Monday, December 15, 2014

A Thoughtful Note From A Friend

Each year in November, I pull together some of the poems I wrote that year and create a chapbook of 24 pages of my poems, including some haiku. I have the book printed and give them to friends and family, as my Christmas card. I got a very thoughtfully written note from a friend, Steve, to whom I had sent a book, who noted that I seem to be looking backward in my poetry, writing about things in the past.

Of course, Steve is right. We write from our experience, and experience is behind us, so we can only see it by looking backward. But the inspiration for looking back comes, hopefully, from some immediate event, memory, or situation. We are brought up short by the shock of something we see, feel, taste, hear, smell and there's the genesis of our writing.

The more important or traumatic the event in the past, the more intense the images we see because of the immediate stimulus. One day in October of 2012, I read an article that said it was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 I was a pilot flying KC-135 refuelers, and we refueled B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons on their way to circle just outside the Iron Curtain, waiting for the command to go to war.

Reading that article brought up all sorts of images of those terrible few weeks. The black sky over the North Atlantic in the early hours of the morning. Fear that we'd hear that command to go to war. Fear that our families would be vaporized with that command. Here's the poem that came from those memories.

October 24, 1962, 3:45 AM

We’re headed west at forty thousand feet
above the blackness of Atlantic cold.
A tiny light on the ocean miles below
marks a freighter bound for who knows where,
and blinking red and green lights just ahead
come from another tanker just like us.
An hour ago, we each were pumping fuel
into an eight-jet bomber with a crew
of six and bellies crammed with atom bombs.

While thousands of miles away, directly south,
a fleet of Russian boats draws near a line
of US warships who have quarantined
Cuba’s ports. If the ships don’t turn around,
the bombers we refueled will fly on east,
descend, and level Russian cities with
their nuclear bombs. And as their bombs explode,
Soviet missiles will land on bases we
are headed for, and vaporize them, with
our loved ones, in a sun-bright flash of light.

We cruise along this quiet night, maintain
our altitude, our thoughts, unspoken fears,
and pray the light we see this coming dawn
will be the peaceful sunrise in the east.

(Published in the WyoPoets July Newsletter in 2013.)

In a less dramatic situation, as I pulled out of the alley next to my home one December morning, I noticed a single leaf hanging on one of the maples on our lawn. It fluttered in the breeze and triggered memories of my mother in the nursing home just before she died four years earlier. The fluttering leaf took my mind back to that morning.

The Last Leaf to Fall

The shadows of desiccated leaves,
hanging from winter-bare branches,
fluttered on the hospital floor
the day my mother died.

She was the last of her generation,
outlived the rest by a dozen years.
She often said "I want to be with Dad."
Her last days were painful, hellish,
spine curled, head bent to her knees.
She was surrounded by other shriveled
women and men, who, like the leaves,
were barely hanging on.

Perhaps she waited for us to visit her
one last time. We held her hands
all morning, begging her to let go.
She did, but only after we left.
The same way a leaf will let go
when no one is watching it. 

It's my feeling that writing about the traumatic events in my life has helped me heal from them, to weave their pain into a life narrative that makes some sense to me. Two friends asked me to write for their blog about writing as healing, I wrote in part:

I think writing about deep trauma helps because to write well, one must also revise well. When I revise I look for the right words, syntax, and structure. That means I have to look the memory right in the eye, think hard about it, and recognize the emotions it evokes. That, I believe, is how serious writing can promote healing . . . . The trauma never goes away, but it becomes easier to deal with. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Class Activity Leads to a Poem

Sometimes a poem comes as a gift from an unlikely source. Here's one that came from a class having nothing to do with poetry. Back in March of 2010, I took a three-day class to be certified as an interpretive guide from the National Association of Interpreters—Kathy said I was certifiable before the class.

Near the end of the class, we were asked to create something that demonstrated our love of interpretation. The teachers supplied magazines to be cut up and glued into a collage for our project.

I decided to write a poem instead. It felt like a step into the unknown as all the others in the class were museum guides and probably hated poetry to boot. But I'm not allowed to handle scissors, particularly ones with pointy ends, so I came up with a rough draft that I presented. It was well received, so I was motivated to work on that poem for several months. Here it is in its final form.

To Interpret Nature is …
… to find again the wonder
and joy I felt as a child
when I turned over a rock
and found three pill bugs,
a cricket, and an earthworm.

… to find again the beauty
of a prairie sunrise or sunset,
to recapture the soul-expanding
feeling that grabbed my attention
and held it into poetry.

… to study and research and crawl
on hands and knees like a child
to see the beauty of wildflowers,
to touch prickly pear spines,
to find bones and fur in an owl pellet,
to hear the sage-scented prairie wind
sing in the grass.

… to express these feelings, reflect them
to my students so they may recapture
childhood memories and excitement
and rekindle their own sense
of wonder and joy.

… to pass on my learning and feelings
with facts and skill, enthusiasm and joy
so those in generations behind me
will love and nurture and protect Nature
and themselves.

I was pleased at how the poem turned out, as its genesis was rather gut churning, and how it seemed to convey my feelings as a volunteer naturalist and the joy I feel while showing people the beauties and mysteries of the prairie at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora, CO.

I sent off the poem to the editor of Legacy, the bi-monthly magazine of NAI, and it was immediately accepted. It appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Legacy

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Meandering Back onto the Page

I got an email yesterday saying that my friend Cathy had posted a new entry on her blog, Stilwellian. She listed what's she's learned in retirement from BLM, and I had trouble recognizing what she's learned compared to what I've learned, except for the last entry, "I'm good at wasting time." I've found that also. And that's probably why I've meandered off the web page into real time and then wasted a lot of time there.

So I've decided to get back to blogging, to try to blog at regular intervals, and to focus mostly on my poetry, how I write it, what kind of revisions I make, what kinds of incidents, thoughts, people give me a jolt that causes me to write a poem. I know everyone of you out there, all three of you, are very interested in that, so here goes.

Let's start with incidents that have caused me to write a poem. The first poetry I wrote was inspired by flashbacks, dreams, and memories of my combat in Vietnam, being shot at, trying to kill others, and then the process of trying to get my life back together after that. A sound, sight, smell, comment someone made, often caused a flashback, a sudden jolt to my memory that took it too another place, another time.

I had been back in New York a while after my mother died, getting her home ready to sell, and I spoke to a cousin I'd not seen in 50 years. He recommended a realtor. We spoke several times, and I sent him a copy of my memoir, What's It All About, Alfie, a self-published book I wrote specifically for my son, Al, or Alfie as we called him growing up. He called to say that he'd had traumatic experiences in some of the same areas I flew over.

I spoke with his wife on the phone several times when he wasn't home, and she told me that my cousin had been suffering from PTSD since he came home and that he'd refused help from the VA. He was drinking too much and that caused problems. She mentioned that the only pleasant memories he had were of walks with his grandmother, my Aunt Vi, to a granite boulder we called "the big rock." I think as a result of our talks, he did get help for his PTSD and stopped drinking. Those conversations sparked two poems, both centered around that granite boulder. Here's the final one of those poems:

A Glacial Erratic
The large granite boulder has rested
here in the oak and pitch pine forest
for thousands of years. Its top is broad
and flat with patches of yellow lichen.

Twenty thousand years earlier the
Wisconsin Glacier pried the boulder
out of continental bedrock, pushing it
and rolling it until it sat on this hill.

Four children and their gray-haired
guide sit on it in the warm sunshine,
eating jelly sandwiches. They listen
to delightful tales the woman tells.

They play in the sunshine and scramble
on its cracked and pitted gray sides.
This is not their first time at the rock.
Their pied piper, their grandmother,

brings them here often, leading them
on the long, raucous, and joyous trek.
The kids don’t know about the glacier
and it would mean nothing to them.

The kids also don't know that one of them
will be ravaged and scarred by a jungle war
and his memories of these sun-filled days
will help him recover from his despair. 

He will remember his grandmother’s laugh
and those walks to the ancient rock and find
that the gentle power of her love, like the slow
power of the glacier, will conquer his fears.
Published in Emerging Voices, 2014

I took the idea of those walks with his grandmother to that rock, mixed them with my own wonderful memories of my Aunt Vi and trips to that rock with her, and imagined how those sun-filled days of childhood were so magical. I wanted to show that the horror and emotional scars of war could be overcome with love, even if that love was only in memories of a grandmother long dead. An earlier version of that poem didn't have the recovery from the trauma because it hadn't yet happened. Bill's recovery inspired me to write a completely new poem, that has a happier ending.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A wonderful evening

I belong to an organization of professional writers, the Colorado Authors' League, that recognizes the work of its members for the previous year. Books, articles, poetry of all kinds that have been published the are considered for an award in one of ten categories.

My chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, was considered in the poetry category. And my gosh, it was awarded the poetry prize. Here's the cover. That young stud in the picture is me 45 years ago. Age hasn't helped any.

The poems in the chapbook reflect some of my experiences in combat in Vietnam and the emotional residue of that time over the past 45 years. The earliest poem in the book I wrote in 1996 and the last one in 2012, so there's a real time spread.

The evening was really special as my original mentor and woman who encouraged me to write more poetry as I was starting out some 20 years ago, Lois Hayna, was always recognized that evening with a lifetime achievement award. Lois has published seven books of poetry the last one a year ago when she turned 100. She's now 101.

Lois started writing poetry when she was in her 60s, so having seven books to her credit is amazing. She started three different poetry critique groups that are still going strong. She told me that she gets up about 4:30 each morning, turns on the coffee, then the computer, then pours a cup of coffee and writes on the computer for the next several hours. She is an inspiration to everyone who knows her.

I received a very handsome award from CAL, which I'll treasure, especially because I got it the same night Lois got her life-time achievement award. Here's a picture of the award.

And this picture shows that it is in the shape of a book, which is pretty cool.

Here's the final poem in the book, one I wrote after a visit to Washington, DC, after we dropped our daughter, Barbara, off at college in Pennsylvania.

Washington, D.C., May 1995

Careless gusts chase clouds and tear
too soon the cherry blossoms
from their boughs.
Petals, whirled in the maelstrom,
are spilled free to sink and form
a pale pink pool
along the black wall.

The granite, scarred with names,
mirrors the pink in its ebony shine,
a reminder of blossoming lives—
vulnerable, fragile, young —
blown by the careless maelstrom
of their spring.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

And a young man's fancy turns to . . .

and for the life of me, I can't remember what it turns to. I know mine turns to waking up with some daylight in the room at 6 AM so I'm not tripping over Walker who has the same ability the woman I'm living with--I won't mention her name so she doesn't get upset--has, namely putting things where they are most likely to cause me to trip of stub my toe.

Went out to West Bijou, our ten thousand acre prairie site east of Denver, way out on the prairie, and was treated to a sight I've never seen, three porcupines in one tree. I suspect the porcupines' fancy had turned and they were there for a careful mating session. You remember the old joke, how do porcupines mate? Answer: Very carefully.

Here's a pic of two of them trying to figure out how to get up or down to where the other one is so as not to get too badly stuck.

And here's a better look at a face only a mother could love. Looks like a prickly panda, except you can't cuddle this one. 

We normal find these porcupines when the cottonwoods are without leaves. They blend in so well and move very slowly, so they are hard to find in the leaves. 

I'm helping teach a class on haiku right now, and I wrote a haiku from my visit with the porcupines:

     three porcupines
     sit in a cottonwood
     quilling haiku

And now, at the other end of the spectrum, here's some pics of our bison. This first one is of a bull facing away from the camera next to a cow. Notice the difference in size and they powerful hump on his back. These critters are shedding their winter coat and many were rolling in a couple of sand wallows near where we parked the truck and trailer. 

And this is the same bull head on, as if he's decided to jump into the trailer with us. Fortunately he was too lazy to do that. And that reminds me of a safety issue when on foot around very large, very fearsome, very fast animals like this huge bull. You don't have to be fast to outrun a bison, just faster than those you are with. 

And a while back I wrote a haiku and several poems based on my visits with these magical animals. Here's one of them:

     bison ruled the plains 

     creatures of natural grace

     powerful totem

So now I'll go back to trying to figure out what my fancy is supposed to turn to.