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At the conference breakfast, someone asks
what led me to write poetry. I dip my toast
into an over easy egg, answer as if I know
what came first. I say it was my grandfather's
reading of Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods...
after a Sunday chicken dinner at the farm,
the joy of scratching rhymes in damp earth
with a wishbone, the song Somebody Loves You
my mother sang in the book-lined parlor.
And it was Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky
recited by my insomniac WWII uncle
who was a radio operator on the front lines
in three campaigns in the Pacific. I spread
his ashes beneath the pine by the Tittabawassee.
He still radios warnings in a far-away voice.
But I must confess. What really led me to poetry
was a balding poet with a pencil behind his ear
who sat me at a round table with other fledglings
and introduced Blake and Bly, Plath and Sexton,
Ginsberg and Kerouac, and we howled
with those best minds as we wrote in the sun.
I still feel the warmth in that room labeled
the English Department. It was as if I had entered
a make-shift coop where poets gathered in the form
of peeping yellow fluff, chicks huddling together
near a heat lamp, with a basket of warm eggs, brown,
white, mottled, to sort to find the right words.
We collected dozens, cracked dictionaries
and encyclopedias, wrote one scratch at a time
on the backs of feed sacks and each other.
I held my breath until I lost my head and ran
in circles like the lost hen from my childhood,
my squawks filling cartons, the balding poet
a bright rooster crowing, alerting me to morning,
to what grows in the heat of the sun and can't be
dimmed by the slithy toves of the dark. He gave me
issues of his Ann Arbor Review, and I read early
poems by Fred Wolven, Duane Locke, Laz Slomovits,
Robert Stillwell, Shutta Crum, Gerald Clark.
And I learned to scratch noisily in my background
of chickens, believing without poetry, there would be
no abstract egg to create curiosity, no nest of surrealism,
no odd mimsy feathers, no music made of metaphor,
no wishbone, there would be none, and the question
of what came first couldn't be answered by anyone.
"Grammy, your jeans--too big,"
seven-year-old Caity says.
"Not so much," I answer,
my old jeans feeling a bit snug to me.
Caity pulls at the sides of the legs.
"See?" she says. "Too big.
You need skinny jeans."
I think of how Jane Fonda looked
on Jay Leno in skinny jeans--
too skinny, like her jeans
were glued on toothpick legs.
And she's got gorgeous on her side.
"I don't think I could get into them,"
I answer, picturing a losing struggle.
Megan, age ten, responds prophetically,
"Oh, you could get into them, Grammy,
you just couldn't get them off."
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