Poetry Day— After Day After Day After Day

Computer error

When I took my computer to be repaired, I was uncertain how long the repair might take, so the next morning, I declared a Poetry Day.

On a shelf under my desk I keep a three-ring binder containing my current work on poetry. The first section holds poems by other writers, theme ideas for poems I may write. Next, to improve my mood, comes a sheet protector containing a newspaper clipping of my poem “Planting Peas” appearing in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column a year ago this month. That always reminds me that I have written some good poems!

Poem Binder 2015--8-21Following is a section of new poems I consider finished, but which are unpublished, or which have been accepted for publication or published in magazines but not in a book. When I first declare a Poetry Day, I usually read through these– they are in alphabetical order– to see if they still satisfy me. Sometimes I make changes, suddenly seeing in the poem something I’ve failed to see the last 200 times I read it.

I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I mention reading the poem 200 times. Rita Dove says, “A poem can go through as many as 50 or 60 drafts. It can take from a day to two years– or longer.” Carolyn Forche mentions 80 drafts. Both are quoted in 1,001 Tips for Writers [with an additional very long subtitle] by William A. Gordon.

Keeping these poems together, and printed, helps me see when I am approaching enough decent poems to consider putting together a book manuscript to submit to a publisher.

Next in the binder, also in alphabetical order, come my working drafts: poems that have been through many revisions, but which are still not ready to be published.

When a publisher asks for a poem, as sometimes happens now that I have a few books in print, I check my finished but unpublished-in-a-book poems first, and then, if nothing there seems appropriate, go to unfinished work looking for poems that might be close to making the breakthrough to being real poems.

This week a book publisher asked for a submission of four to six poems for an anthology. On my first Poetry Day, I read through this section and found eight poems that I thought might be made ready with some uninterrupted work time. I took them out of the binder and began reading and making notes.

At the end of the first Poetry Day, I had done minor revisions on each of these poems several times, and enjoyed thinking about them, testing changes, as I did other routine chores.

* * *

Next day I made work on those poems my first priority, starting by reading through all of them. After I had done this several times that second morning, I realized that I still hadn’t received the phone call telling me that the computer was fixed.

LMHwrites2012Instead of frustration, I felt peace, because suddenly I realized that I didn’t need to do anything but work on these poems.

I didn’t need to check email; I had no computer!

I couldn’t waste time on Facebook or writing entertaining emails to friends.

I could begin new work in my journal, but I could not type several other pieces that were ready to be committed to a computer file. I had no computer!

For the first few hours, I was listening for the phone, a repair person telling me my computer was fixed. Then I sat myself down for a lecture. If I spent all my time on edge, my hours would not be productive. My attitude would make the difference between a mind filled with impotent fury and calm, satisfying attention to my work.

The next time I read the poems, my mind was wholly on the poems instead of half regretting what I was NOT doing. By the end of that second day, I’d made radical changes in the poems and each one felt better to me than it had in months. I knew my subconscious mind would continue to work on them throughout the night.

* * *

On the third Poetry Day, after working on the poems for an hour, I sat back and looked around my office. How could I make it serve me better? One of my habits that can have negative effects is immediately leaping up to fix a problem without thinking it through. So instead of rushing to rearrange something, I put my feet on the desk and made a mental list. My desk was a mess of unfinished jobs I couldn’t do without the computer. So after working on each poem, I took a 15-minute break to look through one of the piles and file it, throw it away, or put it where it belonged.

* * *

By the end of the fourth Poetry Day, I was still tinkering with the poems, but I alternated work on them with other writing chores. I’d also turned to another major job. I’ve been writing a new will and studying my “literary assets.” Because I am a published writer, and have therefore made money (though never a living) from writing, anything relating to my literary efforts is considered among my assets for tax purposes. I fear the IRS may take what I consider to be an inordinate interest in these assets considering how little money I’ve made from my writing over the years. Rather than burdening someone else with sorting hundreds of drafts and files after my death, I’ll make some decisions now. Two universities have already established collections related to my writing, so I can catalog which materials should go to each. In addition, I’ve collected materials that might benefit my county or local libraries as well as a South Dakota historical collection in another library. By the end of the fourth day I cataloged two boxes and a tote full of family papers, making them ready to deliver to a library where they will become part of South Dakota’s historical assets.

When I caught myself scrubbing faucets with an (old) toothbrush, I finished the job, but did not allow myself to go back to housework because it was not writing.

* * *

On the fifth day without my computer, I looked through the unfinished poems, finding a poem I wrote as a letter to an officer of the Wyoming Highway Patrol who caught me speeding on one of my trips to Cheyenne before I moved back to the ranch seven years ago. I’ve never really revised the letter into a real poem, so I began to work on it again.

Poem Binder working drafts 2015--8-21Next I found a poem I first wrote in the 1970s about being present at an attempted robbery in a bookstore in Columbia, Missouri; the most recent draft is dated 1999 and I still don’t know what’s wrong with the poem. I turn the page.

Among the drafts is a group poem to which I sent a contribution along with a dozen other poets; the last time I heard from any of them was 2012. Has the project ever been completed? I began another poem in 2003 on a drive to Dickinson, N.D. Another draft titled “Ten Dogs” was inspired by an essay I read in which the author detailed the lives of all his dogs, ending with the death of the last one and saying, “I am six dogs old.” Dogs are tough subjects for poems; the question is always how does one make a poem more than nostalgia and sentimentality?

I turn the page and find “A Psalm to Wal-Mart,” but am not inspired to work on it. I’ve spent hours on a poem about an officer who shot and killed a young man marching against the Vietnam War when I lived, and marched, in Columbia, MO, but have never found a satisfactory conclusion. All of these are unfinished, and I find none ready for prime time.

After working over eight poems during the week, I selected six to submit to the anthology. Then I double-checked my list of published poems and discovered one of them had been published in quite a different form last year in another collection. I eliminated that one from this submission, but I retain the changes. When it’s eventually published, I’ll note that it was “previously published in slightly different form,” and where.

Here’s one of the poems I worked on this week, as it looked when I started revising:

Edna

Every sunrise morning,
Edna walks by my house toward Mass,
she tells me, Bible clutched to her breast.
Her neck is crooked so she can look
only at the ground; when we visit, I speak
to the back of her gray head. “This way,”
she says, “I see the crocuses and hyacinths
before you do.” She talks to my dogs
when she stops for breath. She likes them,
she says, because they don’t suddenly appear,
barking, crashing into the fence to startle her.

Every morning now, I kneel on the sidewalk
pretending to pull weeds, or push
old leaves away from new shoots
so I can look up at her face while she tells me
her daughter lives alone most of the time,
that husband of hers away on a ship.
Edna is 85. She doesn’t suspect I’m kneeling
in homage. She wants seeds from my sunflowers
to plant in her yard
next year.

“Every sunrise morning” seemed clever to me when I wrote it in 2010, but merely cute, and not in a good way, now. “Breast”– incorrect; surely she has two. I didn’t speak to the back of her head, but the top, and she was, of course, wearing a hat to Mass. Edna isn’t just passive and sweet; she’s a bit tart in her comments about her daughter’s husband. Why should I state that I am kneeling in homage? Aren’t poems supposed to show? I’m not happy with the unevenness of some of the lines.

Here’s the current (I won’t promise it’s the final) version of the poem:

Edna

walks by my house each day at sunrise
clutching a Bible to her hollow chest.
Her neck is bent so far she faces the sidewalk.
When she stopped to visit the first time,
I talked to her round purple hat. She is on her way
to Mass three blocks away. “The way my neck is,”
she told me, chuckling, “I see the crocus
before you do.” She talks to my small white dogs
and lets them lick her fingers. “Those big dogs
in the next block bark and slam against the fence;
they scare me to death every day.”

I don’t go to church, but often now I kneel
at sunrise on the sidewalk, pretending
to pull weeds so I can see her face
while we talk. She says her daughter
lives alone “most of the time, that husband
of hers is always away on a ship.” She tells me
she is 85; her husband left her when her back
began to turn her face away from him
and toward the earth.
She asks me for sunflower seed
to plant in her yard
next year.

Beginning the poem with the first line may be too clichéd, but I’ll let it stand for now. “Hollow chest” conveys Edna’s shriveled age visually. I believe she actually said “scare me to death,” but even if she didn’t I like the reference, considering her age and the next stanza of the poem. I’m not sure I should have removed the comment that she talks to the dogs; that may have to reappear. The contrast between my failure to attend church and her faithful daily attendance is a commentary on Edna as well as on the poet. I’m not sure if she told me about her husband, but if physical disability turned her face toward earth, her faithfulness suggests she turned also toward Heaven. “Earth” ends the line, for emphasis. Once the poem gathers speed and begins to gallop toward its end, I needed to shorten the line about the sunflower seed.

* * *

Computer Not UnderstandOn the sixth day, I was completely immersed in my project of cataloging family memorabilia when the phone finally gave me news that my computer was repaired. My first response was a sinking feeling; I was thoroughly enjoying myself, working hard at my writing. And I didn’t need the computer to do that.

Still, my Poetry Days resulted in eight improved poems and four boxes (so far) of donations to the historical collection at the library. I also created a nonfiction binder, arranging my essay drafts in much the same way as I’ve arranged my poem drafts, making everything easier to find when I’m ready to work at writing. First, though, I have a lot of emails and Facebook comments to sift through.

In case my organization discourages you, here’s your reward. On the fourth Poetry Day, I turned to the very last section of the binder: “Notes and Bad Poems.” Did I say I rarely throw anything away?

The title of the worst poem in this group is “Love is like a compost pile.”

And I haven’t thrown it away. No matter how badly your writing went this week, this should cheer you up.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Advertisements

Creating a Cowboy Poem: How Buzzards Turned into Priests

vultures2010

Vultures on a neighbor’s barn.


In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week, April 19 to 25, I’m looking at how I created one of my few rhyming poems, “Priests of the Prairie” (2004).

My first intention was to write a poem about vultures— or as we call them here, buzzards— in the style of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote free verse similar to that written by Walt Whitman, and narrative poems in traditional blank verse. Here, for example, is a segment of Jeffers’s poem “Vulture”

And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice.

Since Jeffers died in 1962, I should make clear that I was not imitating his poem; I had not read it until I went looking for examples of his verse to include in this essay. I like the central idea of Jeffers’ poem, however: the poet tells the buzzard he’s not available yet.

Often, as soon as I start writing about a subject, I realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I started this poem with research into vultures to supplement what I had learned in 60 years of observing them on this prairie.

Here are a few of my notes:

— nest in cliff overhangs, rocky cavities, badger holes!!
— Bank hollows, caves, tree cavities, abandoned buildings, among rocks; nest sites always dark and well concealed; no actual nest is constructed– eggs laid on substrate
— 2 eggs, rarely 1 or 3; dull to creamy white with various-sized spots and blotches of pale and lighter brown; incubation 38-41 days
— young birds will disgorge their food or bite when approached
— long wings allow them to soar
— groups often seen in high spots with wings spread wide in the sun

I love the idea that they may nest in badger holes, and will have to pursue that thought sometime.

Then I wrote “are vultures in the Bible?” showing that my mind had already decided on a religious connection with the poem.

The answer is yes; I found several references in my Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and looked them up in the Holy Bible Helen Painter gave me in 1953 when I joined the church. In Chapter 11 of Leviticus, for example, the Lord lays down The Law to Moses, telling him what the children of Israel may not do if they want to stay in His good graces. Among those rules is that they should not eat vultures— or ravens, owls, nighthawks, swans, pelicans, storks, herons or bats.

Since I had no intention of writing poetically about eating vultures, I went on to Job 28:7, a lovely and mysterious passage: “There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.” This is a terrific metaphor for the search for knowledge, clearly written by someone who understands vultures. If a vulture can’t see the path from his vantage point, it’s hard to find. Ornithologists had wondered if, since a vulture’s sense of smell is so acute that it can track the odor of rotting flesh in only a few parts per billion of air, there might not be a corresponding decline in its eyesight; if you can smell your food, maybe you don’t need to see it. In a fascinating study in 2013, however, it was determined that the vulture’s eyesight is “very good.” The folks who created Job already knew that. I abandoned the Bible as a source of insight into vulture habits.

On my drive to Windbreak House from my home in Cheyenne, WY, on September 21, 2000, I thought for hours, following connections without any regard to their relevance. I jotted a few words on a yellow tablet in the passenger seat of my vehicle.

— enfold you in his black and feathered cloak
— sharp beak severs connections to the world, slices sinew
— words for priesthood he calls: father, clergy, ministry, cloth, eminence, reverence, confessor, pilgrim, holy orders, consecration, ordain,
— black cloaks spreading, blotting out the sun
— to settle in a circle, a choir
— warm flesh to cold, chill, snow, icy eyes?
— truth, soul
— rending of garments and gnashing of teeth
— CHECK REVELATIONS

I was narrowing my focus, strengthening the religious connotations for the poem.

Buzzard/priest images:
— his symbol: curve of beak and talon, curve of earth and eyeball, belly, cheek, nostril
— bald as a Pope
— whisper of rough cloth or smooth wings
— hands hidden in sleeve: claws in feathers?
— click of rosary: beak on bone
— play on HABITS

Once I reached the retreat house that day, I wrote more notes, this time focusing on what I know of buzzards from watching them clean up dead cattle in our pastures for years.

– Head turns to focus eye
– beak vivid yellow, know they’re dipped first in the eye of a dead calf
– soaring in spirals down the field, up over trees, past buildings, always with that steady regard of the ground, never flapping
– Wingtips splayed like fingers
– never flap in breeze too light to stir the fine hair on a baby’s head.
– They soar, bare, wrinkled necks hidden
– shoulders hunched.

Three days later, I began to carve some rough lines from my notes.

Brother Buzzard circles overhead, feathered cloak
shining in the sun, the air so sweet and clean
beneath his wings he rises over fluffy clouds and mountain peaks.
He drifts above the stink of diesel trucks, the SUVs,
the sporty jobs and family vans, above the asphalt deaths,
the stink of twisted ropes of flesh along the interstates.

His eyes see to eternity, and beyond.Until he spirals downward past the clouds,
calling others of the priesthood to worship at the feast.

This version had some interesting details, and I liked some of the rhythm, but it focused on what the buzzard saw, rather than the bird’s actions.

The poem soared around my head for days, while I considered the possibilities of making its rhythm iambic pentameter. This is the most familiar of the cowboy poetry rhythms, some say because it echoes the sounds of a horse walking.

One iambic foot is “ta DUM”, consisting of one unaccented and one accented syllable. As I aimed for a smooth tempo, another version of the poem landed on paper on July 4.  By this time I’d decided that I wanted to use iambic, but not iambic pentameter—5 iambic feet to each line—because it is the very most common cowboy poetry format. In my draft, each line had seven iambic feet—until I reached the last line.

BROther BUZZzard LEADS a CLOIStered LIFE when HE’S at HOME. (7 feet)
He pairs for life and builds a nest secluded in some hollow (7 feet)
deep within a rocky cliff. Mrs. Buzzard lays (7 feet)
two eggs, creamy white with blotches. Brother Buzzard shares (7 feet)
the incubation chores, but every afternoon he sits (7 feet)
in sunshine with the others of his kind to preen and spread (7 feet)
his mighty wings, his feathered cloak of black (5 feet)

I liked the rhythm, but noted on the draft that the poem was “less interesting.”

I printed the poem out, and kept it near my computer, sometimes moving it to the dining room table while I ate, or putting it beside my bed so I could read it first thing in the morning. Keeping the poem close to me meant my subconscious mind would work on the poem even as I conducted a retreat and ate and slept and conversed like a normal person.

Doing more research, I had discovered that “to meet in choir” meant “to settle in a circle.” It’s unlikely that many of my listeners or readers will know this fact, but the term “choir” adds to the religious mood, and is correct, which pleases me greatly.

More lines began to emerge. These, however were not in iambic pentameter but in dactyl: DUM da da DUM da da, a meter that resembles a horse cantering instead of walking.

WHISpering PRACtical PRAYERS for the DEAD,
the BROtherhood MEETs in CHOIR

That’s a long line, with seven dactylic feet, so I read the line aloud to be sure that in a performance I could complete it in one breath.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
they gather at high noon to pray.

This line, too, has seven dactylic feet. But could I find a word that made sense and rhymed with “choir”?

In order to decide how to revise the line, I had to remind myself why the buzzards are gathering. I vividly recall when I found my favorite heifer dead, with a half-dozen vultures standing on her corpse feeding. Of course— the buzzard-priests are not just devouring the dead animal, but celebrating a funeral! So I changed the line.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

To be strictly accurate, funeral pyre means combustible material burned to celebrate a death, but the rhyme makes sense in context.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones
as shoulder to shoulder they stand

Whoops— rhythm and rhyme both fell apart in the next line:

from tonsured heads erect on scraggly necks
to bony ankles backs to the sun they

By now, I had begun to realize that I might be able to construct the poem with some respectable rhymes, and began thinking of it as an homage or thanks to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where I’d been invited to perform several times. So I concentrated on making the rhythm perfect and the rhymes logical. If a poet intends to rhyme, the standard is very high. To remind myself of the best, I read the poetry of Wallace McRae. Writing poems is not a competition, but if you plan to write and recite the poem in exalted company, I think it’s smart to read the very best.

My work on the poem after this consisted of changes that would seem minute if I reproduced all the drafts. Over and over I read and recited the poem, beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel as I drove, or on my desk as I typed. I looked at my rhyming dictionary and wrote lists of words that might fit the meaning of the poem. As I worked, I also discovered some humor that seemed to fit the occasion.

I think the finished poem carries considerable poetic weight, portraying accurately how a group of buzzards looks gathered on the 80 pound body of a dead newborn calf, and the philosophical humor of a rancher who knows the sight represents loss of nine months of a cow’s life as well as the year’s profit from her at the sale ring.

Priests of the Prairie

Whispering practical prayers for the dead,
the brotherhood meets in choir.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones,
shoulder to shoulder they stand.
Tonsured heads wobble on scraggly necks
as they pray in the pastureland.

From out of the West, the priesthood has come,
cloaks shining black in the sun,
to gather around this altar of flesh
until their communion is done.

Their eyes see forever– and somewhat beyond;
eternity, and a square meal.
The Brothers of Buzzard are worshipping lunch,
devouring the finest of veal.

(c) 2004, Linda M. Hasselstrom

The poem was first published in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, Gibbs-Smith, in 2004, and I have read it several times since then in Elko, home of The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I enjoy beginning to read the poem in a deep voice with great solemnity. Almost immediately, I catch audience attention because the dactylic rhythm suggests humor rather than seriousness, and thus contrasts with my tone of voice and attitude. On the final stanza, I gesture to the sun from which the priesthood descends– and intone the final two lines with a smile.

But there’s more. Re-reading these drafts and writing these comments, I’ve noticed some lines and ideas that didn’t make it into the final poem. I gave up on writing about the bird’s actual life, but those details are significant, since the bird forms an important role in prairie ecology, cleaning up carrion. I’m fascinated again by the phrases:

– warm flesh to cold
– bald as a Pope
– click of rosary: beak on bone

Since I look forward to the arrival of vultures every spring, I don’t doubt that I may write more about them. And now I’ve reminded myself that I have these unused notes, my subconscious mind has already begun working on what else I might say about vultures. This is surely another good reason to keep early drafts of poems. On a computer, it’s too easy to rewrite without saving those drafts, but it’s equally easy to date and save them. I’d forgotten those images, and have rediscovered them only because I looked up the poem’s early drafts to write this commentary.

That’s how poetry develops. I can’t show you every step I took, or create a set of rules that will lead you to your own rhyming poem, but remember it’s important to read the kind of poetry you want to write, and then set your standards high. Revise again and again and again. Save each draft, and carry the newest with you to read as you wait at stoplights or for meetings, so the lines will begin to reverberate in your subconscious mind where so much of the work of poetry occurs. I think of those depths as a deep mine where I occasionally hear the clink of a miner’s pick as my brain finds the gold of a new piece of writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

My Writings About Vultures:

“Priests of the Prairie” appears in the book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

My previous writings about vultures include an essay simply titled “Vultures” appeared in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1991) pp. 193-201, and was reprinted in that winter’s edition of a wonderful magazine I still miss, Northern Lights.

Another buzzard poem, “A Venue of Vultures,” was published in my poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Dirt Songs, 2011.  Listen to me read it in a recording made by Barry Wick in June, 2013: http://www.windbreakhouse.com/files/Venue_of_Vultures_by_Linda_Hasselstrom_EQ_Selection_2_Vol_up.mp3

National Cowboy Poetry Week:

April 19-25 is the fourteenth annual National Cowboy Poetry Week. The best history of the art form I know is “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?” by Rod Miller on http://www.cowboypoetry.com.

He exposes the myths and traces the truths of this mostly oral, lyrical, often-rhyming form, mentioning its earliest and best practitioners. He notes its rediscovery in 1985 by folklorists and its subsequent leap to prominence in modern-day America. On the same website, he asks, “What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?” and answers:

“The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.”

If you are a would-be cowboy poet, this should be just the beginning of your study of Rod Miller’s comments on the form.

If you are already a cowboy poet, you could probably still learn from reading Rod’s series of articles on the website.

If you are a scoffer who sneers at the galloping rhythms and sometimes hobbled rhymes, you should read the articles to understand that not everything you hear recited as cowboy poetry is the best the form has to offer. Look for the work of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, Badger Clark; read Wallace McRae. Look for others that measure up to the standards those writers set. And don’t miss the work of Paul Zarzyski; not all good cowboy poets use rhyme.

For a more complete discussion of rhythm as it relates to cowboy poetry, see Rod Miller’s essays “The Rhythm Method” and “Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?” at the cowboypoetry.com website. That will give you a start, but in order to write poems with smooth rhyme and rhythm, you need to practice. (Find all of Rod Miller’s essays mentioned here at www.cowboypoetry.com/rmwhatis.htm.)

If you’re interested in keeping track of where cowboy poetry is going, attend The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, always scheduled for the last week in January. In 2016, poets, artists, and musicians from the Northern Plains will be featured. You can learn more about the Gathering, hear recordings, and buy tickets at www.westernfolklife.org.

++–++–++–++

How to Write A Poem: The Snake Within

When I’m having trouble writing, one of my favorite methods to start the process is to write a “How To” poem. This is probably why there are zillions of the things floating around, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your own. Working on a how-to poem can serve several purposes.

First, writing a poem (or prose) about how to do something can clarify your thinking beautifully. One of my assignments to a new high school writing class was always for students to write instructions for something they knew how to do very well. The exercise provided them with practice in thinking, and writing, more clearly than usual. The students were always amazed at the steps they omitted in the first draft simply because the act they were describing was so familiar to them. I’ll never forget the frustration of one young man writing about how to ride a bull in a rodeo, and a young woman writing about how to make a bed. But they did it.

Another attraction of the “How To” poem is that you can use it to review something you haven’t done for a while, recalling memories from childhood. One of these days I need to do a poem on how to milk a cow, to refresh my memory of what started out as a chore and became a joyful duty that taught me a lot more than the direct act of milking.

So here’s an example of a poem written during an August when I was spending more time gardening than writing, and wanted to get back to writing. The file of drafts of this poem contains 9 pages, which is unusually short for my revisions.

Here’s the entire first draft:

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes that may
lie
in shade to wait for rabbits
coming
at dusk to feed.

That’s not a bad poem; it has strong verbs (kneel, reach, watch), some nature observation that includes the rabbits as prey of the rattlesnakes, as well as the ending twist with the rabbits coming to the beans as predators.

But I felt it was incomplete, so I put the draft aside. Once begun, a poem often surfaces in my subconscious, and my mind continued to nibble at the edges of it. This scattered method seems to work for me, though I can’t recommend it unless your mind works as mine does. Just now, for example, I stopped working on this essay to run upstairs to finish washing a sink full of dishes. They’d been soaking in hot water and suds because just after I started this essay, I needed to get away from the computer and think for a few moments. I wandered upstairs and started doing dishes– but I don’t hesitate to drop a domestic job if I get a sudden inspiration in something I’m writing.

