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 That old building has been replaced by a modern facility.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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The Cloak of Visibility: Foofaraw, Jangles and Clanks.

LMH jacket 2015--1-13 small

Linda M. Hasselstrom, January, 2015 all tricked out in her fringed jacket.

The fringed jacket that I wear to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was a gift from my partner, Jerry, and has become a weighty, but necessary, part of my performance, my Gathering armor.

The jacket was made by Double D Ranchwear as part of a collection apparently inspired by Western and Indian styles. In its original form, the jacket was probably inspired by military action on the Northern Plains. It’s heavy blue denim, cut like a military jacket, but decorated with fringe and a bead breastplate.

The beads down the front echo an Indian hair-pipe breastplate. Hair-pipe beads are tubular, and may be from a half-inch to as much as four inches long; mine are three inches long. Usually they are tapered at the ends, with a center hole.

???????????????????????????????Nobody seems certain when and where hair-pipe beads were first used and made, but archaeologists have found shell ones nearly 4,000 years old, probably made in coastal regions and dispersed through trade. After about 1624, hair-pipe style beads were made of glass, brass and silver, as well as horn and bone, mostly in the eastern part of what is now the U.S. The beads were particularly popular between 1880 and 1910.

By that time, the hair-pipe breastplate had been adopted by Indian tribes west of the Rockies and were also worn by tribes in the northwest. They are still used in powwow regalia in chokers, breast plates, earrings and necklaces worn by both men and women.

Little information is available on how the beads were made, but they were probably drilled with a rotary, belt-powered drill and shaped on a lathe. Some beads are still made of horn or bone, and may be black, white, or decorated in a variety of ways.  Cheaper plastic ones are also available.

My jacket may recall the fact that Indian warriors sometimes picked up military clothing after a battle, and adapted it to their own use; the hair pipes down the front would function as both a shield and as decoration.

Fringe also adorned the buckskin clothes worn by fur trappers and traders in imitation of Indian clothing, but it wasn’t solely decoration; it helped shed rainwater, as well as helping a garment to dry faster because the fringe acted as a series of wicks to disperse the moisture. A buckskinner might also use a piece to tie up broken gear.

So the jacket’s original style is a combination of American Indian and military influence, which appeals to me as symbolic of this prairie where I live: occupied by Indians who were chased off by the military, and then adopted by people like me who don’t fit willingly into a particular mold.

When I was in buckskinning (reenacting the beaver-trapping era of the 1830s with muzzle-loading rifles) with my second husband, George, we collected a considerable number of accoutrements. I have muzzle-loading rifles, clothing of the era, and plenty of what we buckskinners called “foofaraw”—jewelry and other decorative objects.

Jacket Items 2015

Some of the foofaraw tied in the jacket fringe– George’s tobacco box made of horn, George’s grizzly bear claw earring, a couple turtles (of course!), a tiny dream catcher, and a Harley Owners’ Group pin in honor of Jerry.

I realized the jacket wasn’t quite “cowboy” but I’ve never considered myself to be purely a “cowboy” poet. I like and respect many cowboy poets, but have many other interests, including the historic era of the beaver trapper where a white woman would not have been welcome or comfortable. I own western clothes—boots, hat, boot-cut jeans—but don’t wear them full-time. Depending on my task for the day, I may dress like a rancher or like a professional businesswoman. So in a spirit of irony, I began turning the jacket into something that was neither cowboy nor buckskinner attire: a War Shirt to bolster my courage when I have to stand up in front of people to speak.

I realized that without George, I wasn’t likely to attend many buckskinning rendezvous, so I tied souvenirs from my buckskinning life onto the fringe. I wore the jacket the first time as armor; nervous, I wanted familiar things around me. I also wore my buckskinning hat, a broad-brimmed felt with a beaver fur hat band, and talked about being one of the muzzle-loading reenactors.

I was also curious about the reaction of these cowboy folks I didn’t know. Would the folks at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering be offended by my failure to adopt cowboy attire?

Scalp Lock and Bells 2015

The tiny imitation scalp lock is made of deer bone and horse hair. Brass bells and tin powwow jingle cones add to the jacket’s jangle.

I tied on several metal cones of the type used to make jingle dresses for Indian powwow outfits. The first ones I saw were made of the metal discs from the top of chewing tobacco cans—Indians recycling–but now they are manufactured for powwow use. Several brass bells add their tones to the sound. A friend made imitation scalp locks from tiny deer toe bones and hair from horses’ tails. A grizzly claw set with turquoise was George’s earring. His horn tobacco container hangs from one fringe. I tied my jaw harp close enough so that I could play it while wearing the jacket

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The Warrior Woman pin.

To honor Jerry, I placed a HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) pin at the shoulder. As balance, on the other shoulder is a pin featuring a woman with a horned headdress holding a shield in one hand and a sword in the other: a militant feminist symbol. Somewhere is a miniature dream catcher given me by a former student when I visited him in the penitentiary. Among the fringe hang several millifiori glass trade beads made with flower designs in Venice, and Chevron glass trade beads, watermelons, and other beads that have been used for several thousands of years as trade items. Some of my beads are old enough to have been used during the fur trade days of the 1830s on the plains. My Cloak of Visibility carries memories I can’t even articulate. The jacket jangles and clanks, and carries symbols of many different parts of my life.

???????????????????????????????I’m not sure how the average cowboy poet views my jacket, but at least one man understood and appreciated its humor and symbolism. Wally McRae, the greatest living cowboy poet, raised his eyebrows the first time we were onstage together and said with a smile, “That’s quite a rig.” I wasn’t entirely sure how he meant that until the next year, when he brought me one of his cufflinks to tie on.

When I mentioned the cufflink while performing, the Western Folklife Center archivist asked if I’d will the jacket to the Center when I’m finished with it.

I suspected he was more interested in Wally’s cufflink than in my jacket.

This year, when I mentioned the cufflink exchange onstage, Wally told me that he’d lost a tooth at a recent gathering. He promised to bring it to me next time we meet, and if he does, I’ll find a way to wear it. More good memories will follow me.

Afterword:

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Wally McRae’s tooth now hangs next to his cufflink.

I wrote this blog on February 13, soon after returning from the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  A couple of weeks later the mail contained a small envelope with Wally McRae’s return address. Inside was this note:

This is the tooth I, like a three-year-old cow, shed at the Gathering a few years back. It appears I should have been more dedicated to brushing and flossing. So—hang it on your war shirt as a token of the good medicine we seem to develop while sharing a program.   —-  Wally McRae

The Wally McRae Fang now hangs next to the Wally McRae cufflink on the jacket’s left side, where my heart is.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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To hear the jingle jangle of this jacket see my YouTube clip: