Persistence is Perpetual

The phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has become a rallying cry for women worldwide who are, as always, trying to be taken seriously.

Senator Warren nevertheless she persisted rallying cryThe expression originated with the U.S. Senate’s vote to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren’s objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate, tried to stop Warren’s speech as she battled against Sessions’ confirmation. Sessions testified under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, but news reports this month made clear that such meetings did occur.

McConnell’s attempt to silence Warren backfired when the phrase was adopted by the feminist movement to refer to the persistence and courage women need to cultivate whenever attempts are made to ignore or silence them.

Precisely the same kind of obstinate, quiet and continuing persistence is required to be a writer, and probably especially a female writer.

As the Vernal Equinox approaches (March 21-23), I turned to the relevant chapter in my book The Wheel of the Year, “Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence.”

Womens History Month Write PersistIn this essay, I consider the fact that good writing is mostly the result of steady work: persistence in the business of writing that involves correct grammar and spelling, as well as putting words on paper every single day.

I provide an example of my own persistence in a poem that I began in 1971 and finished in 2011. I invite you to see inspiration for your own perseverance in The Wheel of the Year, discovering what will make your writing as persistent as spring– as enduring as the work of women who have made history, and whom we honor this month and all year by our writing.

Here is the chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (in a slightly different version than what was published). Each chapter in the book ends with writing suggestions and prompts, though I haven’t included them in this lengthy blog.

++–++–++–++

March 21-23: Vernal Equinox
Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
— Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer (1849-1914)

If you have written even one poem, letter, blog or tweet, you may realize that writing well is hard work. Yet no matter how completely we understand that fact, even the most experienced writers sometimes hide it from ourselves and others by the way we speak about writing.

Most serious writers have probably experienced the electrical jolt of an idea popularly known as “inspiration,” when we find the image or metaphor that makes the paragraph or essay or poem sing and dance instead of mumbling and stumbling.

keyboardAn inexperienced writer may call it “magic” and may even believe that it will happen every time she sits down to write. Serious writers may not speak of inspiration at all. Instead we speak solemnly of schedules, particular writing tools or special places. We may pontificate about the books we keep beside our desks and the reading we do to understand and support our writing.

What we should explain is that the glowing idea, the electric metaphor, the magic, is the result of the steady grind, the boring part of writing. Without the slow slog of checking spelling, correcting grammar and being sure the modifiers don’t dangle, “inspiration” and fancy metaphors won’t create memorable writing.

Despite zillions of people writing comments and blogs on the internet every hour, all of them convinced their words are memorable, I stand by my belief. Today on the internet as well as on the printed page, writing that has only the spark of an idea or just the clever metaphor is not memorable enough to become part of our cultural history.

Think of the poems or speeches or expressions that stick in your mind because they have meaning for you. This exercise may require some concentration. Try not to think first of the mindless advertising jingles or musical lyrics that haunt you because you hear them repeated often.

“Four score and seven years ago . . .” my mind recites and the words reverberate as if spoken in Lincoln’s marble tomb.

“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” echoes among the pillars of an ancient cathedral.

Old poetry books

Like most people, I can recite scraps of several rhyming poems from memory because meter and rhyme make them stick in our minds. “My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,” I think, recalling how many poems I memorized by Badger Clark, the poet laureate of South Dakota.

Each writer wants to create memorable lines and scenes. Ask fifty poets how to do it and you’ll get fifty answers. But most of us will eventually mention an important requirement: persistence.

The writer who seeks perfection must, to use synonyms, endure, prevail, persevere, hang in, hang on, and hold on.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never never never give up.”

Here’s an example of how extremely I define “never give up” when referring to writing.

In 1971, I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri/Columbia, having finished my MA in American Literature and begun a Ph.D. program. I worked for an English professor, teaching some of his classes and grading all his papers, as well as teaching several sections of freshman English.

ColumbiaSome of my students were marching against the Vietnam War, escalating every day, and some were vehemently for it. I was a volunteer editor for the underground antiwar newspaper, The Issue as well as editor of the U’s student literary magazine, Midlands.

Having left my husband because he was having another affair, I lived in a second-floor apartment of an elderly woman’s home across the street from a packing plant. I was living so poorly because, although I had been paying the bills of our marriage for several years I had no financial credit. As we did in those days, I’d put all the utilities for our rented house in his name, so when I left him, he had plenty of credit and I had none. He was a graduate student studying for a Ph.D., but he also sang in various bars around town, which provided him with extra money and plenty of prey for his extramarital quests.

My Persian cat, coming home from his nightly wanderings covered with lice and fleas, crawled into bed with me so that we both woke up scratching madly. The medical personnel to whom I applied for advice in ridding my yowling cat and me of the critters could not contain their mirth. My apartment had mice, a new experience for me, so I had put out poison. One night as I sat at the kitchen table sipping soup, a mouse staggered out of the cupboards, perched on the sink and stood on his hind legs, clutching his stomach. He staggered a few steps each direction, whining, then dropped to the countertop and writhed in pain, moaning and whimpering, before he finally stiffened and died. One Christmas, of the dozen couples at a department Christmas party, nine of us announced to our spouses our intention to divorce before the party ended.

Those incidents aren’t everything that happened that year, just a representative sample provided to demonstrate that, though I was writing, my mind was not entirely on sculpting the perfect poem.

Still, I was writing furiously and publishing poetry in various journals under a pen name since I did not want to identify my writing with my husband’s name. I was convinced that my poetry was no good because it was not like the poetry of Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, whose work I was studying as a graduate student. The professor who taught my graduate seminar in the work of Henry James had told me that I should quit school and go home and have babies because I wasn’t smart enough to understand Henry James.

One day in that year, 1971, Walter Mathis came to the door of the house where I was living; as soon as he was gone, I wrote about his visit. I knew that what I wrote was only a draft because I was sure that poems that did not resemble those of the classical American literature I was studying could not be any good.

In 1997, because I never throw away a draft, I reviewed what I had written in 1971, and made notes in the margin. Every few years I fiddled with the poem, unsatisfied with the ending.

Binder of PoemsEach time I looked at the poem, I shifted a few lines or altered a comma. Eventually I moved it from a bent file folder and copied it, along with others I thought had possibilities, into the Poems file on my computer. Later I printed it and placed it in a binder divided into drafts and finished poems. I keep the binder on my desk so I can make changes to a poem whenever I am “inspired” to do so. I’ve made significant progress in revision while waiting for a file to load or the computer to respond to some command.

The next time I looked at the poem was probably 2009, after Twyla Hansen had suggested that we publish a collection of poems together. By that time the draft was thirty-eight years old.

During that thirty-eight years, my first husband and I had moved back to the ranch in 1972 to “repair our marriage,” then divorced. I’d spent years crawling through the jungle of consequences from that marriage. I’d also married again and my beloved second husband had been dead twenty-one years. My parents, my grandmother and several close friends had died.

And I’d finally realized that one does not need to enjoy the work of Henry James in order to be an intelligent being and good writer. In fact, I now suspect enjoying the work of Henry James may actually hinder a poet’s development.

My idea of what constitutes good poetry had expanded from the tightly constructed couplets studied in graduate school. Several times I read and re-read the poem draft, astonished at how the face of Walter Matthis rose before me, listening to his voice in my ear. I deleted some lines, moved phrases, worked on punctuation.

Mostly, though, I thought about what Walter had been saying to me that day. At last, because I was finally old enough and had suffered enough painful losses in my life, I found the poem’s true ending. The finished poem was published in 2011 by The Backwaters Press in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla Hansen, Nebraska State Poet.

Because so much had changed in time and place since I began the poem, I had to explain Walter’s language usage to the proofreader, who wanted to eliminate slang and spell “poke salat” differently than they do in Missouri.

1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery

A knock at the front door
echoes in the landlady’s empty hall
tinkles past the crystal in the cabinet,
drums across her kitchen floor to mine.
She’s not home. Whoever it is will come
to my door next. I stretch,
drop the pen and fill the kettle.
Light the stove with a wooden match.

A stooped man in a black suit
rounds the corner, dust rising
behind his cane with every step.
Ancient sweat stains streak
the band of his straw hat
like layers in old sandstone.
He shuts the gate behind him.
Thumps the door four times
with a rugged fist.
Straightens his shoulders.

