Poetry Friday: More Renga with Friends

Moonrise Over Santa TeresaCreative Commons License Dawn Ellner via Compfight

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading) suggested we write another renga and Jan Burkins (Burkins & Yaris) agreed. Both are such adventurous souls! You can see a description of the renga form and our first attempt at writing one together here.

I loved being able to write a second poem in the same form with the same people. It was interesting to observe how having multiple opportunities to write the same thing opened up new layers of understanding for me; understanding of my process, our collaboration, and the ways the poem works to create meaning for me. Multiple tries at the same thing are important for kids; they are important for adults!

At some moment during the second attempt, I began to see the stanzas of the poem not as a linear form whose meaning resolved as I read, but as layers piled on top of one another, sort of like a pair of polarizing sunglasses that, when tilted just right block out the flashes of light on a lake in summer. The layered stanzas helped me see words and ideas in sharper relief and in deeper hues because they made certain images and words stand out.

For example, Mary Lee’s sharp wheel of cheddar/round of brie connected so nicely to the round cracker-moon in the stanza before, turning that image of fullness into one that I could taste as well. Similarly, Jan pulled from my crusts of bread a wide palate (fresh…sour…vast) that broadened my original idea of sparseness into one that had texture and verve. Finally, I loved the way Jan took my image of the wrinkled face and transformed it into a memory, which Mary Lee carried downstream to serve as the very soil for the renewal of a “new land.”

Lots for me to learn from these two! What fun to write together.

But enough of my marveling. Here’s the poem.

as the hummingbird sips the nectar

round moon not yet full
finds my cracker–full ‘til bitten
life full with roundness

sharp as a wheel of cheddar
smooth and creamy as brie

under the gnarled oak
an old couple tosses
dry crusts to the pigeons

we become what we take in
fresh foods, sour moods, vast ideas

mountain peaks tower
above the endless plains
full — sharp — old — vast — inspiring

toward evening, golden sunlight
settled on her wrinkled face

inside she’s a girl
surprised by her reflection
in her dreams she runs

river carries silt downstream
building up the new island

sweet alchemy —
orchard apples filled
by the light of a star

loose tooth lost with first bite
red orb of bittersweet

cold front passes through
scrubs away humidity
wren sings from the fence

once, he learned to see rainbows
in the oil on a street puddle

a skill important
for grownups who are often
too busy measuring

too concerned with to-do to
barter duty for beauty

You can find more poetry at Poetry for Children.

Poetry Friday: Writing a Renga with Friends

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

A few weeks ago I approached Mary Lee Hahn and Jan Burkins about writing some poetry together. I proposed a Japanese form called renga, although I had never written in that form before. To start, the first poet writes a haiku. The second writes two longer lines, a bridge, based on the haiku. The next writes another haiku based on the 2-sentence bridge, and so forth.

According to the Academy of American Poets, the renga is very old. They say it gave birth to the shorter haiku. I can see how it might also have helped create the 5-line tanka form, too.

We finished our first renga a few days ago, and it’s time to reflect on the process. First off, I was super-excited to be writing with Mary Lee and Jan. I love Mary Lee’s poetry. She is a master of few words with many meanings. While I haven’t read much of Jan’s poetry, I think that everything she writes has a poetic feel to it. I was honored that both of them said, YES! Let’s give it a try.

The collaborative element was a lot of fun for me. I found that the form seemed to lend itself to a kind of contemplative practice. Since the lines are so short, and both the haiku and the 2-line bridge are designed to call forth an image and then give it a twist, there is a lot of room for interpretation. I found that large room gave me plenty of space to think not just about the words, themselves, but also about the writer of the words (in this poem, Jan.) What was going through her mind? What images did she use? I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Then, as I crafted my part, my mind shifted to thinking about Mary Lee, who would get the words that I wrote. I strove to speak what I heard inside me but to also open space for Mary Lee to write. I found myself wondering where she would take those openings. What was on her mind, in her heart at the moment?

Another fun part of this, at least for me, was the fact that the poem really did not hang together as a coherent whole from start to finish, that is, if you were looking for a tightly written poem. Rather, its “meaning” was something that I had to work pretty hard to infer. But, since the parts were connected, I began to see a few threads running through the poem that were, because of the exegetical work it takes to see them, almost more precious to my eyes. One thread that emerged was a focus on those propitious tipping-point moments when something happens that causes the next moment to be quite different from the preceding ones. The fires, thunderstorms, even the call of the meadowlark are examples of these. Another might be a sense of age, or loss that comes with age. And a quiet acceptance of the whole thing. Those images of dust and memories and time passing, for instance. At any rate, I had a great time looking back and trying to follow the threads.

I think I might like to try this kind of writing with kids. I can imagine that it might build a sense of community.

For much more poetry, please visit Margaret at Reflections on the Teche.

Poetry Friday Tag




So, here is the renga, without a title.

in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Poetry: Laurentian Divide

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any poetry. While I’ve been working on some poems from this summer, I haven’t been able to push through to finish them. So, I decided to post one that I’ve been working on, but don’t feel is quite where I want it with hopes that I can break through toward writing more, rather than obsessing more. I think it was William Stafford who strove to write a poem a day. Sure, he knew that many of them were not his best work, but he figured that even if he wrote 1o bad ones for every good one, he’d still come away with over 30 really good poems a year, which isn’t bad. And he knew the more he wrote, the better the ratio.

So here’s a poem about the less than towering Laurentian Divide in northern Minnesota that shunts water either toward the Atlantic Ocean, or the Hudson Bay. I’m fascinated by the idea of watersheds, about there being an actual invisible line in the sand that forces water to go one direction or the other. A lot of life’s experiences are like that, too. Often unnoticed, yet sometimes definitive.

The Laurentian Divide

A drop of rain falling on damp earth
yields to a pull that sorts and gathers,

a lonely prodigal returns to the
restless, swelling throng.

And so, for me during a hike
through the woods north of Duluth.

After one step, imperceptibly, my
body stops rising from Lake Superior,

the Sault, the St. Lawrence River,
and begins to fall toward the vast

coldness of Hudson Bay;
the rise of the land behind

greater than the path ahead.

Persistently, slowly the earth’s
massive hub calls us home.

© Steve Peterson

Poetry Friday: Water Under the Bridge

We’ve had a lot of rain this week in northeastern Iowa. That’s on top of a wet spring. Rivers are flooding. Farm fields stand in water. The creek that runs near the house overflowed its banks, which usually stand 6 feet above the water’s surface, and carved a new channel through the river bottoms. A culvert under the road to a friend’s house clogged with rocks and the water washed out the road. Parts of a nearby town are underwater.

Besides the devastation to infrastructure and peoples’ lives, I was struck by how much soil the storm washed away. This didn’t happen because of irresponsibility or indifference (farmers I know feel sick when they lose topsoil and many routinely use no-till practices) but resulted from some unfortunate timing, and a market economy that pushes farmers to plant as much corn as possible in as many places as possible in order to pay the bills. Also, weather patterns influenced by global climate change don’t help. Can a warmer Arctic really influence weather in Iowa? (Yes, as it turns out. Read about a study describing a North Atlantic blocking pattern and the Arctic Oscillation here.) The butterfly’s wings flutter.

Amy has more poetry at her wonderful place of poetry: The Poem Farm!

Water Under the Bridge

Canoe Creek
rises over its banks —
roiling brown, packed with
branches, trash, trees. Four inches of
rain fell on saturated soil, pummeling fields
desperately plowed, unplanted, underwater. A
hundred years of prairie toil, the Collected Works of a
bazillion plants, head downstream, plugging the
dammed Mississippi, choking the shrimp in
Plaquemines Parish, feeding the dark
maw of the Dead Zone. Three
more inches predicted

© Steve Peterson

PS. The sun shone brightly today, and I expect things to dry out some if this keeps up. Last year was deep drought. This year, floods. The fire next time? (Hmmm. That’s happening elsewhere…)

BREAKING NEWS! On my morning run I found a crayfish (yup, a crayfish!) half-way across the gravel road near my house, probably ambling from one water filled ditch to the other. Why? Not sure. I think I’ll have to ask the chicken. 🙂 By the way, I helped it along its way, though it was none too happy to be picked up.

Here’s a video of the creek, if you’re interested.

Poetry Friday: Iowa Farmstead

Every so often I visit an abandoned farm near my house. Not much is left of it anymore, a decrepitude that is fairly common in Iowa after about 100 years of rural to urban migration, world commodity markets, and industrial agriculture. The “neighborhood” school in my township once had 80 kids attending; now it’s closed. When I visit the farmstead, the traces of the lives that created that place are difficult to discern. So I wonder: What gets remembered? What gets forgotten? What should be?

Poetry_FridayIt’s the end of another school year. I reflect on my own teaching work as if I were a farmer at the end of the harvest. What took root in the fields this year? Where did weeds encroach? And I think about how each year my most sincere goal isn’t so much to be remembered as to be good mulch for the next crop of years my students will plant.

For more Poetry Friday poems, please visit Betsy at Teaching Young Writers.

Iowa Farmstead

Near where the house once stood
unruly lilacs bloom again this May,

song sparrows weave
a nest in thicket branches.

A limestone foundation. A gaping threshold.
A child’s red boot. The ghost of goats.

Where yard chickens scratched, pasture
grass yields to the south wind,

side-steps, springs erect. A horde of nettles
gather on a hummock forked from the barn.

Fitted by worn hands to shelter cows,
mossy plinths bear up an immense sky,

a veiled hope,
the remains of the day.

© Steve Peterson

Here’s a short video of the lilacs in the wind.

