I Begin my Path to Poetry, Part I

        My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009. Here, I briefly note signposts along the way.

I first sensed rhythm and music, and the use of words that eventually shaped my poetry in the nursery rhymes my mother taught me, and in the naptime stories in Good Housekeeping magazine she read to my siblings and me.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the origin of words, their use, and in writing them down. My mother said that from the time I could talk I asked questions and persisted until I was satisfied with the answers.

After I learned to read, I became an insatiable reader. In spite of limited family resources, I was encouraged to read by my mother and my teachers. Still, today, I can flash back to the adventure stories and children’s classics I read during a summer of limited activity while I was recovering from undefined rheumatic fever.

Through my college years, I did not like poetry because I was not supposed to. I was unaware that it existed in the very essence of nursery rhymes; the playground chants, jingles and teases I so enjoyed; the patriotic and celebratory songs I sang off-key and at the top of my lungs; and in the school band and glee club music that was a big part of my life.

I write in a straightforward style, striving for precise imagery and letting story and language dictate mode, stanza, and line. Epiphanies, symbolism, philosophical assertions, and layers of complexity may or may not arise as I write. Beginning with the known, I try to give a poem life and spirit by imagining the unknown. Form flows out of content. Sometimes this is conventional, other times it is free verse.

I write to communicate in plainspoken English, and to express myself in poetic speech that which I have read, heard, remembered, or ought to have remembered in a manner described by Wendell Berry in his essay “The Responsibility of the Poet” (What Are People For? Essays).

Once I reimagine a notion, I draft notes, research, compose verses, edit, “sleep on it,” rewrite, redraft, edit, “sleep on it,” sometimes repeating this cycle forty or fifty times for years until I am satisfied.

I find the following tools crucial to writing poems: (1) read it aloud as I write; (2) observe audience comments and body language when reading publicly; (3) record and listen back to public readings; and (4) keep an attitude that a poem is always a draft.

Listening to CD’s and watching DVD’s of either the author or a trained interpreter reading are invaluable to understanding a poem. More and more digital recordings are packaged with books. With the growth of the World Wide Web, audio poetry has become the new medium. Three sites with extensive selections are The Poetry Archives, www.poetsarchives.org, The Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org and PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, www.pbs.org.

Anticipating Blackburn College Homecoming

        I’m looking forward to the Blackburn College (IL) Homecoming, October 1-3, and our class’ 55th reunion. I wonder if I will recognize my classmates I haven’t seen since Helen and I were there five years ago.
        When I read my poetry to a “pretty-good” sized audience in 2000, all I could do was send a home-printed copy to those who wanted. This time, I will have Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 with many new and different poems with me.
        Once again I anticipate reading to a “pretty-good” sized audience. I know that they will, as the president of Whatcom Writers and Publishers said in the most recent newsletter, enjoy poems that “are wonderfully different and quiite beautiful!”

(If my classmates remember me reading in 2000, will they recognize me in 2010? Photo on the right was taken in the Concrete [WA] Theatre, last month.)

What was my childhood like?

    A question frequently asked little known poets, is “what was your childhood like?” Briefly, this will give you some idea:
    I was born during the Great Depression and came of age in the forties. Until I left the Upper Skagit River Valley for college, I lived in an isolated world of rural poverty and wartime constraints. Much of the time, our home was log cabins without electricity, plumbing, or running water; and were heated with wood split by hand. The families of most of my classmates at two-room Rockport (WA) School lived in similar circumstances.
    The situation in Concrete (WA) where I attended 7th-12th grade was somewhat better.
    Our culture was primarily one of loggers and Native Americans, enlarged by the multi-national cement plant workers in Concrete.
    My father worked incessantly as a logger and subsistence farmer supporting us and dreaming of the day that he would own land. My mother dreamt of her children being educated so they would not repeat our life of survival.
    It was during these years that I learned to appreciate the common and the ordinary, the people around me, the landscape, and to dream of life beyond the valley.

