A valentine to my Mother, Jane Parke Carpenter, 1923-1999

Got up this morning, and a poem came. Whenever this happens, I am amazed and grateful, for as W.S. Merwin once said at a poetry workshop, (and I am paraphrasing, from memory), “After writing a poem we often feel that it’s our last. Another will never come.” But somehow, they do.

And I don’t believe in “writer’s block” anymore. I just wait. Sometimes for weeks, even months, and then one arrives.

So here is this morning’s poem, triggered by a memory of my Mother, who having lost her own Mother at the age of 10, always feared she’d not know how to “mother” when her 4 children arrived at that memorable age. But she overcame all such doubts, at least in the minds of her children. I’m sure my recent departure from a local Head Start program also led to many of the feelings that arise in this poem.

An Afternoon Memory

My Mother taught me to like
Melba toast
Tomato aspic
Watermelon rind
and Coffee.

She’d be in the kitchen,
Wedged between the dining table & counter top,
Where Arthur Godfrey would croon and drone on
From our Philips radio,
Through our hour together.

She’d be pressing the hot silver iron over and over
Into my Father’s handkerchiefs,
While I cut out clothes for my paper dolls,
From page after page of imagined fabric.

And best of all, we drank coffee–
Mother, from her everyday Melmac mug,
And I, from one of her Royal Copenhagen demitasse cups,
Half full of milk and sugar,
So as not to keep me awake
From the nap that always followed,

Where she stopped everything to read to me,
Sing her childhood songs:
“Oh, Do you Know the Muffin Man,” and
“My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,”
Teased me to sleep with a back rub,
And always, one more story.

She’s been gone now for sixteen years,
But when my little pre-school students ask,
“Where is your Mother?”
I look around the room, at their make-believe
Kitchen, the toy ironing board and little wooden iron,
The plastic tea set, the nap time cots, and answer:
“In Heaven,” which means, “here, in my heart”.

Mom probably in her early 20's, in front of Chateau Frontenac

Mom probably in her early 20’s, in front of Chateau Frontenac

Mom with her first child, my brother Tim

Mom with her first child, my brother Tim

Mom & me by car

Mom & me by car

Mom, Tim, my older sister Carol, and me

Mom, Tim, my older sister Carol, and me

Mom, Carol and me at Catskill Game Farm

Mom, Carol and me at Catskill Game Farm

Mom with Carol, me, and little Jim at Ft. Ticonderoga

Mom with Carol, me, and little Jim at Ft. Ticonderoga

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Valentine’s Day: Straight from the Horse’s Mouth….

Rather than turning to Hallmark for Valentines today, I thought I’d share with you some verses that my gelding, Bravo, wrote to a certain lovely filly named “Second Kiss” (her barn name was “Dottie”)  at Bay Yard Farm in Texas.   He was quite the Romeo, and it’s worth noting that his full name, on his Jockey Club papers, was “Bravo Valentino.”

Bravo Valentino and his scribe

Bravo Valentino and his scribe

handsome fellow, and he knew it

handsome fellow, and he knew it

One of his first attempts (with apologies to Edmund FitzGerald’s translation):

           ROMEO’S RUBAIYAT
A bale of hay, a bucket of water and thou
Beside me in a stall. Oh wow!

        XX MARKS THE “DOT”
Oh fickle filly, don’t be a tease.
Be Valentino’s #1 squeeze!

RUN FOR THE ROSES
Dear Ms. Moore, my little “Dot,”
I’m still in love and you’re still hot,

But recently you broke my heart,
By acting like a Paris tart:

I’ve seen you flirt, I’ve seen the smiles,
‘Twixt you and Debbie’s chestnut, Miles.

I like that guy, and think he’s swell,
But I’m chocolate and he’s caramel.

I know about roses in Derby measure
From my great grandsire, Foolish Pleasure.

So for roses and chocolate and nips divine,
Choose me, little Dottie, say you’ll be mine.

Respectfully Yours,
Bravo Valentino

Jockey Valentine

                                                            Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Where I Write

Photojournalist, Jill Krementz, published The Writers Desk in 1996, a beautiful book that allows readers a glimpse into the private writing rooms of famous authors. Leafing through the pages of this book years ago, when I began to have enough room to make a writing office of sorts, I imagined myself in such “artistic” alcoves. Photos of John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Stephen King, each sitting at their desks, gave me visions of what I imagined for myself.

Reality check. My writing habits do not lend themselves to such abodes. After several tries at setting up just the right space for my writing endeavors, I have given up. I write on the fly, composing in my head as I putter around my house doing laundry, washing dishes, or
feeding the neighborhood’s stray cat.

Teaching, raising a family, running a small hay farm, horseback riding competitively for 25 years, and just living life at full speed, I have never stopped long enough to really set up a proper writing room, let alone get my work organized in a formal manner.  I used to chide myself about this constantly, but over time, have just given in to my ways, and push onward.

There is a rule in my house. Never throw out any paper with writing on it–store receipts,  napkins, matchbooks, church bulletins, scraps of paper torn from grocery bags. Any one of these could contain the germ of a poem, a line, a phrase that I want to use in some poem or other. And I keep little pads of paper everywhere–by my bedside, in my car (on the dashboard), in my tack trunk at the barn, and always in my purse. Those little pads given out at hotels are favorites, second only to index cards, which are tough enough to get through the wash if I shove one into a pocket.

So, truth be told, I’m a hopeless mess, but somehow, I get words onto pages, and eventually, onto my computer screen, and “Saved.” That last step, of typing a poem on my laptop, feels like a reward every time. When I write poetry,  I rarely compose on the keyboard.  I almost always start with a penned line, and move through many drafts to the final, typed version. And I’ve stopped trying to change myself to do otherwise. It’s just how I’ve managed to write over the years, and into my 60’s now, I’m practiced and comfortable with my process.

So now, I shall invite you to take a peek into my “writing room,” which for me only refers to a tiny room in my house where I have a desk, chair, laptop, and three walls of books and things that I collect (I’m a bit of a pack rat too). Things that I like having around:  family photos, stones collected on walks, pieces of armadillo shells, New Yorker Magazine cartoons, and little Oaxacan woodcarvings that my 90+ year old aunt sends me from her yearly trips to Mexico.

WELCOME: Enter what my friend loves to call “The Abyss.” (Note the warning tape he put across the door. He truly believes it’s a hard hat zone!)

Enter "The Abyss"Warning Tape 1Warning Tape 2

And now, a look around, inside the room. (My Mother is rolling over in her grave, and my cousin, a de-clutter guru, will be horrified, but I said this blog was to be about truth-telling, and showing….)

My desk

My desk

Photos, books & stuff

Photos, books & stuff

My Oaxacan Critters atop more books

My Oaxacan Critters atop more books

Finally, a further glimpse into my process, in a poem about my poems:

ARS POETICA

They come unbidden.
No sharpened pencils
Or cocked pens at the ready.
They have no respect for
The convenient desk or
Comfortable chair.

But blasting down Interstate 35,
One flies by–
My left hand grabs the wheel
To allow my right to feel for my purse,
Fish around for something to write with,
Something to write on.

This is the game they play–
Let me sit down at my desk,
Pencils all in a row,
Squadrons of pens, staples,
Neatly lined paper,
And they flee.
They mock me.

I had a thought to tidy up my “office” this weekend, but I’m nursing a cold. Maybe next Sunday!

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To rhyme, or not to rhyme…

This next post was going to be about the origin of my blog title, quilltokeyboard, but that will have to wait…

After reading my first post, several friends asked to read some of my poems. I was oddly struck by that.  It just didn’t occur to me, but then I thought, why not? I don’t intend to have this forum be a poetry site, but I’d certainly enjoy sharing some of my writing with my readers. And, in fact, poetry is the mainstay of my writing.  So here goes:

A sampling: rhymed and unrhymed.

EVE’S VERSION

He chased, I climbed the apple tree;
He climbed, I fell, and skinned my knee.
He promised, Snake, his pocket pet
Would “lick it better.” What did I get?
Two boys, and a matching fig-leaf set.

I’ve lost the keys to the Garden doors,
Now Adam burps, and farts, and snores,
And the house is littered with apple cores.

A friend once asked me to read my autobiographical poem, and when I questioned, “Which one?” she answered, “Eve’s Version.” I was taken aback, and then read the poem. Hmm…

**********************************************************************************

REAL ESTATE
(driving East along 121, Denton to McKinney, TX)

The farmers are selling out.
And why not?

Their neighbor’s cows now graze under billboards.
Warehouses and townhouses rise out of fields
that once yielded corn, milo,
alfalfa and coastal bermuda.

The black gumbo that clumps on boots
and sucks the shoes off horses
is rich, sticky with oil, flatulent with gas.
Bank drafts and gold coins are put on the table,
and this time, they reach down,
take the money, and go.

They have wondered about another life.
Curious to eat breakfast in their bathrobes,
linger over a second cup of coffee,
or the newspaper.
Watch morning rise from a back porch,
instead of the seat of a tractor.

But the muscles that ached
with the heave and haul of hay,
earth,  grain, and calf,
now ache for the lack of it.
And they are less for the loss of the land,
and the land, for the loss of them.

I wrote this poem almost a year after selling my 17 acre farm in Texas.  A sadness came over me when I wrote this, but I don’t think I realized this was my  farewell to something  I had nurtured and loved. When I read it a a poetry festival at Baylor University, months later, I could barely get through the last stanza, for the lump that gathered in my throat.

