Wed10012014

Revered poet, novelist honored for life's work

Los Altos resident Janet Lewis has written novels and poetry. But she is not a poetess.

"It's horrible to call anyone a poetess. You're a poet, a writer or a novelist," she said.

"I was a poet." She paused. "Hell, I was a novelist."

Janet Lewis is 96.

We sat together, recently, and talked in the living room of her Los Altos Spanish-style stucco cottage where she has lived and loved and worked since 1934.

Saturday she is being honored at a signing of one of her poems, "A Celebration Morning Devotion," 1 to 3 p.m. at the Atherton Gallery in Menlo Park.

San Francisco artist Elaine Badgley/Arnoux created an etching of Lewis. The etchings (75 in a limited edition) and the poem have been published by Auroboro Press and will be donated to the Rare Books Collection of the Library of Congress, Stanford Library, and the San Francisco New Public Library.

Lewis is "well known for her clarity and her crispness," said Sally Nash Pera, a friend of Lewis. She is probably best known for her novel, "The Wife of Martin Guerre," published in 1941, and written in her house on West Portola Avenue.

"I did most of it in this room," Lewis said, as she looked around.

An Oriental rug covers some of the 1-inch oak strips in the hardwood floor. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves fill the walls.

She and her husband, Yvor Winters, a poet and critic, married in 1926 and came to this area for Winters to complete his doctorate at Stanford. When he joined the English Department there, they bought their home is Los Altos.

"Palo Alto couldn't take us in because we usually had more than two dogs. We had very fine Airedales, show dogs. And we liked to keep goats, chickens, rabbits and cats."

Lewis wrote more novels than poetry, and her first work was published while she was still in college. Later, her novel, "The Invasion," was published in 1931. "I had a baby right in the middle of (writing) it. Once a novel is up and running, it's easier to stay with it. It's harder to start one."

She said she wrote two to three hours every day on a typewriter. Her Martin Guerre manuscript was turned down as being "unlikely, improbable and hard to believe." Since then it has been published in England by Penguin and translated into French.

"The original story about Martin Guerre was real," Lewis said. "I fictionalized it, and told it from the point of view of a woman."

The movie, "The Return of Martin Guere," is based upon the same story she used in her book. "I couldn't copyright the story, just my book."

In the 1960s Lewis taught writing at Stanford in the creative writing department. Her husband died in 1968. She continued teaching and writing.

Lewis has also written "The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron," "The Trial of Soren Qvist," two children's books and opera librettos.

"The exciting moments come when you're writing. They disappear so fast, melting into your work. The moment when you see a way through a tangle ahead of you, that's a very good moment."

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