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

Bill Kloefkorn and The Rapture

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

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

. . .
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

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

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

. . .
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

. . .
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

. . .
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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