A friend of my mom’s who used to live in Kansas recently reached out to me after coming across my blog. One of the questions she asked was about my journey in coming to Thailand, as well as my journey in writing poetry. I had already been tossing ideas about in my mind in relation to writing about the latter topic, and her suggestion got my mind rolling. What exactIy got me started writing poetry, or writing in general? It’s hard to say. Books, events, people, words of encouragement, God… all these things. Perhaps explaining in depth about all the details of what poetry means to me and how I began writing poetry would sort of be like taking all the beauty and mystery out of the story, like Carl Sandburg said. He said, “Roses, sunsets, faces have mystery. If we could explain them, then after having delivered our explanations we could say, ‘Take it from me, that’s all there is to it, and there’s no use your going any further for I’ve told you all there is and there isn’t any more.’ If poems could be explained, then poets would have to leave out roses, sunset, and faces…” Perhaps if every detail of our journey could be explained then it would lose its mystery. All that to say, here are a few bits and pieces of the journey.
In the first grade, I published my first essay. Miss Denise told me to write about our hobbies as a contribution to the school newspaper. Not only were we supposed to write about our hobbies, but we were to write why we liked to do them.
Mine went like this:
I like to bike.
I like to eat.
I like to sleep.
I like to bike because I like to.
I like to eat because I get hungry very fast.
I like to sleep because then I don’t have to work.
Brutally honest and to the point. (Some of my editors probably wish I would practice some of that “to the pointness” again.)
In the second grade, I got in trouble with my teacher, who happened to be my cousin as well. I didn’t hear my class of 3 called to the table for our lesson, because I happened to be happily lost in a book, probably something like Dan Frontier or the Mr. T.W. Anthony Woo, or (shudder) the Hardy Boys.
I had to stay in at recess and put my head on my desk as a punishment.
In the third grade, I wrote a story. It was read aloud to the class and published in the school newspaper. It was of slightly better quality than my first-grade venture and was something about a boy who went on a hunt with his uncle.
In the fourth grade I got a new teacher. To the embarrassment of my older siblings, I again had hearing problems when I was lost in a book. Mr. Wes was slightly more understanding than the other teacher. Instead of punishing me, he came to my desk and got my attention. That was the year we had the new history books with the colorful, fascinating pictures of the American History. The history books were the frame for the historical fiction and the autobiographies that were donated to the school and devoured by my classmates and I.
In the 5th grade, my teacher set aside a class period each week for Creative Writing. During this time, we did all sorts of writing exercises, including one about a dinosaur wearing pink pajamas. We wrote descriptive paragraphs and stories and got feedback on our writing. The word counts of our stories rose along with the lists of ideas in our stories. Where at first 500 words had seemed insurmountable, we now found that it wasn’t enough to say what we wanted to say. The most popular topics were stories of the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves. My brother’s stories usually included either cattle rustlers or American Indians or cops and robbers or detectives or all of the above.
In the 6th grade, I started to care about my grades and began to pour myself into school. I especially looked forward to the Creative Writing each week. Close to the end of the year, we entered some of our stories into the local library’s writing contest and I was dumbfounded when the librarian called and said that I had won second prize for my age group.
7th grade brought Rainbow Writing. Finally, I was away from Climbing to Good English and diagramming long, dry sentences and labeling adjectives and adverbs, and instead, let loose on creative assignments. We formed groups with the 8th graders and had Peer Editing Conferences. I struggled emotionally that year and found that writing could help me release and process. I think that was the year that we started being penpals with students from Sterling College. My pen pal was Rachel Wise, and I adored her. I found an outlet in writing to her, and to this day wish I could see those letters again. I started writing some poetry and was introduced to the names and work of some of the great American poets like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe when I wrote a research paper on American Literature. Emily of New Moon and the Chronicles of Narnia became favorites of mine and influenced these early years of writing. That year I penned a poem called “Echo Dreams,” which was published anonymously in the school newspaper.
8th grade brought the Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Payne. I loved everything about that book. October also found my class of three sitting in John Mast’s living room. The first day I found out that we were going to write a book compiling his stories, I lay down on my mattress and tried to soak it in. It seemed unbelievable to a 13 year old. That year we read through the A Beka Themes in Literature book, and the poetry in that book came alive for me like never before. Poems like, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Longfellow’s The Day is Done are some of my favorites.
Life in the 8th grade was less tumultuous than 7th grade. It was full of promise and hope and I was incredibly sad when it ended. 8th grade marked the last of my school career (at that point) but I wasn’t ready for it to stop. I seriously imagined refusing to take my diploma on graduation day. (But then again, I imagined a wide variety of things).
After I left school at the age of 13, life was no longer marked in grades, but in years. 14 and 15 found me at home, mostly milking cows and memorizing lists of cow genealogies and sire attributes and the names, birthdates, and histories of every single cow. Without school, my brain had a lot of thinking space and needed something to stay busy. Thankfully, cows were interesting to me or I cringe to think of what else I would have swallowed up had I access to other things. I started to read through our set of encyclopedias but only made it to page 76 of the A book. I dreamed of writing a book and wrote out some plots but I rarely made it past the hatching stage of the story. Poetry was easier since you could do it in small amounts and then come back and rework it. Also, I am bad at grammar, and poetry gave me more poetic license than prose.
Around the age of 14 and 15, I began reading my Bible daily, especially books like Job and Isaiah and the Psalms in the KJV. The Word slowly began to influence my life more and more, and I would read it for the beauty of the words. Who wouldn’t fall in love with words like this? “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.” (Isaiah 49:2 KJV)
16 was the year I could finally join the youth group at church and have a social life. It brought a lot of growing pains and secret crushes and joy and heartache. I began reading and writing more poetry as a way of expression. Shortly after my 16th birthday I discovered Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low” and would recite parts of that and the “Charge of the Light Brigade” to my horse as I rode down miles of outback roads that summer. Like the verses in the Bible that I had discovered, I fell in love with the simple uncluttered rhythm and beauty of “Sweet and Low.”
Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
While outsiders view Kansas as one of the most boring states in the USA, many Kansans are proud and appreciative of the unique beauty of their state. Whether it’s the seas of golden wheat, or the burnt orange and browns of the CRP, or the barren beauty of winter or the wind that Kansas was named after, I found my surroundings a goldmine for inspiration for poetry. Capturing the spirit of the prairie almost became an obsession at times. At 16 I penned “Dust and Wind.”
Wind, wind, endless wind
Fleeting o’er the fields
Dancing in, flying in,
One long roaring wave.
Roaring wave of dust and wind,
Of dust and wind,
Of dust and wind.
Whirlwind of the land
In one unceasing blow
Sweeping lanes and in each hand
One unending broom
Unending broom of dust and wind
Of dust and wind
Of dust and wind
Wind, wind, blowing wild
And talking to me now
Talking to its lonely child
Daughter of the wind
Daughter of the dust and wind,
Of dust and wind
Of dust and wind
I felt deeply, and still do, about death. The death of relatives, people from our church, and the parents of friends hit me hard. In 2011, I wrote this poem after a friend’s father was killed in a tractor accident, and another friend’s mom passed away after being attacked by a bull.
Like a fragment from a weaving torn
Leaving you who have felt the sorrow born
Through ripping, tearing pain
And we grasp for words that are old and worn
And suddenly seem vain
I have no words.
They fail me when I see the sorrow
The endless aching of tomorrow
Stretched out over the years
I have no words that I can borrow
When I started teaching part time at the age of 20, I felt like I had found my happy space. My only disappointment was when my students weren’t always as excited as I was about the writing projects I assigned. As I taught English, I also began to get much better at it myself. That Christmas I read Jesse Stuarts The Thread that Runs so True for the first time. At 21, I had the opportunity to go to Faith Builders for summer term. As I had written about in this post here, I sat in on Jonas Sauder’s Poetry Appreciation class, which was the first time I really had a lot of interaction with other people who knew and loved and wrote poetry more than I did. It was there that while homesick, I wrote the poem, “Harvest Song.”
And I must go down to the fields again
Through the shimmer of summer heat,
And walk through the waves of deepening gold
The oceans of ripening wheat;
Then I’ll stand on the edge where the grass still grows
Green by the amber shore,
And feast my eyes with a fierce wild joy
For the harvest is once more.
And I must go to where the sky is pinned
To the earth like an up-turned bowl
Where the hot wind sighs its searing breath
Against my face, and I’ll feed my soul
By the wide expanse of dying wheat
That moves and ripples and flies
And sings the song of my native blood
Harvest beneath the Kansas skies.
The next year at school, I did a poetry week with my students. At the end, I let the students choose a poem to recite at our program on the last day of school. It was interesting to see how each student chose a poem that seemed to fit their personality. Davy chose “The Turkey Shot Out of the Oven” (Jack Prelutsky), humorous and well-written. Micah stood at the front of the audience and recited innocently and soberly while his stick-out ears and wayward hair belied his innocence,
I did not eat your ice cream
I did not swipe your socks.
I did not stuff your lunch box
With rubber bands and rocks
I did not hide your sweater
I did not dent your bike
It must have been my sister
We look a lot alike
(I Did not Eat Your Ice Cream, Jack Prelutsky)
Javin read “Little Brown Pony” with a bridle in hand. And Jessamy in first grade recited,
The fog comes
on little cat feet
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches
And then moves on.
(Fog, by Carl Sandburg).
I started talking with friends about the possibility of publishing a book of poems. I had seen some compilations that sparked the idea, and after a few years of thinking about it, self-published a book of poems called Echoes of Eternity. Beulah Nisly, my mom’s cousin, agreed to donate her photography to the book. I have sweet memories of the fall of 2012, selecting the photos and discussing poetry. Her photos were exquisite and evocative. She captured Kansas in such a way that sometimes it felt like it would be better to leave the poem out.
The book came out in the spring of 2013, just a week or so before I traveled to Thailand the first time. Bad timing. Could I do it over again, I would do many things differently. One of those things would be finding someone to edit it more critically, but I had few of those kinds of mentors to turn to.
After moving to Thailand in 2014, I kept on writing, but perhaps more sporadically. During my college years I struggled with writing academically because I felt encased in rules and regulations. I hated it. College and living in another culture took a lot of brain energy, so there were times when I wrote little poetry. In December of 2019, however, I compiled a “tradebook” of poems, which was much less ambitious than my first venture, (I had more sense and less money) but with better quality poetry. This I titled, Through a Glass Darkly.
There you are, a taste of where and why and how I came to write poetry. I think I used to write poetry as a young girl because I loved the cadence and the imagery and the thrill of being able to take an event or a feeling and express it in words that touched my own heart. As I grew older, I wrote it more prayerfully. These days in addition to that, I find myself writing poetry as a way of reaching out to God in the empty and lonely spaces of my life. It’s a way that I can pray without really even knowing what I am praying for. Sometimes after I have written it out, I can finally understand what I really was feeling. And often only then feel relief.
Even after writing this, I find myself hesitating to publish it because it feels like when people write something like this, they write from the viewpoint of someone who has already arrived. I don’t think a poet ever quite arrives. And even as I write that, I realize I also hesitate to call myself a poet. But now, after throwing all political correctness and sensitive conscience to the wind, I will publish it. This is simply the story of an ordinary person who loves words.
photo credit pixabay