I snap the bolt open,
but stay behind the locked screen door.
“Good afternoon,” I say.

He pinches his hat with
two gnarled fingers, lifts, and says,
“Good day, Ma’am. I’m Walter Mathis
from up at Locust Grove.”
He hangs the cane on one arm,
mops his forehead with a red kerchief,
tucks it in a shirt pocket.  “Does Mrs.
Notye Murray still live here?”

He’s afraid she’s dead.
“Yes,” I say. Adding the “Sir”
is automatic, involuntary even.
“That’s her door you knocked on.”

“She’s not home, then,” he says,
nodding. Just what he thought.
He squints, leaning toward the screen.
“You her granddaughter?”

“No sir, just a tenant– I rent
this back apartment,” I say.
Because it’s cheap, I think; because
I’ve left my husband
and have no money and no credit.
“When she goes out in the afternoon,
she’s always back by dark,” I say.
“Unless it’s her whist night. But that’s Thursday.”

He leans back on his heels,
rapping the cane against the concrete step.
Eyes the packing plant fence
like he’s tempted to get the hammer
and a fistful of nails out of the tool box
I know is behind the pickup seat,
fix the blasted thing so it’ll stand up straight.
“Well,” he mutters. “Let me think.”
He yanks the hat brim down.

I unlock the screen door, step outside
to say, “She might be home earlier.
I’m not real sure where she was going
but if she went for poke salat
and lamb’s quarters,
she might be home pretty soon.”

“Cooks ‘em up with bacon, I bet,”
he says, grinning. “Bet you never had
vittles like that, beings you are a northern lady.”
He nods. Another thing he knew
without even thinking.
I nod right back at him. The cane
pounds once more on the step.
His mind’s made up. “Well.
I gotta be gettin back to Locust Grove
so you tell Notye– you tell Miz Murray for me.
We gotta get goin on this perpetual care
for the cemetery up there. Us old-timers,
we figure maybe the next generation
won’t be as interested in the folks there.
But her and me, we got close folks–
she’s got her ma and pa and husband up there
and all my folks are together in that one spot.”

I nod again. Now I remember who I am,
even if I don’t know where.
I can see the cemetery in my home town,
where once I could imagine
my husband’s tombstone with mine beside it,
infinitely announcing our devotion.

He shoves the hat to wipe
his forehead on his sleeve,
yanks the brim back down. Nods again.
“Well, I live right by the cemetery, don’t ya know.
Me an’ Howard Breedlove and Walt Kinsolving–
that’s my son-in-law– we all got together
cause folks been wanting to give me money
so there’d be some kind of continual care.
And I figgered if I just took money
even if I put it in a bank,
pretty soon some bank examiners’d
want to know what I’m doin,
and pretty soon after that
the income tax people
would come a’sniffin around.

So we formed an association. I’m president.
Yep. Howard Breedlove’s treasurer.
I come down here today to get papers
drawed up and signed. And I wanted to tell her
if she wants to send a check
to make it out right, to make it out to
The Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.
I always mow the lawn, mowed it
seven times last year, charged forty dollars
an they paid me OK, but the year before
I mowed it ten times an there wasn’t
enough money in the treasury to pay me
so I just give ’em the last one.
I lived there all my life and all my folks
are buried there. I usually got
some grandchildren to help me.
About your size.”

Walter Mathis waves his cane,
redeems me as his grandchild.
I’m ready to follow him home
to Locust Grove, learn to cook
poke salat just the way he likes it.

“Here now, you tell Miz. Murray
I come by and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.”
He tips his hat again. “Good day to you, ma’am.”

The kettle’s boiling.
While Walter’s 1953 Ford pickup
lumbers down the street, I pour my tea,
take the cup upstairs and lean to look
out the bedroom window, to watch
until Walter Mathis turns left
on the gravel road out of town,
headed back to Locust Grove.
I sip my tea and know it’s time
I headed home
where people recognize me,
where the cemetery dust
is folks I knew.

Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery photo found online

Before the book was published, I considered changing the names of the people mentioned in the poem, but decided against it, reasoning that they are doubtless dead by now. And I hoped that any descendants who might, by some far-fetched chance, read the poem, would see that my depiction of them was not only respectful but downright loving.

Walter Mathis grave found onlineToday, writing this message, I was able use technology that wasn’t available in 1971 to search for the names Walter R. Matthis and Notye Murray. They died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Walter is buried in Locust Grove but Mrs. Murray apparently is not. May they rest in peace.

And I realized something important: When he came to my door on that day in 1971, Walter R. Matthis was seventy years old. I was able to finish the poem because I’m finally old enough to understand Walter’s concern for that burial ground. I am sixty-eight and a volunteer member of the board that governs the Highland Park Cemetery in my home town of Hermosa. Walter would chuckle to know that.

Finally, though I have written a considerable amount about this poem’s origin, I do not wish to suggest that the reader needs to know such background information to understand a poem, nor should such knowledge influence a reader’s appreciation of the poem. The poem must stand or fall on its own merits.

So my message for this Vernal Equinox is this: in your writing, be as persistent as the coming of spring. Return to your drafts as the birds return to their preferred habitat in spring, as grass revives and sends its shoots deeper.

Put a few words down on paper every day, just as if you were scattering seeds in the fertile earth. Appreciate the darkness that covers our world half the time at this season– but rejoice in balance of light and dark and savor the renewal of the light that will bring summer. Blessed be.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

The chapter “March 21-23: Vernal Equinox; Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence” appears (in a slightly different form) on pages 169-181 in the book–

Wheel of the Year - A Writers WorkbookThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook
Nonfiction, published 2015, Red Dashboard Press
Distributed by Windbreak House
300 pages, size: 6 X 9
$22.95 – paperback
ISBN 978-0-9966450-0-3

 

The poem “1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery” appears on pages 104-107 in the book–

Dirt Songs a poetry collaboration with Twyla M. Hansen

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet
by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom
(50 poems by each poet)
Poetry, published 2011, The Backwaters Press
147 pages; size: 6 X 9
$16.00 – paperback
ISBN 978-1-935218-24-1

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Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

A poem of thanksgiving, gratitude, and remembrance.

by Linda M. Hasselstrom

Linda pumpkin head

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

All over America today, women search
for their grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.
Some rush to the store for condensed milk,
or whipping cream. Or stir up powdered milk
if they are poor, or on a diet,
or live too far from town.

In a Wisconsin farm house a red-haired woman
measures salt in a dented spoon.
In California, a thin girl stirs and puffs a cigarette,
puffs and stirs. In Wyoming,
I dust clove powder over my grandmother’s
green glass bowl and reach for the nutmeg grater.
In New Mexico, a brown-eyed woman
sprinkles cayenne. In Iowa, a man beats eggs,
recalling for his children how their mother looked.

Grandma always left me to measure
dry ingredients while she walked down
to her hen house. She came back holding four
warm brown eggs in her open hands
just as I licked brown sugar off my lips,
thinking she wouldn’t notice.

So today, twenty-five years after she died,
I lap brown sugar from a spoon just
so I’ll remember how she grinned at me.
While I stir, my oven beeps. Hers
was fired with wood she chopped. To test
the heat, she’d dip her fingers
in the water bucket she’d pumped full
that morning, flick spattering drops, and nod.

All over America, families are studying
gratitude. Some women slip
a pie into the oven, and hide
the cardboard box in the garbage.
Others light pumpkin-scented candles,
thankful anyway– though my grandmother
might not think they have good reason.

I crimp the rim of each pie crust
with three fingers, just the way
she taught me; make a salad
while the fragrance surges out
the open kitchen window. Next door,
perhaps the drug dealers open their eyes,
inhale, and almost remember.

Grandmother, may this pumpkin perfume
rise up to whatever heaven you inhabit,
sanctifying all my love and memories.
Listen: countless voices chant together
an infinity of thankful hymns.

# # #

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

— First published for Empty Bowls 2006, United Church of Christ, Brookings, S.D.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen
published 2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE
50 poems by each author; find this poem on pages 98-99

This poem is copyrighted. Do not reprint without permission from the author.

Dirt Songs with autumn leaves

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

 

#  #  #

 

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

 

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

 

#   #   #

(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

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