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Archive for August 30th, 2015

Wow, I really like your enjambment.

To the women who said this to me after a reading last Spring: Where are you? Who are you? I’d like to get to know you better. Let’s get together and talk . . .

. . . about my poetry. Oh, right, about yours, too. About all sorts of poetry. Just remember: the sexiest line in the English (Major) language is, I like your poem.

Because let’s face it, most of the people I run into every day don’t want to hear about my poetry. I’d most likely encounter a blank stare, or even a lynch mob, if I confided, “I’m writing a sestina using the argot of 1930’s gangster Chicago.”

But there must be someone out there who admires my enjambment. I guess I’ll have to place myself at the mercy of the Editors.

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Years ago when I first became afflicted with this obsession Poetry I was writing in a vacuum. Lines tumbling about in my head pressuring to be set down on paper – why does someone do that? For a Pulitzer? Not in a million years. Pushcart? Never heard of it. Fortune? Ha ha ha ha ha! Fame? Of course not . . . well, maybe a little would be nice.

No, I suppose I write for the same reason as all writers: the compulsion to get it onto the page, and to get it right. But how to know if it’s right? I was desperate to have someone read from the growing stack. Not to tell me it was good (OK, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they did) but just to confirm that what I was writing was poetry. That the lines communicated what they were meant to. That they connected with the reader.

Having no access to a writer’s group it occurred to me that I should submit to poetry journals. The Editors would let me know how I was doing! Editors are wonderful human beings, but of course they are far busier than I imagined. Most of the feedback they gave came from their Xerox machines. A few had distinctly negative things to say (without ever quite using the word “sucks”). But there was one Editor, one Golden Pen beyond the vale of the SASE, who never failed to encourage.

Perhaps you’ve guessed – I’m talking about Shelby Stephenson. Between 1999 and 2004 I sent him seventeen submissions, eighty plus poems. I must have exhausted him! But the tiny slips that returned along with the poems usually said, “Keep writing!” or “You’ll place these elsewhere.” Sometime during those years I met Shelby in person at an NC Poetry Society meeting and then I understood. The concept rejection does not reside in the man’s soul.

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And then on April 14, 2005, I received in the mail an 8½ x 11 page on the Pembroke Magazine stationery. An acceptance. I must have written a real poem at last.

Here are a few samples of the “non-rejection” slips – I saved every one. Here’s the acceptance letter, and here’s the poem Orange Cap which appeared in Pembroke Magazine Number 38 in 2006.

Shelby Rejections 01_0002

Pembroke 2005-04-12

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Orange Cap
for Grady at ninety

Common as dirt; cotton and nylon with a plastic snap band,
stiff front, forehead’s high profile that begs
for jaw ballast of a heavy chew; the kind a man wears
while he primes tobacco, hoes a row of beans,
seep of sweat darkening the brim, its shade
a cool welcome across the man’s red face
while the Piedmont sun sows his ears with slow cancer.
I can see one like it settled low on your narrow head

in many a long day’s field, beneath the nights’ revival tent,
at sixty still cutting timber with your boys,
your bony arms like axe handles, your hoarse chuckle
taming the chainsaw’s growl. You’ll never sit still,
almost ninety now and determined to ride that durned mower
across town, little wagon in tow to carry a brown paper sack –
bread, milk, a slab of streakéd meat
for the creases your daughter cut at the creek bank.

Never still and never capless, one clutched in silent hands
at the hospital that night we lingered with Opal,
last Yadkin County breath struggling from her lungs,
prayers that she’d open her eyes one more time
to your foolish teasing, the only one who could make her laugh –
prayers to be answered in the next life.
For today, always a cap and another to share:
I’ve kept the one you gave me, orange, Kennedy Auto Supply,

dusty then and more so now from its berth
beside these books that don’t tell a single story
that’s as worth hearing. See, I inked your gift’s date
here inside the hem: May 19, 1989. Remember
all the times I’ve rediscovered it, surprised you
at the door with the old blaze perched on my scalp?
Used it to make Opal cluck (but she couldn’t help grinning)?
Coaxed a phlegmy chuckle from your throat?

At each goodbye you ask, Still got that cap?
Like all the things we can’t take off –
the smell of woodsmoke in a canvas jacket,
black tobacco gum beneath cracked nails;
like all the things we’ll wear into glory –
grief, redemption, love for one companion,
shared laughter at an old fool’s tales . . .
yes, friend, I’ve still got it.

first appeared in Pembroke Magazine Number 38, 2006

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IMG_0998

Spring Larkspur, Delphinium tricorne — Appalachian Trail north of Groundhog Creek Shelter, 5/2015

Post script

– I pulled out my copy of Number 38 this summer to leaf through it again and discovered there a host of poets I’ve since some to know and revere: Ronald H. Bayes, Ann Deagon, Janice Moore Fuller, Sharon Sharp, Heather Ross Miller, Nancy Tripp King, Isabel Zuber, Susan Meyers, Ruth Moose, and more. I just want to say, “Holy Cow, Shelby!”

And THANKS!

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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