Alchemy of Words: 80 Years Worth

By Jean Webster
One day sometime in the 1970’s, I sat on the doorstep of Inez Gridley’s house on a hillside in Grahamsville, and shared with her a story I’d been writing, looking for advice.

The next time we met she invited me to a meeting of the Alchemy Club, a poetry group which by then had existed for about 40 years and is still going strong after 80. Inez was one of its founders.

“You’ll get feedback there,” she said.

The idea for the club was hatched by Inez George Gridley in her farmhouse around 1930. A writer since childhood, she wanted someone else to hear and respond to her poems. For that, she sought out two good friends, Mabel Hill and her daughter, Evelyn Hill Huntsberger, both poets.

The three were the first members of what was to become known as the Alchemy Club. Homemakers, and teachers in one-room schoolhouses, they managed to write and meet regularly, reading their poems to each other, evaluating and revising their work.

In the early 1940’s they took a correspondence course from Clement Wood, a versatile and prolific poet and writer in New York City. He critiqued their work, and challenged them to try new forms. I remember them quoting Wood’s lessons. They even attributed their personal success to his courses. His “Complete Rhyming Dictionary and Poet’s Craft Book,” published in 1936, is still available.

Inez told us that when she was short on funds, Wood assured her, “Don’t worry if you can’t pay this month. Send it when you publish your first poem.”

Those words were prophetic. In addition to her poetry in The Alchemist (the club’s quadrennial anthology), she published collections, including Journey from Red Hill, Potatoes and Puddingstones, and, when she was 92, Pitfalls & Promises. Several are available through the Ramapo-Catskill Library System. Her work also appeared in popular magazines and The New York Times. Here’s an example, titled “Growing Old”:

I want to milk this old cow dry.
When the last sweet stream pings in the pail
and she grows tired of my pulling and fumbling
she will kick me over
and send me flying head over heels.
I’d like to go out the way I came in
Kicking and squalling.

Inez also wrote about local history, contributing to Time and the Valley, a book about the villages submerged by the Rondout Reservoir.

As the group grew, members adopted the name “The Alchemy Club,” because as poets they took everyday events and turned them into gold.

After resisting for a time, I took Inez’s advice, joined the club, worked and learned to write poetry. Writing and reading poems has taught me to see the world differently: to home in on the small things, whether in prose or poetry; to be more direct; to listen and look. I believe composing poetry has helped me to be a better writer.

The Alchemy Club meets monthly at the Daniel Pierce Library in Grahamsville. There are no dues. “Just bring a poem,” they say, “with copies for everyone.”

Each person reads her/his poem, and listens to comments. Then, the poems are mailed around to the group for people to re-read and make written comments. I found these remarks to be more direct and helpful, perhaps because we had more time to consider what we’d read.

Publication of The Alchemist began in the 1960’s. It appears about every four years, and everyone in the group can contribute poems and the funds to produce the chapbook, now about 80 pages.

I was one of two editors of the 1995 anthology, which was dedicated to Inez and Evelyn. Both were still active members more than 60 years after they and Mabel Hill had dedicated themselves to making golden the ordinary and extraordinary events of life. Evelyn passed away in 2004 at the age of 94, Inez one year later at 97.

Today, the newly named Alchemy Writers’ Workshop isn’t only about poetry though it is still the focus. The Workshop is always open to new members – the next generation of writers turning everyday events into gold.

Jean Webster, a poet and freelance writer formerly of Grahamsville, lives in coastal Maine.


3 Responses to “Alchemy of Words: 80 Years Worth”

  1. Bob Mullin Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement.
    P.S. A single candle
    with its fragile flickering
    dispells the darkness.

  2. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    What a beautiful story!

  3. gloria bernstein Says:

    as a member of the alchemy club i enjoyed the article. it was jean webster who introduced me to the group. thank you, jean, for a great article. gloria

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