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New WordPress Blog!

I've set up a new WordPress blog (with the help of my web-wrangler) because it gives me more options than the blog on this website, including the ability to post more photos, the ability to link with social media across the web, and a subscription service that sends a dandy version of the blog directly to your email inbox. Try it out.

Notes from a Western Life at WindbreakHouse.WordPress.com

You can continue to read the blogs here, however a few of the very long blogs under the category of "Writing: Where I've Been" will only appear on the WordPress blog.



An Index of Blog Topics
may be found lower down in this left-hand column so, for example, you can search for all blogs with "Writing Suggestions."

A dated archive of blogs is also available below the index.

Click here to jump to the index, or scroll down to see a selection of photos related to the blog posts.






Blacksmith or Wordsmith

Iron legs from yesteryear.

Smaller iron items inside.

The scrap-iron table.



Dust, Grass, and Writing

Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions.

Tough prairie grass roots splitting open a rock.

Green life may be found under dry debris.


Fringed Jacket Foofaraw

Turtle carved from bone.

Turtle made of silver.

Warrior Woman pin.

George's grizzly bear claw earring.

Powwow jingle cones made of tin.

Brass bell.

A tiny dream catcher.

Harley Owners' Group pin in honor of Jerry.

Wally McRae's cufflink and tooth.





South Dakota Poet Laureate? Not Right Now, Thanks.


"An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position."



Don't just click "like" about some political story you read.


Pick up the phone or write a letter and make a difference.



Ah! The Bathtub.

A brass hook on a nearby wall to hold my robe or a towel.

A removable wire basket stretches across the tub to hold my soap and sponges.



Windbreak House
Now on Facebook.


If you Like me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.

www.Facebook.com/​WindbreakHouse

No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.



Ah, Spring!


Want to know more about this critter?

See the Gallimaufry Page for more about the bird, including more photos, and some odds and ends that don't fit anywhere else on this website.



More Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.

* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.

* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.

* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.

* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.



Linda on YouTube

Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.

To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
click here.

To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
click here

Or go to www.YouTube.com and search for Linda Hasselstrom.

You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.

Thanks, Nancy!

# # #





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How To Write a Poem: The Snake Within

April 3, 2015

Tags: Poetry, Draft of Writing, Writing Suggestions

Linda checking her young bean plants, 2013.

When I’m having trouble writing, one of my favorite methods to start the process is to write a "How To" poem. This is probably why there are zillions of the things floating around, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write your own. Working on a "How To" poem can serve several purposes.

First, writing a poem (or prose) about how to do something can clarify your thinking beautifully. One of my assignments to a new high school writing class was always for students to write instructions for something they knew how to do very well. The exercise provided them with practice in thinking, and writing, more clearly than usual. The students were always amazed at the steps they omitted in the first draft simply because the act they were describing was so familiar to them. I’ll never forget the frustration of one young man writing about how to ride a bull in a rodeo, and a young woman writing about how to make a bed. But they did it.

Another attraction of the "How To" poem is that you can use it to review something you haven’t done for a while, recalling memories from childhood. One of these days I need to do a poem on how to milk a cow, to refresh my memory of what started out as a chore and became a joyful duty that taught me a lot more than the direct act of milking.

So here’s an example of a poem written during an August when I was spending more time gardening than writing, and wanted to get back to writing. The file of drafts of this poem contains 9 pages, which is unusually short for my revisions.

Here’s the entire first draft:

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes that may
lie
in shade to wait for rabbits
coming
at dusk to feed.


That’s not a bad poem; it has strong verbs (kneel, reach, watch), some nature observation that includes the rabbits as prey of the rattlesnakes, as well as the ending twist with the rabbits coming to the beans as predators.

But I felt it was incomplete, so I put the draft aside. Once begun, a poem often surfaces in my subconscious, and my mind continued to nibble at the edges of it. This scattered method seems to work for me, though I can’t recommend it unless your mind works as mine does. Just now, for example, I stopped working on this essay to run upstairs to finish washing a sink full of dishes. They’d been soaking in hot water and suds because just after I started this essay, I needed to get away from the computer and think for a few moments. I wandered upstairs and started doing dishes-- but I don’t hesitate to drop a domestic job if I get a sudden inspiration in something I’m writing.

For the second draft, two days later, I delved into my memory of my grandmother, and began to alternate my memories of her gardening with my own experience picking beans. Somehow kneeling in the garden reaching into the sunlight-braided leaves made me see her hands doing the same, brought me close to her, though she’s been gone from my immediate world for many years. The memories this exercise evoked were worth the struggle, even if the poem had never been finished.

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Grandmother kept her hoe handy, wore gloves,
tilted her bifocals until she was sure of the snake’s
skin among the mottled shade cast by the leaves.
She rose, steadied herself in the dirt and chopped.
Once, twice, until the head was loose. Hooked
the hoe to lift the limp body, carry it to the fence
She threw and the snake struck against the sky.

No snakes this morning, only gold
sliding among fat green leaves
beans slender as sunlight. I pinch
each one free, gently, trying not to knock
off the blossoms that will make next week’s
beans. A grasshopper lands on my wrist, feet
prickly. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods, and I commend the soul
of the grasshopper to them. I crawl along the row,
and start back down the other side, finding beans
I should have been able to see. Tomorrow I will
find more I can't believe I missed.
And I will
kneel
again.


Remembering my grandmother and her deft manner of killing rattlesnakes added a deeper aspect to the references in the first draft; the snakes are a threat not just to the rabbits but to the life of the gardener, adding value to the beans. I retained the idea of kneeling, suggesting a worshipful aspect to the harvest.

Now the poem needed to be tightened, refined. In the third draft, ten days later, I focused on the fourth and final stanza, emphasizing the aspect of gratitude.

I flinch from a prickle on my wrist, but
it’s a grasshopper. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods. On my knees,
I shuffle down the row. Grandmother used
even the scabby ones, hopper-gnawed.
Later the beans will sway in the sink
full of water like green snakes.
Tomorrow I will find more beans
I can't believe I missed.
And I will kneel again, my hands
singing praises for this harvest.


My mental picture accompanying the last line was of praying hands, but the idea of hands “singing” praises jarred my logical mind. Over the next several weeks, I worked on the poem every few days, mostly paring it down, whittling away unnecessary adjectives, trying to make the sensory impressions more vivid. In the sixth draft, late in August, I shifted one stanza from the middle of the poem to the beginning to put the reader into the center of the sensory experience before getting into the complications I’d introduced.

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight
making snake patterns. Gently, I brush
the leaves aside, careful not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.


Late in September, I was still tinkering with the poem, but I had decided against making the final stanza a hymn of praise, believing that the reference to kneeling carried that idea sufficiently. I was concentrating on the ending, groping for the right combination.

First I wrote this: “I will taste the green possibility / of snakes within this harvest.”

A month later, I decided to make the reference more direct:

All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
know the snakes
within this harvest.


At the side of this I scribbled, “Taste the snake?” That was the final touch: making the snake’s presence more vivid and sensory by suggesting something that seemed outlandish, that the flavor of the snake remains within the bean harvest. I knew the poem was close to finished, so I put it aside to rest. In November, I revised the poem for the final time.

How to Pick Green Beans

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight,
making snake patterns in the earth.
I brush leaves aside, careful
not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Picking what she called a mess of beans,
my grandmother kept her hoe handy,
tilted her bifocals to see the snake,
steadied herself and chopped
until the hissing ceased.
Hooked him with her hoe, swung her arm.
The snake whirled and struck the sky.

Hold
each stem with the left hand
Pluck
each pair of beans with the right.
One hand
should always know
the other’s whereabouts in rattler country.

Redwing blackbirds sing from the cottonwoods
as I shuffle on my knees down the row.
Later, in the sinkful of water,
the beans sway like green snakes.
Grandmother used even the scabby ones,
hopper-gnawed. All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
taste the snake
within the harvest.

* * *
“How to Pick Green Beans” (c) 2011 by Linda M. Hasselstrom
This poem was published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla Hansen, now the State Poet of Nebraska. (The Backwaters Press, 2011).


Twyla tells me that she’s celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day. I’m not going to be able to manage that, but I urge others to try it. And you might want to start with a poem on How To Do Something.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Poet Laureate of South Dakota? Not Right Now, Thanks.

February 27, 2015

Tags: Poet Laureate, Poetry

In October of 2014, I was invited by the South Dakota State Poetry Society to apply for the position of Poet Laureate of South Dakota.

Because many people urged me to apply and questioned my decision not to do so, I felt the simplest response was to explain my reasoning in a letter to the president of the SD State Poetry Society. I hope this examination of the obligations of the post will spark discussions and lead to some responsible changes that will benefit anyone who assumes the post of Poet Laureate of South Dakota.

Here’s an excerpt from my letter:

I certainly believe that asking the legislature to establish a term limit for the poet laureateship, and particularly at four years, is a useful idea. I also commend your efforts and those of the board to clarify the duties and requirements of the position.

I have studied the mission statement and have found what I consider to be innate contradictions in the current definition of the Poet Laureate position. As I considered whether or not to apply for the position, I considered some of the positive and negative aspects of doing so. I offer this analysis hoping that it may help the SDSPS as you work toward selection of a new Poet Laureate.

You indicated that SDSPS wants an active Poet Laureate, willing to travel to the state’s colleges and universities, public schools, libraries, book clubs and other venues to present readings, talks, and workshops. You mentioned that several poets have decided to “run” for the position; that description seems to be particularly apt since the job would require so much energy.

I believe this unpaid poetry ambassador needs a job other than free-lance writing, i.e., a secure position that allows frequent absences, possibly with an employer who would contribute toward the expenses in return for the prestige.

Conversely, it seems to me, the post of Poet Laureate is intended to recognize a poet for a lifetime of achievement in writing and in supporting the state’s cultural growth. These requirements suggest the Poet Laureate should be an older, much-published resident writer with a deep and broad knowledge of literature and culture in the state and region, and a record of working to enhance citizen appreciation of poetry. Further, as a representative of South Dakota’s best writing, this poet should be known and respected widely throughout the region and nation.

However, in this largely rural state, many writers who have achieved publishing success spent their early years as I did, traveling the state to promote writing while working for the SD Arts Council, a school system, or other entities. An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position.

Badger Clark survived on a limited income and the pittances paid for his graduation speeches, but he lived in the woods with few amenities. David Allen Evans had the financial support of a secure teaching position. I think it’s significant that, despite 60 years of involvement in South Dakota’s writing, I know almost nothing about the poets laureate Adeline Jenny, Mabel Frederick and Audrae Visser. I suspect this is in part because their employment precluded much travel, and their efforts to promote poetry were necessarily limited to chapbook production. The South Dakota Book Festival did not exist as an opportunity to showcase state writers.

Today, however, electronic venues such as email, Facebook, and websites would make the job of bringing poetry to citizens much easier. A Poet Laureate might, for example, provide examples of inspiring poetry and commentary to English teachers via email or Facebook, so the teachers could incorporate the poetry into their classroom at their convenience. This might offer a more efficient use of the poet’s time than driving for hours to reach a single venue where attendance might be sparse

I wonder if the solution might lie in acknowledging these differences in what a Poet Laureate might do, and changing the definition to fit modern circumstances.

Perhaps the governor could be encouraged to appoint a Poet Laureate who is honored for his or her lifetime achievement as a published poet. This position would not be applied for, but conferred. SDSPS would nominate candidates from the state’s best-known poets who have also worked to encourage the writing and appreciation of poetry by others. Since the intent would be to honor the poet, the Laureate would be invited to attend major events such as the South Dakota Book Festival, gatherings of state poets laureate, and other important events, but would not be obligated to do so. Instead, the poet might continue to do what he or she has done best: promote poetry by writing it, and supporting poetic literacy in whatever ways he or she has always done.

Second, the governor might also appoint, from a qualified body of applicants selected by SDSPS, a second poet who would actively promote poetry throughout the state. This poet, who might be called the State Poet (Nebraska) or Writer in Residence (Idaho), might be in the position of an apprentice, a “laureate in training,” and might advance to the post of Poet Laureate in later years. Perhaps the legislature, the poet’s employer, or the SDAC and SDHC could contribute compensation in some form to help this writer fulfill the duties of the post without financial hardship. A few four-year appointments of traveling poets would provide the state with a group of writers who were experienced in teaching and speaking. If they continued to write and publish their own work, a Poet Laureate might be chosen from among them.

These ideas have been as part of my thinking about whether or not to apply for the position of Poet Laureate. I offer them in the hope you will find them useful in your discussions.

Respectfully, for the reasons I have outlined, I decline to apply for the position.

My thanks for the hard work the SDSPS has always done in promoting the benefits of poetry in our state. Your work on these issues is incredibly important, offering the first chance in eighty-seven years to alter the original plan. I send my warmest wishes as you lead us into a new era in Writing South Dakota.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

* * *

While I rarely join organizations because I preserve my time for writing, and have not been a member for some years, I have always urged state writers to support the work of the SDSPS.

See their website:SDStatePoetrySociety.WordPress.com

Follow them on Facebook:www.facebook.com/pages/South-Dakota-State-Poetry-Society/212808486683

Pasque Petals, the official literary magazine of the South Dakota State Poetry Society, is published spring and fall. See their website for information on how to submit work or obtain a copy.

As of January 28, 2015, applications for the Poet Laureate position have been closed and a nominee has been forwarded to the Governor.

On March 12, 2015, Senate Bill 86, an amendment to South Dakota Codified Law 1-22-7, was signed into law by Governor Dennis Daugaard:

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED, An Act to place a term limit on the office of poet laureate.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:

Section 1. That § 1-22-7 be amended to read as follows:

1-22-7. There is created the office of poet laureate of South Dakota. The Governor shall appoint the poet laureate to serve at the pleasure of the Governor. No person is eligible for the appointment unless the person is a resident of this state. No person may be appointed unless such person has been recommended to the Governor by the South Dakota State Poetry Society and has written and published poems of recognized merit prior to the appointment.

The term of the poet laureate is four years and begins the first Tuesday, after the first Monday, in January in years following a gubernatorial election. No poet laureate may serve for more than one term consecutively, however, this restriction does not apply to a partial term to which the poet laureate may have been appointed.

Poet laureates shall for life have the status of emeritus.


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Cowboy Poetry Gathering

February 10, 2015

Tags: Cowboy Poetry, Poetry, Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Public Appearance

Cowboy Poetry Gathering Autograph Session.
While I was signing books with John Dofflemyer of Dry Crik Review, a writer who had attended a retreat at Windbreak House waaay back in 1997 stopped by with her daughter and grandson. Meeting old friends is one of the great things about gatherings.

.
A week ago, on February 2, I arrived home from the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center.

A trek to the Gathering from South Dakota requires a serious investment of time; Elko is about 800 miles from Hermosa. I left home Monday, January 26, to drive to Glendo, WY, to meet Nancy Curtis, who had agreed to drive from her home, and Yvonne Hollenbeck, who, like me, was an invited performer.

I consider the financial compensation for this gig to be perfectly adequate, especially considering how poetry is valued in this country, but I suspect nobody goes to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering just for the money.

So why do we go, I’m asked every time. I always think of an old cowboy song I hear on every visit, “The Night Rider’s Lament.” Part of Michael Burton’s chorus to this song is:

He asked me why do you ride for your money
Why do you rope for short pay
You ain’t getting’ nowhere
And you’re losin’ your share
Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.


Perfectly defines the attitude of a lot of folks about writing cowboy poetry! If I’m crazy I’m in good company. One night I sat under the spotlights on the stage of the G3Bar in the Western Folklife Center in the company of Wallace McRae, Paul Zarzyski and John Dofflemyer. I was marveling at the fact that 300 people had paid $30 or $35 each to hear us read and recite our poetry. No musicians, no other attractions shared the stage-- just poets.

But the audience doesn't necessarily have to pay to hear the greatest cowboy poets and musicians in the nation. During every day of the Gathering, many sessions are free in the convention center. If you’d wandered into the Turquoise room last week, you could have spent an hour with me, John Dofflemyer, and Elizabeth Ebert, from Thunder Hawk, South Dakota, who was a closet poet until 1989. In 2005 when she was 80 years old, then-Governor Mike Rounds proclaimed February 24 as Elizabeth Ebert Day. (Learn more about her at www.cowboypoetry.com). Her work is hilarious, honest, and bone-deep true.

I admire the hard work the staff does to name the various sessions, especially since they know the writers will interpret the titles any way they darn please. This year we had titles like:

Love of the Well-Crafted Line
Living the Deep West (a prose session with me and Wally McRae, hosted by Texas poet Joel Nelson)
And We Shall Ride
Stories in Verse
Best Laid Plans
Southwest Song and Sonnet, and
Dames Don’t Dally, among many others.

Or you could wander up to the high school building behind the convention center where volunteers kept the music going all day long-- some of it open mic and some from respected and well-known musicians. One of the highlights of this gathering was listening to the music of Baja California Sur played by residents of that lonely place, who also set up an exhibit showing how they live.

Besides all the poetry, there are sessions on a variety of other subjects. The early part of the week is usually devoted to workshops on writing, rawhide braiding, silversmithing, ranch tours, talks and discussions about conflicts between ranchers and others. Students from Owyhee Public School and other filmmakers worked on videos about the Deep West.

One of my favorite musical events at this year’s gathering was watching Glenn Ohrlin, 88, play and sing with Brigid Reedy, 14. The two shared a real joy of music, and it was a joy to watch them tease each other. Watching Glenn was painful, because he was so thin he looked like a walking skeleton, but his voice and mind were clear and strong, and he played beautifully. We heard that he drove to the Gathering with a passenger who was not happy with his driving. Ohrlin always preferred to travel by pickup truck. His rule was that if there was more than one way to get somewhere, he always took the road he’d never traveled, even if the distance was longer and the road narrower. Glenn lived in Mountain Home, Arkansas, where he operated a cattle ranch and lived in a stone house he’d built himself. As I finished writing today, I got word that Glenn has died.

Keynote speaker Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-known nature writer, food and farming activist and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. He has been honored as a pioneer in the local food and seed-saving communities by a half-dozen magazines, and written numerous books. (I was once fortunate enough to dine with him at one of the local Basque cafes and immediately became a fan, though he’s been writing books faster than I've been reading them.)

Gary spoke about the work on conservative conservation being done by a group of ranchers and environmentalists loosely organized as the “radical center.” Groups like the Quivira Coalition (quiviracoalition.org), founded by two environmentalists and a rancher, aim to “build resilience by fostering ecological, economic and social health on western landscapes through education, innovation, collaboration and progressive public and private land stewardship.”

Nabhan quoted Aldo Leopold on a fact much of our society has forgotten, “People starve when land and water are degraded and forage declines.” But he had good news too: the market for grassfed beef is growing faster than that for any other commodity, as 60% of the farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have made changes in their methods that lead to better conservation of resources that belong to all of us. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering always features keynote speakers who challenge and enlighten.

Another pleasure of going to Elko is eating Basque food available several places that originated with the Basque sheepherders of the region. My favorite meal this trip was a pork chop at the Toki Ona Basque Diner, accompanied by salad with a zingy dressing, soup, spaghetti, and Potatoes Ana. Our waitress, Kelly, happily described how to make Potatoes Ana, and I've made them twice since I got home. If I make them any more before July, I won’t be able to fit into my jeans.

Another important part of the travel to the Gathering, at least the way I've done it fairly often since my first invitation in 1993, is the companionship of the trip. Driving can be a challenge, but it allows for long and deep conversations. Some of my best friendships have deepened and matured as we rolled along I-80, through Rawlins, Rock Springs, Evanston and the Three Sisters-- the three long hills truckers hate. We slide through Salt Lake City and pass the great lake and wheel along the broad flats where travelers stop to arrange rocks in messages and symbols. In Wendover, Nevada, the casinos are always lit and very few people notice the shabby trailers and shacks housing the folks who keep those games spinning and those motel rooms clean. And then Elko, which I am told is surrounded by beautiful mountains and desert; I've rarely gotten outside the streets and sites of the various programs.

And in Elko, we are hip by haunch with folks who come to hear cowboy poetry. In some cases, the clothes they are wearing would buy the ranches of the folks who are reciting on stage.

I always admire the togs, but I’m there for the company of people who were writing about rural western life long before cowboy poetry began to attract crowds. As Badger Clark remarked, we just love “slingin’ ink and English” among other folks who understand the job that we've taken on: telling the truth about our rural western lives.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

See the Western Folklife Center's website at www.westernfolklife.org

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In This Town You’re Still Alive

January 27, 2013

Tags: Spearfish SD, Family: George, My Poem: In This Town You’re Still Alive, Poetry

The park in Spearfish, South Dakota

. . .
When Tam and I were in Spearfish for Gaydell Collier's memorial services, I showed her some of the places that were special to me and to George when we lived there. We drove by his "little green house"-- which has now been remodeled into a much larger and more modern home-- and along the creek and pond below it, now cleared to make a lovely park.

Here's a poem I've been working on for several years about an experience I had the last time I did a workshop in Spearfish.


In This Town You’re Still Alive

You liked to walk down
from our little green house
to this mountain creek,
followed in parade
by Loki the white poodle,
the black cats Janet and Jacob.
You’d lean against a tree
in sunlight, watching as the cats
pawed sparkling water.
Someone poisoned the dog;
the cats vanished.
We moved away.
You died.

Years passed. Today I walked
by that water at sunrise.
Two ducks slid into an eddy,
paddled in place. I found the tree’s
stump, its heart a dark hollow
filled with snow crystals.
Leaning there, I watched
the water sparkle
downstream.

Just now as I waited
for a green light
you drove an old blue pickup
through the intersection
just ahead of me.
A red headband held back
your gray hair. The earring
you always wore flashed light.
Two black Labs leaned against
each other in the back.

Maybe the part of me
that died with you
is here as well: just enough
to keep you company in this town
where we were young and loving.
I wash your shirts, write poetry;
you carve wood, build a chair.
Each evening we drink beer
on the porch of a small house,
while the stream passes.
Just enough.

* * *


Poem copyright 2013, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Vacation

November 29, 2012

Tags: Vacation, Writing Suggestions, My Poem: (draft) Vacation House, Poetry

The meal of scallops (and shrimp) described in the draft poem.

Again this year, we traveled to Manzanita, OR, for a vacation, renting a wonderful house a block from the ocean (www.susansbeachhouse.com). We invited Jerry’s relatives to visit and many of them did, able to stay for a night or two because we had extra bedrooms.

Vacationing a block from the beach in Oregon in October does not mean one works on a tan; during most of our days there, rain fell and the Oregonians apologized. But we enjoyed the sensation since we’d had virtually no rain here since May.

Vacations, of course, are for enjoying oneself, relaxing from daily work. For me, however, a trip such as this requires that I take work along-- but it’s usually work that’s not what I normally do at home. Last year, for example, I went through dozens of cooking magazines and my recipe books and organized my recipes into a handy file that helps me find the recipes I really use.

Having a work space with notebooks, pens and paper ready means that when I can’t sleep, I have a place to go where my mind can work. Surprising thoughts sometimes emerge-- ideas that might not have surfaced in the busy-ness of home. Long walks with the dogs helped me consider the book I’m working on and make notes. And I worked on a poem, writing one draft into the house journal before we left. Here’s the current draft.

Vacation House (draft)

Coffee steams from the smooth curve
of a yellow cup. Two dogs and a good man
sleep in a darkened room.
The joints of the house creak
as warm air flows around me.
This is not our house,
but we’ve settled into its worn couches,
laughed with family around its long table,
created good food in its kitchen.
We’ve splashed in rain in the streets
leading here and away.
We watched kites leap and twirl
above the sandy beach.
Stared at Neahkahnie’s bold brow,
the froth around her feet.
Laughed and dined, read and played
games and the piano in the living room.
Listened to the sea advance
whirling, coiling, seething, falling,
always falling toward the land.
Perhaps we heard the contented sighs
from ghosts glad for our company.

Tomorrow we’ll head home
to dry grass, dusty sky,
cattle grazing on rumpled hills.
Tonight we’ll saute scallops
from that muttering sea
in rich gold butter, seasoned
with rosemary from the bush
outside the door. Rosemary,
that’s for remembrance.

copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2012


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Triage: poetry by Jane Elkington Wohl

October 2, 2012

Tags: Book Review, Writer: Jane Wohl, Poetry, Iraq War, My Poem: Reading the Newspaper in the Back Yard

Triage by Jane Elkington Wohl
Published 2012 by Daniel and Daniel Publishers.

Jane Elkington Wohl is an English Instructor at Sheridan (Wyoming) College and Creative Writing Instructor for the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program. Goddard is a low-residency college in Plainfield, VT, specializing in allowing students to create their own bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I’ve always meant to ask Jane how she manages that looooong commute and forgot again.

Jane’s taut poems were included in Leaning into the Wind and Woven on the Wind and I was privileged to comment on her book from High Plains Press, Beasts in Snow.

At the Equality State Book Festival in Casper during September of 2012, I bought Jane’s latest poetry collection, Triage. As its title suggests, this is a dark book; she warned me.

But like the best of dark poetry-- and the darkness of winter, of death, of life-- these verses lead us through darkness and into light. The series of twelve sonnets, “Meditations: Iraq War 2003," provide the most coherent, insightful and ultimately hopeful thoughts I’ve seen on that mess. Moreover, she creates this political commentary in sonnet form, a challenge few poets (including me) are willing to take these days.

“How hard it is to find any god right now,” she remarks; “today it seems our small round world’s gone mad.” She leads the reader through cynicism (the promises of our leaders “sound as dull and cheap as tin”) and despair as she observes young soldiers holding babies orphaned by war. These poems brutally recite the real facts, show us the real pictures of the war our soldiers have been fighting for so long; “it’s hard to find real poetry in this.”

And yet she does find real poetry in the war and all it means to us, whose sons and daughters are fighting as we have ordered them to do. Autumn leads the poet to a “Winter Sestina,” through layers and layers of living.

The second series of sonnets, “News: May 2004,” struck me most forcefully because throughout the dreadful news, she returns again and again to the blooming of pink poppies. In a very small way-- no sonnets!-- I took the same trip in my poem “Reading the Newspaper,” published in Dirt Songs, 2011.

Jane’s second sonnet series concludes, “The news is bad today, but still the pink poppies bloom.”


Reading the Newspaper in the Back Yard
by Linda M. Hasselstrom

Two Marines die in mortar fire in Baghdad.
Four red tulips open in front of the house.
Searchers find the child dead-- a green
plaster cast still cradles her broken arm.
Iris spears rise sharp above last year’s
dry curls. An earthquake shakes L.A.
Clematis shoots from sawdust
to climb the arbor’s trellised wall.
A soldier dies in a non-hostile incident.
Daffodils open beside the old cottonwood.
In Veracruz a gas leak kills six people.
Buds swell the twisted branches of a lilac.
A rebel bomb explodes in a crowd.
A Texas county’s first female sheriff
is also Hispanic, a lesbian, and a Democrat.

Blue bells bloom
on the same day
as last year.


Read Jane Wohl’s poetry and be heartened, given strength and courage to face the reality of the sometimes-brutal and foolish world in which we live.

# # #

For More Information:

Wyoming Authors Wiki website for Jane Elkington Wohl

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Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

July 30, 2012

Tags: Poetry, Cowboy Poetry, Free Verse Poetry, Poet: Rod Miller, Poet: Paul Zarzyski, Poet: Robert Dennis, Publisher: Nancy Curtis

Linda reads from her book of free verse poetry Bitter Creek Junction, published by High Plains Press.

. . .
Recently I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.cowboypoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these.

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”


Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent--” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

“disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.”

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis, she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

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The Pipestone Meat Cutters Cap

January 22, 2012

Tags: Pipestone Meat Cutters, Public Appearance, Southwest State University, Friend: Dave Pichaske, My Poem: Butchering the Crippled Heifer, Poetry, My Book: Land Circle, My Book: Dakota Bones, Butchering, Beef, Meat

Linda wearing the Pipestone cap.
. . .
Folks tend to stare when I wear my black corduroy cap labeled PIPESTONE with the crossed butcher knife and sharpening tool on the front. Of course, the cap came with a story.

The occasion was one of the many readings I’ve done at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. The reading took place after 1991, because the poem that occasioned this story was first published in Land Circle that year, and in 1993 appeared in Dakota Bones, published by Dave Pichaske, who still teaches in Marshall.

The poem I read that evening was “Butchering the Crippled Heifer.” This is not an easy poem to read or to hear. I consider it an important poem because it raises difficult questions about meat-eating and expresses the ideas in graphic images. I love to read the poem because it is dramatic; several people who have commented on it mention its strong religious overtones. Still, before choosing to read it, I try to determine if I will have the kind of audience that will appreciate the poem’s complexities.

At the end of my reading for the evening, people gathered around me to comment and to have their books signed. I noticed the quiet man wearing the Pipestone cap, but I couldn’t make out the insignia. Finally he was able to approach and did so with his cap in his hand.

