I started to write poetry when I was eight or nine years old and continued until I was 13. The highlight? Winning a poetry contest in Mrs. Barker’s third grade class. The prize was a large chocolate bar.
The few scraps of writing I’ve found from those years consist of a child’s earnest questions and the comfort sought in a forest that once stood behind my parent’s home. Most lines are drenched with early existential dread. I’m not sure what stopped writing. It could have been the surprisingly arduous trials of growing up or simple self-consciousness.
A moment from my 12th year comes to mind. I was in sixth grade, trying very hard to be like the other girls, never discussing the concerns that kept me awake most of the night. During the day, sleep-deprived into silliness, it often seemed to me that the conventions people took for granted were absurd. I did lots of laughing. One afternoon, walking out of class toward the playground for recess, I was telling a funny anecdote. A cluster of friends not only walked with me but jockeyed to be closest to me. The sun was shining on gumdrop green grass and I felt completely alive as I reached the best part of my story. I thought for a blindingly self-absorbed instant that this was what it was like to be popular. The next second I walked straight into a tall pole.
I hit it so hard I was thrown back. Dizzy, I made a joke about not seeing what had been there all along. My friends acted concerned but that was it, my brief encounter with popularity. Maybe I lost the secret habit of writing poetry because it seemed too much like an unseen pole, the sort of fullness that can erupt into a poem but might also raise a welt.
I never walked entirely away from poetry. As an adult I created poems from the phrases given to me by nursing home residents, crediting them separately for each line that eventually appeared in a book titled Gathering Our Thoughts. I led support groups for victims of abuse, hearing poetry as they shared their anguish in grace-laden detail. I taught non-violence workshops using poetry to emphasize the message of each session. I sent the work of my favorite poets to dear ones as a way of celebrating their joys and sharing their sorrows.
Yet I rarely encounter people living nearby who talked about, read, or wrote poetry. Far from our little farm I’m aware that poetry speaks for itself in slam festivals and readings, that it takes up residence in MFA programs and literary journals. Those worlds seem distant.
Poetry still feels like an indulgence. It hear it rustle in my head, trying to shuffle impressions into form, but I focus on my usual work of writing articles, editing, gardening, bringing in firewood, feeding cows, and other ordinary tasks. Besides, those impressions never entirely fit into words. I usually hush them till they are quiet. The ones that continue to pester I allow to fall onto paper although they don’t fully capture what’s just beyond language. When I took my manuscript to the post office to be weighed, addressed to “Poetry Editor,” I felt faintly ashamed, as if publicly admitting I squander time that could be devoted to more useful pursuits. The Puritan ethic dies slowly.
But the articles I write and the books I’m working on center around letting each person’s unique radiance shine. I believe this has to do, in part, with claiming both the light and dark in our lives so we can move toward a world of deeper mutuality. I know I’m not true to my ideals unless I live them. So I’m learning to treat the poetry writing impulse more gently. It feels starkly revealing, as liberation does.
The pieces in this collection have to do with beginning, uprooting, gathering, and abundance. They rise from the simple daily rituals that nourish me and from the loved ones who shape my life. They’re a way of walking into something hard without falling backwards.
Endless thanks to the intrepid souls who helped shape this book. The first ms readers: my beloved siblings Dale Piper and Cynthia Piper. My merry writing group: Connie Gunn, Margaret Swift, and Sarah Vradenburg. Those discerning individuals who commented on later drafts: Laurie Kincer, Leslie Nielson, Katherine Clark, and Mark Hersmann. I’m endlessly grateful.