Friday, January 23, 2015

A Life Devoted to Poultry—Ahem, POETRY

When covering farm news, it’s good to have some jeans and a pair of boots in the trunk of your car, because you never know what you might end up walking in.
I learned this from my agricultural beat predecessor, a woman raised in rural Ohio, and someone who knew the ins and outs of a working farm. While my own upbringing was also rural, my family lived in the woods and did not farm, aside from a rather mean goat and a copperhead-filled chicken house we maintained for a few years when I was growing up.
On the farm beat, one day you might cover a tragedy in a silo or a gravity wagon—both of which can pull a person’s body under the grain and smother him or her as rescuers make a futile attempt to fight the pull. On a brighter note, you might cover a new crop—my colleague knew of a secret field of peppermint, the location a closely kept secret because of the value of the harvest in an area mostly dedicated to corn, wheat, and soy.
The constant friction between family farms and large-scale egg or pork production facilities is another part of the farm reporter’s beat, and there is also the highlight of the year—the county fair and the winning entries in livestock, small animal, and even baking categories.
            My time as a reporter spanned the decade of the 1990s in the small town—practically a village—of Kenton, Ohio. I was also a poet, which at the time didn’t amount to much more than writing words in a notebook and trying to shuffle them around until they lined up as they should.
            Being a poet also involved reading. Every trip to the state capital, Columbus, I would buy journals, anthologies, whatever I could get my hands on that had poetry inside.
            My favorite book was by a poet named William Matthews, who was quite a famous poet, although that fact means very little in the broader, non-poetry world. Matthews wrote a book called Flood that really spoke to me as it chronicled what floodwaters did to a landscape. These flood poems felt relevant to what I was doing at the time as I covered the stories that seemed to alter the landscape of my community. I wrote about farm news, of course, but I also covered county government, heartbreaking court cases, and features about extraordinary people—because even in rural America, brutal monsters and awe-inspiring heroes walk among us.
            Matthews’ poetry moved me so much that I decided to track him down and write him a letter. Poets don’t get a lot of fan letters, although these days the big ones are probably drowning in unsolicited e-mails and Facebook friend requests.
            I don’t remember exactly what I wrote. It would not have been unlike me to use the word “love.” I know I told him what I did day in and day out, and also what I wanted to do—make poetry of my own. I closed by thanking him for inspiring me.
            Some weeks later, I checked my mail and found an unexpected postcard, its message handwritten in small, tidy black print. Yes—it was from Matthews.
            He had filled the blank side of the picture postcard with kind and gracious words. Although I’ve moved a few times since then and lost the postcard in the shuffle, I remember one sentence distinctly:

A reporter is to a small town what a poet is to the language.

The words may as well have been strung up before me in neon. Even now, they are seared on the back of my eyes.

            While Matthews praised the part of me that was stuck as a small-town reporter, I also saw in his analogy a glimpse of myself as a poet. Already, I knew that my feature stories had the power to move people like poetry could. Matthews’ postcard made me realize that what I had viewed as a deviation from my path as a poet was actually another step along it.
I have no doubt that in that line of text, Matthews was referencing the Modern poet William Carlos Williams, who famously said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I was well acquainted with the intersection of difficulty and news. I had once covered the murder trial of a young man, small in stature, who had been beaten to death at a quarry. They pulled his body from the water and matched a boot print on his child-sized chest to the foot of one of his killers.
            I knew another kind of difficulty, too—the challenges posed by spreadsheets. Obfuscation surrounding a polluted landfill. The science in agricultural reporting. Journalism was nothing if not practice in sorting out complex things, in making sense of the world.
            Matthews’ little aphorism suggested something new to me—that I had in me the potential to offer readers a different kind of news in my poems. Maybe I was too busy being a watchdog of local government, and not busy enough being a watchdog of the spirit.
            Over the next few months, I applied to the two nearest creative writing graduate programs and was waitlisted by one (Ohio State University) and admitted into the other (Bowling Green State University). I began working evenings at a chicken restaurant to make some extra money, since I would be leaving a full-time job to pursue my new course of action.
            I also continued to report the news, but with a renewed sense of its possibilities. On one assignment, I remember approaching a large group of sandhill cranes (a “sedge” of cranes—that’s the collective term, the precise word for such a gathering). I snapped pictures and edged closer and closer, until some signal passed silently among the birds and they took flight together, right over my head, so close I could have reached up and touched a trailing leg.
            I also remember my very first feature story for the newspaper, about a woman who, though dying of cancer, set up what she called a love garden, where anyone could come and gather enough to eat. Evenings, she would sit up in bed, sunlight through the window turning everything golden, and she would look at her neat rows of beans and lettuce, and sow compassion until her very last day.
            Sometimes when the sports desk was short-handed, I would pitch in there and help out as best I could. On a few occasions, my job was to photograph a college basketball game, and this entailed sitting behind the net and pointing my camera at lanky athletes as they leaped toward the basket with the ball, just above me—sort of like those cranes taking flight.
            And some days, I would just photograph a farmer in his or her field to track the progress of the corn. “Knee-high by the Fourth of July” is the old saying; in practice, though, July corn can be eight to ten feet tall.
            My nights at the restaurant, I wore a different hat, or, more specifically, an apron. My usual role was to seat people and bring their drinks, and to bus their tables when they left. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, all-you-can-eat chicken nights, I had another responsibility: the chicken pass.
            My job these nights was to take a platter of broasted chicken throughout the dining room and distribute extra pieces. It was disconcerting at first as a young woman to be summoned to a table by a barked-out command, “Breast!” or “Thigh!” I got used to it, though. That didn’t mean it grew any less strange, or that I wouldn’t eventually write about it.
            One night a person I know came in—an affable fellow, someone I’d once interviewed for a story. He wasn’t particularly a friend—you don’t always make a lot of friends as a reporter, although in a small town, most people know your name.
            “I hear you’re heading off to college to study poultry,” the man said politely as he picked out a wing and a thigh.
            It struck me that this was farm country. Food, something so basic to human existence, was foremost in everyone’s mind in this place. From daily fluctuations in the price of a bushel of soy to the land application of waste from a massive chicken farm, this was the news. It was also, I had had come to understand, the poetry.
            I let the misunderstanding pass. “Yes, sir, I am,” I replied.
            “You’ll do fine,” he assured me.

            His words had the ring of a blessing, so I tucked them away exactly like an extravagant tip to spend later on something nice, just for me.


  1. Why can't it be art?

    It is!

    Love you! Love your writing!

    1. And I love you right back. You may be the only one who ever really got me in that town. :)

  2. I see why you are proud of this one. Its layers demand rereading. I'm imagining it as the beginning of a book I want to read about agriculture and poetry, food and language, work and art. (This is Lori Brack, btw.)

    1. Lori! Thanks for weighing in and for the kind comment. This one is also the most "me"-centered, I guess -- usually there is some other topic at play, but I relate closest to poetry, I think. :)

  3. I so look forward to reading these each day, Karen. They are a delight. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for saying that, Patricia! And can I tell you what a pleasure it is to turn on the radio and hear your words from Garrison Keillor's mouth? THAT is a true delight. :)