Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Where the poem comes from: Ingrid Wendt

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Where the poem comes from: Ingrid Wendt

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I’m part of a new Facebook group made up of authors with books out from Word Tech, the publisher who did my second book, Container Gardening. I invited the poets I’ve met there online to send me a poem and a “where the poem comes from” background on it. This one is from Ingrid Wendt, the author of several award-winning books of poetry, including “Singing the Mozart Requiem” (Oregon Book Award), “Surgeonfish” (Editions Prize), and “The Angle of Sharpest Ascending” (Yellowglen Award). Ingrid’s first book, Moving the House, was chosen for BOA Editions by William Stafford, who also wrote the introduction. Her newest book , Evensong, a finalist in the T.S. Eliot Award, was published in 2011 by Truman State University Press. Wendt is the co-editor of From Here We Speak: An Anthology of Oregon Poetry, and In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts. Her teaching guide, Starting with Little Things: A Guide to Writing Poetry in the Classroom, is in its sixth printing. She lives with her husband, poet and writer Ralph Salisbury in Eugene, Oregon.

Here is Ingrid’s poem, from her collection “Surgeonfish,” and her story of how it came to be written:

The Thing to Do

Though what I did that day was right,

reporting the rattlesnakes coiled tightly

together B diamond-backed lovers

blind to my step within a breath of

leaves crackling under the bush;

Though he did what he had to,

hacking them dead with his long-handled

garden hoe, flinging the still-

convulsing whips of their passion into

the bed of his pickup B that scene,

bright vulture of memory, stays;

picks this conscience that won’t

come clean: this wasnt

the way the story would go

those times I wondered if ever

Id see my own rattlesnake out in the wild,

having listened through years of summer

hikes, in the likeliest places, without

once hearing that glittering warning

said to be unmistakable; knowing

since childhood, the thing to do is not

flicker a muscle, to stare the face of danger

down as though it didnt exist.

No rattlesnake ever had eyes for another.

And menace never multiplied, one season to next.

“The setting of this poem is the D.H. Lawrence Ranch 20 miles north of Taos, New Mexico, elevation 8600 ft. above sea level, where I spent a summer as the recipient of the annual D.H. Lawrence Award, living at the edge of a ponderosa pine forest, next to a meadow full of wildflowers, all alone except for the birds and wind, wild turkeys, coyotes, and the bear whose track I found one day on the road but never saw. On the other side of the meadow, far off and hidden in trees, were cabins where families from the University of New Mexico came for vacations and conferences. I never saw a soul, though I sometimes heard the far-off voices of children playing.

“Born and raised in Aurora, Illinois, I was captivated throughout childhood by tales of the "Far West," especially by stories of dangerous wildlife --bears, wolves, rattlesnakes – none of which had lived anywhere near. So when I finally saw a rattlesnake outside of a zoo, I saw not just one, but two snakes, copulating. (Which they must do, of course, but who ever thought about that, or just how they do it? Not me!) I heard them before I saw them, and when I saw them, not far from the cabin, I felt no danger to myself, but reasoned that where there are two rattlesnakes, soon there will be more, and I didn’t want them going into the meadow and beyond, where the children played.

“So, being a responsible adult, I quickly jogged down the road and told the caretaker of the ranch, a crusty old guy named Al, about the snakes, expecting him to somehow trap them and cart them off to another location, far removed. What he did shocked and disturbed me, impressing itself on my memory, surfacing off and on for years, until I finally decided to bring some “closure” to my guilty conscience.

“The actual writing of the poem was something like putting together a quilt. I’ve long kept a notebook of “saved lines”: those necessarily cut from other poems, as well as “good lines” and images that come to mind totally on their own, waiting for a poem to put them in. One of those that never had a home was “bright vulture of memory, picks these bones that won’t come clean,” and intuiting that the vulture image fit the setting of the poem perfectly, I copied this line (by hand) onto a blank sheet of paper, somewhere near the middle, intuiting that’s where it belonged. The challenge then was what to put before and after.

“Many writers talk about writing as “the act of discovery,” which I used to think meant starting with one line or sentence and following the “golden thread,” as William Stafford used to say, letting the words come one after another, down the page, and seeing where they’d lead. For me, the discovery is often is in finding the exact words to shape the context in which some new perception or inner “moment of knowing” occurred: to let the reader step into the scene and live that experience with me.

“Rhythm has a lot to do with setting tone. At some point, early in the poem, maybe after the first two lines, I realized I was working in an accentual pattern of 4 beats per line, and I decided to “go with it” for the rest of the poem. This helped 1) to create a somewhat “heavy” tone, a deliberate tone, a regularity, and 2) to rein me in, to tighten the language, to avoid the maudlin. I wanted the weight of the poem to reflect the weight of the issue. I’m hoping it’s worked that way for readers.”

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