He really appreciated the poem, he said, because very few people, even or perhaps especially people who eat meat, understand what it’s like to kill a bovine and to butcher it. He believed that I understood and respected the process-- as he did, because he was a professional meat cutter, his skills represented by the symbols he pointed out on the cap: a butcher knife and a sharpening steel. And then he said that because I understood, he was naming me an honorary professional meat cutter-- and he gave me the cap.

I wore it the rest of the evening. Sometimes I wear it when I’m reading the poem, and tell the story with pride.

Here’s the poem.

Butchering the Crippled Heifer

First:
           aim the pistol at her ear. Stand close.
           She chews slowly, eyes closed. Fire.
           She drops. Kicks. Sighs.
           Cut her throat and stand back.
           Blood bubbles and steams.

Then:
           wrap chain around each ankle,
           spread the back legs with a singletree.
           The tractor growls, lifting;
           the carcass sways.

Next:
           drive the knife point in,
           open the belly like tearing cloth,
           the blade just under the skin.
           Cut around the empty udder.
           Don't puncture the stomach.
           Sheathe the knife and reach in.
           Wrap your bare arms around the slick guts.
           Press your face against warm flesh.
           Find the ridge of backbone; tear the
           membranes loose. Hold the anus shut;
           pull hard until the great blue stomach bag
           spills into the tub at your feet.
           Jerk the windpipe loose with a sucking moan,
           her last sound.

Straighten.
           Breathe blood-scent, clean digested grass.
           Plunge one arm into the tub, cut loose the heart,
           and squeeze the last clots out; slice the liver
           away from the green gall, put it all in cool water.
           Eat fresh liver and onions for supper,
           baked heart tomorrow.

Finally:
           Cut off the head and feet,
           haul them and the guts to the pasture:
           coyotes will feast tonight.

Then:
           pull the skin taut with one hand,
           slice the spider web of tissue with care.
           Save the tail for soup.
           Drape the hide on the fence.

Let her hang:
           sheet-wrapped, through three cool October days,
           while leaves yellow and
           coyotes howl thanksgiving.

Cut her up:
           bring one quarter at a time to the kitchen table.
           Toss bones into the big soup kettle
           to simmer, the marrow sliding out. Chunk
           scraps, pack them in canning jars.
           Cut thick red steaks, wrap them in white paper,
           labeled for the freezer.

Make meat:
           worship at a bloody altar, knives singing praises
           for the heifer's health, for flesh she made
           of hay pitched at forty below zero last winter.
           Your hands are red with her blood,
           slick with her fat.

You know
           where your next meal is coming from.


Copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
published by Fulcrum Publishing.
This poem may be found on pages 317-319 of the 1991 edition (cloth)
and on pages 356-358 of the 2008 Anniversary Edition (paper).

Land Circle is a featured book on this website. Click here to read all about the book.

Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom
published 1993 by Spoon River Poetry Press (now Plains Press).
This poem may be found on pages 54-55.

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Balloon Races and General George Armstrong Custer

January 9, 2012

Tags: Balloons, General Custer, My Poem: At the Balloon Races, Poetry

The Balloon Races in Custer, SD.
Taken in 1988.

. . .
Early in January, 2012, I attended a talk on the early balloon ascensions from the StratoBowl near Rapid City by Arley Fadness of Custer, who worked on balloon design with famous aeronaut Ed Yost. The ascension of 1935 was the beginning of the space age, but earlier experiments with balloons of various types had occurred all over the world.

I was surprised to learn that George Armstrong Custer, later a General, was involved in surveillance ballooning during the Civil War. The flamboyant Custer was said at the time to dress “like a circus performer gone mad.” His nickname was “Cinnamon” because he slicked back his long hair with a cinnamon-scented pomade. Assigned to balloon surveillance, he reportedly insisted on being accompanied by an experienced aeronaut and sat in the bottom of the gondola. Fadnes didn’t explain how he was able to spy out enemy movements from that position.

Custer’s connection with ballooning surprised and delighted me because a few years ago I wrote a poem about attending the balloon races in Custer, SD-- named for the General. When General Custer insisted on becoming part of the poem, I wasn’t especially happy but I did allow him to march onstage. The poem ended with evidence of my dislike of the General and his treatment of the Indians in the West. Now that I know more of the history of Custer’s experience with balloons, my poetic speculations about what Custer might have done with balloons in Western warfare seem less far fetched.


At the Balloon Races in Custer, South Dakota

In this green and granite canyon Horatio Ross found gold;
Yellow Hair wrote dispatches while the miners met.
In this green and granite canyon
we find sunrise and balloons.

Coffee steams as balloonists talk
to ranchers; breath explodes in still air;
three women in shorts jostle in a patch of sunlight.
Seven baskets lie beside seven fans,
chill air swells silk pockets bigger than the bank,
the blue and white one looms over the courthouse,
twice as high as the sheriff's office.

Patchwork colors shimmer, as if
christening dresses and ball gowns
were sacrificed and stitched
into flight.
                    No man can steer a balloon;
wind is its only master.

Seven balloons inhale flame;
Bags of air high as mountains
bob like boats on a bowl of air.
Like fat men in bright nightgowns
bumping bellies, the balloons quiver.
A burner blazes. There is no signal.
A balloon rises. No one cheers.
The man below the burner waves;
we all wave back.
                    Seven balloons lift
over the broad green valley where the ghost
of Custer rides. Eight hundred spectral men
pick pale flowers to garland spirit horses.

Custer nods, waves, smiles to see
they sent balloons to meet him;
his worth is recognized; now
he can send the gold dispatches,
begin wresting this land
from the savages
who don't appreciate him either.

# # #

This poem appears in Land Circle, published 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing.

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Tiny Bouquets

September 27, 2011

Tags: Creating Calm, Gardening, Writing Suggestions, Journals, My Poem: (unfinished) Fog, Poetry

One of Linda's tiny bouquets, 2011.
. . .
This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write-- which seems to happen much more often than it should-- I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway noises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.


Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011


Even tiny pieces-- one image, one line-- can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

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Bill Kloefkorn and The Rapture

May 30, 2011

Tags: Poet: Bill Kloefkorn, Poetry, Memorial Day, Hermosa Cemetery, Family Graves, Family: Father, My Poem: Memorial Day, Gardening, Lilacs, Rapture, Children's Worm Poem, Childhood, Ranch: Description, Ranch: Wildlife

Linda at the Hasselstrom plot in the Highland Park Cemetery, looking east towards Hermosa.
. . .
Part I. Bill Kloefkorn, poet

Bill Kloefkorn, the poet laureate of Nebraska, died at age 78 on May 19, after struggling for two years against an immune-deficiency illness. Doctors could name no specific cause of his illness, and find no cure.

The day I heard the news, I drove to Hermosa for the mail, feeling gloomy under a sky curdled with gray clouds. We’d already had three days of rain, a fine thing in this arid climate, but the lack of sun had made everyone glum. Discovering Bill’s poems soon after I returned to South Dakota after escaping from the narrow poetic confines of graduate school gave me the courage to write my own poems. I learned, in part from Bill’s writing, to tell my own poetic stories in clear language; to tell some of the complicated, funny stories that characterize real life. So I was feeling down because Bill was no longer part of the world, no longer writing.

Then the sun came out, and Roy Orbison belted out “Pretty Woman” from my car radio, and I pounded my hand on the steering wheel and sang along as usual and I could almost see Bill smile. I was still considering going to his funeral and memorial, to be held in Lincoln, NE, where he lived. Somehow, though, a thousand-mile drive to a funeral thronged with people who have known him for years didn’t seem right. I come from a long line of people uncomfortable showing emotion in public, and though I’ve worked against that in many ways by writing and by reading my work to audiences, some of the reticence prevails. I’m more comfortable writing about what he meant to me.

Describing Bill’s poetry in a way that would convey its joys to someone who has never read it is beyond my skills. But I can quote him and perhaps give a hint.

“Connections: A Toast” begins with “Here’s to the bur oak” beyond his office window, and works its way through toasts to books, to saints, to fine individual moments in his life and a few mentions of baseball, to Rosa Parks and a quotation from ee cummings to Crazy Horse and his supposed last words and Bach and Louis Armstrong and the bird perched in the bur oak:

“trilling with its unsplit tongue, one
steady and diverse and universal song.”

You’ll have to read the poem to get the full effect: pages 96-97, Fielding Imaginary Grounders, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1994. The theme of how, as the Lakota say, “we are all related,” may be universal to poets. (I’ve been working on my own “connections” poem.)

I bought Bill’s Alvin Turner as Farmer in 1974 when it was published by Ted Kooser’s Windflower Press. I probably met Bill and heard him read several years later. The poems I marked in the book concern the difficulties of farming; I was just beginning to write about ranching.

In poem 9 from that book, Alvin Turner tells of shooting rabbits to make nourishing food for his sick baby. After the child dies, he keeps shooting:

“The chamber of my .12 gauge
Like a little throat, coughing.”

In poem 11, he writes that the granary is full, and “the baby is solid as a tractor lug.” In 58, “I snag the strutted leg/ Of the most unmindful chicken,” Bill wrote.

“Now the manure is in bloom,” Alvin says, and “I roam my acreage like a sweet spy.” In 36 he speaks of his wife with her masher, “humbling the potatoes.”

And then in 14, “I love the boys like they were fanbelts. . . And brand new.” These were images I could feel, touch, taste, because they were part of my world too.

In 21, “I watched my father die,
Said yes to his request, and in that single word
Sent all my sinews, like a measurement,’
Around this quarter section.”

My own father made no such request, refusing to leave the ranch to me. But, as Bill wrote in 24:

“I stand alone at the foot
Of my father’s grave,
Trembling to tell:
The door to the granary is open,
Sir, And someone lost the bucket
To the well.”

I’ve often stood at the foot of my own father’s grave and given him reports on the condition of the ranch.

Lately, I’ve appreciated Bill writing about aging as he recorded with brilliance and sensitivity what age feels like. Here’s one of the results:

It's a slow dance, all right,
this business of slipping
from the quick to the numb,
but to be honest with you
it isn't as slow
as I believed forty years ago
it was going to be. I'll confess
what I know of history
is somewhat less than
voluminous-- but I think it was
Jefferson who said that
God shows his mercy
by taking away, one by one,
those passions we stake
our own and others' lives on,
so that when the time comes
we'll not have so much to let
go of.

From We Don't Get Around Much Any More by Bill Kloefkorn, published in The Laurel Review, vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996).

In the week since Bill died, I’ve been conducting a private memorial, collecting from the retreat house all of his books that I own-- maybe half of the 31 books he wrote and published-- and reading and re-reading, discovering poems I hadn’t remembered, and greeting old friends.

Here’s a fact that may encourage writers who are beginning later in their lives: Bill didn’t start writing poetry until he was 37 years old.


Part II. Highland Park Cemetery

The Sunday after Bill died, Jerry came with me to the Hermosa cemetery to do the annual cleanup, traditionally done the week before Memorial Day. I’ve written about this annual labor for the dead in my poem “Memorial Day,” saying, “They’re just bones to me.” Hoeing at the stubborn alfalfa growing on my grandfather Charles’s grave mound, though, I felt the shock moving up my arm, down the hoe:

“drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.”

I’m now the last of our family to wear the name Hasselstrom, so the upkeep of these graves is my responsibility. Besides the Hasselstrom graves where my grandmother and grandfather lie, I need to care for the graves of their ancestors, and my grandmother’s first husband. In another part of the cemetery lie my mother and father, John and Mildred Hasselstrom, and my husband George Snell. Then there are the graves of Harold and Josephine Hasselstrom, my dad’s childless brother and his wife, buried in Buffalo Gap. My uncle and cousins still care for the grave of my mother’s mother, Cora Belle Hey, in Edgemont, and several uncles and aunts on my mother’s side of the family.

But on Sunday, I focused on the Hermosa dead. At some time, one of the Hasselstrom survivors was moved by inspiration to plant hardy lilacs on the sizable plot; the resilient bushes might survive in the yellow gumbo soil. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the lilacs have inundated not only most of the Hasselstrom grave but also a couple of Kimballs. My father knew the Kimballs, but while we do the right thing, hacking the lilacs away to expose their graves, I don’t remember a single anecdote.

The Hasselstroms weren’t the only ones to underestimate the vigor and buoyancy of lilacs: everywhere in the cemetery the bushes are thriving, washing like a green wave over older graves. Just below the Hasselstroms and the Kimballs, lilac stumps surround a homemade tombstone decorated with chunks of native rock like quartz, bearing the single name DOWNIE, lost for a generation.

My father, when we came to do this work on what he always called Decoration Day, used to say he was “exploring his future.” I’m starting to think about the practicalities of cremation.


Part III. The Rapture

Someone predicted that Saturday, May 21, would be the end of man’s days on earth, the end of the world, the day of what was called “The Rapture.” Wondering what Bill might have written about it, I could see his eyes sparkling at the challenge, the beginnings of a grin. I made a few notes, but nothing that resolved itself into coherency.

Then my brain was flooded with lines from an irreverent chant I first learned on the playground at Hermosa grade school, probably about 1954.

“Did you ever think when a hearse goes by
That you might be the next to die?”

The jingle rattles in my brain for days, the way mindless doggerel always does when you don’t want to remember it at all.

“They wrap you up in a bloody sheet
and bury you about six feet deep.”

The harder I try not to think about the lines, the more of them return to my mind. I can hear the shrill voices of my classmates as we screamed the words at each other.

“You’re okay for about a week
and then your coffin springs a leak.”

I don’t want to remember but I can’t seem to stop myself.

“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”

The chorus bubbles along in my brain when I’m visiting the cemetery with my inlaws, when we’re having lunch, when I’m trying to sleep.

“The worms play pinochle on your snout.”

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can hear those ten-year-old voices warbling,

“They eat your eyes, they eat your nose.”

When I try to say something meaningful about the historic tombstones or the sunny, breezy day, my tongue tries to sabotage me.

“They eat the jelly between your toes.”

Why can’t I rid my brain of that silly rhyme? I sit up in the dark at 2 in the morning, thinking back over the past few days, searching for a reason that I can’t rid myself of the curse. Sometimes this works; once I figure out why I’m sleepless, I can decide on an action, and then sleep.

“A big green worm with rolling eyes
crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.”

The song gets worse. Much worse.

And finally I realize that Bill Kloefkorn is the master of the playground poem, the childhood memory turned into a story that can make the reader laugh or cry.

Though his memories of what he did as a boy in a small town in the middle of the nation differs considerably from what I did as a girl growing up in a rural community and going to school in a town of 100 residents, there are parallels. In his blasphemous, funny way, he memorialized the truth about playgrounds. I don’t recall ever encountering the worm song in any of his poems, but it wouldn’t surprise me to.

In the poem “Prove It” from his book Swallowing the Soap, Bill writes about seeing Bubba Barnes steal a comic book from the rack in the Rexall drugstore. The next day at recess, Bill confronts Bubba with the crime. When Bubba denies it, Bill clearly delighted in the opportunity to write these perfect playground lines:

I don’t have to
prove it, I say.
I know you did it
and you know you
did it. So, he
says, prove it, ass-
eyes. Just prove it.

What a poetic challenge recalling that little ditty has created for me as a writer! And making use of the rhythm of the worm song would add a lilt and a zip to any poem that began with its inspiration.


Part IV. And Rapture

I spent a few-- too few-- evenings with Bill and an assembled company of people interested in words, talking about writing, but I’ve heard him speak and read his poems enough so that I can call up his voice when I read his work. I doubt I will ever forget that voice, that ability to deliver a poem. If Bill Kloefkorn were here this Sunday morning, we might talk about the rapture that didn’t occur yesterday, explore the meaning of the word “rapture,” the ironies of that forecast and its result.

Thinking about rapture without Bill’s help, I turn to my American Heritage Dictionary.

“1. The state of being transported by a lofty emotion,” it says. “Ecstasy.”

And furthermore: “2. An expression of ecstatic feeling. Often used in the plural.”

And finally, “3. The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.”

Rapture, 1: ecstacy:

Outside the window, rain falls lightly, and the prairie grass is as green as it ever gets. Twenty black cows graze below the hill, their heads staying down for long minutes as they fill themselves with the vibrant grass, driving winter’s cold out of their bodies. In my garden at Homestead House, the Alaska and Early Perfection peas are four inches tall. The leaves of the Yukon Gold potatoes are just breaking earth. My mouth waters, thinking how, in July or August, I will serve a bowl of new potatoes and peas with lunch.

Rapture, 2: expression of ecstatic feeling:

Star lilies are blooming, their white petals flaring out of the ground, tiny fountains of white silk. Yellow Nuttall’s violets-- my mother called them Johnny Jump-Ups-- wink among the curly buffalograss. Bluebells hang among the stems of the taller redtop, ringing gently with each breeze. Pale blue sky shimmers with sun and birdcalls.

Rapture, 3: transporting, especially to heaven

The air is filled with wings. Common snipes, redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, killdeer-- all are flying, zipping, diving, zooming, snatching bugs out of the air and whizzing back to their nests to feed the demanding nestlings. The bugs fly through the cool spring air, lifted up on gossamer wings to become part of the ecstacy and nourishment of spring surrounding us, raptured as life goes on.

# # #

For more information:
Linda's poem "Memorial Day" may be found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom,
Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

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The Perils of Punctuation, or How I Became a Stickler

April 13, 2011

Tags: High School, Teacher: Jo Zamow, Punctuation, Writing Suggestions, Poetry, Horse: Oliver

Linda Hasselstrom's Senior Class photo in the 1961 Pine Cone of Rapid City High School.
. . .
A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from Becca Curry, the niece of my favorite high school English teacher, Josephine Zamow. Going through her aunt’s possessions, Becca had found a folder containing papers I’d written for Miss Zamow’s class. Would I like to have it?

That worn folder has kept me reading, and laughing, and blushing, and remembering Miss Zamow, for days. I’m deeply grateful to her, and to Becca, for reminding me that, like most of us, I wasn’t as smart in those days as I thought I was. I have trouble even looking at my photo, because I look so young and at the same time so smug. Like my peers, I was caught in the horrid high school business of trying to be gorgeous, trying to fit in with the crowd. I believe Jo Zamow was one of the people who taught me, by example, what a waste of time that is.

I remember Miss Zamow as a little dynamo with soft brown hair cropped at chin length, and bangs that curled down on her forehead. She wore tidy little suits, brightened perhaps with a scarf under the collar. I remember her jaw as usually being fairly rigid, probably from what she had to put up with from her classes. She had a wry sense of humor, and I always had the sense that she wanted to say more than was acceptable in a high school classroom. I hope I told her how much she meant to me, and probably I did not.

Years later, after I’d begun to be published, I visited her class. She pulled from a deep desk drawer my lengthy treatise on Why I Am A Christian and read parts of it to the class while I blushed furiously. I was hoping to find that paper in this collection, but it’s probably just as well it’s not here. As I recall, it was written while I was angling for the attentions of a handsome blond fellow who was determined to become a missionary. And I heard in Miss Zamow’s voice, when she read it aloud, her awareness of its pompous tone and its ironies. (See “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” in my book Land Circle.)

The papers Becca gave me were written for Advanced Placement English, dated from late 1960 into 1961. Here I found three poems that deserve to be forgotten, but they are among the earliest work of mine I’ve saved. I’ll show them to my retreat writers to prove that everyone CAN improve.

One poem, “The Alamo,” is filled with patriotic spirit– and contains one of the errors I’ve now become a stickler about: the confusion of its and it’s. Here’s the handout I use when I encounter that error these days:

*~*~*
The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
-- Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves, p. 44
*~*~*

Miss Zamow would have loved that.

The papers provide an insight into what we were reading and discussing for the class. For the third six-weeks test, for example, I wrote on conformity vs. nonconformity, and forecast some of my own future by voting solidly against conformity, quoting T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in defense of my view. In February, 1961, I wrote passionately in defense of the beauty of the prairie that some saw as “dull and uninteresting,” describing some of the encounters I had there with coyotes, antelope and eagles while riding my horse. However I also described Jackson Hole as the “ideal vacation paradise.” Both Jackson Hole and I have changed!

Another topic was training a young horse, and how one must patiently show him that “his diet includes only hay, oats and water,” and not human flesh. I vividly remember the inspiration for this one; my colt Oliver started biting my arm and left giant blue teeth marks on my buttocks before we convinced him that was a bad idea. Once you get on the horse, I said, his first act would be to “leap four feet into the air, come down hard, and start spinning like a runaway top. He is just high-spirited, as some parents say about their demon children.” I still feel pretty much the same way about horses and spoiled brats.

Another favorite topic of mine that semester was the behavior of teachers; three essays on the subject extol the virtues of strict teachers. Miss Zamow must have been proud of me; she certainly was not one of the lenient ones I criticized.

Much of our writing that semester centered around reading. I still recall lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” and Ode to the West Wind,” and wonder if they are still read in high school English. I asserted in a September paper that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 should be required reading for all high school students. I thought John Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” were “escapes from reality,” but well-written. I didn’t care for William Blake’s work then, and have not changed my opinion. After writing papers analyzing the writing of Andreyev, Gorky, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I have avoided all four writers ever since. But I had a great time comparing our new car with our old car, saying the 1950 Chevrolet “closely resembled a duck,” while the 1959 was more like a “crouching panther.”

Asked to write about one poem, I insisted that I couldn’t choose between them and wrote about two, Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” which I can still recite, and “The Stab” by William Wallace Harney, which I had entirely forgotten-- though I can see the influence of both poems in my writing today.

On Dec. 9, 1960, I turned in a diamond paragraph designed to teach us the use of various kinds of sentence structure; I’m going to use this as an example to the writers who come to Homestead House. We were instructed to write the following sentences:

Simple
Compound
Complex
Compound-complex
Complex
Compound
Simple

Here’s what I wrote:

My mirror is my bulletin board. I wedge postcards around it, and I stick poems and reminders to the frame. Since I collect these items fanatically, I now see myself only in the center of the mirror. After tiring of peering at two inches of my face, I may tour the world in thoughts, or I may read poetry and philosophy. If I am discouraged, some selection will make me cheerful. I can read love poems and prayers, or I may look at friends’ faces and tour exciting places. Truly, my bedroom mirror is an adventure in itself.

But the best gift from this collection of papers came from the comments Miss Zamow wrote on two papers.

At the top of the paper on Maxim Gorky’s “In the Steppes,” dated Jan. 19, 1961, is an A-, followed by this comment in Miss Zamow’s small, square handwriting: “Excellent except for punctuation. Please analyze each use of the comma in this paper.”

The second paper, on Leonid Andreyev’s “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” dated Jan. 20, 1961, received an A, and this comment, “Anyone who can analyze this astutely, write this well, and produce a term paper for a daily assignment is intelligent enough to learn how to use punctuation. Please do so.”

I doubt that I sat right down and studied punctuation during that senior year of high school, but I’ve worked at punctuating correctly ever since. I’m delighted at this reminder of just why I’m so darn picky, and I hope Jo Zamow would be proud of me.

# # #

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Chin Hairs and Proofreading

March 15, 2011

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Proof Reading, Poetry, My Poem: Chin Hairs, My Book: Dirt Songs

. . .
I always tell students you can write a poem about anything and it may become a good poem. Challenging myself, a few years ago I wrote about my chin hairs. And recently, probably while holding a pair of tweezers and peering into the mirror, I realized plucking unwanted facial hair is a dandy metaphor for removing those errors and unsightly intrusions in a manuscript.

First, here’s the poem, scheduled to appear in my new book with Twyla Hansen, Dirt Songs, sometime this autumn.


Chin Hairs

Two o’clock each October afternoon,
the sun angles just right
through the bathroom window
so I can perch on the tub
with the magnifying mirror
in one hand and the tweezers
in the other to pluck
hairs off my chin.

Each day, when I look in the mirror,
I see my grandmother.
Of course we never talked
about our chin hairs.
During our final conversation,
she was too old, I too young,
our minds too busy with her dying.
But these days we each know
what the other is thinking.
We understand how fast
the sun is sinking into winter.

Sitting on the side of the tub,
I remember being blonde,
believing chin hairs to be the curse
of dark-haired women. I tweeze
and yank and pull
and mumble to myself.

After I pluck awhile, I return to my desk.
I don’t know the angle of the sun
where grandmother is,
but I’m sure
no chin hairs grow.
. . .


Our chins may not have chin hairs in heaven or our manuscripts have mistakes, but here and now, we need to proofread!


** No one is immune from chin hairs or error.

As a child, I thought only dark-haired women got chin hairs, and felt quite smug. Similarly, no matter how good your grammar is, or how attentive you are as you are drafting a manuscript, you will probably make mistakes.


** There’s no sure way to remove chin hairs or faults in writing.

Once, in the throes of a new romance, I paid what seemed like a lot of money and endured many painful appointments while a young woman stuck an electric needle into my chin to remove hairs “permanently.” Yet every day, I pluck hairs she electrified at least once. Similarly, if you believe spell check or other computer programs will make your manuscript error free, you are misguided.


** Just when you think you have them all, you spot another one.

When I’m proofreading manuscripts, I read first the regular way, from the beginning to the end. Then I read the last sentence, then the next-to-last sentence, and so on, until I reach the beginning again. Then I run the various computer correction programs. Then I print out the manuscript and take it to a well-lighted desk and read it carefully. And still, I’ll often find an error the instant AFTER I mail or email it to its destination.


** Some are easier to find than others.

Some chin hairs and mistakes are big and black and obvious; others are blonde and hidden subtly in the curve of cheek or a sentence that you know sounds just wonderful. Only persistence and nit-picking care will find them.


** Take your time to get them all.

Just as with plucking chin hairs, don’t try to proofread a poem or article quickly in one session. A strong bathroom light might help you find some hairs, or sitting outside in full sunlight with a magnifying mirror. Similarly, proofread your writing at the computer, but also print out a copy to carry around and read in otherwise idle moments, like waiting at a checkout line. You’ll find errors you might have missed when your brain is in writing mode.


I’ve proofread this essay a number of times, both with the computer programs and by printing it out-- but quite often once I’ve done that and sent it to Tamara, she finds one or two more errors. You aren’t likely to have a friend who will pluck your chin hairs-- though I have a friend who plucked them for her mother when she was on her deathbed. But if you have a friend who will proofread, do take advantage of that good luck.

Both proofreading and hair plucking can be painful, and require you to be annoyingly detail-oriented, but both are worth the trouble. Your manuscript will be at its spiffy best when you've made it error free, and you won't risk an editor rejecting it just because dangling modifiers or the misuse of “its” and "it's" drives her crazy. And you'll feel more confident with the shadow gone from your upper lip.

# # #

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I See By Your Outfit That You're NOT a Cowboy

February 8, 2011

Tags: Cowboy Poetry, Poetry, Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Baxter Black, Poet: Wally McRae, Clothing, Public Appearance, My Poem: Butchering the Crippled Heifer, My Poem: Coffee Cup Cafe

Linda at the CPG in 2011.
Photo by Nancy Curtis.
. . .
I was a performer at the 27th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nevada, in January, 2011. After I returned home I was asked if modern cowboy poets are still largely ranchers and people who make a living from the land, or if they, like the majority of the US population, live in cities or the suburbs.

There's a strict selection process for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, so most of the performers are people who really do make a living from the land because that's one of the requirements. But the Western Folklife Center, sponsor of the CPG, is flexible as well-- whereas most participants used to be strictly from the west, we've now discovered there are cowboys in Florida, for example, and some of them come to perform. Moreover, the folklife experts have created links with agrarian grassland peoples all over the world, so each year features cowboys from other countries-- we've had Argentina, Ireland, Australia, and this year was Hungary.

Glaring exceptions, of course, get lots of attention. Like Baxter Black who used to be a country veterinarian but is now a performer. Success, sadly, may mean a person can make more money performing than ranching, so they may quit ranching to perform full time. Baxter Black is one of the rare individuals who has been successful enough to quit his “day job,” and he is known to generously lower his fees on some occasions when doing so will help a community organization.

Many of the performers, though, have to really pinch pennies to come to the gathering, since the pay is not great. We don’t mind, though, because we get a chance to speak with visitors about ranching. Most of us feel we do a considerable amount of education not only during our performances, but while standing in line for a buffet, or working our way through the crowds at the various events. I’ve been threatening for years to write a poem about the conversations that begin in the women’s restrooms, which often lead to exchanges of business cards, and further communication after the gathering. I’m sure that part of the attraction of the Gathering for visitors is the chance to talk with performers and ask questions about the real ranching life.

