Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 23, 2015

Autism is not a “gift”

I’m taking time out from my usual writing about writing to post a letter I sent today to the editors of the Chicago Tribune.  I’ve written and re-written it multiple times over the last few days and finally just decided it was time to send it.  Whether or not they print the letter is yet to be seen.  It’s long, so they may want to chop it to bits.  Whatever.  But I figure it may get some strong reactions if it gets published in any form.

I do hope no one finds it offensive.  My goal is to wake people up and cut through some of the haze about disability culture that persists in the media — primarily that children with disabilities are somehow “magical,” that they never grow up, and that they exist to teach lessons to the rest of us.  UGH.  Enough already.  Let’s get to work making the world a better place for them — now and in the future — shall we?

Dear Tribune Editors:

In response to the featured essay from a week ago, “Finding the Gifts of Autism,” I humbly assert that it’s time we stop perpetuating the myth of the “magical disabled child.” I understand the sentiment behind it, as I am a mother of a now-adult child with autism, and I too wrote such essays and poems in the early 1990s when my son was small. In the face of such difficulty and challenges, the rare moments where either humor or clarity shine through the chaos are certainly memorable, and we take great solace and joy in them. However, let’s remember that for the remainder of the week or the year, caring for a child with a disability can be frustrating, exhausting, overwhelming, guilt-inducing, and lonely. All parenting is incredibly difficult, and disability adds another several layers of care to the daily routine, some of which require much time, added costs, and resources that are often unavailable to a family or parent. When we objectify disabled children as tools that can bring us new kinds of enlightenment, we are not doing them any favors. In fact, romanticizing our experiences with them as “gifts” presents some misconceptions that endanger the health and future of all people with disabilities.

We are now 25 years into an autism epidemic. The children have begun to grow up. And guess what? As adults, people with disabilities are no longer seen as the cute, “magical” children they once were. In reality, an adult with a disability is often feared and shunned, unable to find work, transportation, a meaningful social group, or an adequate place to live. My son may look 23, but he still functions as a seven-year-old. He may need a twice-weekly shave, but he cannot cross the street safely or make a meal for himself. And while his high level of distractibility was manageable in the Special Ed classroom, it has made him entirely unemployable as an adult. His impulsive need to walk up to strangers and begin conversations is no longer comical but downright alarming – both for the unsuspecting recipient of his friendliness and for his mother, who envisions a future full of police interventions. The boy whose mother wrote the essay published last week, who fixates on buses and imagines his own front drive is a bus stop, may eventually have a difficult time navigating the distinction between fantasy and reality – a problem shared by many adults with autism that prevents them from being independent.

Additionally, governing bodies in suburbs like mine continue to find reasons to deny permits for housing projects that would offer assistance for the developmentally disabled, claiming such a development would not be a “good fit” for the neighborhood, and caving to concerns of uneducated homeowners who perpetuate the myth that such people are “dangerous.” They worry that their own home values would decrease if such a building or development were to move in next door. In fact, there is no evidence to show that adults with developmental disabilities would pose any more danger to their neighbors than the average citizen; they often pose less. Only when more of these facilities are built and occupied successfully will that myth subside.

So let’s be honest about the facts: in twenty years, our communities will see huge increases of adults with developmental disabilities, many whose families are gone or who cannot provide care for them. Who will provide this care? And who will pay for it?

Rather than offering “gifts,” autism primarily offers some harsh realities. Its growing existence in our world poses complex problems that will soon test our capacity for compassion in new ways. If communities can discover the means and the will to embrace their disabled members and work together to fully integrate them into their neighborhoods and workplaces, then and only then will we be able to say that autism’s presence in the world has been a “gift.”

Respectfully submitted,

Kate Hutchinson

Ramon & me

Ramon & me

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | February 15, 2015

Words, words, words

Hamlet_zeffirelliAct II of Hamlet is where the protagonist begins to exhibit the “antic disposition” he alludes to early in the play, during a private conversation with his best pal, Horatio.  He means he will soon be “playing crazy,” allowing him to test and try his uncle and others at court for information about his father’s death.  He then becomes the focus of everyone’s concern, particularly when he is seen meandering about and reading a book.  “What is it you read, my lord?” Polonius asks, prompting Hamlet’s well-known reply: “Words, words, words.”

How is the actor to say such a line?  Flippantly, as if the words mean nothing?  Down-heartedly, as if mere words cannot describe much?  Or in frustration, implying that words alone — without deeds — are hollow?  If I were directing the scene, I’d have Hamlet use all three interpretations, one after the other.  For he does mean all three.

paint paletteWords, words, words.  They are all we have sometimes, and they are often entirely limiting.  Certainly artists of all kinds feel this way about the tools of their arts:  colors, textures, musical notes, bodily movements.  Is this really all there is??  Can’t we create more??  In reality, artists do this all the time, stretching their palettes in ever more unusual ways.  Shakespeare himself coined dozens of new words, hundreds if you include his creative insults.  Anything is fair game for the subject of artistic expression.  Painters move to abstraction, musicians into atonality, poets to fragmentation.

But — ironically — there’s the rub.  How does an artist, once he or she has had a spark of an idea, know how to begin to express it?  Sometimes we can be overwhelmed with choices and struggle to get started.

thesaurusFor wordsmiths, a thesaurus is an essential tool.  Finding just the right word in just the right spot can make or break a line in a poem or story.  The sound and feel and tone of the word, including its many possible connotations, must be weighed. Do we feel frightened, scared, or horrified?  Is the sky endless, vast, or expansive?  When I write a poem, this is often the hardest part — committing to a word or phrase when none seems exactly right.  If I work with a piece long enough, over time, I’ll often have that glorious “eureka!” moment when the final piece falls into place.

Such was the case with the poem below, which I finished recently.  The thing was a much longer and sprawling mess in its first draft.  Little by little, I condensed it into its 3 square stanzas, which (I hope) work to enhance the poem’s content and meaning.  The metaphor in the last stanza came to me like a gift after some free-floating visualization.  I love when that happens.

crossword puzzle NYTThis poem is about another helpful tool for a wordsmith:  crossword puzzles (particularly those in the New York Times, which are hands-down incomparable).  I confess, I’m a crossword junkie and have been most of my life.  Some might think that partaking in such a regimented, analytical pursuit would be the antithesis to writing a poem, and in some ways I suppose this is true.  But it also feeds my love of words.  And on some days when my creativity and energy are at a low, it’s comforting to settle in with an empty grid and fill in the little squares, one at a time.  If I’m too overwhelmed or preoccupied to read a book, or if I’m in a depressive state, a crossword offers a pleasant distraction.  With a New York Times puzzle, you also get the delight of puns, pop culture references, and cleverness in the cluing.  (Thank you, genius editor Will Shortz.)

I have no doubt that had crosswords been around in Shakespeare’s time, he would have loved them and possibly written them.  (The first one appeared in print in 1924.)  After all, those pesky things called sonnets are square-shaped, too!

Again, the limits of this Word Press site prevent me from single-spacing this poem.  Each stanza should look like a little SQUARE…. though he middle stanza dwindles a bit (purposefully).


to focus on one word


each letter in its

CNJ Racing Crossword Puzzle 1perfect open box

eyelash strokes

black on white

4-cornered complete

so unlike murky life

where drawn shades

keep us clueless

in maudlin mists

and aimlessness

mere gravity our

only certainty

674laddergive me clean lines

and right angles

lead me to the light

like Jacob’s ladder

these tiny windows

precise and absolute

my daily revelation

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 31, 2015

Awaiting the Snow

funny-snowmanPoet Wallace Stevens suggests in “The Snow Man” that we must have a “mind of winter” to “not think of any misery” as the January winds blow around us. Taken literally, this point is never more true than when the forecast is calling for a snowstorm and all we can do is let it come – as is the case tonight in Chicagoland. It seems very few adults maintain that childlike glee in the face of a snowstorm that even my high school students showed yesterday when I mentioned the weekend’s forecast (though most of them lamented the fact that it will not likely give us a Snow Day on Monday).

campfire2How sad it is that the daily grind and our reliance on cars and cleared driveways and roads so quickly destroys our appreciation for the beautiful snows of winter. I’ve hung onto some of my love of snow and cold, but it is indeed dampened by the anxiety of immobility and injury. Every so often I find myself feeling a bit of envy for communities long ago that took advantage of wintertime to slow down, be together, and tell stories or do craftwork. I imagine children then loved snow as much as they do today – the glorious whiteness of it, the way it can be sticky as glue or as feathers in your mittened hands, and the way it sparkles in the sunlight.

IceSkatesHC1301-01My students have been working on poems that capture a moment of their childhoods with sensory images, alliteration, and metaphor. This morning as I contemplated the coming snow, a vivid memory came to me, so I tried to capture it in a poem. My siblings, I’m sure, will remember our tiny blue bathroom on Oakton Street after a long day of playing outdoors. We were fortunate to have a man-made ice rink in the school yard down the block, as well as nature-made spots to skate on when our dad was up to taking us on a trek across the street and into Busse Woods.

My knees and ankles no longer allow me to skate, but oh, how I loved it when I was a girl.

After Ice Skating

stocking capMuffled – the perfect word

for how sounds disappear

into bathroom air when our damp

outerwear hangs all about –

snowpants draped on the shower rod,

scarves, mittens, extra socks

and my long tasseled stocking cap

crowding brackets of the towel rack

like a patchwork tapestry

knitted by some crazy aunt.

snowsuitThat smell of melted snow,

damp and earthy, mud and mist,

our childhoods laid out to dry

while we sit on the little rug

pink-cheeked and matted-haired

rubbing life back into our toes –

the white winter joy between us.

(final photo from The Olive Project blog)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 28, 2014

Found Poems

collage-popart1When the well of ideas dries up, I sometimes turn to “found poetry” to kick-start my creativity. A found poem, like its name suggests, is a poem “discovered” in other texts – lines re-fashioned, re-ordered, and re-imagined in a whole new package. The website compares them to the collage form in visual art, a “pastiche” that can use everything from graffiti to medical reports to recipes.

I like to have my students play with found poetry for two reasons. First, it’s easier and less intimidating than starting from a blank slate, though the final product still requires some skill. Second, if we’ve finished reading a text, I can check to see that students have a grasp on a key themes by having them assemble key lines from the text that relate to that theme.

Found poetry reviewThe Found Poetry Review – whose very existence indicates that this is a legitimate art form – notes on its website that there are 4 basic types of found poems: free-form, cento, erasure, and cut-up. Only the first one incorporates lines and phrases from a multiplicity of sources; the remaining 3 each use 1 text or 1 author only.

Free-form found poetry, which uses excerpting and mixing from a variety of sources, is the most fun, I think, and most collage-like. Your options are limitless. One poem I wrote recently was assembled after I went through the 15 books on a shelf in my dining room, opening each one at random and copying down whatever sentence my eyes fell upon.  Serendipitously, several of them seemed to suggest references to the class system, identity, and memory. One statement even mentioned “forgiving the police for their mistake.” Talk about timely!

???????????????????????????????The internet has given found poetry infinite possibilities. Writer Annie Dillard has said that “happy poets” who use this form “go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps.” Poet Nina Katchadourian, featured in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, uses book titles to create short, haiku-like poems, laying the books spines-front in a stack. (See my attempt at right.) She created 26 of these pieces recently from books left by the estate of author William S. Burroughs.

Virgil bookThe 3 other types of found poetry are a bit more limited in scope, using either one source or one author. The cento dates back as far as the 3rd century in Greece, where poets used lines from Virgil to create new versions of his prose texts. A cento can use lines taken from several poems in a book, or starting lines of chapters, or from a collection of poems by the same author.

erasure poemThe final two types of found poetry, erasure and cut-ups, involve taking one text or even one page from a text, and either omitting all words but a few, or cherry-picking key words or phrases. A few years ago, my seniors had finished reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five when my boss decided that some of the school’s copies were in such bad shape that they needed to be tossed. I took a few of them and let the students tear out a page in order to create an erasure poem. We used markers to blot out all but a few words and phrases on each page, creating poems. They seemed to enjoy it.

cut up poemThe cut-up format, if created literally, would resemble the old ransom notes in 50s detective shows. This format was used in the “magnetic poetry” series that Barnes and Noble used to sell, where you’d get a little box full of individual words on magnets to stick on your refrigerator and assemble into poems.

andy-warhol-with-soup-can-paintingFound poetry may seem like plagiarism, but unless long lines of text are used in context, the found poet is creating something entirely new and is therefore not plagiarizing. No citing of sources is needed if the poet only takes a line or two from any one source.

Just as the Dadaists and Andy Warhol argued that anything can be art, found poets are illustrating that any words can be poems. Even the estimable Howard Nemerov once created a poem from a newspaper article, which he called “Found Poem.” (You can easily find it online.) Two other well-known found poets working today are David Antin and Charles Reznikoff.

(Erasure poem above by Mike Smith; Cut-up poem by Gypsealegs)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 1, 2014

Finding Poems in the Everyday

Coffee and NewspaperThe Sunday after Thanksgiving was one of utter self-indulgence. Papers graded, lesson planning done for the week, home responsibilities fulfilled, I spent the morning with coffee and the New York Times, the afternoon at the cinema with a long-time idol, and the evening with poetry – first reading, then writing.

kooser bookTed Kooser, the “farm poet,” has released his first book of poems in several years, and Sunday was the perfect day to dig into it. Kooser was one of our more unlikely Poets Laureate of the United States when he was selected for the post in 2004. A retired life-insurance salesman, he has accumulated several books full of short, quiet poems about people in the small towns of the Midwest. Many of his poems consist of one long sentence and focus on one brief image or moment, seeming wispy as a haiku. They are full of compassion and a profound appreciation of the spirit – of all living things.

Here is the title poem Kooser’s new book, Splitting an Order:

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,

maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,

no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady

sandwich-cut-in-halfby placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife

while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,

her knife, and her fork in their proper places,

then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees

and meet his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

I let Mr. Kooser inspire me as I crafted this poem about my experience at the local movie theater.

Seeing Birdman at Thanksgiving

I was not annoyed by the old couple

who arrived late and chose seats

directly in front of me, even as they

popcornspent several minutes getting situated –

he setting down the bag of popcorn,

then taking her cane and escorting her

to her seat, removing her coat and then

his own, placing the coats in a seat

adjoining theirs, and finally taking up

the popcorn again and sitting down

as the final preview began. No one

shushed them as she asked him, loudly,

if this was the film they’d come to see,

nor his reply – no, it was not, but it

keatonwould be coming on soon. The film

unfolded then – and it was about

how far we will go to make meaning

in our lives, what it takes to make

our mark, the value of fame, of art,

of hard work, of love. What love is.

In the theater, fifty pairs of eyes

old couplewatched from mainly gray heads,

the old couple before me sharing

their popcorn and a Coke. When

the credits began and he rose to

gather their coats, and when she said,

loudly, she wasn’t sure whether she

should laugh or cry, and he did not

respond but helped her to stand

and then to struggle into her coat –

it was then that I felt I knew them

tea kettleintimately, knew of their years together,

could see them as he drove their car

into the small garage, then stepped

into the white-tiled kitchen where she

would heat up the kettle for tea.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | November 23, 2014

Holiday Music Blues

grinch03It’s finally happened. I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to hear Christmas music at all, not any of it, not even at holiday time. My poor son, who loves listening to it beginning in mid-November when his favorite radio station goes all-Christmas-all-the-time, has strict orders each year to not let a note of it reach my ears until December 1st. This year, I fear I will have to limit it even then.

I hate being a grinch about it, but it’s just the way I’m wired.  Most people can tune out what they don’t enjoy listening to, or they have some level of tolerance for it. Not me. I’ve even experienced nausea when forced to listen to bad music at weddings – like the Chicken Dance – and it’s not caused by the champagne. Having a bad song in my head can drive me nuts. I’ll work for several minutes to expel an ear worm.

vince guaraldiEven the most beautiful song loses its luster when we are subjected to hearing it 6 times a day for 6 weeks out of the year. The few holiday songs I can still endure are some of the oldest – like “Ave Maria,” “Silent Night” or O Holy Night” – sung by well-trained choirs and produced with professional orchestras. No one’s writing new songs like that, it seems. Dan Fogelberg and Kenny Loggins wrote a few soulful tunes back in the 80s, and Vince Guaraldi’s piano music is still tolerable, but most of the new holiday songs do nothing for my holiday spirit.

Most of the cheap, secular tunes written since the 50s are downright awful — those tied to TV shows or with grating accordians, nasal voices, 3-note melodies, bad guitars, or chipmunks. “Jingle Bell Rock,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the worst of all, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” seriously make me want to hurt someone. Or myself. This is not the way I want to feel during the holidays.

firestone5651Part of the problem with Christmas music, I think, is that it is perennial and unchanging. The songs play year after year and can’t be tied to a particular time in our lives. They are like a thin film spread across all of time, one that falls over us and smothers us again and again. Looking back on my entire childhood, I find very few carols that I can associate with a particular year or experience or that would evoke a special memory.  My family was very fond of one Julie Andrews Christmas album, so hearing any of those songs takes me back to our little living room in Elk Grove. Even her version of “Jingle Bells” can still make me smile.  But none of the other carols does that for me. On the other hand, much of the non-Christmas music I feel most strongly about is tied to a certain moment or time.

tapestryLike many music lovers, I can mark certain periods of my life by the albums I was obsessing over: Carole King, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, early Elton John, Roxy Music, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, U2. I firmly believe that certain albums have shaped my soul. I lived and breathed each of them for a few weeks or months. They’ve stayed important in my memory, and I can re-play them almost in their entirety in my head, should I choose to. I don’t let myself listen to them very often so as to keep them special.

justkidspsmith_1In Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” which I’m currently reading, she mentions that in the late 60s, when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were dirt poor and sharing a 2-room apartment, they’d forgo a meal in order to buy the latest Bob Dylan or Stones or Janis Joplin album. They’d prop the cover up on the mantel and listen to it over and over again for hours, soaking in the tunes and lyrics as they sat on the floor and created their art. I can see that scene so clearly – hear the wails of “Jigsaw Puzzle” from “Beggar’s Banquet,” watch Robert cut out ghostly figures from books, see Patti with her eyes closed, writing poetry in her head. Good music is art; good music inspires art. For Patti Smith, those albums are forever linked with that apartment and with the work she created in it.

Beck-Morning-PhaseA powerful song or album can move me to tears; a gorgeous chord progression can make me swoon. If I stumble upon a CD that catches my fancy, I’ll listen to it over and over for 4 or 5 weeks, wallowing in its beautiful melodies and harmonies. Right now I’m awed by Beck’s “Morning Phase” – the hauntingly lush and soulful “oooohs” are just knocking me out. Last winter, Arcade Fire’s double set “Reflektor” helped keep me going through all those weeks of below-zero temps. Before that, it was Allison Krause’s “Paper Airplane” that I was hooked on for a couple of months. These albums will always be tied to these times in my life.

The-Smiths-How-Soon-Is-Now-436901I’m always a little sad when I reach that inevitable moment when the magic of a CD begins to wane, and I know I have to stop listening right then and there to avoid becoming sick of it. I even have to prevent myself from keeping songs in my head, where their incessant looping can ruin them forever. The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” from 1985 is one song I consider sacred – so much so that until last year I didn’t even own it. I wanted to keep it special. Now I only let myself listen to it every few months. I know I can never let myself get sick of it, or something inside of me will die.

Rudolph_SamPowerful music inspires the artist in us, connects us to each other, deepens our sense of being alive. It can put us into a buoyant and joyful mood or intensify our sadness or longing. Unfortunately, bad music can irritate or infuriate some of us, especially when we hear it again and again. When I’m exhausted from a long day at school and have to stop at Jewel to grab a few groceries for dinner, having to listen to Burl Ives singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” is, frankly, a form of torture. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

mel torme christmasHowever, I know the majority of people still enjoy constant holiday music, or retailers wouldn’t start playing it on Halloween. I can understand how children, especially, who have only heard the songs for a few years, would find it exciting to start hearing the songs again every fall. I know I once did. Mel Torme’s velvety “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” used to make me inexplicably weepy. And I loved singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in choir in high school, that cheery old waltz tune that seemed perfect for ice skating. If I only heard it once or twice each year, maybe I’d still enjoy it.

Many have scolded me on Facebook for being a curmudgeon about the issue, telling me I’m over sensitive and lacking in esprit de corps. Apparently, lots of people still find joy in hearing “Santa Baby” 50 times every year, and some are interested in learning which 15 pop stars will release a new version of “Silver Bells.” Not me. I maxed out at about age 35 and would be content to go through the entire month of December without Bing Crosby and Shania Twain.

bananaramaTonight, I’ve got a great old Bananarama song in my head that I hadn’t thought about in a few years – the one about it being a cruel summer. It takes me back to my first solo apartment, the top floor of an old, rickety house in Elgin overlooking the Fox River. I danced in the living room, so happy to be starting my life as an adult.

So let it snow this week, but I guarantee I won’t be singing along.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | October 27, 2014

Imitation: Not Just Flattery

As Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century English writer, so famously said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  For many of us, it’s much more than that — it can be a kick-start out of a deep, dark slump.

spark4For many artists (like me) who squeeze in their creative work around another full-time job, the “getting started” part is what usually derails us.  This is especially true for poets, I think.  Novelists or painters can pick up where they left off and add a few lines or touches, even when they only have twenty minutes after dinner.  For poets, the process of finding the creative spark each time can take much longer.

Every so often, poets take Colton’s advice to heart and find a poem we really like, or that is iconic or unusual  . . . and we model a new poem after it.  This can get the writing mind freed up very quickly.  And it can also be lots of fun!  A “copy-cat” poem can just echo the model in subtle ways, or it can re-use its style or syntax.  Sometimes, an imitation can be an outright parody.

For example, one of the most oft-parodied poems is this one by William Carlos Williams.  The possible riffs using the opening line are endless!


This is Just to Say


I have eaten

the plums that

were in the icebox



and which you

were probably

saving for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet and so cold



My parody, which appears in The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, came to me on the day I finally relegated some old towels to the rag pile and felt just a tiny twinge of nostalgia, as the marriage was long over by then.



This is Just to Say


The towels which we

received as a wedding gift –pink towels

the mauve ones with

tiny claret flowers

that we used in our

small bathroom,

hanging them lovingly

side by side on the shower bar –

have been torn into little

squares and draped over

a bucket in my garage.


Forgive me, but my

car windows needed drying

and the towels were just perfect:

so pink and so old.



Another famous poem has provided the template for many “stuck” poets, no doubt — Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  It inspired me to write “13 Ways of Grading High School Essays.”  (See post of March, 2014.)  If you look closely at Stevens’ 13 stanzas, you can use each one as its own model.   Wedged into the middle of my 13 stanzas, I also inserted a parody of another Williams poem, the uber-famous “Red Wheelbarrow” poem, which I believe is still taught in schools on occasion:



so much depends



a red wheel



streaked with rain



beside the white




In my essay-grading poem, stanza VIII takes the red and white images in a different direction — which I couldn’t resist:


—–Three glasses

Everything depends upon

three glasses of red Merlot

lined up within reach

beyond the stack of white papers

on the desk.




scientificamerican0114-30-I2At a wonderful poetry workshop I attended on Sunday, sponsored by RHINO magazine in Evanston, poet Greg Grummer used the “imitation” technique in an exercise where we were to tap into our “not conscious” mind when creating a poem.   He encouraged us to let the words and images spill out unfiltered as we channeled the rhythms and structure of the model poem.

The poem we used was by Sharon Olds, an American poet whose best-known work is about the abuse she suffered from her father. It begins with this line:



Olds bookI wanted to be there when my father died

because I wanted to see him die –

and not just know him, down to

the ground, the dirt of his unmasking, and not

just to give him a last chance

to give me something, or take his loathing



This is the first part of what spilled out from my head, echoing what Olds had written but with an entirely different vision.  I let the filters go and just went with what came to me:


daisiesI wanted to be there when the wars ended

because I wanted to feel the earth cool –

and not just oceans and rivers

but stars and even you –

the hunger to lie in an open field,

to take back perfection, the beauty

of the honey bee on the eye

of a daisy.


Who knows where it came from or what will come of it?  And who cares?  But over the next few days, I can work with it like putty and stretch it and mold it to see if it will become something worth keeping.

Yes, we flatter the original poets by imitating their master works.  But we can also use the process to unlock our minds when they get stuck.  From imitation, we more easily move on to originality and, if we’re really in tune with our own muses, a master work of our own.



(Painting of plums in a bowl by Brett Humphries)




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 21, 2014

The Circus in Your Hand

Quill-Pen-425x282-300x199I’m not a Luddite. I have this blog, don’t I? And a facebook page! I text a little (albeit slowly) on my flip phone. I read books on a Nook now and then. My school Wikispace is 8 years old and going strong, and many of the young teachers I work with have even used it. This summer, I taught on online course for a local university and had a pretty good time doing it.

So why am I so opposed to getting a smart phone? And why does my school-issued ipad sit at the bottom of my desk drawer, unused and ignored? There’s no GPS on my dashboard, no ipod in a dock in my office or bedroom. I’ve never seen a Twitter post or learned how hash tags work.

