From Book to Big Screen

Recently a writer asked what she should do about an offer to make a TV program or a movie from a book she has written.

First, my experience here is limited. In the 1970s, I wrote a movie script for Tom Laughlin, who created the Billy Jack movies after observing the racism in his wife Delores Taylor’s hometown of Winner, S.D. (Tom was a man of great accomplishments in education and psychology; his story on Wikipedia gives considerable information about his life.) At that time, Tom wanted to make a movie about the life of Crazy Horse, whom he viewed as a hero in the Billy Jack mode. Perhaps because he had attended the University of South Dakota, where he met his wife, Tom asked me to write the script. Tom knew that I had attended USD and that I was running a small press publishing regional authors, so these facts might have influenced his decision.

Tom Laughlin Billy Jack

Tom Laughlin (in his Billy Jack persona).

I had not written a book about Crazy Horse, so I did considerable research, including interviews with various Lakota people to create the script. Laughlin flew me to Minneapolis to discuss the project and he and Delores Taylor hosted me at another meeting in Arizona (where a highlight was my seeing the tracks of a sidewinder rattlesnake in the sand). Negotiations were exciting; we discussed my being a consultant for the film at length, through many telephone calls and letters. One individual who said he was a priest called me late one night. He had been told that I knew the secret site where the great Lakota leader is buried, and promised me riches if I told him. I was not tempted.

I was paid for my writing, and I discovered a lot of information about Crazy Horse that is not general knowledge, but the movie was never made. I met some intriguing people, including both Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor. Both were brilliant and fascinating, and interested in so many things that they had trouble focusing on a particular project— a trait I came to believe may be typical of folks who are creative, and particularly those who get involved with movie-making. I came away from the project with no desire for further involvement in TV or movies. The whole process was just too exhausting, with too much time spent talking about creativity, or planning to be creative, or discussing what creativity means, leaving far too little time to create.

Movie Streep and Elliot

Linda (as played by Meryl Streep) and George (as played by Sam Elliot). What a movie!

Consequently, when there was talk of doing something dramatic with my book Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, I couldn’t muster up very much enthusiasm, though my husband George and I joked about who would play us in the movie. I think we settled on Meryl Streep and Sam Elliott.

Several painters have created art works inspired by my stories, as has at least one weaver and several poets and I welcomed their efforts. One painter sent me her vision of my cows and a dog that hangs in my retreat house.

So, with that background, here’s my view. Remember, though, that this opinion has never been seriously tested, say by someone handing me a contract promising large amounts of money for something I’ve written.

I believe the books I’ve written are accomplishments of which I can be proud, though in each book and every poem I can usually find something I might change if I had the opportunity. I know that some of my writing has inspired the writing of others, and I felt no proprietary interest in their work. If someone takes my story and turns it into a dramatic performance, the new creation is a separate achievement, inspired by mine. (When Parris Afton Bonds copied more than 75 passages from my book Windbreak into her romance novel, she was not being creative but committing copyright infringement. I sued to stop her publication and won the right to discuss her actions, but that’s a story for another time.)

In thinking of how another artist might make a TV program or movie from your book, consider what happens when you buy a new car and sell the old one. In my case, I could recall some of the challenging or delightful travels I had, and I wished the new owner well. Then I turned my attention to learning which buttons to push on the new car to get the best performance from it.  Though I might still remember some of the things I liked or disliked about the old car, fixing its problems is no longer my job.

Ideally, if someone buys your work for TV or a movie, you can assure yourself that you have achieved the best of which you are capable in that particular work. All you are selling is an idea, an inspiration that someone else will use to create their own artistry. As I fasten the seat belt in my new car, someone may be driving away in the old one, smiling and planning a trip, thinking, There’s so much room in the back I can sleep there and my German shepherd dog can even sleep beside me.

Realistically, anyone might read your book in print and create their own interpretation of it without consulting you. You might never know. So if someone offers you cash for the idea, give serious thought to accepting. Consider what improvements you might make in your writing room with a little extra cash. Or go on a writing retreat.

Finally, understand that when someone else creates art in a different medium, inspired by you, your ideas may reach a new audience, spreading your achievement even further. After all, our goal as writers is to communicate with people, and perhaps the story you have told will grow beyond the boundaries you have set.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Enjoy a Petite Retreat at Home

One day in May I realized that I was going to be alone in my house— except for my dogs— for several days. I wrote in my journal and on my Facebook page:

Today I am starting a personal retreat to get back to a working routine after ten days of travel, meetings, illness, pain, a spring snowstorm, and various other disruptions.

I began this retreat by opening a gift sent to me by my friend January Greenleaf, a TED talk by lexicographer Erin McKean. Make time for yourself, for your enlightenment and education, to listen for fifteen minutes.  For more information: www.erinmckean.com, which lists various places you can learn more about her projects, which include wordnik, where you can look up words and phrases; VERBATIM, a language quarterly; The Word column for the Boston Globe; her varied blogs, (which include one called A Dress a Day, detailing the dresses she makes and proving that an obsession with words doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other interests), her biography, and contact information.

ReadingDogsMy retreat was already well begun. At 4:30 that morning, I’d awakened with the dogs, let them outside, started the coffee, let them back in, and settled in bed with my journal. I wrote a plan for the retreat week, had breakfast and fed the dogs.

As soon as I declared myself “on retreat.” I felt more relaxed. Simply making the declaration meant I had time— when in reality I had made time by making the decision.

I stretched. I walked the dogs, I rinsed my few breakfast dishes and put them beside the sink. Finally I went to my office. My retreat plan prohibited me from checking email until late in the afternoon, but I knew the video was waiting for me and thought it might be a good way to focus my attention on writing, so I allowed myself to go online long enough to watch it before shutting down my Internet connection.

At last I was ready to begin the first writing task I’d assigned myself: writing about creating a short retreat at home— while creating a short retreat at home.

My first suggestion for creating a private retreat is to choose to do so. Decide how long your retreat will last, and begin to create the conditions that will help you make the best use of that retreat.

Prepare for your retreat: physical space

Most of us have developed a lifestyle built around events that are really distractions from real life, so we may behave as though this disorganization is normal. Email notifications appear on our computers; our cell phones ring; we run to the store for milk; people say “are you busy?” and without waiting for a reply launch into a recitation of their troubles. By planning ahead, you may be able to immerse yourself in work more fully than you can on a normal day.  Depending on your circumstances, you might:

–tidy the house so you won’t be tempted to clean while retreating

–cook or arrange for several meals in advance

–inform friends you will be limiting email and phone calls

–arrange your workspace to focus on your primary project; put aside temptations that might distract you from your main job

Turn Off Cell–remove potential disturbances: turn off your cell phone; put a note on the TV that says “NO!” A friend shuts off her computer’s audio speaker so she doesn’t hear the ding of incoming emails.

–pull shades and lock doors if you have friends who “drop in;” one writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard, out of sight from six feet away, and unable to hear the telephone in the house or the door bell.

–if you don’t live alone, explain the terms of your retreat to other members of the household and arrange for them to do the necessary chores you usually do.

–If you cannot be alone in your house during your retreat, make the quiet statement of a closed door. Since my study door usually stands open, my partner knows, when he sees it shut, not to knock, call out, or open it. And if my sneaky mind tries to distract me from my work, I’m reminded of my purpose as soon as I grasp the doorknob.

Prepare for your retreat: mental space

These are logical ways to prepare your physical work space for a retreat, but a harder job, I think, is to focus on whatever retreat task you have set for yourself. Prepare for your retreat by walking around your home like a stranger, as if you have arrived at this haven just to enjoy a writing retreat. Arrange a chair before a window so you can watch birds; find a flower or tree or rock to identify. Turn a chair so your back is to the room.

My idea of the perfect retreat would include ordering meals from a personal chef to be delivered on my preferred schedule, but that is a fantasy. So I enjoy a bonus benefit available only to people who have partners: the retreat diet and exercise plan. When my partner isn’t here, I don’t cook as much, therefore I don’t eat as much, therefore I’m leaner and more focused. I often make a big batch of spaghetti or meat loaf, and eat similar meals for several days.

In my study, I look at each project I’ve begun to choose which one I’ll work on. I write notes so I’ll remember, when I’m ready to begin the other projects, what I was thinking, and put them firmly aside. Whether my writing is going well or not, it’s far too easy to sidestep into another writing project that looks more seductive. Even though I am my own boss and have set up my own schedule for writing, I dislike authority enough that my subconscious mind tries to flout it and sneak off to another fascinating story.

How it works: retreat reality

As soon as I got to my tidy office, I realized that in my haste to begin a retreat I’d forgotten that after days of travel and trouble, I needed to clear my journal. I’d recorded observations relating to several different writing projects, marking them with sticky notes in my journal so I could find them quickly. Each one needed to be placed it its proper file before I forgot the details.

As I recorded these notes, I recorded comments for the organizer of the meeting I’d attended, and sent those off— telling myself that while this was not a retreat activity, it was legitimate work as part of clearing my desk for writing.

During my lunch break, I referred to my journal and realized that I needed to revise my class presentation for Road Scholar on ranching in South Dakota. That’s creative, I thought, and it concerns on one of my usual writing topics, so it’s a legitimate retreat task. I completed the revision.

By then, I was distracted by the pain of an injury and called a doctor who agreed to see me that afternoon.  The doctor was able to alleviate my pain but as I drove home I wondered if I had killed my retreat by leaving the house and breaking my concentration. Discouraged, I sat in my chair, read a few pages, and fell asleep.

Footsteps jerked me out of my nap. I stepped outside to find an insurance salesman on my deck, the first such caller in six years! Repeatedly and at length, I explained why I did not need additional insurance.

Now what? Nerves jangled, I turned to my calendar and my journal work list and realized I was obligated to attend a meeting the next afternoon, and had promised a friend to car-shop the day after that. My stomach knotted. I’d sabotaged myself by incomplete planning. Should I declare my retreat a failure?

No, I decided. The retreat was not over unless I allowed it to be.

First I had to recapture the feeling. If I allowed interruptions to make me angry, I was wasting my own time and becoming even more distracted. I had to dispose of disturbances efficiently, choosing which jobs I could complete and which I might postpone.

Part of my distraction, I realized, was having had a sketchy lunch; I had no enthusiasm for cooking, but discovered some attractive leftovers. I took my time arranging the meat, potatoes and gravy on the plate and heating them in the microwave while I made a salad. When I sat down to eat, I thought about my choices.

I was still alone in the house. I could recover from these setbacks. Instead of cancelling my private retreat, I decided, I would simply conduct a series of short retreats. I’d begin each day with a couple of cups of coffee in bed, dogs at my side. I’d write in my journal about my primary project: this essay about conducting my own retreat.

Next I planned a simple menu for several days, choosing ingredients on hand, because I knew my concentration would be broken if I was either hungry or constantly snacking.

During the morning before the meeting, I’d write as much as I could. After the meeting, I’d attend to online communication, putting off anything that could wait a day or two. The next day, I’d honor my morning commitment and then write in the afternoon.

The Petite Retreat

So began my week of discovering the concept of the miniature retreat, and I can recommend it. In fact, since many of us are convinced we don’t “have time” for a long retreat, perhaps learning how to conduct a retreat in a day or two, or even a couple of hours, might be considerably more useful to the average busy writer.

LMH desk 2014--4-24Before my afternoon meeting, I wrote notes and drafts of several ideas I’d recorded in my journal, so I was able to attend the meeting with a feeling of accomplishment that allowed me to be patient with the usual delays. Later, at the computer, I read a message from a writer who has been to Windbreak House on retreat. Her husband had just left for a ten-day trip and she had declared a personal retreat. She wrote, “I have the house to myself (it also means I have all the chores to myself, but leave that aside for the moment.)”

Serendipity! I thought. We’re both dedicated to our work and are conducting our own retreats; perhaps we can help each other.

“I seem to be getting over the gloom of separation anxiety,” she wrote, “and am moving into active embrace of the prospect of solitude. I will have some days that I have to go to town and work on projects at the rentals, but I will endeavor to keep the retreat spirit on the days when I’m home. I made a good start today by doing another revision pass and eating at odd hours.”

Again I was struck by the parallels; we both have obligations that keep us from shutting the world entirely out, and we both miss our spouses. I hadn’t thought to call it “separation anxiety,” but I was feeling the same. I don’t enjoy cooking for myself as much as cooking for someone else. When my partner is home, part of my morning journal time involves reviewing any available leftovers and deciding what to make for lunch and supper. Making preparations tells me when to begin both meals, and often keeps me from worrying about meals when I’m writing.

If I’d prepared properly for my own retreat, I would have frozen meals ready for quick preparation. Since I didn’t think ahead, don’t buy pre-packaged food, or live where I can get food delivered, I usually make a batch of one or two favorite meals that can be quickly reheated. My friend said she was surviving on hummus and potato salad and intended to plan ahead more effectively next time too.

Both of us are in a unique position in our homes, making retreats more workable. We both live some distance from town, so we don’t have the distractions of nearby traffic, and few neighbors drop by; we get few phone calls. (If your own home doesn’t lend itself to brief retreats, consider house-sitting.)

We agreed that the main obstacle to retreating into writing is mental. As she puts it,

“. . . making the commitment to yourself that you’re dedicating this time exclusively to writing (doing of, thinking about, reading about, etc.) . . .”

Her comment reminded me that a writing retreat requires more than writing; it includes reading and thinking about writing as well. I was also pleased to be reminded that this is the way real teaching and learning works: I offered her some of my suggestions, and her thinking inspired me: we both give, and we both take from the exchange.

The power of intention

My friend commented that making the decision to do the retreat was “weirdly wonderful,” that she, too, felt a huge release,

“. . . like I’d just gotten a massage. A marvelous lesson in the power of intention. I took an unseemly pleasure in defining my rules— monitoring email OK, responding unless absolutely necessary if a work project popped up was not. Checking weather OK, but no surfing. No TV. Doing dishes is OK, but only if you want to. Laundry is out of the question.”

Here we differed; my washer and dryer are just far enough from my desk to constitute a brain-clearing stroll with room to stretch, so I declared laundry to be OK that afternoon. With a load in the washer, I sent a few more messages and then found a reply from my retreating friend:

“Decided I ‘wanted’ to get the dishes cleaned up Wednesday evening, and the spell was broken. The motions of that disliked chore turned on the brain-churn of chores looming and the to-do list for town the next day. I still spent the evening reading and writing, but it did feel like the last night of retreat, processing the prospect of re-entry.”

“Brain-churn of chores”— that’s usually what wakes me up in the mornings if I allow it to. While waking for retreat, I’ve consciously pushed those thoughts away and concentrated my thinking on writing projects. During this rainy weather, I’ve forced myself to ignore the muddy paw-prints on the stairs and the dust in the corners; time enough to attend to those things when the rain stops.

What about those chores?

Still, everyone has daily jobs that, if we allow them to, can distract us from the kind of mood required for serious creative work. I can incorporate some jobs into a writing routine. When I come to a paragraph that baffles me, I may do dishes or defrost hamburger, slice vegetables or weed a flower bed while considering possibilities. None of those repetitive jobs can seriously distract a creative mind at work, though I have been known to burn rice when I rush downstairs to record a thought.

And some chores can be postponed. I’ll vacuum the house when my partner gets home and I’m distracted anyway. I’ll make a grocery list when he’s here to remind me of items I might forget. I’ll get the mail when I’m taking a break from writing.

My new challenge, then, was how to make my retreat work during short periods between the distracting obligations I’d discovered. I devised several methods and symbols to signal a new period of retreat.

How can I create tranquility?

If a retreat will be only a few hours or a day or two, it’s important to focus quickly, and learn to drop into retreat mode at will. I established signals to remind myself to avoid confusion and concentrate on the purpose of my retreat.

When I sat down to work on my journal at the dining room table, I pushed my nose deep into the bowl of lilacs and inhaled, letting the light, silky scent remind me to inhale and hold my breath, exhaling slowly.

Walking the dogs became part of my ritual when I needed to change mental gears. After I completed a job, whether it was an interruption to my writing or a writing draft, I changed my mood by taking the dogs outside to play or walk while I stretched and did bends.

LMH looking rr tie 2015Wildflowers as well as cultivated plants surround my home, but I usually notice them only when I’m working at gardening. For the retreat atmosphere, therefore, I took time to appreciate my surroundings as if I were in an exotic jungle. I sat on a railroad tie fence and watched a tree swallow swoop to collect a bug. I crawled through the grass looking for bluebells, found a smooth black rock and placed it in the precise center of a bowl worn in a sandstone rock. When one Westie brought me a baby robin carried gently in his mouth, I climbed a tree and put it back in the nest.

Concentrating on the details of my surroundings refreshed me. Arranging a few stems of Sweet William in a vase in the bathroom did not break my concentration, but shifted my focus. During these times of not-writing, aspects of the writing I was doing floated to the surface of my mind.

Think instead of talking

Having no other people in my house encouraged my uninterrupted thinking. I didn’t have to consider anyone else’s feelings, or respond to questions; providing attention to the dogs didn’t require much thought. I could walk with them, watch them hunt voles and run in circles, and throw their toys, all while relaxing and clearing my brain, or struggling with a knotty writing problem.

Think about it: responding to human interruptions can take considerable time in part because we observe social conventions; we’re polite, we explain, we listen, we justify. But if the telephone rings and I don’t answer it, time is saved. If someone posts to my timeline on Facebook and I don’t see it, my work is not interrupted. The choice is mine; the person calling or posting doesn’t know what I’m doing and will be happy when I do respond. Ignoring online distractions was similar to being alone in the house, without the necessity to respond to conversation.

