Return of the lyric: Leiter's path back to poetry
Sharon Leiter has come back to poetry, and she's bringing Charlottesville with her. Hers has been a circuitous journey, through total immersion in Russia, a stint in army intelligence, and a debilitating disease, to her current post as poetry editor of Streetlight magazine.
Poetry was Leiter's first medium in the '60s, when she attended poetry workshops in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then she moved to University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where her writing took a scholarly turn and she wrote about Ana Akhmatova, a 20th-century Russian poet silenced during the Stalin era.
Leiter and her husband, Darryl, an astrophysicist, moved to Charlottesville in 1976 when she was hired by UVA's Slavic Department. For seven years she taught– and wrote– in the academic style, publishing a book called Akhmatova's Petersburg, honored by one reviewer as "jargon-free," a distinctive accolade for a scholarly writer.
Then Leiter stepped off the well-worn path to join the U.S. Army as a civilian intelligence worker, putting her knowledge of Russia to practical use.
"It was a great job and an exciting time," she says. "Those were the days when Gorbachev was just coming to power, the time of glasnost." CIA coworkers planned undercover operations to penetrate the long-entrenched secrecy of the Russian government, but Leiter was greeted with openness and generosity.
"The country was full of idealism," she says. "Leningrad was becoming Petersburg once again. The Soviet Union was about to become Russia."
Then life took a dark turn as Leiter fell victim to scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease for which neither cause nor treatment is known. Tight scar tissue can develop on face, hands, and legs, even envelop internal organs. Acute scleroderma can be fatal.
At the height of her illness, Leiter, now 62, could barely function. She and her husband withdrew from their jet-set lifestyle in Washington, D.C. to Lake Monticello.
"I felt very sick, at night especially," she recalls. "One night, though, I had an entire intact poem delivered in a dream." Her return to poetry signaled a deep personal transformation.
Of poetry's power, Streetlight editor-in-chief Susan Williamson says, "It's the art we look to in difficult times. It offers us a place to anchor and a place to climb toward."
It has also helped Leiter with her disease. She still has scleroderma and will probably have it for life, but through medical attention and a life of poetry, the symptoms have abated.
Leiter's taste in poetry "tends to the elegant, the emotive, but also the restrained," says Williamson. "She's quick and deft when she addresses a poem."
In Charlottesville, Leiter notes, "We have the Pulitzer Prize-winners, and we also have a whole community of writers. Streetlight allows the writers to draw together."
The greatest value in the poetry she chooses for the magazine, Leiter says, is that "It allows us to see ourselves."
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO