Love Beside the Windmill: Know Your Copyright Law!

Writers, this article exists in two parts, like a lavish meal with a rich dessert. The meal is healthy and good for you, but you may find it tedious to finish every bit. Read carefully, though, and you’ll earn dessert.


Part I — The Main Course
Copyright: So Simple It’s Confusing.

CopyrightRedCopyrights are exclusive rights owned by the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or how they are fixed on the page.

Knowledge of copyright is the author’s responsibility; you should not ignore this important aspect of your writing life. This knowledge is more important than your knowledge of grammar, submission guidelines or how to spell.

Here are three things you need to know about copyright.

1. When copyright exists
Copyright is created in a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. That means when you hit “save” on your computer, or finish hand-writing or typing your poem or novel, or post your blog or your comments anywhere at all, your copyright in your own written word exists.

The U.S. Copyright Office puts it this way:

Copyright law protects a work from the time it is created in a fixed form. From the moment it is set in a print or electronic manuscript, a sound recording, a computer software program, or other such concrete medium, the copyright becomes the property of the author who created it. Only the author or those deriving rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright.

2. The copyright notice
Putting a copyright notice on your work is only an announcement of your ownership; the notice does not change your copyright. Many authorities now say the notice is not necessary. Still, the notice on your blog, for example, reminds people who may not know the law that you own the rights to reproduce your own words and they cannot be copied without your permission.

The copyright notice consists of three elements:

1. the word or symbol for copyright:

Copyright
or the abbreviation Copyr.
or the symbol ( c ).

2. the name of the owner

3. the year of publication.

So a copyright notice may read Copyright 1983 Gloria Writer or (c) Gloria Writer, 1983.

Until 1989, works had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under U.S. copyright law, but no longer.

3. How to register your copyright
If you want– or need– to enforce your copyright in a court, you must have registered the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration is your best protection in the event of a dispute over who owns what you wrote. Since you cannot know if someone is going to steal your work, requiring you to sue them for damages or to correct the record, you should register published work.

Register the copyright by:

1. Filling out the required form, obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office http://www.copyright.gov/

2. Sending the form with a fee and 1 or 2 copies of the published work to the Copyright Office (As of June, 2015, the fee for a book by a single author is $35 to $55. See http://copyright.gov/about/fees.html)

Only work registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is registered; there are no alternatives. “Poor man’s copyright”– mailing your work to yourself and keeping the envelope unopened– proves nothing; you might have mailed the envelope unsealed and inserted the work at a later date.

*   *   *

That’s it; now you know the most important things about copyright. But here are some additional details on various topics within the body of information about copyright that might help you understand the procedure.

Getting reliable information
Scams abound. If you have only a vague idea of what copyright law means to you, go immediately to “Writer Beware” at http://www.sfwa.org, the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction. This site has the most succinct, easily accessible and clearest information on copyright I’ve found.
https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/copyright/

The page clearly explains what copyright is, when and why you should register your copyright in published work, and the most common myths of copyright. (I have heard at least one of these myths from aspiring writers every time I have given a talk on writing.)

The Writer Beware site notes:

Unpublished manuscripts: you do not need to register this work; theft is highly unlikely.
Published short stories and articles: registration is a good idea, though the magazine’s copyright may cover your writing.
Published book-length manuscripts: registration is essential.

Recently I discovered that even trade publishers may no longer register copyright; small presses often don’t want to spend the money; and self-publication means it’s your job. So, no matter who is publishing your work, ask if the copyright is registered and then look on the copyright office website to see if registration has been completed.

What if you don’t register and discover that your published work has been stolen? You can register within five years of initial publication and you can still sue, though your damages may be limited.

Does all of this seem complicated and boring? Do you lock your house at night? Your car? You can always buy a new TV set or Chevrolet. Respect your work enough to put at least as much effort into protecting the work of your mind and heart.

Your rights
When you enter into a publishing agreement, remember that you are granting the publisher permission to exploit– that is, to publish and distribute for profit– your work. You have granted that publisher a portion of your copyrights for a specific period of time. You do not lose them, but you are allowing someone else to use them for a specific and limited time. During that time, the publisher intends to make money from your work, so the publisher’s interests may not always coincide with yours. Therefore you need to understand your contract and what it does to your rights. You should not publish a book without signing a contract.

There is one exception to the principle that you own what you write. As the U.S. Copyright office puts it:

There is, however, an exception to this principle: “works made for hire.” If a work is made for hire, an employer is considered the author even if an employee actually created the work. The employer can be a firm, an organization, or an individual.

The concept of “work for hire” can be complicated, but know two things: you do not own what you write for hire, and you cannot profit from it. When I knew less than I know now, I once signed a work for hire agreement. I find it frustrating to know that no matter how many copies of that book are sold, I will never make a dime from it beyond what I was paid in the contract– nor can I use any of its contents in any other context.

Copyright notice
A person’s creation should always be absolutely attributed to that person, for whatever profit, financial or otherwise, accrues. But the idea that a work belongs exclusively to its creator is being steadily eroded. Some folks think it’s perfectly all right to take a poem written by someone else and rewrite it, presenting the resulting piece as their own. Others think that if it’s on the Internet, the work is not protected. Including the copyright notice helps warn these folks.

However, do not put this notice on your work when submitting it for publication. Agents and editors who see this notice on unpublished work will think you are either ignorant of the law or don’t trust them– not the impression you want to give.

Registering copyright
You might lose your copyright not because someone is unscrupulous, but for other reasons. Ignorance can be destructive.

A publisher agrees to print your book of poems. You are ecstatic. You do not sign a contract; after all, we should trust one another and he’s putting his time and effort into creating your book. If the publisher offers a contract, you may be so excited you don’t read it, or you skip over anything that’s not clear.

Small presses sometimes operate with little income, or use the money they make at a paying job to help support their habit of publishing the work of new writers. They try to sell the work but rarely does a book published by a small press make back its expenses, let alone a profit. They may not know how to copyright your work, or they may be too busy, or think it’s too expensive.

Moreover, the Internet now sports all kinds of agencies who offer to copyright your work, or register copyright, for a fee, always considerably inflated from what you need to pay.

The warning published by Writer Beware about these folks is blunt:

In the USA, there are a number of online services that will register copyright for you with the US Copyright Office, for a fee. You can even purchase software that provides you with addresses and copyright forms.
Don’t waste your money. It isn’t difficult to register copyright yourself, and it will cost you a good deal less than the services (currently, registration costs between $35 and $65, depending on whether you register online or on paper). For freelancers and others wanting to register more than one piece or work, the US Copyright Office offers a multiple-registration option.

The benefits of copyright registration

Chicago Manual of StyleThe main reference work for every serious publisher in the country is, or should be, The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s now available online, and the publisher even offers a free trial period at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org.

The most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration
Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

That’s the importance of copyright registration: if it’s not done, and your work is stolen, you will have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright, and you’ll have to pay attorney fees yourself.

Traditionally, registering an author’s copyright was part of the publisher’s job as protection for both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement, where someone copies another writer’s work and sells it.

However, I have recently learned that many publishers no longer consider registration of copyright part of their duties. I learned this by discovering that several of my copyrights had not been registered.

You may ask “Who’d want to steal my poetry?” The answers are various. I’ve heard of instances where a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree, and was hired to teach on the basis of it. Even when the scam was revealed, the offending professor kept the job, and the author received no compensation.

Part II — Dessert
Copyright Infringement: My Story

When I first began publishing my work, even the smaller publishers like Fulcrum, High Plains Press and Barn Owl understood registration of copyright to be part of their responsibility. In fact, when my copyright was infringed upon, one of the smallest of those presses– Barn Owl Books– found me a good copyright lawyer and joined me in bringing suit. And we won, but we might not have if the copyright hadn’t been registered. Here’s my story.

As a writer, I have kept journals since I was nine years old. In the 1980s, I began to read a lot of stories in environmental magazines suggesting that one family ranches would be driven out of existence by “agri-business,” huge multinational corporations. I decided to record the work we did on the ranch, so that if one-family ranches vanished, a record would exist so we could recreate them at some future time. At worst, my record would be historical. I began collecting material from my journal to write a book on how ranching is done. By the time I’d read through about 20 years of journals, I was enjoying the journal form, and remembering how many types of journals have been published, so I put together some sample months from my journals, and, began sending those samples, one by one, to publishers .

Months later, after my book had been rejected 26 times, I noticed a listing for Barn Owl Books in Berkeley, CA. I wasn’t hopeful that a publisher in Berkeley would be interested in my book, but the “barn owl” suggested an interest in the rural, so I submitted the samples for the 27th time. The publisher turned out to be a woman who ran a publishing company by herself and had published only one other book at that time. But she loved my journal, and she and I worked on editing it for three years before it was finally published in 1987.

Linda signs WINDBREAK 1987--9-11 - Copy

Autographing my first copies of Windbreak at the publication celebration in California, 1987.


Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains is a daily journal covering one year on the ranch and was favorably reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. But the most enjoyable thing about it has been the responses it has generated from people all over the country. Old ranchers have written to me, telling me to hang on, because it’s a wonderful life; a young woman wrote to tell me of a cheaper kind of long underwear; a goat farmer sent me some homemade cheese; a North Dakota woman wrote to tell me she has kept a similar journal for 50 years. A book reviewer in California said she didn’t even LIKE cows, but after she read my book, she heard about a blizzard out here and found herself saying to her husband, “I wonder if Linda’s cows are all right.” Suddenly I have friends all over the country. Yesterday, 28 years after the book was first published, a man with a Southern accent called to tell me he had just read the book, and how wonderful it was; “I had no idea how hard it is to be a rancher,” he said, and promised to loan the book to a lot of other folks who would enjoy it.

The year after the book was published, I was named as Writer of the Year by the South Dakota Council of Teachers of English, and inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in honor of my writing. All of this was the good news.

Among the many letters I received about my book, however, was an anonymously sent copy of a letter a reader had sent to Parris Afton Bonds, the author of a romance novel titled That McKenna Woman. The letter said, in part, “I very much resent paying $2.75 for a book that I assume is original material, only to find that so many parts– the best parts in fact– are in no way original.” The letter explained that the “best parts” she referred to were taken from my book Windbreak. I later concluded that the letter alerting me may have come from a disgruntled friend of the author who knew about the theft and chose this way of informing me.

I bought a copy of Bonds’s book, and soon found more than 70 passages which echoed my own words. My anger increased as I saw that my published account of my life with my beloved husband had been used to give credibility to a trashy romance novel about a Hollywood actress, convicted on a drug-dealing charge, who is sentenced to six months labor on a cattle ranch. My husband, George, tried to appeal to my sense of humor by complaining that the sex scenes were unrealistic, since we were always too busy to make love beside the windmill!

I later learned that the author had given a writing workshop in Wyoming. Likely she bought my book there, since I had given workshops for the same group.

IMG_3189That fall, despite the death of my husband after a long illness, I went ahead with the lawsuit. With the help of my publisher, I brought charges of copyright infringement against the writer and Silhouette/Harlequin, one of the biggest publishers of romances. The romance writer had been paid $10,000 each for three romance novels; in the course of the lawsuit, I obtained copies of the two which had been published, and a manuscript copy of the third, which never appeared in print. All three contained quotations from my book. She made far more money for her books than I did from mine.

I won the lawsuit, but the expenses cost more than the money I was awarded by the court, and also considerably less than the romance writer made from my work. Still, the publisher recalled the first novel in the series, shredded the second before it left the warehouse, and cancelled publication of the third in the series. The author continued to advertise the books on her website for some years after the judgment, though the titles have finally been removed.

One clause in the settlement agreement was particularly galling. The publisher offered me more money if I agreed never to speak about the lawsuit. But I’m a writer and teacher; I thought it was important to be able to educate other people about the ugly realities of creative theft. I was, however, enjoined by the court from using the term “plagiarism.” I can only say that the author committed “copyright infringement.”

At the conclusion of the lawsuit, we issued a press release including some of the relevant passages and showing just how my copyrights had been infringed:

Windbreak, p. 26: A true Hunter’s Moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver disc as it rose.

That McKenna Woman, P. 40: “It was a true hunter’s moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver dollar as it rose.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 126: “The women talk about who had babies and who died. The men talk about wetter or drier years and worse winters.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 107: “The women talked about who had had babies and who had died. The men discussed wetter or drier years, and worse winters.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 72-3: “Why do we do this? No one ranches for the money, and it’s not that we’re all masochists. It’s as though we have a covenant with nature, that we’re bound to see it through, to figure out a way, every year, in every emergency, to survive. It’s less like a battle than a marriage. The problems perhaps serve to enhance our feeling of accomplishment when we succeed, and the more complex or dangerous the situation, the greater the exhilaration when we live through it.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 66: “Why do we do it? he asked himself. Certainly no one ranches for the money. It wasn’t as though he enjoyed suffering and hardship. It was as though he was honor bound to see this through every season, every crisis. When he succeeded, he felt as if he had accomplished something. And the more difficult or dangerous the circumstance, the greater the exhilaration when it was all over and he had come out triumphant.”

