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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

How To Write a Poem: The Snake Within

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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For More Information:

Wyoming Authors Wiki website for Jane Elkington Wohl

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Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp where your next meal is coming from.


Copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom

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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

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.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspNo 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.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspSeven 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

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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