Many of the people who attend the Gathering are admirers of the life of the working cowboy or cattlewoman. Wally McRae (rancher, cowboy poet and philosopher, an inspiration to me for years because of his work against coal strip-mining in Montana) reminds us that they are our fans, so they want to be like us. We wanted Roy Rogers or Gene Autry pistols when we were kids, too. Thus they dress in cowboy gear: They buy flamboyant boots decorated with carvings in red or blue or black leather. They wear huge, swooping hats adorned with silver, and don’t observe western custom by taking them off during performances so that the audience members behind them can see the stage. They wrap themselves in leather vests, leather jackets, and leather dresses swaying with foot-long fringe. Around their necks are neckerchiefs in every color imaginable and big enough for a bed spread, held in place with silver scarf ties. Some of those folks are wearing gear that cost as much as a pretty good ranch. But remember, says Wally, those are the people who pay the entrance fees and buy the books. They wish they could live the lives we live; they are our groupies.

And some of them may even notice that we don't dress quite as well-- because we can't afford to-- and come away with a clearer understanding of the realities of ranching.

And while many of the audience members are fans of cowboy or rhyming poetry, or of individual poets, I received a great reminder that the interests of the audience are also broadening. When reading my poems “Butchering the Crippled Heifer” and “Coffee Cup Café,” I announced that the two poems had been accepted by Garrison Keillor for his third book of Good Poems about American Life, and the audience cheered.

One of the wonderful things about the Gathering, though, is that no matter who the performers are, it is held in ranch country-- though the town (Elko, Nevada) is now changing because of expansion of the railroad, and a big gas pipeline coming through from Wyoming.

The Gathering and its many sessions, particularly those at the G3 Bar, which is in the old Pioneer Hotel, now the headquarters of the Western Folklife Center, would not exist as it does without the more than 400 volunteers who are recruited from Elko and surrounding towns to hand out programs, drive performers from their hotels to their performances, set up stages, and do all the zillion tasks that makes an event like this work.

The cattlewomen-- both those officially belonging to several organizations, and other ranch women-- make food every single night for the performers at the G3 Bar. Each night before I performed, I could go down to the basement and choose something to eat from huge pans of meatballs, lasagna, spaghetti, salads, pies, and tubs of bottled water, soft drinks and beer-- all donated, and being kept at the proper temperature to be eaten before or after the performance. Many receptions throughout the week are supplied by these volunteer cooks, who are then in the line dishing up the food-- so the feeling of the Gathering remains very much like that of a potluck in a ranch community.

Someone did remark, though, that as the ranches get bigger, the communities get smaller.

# # #

For more information:
The Western Folklife Center website with information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

The Poetry Page on this website has information about my poems accepted for Garrison Keillor's book in 2011.

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Never Discard a Written Draft, or Finding Metaphor in Harvest

September 29, 2010

Tags: My Book: Roadkill, My Book: Bitter Creek Junction, My Poem: Clara in the Post Office, My Book: Dakota Bones, Poetry, Writer's Almanac, Writing Suggestions, Draft of Writing, Journals, Gardening, Herbs, Food Dehydrator, Family: George, Zucchini, Tomatoes

Tomatoes on the food dryer.
. . .
Several people have just written emails to tell me that this morning, September 29, Garrison Keillor read an old poem of mine, “Clara: In the Post Office,” on Writer’s Almanac. I got to hear him the first time he read the poem, not long after my book of poems Roadkill was published; I believe this may be the third time he’s read it, so it’s good to know he likes it. I’m sorry that the “buy now” link on his website leads only to Amazon.com, but at least readers will see the titles of many of my books. And I was inspired this time to send him a copy of a newer book of poetry, Bitter Creek Junction, hoping that he might like something a bit more recent.

All this fits in with what I was thinking this morning about the value of saving drafts of everything you write. While Keillor was reading an old poem of mine that still inspires him, I was crumbling some oregano I dried in 2007, putting it into a jar to put in my kitchen spice rack. The oregano smells strong and fresh, much better than anything I might purchase-- and probably was harvested more recently.

In the spring of 2008, we moved back to the ranch, so my oregano was newly started. I harvested some in 2009, but not much, allowing the plants to grow and become more vigorous. Now they are not only strong in their first location, but I’ve moved them to an herb garden, so I should be able to harvest a lot next year-- but I still have a jar or two of the 2007 left, so I won’t have to buy any.

I planned ahead for this hiatus of herb harvest: my herbs in Cheyenne were vigorous, and I knew we were moving, so I spent a lot of the fall of 2007 cutting stems and hanging the plants from the curtain rods in my sewing room in the old house, where they received considerable heat during the long fall days. I planned ahead, and am reaping the rewards.

Writing doesn’t always allow me to plan ahead, but it has taught me to save, so I can see a metaphor here. My journal goes with me everywhere, and I am constantly taking notes. I don’t always know what those notes will become in my writing. Maybe they will be nothing, just notes taken about something I was doing or thinking. But sometimes, I find that a thought leads me back to notes taken on a particular day, and I draw details out that become a poem, or a paragraph in an essay.

In the same way, I dried that oregano in 2007 not knowing what it would become, but knowing I’d use it. This morning I added some to tomato sauce I am making from some tomatoes that have been ripening in the basement since I thought we were going to have a frost a week or so ago. (Meanwhile, on the plants, more tomatoes are ripening; the thermometer has dropped to 38 degrees, but no lower.) The food dryer was built by my husband George using plans purchased from Living Foods Dehydrators (he built the food dryer long before they had their DryIt.com website!). Made of plywood and plastic screen suitable for food preparation, it is heated by 4 lightbulbs wired so they can be switched on individually to adjust the heat.

Today I’m also drying zucchini; a friend gave me more than we can use fresh. I sliced them evenly, arranged them on several wire trays in the dryer, and switched on all 4 light bulbs. The temperature outside is a cool 62 degrees, so I moved the sliding top of the dryer almost closed, and keep checking the thermometer on the top shelf. I like to keep the temperature between 90 and 110 degrees for most-efficient drying. The dried chips will be great for winter snacking, or I can add them to soups and stews.

Besides making several gallons of tomato sauce, I’ve dried pounds and pounds of tomatoes, though they are a little trickier than many vegetables because of their high moisture content. I slice them as thin as I can, laying the slices on an old oven grill over a bowl in the sink, so some juice drips out of the slices. I catch the juice in a bowl and drink it or use it in soup.

Then I spray the screened trays with oil, or lay sheets of Teflon paper (available from Living Foods Dehydrators) on the trays, alternating sides to improve air circulation. I’ve found that the tomatoes don’t darken if I don’t put them on the bottom two trays. I keep the temperature high for a day or two, sometimes three. Some folks season the tomatoes with spices or salt. (The book Dry It You’ll Like It, also available at DryIt.com, offers good information on drying practically anything.)

Our dry climate certainly helps the dehydration process, though since the food dryer is close to my washing machine, I usually avoid hanging wet clothes on the indoor clothesline while I’m using the food dryer. The finished slices taste intensely of tomato, and look like stained glass.

I’ll confess to not liking any incarnation of green tomatoes I’ve ever tried, and I do believe I’ve tried them all. Instead, I ripen tomatoes on the vine or in newspaper-lined boxes in the basement. When I find tomatoes too grasshopper-gnawed or damaged to use, I toss them into the compost. So not a tomato is wasted.

Similarly-- back to that metaphor I’m working on-- I often look into my poem draft binder and find a fragment of a poem that didn’t work. But because I haven’t thrown it away, I can look at it again. Sometimes my attitude has changed, or I’ve gotten more information; I can often resume work on an idea that may be years old, and nurture it into completion.

# # #

For more information:

Website for The Writer's Almanac to read my poem "Clara: In the Post Office."

Although my book Roadkill is now out of print, "Clara" may be found in my book
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom

Living Foods Dehydrators website www.DryIt.com

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My Brush with Fame: US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin

July 2, 2010

Tags: Poetry, Public Appearance, Vegetarians, Solitude for Writing, Brush with Fame, Poet: W.S. Merwin, Poet Laureate

. . .
The news this week: On July 1, 2010, the Library of Congress appointed W.S. Merwin as the US Poet Laureate.

I'm delighted. Here's my story of meeting him years ago.

I'd been visiting a California college for a couple of days, giving readings and workshops. My airline ticket was cheaper if I stayed over the weekend, so my hosts invited me to do so, and join them for W.S. Merwin's visit a few days after mine.

A group of us went to dinner with him. The others, knowing my views on beef, instructed me not to order meat as he's a vegetarian; I told him at the table, and he laughed-- I had fish anyway, because I was in California.

He said he likes isolation so he can work; "I have a telephone that I can call out on, but no one can call in."

"How can you do that?" I said, and he just looked at me. Of course he doesn't give anyone the number.

He was extremely kind, made sure I was included in the conversations, and we all had a great time. But we talked until something like 15 minutes before his reading, hurried to campus, parked, and everyone rushed toward this lighted building where he was supposed to speak. We could hear the crowd of waiting students.

He was hanging back and I was next to him and saw the look on his face.

I've done a lot of readings where people assume you can go directly from the dinner table to the podium. Sometimes the organizers of a reading don't realize that the writer may need to relieve herself, to throw up from nervous tension, or just to have a few moments alone; bathrooms can serve all those purposes and few writers start a reading without visiting one. "I know where there's a bathroom," I said.

"Oh good," he said and we peeled off into the dark.

The organizers got to the reading and . . . Merwin and I were missing. (He has been known to be interested in the ladies.) They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off; when we got back they snarled, "Where did you TAKE him?"

"The man had to go to the bathroom," I said.

The building was full, students sitting in the windows, standing against the walls-- and they ushered him down the aisle to the front of the room. I listened from outside, leaning in a window. The talk was wonderful.

# # #

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Poetry in Daily Life

April 19, 2010

Tags: Poetry, Cowboy Poetry, Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Poet: Badger Clark, Poet Laureate, Family: Father, Family: Mother, Horse Riding, Horse: Rebel, Writer's Almanac

. . .
In 2009, I was asked to write about “poetry in daily life” for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering magazine. This is what I wrote.

The lines of quoted poetry are cited at the end of the essay.