For the second draft, two days later, I delved into my memory of my grandmother, and began to alternate my memories of her gardening with my own experience picking beans. Somehow kneeling in the garden reaching into the sunlight-braided leaves made me see her hands doing the same, brought me close to her, though she’s been gone from my immediate world for many years.  The memories this exercise evoked were worth the struggle, even if the poem had never been finished.

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Grandmother kept her hoe handy, wore gloves,
tilted her bifocals until she was sure of the snake’s
skin among the mottled shade cast by the leaves.
She rose, steadied herself in the dirt and chopped.
Once, twice, until the head was loose. Hooked
the hoe to lift the limp body, carry it to the fence
She threw and the snake struck against the sky.

No snakes this morning, only gold
sliding among fat green leaves
beans slender as sunlight. I pinch
each one free, gently, trying not to knock
off the blossoms that will make  next week’s
beans. A grasshopper lands on my wrist, feet
prickly. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods, and I commend the soul
of the grasshopper to them. I crawl along the row,
and start back down the other side, finding beans
I should have been able to see. Tomorrow I will
find more I can’t believe I missed.
And I will
kneel
again.

Remembering my grandmother and her deft manner of killing rattlesnakes added a deeper aspect to the references in the first draft; the snakes are a threat not just to the rabbits but to the life of the gardener, adding value to the beans. I retained the idea of kneeling, suggesting a worshipful aspect to the harvest.

Now the poem needed to be tightened, refined. In the third draft, ten days later, I focused on the fourth and final stanza, emphasizing the aspect of gratitude.

I flinch from a prickle on my wrist, but
it’s a grasshopper. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods. On my knees,
I shuffle down the row. Grandmother used
even the scabby ones, hopper-gnawed.
Later the beans will sway in the sink
full of water like green snakes.
Tomorrow I will find more beans
I can’t believe I missed.
And I will kneel again, my hands
singing praises for this harvest.

My mental picture accompanying the last line was of praying hands, but the idea of hands “singing” praises jarred my logical mind. Over the next several weeks, I worked on the poem every few days, mostly paring it down, whittling away unnecessary adjectives, trying to make the sensory impressions more vivid.  In the sixth draft, late in August, I shifted one stanza from the middle of the poem to the beginning to put the reader into the center of the sensory experience before getting into the complications I’d introduced.

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight
making snake patterns. Gently, I brush
the leaves aside, careful not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Late in September, I was still tinkering with the poem, but I had decided against making the final stanza a hymn of praise, believing that the reference to kneeling carried that idea sufficiently. I was concentrating on the ending, groping for the right combination.

First I wrote this: “I will taste the green possibility/of snakes within this harvest.”

A month later, I decided to make the reference more direct:

All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
know the snakes
within this harvest.

At the side of this I scribbled, “Taste the snake?” That was the final touch: making the snake’s presence more vivid and sensory by suggesting something that seemed outlandish, that the flavor of the snake remains within the bean harvest. I knew the poem was close to finished, so I put it aside to rest. In November, I revised the poem for the final time.

How to Pick Green Beans

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight,
making snake patterns in the earth.
I brush leaves aside, careful
not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Picking what she called a mess of beans,
my grandmother kept her hoe handy,
tilted her bifocals to see the snake,
steadied herself and chopped
until the hissing ceased.
Hooked him with her hoe, swung her arm.
The snake whirled and struck the sky.

Hold
each stem with the left hand
Pluck
each pair of beans with the right.
One hand
should always know
the other’s whereabouts in rattler country.

Redwing blackbirds sing from the cottonwoods
as I shuffle on my knees down the row.
Later, in the sinkful of water,
the beans sway like green snakes.
Grandmother used even the scabby ones,
hopper-gnawed. All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
taste the snake
within the harvest.

*  *  *

“How to Pick Green Beans” (c) 2011 by Linda M. Hasselstrom

This poem was published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, now the State Poet of Nebraska. (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

Twyla tells me that she’s celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day. I’m not going to be able to manage that, but I urge others to try it. And you might want to start with a poem on How To Do Something.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #