BENNINGTON — Though the last catamount to be sighted in Vermont was gunned down in 1881, author Sarah Van Arsdale hopes to bring the elusive creature back to life with her new illustrated poem, "The Catamount."
"In the hearts and minds of many Vermonters, the catamount is still very much alive," said Arsdale. "I had heard about the catamount, and have a little bit of a background in natural history, so I increasingly became interested in the mysterious animal."
Arsdale initially got her start as a journalist, but over time focused increasingly on composing poetry and novels. The author went on to earn her MFA in Poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and began to teach creative writing.
The idea for her newest poem came to the author in the 90's, when she was working on her first novel.
"As I finished the novel I needed something that would be redemptive, and make for a happier ending than what I had," said Arsdale. "I thought of the catamount as the perfect way for my character to find her way back to herself."
Captivated by the mysterious and mythological creature, Arsdale found it difficult to curtail her curiosity.
"I know it's kind of a controversy, some people believe it still exists and some don't," said Arsdale. "Even though the catamount is thought to be extinct, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife reports about 40 to 70 sightings a year, but there hasn't been any scientifically verifiable evidence or photographs."
Though Arsdale jotted down her initial thoughts decades ago, she set aside her poem for years before rediscovering the composition recently.
"I was looking through some old poems, and came across this one and decided to work on it," said Arsdale. "I got it to a point where I really liked it, and I wanted to illustrate it because in the meantime I was working on some more visual art."
While it can be prohibitively difficult to publish a work with both text and illustration from the author, "The Catamount," was picked up for publication almost instantly.
"Getting literary fiction published these days is really a rough sell, so it was remarkable to me how easy this was," said Arsdale. "It illustrated for me the importance of doing what you really want to do, and I was just so happy to be back in the presence of the catamount when I was working on the poem and doing the pictures."
Though Arsdale is not a Vermonter by residence, she felt that the first reading of "The Catamount" had to take place in the Green Mountains.
"I was scheduled to read in Montpelier, and it was so exciting to give the first reading in Vermont," said Arsdale. "Everyone that I was talking to knew what I was talking about and what the catamount was."
Already, "The Catamount," has begun to accrue critical acclaim.
"In this haunting illustrated poem, seasons and millennia pass, history and nature meet, all in a few stanzas," said Vermont graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. "Through the loping rhythm of her words and the kinetic line of her drawings, Sarah brings the legendary forest cat to crouching, slinking life."
Ultimately, Arsdale hopes that any success that "The Catamount," finds will inspire others to create.
"When you're working on something like that and putting your heart into it, that's the thing that will eventually get published," said Arsdale. "Its that idea of doing the work you love, and the rest will follow."
"The Catamount," can be found at Knapp's in downtown Bennington starting on Memorial Day weekend.
Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.