Thoughts From The End

Norma Desprez reflects on long, active life in Silhouettes of Aging

Abi Zimmer, photos by Jesse Johnson |

"I used to say, ‘That will look good on my resume,’” writes Norma Desprez, 88 year-old poet and political activist. “Now I say, ‘That will look good in my obituary.’”

With such witticisms scattered between poems, Desprez publishes her second collection of poetry, entitled Silhouettes of Aging: An Octogenarian’s Retort, with musings on growing older, memories, her dreams, and day-to-day living.

“I was getting so good at being old, that I decided to write about it,” says Desprez.

Desprez has written all her life and often wrote poetry for fun. Born in Osseo, Desprez graduated from Lincoln Hill High School and later moved to Washington, D.C., for work before World War II began. There, she met and married Louis Desprez and eventually they returned to Eau Claire to pursue a business career and raise their two sons. Studying at UW-Eau Claire, she graduated with a degree in political science.

She didn’t seriously begin writing though until 1995 when her husband died. “After the funeral was over, it was a way of dealing with grief. I followed the grief process for a year, and continued writing,” says Desprez.

Longtime friend and publicist Alan Jenkins was most encouraging. She says, “I sent him a couple poems and he said, ‘You keep doing this.’”

She had her first experience reading aloud at the White Pine Open Mic, where she says she was terribly nervous about reading her own poetry. She recounts, “Everybody is having a good time. Then I get up and read my poem and there’s dead silence. I went back to Al and said, “I bombed it!”’ But at intermission, people surrounded her with questions. “The audience can do a lot,” she says.

Her first collection, Soliloquy, follows Desprez’s grief and healing after her husband’s death. Ten years later, she completed Silhouettes, thanks to her friends who kept nagging her to publish a second book.

  “Some poems I didn’t think were all that good,” says Desprez, continually surprised when people tell her about a particular poem that touched them. “They find one that fits their situation,” she says.

Many have been encouraged by her poetry, but Desprez’ contribution to the community goes beyond words. Actively involved in the women’s rights movement, she has served on the Wisconsin NOW Task Force on Women and Religion, run workshops on raising consciousness about women’s issues, and co-founded the Bolton Refuge House. Originally, Bolton was formed as a women’s community center where women could gather and find other women to talk, do arts, and live life together. When social services brought over a battered wife, they relinquished this dream in favor of a women’s shelter. Since then, Bolton Refuge House has impacted a number of lives, and Desprez hopes that women realize the fight she and other women took on. “It’s important to me because if you don’t we could lose it,” she says.

Alan Jenkins agrees, saying, “I have raised my daughter to appreciate the contributions women like Norma Desprez have made to her life as a young woman.”

Asked what her next big accomplishment will be, Desprez responds without missing a beat, “To have a big fancy funeral.” She adds later, “I’m being goaded to do another book.” But she doesn’t feel rushed. She says, “I write when the spirit moves me.”

Silhouettes of Aging: An Octogenarian’s Retort is available for $15 at Crossroad Books, UW-Eau Claire’s bookstore, Eclectica on Grand, Avalon Floral, and Borders.

Norma Desprez will read from her work at 7pm Sept. 10 in the Chippewa Room of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library and at 2pm Oct. 25 at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie.