Spring Plowing

Although April is almost over, it doesn’t look or feel like it’s even begun yet here in northern Vermont. One sure sign it’s April, though, is Mary Jane Dickerson’s annual poetry workshop at the Jericho library. This year’s theme, History and the Poetic Imagination, has led to a variety of poetry from the 15 participants, who will have the opportunity to share their new work this evening at the Deborah Rawson library in Underhill at 6:30. I’ll be reading the poem I’ve written for it, which I include as today’s post.

POEM:
Spring Plowing

With the girls grown and he, too, gone,
she stood at the edge of the fallow field,

behind the two horses—Fetch and Freya—
looking toward their flanks. She clucked

and the team began their work, white fetlock
feathers swishing like snow in storms

finished for the season, sweeping the grass
still brittle and brown as under the single blade

plow the earth roiled, rolled up and under itself
in constant undulation of revelation

and concealment. She trod in the six-inch trench
they cut, knowing the first pass must be straight

to set the pattern for following rows, and locked
her calloused hands on the wooden handles

trying to control the jump of the blade
should it hit rock or start to veer off course.

She cooed the horses’ names, felt the sureness
of this one thing. At the end of the first furrow,

she threw the blade to its side and let the team
continue a few yards before calling: Haw!

Come round Fetch! Come round Freya girl!
and stopped them at the edge of the second pass.

She sat down then, out of shape from winter’s
indoor work. She’d been proud, once, of the farm,

of him, even of herself, but now the sharp
edge of the plow lying a few feet away,
the black rump of Fetch, and Freya’s
champagne mane, and their waiting
for a simple command, humbled her.
She studied Fetch, and snorted herself.
She had more in common with the horse–
a temper and a restlessness–than she’d ever
had with her own husband. Fetch stamped.

She stood up and put the horses in motion. She wanted
the beautiful tension of tugs between horses and plow,

plow and arms and her whole self, a balance she’d watched
him patiently create over the years as he learned

how to orchestrate the crude instrument, the creatures.
She knew what sweet rhythm could rise from this labor.

Her ankles twisted in the ruts behind the horses’ sure
plod. By the end of the second row, sweat shone

on the team’s backs and she set them up for the third
furrow before resting them, wiped her sleeve along

her own forehead. What good was it all now?
Was she wasting her time? She could leave,
follow the girls and live comfortably with one
or the other. They’d have her, probably would
be relieved if she gave up depending on rain
and sun, the cold wet mornings, wind in February,
August dust. She narrowed her eyes at the team;
they had a long way to go, and there was life
in her yet. She would make it. She’d shown the girls

how to do it, hadn’t she? She had plenty of time, years even.
Forecast for the week was good. Fetch! Freya! Come up!

ELEMENT:
Feedback

Feedback isn’t exactly an element of poetry, but it’s an important aspect of writing poetry. A tricky aspect at that. I workshopped the above poem with a small group of poets when we split in to two groups at Mary Jane’s workshop mentioned above. I also showed it to my good friend and accomplished writer and artist Nancy Hayden from The Farm Between. It was especially important to get her feedback as she has actually plowed with horses. I also received feedback from Mary Jane in a one:one conference and from another poet-friend, Patricia Fontaine.

It’s good to get feedback from 1. people you trust and respect; 2. people who know something about the topic you’re writing; 3. people who are well-versed in writing themselves, especially in the genre in which you write.

That doesn’t mean that getting feedback is easy. My heart races when I ask someone to read my poem for the first time, and I have to try hard not to get defensive when they question a decision I’ve made about the poem. But by choosing people carefully to critique my work – not people who are going to think everything I write is great – I create much better poetry.

One of the best persons I’ve received feedback from is Neil Shepard. It’s not because Neil loves everything I write. It’s because Neil takes what I write seriously and puts in a lot of thought about what I’ve written. In his feedback, he references other poems and texts for me to check out and analyzes what I’m doing even though I might not even know I’m doing it.

Getting feedback can be hard, but giving feedback can be difficult, too. There’s a way to do it so the person will listen and a way to do it so the person becomes angry and defensive and doesn’t take your advice, no matter how good it is. Two bits of feedback advice that I try to remember is 1. the writing workshop purpose is to keep the writer writing; 2. there isn’t such a thing as a bad poem, only poems that aren’t finished yet. Okay. Some poems might be a looooonnnngggg way from being finished, but chances are if the person took the time to write it down and share, there’s a nugget of something to shape into a gem.

Sometimes I share a poem when it isn’t ready to share. It’s not a good thing to do. Just because I’ve written down something on paper doesn’t make it worthy of someone else’s time. Share your poetry when you can’t take it any further by yourself and when you’re distant enough from it so that you can stand to have someone suggest changes.

Most of the poems in this blog are quick-writes and early drafts that I have subsequently changed through revision and feedback. Once I’ve emotionally distanced myself sufficiently from the initial creation, it can be fun to go back and see what I can do with it, armed with ideas and suggestions from the supportive critics that I know and trust.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

These aren't draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

These aren’t draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

Fetch – Irish Mythology 

Freya – Norse Goddess 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Up Each Man’s Basement Until All The Girls Are Found

Over the past month, I have been organizing my house, my barn, my life. I cannot write poetry while organizing. Organizing and writing poetry require engaging different parts of the brain. Or I should say creating poetry. Revising poetry and organizing work okay together.  While the straightened desk, stacked hay bale, or polished floor is a sign of outward control, there is nothing like the feeling of a poem rising. The absence of poetry is a sign that the inner self is floundering about, or worse, vacant. When a poem starts to rise, there’s something going on inside.

POEM:
Open Up Each Man’s Basement Until All The Girls Are Found

We should not stop at three missing girls who saved themselves
by pounding at the door from the inside until a neighbor,
uneducated and ignorant enough, became involved,
investigated, and did something about it. Where are the others?

In the night I settle down on my belly on the sheets, arms raised
over my head in utter vulnerability, happy, so happy, to be here,
safe in my soft bed, looking forward to morning, to sipping coffee,
to…to…when those women I don’t know find me, enter my mind.

I don’t know them but I know of them. I don’t know their lives
but I know of their lives, beaten, buried in a basement, spit on,
raped repeatedly. They’ve been bound and made to do whatever.
I see men. I see them. I open up to all possibilities. I’m too frozen

to sleep now unless I return to myself, here, in my bed, ignore
all that exists outside my quiet walls, ignore shrouds over living
bodies, ignore don’t act like a girl, ignore all men’s basements, ignore
everything outside my soft and safe body. Now, I can also sleep.

ELEMENT:
Content vs. Form

In the past week or so, I’ve felt several poems arise, have recognized ideas and/or moments for poems and started them on paper or at least recorded them for development later. The moment that “won out,” so to speak, appears here today due to the essay I read this morning by Alice Fulton, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge” found in Green Mountains Review: 25th Anniversary Poetry Retrospective.

Fulton addresses the form vs. content debate head on: “Should questions concerning meaning and structure come up, someone inevitably posits their indivisibility. In service to this belief, responsible discussions of content always invoke form. I’ve noticed, however, that interrelatedness does not work both ways: Discussion of form seldom include content.” (94).

This is mind boggling to me. How does one write a poem without thinking that content is why we write the poem and form is the means of delivery? (This is not to say that the form doesn’t/can’t/shouldn’t impact the meaning of the content). What am I missing here?

Fulton goes on to discuss the importance of focusing on content rather than form:

“If we refuse to consider the implications of our words, our poems will reflect rather than revise aesthetic and cultural norms. If, on the other hand, we focus on content, we might notice – and counter – the complacency and complicity within poetry.  The dominant culture is as invisible as it is invidious: we partake in its assumptions unthinkingly. To write mindfully, however, we must disinter and interrogate its premises, revising or accepting as necessary.” (97).  This, of course, is also Audre Lorde’s message in her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (the first four words of her essay, “The quality of light…” gave this blog its name). We must first write, not craft; we must be mindful of our message, not only of our words.

The title of Fulton’s essay, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,” refers to the following paragraph, which I think is worth repeating here, in which she writes,

“Since the dominant culture is as omnipresent as air, subordinate groups learn about it simply by being alive. The divested also become unwilling anthropologists, studying the empowered in order to anticipate – and if necessary manipulate – their behavior. The enfranchised, on the other hand, do not inevitably learn about those on the margins; the culturally endorsed, if they are to know, must actively pursue awareness of the unendorsed. To approach otherness, not clinically but heartfully, is difficult; it takes humility. A poetry of inconvenient knowledge asks men to think deeply about women’s historical and biological situation, a request that entails some empathy, if not self-effacement. And as a white woman, I am asked to think about race; as a member of the middle class, I must encounter poverty; as an American, I can’t efface the third world.” (100).

Yes, it is rather “inconvenient” to think about “the culturally unendorsed,” and the knowledge we gain from experiences that link us to worlds beyond our own should make us, at the minimum, uncomfortable, and at the most, should spur us in to action. How many things do we keep from our minds in order to sleep at night? Unfortunately, way too many people sleep soundly in the world.

In the poem above, the content is what is mostly important, yet the form is intentional. To me, the topic of female subordination is not one about which I should mince words, and the long line, in addition to allowing more words, presses the issue, and presses on with the issue. Within the orderly quatrains is our un-orderly world in which girls are kidnapped and treated cruelly, horribly. Or, perhaps this reflects that this IS the order of the world.

Often, we don’t know how ignorant we are. I share the following anecdote to show how woefully ignorant we can be of our ignorances: In a forum on female discrimination that was held at my MFA program, one male reminded us all how far we’ve come in America regarding our rights. “Don’t forget how much better you have it here in this country compared to other countries,” he made sure to add to the discussion. Did he want us to say, “Never mind! It ain’t so bad for some of us, so we better stop complaining.” The fact that it IS better for some of us is all the more reason to push on for others who are not as fortunate as us – or as “them.”

The shear definition of a poem demands attention to both content and form.  This is directly related to placing our lives in order. Gregory Orr, in his book Poetry As Survival, discusses  how “The awareness of disorder generates in the human mind a spontaneous ordering response.” (16).  We want order in our lives and poetry is a logical means (to me) for making internal order. Poetry allows that “a sense of some patterns or enduring principles are at work in our lives.” (16). It is a way of dealing with an otherwise overwhelming world.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
The Missing White Woman Syndrome – or the White Damsel in Distress sells the news.
Green Mountains Review
Neil Shepard, Senior/Founding Editor, Green Mountains Review