Portable-AM-FM-Radio-Mp3-CD-Player_20090808412I wish I knew why I’ve stalled this way. I’ve yet to read any statistics or studies about people like me, a surely ever-shrinking group of hold-outs who make do with a “dumb phone” and a desktop computer – those of us who have ventured out only partway into the eddying waters of hypertech while keeping one foot firmly on the island of disconnectedness. We listen to radios rather than streaming, watch movies on DVDs, and still prefer a paper map.  It’s like I’m stuck in 2002.

It’s all accelerated so fast in the last 10 years, I can’t keep up. I stopped trying when it became clear that I was a slow adapter, and that innovation was not going to put on the brakes just for me. By the time I’ve mastered a new system or gadget, the thing has already become obsolete. Everyone else has moved 3 steps beyond me.

jetIt’s not just because I’m a “certain age.” Many of my high school students share my sentiments, while many people older than I am have run gleefully to the Apple Store each time a new igadget comes out. If you’re like my Aunt Janette, you pick up 3 of them at once.

Perhaps I harbor a deep-seated mistrust of wirelessness. The whole world could be at my fingertips, but I find that overwhelming and a little bit scary. It makes me mentally exhausted to think about the endless places I could go on that tiny screen. And I feel spiritually violated when I consider the myriad ways people and advertisers could send me messages and track my every move, should I decide to succumb to hypertech. Just scrolling through my Facebook feed makes me feel bombarded with stimulus. I can only take so much.

CIA-spy02It’s not a fear of the technology itself but of the people who use it — a mistrust of faceless corporations who might try to take advantage of me.  At present, my only retail membership card is for Barnes & Noble, since I naively think that a purveyor of books will not try anything nasty with my information. In my way of thinking, the dollar or two I don’t save with each purchase at Pet Smart or Hallmark is the price I am willing to pay for my privacy. Each time a clerk asks for my phone number and I say “I’d rather not tell you,” I’m taking a stand for personal freedom. Lately, I’ve begun to feel like a bit of an anarchist.

hut on islandWill the world allow people like me to continue living in this slowed, semi-connected, alternative universe? In a few years, will it be impossible to access money or prove my identity without my fingerprints and smart phone trail on the grid? Can I survive my final four years of teaching without being forced to move all my lessons to the ipad?  Will my non-Tweeting habits put me in peril, as I miss out on the Emergency Twitter Alert System?

I guess I’ll find out.  The Wikispace I mentioned above is considered ancient by today’s educational standards. We’ve gone through 3 classroom platforms since Wiki’s first came out, yet I’ve pushed back against the need to change mine solely for the sake of changing it. The Wiki does the job. Why put in hundreds of hours to create a Google or Schoology site when I don’t have to? I lack that drive to innovate for the sake of innovation.

circusThe phrase “Stop the world – I want to get off!” was coined nearly 50 years ago as the title of a musical set against the backdrop of a circus. How quaint to think that in 1966, someone felt things were moving way too fast. Now, most people have a miniature circus right in the palms of their hands.

Some of us, I guess, have always felt the continual need to shut down the circus, unwind, and escape to the woods where we can sit quietly and look at the trees.

So don’t bother sending me a text while I’m out there. I’m not bringing my phone.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 16, 2014

August — light, trees, memory

summer treesWhen nature stirs, we notice. Changes of season make me feel alive – as if the world around me is packing up to move and perhaps I should, too.

August starts the slow move toward summer’s end, accentuated by the start of school. The sunlight changes, becoming almost syrupy, and everything green begins to fade and harden. A few leaves flutter down. Grasshoppers and cicadas are full-chorus all afternoon and evening, giving way to the gentle rhythms of crickets at night. The breeze from the windows turns cool as we sleep.

cottonwoodsI’ve decided that my favorite sound is that of the wind through the trees, and I go seek it out this time of year in a stand of cottonwoods at the edge of a clearing nearby. Poets can no longer write odes to trees – it having become cliche – but an ode to this elegant giant would be warranted. While its fluffy shedding is annoying early in the summer, it towers above most other trees in the Midwest, with its huge, post-like trunk of deeply-ridged, vertical bark that draws your eye upward to a narrow, dappled canopy. Its fan-shaped leaves with serrated edges are dense, hardened almost to plastic by August, and in a breeze they sound like great flocks of birds gently lifting into the air.

COTTONWOOD2_leavesI can only hope no scourge comes to the cottonwoods in the way other diseases have killed our elms and ashes over the years. The beautiful white birch that shades my patio is infected with the insatiable ash borer; it will be cut down next spring, I’m told. I’ve already begun to mourn its passing.

Recently, an old photograph prompted this poem – about light, trees, summer’s end, memory, family, identity.


Light in August


In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.      

          – William Faulkner, on titling his 1932 novel, Light in August


On the patio in the sighing afternoon light,

I page through an old photo album.

Cicadas begin their chorus; black and white

gives way to kodachrome as I grow up.


There, at the top of a page, is a photoLynwood-Gold-Forsythia

I’d forgotten, when my new Instamatic

was still finding delight in the ordinary –

August, 1974 – forty years today, perhaps:


Mom and Dad kneeling by the forsythia

in the back yard, pruning it together under

the branches of the Russian olive tree. I am

on the patio, just fourteen, eyeing my world,


watching as Mom reaches to show Dad

a branch that needs a trim — their black hair,

their sturdy young backs, Dad’s murmured

reply, his hands as they grip the shears.White-Birch-Tree-321549


Now the warm August sun radiates

through the ash tree, throwing shadows

onto the picture where the same sun had played

through tree branches over the three of us,


when I held the camera with raw autonomy –

my third eye – opening to life, opening

to love, opening like an early aster to the

enduring sunlight of August afternoons.




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 5, 2014

Finding Inspiration in the News

weird_news_photos_01Writers need look no further than the headlines to find enough fodder for a lifetime of stories and poems. Best-selling author T. C. Boyle claims he’s gotten all his ideas this way – as seen in his stories about kidnappings, liver transplants, cloned dogs, brush fires, racist neighbors, and whether evolution should be taught in schools.

This year, writer and editor Robbi Nestor of Lummox Press in California published an entire book of poetry called The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! The collection contains 85 poems inspired by pieces heard on NPR and PBS.

Nestor told me he he was inundated by responses.

LiberalMediaCoverFinalOver the years I’ve assigned my students to write poems based on news stories, so I’d already written several, but Nestor was asking for pieces that could be traced to particular public TV and radio stories, so I began paying closer attention to NPR each morning. In just a few days I knew I’d found my inspiration.

The story, airing on the morning of December 31 last year, asked the question: Would you want to know the exact date of your own death? And if so, would you live more fully and joyfully? Maybe we’d like to think we would. However, the research shows very mixed results.



Here is the poem I composed about the Tikker watch, a device designed by a Swedish inventor that can be set to count down to your death date (based upon an algorithm comprised of data about you and your personal habits). Many of the details in the poem were taken directly from the story.


Strap a Tikker Onto Your Wrist, Stretch Your Arm To Heaven


Nothing focuses the mind like the ultimate deadline.


Set the “happiness watch” for twenty years – long enough

to have a new career, write a book, run for mayor. Ten years –

travel the world, keep a photo blog, grow herbs, learn to cook.

Five years – two – ditch the diet, skydive into Malibu. Leave a

giant footprint, donate blood. Go see everyone you’ve ever loved.


Reach for what matters, the watch reminds you again and again.


Or instead, you may become paralyzed with fear. Begin to hate

your neighbors, be annoyed by every lame-brained driver and

rainy day, find doctors worthless, books a total waste of time.

That dark underbelly – anxiety – casts a shadow on any

glory you felt when the chains of time first fell away.


Hurl the thing at the wall – convince yourself you’re still immortal.


And why not? No inventor has the goods on you! Better to stay

numb, race toward the weekend, watch TV. Believe in exercise,

wine, the need for more vitamin D. Read more Deepak and Peale,

then cradle your inner child. You’d rather be the poor schmuck

who gets hit next week by a bus and goes down smiling, oblivious.


Would you want to wear a Tikker? If you had one, do you think you’d respond like the people in stanza 1 or stanza 2? I’m sure I’d be much more likely to freak out, or worse, develop total ennui. No Tikker for me, thank you. I’ll take my chances with the bus. (Which may remind you of another work that deals with this topic, the brilliant film “Stranger Than Fiction,” starring Will Ferrell in his most serious role to date.)


The link to the original NPR story on the Tikker (by Lulu Miller) is included in Nestor’s book:




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