Long have there been stories of mermaids in the oceans and water people who live in the Great Lakes. But are the watery folks merely the stuff of legend or just a little bit real?
For Michigan poets Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen, a mermaid in Lake Michigan is decidedly real. Together, the pair created “The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems,” released in March by Wayne State University Press.
The story of three generations of women who live along Lake Michigan’s shore and one wild freshwater mermaid — each alone in her own way — dips readers into wild waters and fraught family dynamics through the rhythm of words and seasons and waves.
Foster, author of nine collections of poetry and Grand Rapids’ first poet laureate, became the mermaid’s voice; Oomen, author of memoir, essays and poetry, wrote in the voice of the young girl, Lyk. The 27 poems move between the girl and the mermaid to reveal how each searches for a voice and to be heard.
“My poetry tends to be gritty, so writing in the girl’s voice was a natural fit,” said Oomen, who lives in Empire. “Linda has a very elevated style and great use of language, so the mermaid was perfect for her.”
Foster and Oomen have been on a decadelong journey with “The Lake Michigan Mermaid.” They met in Saugatuck in 2007 at a reading for “Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes,” to which both contributed. An audience member asked if there were stories about Great Lakes mermaids and the pair, sitting next to one another, looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
“Anne-Marie called me that night on her way home and said, ‘I have an idea for a project.’ She suggested a story told in poems with two voices,” said Foster, who lives in Grand Rapids. “She imagined a lonely young girl who wants a friend, who Anne-Marie thought would be a mermaid. I knew right then I wanted to be the mermaid’s voice.”
The pair worked off and on for years, sending poems and ideas back and forth. When Wayne State University Press agreed in 2015 to publish the book, they narrowed the list to 27 poems, 13 in the girl’s voice, 13 in the mermaid’s voice and one poem in which they speak together.
“I’ve always wished for a way to use Lake Michigan as a character in my writing. Part of my attraction to this story is that we get to talk about this girl who stares at the water, who wants to understand it,” Oomen said. “I want readers to invest in this story of how a girl comes into hard-won maturity, which is given to her by the spirit of the lake in the form of the mermaid. The story carries the reader to a consciousness of the power of the lake.
“After the first couple of pages,” she added, “it won’t feel like poetry but a beautiful story, especially because of the illustrations.”
“The Lake Michigan Mermaid” is illustrator Meridith Ridl’s first book project. She agreed to work on the book after reading the poems and meeting Foster and Oomen.
“It was fascinating to talk with them about the tone, feel, colors. We thought about wateriness, the earthiness of the poems,” said Ridl, who lives in Saugatuck. “We wanted some ambiguity to leave it open to readers’ interpretation and wanted a combination of representations and the rhythms of the poems and the water.”
“The Lake Michigan Mermaid” is available at Schuler Books, through Wayne State University Press and online retailers.