Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | April 2, 2017

The Periphery

Sitting in the audience of “Mamma Mia!” the other day, I found myself watching the members of the ensemble rather than the leading players.  Even when it was only Mamma on stage, my eyes wandered to the orchestra, the audience, or the set pieces.  Not that the actor playing Rosie wasn’t wonderful, but I guess I felt like I’ve seen leads belting out soulful tunes enough times to know how it looks.  I was more curious about all the other stuff going on in the room – how the lights were fading or changing colors, or how that big bunch of flowers had been hung from the rafters.


Lately I’ve found myself less and less interested in the “main attraction” of the day and more captivated by the background, the periphery.  I’ve seen enough glitz, been distracted too many times by the new, bright, red or shiny thing, the loudest voice, the fastest car.  I’m bored by it.  Let me see the people behind the scenes putting it all together.  The roots under the roses.  Rather than reading about any First Lady, I’d like to read about one of her assistants, or better yet, someone as far away from the  White House as possible.

At first I thought this was just an anger response to the news cycles, where certain people now throw out constant distractions via Twitter storms – while the much more interesting stuff is buried at the bottom of page 8 or 20 minutes into the newscast.   That’s probably part of it.  But it’s also probably just due to aging – slowing down, recognizing I’m past the halfway mark, wanting to savor more of what’s happening in real time.

I read differently now, listen to music differently.  It’s possible I’m a better driver, too, since it doesn’t take so much effort to force myself to be in the present and pay attention.  I’m grateful to be growing more patient with my son, whose disability keeps him ever obsessing and vocalizing about his narrow interests.  Relax, I tell myself.  One day, you’ll miss his chatter, when he’s settled into a group home and you don’t spend so much time with him.


Perhaps this tendency to slow down and be more thoughtful as we age is one reason why most cultures honor their elders.  My father is quite content at 85 to sit by his large picture window and read all day long, alone with his thoughts.   When I think of the collective wisdom of his generation, I’m humbled.  So tell me more about life on the farm, Dad.  Describe for me again how it felt to walk 6 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways.



At the periphery, images so often unnoticed

now come into focus:



Ivy woven like mossy lace fills the ground

around crimson roses.


Rows of dancers dressed in white line the stage,

their paralleled legs a perfect arch

around the prima ballerina in pink.


Air waves mingle as I listen to the news,

the faint wailing of Mariachi

echoing at the edge of the dial.



I have begun to pay attention to the bass line

instead of the bleeding lead guitar,

to sing along with bluer harmonies;


To see the shades of light in those billowing clouds

daubed above Monet’s purpled haystacks

in the center of the golden frame;



To find each sparrow on the patio as distinct—

each stripe and patch of sienna or tan

made that much richer when set against

the gaudy scarlet of the cardinal in their midst.


Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 24, 2016

Thoughts on Longest Night

I’m not one to write metaphoric poems.  They can be overly dramatic and seem old-fashioned, reminiscent of the great Romantics of prior centuries. But on the Solstice this year, I couldn’t avoid feeling as if we were all trapped in a metaphor of serious consequence.  The events of the last several weeks have left millions of us stunned and rudderless.  Reality is not offering much that is poetic at this year’s end, which is supposed to be a time when we feel the anticipation of the return of the light.   So, metaphor it is — with a nod to the often cheerless William Blake.


The Coming Dark



We wander out into the field,

stars hidden behind clouds,

the snow glowing gently purple

in the day’s remaining light.


We’ve forgotten what we seek

but here we are, in winter’s dark,

our deep tracks behind us

to tell us where we’ve been.


Blake wrote of Winter raising

his scepter over the world

to “wither all in silence.”

We tunnel into a drift to sleep.



We’ll search until we find

the elixir we know we need.

Chill settles into our bones but

we have warmth yet. We breathe.



Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 4, 2016

Avoiding the Sentimental

My seasonal poetry trigger is out of whack.  Last fall, I felt the urge to write about winter.  Now it’s begun to snow, and I’m stuck thinking about summer.  But in both cases, the idea for a poem was sparked by a random memory, and when the Muse comes knocking, you let her in.

lions-park-poolThe other day I heard “Happy Together,” the old pop tune by the Turtles, and was instantly transported to the concrete deck of Lions Park Pool, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood summers.

I realized that this happens several times a year, the jogging of memory to The Pool.  I think this is because of its smorgasbord of sensory images, which have lodged, as an intense unit, in a back corner of my brain.  So it was pretty clear this was a seminal experience that I needed to work out in a poem.

