year-old poet's first major purchase, but the next year she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Chase reads from a folder of notes from conversations between Clampitt and her husband Harold Korn.
CHASE: (Reading) What's going to happen to the house? I don't want it broken up. Hal said, (Reading) It's ours. It's ours together, it always will be. I'll keep it that way the rest of my life.
SHEA: After his wife's death and before his own in 2001, Korn dreamed up a fund to, quote, "benefit poetry and the literary arts." Since 2003 the house Amy Clampitt bought with her MacArthur grant money has been used to help rising poets by offering them six to 12 month tuition free residencies. Clampitt herself didn't see her first volume of poetry published until she was 63 years old. In a 1987 interview with NPR, Clampitt recalled her big break.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
AMY CLAMPITT: The first real publication that counts for anything was in 1978, I think it was August. The New Yorker published a poem of mine. I'd been sending things there for years and years you understand, but they finally took one.
SHEA: It caught the eye of poet Mary Jo Salter, who was then a junior editor at the Atlantic Monthly Magazine. She reads, "Beach Glass" one of her favorite Clampitt poems from around the same time.
MARY JO SALTER: (Reading) For the ocean nothing is beneath consideration. They houses of so many mussels and periwinkles have been abandoned here. It's hopeless to know which to salvage. Instead I keep a lookout for beach glass. Amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase of Almaden and Gallo, lapis by way of, no getting around it, Iâm afraid. Phillipsâ Milk of Magnesisa.
SHEA: Salter helped shepherd Clampitt's work to editors at the publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf and soon she became a star. Salter thinks Clampitt would be delighted that her house is helping to give poets the kind of opportunity that she didn't have what she was coming up.
SALTER: This was the kind of thing that would have meant something to Amy if she herself had been given six months or a year not to worry about earning a living and just having a quit place to write.
JOHN HENNESSY: You could feel Amy's presence here - all the time.
SHEA: Sometimes in strange ways says John Hennessy, who has selected for a Clampitt residency in 2007.
HENNESSY: You take a book off the shelf and a train ticket might fall out - it had been a bookmark, but more importantly you would find her notes to herself in the books. You would leave your work and go into someone else's and then get rejuvenated and come back to your own.
SHEA: Hennessy composed a healthy portion of his latest book, "Coney Island Pilgrims" in the Clampitt house and he's grateful that her MacArthur grant money is having a lasting influence, which is not always the case with Grant.
HENNESSY: There's this story of Anne Sexton getting a bunting fellowship at Radcliff, they're now called the Radcliff Fellowships, and supposedly she put a pool in. But I think that that's an exception, right? Most of us live off of grants - if we get them they go for food.
SHEA: This December the 19th, resident of the house Amy Clampitt, purchased with her MacArthur purse, will settle in and get to work. And likely draw on some of the same things that inspired Clampitt. Among them a small box on the mantle, filled with the late poet's beach glass collection. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, says that the home bought by poet Amy Clampitt is in Lenox, Mass. The house is in fact in neighboring Stockbridge.]
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