Reading as writing

Research BooksSometimes I get so caught up in daily chores and writing that I may let significant articles and books that might inspire and inform my writing stack up beside my reading chair.  I scan them distractedly while waiting for a soup to simmer or a conversation to be finished. So concentrated reading on the subjects I write most about became part of my retreat. Having given myself permission to read in the daytime, I slashed like a lawnmower through stacks of magazines and books that had gathered dust for months. Instead of reading my usual relaxing mysteries at night, I read serious stuff and took notes for future writing and talks. Because I was working later than usual, I also felt better about any diversions that occurred during the day.

My retreat rules banned reading that was not on a topic related to my work. I was delighted when my friend on retreat said one morning that she’d “allowed” herself to read my note to her about our retreats only when she was on a break.

Meanwhile, she reported that her first mini-retreat was two days long: “an intense writing day, followed by an evening devoted to reading about writing and to writing in my journal about the reading and about the projects I’m working on. The next day was more writing, more reading.” She was exhausted, but “maintained internet/media limits and spent another quiet evening reading.” All this worked, she added, because she had the house to herself.

I, too, was feeling more satisfied with my small retreats of a morning and then an afternoon, and I wasn’t as exhausted because I hadn’t been able to immerse myself as fully as she had. I had, though, done what I could with the time I had and that was a source of satisfaction.

The retreat attitude

So how is a series of mini-retreats different from a normal work week? And how can we create the energy and the focus of a retreat in a shorter period?

I believe the power of my intent and the attitude I establish toward my work can allow me to conduct a useful retreat, even if it’s brief. During a normal day, my focus is outward: on my partner, on how our mutual day evolves, and on the obligations we have to one another. When he’s gone, I shift my attention to his evening call, leaving the rest of the day free for me to focus on my work. Reminding myself that my primary intention is my writing, I can allow other concerns to become invisible.

A danger zone is the restless periods between bouts of writing. When I get up to go to the bathroom, or fix a meal, or just stretch, I must resist the temptation to go online or check my phone. While the tasks of house-keeping like laundry or dishes don’t automatically pull my mind away from deeper thinking, the mindless chatter of the internet does.

This retreat also reminded me, and my writing friend, of another important element of a successful retreat of any length: reading books instead of the internet ether.

She puts it best:

“The focus on hard copy reading reveals how shallow and unsatisfying most of what’s available on the internet appears. . . . It’s easy to justify the surfing by telling yourself that you’re ‘staying informed’ by looking at news or literary sites, but that kind of reading does not allow for the slow reflection one achieves by turning pages and making notes in the margin.”

Moreover, because I have made time, I have the luxury of time to sit and stare at a smooth stone held in my hand and see how my mind will connect that stone, the sun on my back, the birdsong, with my writing. I can watch the cattle moving across the gully below the house, enjoying the way they kick up their heels. I can sit on the deck listening to the birds without checking my watch.

On each day of my retreat since, I have begun the day by planning what it will contain, including obligations to others that I can’t escape. I figure out what to have for lunch. Then I note the times in the day that I can consider retreat time, and note which project I’ll tackle. I can breathe deeply, knowing exactly when I’ll be on retreat, and what I have to do before that time.

My friend remarks that she is learning to make peace with how slowly writing can develop, and getting better at focusing when she has the time to do so. I agree. Once I have established writing time and know that I will keep it, I can be attentive at a meeting, hold conversations, answer email, and vacuum, throwing all my energy into what I am doing at that moment.

When my writing time seems brief, I remind myself that Graham Green created a writing schedule of two hours a day. He was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he sometimes didn’t finish a sentence. But at that pace he published 26 novels, as well as many short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Writing: Where I’ve Been — Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

Writing: Where I’ve Been  —  Introduction

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

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Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

LMHwriter06For years, I wasn’t sure I was a poet, because my poems were about cows and grass instead of Big Ideas and Philosophical Stuff.

Similarly, while I firmly believe in higher education, people who stay in college too long begin to believe that physical labor— like pumping gas, cleaning houses, or growing corn— is humiliating. Some college graduates regard any job requiring a desk as distinguished, no matter what effect it may have on society; wearing glasses and balancing a paunch over the belt indicates an even a higher degree of achievement. But I digress; studying too much causes digressions, too.

I now believe that my writing is about large issues cleverly disguised as small ones.  I have always admired poets who can write overtly political work— Poetic Paean to a Political Activist or Sonnet on Saving the Planet— but I can’t. In addition, while a writer struggles to rhyme “pollution” and “oil spills,” he isn’t acting to stop pollution. Writing can become a respectable and secure alternative for sticking your nose out where someone who disagrees with you can poke it. It’s uncomplicated to sit behind a computer, logically consider all views, vote “no opinion,” and do nothing. Or to sit behind the computer, logically consider all views, and pick one to malign and ridicule; it’s rare that one side or the other doesn’t offer rich fuel for satire.

But it’s harder to be detached when you’re up to your knees in muck hauling a sick otter out of the bay, or sitting through a county commission meeting, only to be called a Commie Pinko Pervert when you state what you thought was a compromise.

I see parallels between political inactivity and academic poems: perfectly formed lines composed between classes in an air‑conditioned office about perfectly formed lines constructed between classes in an air‑conditioned office. Naval‑gazing. Speculations on the Nature of Matter, Especially As It Relates To the Poet’s Love Life. Documented Dialogue With Dead Poets By a Poet Who Never Lived. It is possible to be intensely philosophical and accomplish nothing.

Good poetry does emerge from academia; I confess I don’t often write formal verse because I can never remember that the rhyme scheme of a villanelle is A b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A A’, and after I look it up, frankly, I don’t much care.

PoetrySoftware GroupBut others have solved this dilemma; poetry software has arrived. The user, who will not be called a “poet” if I can help it, chooses, for example, to write a Shakespearean sonnet. Fourteen blank lines appear on the computer screen with the stress and accent pattern of iambic pentameter clearly indicated. The operator fills in the rhyming words first, then “connects the dots” backward to create the poem. That’s a direct quote from the manufacturer: “connects the dots.” If the user is too intelligence-challenged, busy, or lazy to operate a rhyming dictionary, rhyming software is also obtainable.

These developments are a giant leap downward in the art of writing; I predict batches of the miserable stuff will soon flood an already‑saturated market, while users of the software dash off letters hotly defending it as “real poetry.” Dissenters will be scorned as Stone Age writers. Since I intend to be among them, I’ll say I think a fitting remedy for poor writing would be to carve a poem in marble with a hammer and chisel.

Another reason I have trouble writing Important Political Poetry is that I digress, and therefore am, and therefore write about things like planting gardens. The more I do physical labor, the more important I believe it to be, and the more I write about it. Frustration awaits one who fights sloppy writing or pollution by writing letter to the editor, or by refusing Styrofoam, mulching newspapers, and taking short showers.

LMHjuniperLC91Attempting to reason with legislators and other elected officials is even more daunting. Picture yourself listening to the news at day’s end, exhausted from hard conservation work. A drunk driver, hired by a careless company that is incredibly rich because millions of us insist on driving large cars, just dumped oil over the finest wildlife area in the nation. You may feel your meager efforts have been in vain. People who have spent the day planting trees, or growing safe food are less disheartened because we can see what we have done, even if we only preserve the patch of ground we inhabit.

Academia has many benefits; young poets should study the history of their language to learn ideas that will reverberate in rhyme, myth, or the music of their work. But academics often view anything that gets dirt under their fingernails as beneath their dignity, and anyone with muscles as a moron; those jokes about the intelligence of football players didn’t originate in a locker room, and there is more Walter Mitty in most people who teach than they would care to admit. I’ve been a spy in the academic camps often enough to speak from experience; I quit teaching whenever I can no longer stand to spend five working days explaining to engineering students, for example, why they should be able to write English with moderate skill. Nor are legislative action and political meetings worthless; choose your torture.

Concerted political action often leads to the spectacle of a champion hotly defending freedom from censorship in principle, while cringing at the specific piece of art that caused the problem, like a cross dunked in urine. Meanwhile, opponents screech about pornography and misuse of public money. Unnoticed, artists create, and polluters defile, making a lot of progress while we chatter.

In the end, I believe one writes, and acts, as he or she must. The sooner you stop feeling as though your subject is not worthy of poetry or prose, the less time you will waste, and the better your work will become.

*  *  *

© 1991, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in slightly different form as “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry,” New Letters, Vol. 58, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 45-48.

Afterword to “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry”:

The idea for this essay probably began in the late 1980’s, when there was a lot of discussion about writing political poetry, with overtones suggesting that if a person was “just” writing about love or death or marriage, one was not Doing One’s Duty as a Poet to Prod the National Conscience.

Exxon-ValdezOne of the inspiring incidents, of course, was the Exxon Valdez incident of March, 1989, referred to in the essay.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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