Poetry Friday: Fly Fishing: A Haibun

This haibun started as a first draft at Mary Lee’s place during her April Poetry challenge, which she coupled with a look at attribution and the rich resources in Wikimedia Commons. Something about the photo of the woman fishing really struck me. Off and on this month, I’ve been working on the haibun that emerged from the image, discovering in it something about boundaries between worlds and the dexterity it takes to live on the surface between them. I’m not sure where this will eventually lead, but it doesn’t feel quite done to me. Still, I like it enough to share!

Here’s the photo, found in Wikimedia by Mary Lee at  A Year of Reading.

Check out Liz Steinglass’ place for more Poetry Friday.

Fly Fishing: a haibun

Two worlds: air, water. And between them, the quicksilver surface. From her perch atop a boulder, a trout fisher considers her options. Surrounding her; the rush of melt water, the balm of balsams, the persistence of granite, and the fullness of time.

She holds these two worlds, irreconcilable, in her heart: the murky world of trout – their hungers, their desires; and the sweetness of air, the warmth of the occasional sun.

Yet, perhaps, in the unfolding of long time passing, the way will open through the deep eddy of understanding, an unsteady step into the swirling waters, and the tap of a fly carried in the current.

hand-tied midge arcs
toward icy trout-waters –
ripples rising

© Steve Peterson

Poetry Friday: April in Iowa

It’s 4:05AM. I’ve let the dogs out and lit a fire in the wood stove. Snow is falling. Last year when I wrote this poem, spring was so very different. Morel mushroom hunters know to look for shrooms when the “oak’s leaves are as big as a mouse’s ear”, and by this time last year they had arrived. So, in honor of spring, here’s a poem inspired by a Katherine Porter praise poem.

Irene is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at Live Your Poem.

Oak leaf, April 2012

April in Iowa

I never will have time enough
to praise the infant
oak leaf, still frosty white;
To tell how this leaf
bursts each spring from
the end of cold wood
to greet the first rays
of the growing sun.

I never will have time enough
to praise the wild plum blossoms;
six white petals release
to the gathering darkness
the first scent of night;
To say how they float
above inky branches and
below silent bats.

I cannot tell you how the sky
circles toward indigo,
the peepers discover each other
in lustrous song, and
the decaying leaves’
dark sweetness rises
from the forest to release
a song of gratitude.

© Steve Peterson

Poetry Friday: Sitting on a Radiator in South Minneapolis

Another spring poem. For me, spring contains many rituals of awareness — charting the return of birds, buds, blooms, and the first beer on the patio under the oak tree under the stars.

For more Poetry Friday, please visit Robyn at Read, Write, Howl.

Poetry_FridaySitting on a Radiator in South Minneapolis

A radiator squats at the end
of a narrow hall. One fall,
I painted the outside
quick December dusk
and slow Coltrane blue.
Deep inside the fins:
tangerines, fresh carrots,
and a summer Saturday morning.
All winter the radiator
clanked and hissed.

In early April
the afternoon sun slid
through the hall window,
and for six days,
as it continued its trek
across the sky,
the sun struck
a match to the radiator:
it glowed with the warmth
of new light.

For a moment
each sunlit day
I climbed atop and crouched
like a turkey vulture
in the spring sun,
trying to understand
how something so
precisely predicted,
each year could arrive
so out of the blue.

© Steve Peterson

Poetry Friday: Spring Comes to the Valley

Late spring snows have fallen on Northeastern Iowa where I live and teach. Now the snow competes with a much stronger sun. Bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, and killdeer call, while silent turkey vultures circle overhead.

valleySpring Comes to the Valley

The sun rises
farther north — far
from the December hill
where coyotes yelp,
past the field
filled yesterday
with a wet and temporary snow
whose rivulets began
in sun-filled fields,
now in the half-light gather in
the earnest rush
of the creek.

In early dawn,
south of the house,
Sagittarius, the Archer,
has cornered an
unsuspecting owl
in the upper branches
of a spreading oak.
I’ve watched the stealthy hunt
from behind the woodpile
while the dogs track voles
hidden in the
surviving snow.

Spring comes to the valley.

© Steve PetersonPoetry_Friday

For more Poetry Friday poems, please visit the inimitable (and extremely energetic!) Mary Lee over at A Year of Reading.

Poetry Friday: Late Snow

In the last couple of weeks, our part of Northeast Iowa has seen a series of late winter snows. I’ve been struck by how different these are than the snows that arrived riding the back of cold Alberta clippers in January. This poem came from watching one of these late winter storms arrive late one night.

Check out more poetry at Greg’s place, Gotta Book.

Poetry_FridayLate Snow

From the gaping
immense flakes
hurtle through the
feeble glow cast
by the porch light,
flashing like
salmon before
the spawn.

Once simple
dust and water,
heavy, they fall.
No artful meander;
now in March,
just a full-throated
plummet toward

© Steve Peterson