Sunday, February 5, 2012

I attend a poetry class

I've been looking around Denver for some time now for a poetry class so I can mix it up with other poets, have my work critiqued, and learn more about writing poetry. I'm going on Monday evenings to Lighthouse Writers, a non-profit group in town that has been around for 15 years or so. I've enjoyed the class because each week we get an assignment to write a poem based on some guidance from the workshop leader. Those exercised have kicked me out of my rut, and I've written a couple of poems I think are fairly good.

The latest exercise, one I'll hand in read in class for comment comes from an idea I've had germinating for a couple of years but haven't been able to get a good start on. I've made a couple of lame starts that seem to head off down the rabbit hole. This exercise was to write a "stream of consciousness" poem, described as letting the mind go where it will to create the draft and then revise to make it worthwhile. So I sat down with my computer and did a free writing exercise in which I just wrote for about 15 minutes trying to gather thoughts about the topic. I let that exercise sit for a day or two and ruminated on it.

Then I started the poem, revising many times, cutting and pasting as I moved one major section ahead of where it was and cutting lines and words. I finally have a poem I think it pretty good. My mentor, Chris, up in Montana, looked at it and made a suggestion that really helped it. She stumbled over some of the same phrasing I stumbled over. The difference is that she was willing to point it out while I was willing to just ignore it. It was too hard to fix.

The poem is based on the remains of a homestead from the 1890s on a ridge line at the Plains Center where I volunteer. The only signs that someone once lived there are a few depressions in the prairie, some broken china, a rusted kettle, a porcelain pan that someone used for target practice, and a couple of piles of rolled up barbed wire.

We have a little bit of information about the family that lived there, but I wanted to use the site as the basis of a poem more about the hardships of the life of a homesteader, the courage it took to be a homesteader, and the very real possibility of failure, including death from the harsh conditions on the prairie.

So here's the poem I'll hand in tomorrow evening.

A Slight Depression 
This grass-filled hole in the ground 
is more a slight depression, half the size 
of a grave. A hundred twenty years ago 
a widow and three sons homesteaded here. 
Their world was beautiful. Snow-capped 
mountains to the west and infinite prairie 
in every other direction. Just a quarter mile 
east a line of cottonwoods marks a small 
ephemeral creek. A fading trail meanders 
down the ridge to the creek, showing where
they hauled water those first years.

The woman boiled strong coffee every morning 
for her family in that rusted kettle sitting there 
half hidden in the grass. She washed dishes 
in that porcelain pan lying upside down 
and shot full of bullet holes. Winter evenings, 
when work was done, she sipped dandelion tea 
from that shattered china cup. The two brown, 
rusted, snarls of barbed wire over there kept 
her milk cow out of the vegetable garden. 

Did drought leave them no garden, the mule 
and cattle dead, unable to “proof” their claim? 
Or an arctic blizzard overwhelm them, 
unable to pull water from the frozen well, 
unable to retrieve food from the root cellar, 
unable to save their animals and themselves? 

Where did they go? Why did they go? 
Their sod home long melted into the prairie, 
leaving only a tea kettle, a porcelain pan, 
a shattered china cup, a roll of wire, 
and a slight depression in the prairie 
to mark their passage. 

© 2012 Art Elser 

Even today, the life of a rancher or farmer on the prairie is not easy. I have trouble imagining life with no ability to get medical aid quickly, no help for drought, no way to live through a howling blizzard. And many of those folks came out with no farming experience thinking that 160 acres in Colorado was the same as 160 acres in Ohio or New York. They had no idea of the dryness, wind, poor soil, and hardships ahead of them. I am filled with admiration for those homesteaders who were able to work the land and "proof" it for their claim.