Website, Facebook, and Personal Blog

        Website, Facebook, and personal blog are ingredients for success in today’s world.” So says manuscript evaluators, friends, journal and trade writers, non-friends, and product salesmen.

        As a novice residing in a small market with a limited budget and known for risk-taking, I’ve tried one at a time. First it was a website, then Facebook, now it is a blog.

        The design of this new venture will be minimal. The writing will be simple and straightforward with more detail than allowed on Facebook. I will use the “I” word more than I felt I should on the website, or was comfortable doing on Facebook. Since my purpose is to express myself on those topics that I am currently thinking and write, entries will be occasional when I feel the need to express myself publicly.

        I am gambling that by sending these thoughts out into the great etheric beyond under a less-than-creative title I will reach a wider universe of readers than on Facebook. We shall see.

‘Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009’ reviewed

          

In May, I e-mailed everyone I had met at Iowa Summer Writing Festivals between 1997 and 2008 for whom I had addresses, to let them know that I finally published the book that every year I had threatened to publish.

Alice Osborn, whom I had met at the 2007 ISWF, responded by asking if she could review it. We, like most of the participants, had exchanged e-mail addresses, knowing full well that our chances of communicating after we left ISWF were very slim.

I knew from Iowa that Alice was a good writer but had no idea how accomplished she was. After I visited her website www.aliceosborn.com, I couldn’t believe that she would include Reimagine: . . . among the books she reviewed. I sent her a copy anyway.

Last week, she sent word that her review was posted. Wow! It is one of the best I’ve read for any book, anywhere. And, she was right on about the weak points as well as the strong ones. It is on her blog, http://aliceosborn.com/book-reviews/reimagine-poetry-book-review/.

Travel

How do I decide where to travel? I count on three fingers the times I traveled out of the Upper Skagit River Valley (WA), before leaving for college. Travel since then has been, and is today, focused—education, professional, family, genealogy.  I choose to travel as a sojourner, experiencing, to the degree possible, how others live, their culture and their history.

Place and history in my poems

How does place and history play into my poetry? Place is in my blood. I trace it from 15th cent yeoman farmers in the Yorkshire Wolds and immigrant-laborers from Norway mountain valleys to migrant farm laborers crossing North America and homesteading in South Dakota and Saskatchewan on their way to the Upper Skagit River Valley. For fifteen years, my wife and I gardened a “Birchwood acre” in Bellingham, WA, living, to a degree, my father’s dream of owning and working land. Several years ago, Alaskan writer Nick Jans complimented me on the relationship of people and land in my poetry. Recently, Jack Nisbet, who writes about interrelated social and natural history of the Columbia River drainage, called me “a poet of landscape.”

My interest in history began with Mrs. Marjorie Baughman, my upper grades teacher in two-room Rockport (WA) School. Every Monday morning, she shared her Seattle P-I with us. Miraculously, to me, there were always books on history in the box of library books that arrived each month on loan from the state superintendent’s office. This interest continued through graduate study, teaching, travel, and into my poetry.

Amateur Poet, Genealogist, & Memoirist

Thoughts on Writing: Poetry, Genealogy, and Memoir


    I read recently that “blogging” is storytelling. When Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 was being evaluated, the reviewer suggested that as an amateur poet known primarily in local circles I should write quite a bit of what I was expressing as introduction and backstory in a blog. As time went on and I learned more about blogging, I became convinced that it was a good idea. About a month ago, I succumbed to advertising by GoDaddywww.godaddy.com, and this blog was initiated.

    My intent is to treat this site as an amateur storyteller journalizing thoughts, ideas, remembrances, and, sometimes, opinions that come to mind. I will express them in my personal style, laying them before whomever, wherever, may read them. They will focus, in most part, on the titular topics in a non-partisan, nonsectarian way. Although some entries may appear authoritarian or pedantic, those that are worthy are open to discussion.

    I will add, revise, clarify, and tweak the content for freshness and currency as I learn more about the process. My request is that you check it periodically and watch it unfold. Do not hesitate to visit www.richardleeharris.net.

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