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May 21, 1998

Local poet, 38, turns into turnip
Sylvia Summertag was noted for her poetry, criticism

CAMBRIDGE — Patrons of Wordsworth Bookstore experienced a shock yesterday when local poet Sylvia Summertag turned into a turnip in the middle of a reading. Summertag was 38.poet.gif (11226 bytes)

At its widest point, the turnip measured six feet around, and weighed over 100 pounds. The audience was escorted from the store while staff members attempted to revive Summertag. The efforts were unsuccessful, however, and at 4:02 p.m. Summertag was pronounced officially vegetable.

Her family expressed sorrow but not surprise at the incident. “We’ll miss Sylvia,” said her mother, choking back tears as she read a prepared statement. “We loved her — her, and her poetry. No one’s happy about this change. No one wanted her to be a turnip.”

This was not the first time a poet has turned into a vegetable during a reading. In 1950, Jack Kerouac turned briefly into a rutabaga while giving a reading at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore. Walt Whitman was known for his ability to become a large squash when a situation demanded it.

A Cambridge resident for the past 15 years, Summertag began her career as a poet when Harold Bloom selected her for the Yale Younger Poets series. Bloom lauded her self-published chapbook, Turnip, for its “restless wit, distinctive voice, and its white fleshy skin, which can be boiled or cooked in soups.”

Summertag’s next volume, Turnip Turnip, was excerpted in The Paris Review, and one of its poems, “And even if you were a turnip ... then what?” was included in the Best American Poetry of 1990. That same year Summertag began a tenure-track position at Boston College where she taught poetry, criticism, and horticulture.

Summertag’s next work TURNIP marked a departure from her old style, eschewing the formal requirements of her earlier work for more free-flowing Ginsbergesque confessionals. In the book’s centerpiece, “Lament for my Mother, who was not a Turnip,” Summertag mourned the passing of

“you, mommy, gardener and gardening, turning violets

into wine beneath the brandy sun

of fresh and rotting grass, of light and turnips”

The volume won the Whitbread Prize, and earned Summertag membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She celebrated the award by publishing her correspondence with friend and fellow poet Johnny Baby Potato Man, an avant-garde Berkeley poet whose “write-along” style had begun to affect Summertag’s work. Her final volume, from which she was reading at the time of her transformation, contained poems clearly influenced by Potato Man, including “this poem is by you, not me” and “this is by me, who is not a turnip, and you, who is.”

At a service held this morning in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, John Ashbery spoke movingly of Summertag’s “commitment to self — to self-understanding, to self-penetration. She dug deep into the human experience, in all its banality and splendor. She had a great respect for all living things, be they animal, turnip or parsnip.”

Mourners are asked to send donations of fertilizer or topsoil to The National Turnip Review Board.

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