My farm: hayfield, hay barn, pond, and trees, trees, trees

view from the bridle path

view from the bridle path

And my two horses in pasture…

 

Rerun & Radar in pasture

**************************************************************************************

A question I’m often asked is why some of my works are rhymed and some not. And how do I decide when to rhyme, and when to use another form, or free verse (which some think looks and sounds like chopped prose)? To be honest, I almost never “decide” on much of anything when a poem comes to me. As I play around with ideas and words, usually a line comes first, and that tends to dictate the form. If the line has a certain cadence, say, a lovely 5 beat rhythm, I might try to stick with that throughout, but sometimes the poem just goes its own way, and I follow. If the poem lends itself to rhyme, I play with a few until
a pattern falls into place. Then that pattern demands more of the same, and I wrestle until I’m satisfied that the rhymes “work,” and the pattern is complete. Sometimes I lose the
wrestling match. I have a drawer full of unfinished pieces.

The one exception to the question of rhyming is in my children’s poetry. There I almost always rhyme. It lends a sense of fun to a verse, satisfies a child’s need for “closure,” and makes the poem easy to recite, and then possibly, memorize. Rhyme, after all, was primarily the hallmark of early poetry, in a time when bards traveled the countryside, reciting long (Odyssey-length) poems to eager audiences, who looked forward to this entertainment. (Imagine that!)  The rhyming lines were designed to help memorization. This was, as I have to remind my incredulous students, back in the days before radio, movies, T.V., iTunes, iPods, and the internet. Horrors!

And here’s a example of a simple rhyming poem for children, that came about after a trip to an organic grocery store, where I saw my first rutabaga. (And what a wonderful word–rutabaga!):

RUTABAGA

Like a giant bowling ball,
You’re the biggest root of all.
Next to you in the vegetable bin,
The yellow parsnip looks pale & thin.
And the turnip’s looking mighty small–
Like a white and purple tennis ball!

rutabaga

rutabaga

 turnips

turnips

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Why Do I Write Poetry?

“Language made me a writer; love, a poet.”  NKC

People have often asked me why I write poetry. Why not short stories or novels? To me, that’ s like asking a sculptor why he doesn’t paint, or a water colorist, why she doesn’t work in acrylics. But I suppose it’s a fair question, especially for those who don’t write at all, and find poetry the least accessible of all literary forms.

I’m sure it has something to do with the way my brain works, and how I see the world. Those who know me have suggested that my brain is akin to a pinball machine, or a mouse in a wheel–pinging and running full tilt, full of oddities and quirks. But I know that for me, despite my sometimes annoying loquaciousness, I experience the world in stunning moments of grace, beauty, and gravity. In order to capture my feelings, which often flood me with sensations and visual imprints, I grab a pen and jot–note after note, until something capturing that feeling begins to appear on the page. And in this case, less is more. I don’t want a full Kodak moment, but the essence of that feeling.

Then too, I love language, words, and playfulness. Crafting  words on a page is a joy to me–hunting for just the right image, phrase, word sound, arrangement, or end stopping a line at an unexpected point… this is my art. And while I’m trying to make my readers see something close to what I saw or experienced, I’m also trying to allow room for their own experience to fill in between the lines.

I was raised by parents who surrounded me with books and shared their love of words with me. Poetry was king in our house. My Father, whose Father wanted him to be a lawyer, longed to be a poet, but wound up a copy writer on a city newspaper. Many nights, after a few drinks, he’d read to me from an old blue anthology, his favorites–Poe, Shelley, Tennyson, Byron. Limericks and nonsense verse too. My favorites.

In the same spirit, my Mother would bring out her entire collection of Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas on heavy, black 78s, and sing along to their endless patter songs. My head was always being filled with wonderful words. 

And most nights, I was tucked into bed to the rhymes of A.A. Milne (and not just “Pooh” poems, but “The King’s Breakfast”),  and Dr. Seuss (I still love Thidwick), Gelett Burgess’ “The Goops,” and Robert Louis Stevenson. So poetry was part of my growing up.  I had the good fortune of falling in love with the form before any school teacher tried to tell me it was “important” or killed it with heavy handed analysis.

In high school, my taste in poetry shifted from my Father’s  Romantic poets, toward the more experimental and minimal: Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams. But our poetry bond was always there. Then, thanks to my  Alma Mater, Mt. Holyoke College, I was thrust into the vibrant world of contemporary poets, whom I’ve followed ever since.

Finally, when looking now over the hundreds of poems in my notebooks, I see a common thread. I write for love, and about  love. Things I love. Love. The longing for it, the taste of it, the joy of it, the loss of it.  And so much is encompassed in that realm–love for my family, friends, students, my two sons and new daughter, laughter and silliness, my animals, two very special miniature horses, nature, my farm in Texas, my newly discovered life and love in Upstate New York, and life itself, with all its beauty and gritty ugliness. So I guess, this epigraph, which I wrote one day on a whim, really does answer the question, “Why do I write Poetry?”

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