*  *  *

So: writers, be persistent in working to get your work published. But when you have interest from a publisher, rein in your enthusiasm until you are sure you understand what the contract offers.

Once your book is in print, get the proper form from the U.S. Copyright Office, fill it out, pay the fee and send the required copies to register your copyright. In doing so, you are not only defending your own rights to your work throughout your lifetime, but protecting a valuable asset for your heirs.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

U.S. Copyright Office
http://www.copyright.gov/
The website of the U.S. Copyright Office offers all the information you need to register copyright, phone numbers to call for help, and a contact form; I have not used it, so I don’t know how quickly you could expect a response. The site has a list of frequently asked questions, and offers informative publications and tutorials to download. The website may seem overwhelming at first but stick with it and you’ll be able to narrow your focus to the one form you need to fill out for your particular copyright.
See http://copyright.gov/about/fees.html for information about current fees.

Beware of Copyright Office Imitations
Note that http://www.copyrightregistry-online-form.com and other similar websites are not the US Government’s site, though these website may show up at the top of an online search and may look very official with eagle emblems or other governmental words and logos. They are private companies that claim they can simplify the copyright registration process for an additional fee. The SFWA.org website puts them in the “unnecessary” category. Look for “.gov” in a website name to know whether you’re on the US government site or a private company’s site.

Science Fiction Writers Association
https://www.sfwa.org/
https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/copyright/
Another great writing resource is the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction to use this website, though a membership fee or donation will help keep the website up and running. While you’re there reading about copyright, explore some of the other information offered: “Alerts for Writers” names unscrupulous agencies that prey on writers, as does the “Thumbs Down Agencies List and Publishers List”. The SFWA website discusses literary agencies, editors, contests, self-publishing– virtually any topic that might be of concern to a writer who wishes to publish– and the language is clear. (Here’s the assessment of a press that held fraudulent contests: “Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.”) I recommend keeping a shortcut to this site on your desktop for a check on anything puzzling.

The Chicago Manual of Style
http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html
The main reference work for every serious publisher– buy the book or buy an online subscription. A free trial is available online and you can borrow a copy of the book from your local library.

Here are some other sources of copyright information that seem legitimate:

http://www.plagiarismtoday.com

http://www.copylaw.com (see copyright myths)

http://www.templetons.com (see copyright myths)

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Looking for Grandmother: Revising A Poem

Here’s a poem that, I believe, begins in nostalgia and ends– many years later– in discovery.

Edgemont Cemetery gateMy records indicate that I took notes for this poem on May 25, 1998, when I was working on a prose piece about walking in cemeteries. Driving from my home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to the ranch in South Dakota, I often stopped at about the halfway point to walk my dog in the cemeteries for the little towns of Sunrise and Hartville, Wyoming. Once, deliberately, I stopped at the Edgemont, South Dakota, cemetery and realized I couldn’t recall exactly where my grandmother was buried. I spent a long time looking for her and thinking about the irony of not being able to find the ground that held this woman who was so important to me.

In 2007, working from those 1998 notes, I began writing a poem I called “Looking for Cora.” Thinking about not being able to find her reminded me that every day I used objects she had owned. I took satisfaction in recalling– though it is not in the poem– that when we met in her little house to divide her belongings, some of her heirs took the most expensive possessions, like silverware and sets of dishes. One cousin and I collected humbler objects.

Looking for Cora [or Grandmother?]

1          Today, walking in this dusty cemetery,

2          I cannot find the plot of earth

3          that bears her name. No need.

4          I greet her every day, using the towels

5          she’d stored in deep drawers.

6          I wore out the frayed ones first,

7          as she would have. Eighteen years

8          after her death, I still haven’t had to buy

9          a kitchen towel. Probably they were gifts

10        from people who didn’t know

11        what to get her. Last week I used the last

12        of her last jar of Noxzema. I’m finally

13        old enough to be someone’s grandmother

14        myself, ready finally for the smell

15        that reminds me of her; old enough not

16        to care what I smell like as I get into bed.

     

17        When all her towels and bars of soap are gone,

18        I’ll still be using her bread bowl; her wood-handled

19        potato peeler will still hang on the wall.

20        And when they all are gone,

21        when I am nearly gone myself,

22        I’ll see her hair and the bones of her face

23        when I look in a mirror. See her wedding ring

24        on my cousin Sue’s left hand. That’s fine.

25        It never would have fit over my knuckles,

26        growing thicker, more like Grandmother’s

27        every day.

All the elements of the poem’s longing are in that first draft. Lines 7-9 mention her kitchen towels; I take pride in wearing out the frayed towels first because she would have done exactly that. Handling her towels– touching the things she touched– brings the sensory experiences closer in my memory, and recall to me (lines 11-15) the sharp smell of Noxzema, which I know will evoke specific and vivid memories in those readers who have smelled it. That realization leads me to humor: that although I am not a grandmother, I am now old enough to be one, and old enough not to care how I smell in bed (lines 15-16.)

Cora Belle.

Cora Belle.


Lines 22-23 mention Grandmother’s face in my mirror, and lines 23-24, the wedding ring that my cousin Sue wears. Because I had taken careful notes, including all five senses– sight, sound, smell, touch, possibly even taste– I was able to recreate the memory of walking in that burial ground nearly ten years later, and recall specific details of my Grandmother almost two decades after her death August 9, 1980 at age 88.

Revising called my attention to other rough spots in the poem as well: the repetition of “last” in the lines 11 and 12, and the repetition of “gone” in lines 20-21. The emphasis of the poem shifts when the poet mentions being “nearly gone myself,” taking the reader’s attention away from the central figure of the poem, Grandmother, and the particulars of her life. But the poem is supposed to focus on my search for Grandmother, both literally in the cemetery and metaphorically in my memory, so although I mention my swollen knuckles in the final draft, I shift attention back to Grandmother.

What changes most from draft to draft is the title– from “Looking for Cora” to “Looking for My Grandmother” in 2010 to “Looking for Cora Belle,” and back. Her melodic name was important to me, but I found myself resisting including it early in the poem.

An important improvement in the revisions is in the length of each line, and thus the rhythm. The first draft, written in 2007, is rocky. First drafts should be a mess, because the intent of beginning is to collect all the impressions that come to mind when you are deciding what to write about. So I’m pleased to note that nearly every detail that is important to the final poem was already in this draft.

Though the rhythm is awful, I’ve read the completed version of many “free verse” writings (I decline to call them poems) that are as bad. Apparently some novice writers think that capturing the specifics of an event on the page completes the poem. Not so. Now it’s time to work on rhythm. To demonstrate, I’ve capitalized the syllables on which emphasis falls in Lines 1-5 of this version.

“ToDAY, WALKing IN this DUSty CEMetery,

I CANNnot FIND the PLOT of EARTH

that BEARS her NAME. No NEED.

I GREET her EVery DAY, USing the TOWels

she’d STORED in deep DRAWERS.

There’s no consistent rhythm in those lines; reading them makes me grit my teeth rather than recall the woman that I knew and my reason for searching for her.

I put the draft aside and apparently didn’t work on the poem again until November 23, 2010. Perhaps I returned to it then because Twyla M. Hansen and I had begun to discuss doing a book of poems together. I knew the draft had good material, but it needed serious work.

In pursuing a smoother rhythm, I kept the length of time since her death “eighteen” years because the word has two syllables, whereas twenty-seven, the actual length of time she’d been gone, has an awkward four. And while it’s believable, and was true, that I was just finishing her Noxzema after 18 years, 27 might have been hard to believe. That odor is my favorite memory in the poem, sure to awaken responses in anyone who has smelled it.

Noxzema jarWhen I read the finished version of this poem to an audience for the first time at the 2015 South Dakota Book Festival, I was delighted to hear gasps of recognition, and see nods as women remembered Noxzema. The women with hair as gray as mine laughed at the idea of smelling like Noxzema in bed, but younger women looked slightly puzzled.