The problem is that trying to craft a childhood memory poem is like walking a taut wire across a yawning gulch of sentimentality. One tiny slip, and the poem is lost to the goo amidst glittering raindrops and over-loved Teddy bears missing an eye. Plus basically every greeting card ever printed.

blue-teddy-bear-flowers-18072850Lions Park Pool is my epitomal growing-up place — that place each of us has in our past where we faced fears and overcame them and where we developed our core sense of self.  But Lions Park Pool was also full of flower-covered towels and bathing suits, splashes and screams, pop tunes, Dreamsicles and Sno-cones, bright sunshine, and a sea of goose-bumpy bodies with raging hormones.  Cliches all.

How can any writer evoke the intensity of such a key experience, yet still manage to keep the poem fresh, surprising, and honest?  Well, it’s just plain hard.  But it’s important to attempt it; these poems and essays are the ones that help us understand who we are and what it means to be human.  (Plus readers tend to really like them.)

Honesty doesn’t have to be depressing.  But happy places don’t have to sparkle, either.  We have to dig down to get at truths — even simple ones.  We need to choose the most significant details for the purpose of the poem, not just settle for the easy image because it’s fun.

This poem about Lions Park Pool took me days to write and probably fails in both regards — in its attempt to avoid sentimentality and to capture the essence of a girl’s first steps into adulthood.  But hopefully it will invite similar memories for a few readers and provide some insights into their earlier versions of themselves. On a more personal level, it might evoke a fun connection for my friends who grew up with me in Elk Grove Village and remember the pool before it was transformed into the Rainbow Falls Water Park.  (Ack.)


Lions Park Pool


My mind returns again to the pool,

that steadfast slab of aquamarine

filled each year for the village kids

who descended on bikes to bare their limbs

in a frenzy of seasonal freedom.



Sensory overload is what we craved—

(is this why I remember it so well?)

—twinned smells of chlorine and coconut,

the din of splash, shriek and whistle,

that blissful rush of cool on skin

newly crisped by the exulting sun.


One best friend was all you needed.

Layered between blue water and sky

afloat on our backs, or eeling through forests

of glowing legs, our eyes open and stinging—

we swam and dived till we pruned,

then scurried over concrete to flimsy towels

laid out along the chain-link fence.


Lying on our bellies, chins on arms,

we’d gaze at the bronze Adonises

in the lifeguard chairs with idolatry

pure and unashamed.  Our legs,

diving(so small and unshaven) splayed behind us

like knob-kneed foals’, could jump up

on a whim to climb to the high dive and soar—

then touch bottom and catapult back into air.


Our nascent bodies, arms wide to life,

hang burnished in that moment—

where buoy ropes and Top-40 beats

reassure us—yes.  This happiness is all

we’ll ever need to claim or to believe in.


(Swim drawings: Annette O’Toole, Pinterest)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | November 5, 2016

Facing What Comes After

cliff-edgeHere we go again, diving into the unknown.  We anxious types hate that, facing the “What Comes After.”  If you live in Chicagoland as I do, or are a baseball fan, you may be wondering What Comes After the goat curse has been broken.  And for every American, it applies to Wednesday morning, when we wake to the idea of a new — and certainly troubled — presidency that will carry us into 2020.

We set the clocks back again this weekend in our hapless quest to conquer time, but autumn marches on into a winter that has been predicted to be horrific here in the Midwest.  Today, however, it’s 70 degrees outside, and my impatiens are still blooming.  Climate change offers another abyss to stare into.

We can get sucked into the doomsday scenarios and freak out, or we can just dive in and manage whatever comes.  We who have stable lives and food on the table each day can remind ourselves that for many millions of people, the abyss they face is much deeper and darker, and we can shake off our angst and go about living. Plus, poetry helps.

So this poem, a golden shovel (with an extra-line cheat at the end), comes from my perspective as I stand at the edge — the final days of this horrendous political year.  There is relief in closure, even when what comes next may be nothing to celebrate.  Frankly, I will welcome some radio silence.



Gold in Shadows



“Autumn — the year’s last, loveliest smile”

(William Cullen Bryant, 19th century poet)

The trees rust and bleed.  Autumn

turns earth inside out, reveals the year’s

accumulated pain, signals one last

chance to glimpse — at dusk — the loveliest

swaths of gold between the shadows, like smiles

of the weary who are welcoming the dark.



I’ll add one final piece, which is the closing stanza of a poem by Len Anderson in Issue 49 of Rattle called “The Basic Question.”  Anderson’s attitude toward standing at the edge is rosier than mine….so I like it.




Don’t despair, just listen

as attentively as you can,

and when you can’t help it,

burst into song,

write down what you can

in whatever notation you have,

and pass it on.  You

are part of the song.


(Images by Ruby Blossom, Alamy, Mahran Banaei)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | October 3, 2016

Autumn sparks the poet in us all

red leaves appear

on the crown of the maple

final revelry

There’s no way to tell, but I’d wager more poetry has been written during and about autumnautumn-trees-13053203313qk than any other season — with spring following closely behind.  Witnessing death and rebirth all around us brings out our inner poets.

John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” is my favorite fall poem, for its masterful use of stanzas to show the passage of time throughout the autumn season as well as throughout one day.  He also focuses each stanza on one of the senses, adding another layer of complexity.

This poem single-handedly taught me the precision of the poet’s craft.

For me, though, it’s hard not to race ahead to winter the moment I see the first leaf yellow and fall.  The nip of evening brings on a chill we know too well, those of us in the northern regions.  Leafy bonfires quickly give way to logs in the fireplace.

bare-tree-at-sunset-douglas-taylorSo I guess it’s no surprise that when I sat down to write about autumn, I ended up with a poem about facing another winter!  The natural world spends the fall preparing for winter, after all.  Squirrels are already digging up my flower pots, burying nuts.  A flock of sandhill cranes flew overhead this morning, squawking their retreat.  And underneath the bark of every tree, soon to be barren, the sap is slowly thickening in order to allow the tree to survive the lashes of snow and frigid days to come.

Here’s a poem I wrote using the ovillejo form, one I’d not heard of until recently.  It comes from 16th century Spain and is a form Cervantes liked to use.  Its constraints include the 4 stanzas, syllable counts, a rhyme scheme, and some repetition in the final quatrain.  Typically, the ovillejo opens by posing a question.

Facing Winter


How can we face the winter again?

That white terrain.


A shard of ice, a freeze of breath,

a little death.


Infinite gray, the taunting wink of sun –

time’s gaping yawn.


Rest now, rest.  How pointless the grief

when every fiber of nature – sedated,

wise, patient – knows the white terrain.

A little death, then chariots unleashed.



Photo credits:  2livelong.blogspot (apples); (swallows); kathrynwarmstrong.wordpress (sun in trees)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 4, 2016

A New Kind of Care for the Mentally Ill


My son, who is developmentally disabled, turned 25 this spring.  The future looms.  This is why a recent podcast aired on NPR caught my interest.

This episode of “Invisibilia,” by journalist Lulu Miller, explores a model of care for people with mental illness which, until now, has been virtually unknown in the U.S.  Miller takes us to Geel, Belgium, a small town near Antwerp, where for centuries the citizens have practiced a very inclusive form of foster care for the mentally ill.  In many cases, adoptees stay with families for decades, their peculiarities managed, sometimes modified for safety purposes, but often simply accepted.  While walking the streets of Geel, Miller sees several citizens talking to themselves, making gestures, and wandering into homes and shops.  No one seems to notice.  No one confronts them, re-directs them, or avoids them.  People simply go about their day, greeting, meeting, and completing their business as usual.

Whether or not the legend is true that Geel’s longstanding practice of foster care stems from the Medieval-era martyrdom of a young woman, Dymphna, who became the patron saint of the mentally ill, the town honors her in its practice, which is supported by a small amount of government funding.  The families Lulu Miller interviews see their place as care-givers to the mentally ill as a natural calling – something that is not questioned or resented.  It’s the way the town has always been, and with very few problems over the years.

Caucasian couple hugging on sofa

What Miller discusses midway through the podcast is astonishing.  In the Geelian philosophy, mental illness is not viewed as something that needs to be “cured” at all, nor even necessarily treated with medication.  Indeed, most of the people in Geel do not need to be medicated as they are allowed to be who they are, and they therefore are not filled with anxiety, shame, or rage over their condition.  Miller hears one man singing happily as he passes her on the street.  Another man’s need to hug everyone became a bit overwhelming for his foster mother, so the town helped to find him a girlfriend who would enjoy his constant hugging.

The final point Miller makes in the broadcast pierced me straight through – as it did Miller herself and her own father when they recalled the troubles long ago when her mentally ill sister lived with them.  Her sister struggled horribly and was miserable, and in a poignant moment on tape, her father breaks down when he confesses he treated his little girl with anger rather than compassion for her outbursts.  The sister, though, has now lived many years on her own in an apartment and is quite happy.  She explains that she wasn’t comfortable until she could be in a place where she wouldn’t be constantly criticized, yelled at, and made to feel deficient.  The podcast includes interviews with psychologists who have begun to find, in studies, that sometimes the best caregivers for the mentally ill are those who are not family members.  (I held my breath listening to this part.)  In many cases, the emotional bonds between parents and children can be so fraught with stress and expectations that it can make the illness worse.  Non-related caregivers can often be more relaxed and accepting about the person’s special needs or unusual behaviors, not seeing these things as a reflection of themselves or their parenting.

Pain-MedsUnlike Miller’s sister, my son does not have a mental illness.  He has autism, which is a cognitive and social disability that cannot be cured or changed.  He is medicated to reduce his anxiety, which can be crippling for him as he tries to navigate a life among two families with their complicated schedules and expectations as well as his various programs.  But it has made me wonder:  If his life had not been so complicated or people’s expectations of him so exacting, would he even have severe anxiety?

In America, parents are socialized to keep their children in line at all costs in public places so as not to disturb others or make them uncomfortable.  Sometimes this is important to do – yes – as we take on the responsibility of teaching our kids how to get along in the world and fit in.  Instances of parental neglect and subsequent shaming have been captured and spread on YouTube in recent years with self-righteous abandon.  When Ramon was small, I heard critical remarks regularly from strangers in grocery stores and restaurants, as well as from my own family members, about my inability to control him.  I felt constant shame because of this, and I doubled down on my efforts to change his behavior.

lets-playWhen Ray was first diagnosed in the mid-1990s, we sought out various types of therapy to help him with his speech, socialization, self-help skills, and school.  One program that was very highly recommended was the Lovaas Method, an intensive system of Applied Behavioral Analysis that involved 16-hour days of constant “floor time” with the child, forcing rote repetition of “correct” speech, answers to questions, eye contact, and normative physical behaviors.  Until just a few years ago, Lovaas therapists also used physical punishments to deter “wrong” behavior, including slaps and electric shocks.  Many families sold their homes and moved to New England to immerse their children in this costly program.  I remember feeling torn:  Was I a bad mother for not choosing this for my child?  Something about it seemed so very disturbing and wrong to me – the idea that adult humans could work so hard to “break” a child of his autism, like breaking a wild horse in order to ride it.  To me, Ramon’s quirks were a part of who he was.  His obsessions and peculiarities seemed to make him joyful;  to “break” him of them would kill his spirit. (In fact, over the years the Lovaas Method has been largely discredited, as the majority of children who initially showed great strides in behavior quickly reverted to their natural selves within months after finishing the program.)

AbilityAllieswithBackground2Now, at last, there seems to be a major shift underway in our attitudes toward “otherness,” as humans have come to accept a broader range of ways of thinking and being.  The final walls to come down are those that have ostracized people who do not fit the traditional gender binary and those who are other-abled in body and/or mind.  So, the question is:  As tens of thousands of children with autism spectrum disorders grow up, joining so many others who are born with disabilities or who develop illnesses like schizophrenia or severe phobias, will we finally realize that we simply should not be bothered by an individual’s unique traits or mannerisms?  Can we love and accept all the human beings who walk and work and live among us – no longer judging or teasing them, no longer shaming parents for letting them be who they are?  (Anti-bullying campaigns have made great progress among our school children, but we still need a similar program for adults.  Witness a certain presidential candidate.)

onion-river-crossroadsMy son’s best friend Jessica has just moved into a group home in a suburban neighborhood, and so far she’s loving it.  At 28, she’s excited to be in a house with four other women near her age who share her interests in movies, music, and foods.  Paid caregivers, provided by the Clearbrook organization, attend the women at all times.  Jessica’s care-taking grandmother (who is 91) is understandably relieved to have seen this move come while she is still alive to help with the transition.  And now Ramon’s curiosity has been piqued – making me, too, feel relieved.  Imagining him living safely and contentedly in a home without me or his father is a vision I’ve dreamed about for years.  The story about Geel and new studies in caring for the disabled has helped reduce my fears about my son’s potential for being well cared for — perhaps even loved — by those who may not be family members at all.

I’m inspired to know about the paradigm of care in Geel, and I’m thrilled that Lulu Miller and the Invisibilia team have brought the story to us with the help of NPR.  But what would make me happiest of all would be to believe that it is a concept whose time has truly come here in America, one to be embraced by communities across the land – and eventually the whole world.


Links to the Invisibilia podcast and to info about Geel:

Photo credits:  Wikipedia, Huffington Post,


Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 24, 2016

Hawks in the Neighborhood

Red-tailed-Hawk_MV203[New poem below — “Cooper’s Hawk”]

In the bird world, red-tailed hawks rule the Midwest.  You can see them dotted against the sky every time you take a drive – on utility poles, high tension wires, and limbs of dead trees.  Big and stocky, red-tails perch for long spells, then suddenly swoop down to snatch up the unsuspecting mouse, rabbit, toad, or baby bird.  Any time a red-tail is near, all the other birds in the vicinity chirp noisy alerts and send brave warriors to try and drive it away.



hawk_coopers_adult_winter_california_3aLately, however, there’s a new hawk in town.  Until recently, all I knew about the Cooper’s Hawk was that it was the name of a trendy restaurant chain where you can get a flight of good wine during happy hour.  Then an actual one moved into my neighborhood.  This is one crafty hawk!  Sleeker and smaller than the red-tail, the Cooper’s hawk hangs out in trees of any size, often right in our back yards.  It will dart across lawns at window level into a hedge or fir tree to grab a bird off a branch.  The other day, I saw a Cooper fly past my windshield in pursuit of a robin just as I pulled out of my subdivision.  I’ll never know if that poor robin went on to find dinner or become one.



owlRed-tails and Coopers seem to co-exist nicely in a given area so long as there’s an abundance of critters – and what suburban area lacks them?  Add the owls and coyotes prowling at night, and it’s a wonder there’s a chipmunk left around here.  (But of course there is – right under my front porch.)


Despite hawks’ brutal, predatory nature, it’s hard not to find them awesome and beautiful.



Cooper’s Hawk


It darted with sureness

into the evergreen.  Glad

coopinitI wasn’t near enough to hear

the death screech when talons

punctured nape, I shuddered

to see the limp blackbird

soon draped on a wide branch

of my neighbor’s oak tree.

The victor wasted no time

tearing in.  Feathers flew

as the sharp beak ripped,

bit by bit, at the flesh of itsCOHA_adMale3

cousin, its steely head

like the knobbed handle

of a cane, its striped tail, ruler-

straight, pointing down.

Precise, focused, functional:

eyes, claws, talons, tail.

Gnawing hunger.  An absence

of shame.



Cooper’s hawk photos by Bill Schmoker



Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 27, 2016

Poetry Reading April 7 in Barrington

Please join me at Grassroots in downtown Barrington on Thursday evening, April 7, for “Transcendence,” a collective reading from 7 local poets.  I was very happy to be invited to join these talented writers, including organizer Terry Loncaric, Tamara Tabel, Michelle Brinckerhoff, Judith K. Tepfer, Joanna Kurowska, Carmen Severino, and Tracie Pradal.

We’ll each read 2 sets of 3 poems each.  Start time:  7 p.m. 

Come on out for a night of poetry, and wear your tie-dye! 

Grassroots is at 211 Park Avenue, Barrington.


Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 14, 2016

Next Reading: Madame Zuzu’s in Highland Park

zuzu logoI’m really looking forward to the next reading from my book.  It’s slated for Saturday night, March 26, at 8:00 at a trendy new spot in Ravinia-land, Madame Zuzu’s Tea Shop and Art Studio.  Billy Corgan — he of Smashing Pumpkins fame — owns this space, though I hear he rarely makes appearances.  Regardless, it has an interesting vibe and attracts a small core of poetry diehards to its Saturday open mic sessions, which are sponsored by Highland Park Poetry.

Margie Skelly and I will again be sharing the stage as the opening readers.  After that, anyone can share their work, so writers — bring something to read!

Madame Zuzu’s is located at 582 Roger Williams Ave. in Highland Park.  Here is the link to their website:




Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | February 9, 2016

Poetry Reading on Feb. 28 in Westmont

111250685My next reading, shared with fellow poet and good friend Marjorie Skelly of Chicago, will be at the Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse in Westmont, Sunday, Feb. 28 at 12:30.  A $10 cover will get you a beverage, a snack, and our reading, followed by 2 hours of entertainment with an open mic hosted by the Illinois State Poetry Society.

More information at the Brewed Awakenings website!  Come join us for some warmth and inspiration.



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