* * *

One sweet mornin’ long ago, my mare and I were trailing cows and calves home from summer pasture near the Badlands, where the sharp crests dream in the sunset gleam.

My father’s green ‘49 Chevy pickup idled in front, while Rebel nipped slow cows on the tail, and I day-dreamed about riding wilder horses after faster cows.

I kin ride the highest liver
‘Tween the Gulf and Powder River


For my twelfth birthday, I’d gotten Sun and Saddle Leather by Badger Clark, South Dakota’s poet laureate and one of the finest cowboy poets ever. I began to hear “The Legend of Boastful Bill” in my head.

So Bill climbed the Northern Fury
And they mangled up the air


While I recited, Rebel twitched an ear, jingling her bridle to the hoofbeat rhythm. By the time the cows ambled home, I’d recalled most of the words. My father didn’t care for Bill’s methods:

I’ll cinch ‘im up and spur ‘im till he’s broke

but he could recite most of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Snowbound.” Mother preferred ballads:

Summer of 'sixty-three, sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, sir, to sell our first load of hay.


She’d learned “Kentucky Belle” in grade school. When she was 91, we recited it together, tears in our eyes, reminiscing about the past, or, as Badger put it:

Men of the older, gentler soil

Poetry is part of everyone’s daily life. The advertising jingle you can’t get out of your head is someone’s best effort at making you remember. After 25 years, I can still see the blonde driving the pickup with this bumper sticker:

You’ve never lived
until you’ve loved a sheepherder


If you remember a line, it’s likely poetic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called poetry “the best words in the best order.” Making a living as an itinerant writer, I drive a lot, remembering good lines to force the ads and bad jokes out of my brain.

Over the Springtime plains I ride,
Knee to knee with Spring


Poetry romps me through bleak regions with bad radio stations, keeps me from tuneless singing. With poets as passengers, I’m never alone. Badger reminds me:

I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
over me and the big today.


A day that starts with poetry is better than one without. Online, I often read www.cowboypoetry.com and The Writer’s Almanac. I hate going to town, but when I do, I warble:

We’re the children of the open and we hate the haunts o’men,
But we had to come to town to get the mail.


Badger lived just up the road, and answered my sixth grade letter [oops, I was guessing, because I hadn’t yet found the letter; I was in eighth grade] with encouragement to write, so I can almost hear him chuckle:

And we’re ridin’ home at daybreak--‘cause the air is cooler then--
All ‘cept one of us that stopped behind in jail.


Letters piled on the seat, I hurry home to my real work, declaiming as he did:

“Just a-writin’, a-writin’,
Nothin’ I like half so well
As a-slingin’ ink and English--
if the stuff will only sell.”


* * *

By Linda M. Hasselstrom
First published in the magazine for the 25th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Held in Elko, Nevada, January 24 - 31, 2009.

# # #

Quotations in the essay:

One sweet mornin’ long ago,
-- from "The Legend of Boastful Bill" (Badger Clark)

the sharp crests dream in the sunset gleam.
-- from "The Bad Lands" (Badger Clark)

I kin ride the highest liver
‘Tween the Gulf and Powder River

-- from "The Legend of Boastful Bill" (Badger Clark)

So Bill climbed the Northern Fury
And they mangled up the air

-- from "The Legend of Boastful Bill" (Badger Clark)

I’ll cinch ‘im up and spur ‘im till he’s broke
-- from "The Legend of Boastful Bill" (Badger Clark)

Summer of 'sixty-three, sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, sir, to sell our first load of hay.

-- from "Kentucky Belle" (Constance Fenimore Woolson)

Men of the older, gentler soil
-- from "The Plainsmen" (Badger Clark)

Over the Springtime plains I ride,
Knee to knee with Spring

-- from "The Springtime Plains" (Badger Clark)

I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
over me and the big today.

-- from "The Westerner" (Badger Clark)

We’re the children of the open and we hate the haunts o’men,
But we had to come to town to get the mail.

-- from "From Town" (Badger Clark)

And we’re ridin’ home at daybreak--‘cause the air is cooler then--
All ‘cept one of us that stopped behind in jail.

-- from "From Town" (Badger Clark)

“Just a-writin’, a-writin’,
Nothin’ I like half so well
As a-slingin’ ink and English--
if the stuff will only sell.”

-- inscribed by Badger Clark on a copy of Sun and Saddle Leather, and quoted in the Preface to the 1952 edition, written by “R.H., who is not identified in the book.”

# # #

For more information:

See my other blog posting about my childhood correspondence with Badger Clark ("My Brush with Fame: Badger Clark").

Western Folklife's website for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

The Badger Clark Memorial Society's website

Cowboy Poetry Website page dedicated to Badger Clark

Website for The Writer's Almanac
Garrison Keillor recounts the highlights of this day in poetic history and posts a short poem or two.

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Proud to Be a Cowboy Poet

March 1, 2010

Tags: Cowboy Poetry, Poetry, Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Poet: Wally McRae, Northern Lights Magazine, Public Appearance

. . .
Recently I was asked: Your poetry is about the west, but do you consider yourself to be a "Cowboy Poet"?

A few years ago, I would have said “Definitely not,” since my poetry rarely occurs in iambic pentameter or rhymes.

Today, I’d say, “Yes, but I usually do not write in traditional cowboy poetry form.” My poetry, like that of most of the best traditional cowboy poets, is about the daily working life of the rancher and cowboy, the people whose work helping to preserve America’s once-vast grasslands by raising cattle here.

Here’s some information on how I came to consider myself a cowboy poet, from a letter I wrote to the magazine Northern Lights in early 1999. The magazine is gone, but will be remembered for its quality. I was responding to an article by Charlie Craighead, “Cowboy Poets: A Study in Oxymoronism.”

I enjoyed the article, I said (and now I quote my letter:)

* * *

. . . even the outrageous pun in the title. Of course some cowboy poetry is awful, but as a noted science fiction writer once said when asked why 98% of science fiction is badly written, “Ninety-eight percent of EVERYTHING is awful.” And I’m glad Craighead admits to a smidgen of jealousy-- why can these folks get published when he can’t? He’s flat wrong about the origins of cowboy poetry; the 14th and 15th annual gatherings in Elko explored the Celtic roots of the genre. And check out Gene Logsdon’s "The Whorehouse Bells were Ringing", among other sources.

But I sympathize with Craighead, who has clearly never been to an event like The Cowboy Poetry Gathering sponsored by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. I beg to offer a slightly different view.

Invited to my first cowboy poetry gathering, I marched in with a chip on my shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore. After all, I’ve been labeled as a “nature writer” (without my consent), I won’t shoot coyotes, and I gave up wearing “cowboy” hats because they blew off in a South Dakota wind on a bucking horse. Worse, I don’t use rhyme because I can’t do it as well as Robert Penn Warren and some of those other rhyming poets I studied in (shh!) graduate school. I know cows and horses, but I still expected to have to show the calluses on my hands and other anatomical features to be admitted.

Nope. I felt welcome when the first cowboy opened the outer door of the auditorium for me, slanting a glance under his hat brim. I said, “Thank you, sir.” He sighed and said, “I was afraid you was one of them liberated women who’d yell at me for opening the door.”

I said, “I’m liberated, but my folks taught me not to be rude,” and opened the second door in the series. He grinned, touched his hat in a thank-you gesture and we walked inside together.

I’m sentimental, under my leathery exterior, so when I hear a really good poem I often have tears in my eyes. I make most of my living speaking about writing in the world of academia where writers compete to show their brilliance by composing wordy sneers at each other’s work. They’ll love Craighead’s piece. If I dared to shed a tear at a poetry reading in that world-- if I was truly moved by a poem-- someone would provide an instant analysis according to preconceived notions before I could open my mouth.

“So,” the academic would say, “do you westerners and cowboy poets just sit around reminiscing about the old West that never existed anyway?”

Before I could shift my quid to say, “Nope,” he’d move on to the next question: “Are you really crying because the rhyme is so bad?”

Nope again. By contrast, at gatherings of cowboy poets, folks who tear up are given decent privacy. No one bustles up saying, “You really must progress to the next stage of your grief in order to maintain a progressive development of your psyche.” Or maybe, “May I share with you why I used to cry? Then I’ll give you the card of my therapist [or-- pick one-- shaman, priest, wellness consultant, financial advisor] who for only $20,000 will fix you.”

Since you didn’t ask, I’ll tell you. I cry at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering when a tall, thin man with a gimpy ankle reads a poem in the voice of my father when I was young. Before he lost his mind and told me my writing was garbage.

I cry when Wally McRae reads a poem about the best dang horse-wrangler he ever knew, how all the men revered him and spoke his name with respect. After ten years or so of hearing the stories, Wally thought he’d heard everything there was to know about the man called “Prock” by his elders. When Wally shook the man’s hand at last, he learned one fact no one had ever thought important enough to mention: that Proctor was black.

I cry when a white-haired cowboy finds me in the crowd and says, “Ma’am, your poetry is a blessing,” even if it doesn’t rhyme.

Go to a Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Mr. Craighead-- you should have done so before offering your opinions-- but it’s not too late. You’ll have a great time. No one will throw you out. You may get to read your own work and get compliments on it.

* * *

My letter was published by Northern Lights in the Spring 1999, issue, Vol. XiV, No. 2, p. 28. I never heard from Mr. Craighead, so I don’t know if he followed my suggestions.

I’ve now been to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko many times and will appear again in January, 2011. (See the links below for more information on this and related events.)

I’m proud to call myself a cowboy poet. And I wear my broad-brimmed hat.

# # #

For more information:

The Cowboy Poetry website.

The Cowboy Poetry website's page featuring me, with a sampling of my poetry.

The Western Folklife Center website with information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

Where in the World is Linda M. Hasselstrom?
A list on this website of my appearances at upcoming events and in various publications.

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