The tangible possessions that I’d kept as souvenirs of my grandmother’s life, such as her bread bowl and her towels, remained in all later drafts, but I took her potato peeler down from the wall and made it an active part of the poem by writing the truth: I was still using it, and one of the blades was wearing thin. Yet the poem is becoming a combination of true events with the truth of the poem: even though I changed the number of years since her death, the truth of what she means to me has become stronger.

On November 29, I revised the poem again, and this time the rhythm became more consistent.

I’ve WANdered this DUSty BURying GROUND

for an HOUR, BACK and FORTH aMONG the GRANite

STONES, pink QUARTZ, SQUARES of SHATtered CONcrete.

I CANnot FIND the PLOT of EARTH that BEARS her NAME.

Of course when the poem is read aloud, the emphasis on these syllables isn’t as pronounced.

In each of several 2010 drafts, I made the lines longer, so the poem became more truly a prose poem, more like a conversation or a reflection than a rhyming poem. I removed the space that had previously divided the poem into two stanzas because I felt it had become more like a soliloquy, the act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud as if one is alone.

????????????????????????????

Elmer Baker, the grandfather I never knew. He died when my mother was just a girl.


Working on the poem made me recall more details of her life. I had known that her husband was killed in a “logging accident” near Mount Hood, OR, but years later I obtained his death certificate and discovered that he was beheaded when he fell under a train. My grandparents had married in Wheatland, WY, where her family had moved after living in Oklahoma for “a spell,” as she put it. After Elmer was killed, grandmother moved back to Wheatland with her two babies, my mother and her brother. Grandmother later told me that the railroad gave her $100 and a ticket to anywhere she wanted to go as compensation for his death, since there was no insurance. His brother borrowed the money from her, so, short of funds, she moved to Edgemont, SD, another train town, and opened a “dining room” with her sister Pearl. Later, she married a local mechanic, and when he was given a small ranch in payment for a debt, moved with her two children to the ranch where she and her second husband had two more boys. Her second husband dropped dead beside her after pitching off a load of hay to their cattle.

Writing up the poem conjured grandmother so completely in my mind that I remembered how I had recalled that small fact about the dining room as I looked from the cemetery hill down over the little town. And that memory somehow told me where to look for her in the cemetery. The final line becomes the success of the poem and my search. As I worked through the drafts, changing the title by removing Grandmother’s name, I had finally concluded that it would be more effective if, as I searched, I kept her name to myself until I found her. Perhaps the reader would think of her own grandmother until her name rings out as part of my discovery of her grave in the final line.

Here’s one more reminder of how the process of revision works, and why it may never be quite complete. Spending several hours with this poem as I write this essay has drawn my attention to an error I wish I’d caught before publication. In line 13 and 14, I wrote:

When all her towels

and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

I inserted “lotion” both because I was using her hand lotion, and for the line’s rhythm; the line would not scan as well if I’d written “lotion and bars of soap,” but the phrasing makes it sound as if I’m using up “bars” of lotion. I should have placed a comma after soap.

     

This is the poet’s life: revise and revise and revise again several times after you think the piece is finished. Knowing when to stop revising is a different problem!

     

Here’s the finished poem.

Looking for Grandmother

1          I’ve wandered this dusty burying ground

2          for an hour, back and forth among the granite

3          stones, pink quartz, squares of shattered concrete,

4          but cannot find the plot of earth that bears her name.

5          And yet I greet her every day in my own kitchen.

6          I use the towels she folded on the shelf above the sink,

7          gifts from folks who cared for her but didn’t know

8          what she would need or want. I’m wearing out the frayed

9          ones first, as she would do. Eighteen years after she died,

10        I still haven’t had to buy a kitchen towel. Last week

11        I finished up her last jar of Noxzema, finally

12        old enough to be someone’s grandma; old enough

13        not to care how I smell in bed. When all her towels

14        and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

15        be using her bread bowl, her potato peeler worn so thin

16        it’s nearly wire. In my own looking glass, I see her hair,

17        the strong bones of her face. Her wedding ring gleams

18        on my cousin’s left hand; she’s younger. My knuckles

19        are swollen thick and growing thicker, more like

20        Grandmother’s every day. Somewhere in that little town

21        below this hill, she once ran a dining room. Finally

22        there she is: just below the water tower.

23        The dusty stone reads Cora Belle.

     

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.

     

     

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015