Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 15, 2019

The Disappearing Family Farm

The floods that wiped out so many Midwest farms this spring have dealt just one more death blow to the few family farms remaining.  That image of the sturdy, red-faced guy in his overalls riding the John Deere at sunrise is more and more a rarity as corporations buy out acre upon acre of the heartland.  Sadly, the country’s concern about this shift peaked years ago, likely with the release of the film “Country,” starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard.  Its climactic scene at the farm auction, where all the area farmers come and then refuse to buy anything, struck a powerful chord with Americans who still believed hard work should mean success, even if the bottom line comes up red year after year.

We love to romanticize farming, with its frontier-building roots and ideals of self-sufficiency.  The truth, though, as usual, doesn’t measure up to the lore.  As Carolyn Fraser notes in her Pulitzer-winning 2017 book, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” well under half of the nearly 140,000 families that tried to make a go of farming between 1863-1880 (after Lincoln signed the Homestead Act) succeeded.  People were given 160 acres of land and had five years to prove they could make a go of it.  Many starved after years of crop failure and catastrophe.  Others simply couldn’t manage the constant, grueling demands a farm requires.  Is it any wonder, then, that in the last two generations, most children of farmers have chosen other, more lucrative lifestyles in regions far less desolate?

My father’s family follows this narrative.  His parents both descended from Midwest farm families, and when he was growing up, mile upon mile of adjacent farmland in southwest Iowa was owned and worked by families related to his mother.  After my grandfather died, Dad’s sister Lila and her husband Harlan took over his family’s farm, since he and all the other siblings had moved away to pursue other careers.  In the 1980’s, the last of the land owned by Dad’s family was sold off.  (That’s Dad, right, in front of his house around 1940. Isn’t he cute?)

With a wistful look in his eye, Dad noted recently that every building that contained key parts of his childhood has now been torn down – the houses and barns as well as their little Protestant church , the 1-room schoolhouse, and the brick high school he and his siblings attended throughout the 1910’s-1940’s.

It must be so eerie and unsettling to have your past become so utterly full of ghosts, erased from the earth.  For those of us born after World War II, these are losses few have had to face.  No home or school of mine has yet disappeared.  I often drive by these places and think of the years spent inside of them.  In America, we move away and claim new homes often.  But many of our farmers have lived out their entire lives in one place.  When they finally die or grow too old to work the land, what is left behind often dies with them.  Call it progress or call it a tragedy, it’s a reality.

The photograph at the right was included in a set of materials from a poetry workshop last month at U-W Madison.  The course was on Ekphrastic poetry, a Greek term for poetry that responds to a work of art.  My response to this photo is below.  Its speaker is fictional, but I’ve worked in a few details from the family history that my clan will notice.  I hereby offer the poem with thanks to all the family farmers who have devoted their lives to growing and raising our food.

 

Family Farm

 

Like her own face, she thinks, all

that barn needs is a good paint job.

Weather-worn. She knows how

that feels. We’ve both done our share

in ninety years, she tells it out loud.

 

sweden-ostergotland-grytgol-cow-in-barn-FB8M4MHow many winters did she trudge

out to milk those dumb old beasts

to quiet their lowing, hear the hiss

of steam rising in ice-coated buckets,

see gratitude in their big wet eyes?

 

The paint she called ocean blue –

now faded to weary sky – how proud

she’d been to tell her friends, Turn right

off of 34 where you see the barn roof

shimmering like a lake in the cornfield.

 

It’s been twenty years since Elmer

drove his tractor back around the curve

jla001819atoward the shed, forty since any horses

clopped there, near eighty since she

and her sisters rode the buggy to church.

 

She looks out one last time to the barn,

the shed, the coop, and fields beyond,

drinks them in deep before her daughter

wheels her away to suffocate in some

small room fifty long miles away.

 

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | April 6, 2019

The Boxes in the Attic

Our kids won’t want our stuff.  This is what we’ve been reading in the myriad pieces written about Millennials — they are not accumulators.  Marie Kondo’s advice, then, must omit that secondary question many of us were asking:  Will it spark joy one day for my son or granddaughter?  No, dear friends, it will not.  To the curb it goes.  Or to Goodwill or Craig’s List if it has any value at all.  And yet…. maybe not everything.

I’ve been the happy recipient this month of 2 boxes stashed in my sister’s attic for nearly 30 years, the contents of which have not been eyed for even longer. They came to me since I’m the one “who keeps things” — scrapbook maker and photograph archiver of my generation.  Even my siblings don’t want my mother’s stuff.  But as I sift through the crumbling treasures, my mother comes to life before me and infuses me in new ways.  Buried here are relics I’ve never seen — papers she wrote in college, wedding cake topper, lesson plans from her brief time as a 4th-grade teacher, letters she wrote us when we were small, and stacks upon stacks of medical and insurance records from her years on home dialysis.

My siblings and I had just become adults when we lost our mom, so we never had the chance to befriend her as fellow adults.  The items in the attic boxes have, in some small but poignant way, allowed me to see her afresh, through the eyes of a woman 10 years older than she ever was.

Before we Kondo-ize our own attics, we might re-consider throwing everything away.  Our kids and grandkids may not want the china or silverware, or any of our old costume jewelry.  But they may one day, especially after we’re gone, enjoy peeking into our lives through those mementos that were most dear to us and show our innermost selves.  Even the least sentimental among us can’t help but wonder at the ways our ancestors’ blood flows through us.

I’m writing a series of poems about my mother using what I’ve discovered in the boxes.  Here is one.

 

Atop the cake for one day, it was packed

into a box where it lay for over sixty years,

its little tuxedo-clad groom’s thin smile

and dots of rouge on the bride’s cheeks faded,

the arch of plastic pink and white flowers crushed

into a lop-sided square, the white bow at the top

now wilted and flat, angling to one side

as I lift the relic gently from its tissue paper

and imagine my mother’s young eyes, as mine

are now, gazing upon such a sweet confection,

our hearts filling with wonder – hers of what was

yet to come, mine of all she would yet endure.

Yes, I did throw away the cake topper, and many other things that had disintegrated or wouldn’t mean much to anyone.  But I’ve taken a few photos for remembrance.  And I will write the poems.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 9, 2019

Substitute Teaching Odyssey

Next week I’ll be finishing my Substitute Teaching Odyssey — 75 days of subbing to finish my 35th year of service as a public school teacher in Illinois.  Now, finally, bring on the pension!

It’s been an eye-opening experience, and not altogether surprising since I’ve known many wonderful substitutes over the years as colleagues and heard their stories.  Still, standing in those sub shoes at the front of a class is a different kind of trepidation, especially if you’re working in a school where no student knows you or cares a whit about your many years of experience as a teacher.  You’re not THEIR teacher, so you have no currency with them at all.  (Who doesn’t have some fun — and freaky — sub stories from when we were students?)

Fortunately, I was able to do most of my subbing at the school where I had taught for 33 years and still felt part of the school’s family.  But many days found me at other buildings in my high school district, where I may have known a few teachers but absolutely none of the kids.  While it was interesting work because of the novelty of each job, I still had to put up my guard each day, not knowing exactly what I would be walking into.

Looking back over the months I’ve subbed, I have no regrets about the decision I made to “top off” the pension this way.  It’s been, for the most part, fun and fulfilling work, and it’s given me a stepping stone to perch on for a while as I mentally made the adjustment from professional to ex-professional.  It almost felt like a little victory lap through the education field, allowing me a final panoramic view of what it means to be a teacher.

But I know for most substitutes who do this deceptively “simple” job year after year, the low pay and lack of respect can be humbling.  For all the substitutes out there, I salute you!  Your dedication allows schools to keep functioning.  Seeing the job through your eyes helped me to write this poem.

 

Sub  Means  Under

 

subpar     subordinate

 

Their cheers upon seeing you

are not for you

but for the absence of her—

the one with power.

 

substandard     subjective

 

No meat in the lesson,

no teeth in non-compliance.

You learn quickly to invest

no angst in the outcome.

 

subversive     subliminal

 

The seating chart is optional

they tell you, and yes

she always lets us

listen to music on our phones.

 

subsistence     insubstantial

 

You can’t live on this paycheck

but can only supplement

another source, so tell yourself

it’s essential public service.

 

subtotal     submit

 

When the bell rings observe:

they are alive and unharmed.

The contract requires nothing

more. Emerge into the light.

– – –

– – –

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 20, 2019

2 Words for Snow

I know some people may have a few choice words to use when describing snow — especially early-morning commuters — but I’m a fan of winter and welcome the snow.  I’m not a skier or hockey player, just a nature lover who enjoys all the seasons and watching them change.  I also love the winter birds that visit my backyard feeders, like the cute little juncos that scratch at the snow for hours to find seeds underneath.

Apparently it really is true that in far-northern regions, people have invented dozens of words for snow and ice.  A Washington Post article from 2013 notes, for example, that the Nunavik north of Canada have 53, including “matsaaruti” for the wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the tiny, crystalline snow that resembles salt.  The Inupiaq have 70 words to describe types of ice, and the Sami at the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia have developed 180 distinct words to describe snow and ice.

Language develops in ways that are practical for people in different regions.  I’m sure desert people have similarly diverse words to describe heat and sand, and that island groups have lots of words for tides and shoreline activities.

Here in the Midwest, it’s enough just to have 2 words for snow:  wet and dry.  Or big and small to describe the flakes.  We aren’t all that imaginative.  Or we only need to describe the type of snow in order to alert folks to how hard the shoveling will be.

Snows

 

There is no subtlety in wet December snow

as it plops onto lawns and driveways like

a late-night sot on a bar stool, lathering it on,

clotting and unbudged by a shovel. By mid-day,

it’s melting into gray pools at the curb,

uncaring as it sloshes onto shoes

and splatters up with every passing car.

 

But late in January, when polar air thins the breath,

tiny flakes whisk and spin with the grace

of acrobats, alighting on tree limbs and fences

in delicate puffs.  After drifting in frigid night winds,

snow hangs by dawn in swoops and curves

from the roof, beckoning us to stretch upward

to hear the secrets it carries from the stars.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 28, 2018

A Retiring Teacher Looks Back

How does anyone sum up a career?  By days at the desk?  Projects completed?  Money earned?  Hairs turned gray?  Lives affected?

I’ve spent the majority of my waking life since age 5 in classrooms, as student and teacher – sometimes both on the same day.  My first teaching job was as a graduate assistant at Northeastern IL University in 1982, where most of my students were from other countries and were older than I was.  Now, I’m about to retire from a 33-year career in District #214, the district I graduated from in 1978….and I’m old enough to be my students’ grandmother.

I could reduce the whole thing to numbers, with some vague approximations:

 

Schools attended, K-U:  8

Schools taught at:  5 (but mainly 1)

Days taught:  6,200

Students taught:  9,000

Courses taught:  35

Pages of student writing graded:  1/4 million

 

And then, probably like most people, there are these numbers:

 

Percentage of fantastic days:  10

Percentage of awful days:  10

Percentage of days when things went just fine:  80

 

But numbers, while eye-opening, don’t add up to much until we think about the arc of time they cover.  I’ve done other work here and there, too, and learned from other people about the kinds of challenges any jobs pose, requiring us to find the motivation and energy to get through each day.  For people who make careers a big part of their lives, staying on the full-time treadmill for 30-40 years, we have to find purpose and dignity in the work if we’re going to have a sense of satisfaction at mid-life.  That’s always been easy for those of us who love what we do and believe our work is important.  It’s going to be harder, I think, to live as purposefully now that I’m leaving the profession behind.  But what a fun challenge it will be, and one with very little stress since it impacts only me.

I’m so lucky and grateful to have had a calling that has rarely wavered since childhood – modeled by my father and so many excellent teachers throughout my life.  Up until my final lesson last week, I found myself up for the challenge of working to make my students’ time in the classroom worthwhile.  But I’m definitely starting to slow down.

Over the last 34 years, teaching (like any other profession) has changed radically.  A tiny sliver of what I do or how I do it in 2018 aligns with what I did in 1985.  But as an English teacher, my goals have always centered around language – voices received and voices expressed.  We do this with thoughtfully-chosen books, essays, poems, stories, and films that hopefully open our students’ minds and hearts to the fullness of their own and others’ humanity.

I’ve been so fortunate in so many ways, from birth onward, in having the choices and opportunities I’ve had, especially in my working life.  I will always appreciate and value my own lifelong education, the schools and communities I have worked in, the many wonderful colleagues I’ve respected and loved, and the thousands of students who have kept me on my toes with their curiosity, enthusiasm, challenges, humor, audacity, gratefulness, and marvelous individuality.

 

classroom lights go out

energy of three decades dissipates

emptiness, fullness, farewell

 

—  —  —

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 10, 2018

A Teacher’s Angst

During my 33 years of teaching high school English in the suburbs of Chicago, I’ve certainly seen trends come and go — in teaching, in parenting, in the national and global mindset about what schools should be and do. But since I first wrote “Welcome to Ms. Hutchinson’s class” on a chalkboard back in the fall of 1985, I have never felt the kinds of stresses and heartaches that I feel right now, in my final year.

A year ago, we were reeling from our White House occupant’s brazen and lawless attempts to close our borders to certain people he deemed “undesirable.” Some of my students belong to families that come from these countries or have friends that do. How could I comfort them?

Next, he broke promises made to many of our country’s young people who — through no decision of their own — are here without legal status but who have made America their home. Many don’t remember living anywhere else.  When I look at my students right now, knowing several are likely caught up in this nightmare, how can I comfort them?

And now, in the last 3 weeks, many have claimed that guns are not only benign but actually belong in the hands of people like me — teachers charged with keeping children safe. Only in a nation that has devolved into total madness would anyone believe that more guns in schools will bring safety.

Much of me is sad to be retiring from a long, fulfilling career of teaching. But an equal part is relieved to be walking away from the political quagmire my classroom has become. It makes me weep to think of the students I have not been able to help over the years, especially those in my classes right now whose new kinds of turmoil I will never know. For them, I’ve written this Villanelle.

 

The Weight of Their Backpacks

 

Their backpacks are heavy and weighing them down
as they file off the bus in the dim morning light
with problems too large for the shoulders they own.

How can they possibly sit to focus or learn
when their parents may be missing by bedtime tonight?
Such huge, heavy burdens keep weighing them down.

The chance of a bloodline, of a face deemed too brown
now threatens the home that came by a hard-earned fight.
Such betrayal will not fit on the shoulders they own.

As children they claimed their own voice, found their ground,
and bloomed into youth who reach and dream and strive.
But those backpacks, so heavy, now weigh them back down.

These days they don’t speak, since to make any sound
risks the arrival of uniformed men in the night.
But how should they shoulder such fear on their own?

Their eyes reveal an anxiety deeply profound.
They are starlets whose futures hang on “maybe” or “might.”
We must strip off the huge backpacks weighing them down
and place them firmly upon new shoulders – our own.

 

Illustration of woman and flag:  James Noellert, Detroit Metro Times, 2/2/17

Photo of backpack:  Thinkstock

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 30, 2018

Half Angry, Half Exhausted

Most days I believe this polarization is beyond repair.  The divide between blue and red has become an unbridgeable chasm, and our nation may very well be in its death throes.  It’s easy to get caught up in the despair and the rhetoric, the dire predictions for the planet and our species.  Much of the time, that’s where I find myself.

But every so often, I’m reminded of the fact that the great majority of people just want to live their lives in peace.  Most of us are good, decent people — flawed but compassionate, opinionated but full of love — more often concerned about our own small circles of family, friends and jobs and enjoying the day than about the larger problems looming ahead when we bother to look toward the horizon.

And this leads me to believe that perhaps we will all soon reach a point where we are tired of all the screaming and accusations, tired of the whole chaotic mess.  Can we envision a time in the near future when we’re ready to find our way back to having open, honest communication?  If we can envision it, maybe it’s possible.

I used a trusted old technique recently — the abecedarian — to explore what it might take to unwind the tightly-wound top we’ve spun ourselves into.  The alphabet is just as recognizable backward as forward, after all.  Zippers go down as well as up.

If we can envision it, if enough of us want to see it, I have to believe we can make it so.  If we’re going to turn things around in time to secure a future for this world, it’s going to take a collective effort.

Time to turn the alphabet around and see what happens.

 

Rx

 

Awareness of those sneaky

Bogeymen hiding in your

Closets and computers.

Deliberate confrontation when

Evil disguises itself as good.

Fearless speaking of truth –

Girls and gays and all

Human beings marginalized

In the name of security or God.

Justice, justice, justice.

Kingmakers brought to their knees.

Lights beamed behind closed doors:

Menaces and bigots exposed, all their

Nefarious abuses of power with

Obsessing oily hands and mouths.

Print their names in bolded caps.

Quell any pathetic outcry with

Ramrods of legalese.

Shout their names into a million

TV sets and living rooms.

Untie blinders from every eye.

Vanquish the deniers – hypocrites

Who prevaricate & victim-blame.

Expose all excuses as excrement.

You have the power to upend it all – you

Zealous disciples of self-righteousness.

.           .           .           .

Zero sum game, this

Yawning gap between us –

X in the middle, a deep abyss.

Who will extend the first hand,

Vault across with an olive branch,

Utter – plainly and calmly –

Truce?

Speak in the language of humans:

Respectfully.

Quietly.

Palms up, pentitent.

Only then can we begin to

Name truth as truth,

Make a reality from the haze,

Leave lies and myths behind, their un-

Kindest cuts still bleeding,

Join in what we know

In our deepest selves to be the most

Human act:  forgiveness.

Get down on our collective knees,

Fall together in one

Earnest plea for

Deliverance from the dark

Corners we’ve painted ourselves into.

Behold our imperfections. Yet each of us

Altogether capable of humility.  Of love.

 

———-

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 27, 2017

Van Gogh and My Son Meet Up on the Spectrum

So, did Vincent van Gogh really slice off his own ear?

 

That’s been the story for over 100 years – that the brilliant but undiscovered, tortured artist went mad that fateful Christmas Eve of 1888 in Arles, arguing with his sometime friend, Paul Gaugin.  After Gaugin stormed out, van Gogh supposedly hacked at himself with a knife and then sent the ear to a woman he loved – who promptly fainted.

 

But now, some have begun to question the story.  Adam Gopnik, in last week’s New Yorker, writes a thoroughly researched and fascinating essay arguing that more likely it was Gaugin – the reluctant, surly friend – who had finally had enough of the constant, obsessive chatter from the “madman,” and with one quick flick of his rapier, sliced his ear cleanly off.  Apparently Gaugin was an expert swordsman and carried a rapier with him as one might a walking stick.

 

Gaugin fled to Paris and never saw Van Gogh again, much to brother Theo van Gogh’s dismay.  According to Gopnik, Theo took such pity on Vincent that he had paid Gaugin to go to Arles to help Vincent realize his dream of an artists’ colony.  Gaugin’s heart wasn’t in the effort, and the result is history. After the ear incident, van Gogh went to live in an institution, and just a few months later shot himself (or was shot by hooligans– yet another mystery).

 

When I read this revised account of the story, I found myself feeling strangely empathetic toward Paul Gaugin, who in a moment of total exasperation (though no doubt fueled also by alcohol), had finally had enough of his friend’s constant raving.  This is because I, too, have had moments when I thought I would lose my mind for exactly the same reason.

 

My son, since he first learned how to string words intelligibly into sentences at age 4, has quite literally never stopped talking.  One night when he was around 6 or 7, he announced it was time for bed because “my mouth is tired.”  And I replied, “Yes, and so are my ears!”  I’ve come to understand that it is very difficult for him to process language without hearing it.  He reads books only by reading them aloud or listening to audio versions.  And he thinks best when he can hear his own voice speaking all of his thoughts aloud.

 

Now 26, my son’s dawn-to-dusk litanies continue.  Just yesterday, on a 20-minute drive with him, I was subjected to a constant monologue in which he listed all the pizza restaurants in the area, naming which have recently closed, which new ones have opened or expanded, what their hours of operation are, and whether they offer dine-in or delivery options.  Since this happened on a sunny morning when I happened to be in a good mood, I was able to focus on the song playing on the radio, mindlessly offering an “Oh,” or “Okay,” every so often to let him believe I was listening to him. Other times I am not so patient. Often I just want to cry.

 

Reading about van Gogh, I began to wonder:  might he, too, have been an auditory thinker?  Might he have been on the autism spectrum, unable to stop his mind from racing, obsessing, cataloguing, repeating?

 

We’ve made such progress in our understanding of autism – from the mid-90’s when I carried little “Autism is….” cards to hand to strangers who gawked or scowled in the grocery store when my son threw a tantrum, to today where the attitude of “We’re all a little bit on the spectrum” prevails.  And yet….without a miracle that can re-wire my son’s brain, he will forever struggle with a nearly-crippling anxiety and uncertainty about other people’s feelings, fretting about whether or not they like him.

 

Apparently, van Gogh’s torment, too, was insecurity about being liked and accepted.  His vision when he moved to Arles was, his letters say, to find beautiful women who would love him, and to be surrounded by other artists who would all paint together and thrive as a collective.  This vision of a merry commune never materialized, largely due to van Gogh’s own tendency to drive others away with his intensity and his obsessive, stream-of-consciousness chatter.

 

Gopnik says of van Gogh, “When his mind went wrong, he became all heart.”  He loved and needed others’ love too much, and in all the wrong ways.  In this, I see my son, the collector of people, the empath who channels people’s warmth or coldness in equal measure and who is either totally validated or rejected by each. For weeks and months after an encounter, my son worries about it.

 

Using Gopnik’s quote, I’ve created a golden shovel poem, where the words of the quote are used as the final words in each line:

 

 

Empath

 

 

Who can understand the turmoil – when

suddenly nothing makes sense, when his

eyes and hands freeze in panic, when his mind

loops again and again over where he went

astray, the scrambled words wrong, all wrong.

Please no, do not reject me, he

silently pleads.  Love me.  When he became

a man it got so much harder.  All

he knows is the constant bruise of his heart.

—–

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 26, 2017

Memoirs That Change Us

I’m drawn to the heartbreak of memoirs – the beautiful stories writers tell of their own messy lives and regrets. Lots of famous people write memoirs (or have them written), but I love the memoirs written by excellent writers, a.k.a. literary memoirs. Reading of their quests for joy and meaning, we’re fortified to work harder at the same quest. Reading of their attempts at atonement, we find the need to face our own checkered narratives more honestly. In fact, one common thread noted by several memoirists interviewed for Meredith Maran’s 2016 book, Why We Write About Ourselves – is that a successful memoir must pay heed to the old adage of a fiction writer: “Be twice as hard on the narrator as you are on everyone else.” In your memoir, the narrator is yourself.

Some favorites of mine in the literary memoir category include the following – all very highly recommended by many other writers and in no particular order:

The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard (1998)
Dear Mr. You, by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (2012)
The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer (2006)
Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy (1965) – (often cited as the model for the contemporary memoir)
Just Kids, by Patti Smith (2010)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn (2004)
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard (1987)

One I’ll add to the top of the list is the new book by Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. In this gut-wrenching memoir, Alexie lays bare his many wounds and doubts as he reflects on his mother’s recent death and on his life as a “rez” kid – poor, ugly, often neglected and taunted. He struggles to accept his own choice to leave the reservation as a teenager, and he agonizes over the possibility that his mother didn’t love him . . . or that he didn’t love her. Half written in prose and half in poetry, Alexie artfully weaves memories with mature reflection as he moves – we hope – toward reconciliation.

Alexie recently announced he was cutting short his book tour due to a deepening despair and depression. Adding to his decision were signs from his mother that he should stop discussing the book with others and just go home, suggesting she was offended by his words and actions. As an indigenous man, Alexie believes in the power of the spirit world and dreams; a visitation from his mother one night in a dream – with her holding up a stop sign – was the final straw. He explained in a Facebook post, “As I write in the memoir, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time. As I also write in the memoir, I don’t believe in magic, but I believe in interpreting coincidence exactly the way you want to.”

{NOTE:  Since the publication of this entry, Alexie was accused by multiple women of questionable and/or criminal conduct, as part of the #MeToo movement.  I was utterly disappointed to read this, and while I find his behavior abhorrent, I will stand by my review of his book as being powerful and moving.  His words and actions moving forward — as well as the outcomes of the civil cases against him — will determine whether or not I will continue being a reader of his books. Each of us will have to make these hard choices for ourselves regarding the artists whose works we have admired.]

Reading about Sherman Alexie’s dream experience called to mind a dream I had about my own mother just 2-3 years ago. It was one of those brief but powerfully vivid dreams – giving me a memory that seems now as real and powerful as any memory of reality. I’ve tried in vain to write a poem about the dream, but after reading Alexie’s book, I’ve decided that the Japanese hybrid form of haibun is what it calls for. Haibun uses a descriptive paragraph followed by haiku to capture the sum of an experience.

 

My Mother Speaks to Me in a Dream

In my car one night, you’re on the phone with Dad, just hanging up. Hurry home, you tell me. He’ll be there by eight o’clock. As if our being there depended on it. It’s dark in the car, and you’re wearing your brown coat and a scarf on your head, like you always did in the winter. Your urgency tugs at me – yes, I’ll get going, get home quickly. But you’ve been gone more than thirty years now, and you’ve never seen a cell phone let alone used one, so I become aware that I am dreaming. In this dream I have become the mother, now older than you ever were. Tell me, where is this home you speak of, where my father will be waiting? You hold the phone in your two hands and stare out at the road ahead, face softly lit by the dashboard lights, your mission clear. And then you are gone.

 

your voice in the dark
return, return, you implore
the urgent speed of years

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 2, 2017

Chockablock in Words

I’ve been awash in words this summer, even more than what’s usual for an English teacher and avowed word geek.  I’ve learned that English contains by far more words than any other language – which makes sense since it’s such a mash-up of other languages (due to all that continual conquering by folks from other regions).  According to The Story of English (McCrum, Cran, & MacNeil, 1992), the complete Oxford English Dictionary lists over 500,000 words, not including another half million technical and scientific words that they haven’t yet squeezed in.  That’s a million in all!  Astounding.  The next largest, German, has a measly 185,000, and French, a mere 100,000.

Even though thousands of the words in the OED are no longer used, we still have dozens of synonyms for many words at our disposal and countless adjectives to describe feelings, movements, or elements of nature.  Sadly, though, most native English speakers only use 20,000 to 35,000 words in their daily lives.  While most of us know nearly 10,000 words by age 8, we apparently  stop accumulating new words somewhere around middle age, unless we make a concerted effort not to.

 

If you’re a word geek like me, you won’t want to miss the new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and editor at Merriam-Webster.  Fascinating, hilarious, and sometimes shocking, Stamper educates us about everything from the history of words to the difficulty of updating each edition of the dictionary in a culture that coins new words and phrases daily.  She devotes pages to explaining how the internet has radically changed the job of the lexicographer, and she carefully explains just what dictionaries are supposed to do – then also reveals all the misconceptions people have about that.  She chooses to ground much of these discussions in chapters centered on key words:  but, irregardless, surfboard, take, bitch, nuclear, nude, marriage.  (You can likely guess the issues with some of these words without reading the book!)

I’m not kidding when I confess that this book was more of a page-turner for me than any sizzling mystery story.  Stamper’s writing style is highly conversational and readable, making a potentially deathly-boring topic come alive with very contemporary anecdotes and humor.  Some of her passages verge on the poetic.  She clearly loves her job and loves the English language.

 

So, just as I’d finished reading Word By Word, I headed up to Madison for another

Pyle_Center

glorious week among fellow poets at U-W’s annual Write-by-the-Lake conference.  And on the first day, what did I discover our focus for the week was going to be?  The power of strong WORDS.  Our instructor, Marilyn Taylor, challenged us to write four poems, one each day, that explored not only a different topic but that used unusual words – which she had compiled for us in advance by scouring other well-written poems.  This created a marvelous constraint for us and shoved us – hard – out of our lexical complacency!

indexFor example, a poem about death or loss was NOT to use any of these tired old death-poem words:  death, loss, grieve, sadness, mourn, sunset, heart, or heaven.  Instead, we needed to find a way to incorporate some of these:  blossom, brittle, dappled, Matisse, pink, polka, smudge.  Most of us agreed it took over an hour just to hit on an idea and get started!  But it was a delight each morning to share our 15 wildly different poems with each other.

A good poet friend of mine has shared that she’s been using this technique – gathering interesting words in advance – for several months now, and creating poems she never would have written otherwise.  They are remarkably fresh and powerful.  Clearly, this is a process I need to start using with my own poetry.

 

The first poem I composed in Madison is the strangest of the four, and maybe also the strongest, simply because of its weirdness.  The topic was food/cooking.  I owe the entire poem to the word list, primarily “unmoored,” which sparked an eerie scene in my mind.  I call it “Fever.”

 

Unmoored, marooned, the ship lurched and we

clutched the railing, momentarily forestalled in our

desperate quest to find the source of the smell –

glimmering onions and mushrooms, voluptuous

vegetables – sautéed by some magician below.

Three days after escaping brutal pirates,

we few survivors, slowly starving, awakened

dreaming about home and sun and the great

periwinkle sky barely visible through

louvered windows in the stifling cabin

where we had found meager refuge.  Then

that savory incense pinched us, reeled us in –

hypnotized, unbearded and naked with hope.

Whispering prayers, we made the descent,

deep into the marrow of the iron beast,

where at last we discovered great fires

popping with the brilliantine slick of olive oil.

Outlined by the blaze in the blackness

was a taut, tattooed chef, preening like some

La Scala diva and brandishing machetes

like ginsu knives, his wry smile daring us

to step forward and eat . . . or be eaten.

 

 

One more great tool I learned about this week was a new online dictionary/thesaurus called Onelook.com.  The extensive lists of synonyms and antonyms they’ve compiled teem with choices you’d never come up with on your own.  (Like “chockablock”!)  Now, how to write a poem about swimming using the words mathematics, shinbone, and wysteria…..

 

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