Poetry in the Schools

Poetry Out Loud: Local

Last month I donated my skills to a couple of educational events as a way of giving thanks for some of the generous help I received from teachers in this rural area.

February 25th, the Hermosa Middle School teachers invited me to speak to the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students about writing.

When I attended the Hermosa School, it was a two-story red-brick edifice. Visitors strolled up the concrete walk and steps, past the swings that clanged against their poles in the slightest breeze. I’d wave at Henry Bale, the janitor, if he stuck his head out of the office beside the basement furnace, and climb another set of stairs to the classrooms. That old building has been replaced by a modern facility. Most of my time there lately has been spent in the kitchen of the gymnasium, serving food for various charitable events.

Hermosa School 2016--3-3

This time I hefted a crate of my books and walked up to the double doors at the main entrance. I grabbed the door handle and pulled.

Locked.

At that moment, I recalled with a shock every headline about school violence I’ve read in the past few years. Of course, Hermosa cannot assume that it’s immune.

Just inside, a receptionist asked my name, then unlocked the doors and let me into a small foyer, facing a second set of locked doors. I identified myself, and she looked at a list on her desk before unlocking the second doors, then called me into the office to sign in and receive a visitor’s badge. I understand the necessity for these precautions, but find them terribly depressing. The school, however, was light and pleasant, with busy classrooms and smiling students and teachers.

Escorted to the classroom by two of the students, I arranged my books on a table and waited while the assorted students filed in. I haven’t been in a grade school classroom for years, but the faces, the slouches, the nervousness, the tentative smiles and the chatter were all familiar. I quickly identified several species of student that have inhabited every classroom I’ve ever seen: The Mouth, the Girl Who Always Raises Her Hand, the Shy One, the Hair-Flipping Gum Chewer, The Stud (yes, even in eighth grade), and others.

After introductions, I slammed into my poem “Make a Hand,” which involves sweeping gestures and a certain amount of yelling. Things quieted right down.

Hermosa School visit 2016--2-25Now that I had their attention, I explained to them that almost everything that interests them is a story— TV programs, the news, poems, gossip. I mentioned various jobs I’ve held, and showed them the books I’ve written that have been published, explaining that every book contains what I know about this neighborhood and the stories of its people. Publishing, I told them, is hard work; I submitted my first book to 26 publishers before it was accepted by the 27th.

I read them “Where the Stories Come From,” and we talked about ranch work; many of them are growing up in ranching families. After I read “Looking for Grandmother,” I asked, “Who peels potatoes at your house?” Several boys and girls raised their hands and proved they knew what they were talking about by describing their potato peelers, or knives. We discussed what the poem means, and how you can tell what my emotions about my grandmother are. I read them “Beef Eater,” and asked them what it meant. To my delight, several of them understood the joke of the poem: you are what you eat.

They asked intelligent questions, and then told me they have to write their biography for the classroom. So I gave them a formula for writing a poem that I’ve found effective: writing one line of action, one line that’s a quotation, one line of physical description, and then repeating each of these, ad infinitum, in any order, until you have built up enough details from which to write a poem, a biography, or another kind of story.

Here’s the poem I once wrote using that formula. And I told them that the poem is dedicated to my uncle, Harold Hasselstrom. They recognized his name, because their gym is named for him.

“What do you suppose he did, to have the gym named after him?” I asked.

“Died!” yelled someone.

True, but that’s not all he did; he was devoted to education because he didn’t have time for much of it in his life, and he served for many years on the school board, even though he didn’t have kids.

 

Uncle

He sips coffee
thick hands wrapped around the cup.
“This generation ain’t got no corner on violence.”
His sunburned hands, cracked and broken, clench into fists.
“You’d be surprised how many fellas
turned up in their own wells
in the Dirty Thirties.”

The drought was less severe, he says,
here where ranchers did not tear the sod with plows.
Most families had enough to eat.
His battered hands fixed fences,
drove the teams swathing hay,
paid out worn bills for the land of those who left.

Now they call him a land baron.
“Quitters,” he says. “They gave up.
But someone had to stay—
and that took guts. Men like that
had hot tempers, and did
their own law-making.”

© 1993, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Poetry Out Loud: Statewide

My second school project of the month was to serve as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition, in which students recite memorized poems.

Again I was struck by the profound changes in how these things are done in these modern times! I didn’t have to travel to another town and sit uncomfortably in a school auditorium to watch as the contestants stumbled in for their performances.

POLlogoInstead, I received by email lists of the contestants, information on judging, and directions to www.poetryoutloud.org, where I could watch a representative sample of performers.

Each contestant had submitted a video. Judges would watch each video while judging students on details of their performance such as physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, and evidence of understanding of the poem. I knew who the other judges were only from their addresses on the emails we’d received, and we had no opportunity to consult one another. I chose a time to gather my materials, direct my computer to a YouTube channel dedicated to the performances, and began to listen.

Again, this was familiar territory. I participated in contests like this in grade school, I think, and certainly in high school, back in the dark ages when it was called Oral Interpretation. Memorizing the poem was relatively easy, and my parents were encouraging. Standing alone on a stage in front of judges in a darkened auditorium was hard, but I knew it was “good for me.”

Watching these videos, shot variously in classrooms, against blank walls, and other locations, I was impressed. The twelve participants included students of varying ethnicities from high schools both large and small, and some who are homeschooled. Each of them deserves praise for their hard to work to memorize the poems, and the courage to stand up and recite it. Dedicated teachers and others encouraged these young scholars, and took time to videotape the performances.

While I did both these jobs, I was thinking of teachers who encouraged me when I was an awkward adolescent— people like Elsie Enders of Hermosa, Ed Hartman of Custer, Hazel Heiman and Josephine Zamow of Rapid City— and offering them my thanks in the only way left to do so.

 

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

 

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Here’s where to find my poems mentioned in this blog:

“Make a Hand” and “Where the Stories Come From”
Bitter Creek Junction (2000, High Plains Press; Glendo, Wyoming)

“Looking for Grandmother”
Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen (2011, The Backwaters Press; Omaha, Nebraska)

“Beef Eater”
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (1991, Fulcrum Publishing; Golden, Colorado)

“Uncle”
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993, Spoon River Poetry Press; Granite Falls, Minnesota)

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

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Cleaning the Stove

On that March day, I was in the kitchen of our old house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, starting lunch for myself and Jerry. He’d need to eat promptly when he got home so he could get back to work. I’d chopped and sautéed pieces of chicken and vegetables and added them to the soup pot. Every time I stepped to the stove to stir the soup, I tripped over Mac, our Westie, who liked to be at the center of the action.

I was having a second cup of coffee while I planned my day, and listening to the radio to find out the morning’s news. Once I got the soup mixed, I’d go back to my office and begin my day’s writing, letting it simmer and scent the house until noon.

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.

The Columbine shootings had already changed the way we see the world.

Isn’t it tragic, and significant, that the simple words “Columbine shootings” arouse in most readers some memory of that incident?

You might not recall details, but on April 20, 1999, two senior students entered Columbine High School in Colorado with bombs, explosive devices and weapons. They murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured 21 others before committing suicide. Cheyenne is only two hours away from Columbine, Colorado, so many of our acquaintances with friends or relatives there were frantic for hours, worried for their safety.

Listening to the radio as I added carrots to the soup, I was too agitated to go to my work, or to sit down to listen.

Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

The excited voices of the newscasters reminded me of being invited to a local high school to work with students on their writing not long after the Columbine shootings. Walking up the sidewalk toward the school’s main entrance. I noticed a tall, skinny boy slouching toward me. His head was bowed, his hands invisible inside the pockets of an ankle-length duster.

Half the high school boys in the town, which is home to Cheyenne Frontier Days, stalked along the streets looking like old-time gunfighters even on hot fall days. Still, as the youth turned toward the steps, one flap of the duster fell back, and I thought the edge of the coat looked extremely straight, as though a long rifle might be concealed inside it.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.

I gasped and hesitated, then hurried to follow him through the double doors. He walked past a gray-haired security guard who didn’t glance his way. But the man stepped forward, using his bulk to block my path, asked me my business and told me I had to check in at the office.

“Er—ah—did that kid look at all suspicious to you?” I asked.

The man glanced down the hall where the kid was just opening the door of a classroom.

“Oh, he’s OK. He’s always late. Attitude problem.”

I didn’t mention that perhaps the Columbine shooters had an attitude problem, too.

 

Stirring the soup, I inhaled its fresh homey scent as I listened to the radio blurt out the story of the Red Lake shootings. Outside the window, the dog was bouncing through the piles of snow in the back yard.

That morning’s shooting came to be known as the Red Lake massacre after the Indian Reservation in Minnesota on which it occurred. No doubt snow lay on the ground in Red Lake as well.

In Red Lake, a 16-year-old boy killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and the man’s girlfriend at the home they all shared. Then he took his grandfather’s police weapons and vest and drove the police vehicle to the senior high school where he had once been a student. There he shot and killed seven people including an unarmed security guard, a teacher and five students, and wounded five others. He was wounded when he exchanged gunfire with the police. He then committed suicide in an empty classroom.

Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop.

I thought it likely that the boy’s parents had already abdicated their responsibilities in some way, and his grandfather was raising him. The facts about the shooting emerged slowly during the hour or so that I listened to the radio, imagining the scene, making mental notes.

His father killed himself
years ago.

Perhaps his grandfather was strict, and unhappy because the boy had dropped out of school.

Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

Jerry and I no doubt discussed the news over lunch. After he went back to work, I turned the radio on again, thinking of the Indian people I’d known, the way families often expand to take in the troubled young. In some families, a whole generation was lost to alcohol, so grandparents are raising their children’s children. Often the grandparents seem younger, and the children more mature, than is typical. I pictured the grandfather as a patient man, but stern, hoping that his grandson’s life would be better than the life of the son who had killed himself. I’ve known several children of troubled families to go into social work, or police work, hoping to help others like themselves.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

But for this boy there would be no future. As the commentators chattered about the boy, interviewed survivors, and tried to explain the shootings, they cited alcoholism, drugs, poverty, gun laws; they talked about responsibility and blame and fear.

I had known that boy in a dozen different incarnations in schools where I’d worked. Thousands of sincere people work with students in a concerted effort to guide them into adulthood. Millions, possibly trillions, of dollars have been dumped into various schemes to prevent this kind of bloodshed. The best minds of the nation have talked, thought, written and pontificated about preventing school shootings.

In the immortal words of Chief Dan George in the movie Little Big Man, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

I’m unlikely to be able to stop a particular slaughter. I hoped as I wrote the poem that it might inspire someone to keep trying to help those who are difficult to help.

Now, nearly eleven years after the Red Lake shootings, almost seventeen years after Columbine, about 70 percent of schools across the U.S. conduct drills designed to help students respond to shootings, a number that has risen from 53 percent in 2008. According to The Week, September 18, 2015, these training sessions are now almost as common as those conducted in most schools for natural disasters, which are practiced at 83 percent of schools. These distractions from a school’s normal function are part of the grim legacy of the boys I will not name, refusing them some small part of the fame they wanted.

We always hear the reports of such shootings, reported breathlessly and with on-the-spot enthusiasm from people who believe they are news. But we are unlikely to know how many people think of committing such actions and been stopped by the kindness or understanding of a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a friend, a minister. We must not give up.

 

Cleaning the Stove

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.
Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.
Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop. His father killed himself
years ago. Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

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

 

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

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

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

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

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

++–++–++–++

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

#  #  #

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.

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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

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