What I can't remember, and what I can:
my mother washing coal dust from the necks
of Mason jars filled with last summer's jams
and vegetables, their lids and rings black
with grit, contents obscured then visible
beneath the touch of a damp flannel rag
she wiped across hand-printed labels,
then dipped again into an enamel pan
where gray water settled from suds to silt.
Those cloths were always discarded, never
used for dishes again, deemed unfit
for the kitchen. Fifty years are over
now: I've known sullied cloth and family:
how some stains never wash out completely.
Some stains never wash out completely,
but my mother's mother, Mary, would scrub
worn work camisas for the soiled but neatly
oiled and pompadoured Mexican railroad-
tie men who came to coal country laying
the wooden ties two thousand to the mile.
Boiled in lye, bleach in the wash and bluing
in the rinse, the shirts emerged starkly white
and innocent as angels. But these iron horsemen
of the Apocalypse, bearing spikes and crosses
for coal and cattle, carried pestilence
with them in that Spring of early losses—
my grandfather dead of flu in '17—
not knowing the damage that would be done.
Not knowing the damage that could be done
we swam in the bright green lake of caustic
water. We thought it daring fun to plunge
beneath the foamy surface, opalescent
with chemicals that oozed unseen from dull
slag heaps: gray hillocks of thick detritus
left from the processing of newly-mined coal.
Knox County was blessed with bituminous
veins, cursed with the scars of its retrieval.
By the sixties, production had slowed down
to a handful of mines that were viable:
the older underground shafts abandoned,
while strip mining left the once-lush landscape stark,
rusted hoppers spilled coal beside old tracks.
Railroad hoppers spilled coal beside new tracks
as my mother, at ten, scurried along
the crisply graveled rail bed, packing sacks
of burlap with the fuel that had fallen
from overfilled cars. On her lucky days,
the bags grew heavy quickly and no snow
fell across the hills or, ankle-deep, lay
filling up the trackside ditches below,
where the tiny tank town of Appleton,
Illinois, lay crammed into the valley.
And sometimes, when the weak winter sun
grew thin as gruel from a caboose galley,
kind wind-burned men climbed atop the coal cars
and the black heat was gently handed down to her.
This was how the black heat was handled: First,
the topsoil was peeled back by bulldozers
and piled aside for reclamation. Burst
through with draglines, the veins lying closer
to the surface were fractured, making it
easy to scoop the coal from the ground.
Crushed and separated, refined for what-
ever use it was destined: fine powder
for the power plant at Havana, coke
for steel, stoker coal for industry, egg and lump
for the furnaces of homes. Shale, sandstone,
pyrite—impurities—were hauled away and dumped
like wasted lives: what helps and what hinders
and what remains: dead ash and cold cinders.
And this is what remained: dead ash and cold cinders,
carried in an old coal hod to the driveway,
dumped in the low places. Rusty clinkers
of stony matter fused together by
the great heat of what warmed our little home
on sharp winter mornings. And in summer
the sunlight spiked off the marcasite nodes:
jewels that scraped and stung, lodging under
the skin of my shins and knees when I fell
from my bike to the cinders and gravel.
White scars remain to remind and foretell:
the last delivery truck of T.O. Miles;
shadows filling empty corners of the coal
room: one small, high window like a square halo.
One small, high window with a square halo
of light around the ill-fitting metal door:
coal lumps heaped up the walls. Dust billowed
through the air, covering the worn brick floor,
my father's tools stored inside for the winter,
and the many shelves of calming jars, contours
soft beneath a veil of dull black. Heat sent
rising through the grates above and the roar
of the ancient furnace were a living
pulse to which we pressed our ears and bodies,
until the natural gas lines reached us, ending
our affair with coal. But like lost love's memories
swept clean, damp days a dark stench still rises and chokes
with what I can remember, and what I won't.
Copyright 2006 by Christina Lovin
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
This month in Critique Corner we continue our discussion of how best to use poetry's most powerful device: repetition, with a closer examination of the most common type, that is, rhyme. Now, most poets would say that they know what rhyme is: a repetition of the terminal sounds or syllables of words. That is not wrong. On the other hand, that is not all.
To demonstrate the full potential of rhyme, I have broken from the usual procedure of commenting on a poem submitted by a contributor for revision, and invited a special guest, Christina Lovin. Ms. Lovin is a highly accomplished and awarded poet, and her poem featured here, “Coal Country”, has no need for revision. In fact, it has already earned half a dozen significant awards, including the 2007 “Best of the Best” from Triplopia, for which I served as judge. The prize included a critical appreciation and interview, which are reprinted below this critique.
Before we begin, a brief explanation of the poem's form: it is called a sonnet crown, or corona, a linked sequence of seven sonnets that transits from section to section via a repetition in the last and subsequent first lines. Within a sonnet, there are many rules to consider, if not always to follow. These rules, and the reasons why and why not to adhere to them, will be discussed in more detail in the next Critique Corner. This month we will limit our discussion to the use of rhyme.
Lovin has chosen traditional English or “Shakespearean” sonnets. Therefore, her end rhyme scheme will be a/b/a/b/—c/d/c/d—e/f/e/f—gg. Scan the right-hand column of “Coal Country” with that in mind. You will find pairings such as “rag” and “pan” from sonnet I, or “down/abandoned” from sonnet III. How can these be said to rhyme?
Consider this definition of rhyme taken from Wikepedia: “Have or end with a sound that corresponds to another.” Have or end. A rhyme, then, may be considered to be two or more words that have one or more sounds in common. That's all. They do not need to share the same final syllable, nor the same vowel, nor the same final consonant.
Why is this important? For better or worse, poetry—perhaps more than any other type of writing—is subject to fashion. The simple fact is that, today, poetry with relentless hard end rhymes, especially last-syllable rhymes, signals “light” poetry—more so when tightly metered. You'd have to be a pretty big grump to dislike “light” poetry of the type published in journals like Lighten Up Online and Light Quarterly. Nothing could have more charm or wit. The intent of these poems, however, is charm and wit. The style of rhyme explored in our critique is more appropriate for contemporary poetry of serious intent.
“Stark” and “tracks” from sonnet III make an excellent example of contemporary rhyme. Notice how both words appear to have all their sounds in common. However, the inversion of the order of the sounds, as well as the “r controlled” vowel in “stark,” soften the rhyme and prevent it from becoming overbearing.
A similar strategy is at work in this sequence of end words from sonnet II: “laying/mile/bluing/white”. If the exact ending syllable is used, Lovin chooses different vowels. If the exact vowel sound is used, then the final consonant is varied. Both of these techniques combine in “ground/powder” from sonnet V, which share several consonants and in which the vowels make a hard, though internal, rhyme. The result is much more nuanced—much less noticeable to the ear—than say, “ground/found” or “powder/chowder”.
In her interview with me, Lovin spoke of “suggesting” rhymes. “For instance,” she said, “'pestilence' and 'horses'...really don't rhyme on the page, but the sibilance makes the ear hear them as a sort of rhyme…so that when the poem is read it doesn't sound as if it rhymes, but rather the reader feels the rhyme.”
This effect is strengthened by the frequency of internal rhymes. There is at least one in every sonnet. Take “unfit/for the kitchen. Fifty” from sonnet I. “Fit” and “kit” make a hard rhyme—an exact correspondence. “Fif” from “fifty” is a slightly slant rhyme. The phrase begins with “un” and ends with “en”—a kind of cadence. Oddly, by using more rhyme, by allowing the sound correspondences to occur more organically, the poem is less dominated by adherence to repetition.
Lovin further subverts the potential dominance of end rhyme with some very creative multi-word pairings, such as “Mary, would scrub” set against “Mexican railroad” from sonnet II. Both phrases have two “r's” apiece, both have a “c” and an “m”, and the “x” in “Mexican” mimics the “s” in “scrub.” With this in mind, look again at the startling final couplet from the same sonnet: “'17-/be done”. Though a fairly radical choice at first glance, the pair share a long “e” and an “n” in common.
Ultimately, of course, the purpose of any poetic device is not to be clever. Rather it is to be expressive. In “Coal Country”, the end sound scheme increasingly tightens as the reign of coal increasingly constricts the lives of the poem's characters. In sonnets IV and V—which contain the most exact rhymes—the supremacy of coal is at its apex. As the subject of the poem moves to the beginning of the end of that reign in sonnet VI, the end rhymes loosen once again.
In that same sonnet one can see the most expressive application of rhyme in the entire poem:
the skin of my shins and knees when I fell
from my bike to the cinders and gravel.
White scars remain to remind and foretell:
the last delivery truck of T.O. Miles;
“Miles” against “gravel” seems too loose, leaving not quite enough for the ear to connect. The rhyme scheme is broken, morphing in this single instance from a/b/a/b to a/a/a/b. Lovin is not getting lazy here, not trying to get away with something. If she was, she would not have given us the sound echoes of “white/Miles” and “to/T.O.” On the contrary, Lovin is actually calling attention to her break in pattern by choosing three hard repetitions of the “ell” sound in a row. She breaks her scheme and deliberately emphasizes that break to express that something has broken: it is the end of the era of coal. The ear perceives an end, a sonic underscoring of the poem's meaning.
This is the true function of any poetic device—to support meaning. The device is not the point of the poem, and meaning must not become subordinate to it. Take care not to wrangle your syntax to support a rhyme. Take care to slant some rhymes lest you become predictable and soon dull. Rhyme is powerful stuff. As with other forms of repetition, it can easily run away with your poem.
Where might a poem like “Coal Country” be submitted? Honors won by Lovin's poem include:
2007 Nominated for Pushcart Prize (Triplopia)
2007 “Best of the Best” (Triplopia)*
2006 Passager Poetry Contest for Writers Over 50 (Passager)
2005 Betty Gabehart Poetry Award (Women Writers of KY)
2006 Oliver Browning Poetry Award, Poesia*
2006 Finalist, Rita Dove Poetry Award (Salem College Center for Women Writers)
2006 High Distinction, Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (Tom Howard Books assisted by Winning Writers)
In addition to these awards, the following contests with upcoming deadlines may be of interest:
New Letters Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: May 18
Prestigious, competitive awards of $1,000 for poetry, fiction, and essays, from the literary journal of the University of Missouri-Kansas City
Poetry London Competition
Entries must be received by June 1
Top prize of 1,000 pounds and publication in Poetry London magazine in this contest that welcomes both emerging and established poets; fees in pounds sterling only
Guy Owen Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 15
This long-running $1,000 prize is sponsored by Southern Poetry Review, a fine journal that favors rich, imagistic work
Entries must be received by June 30
This award seeks poetry on a Romantic theme (2011 topic is “Glass”) and essays on any topic relating to Byron, Keats, or the Shelleys; 3,000 pounds is divided among the winners and runners-up in each genre
Betty Gabehart Prize for Imaginative Writing
Postmark Deadline: July 1
This contest for poetry, short fiction and essays by women writers offers prizes of $200 plus free tuition and opportunity to read your work at a festival in Lexington, KY in September
Narrative Magazine Annual Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by July 15; don't enter before May 22
Prizes up to $1,500 for unpublished narrative poems of any length, from a high-profile print and online journal; enter online only
BONUS FEATURE: Tracy Koretsky's Essay and Interview with Christina Lovin
The Best of the Best was a competition sponsored by the now-discontinued online magazine Triplopia. To be eligible, a poem had to have won first place in a previous competition. In 2007 the prize was awarded to Christina Lovin for her poem “Coal Country” by contest judge Tracy Koretsky. As part of the prize, Triplopia published a critical appreciation written by Koretsky as well as an extensive author interview. These are reprinted here.
Clothed in the Palette of Mourning: An Appreciation of Christina Lovin's “Coal Country”
The irony of a name: Appleton, Illinois. Were a ton of apples ever grown there? Not on any highway, not even near one, Appleton is on a railroad line, though, as best as I can tell, it no longer has a station. In fact, it is entirely possible that Appleton, Illinois no longer officially exists, and yet, for its time, it was the veritable navel of our nation, its belly plundered to warm a country still too young to contemplate mortality.
Seen from the air today, 233 km southwest of Chicago, on a green plain surrounded by young forest, there seems no place the sun won't reach, but during the years rendered by Christina Lovin in “Coal Country”, the atmosphere of Appleton, Illinois, was a bit more opaque.
“What first got our attention was the way form and subject came together—telling the story of living in this hard, industrial, dirty world—using a form that is historically associated with elegance, courtliness, and love—surprised us,” wrote the editors of Passager Journal, Kendra Kopelke, Mary Azrael and Christina Gay, who awarded Lovin their 2006 Poet of the Year award for “Coal Country”.
That form which Geoffrey Oelsner, who gave the poem first place in the Fourth Annual Oliver W. Browning Poetry Competition for Poesia Magazine in 2007, described as “seven English (Shakespearean) sonnets, each one as packed with specific memories and stories, multiple meanings and musics, as the mason jars its narrator recalls in its first and last capping sequences.”
Linked, these seven sonnets complete a sonnet crown, or corona, a sequence that morphs from sonnet to sonnet via a repetition in the last and subsequent first lines, thereby moving the poem to a new facet of its subject.
It is doubtlessly a stunning choice of vehicle for Lovin's subject—and I promise to defend that later—but first I feel the need to consider just what that subject actually is.
Ostensibly, it's coal. To test that theory I suggest you play “Where's Waldo” with coal in the poem by locating it within every sonnet.
The result is a poem in itself: It's in the food mother gives you; it's in the water in which you immerse yourself, beneath the ground you walk on, in the sacks that mother carries—the economy of the town, handed down from “kind wind-burned men”. It's in the low places, and beneath the wounds and scrapes, in the shadows filling the corners of the now vacant coal room. But in the good old days, it was heaped up the wall of the active coal room, back when it was in the air and covering the floor, the pulse of the body in which we lived.
Man, I wish I'd written that!
And then, indeed, I would have written a poem about coal. Christina Lovin, on the other hand, didn't. “Coal” is not the subject of “Coal Country”. No, it is only its trope.
Exploiting the form brilliantly, Lovin has framed her poem with a first and final line that intimate its true subject: family secrets that like “sullied cloth and family”—a phrase strategically placed as the volta of the first stanza— “never wash out completely.”
I would be remiss not to spend a few words here admiring some of the other ways that Lovin has exploited the form to superb effect. Yet, frankly, I am frustrated to do so. There are so many.
If I may, for example, challenge you to a second round of “Where's Waldo”, I would invite you to scout out the internal rhymes. Hint: you will find at least one in every sonnet.
Notice the way the rhyme scheme functions overall to subtly tighten and release the tension of the poem's reading. In sonnet one you are informed that a scheme is definitely in operation, but in sonnet two, which, for instance, positions “horsemen” against “pestilence”, you are told not to take it too seriously. The end-sound scheme then becomes increasingly exact, and the internal rhyming more frequent, until, in sonnet four, it is ratcheted up to its tautest achievement, sailing past “egg and lump”, and then onward toward the poem's most resounding internal cadence: the perfectly rhymed end couplet of stanza five.
There we discover a colon, the punctuation of declamation. Tucked tightly into the poem's “just the facts, Ma'am” section, like a coda, it is the poem's only other allusion to its true subject. An allusion, by the way, constructed through simile (“like wasted lives”). Lovin never elucidates, no more than the air over Appleton ever completely clears.
Beneath this beats the meter, consistently evident throughout, suggesting pentameter without strictly enforcing it. Some of the best effect of this adherence is realized in the descriptive passages, like this one from sonnet four:
from ov / er filled /cars. On /her lu/cky days,
the bags /grew hea/vy quick/ ly and /no snow
fell a/cross the/ hills or, /ankle-/deep, lay
filling/ up the /trackside/ ditches/ below,
where the/ tiny/ tank town/ of Ap/ pleton,
Illi/nois, lay/ crammed in/to the /valley.
To see how the imposition of conscious meter is affecting the poet's choices here, imagine the lines were free to be of any length, long or short. Meter is not simply economy, after all, it requires grammar and syntax.
And, when handled by a talented poet, meter can be expressive. In this section from sonnet three:
...We thought/ it dar/ing fun/ to plunge
beneath/ the foam/y sur/face, o/ palescent
with chem/i cals/ that oozed/unseen/ from dull
slag heaps: ...
we are lulled with the iambs until we hit “opalescent/with chemicals” which jar the steady meter, underscoring the unsettling content of the words.
Then there are the words themselves—the onomatopoeia of “rusty clinkers/of stony matter” (sonnet six), and “crisply graveled rail bed, packing sacks/ of burlap” (sonnet four). Words as textured as the materials they describe, and so many materials: enamel, wood, iron, cotton, marcasite, not to mention stone, gravel, silt, grit.
Language which accretively piles the image so completely that the reader is trapped within its walls, and yet it is language that never becomes self-conscious, except perhaps, exactly where it ought to become so—at the end.
...But like lost love's memories
swept clean, damp days a dark stench still rises and chokes
with what I can remember, and what I won't.
Man, I wish I'd written that!
Tara Elliott, editor of Triplopia, who nominated “Coal Country” for inclusion in the Pushcart Anthology, wrote of these ending lines, “they sear the poem, in all of its darkness and all of its light, far into the reader's mind. Notice the penultimate line with its jolt of synesthesia, insisting we awaken to the fact that, should any equivocation still remain, memory and its refusal are the real subjects of this poem.”
Or are they?
Jorie Graham has written, “In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of a place that matters—a place one suffered the loss of, a place one longs for—a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) 'takes place'. And although it is, most traditionally, a literal place—Roethke's greenhouse, Frost's woods, Bishop's shorelines—often, too, a historical 'moment'— especially the very conflagatory 'now' of one's historical-yet-subjective existence—is felt as a location that compels action, reaction, and the sort of re-equilibration which a poem seeks.”
Again Lovin crafts the form to support the content skillfully, using both voltas and the sense of suspension—of delayed quasi-couplet—inherent in the development of the last line/first line repetition, to transit those “fractured recollections”.
Except that in “Coal Country”, the poet seems to long for a place where, as it happens, she has never been. And, more importantly to the reader, the poem's historical moment encompasses an era.
And that is why, perhaps selfishly, for this reader, “Coal Country” is more than a poem piquing one's curiosity about subterranean family scandal. Rather, it is first and foremost an elegy.
Clothed in the palette of mourning, the words gray, black, white and laundry bluing collectively are used nine times in the poem. Only the jewel-toned toxic lake offers any hint of spectrum.
And like the best elegies, “Coal Country” does not lament one person or one sullied family with their basement of veiled calming jars, but all of us—any of us who heat a home, drive a car, or clean our teeth with imported paste on an imported brush. Here is an elegy for the people who will be used in order that we may continue to do so, and for the land which will be irreparably used up.
Once upon a time, there was a town within a nation “blessed with bituminous/veins cursed with the scars of its retrieval.” “Coal Country” is its eulogy and epitaph.
Interview with Christina Lovin, Author of “Coal Country”
Christina Lovin is the author of two chapbooks of poetry from Finishing Line Press: What We Burned for Warmth and Little Fires. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee and multi-award winner whose writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Southern Women Writers named Lovin their 2007 Emerging Poet. Having served as Writer-in-Residence at Devil's Tower National Monument and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Central Oregon, in 2010 she served as inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Connemara, the North Carolina home of the late poet Carl Sandburg. Lovin has been a resident fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Prairie Center of the Arts, Orcas Island Artsmith Residency at Kangaroo House, and Footpaths House to Creativity in the Azores. Her work has been supported with grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She resides with four dogs in rural central Kentucky, where she is currently a lecturer at Eastern Kentucky University.
TK: As I was trying to learn a little something about you, I noticed that you had a poem in the 2000 Harvard Summer Review and that it said in your bio there that you were completing your undergrad degree. But since I already knew that “Coal Country” had won the 2006 Passager Poet of the Year Award, and that Passager is famous for being, to use their language, “a national journal devoted to finding older writers and making public the passions and creativity that ignites during the later years”...well, being the Google sleuth that I am, I concluded “older student”? Am I right?
CL: Ah, Google. I love the ease of locating information, but am always wary of what I find. For instance, there is a Christina Lovin who is from North Carolina and is a blonde, blue-eyed college student. I am neither, but ironically, I did live in Chapel Hill for a couple of years.
Although I didn't graduate from Harvard, I did attend the summer writing sessions there in 2000 and 2001. I guess I was something of a late bloomer: I turned fifty-five the month I graduated from the poetry program at New England College in 2004, which made me very eligible for the Passager Poet of the Year Award two years later. My sister didn't begin college until she was fifty-five; she received a M.S. in Park and Recreation Management the year she turned sixty-one, I believe. Our mother once made the statement that her girls decided to get “smart” after they turned fifty. For me, it was more a case of familial and economic constraints that kept me from getting a terminal degree in writing until the age when many people are beginning to retire. As a result, I am new to teaching college classes and still feel fresh and have a lot of fun, while some professors my age seem burned out and ready to leave the classroom behind.
TK: Ah, so you “grew up” writing then?
CL: Actually, I grew up singing—my brothers and father were all singers—so that when I write, a bit of that sense of melody remains, I guess. I've been exposed to (and love) all sorts of music: jazz, blues, classical, country, even hip-hop and rap. I used to struggle with writing that was too staid and formal. I had quite a number of poems published in the 70's and 80's, but they were what would be considered very bad poetry by literary standards (although I was paid for each and every one). All these poems were rhymed and rather “light”. I had written free verse when I was younger, but was influenced by reading Shakespeare's sonnets, hymns that my mother sang, and probably Hallmark cards! Until I was exposed to what would be considered literary poetry, and could see the difference between what I was writing and what true poets were writing, I thought I was doing pretty well.
I read my poems aloud over and over, sometimes memorizing a poem so that I recite it when I am driving, particularly when it is a new poem and may need revision. Often, the subtle musical changes occur when I am reciting a poem to myself. I firmly believe that poems should “sound” like poems, as well as be poems on the page.
That's what drives my style, regardless of the form or lack of form. When I read a poem aloud and it doesn't flow for me, I know there is something wrong. If I stumble over a phrase or line and it doesn't sound “musical” to me, I will usually change the poem until it feels right. That's not to suggest that every line of every poem pleases me—there are some poems that I still cringe over when I read them. Perhaps they are the patterns of speech of a Midwesterner that have infused my writing with what could be considered “colloquialism”. I've noticed that, since I live in Kentucky now, my speech patterns have shifted slightly. Who knows what that will do to my writing?
TK: Do you find Kentucky that much different from Appleton, Illinois?
CL: If I'm counting correctly, since I left home for college in January of 1967 (I graduated high school early), I have lived in eighteen different homes in six states.
But I love Kentucky. Although things are changing quickly here, as they are in most of the US, the area where I live reminds me very much of the way towns were when I grew up in the 1950's. My town's population is less than 4,000; and the population of Garrard County is only around 20,000. So, it is very rural and quite lovely with rolling hills, stone walls, and tobacco barns. Perhaps my affinity for central Kentucky comes from the resemblance of the countryside to the prettiest areas of Knox County, where Appleton was located.
It is my understanding, by the way, that the town of Appleton, Illinois, no longer exists as it did when my mother lived there and would pick up coal beside the railroad track that bisects the town. I believe that the townspeople were forced to evacuate or, at least, move some distance away, due to repeated flooding resulting from the damming of a nearby river.
As for me, the last time I drove through there was when I was about sixteen years old, on my way to somewhere else. By the time I was born, we had no relatives living there, so no reason to visit. Appleton was where my mother was born nearly a hundred years ago. After her father died, my grandmother moved her family in to the “big town” of Galesburg, where my mother later married and raised a family, including me.
TK: So what was the “big town” like?
CL: Galesburg is a very historic town. It was a site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1859. Knox College is located there, as are several railroad lines. Carl Sandburg was born there, as well (Galesburg was a destination spot for immigrant Swedes for decades). My father was Swedish. My mother had some Ulster Scot roots on her father's side— Scots Irish who came to this country in the mid-1700's. On my maternal grandmother's side, we can trace our American roots back to the 1650's, when some Danes came to this country.
TK: And eighteen moves later, here you are! Do you think all those moves have contributed to making you a writer?
CL: I would have to say that all those moves have contributed to my writing. I feel very rich to have experienced so many places—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Maine, North Carolina, and now, Kentucky. Each place I have lived has provided a new perspective. I've heard that poets who no longer live where they grew up often write most vividly about that place when they live away from it. I felt that way about Illinois when I moved to the East Coast—although I loved the ocean and the literary vibe I found in Maine, I missed the openness of the prairies. When I moved back to Illinois, then on to North Carolina, I yearned for Maine. There are still times when I see a coastal scene on film that I can almost feel the way the light falls near the ocean in Maine; I can hear the surf, and smell that peculiar ocean mix of seaweed, salt, and decomposing sea life. What's odd is that, to me, it is not unpleasant. Now that I've been away from North Carolina for four years, I don't believe that any sky could be more blue anywhere else and I miss much about the area around Chapel Hill. I sometimes believe that we humans discount that part of our animal instincts which is our internal compass, our homing instinct.
Much of my poetry started out as a simple nature poem and then made an unplanned, uncharted turn into loss and longing: my own losses and a longing for a home that no longer exists (and perhaps never did). And just maybe that's what drives many poets—that search for something (someone, somewhere) that is just out of reach, that may never have really existed except in the poet's memory. Or perhaps it is just the human condition to yearn.
TK: Would you say that was the impulse that led you to write “Coal Country”?
CL: To be honest, “Coal Country” came about from a writing prompt. My friend and mentor, Cecilia Woloch, suggested writing about something that happened before I was born. I started thinking about the stories my mother had told about her mother, Mary; the stories about my grandparents in sonnet two and my mother in sonnet four. The story about the men giving mother the coal is true, although sometimes they simply kicked the coal off the hoppers. You can imagine the sight of a skinny little girl (most little girls were skinny in 1918) gathering coal along the tracks and how that might have touched the hearts of those rough railroad men.
When I wrote “Coal Country” I was going through a very painful, drawn-out separation that ultimately ended in divorce from a person I care very much about (and vice versa). The poem is definitely not just about my family, even if that is what I intended when I wrote it. Everything I wrote then (and often what I write now) is colored by what I was experiencing emotionally in my life. So when I said earlier that the search for something unattainable is what drives many poets, perhaps what I was trying to get at is that those yearnings are feelings that anyone can relate to; they are universal, so the poems come alive to many readers (or most readers). Speaking for myself, the poems that mean the most to me are those that have a sense of longing. I guess it may be my age, that I am looking back now at so many things that might have turned out differently, if not better.
Every lost town, every lost loved one, every dead animal (and there seem to be many in my poems) has meaning beyond the image. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo makes a statement that the fact that our physical surroundings are changing so quickly (the shopping mall where the old farm used to be, the loss of some old country roads, and so on) may be why so many people are turning to poetry.
TK: I find it interesting that it came from a prompt about a subject. I mean, it wasn't a prompt to write a sonnet.
CL: I was honored to work with Joan Larkin when I was studying for my MFA in Creative Writing. She is definitely the inspiration for “Coal Country”. Joan wrote a fabulous sonnet crown, “The Blackout Sonnets”. I was blown away the first time I heard her read that particular piece. She is a wonderful poet (and playwright), but her teaching methods are even more impressive. She is tough, but tender, if that's possible. I learned a lot when I worked with her. Another inspiration was Marilyn Nelson. She read “A Wreath for Emmett Till” at a faculty reading when I was studying at New England College. “A Wreath for Emmett Till” is an heroic sonnet crown, meaning that it's not seven interconnecting sonnets, but fifteen. As in the shorter sonnet crown, the first line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next. However, in an heroic crown of sonnets, the fifteenth sonnet is comprised of the first lines of the previous fourteen! Wow. I remember that Marilyn got a standing ovation after that reading—something that had not happened for those readings up to that time.
As for “Coal Country”, when I began writing it was not at all in any form, let alone a sonnet crown. I have the original draft of the poem: just broken lines mostly. I began free writing about all I remembered about coal and how it affected the lives of my family and the area in which I grew up.
After doodling around and writing a few phrases, some lines began to develop, but basically everything was just images—my mother as a girl, her mother washing the railroad men's shirts, the scars of strip mining, and the coal bin, which I can still see in my mind's eye: dark, not only from the lack of illumination, but also from the coal and the dust that went everywhere. But there was that little bit of light around the metal coal door. I still see that.
A few of those lines made it into the completed sonnet series, but when I started to include myself, the whole poem changed and that first line, “What I can't remember and what I can…” left me the room to write about things I didn't know firsthand, but that had been handed down through oral history.
TK: Oral history and memory. I would have guessed “researched”.
CL: Well, I do admit to some research. I tend to be a stickler for the right term or definition. When I began to write “Coal Country”, I realized immediately that I would need to do some fact checking. For instance, I wouldn't have known the different names for coal (“egg” and “lump” for instance) or when underground mining was abandoned for strip mining. I knew those names existed, I knew that mining had changed, but not when. Most of my research was done online; some things I asked my mother, who has since passed away. I must say, however, that although I didn't know some of the hard facts about coal, I did have feelings about coal. My memory is filled with that blackness—the coal bin, the coal yard where great piles of coal fill what now seems to have been a city block, the mile-long freight trains with hopper cars overflowing with coal, and the visible results of strip mining that just seemed natural when I was a child because they were scattered about Knox County. My father was a game warden for the state of Illinois. I often accompanied him on his trips around the county, so saw a lot of the scars of strip mining, as well as the reclamation that was beginning even during my childhood. I believe that, even with poetic license (which I do claim sometimes), it's important to be as accurate about dates and times as one can be and still serve the poem.
TK: Important or not, one thing's for sure: it's difficult to do work in dates and times artfully. I started to look at all the techniques you use to manipulate time in “Coal Country” and I was amazed by the number of them. For instance, you frequently evoke seasons, always winters and summers—nothing so benign as spring or fall. You also very effectively use character to relocate the reader in an era. In sonnet two we're with your grandmother, Mary, in three with you as a child, in four with your mother as a child. Back and forth, weaving through time, and not at all seamlessly. Rather the seams appear to be a subject themselves. For example, you sometimes just go ahead and expose them with expository statements like “Fifty years are over/now” in sonnet one, or “By the sixties” in sonnet three. Although these may be simple and declarative at first sight, I've noticed how the first is enjambed in a way that enables you to segue from one time to another as well as to compare them though proximity. Also, because both phrases operate as their sonnet's volta, you've exploited the possibilities of the form. By that same token, and perhaps most interestingly of all, is how you've used the crown structure of the last line/first line repetition as a transition. Moving from sonnet three to sonnet four you replace the word “old” with “new”. Likewise, between sonnets two and three you've managed the relocation with a single letter!
I found myself wondering, did the form lend itself naturally to managing time transitions?
CL: Once I began writing in sonnet form and decided to proceed with a crown of sonnets, it was not too difficult to write fourteen lines about my mother and myself, then my grandmother, then my mother, and so on. At one point in an early draft, I had labeled each section with the year: “1955”, “1917”, “1965”, etc., but I decided that by beginning the poem with one sonnet that includes my mother and myself, then shifting to my grandmother, then to myself as a girl, the reader is already aware that the sequences are not linear or chronological. I think that sonnet crowns are just another way to create space and time in a poem, much like free verse poems that have numbered sections. With a sonnet crown, however, there is that delicious last line/first line connection that is so much fun to work with.
TK: I've really been curious about that. My sense is that the last line/first line repetition transformation suggests the narrative structure and the poet follows it.
CL: I don't know if changing the words slightly from the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next is a common element, but I do know that it is used. I mean, I'm not the first to do it. It wasn't my experience that these changes dictate the narrative structure. In the case of “Coal Country”, I knew where the next sonnet would go; it was just a case of creating an adequate transition. Of course, there is that one glaring case in the transition between sonnet four and sonnet five. I knew that, at some point, I wanted to write a bit about coal mining in general. I didn't know when or where, but I had found what I thought to be interesting facts about coal mining. If I remember correctly, the last line had been something different, not “black heat”. When I chose to write about the coal-mining industry at that point, I changed those words in the last line of the one sonnet to match the first line of the next.
As far as the very first and last lines of the sequence, someone (a rather famous poet whose name I won't mention) suggested that I begin and end with a different set of sonnets. He felt that “What I can't remember, and what I can” was too heavy-handed. In fact, I probably submitted the poem with that change at some point. I just really liked making that significant, decisive move with the last line by changing the “can't” to “won't”. The meaning is totally changed, isn't it? I've heard that a poem should either be like a box clicking shut or being opened. In this case, I feel that the poem is opened up to more meanings than simply repeating the first line verbatim.
TK: Oh, the meaning is totally changed, Christina, yes. My feeling is that framing it as you have changes the true subject of the poem, which seems upon a first reading to be “coal”, to actually be some deep family secret. A secret, by the way, that the poem never directly addresses. But perhaps the poet would?
CL: If I tell, it won't be a secret. That's a flip answer, I know. What can I say? All families have skeletons in the closet. I just think we had more than most. I am the youngest of seven children; by the time I came along most of the drama was in the past, or was kept from me. Now all but three of us children are gone, including both my parents. I struggle with the ethics of telling tales on the dead and my desire to be the storyteller for my family.
For now, I'll save my divulgences for future work. I am currently at work on a project about growing up female in the 1950's and 60's. Many of the skeletons are rattling, wanting to get out. In “Echo I”, one of the two title poems (both sestinas) for my new work, Echo, I write:
And she can hear the whispered secrets
across the empty spaces
of the midnight house. Names
she can make out—the girl's
brothers, their many girlish
wives, dozens of children. Bad marriages: talk
of divorce, abuse, prison. Murderous secrets
to be hauled out and interrogated through the night
in those vacant spaces
between dusk and dawn.
I haven't yet decided how much I will tell. But for now, let this suffice.
TK: All right, fair enough. You were saying that, time-wise, you knew where you were going with your progression, but were there other ways in which you felt the poem led you?
CL: Form poetry is very much about being led into and through the poem. I never decide, however, to sit down and write a sonnet or villanelle or sestina. And, although I often write in form (but definitely not exclusively), it is the poem that dictates the form. If the meaning would be changed greatly by strictly adhering to a syllabic- or meter-driven form, I'll lean toward what will best serve the poem. That strict adherence to meter and rhyme is what many contemporary poets (and readers) object to. Even Shakespeare aimed for a natural speech rhythm in his plays, although they were written in rhyme. I like to think of a drummer in the background, banging away at a steady pace, with a blues guitarist or jazz musician doing what they want with riffs and small improvisations that always come back to the beat. Besides, sonnets are not required to have iambic pentameter or even fourteen lines to be sonnets. For instance, Gerald Stern's American Sonnets often have as many as twenty or more lines, but because they are still “little songs” (the original meaning of the word sonnet), they are definitely sonnets. Marilyn Hacker is a great sonneteer, but her sonnets often have erratic rhyming schemes that help the poem become stronger.
I find that I am always more surprised with the destination when I write in form than when I write in free or blank verse. So, perhaps the poem does have more control, at least in line length, meter, and end rhyme. But how creatively those rhymes are made and what falls between them is still anybody's guess until the poem is finished. I mean, the entire meaning of a line can change (and must change) if a different word is used. And honestly, sometimes, the poem insists on going where it will.
TK: Do you have a “rule” for rhyming? A method? Those are two different things, of course.
CL: As someone who tends to break the rules of form, I would have to say that I do the same with rhyme. I purposefully try not to have a lot of hard rhymes, but rather will search for slant rhymes.
And I do think about the rhymes and try very hard to present rhymes that are creative and perhaps unexpected, so that when the poem is read it doesn't sound as if it rhymes, but rather the reader feels the rhyme. For instance, “pestilence” and “horses”, which really don't rhyme on the page, but the sibilance makes the ear hear them as a sort of rhyme. Of course the couplets are very difficult to do this with because two rhymed lines fall together. I am sometimes unhappy with how the couplets turn out.
I do use a rhyming dictionary at times, but not in the way most people would use one. I also use the brainstorming method at times, as well, by just writing out all the words that might work where sonics are concerned, but with a softer rhyme than “moon/June/spoon”. I would more likely use “moon/bun/long”, relying on the end sound to suggest a rhyme. I sometimes use a thesaurus as a rhyming dictionary—searching the lists of words that have similar meanings, but different sounds. There have been times when I've gone back and changed the first rhyme to better fit the second or third rhyming word. I have a rather analytical mind, so writing in form, particularly with rhyme, is like solving an intricate puzzle.
TK: Yes it is. And one you obviously enjoy playing. I've noticed on the Internet that you've done a few other sonnet crowns since.
CL: Yes, one sonnet crown, “Clear Cut”, was written following my residency at the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. Oregon State University has a wonderful program in which writers are put together with scientists. The Spring Creek Project has had some illustrious writers, most notably Allison Hawthorne Deming and Pattiann Rogers.
“Event Horizon” was written about eight months after my mother passed away. I had many unresolved issues with her death because I was ill the entire time she was either hospitalized or in a nursing home. I was hospitalized myself when she died; the family had to hold the funeral off for a few extra days until I was well enough to travel from Kentucky to Illinois. The really sad thing is that my mother, who was still living alone at age 97, had fallen and died as a result of that fall, but only after a month of pain and suffering. I just couldn't deal with the thought that I hadn't been able to tell her good-bye. I was back in Illinois visiting my daughter's family when I witnessed a young deer being hit by that truck ahead of us. No one was hurt, but the deer had four broken legs and kept trying to run. I immediately thought of my mother and her broken bones, and her lying on the floor for hours before anyone found her. It's all still hard for me to write about, even now, nearly two years since I lost my mother.
TK: That sounds very difficult, to be sure. Was there something about the crown form that helped you take on this difficult subject?
CL: As with most of my work, what begins to be a certain form (or lack thereof) often takes on a life of its own and changes as it develops into a poem. I do remember that, when I saw the deer hit, then flying through the air, I thought of physics and Newton's laws. From that catalyst, I began thinking more about the laws of physics. I did a bit of exploring and found that many of the laws applied directly to what I was feeling about my mother and the deer. The crown form was just a natural way for me to write about all three subjects effectively: my mother's death, the deer, and physics. And perhaps the knowledge that I wouldn't have to stay with my mother's pain (or that of the deer) for more than fourteen lines at a time was appealing.
TK: I also wonder, have these done as well as Coal Country, prize-wise, that is.
CL: Well, no, not quite as well. Both poems, however, have been recognized. “Event Horizon” has been a finalist a few times, and I'm told that's the poem that netted me the Emerging Poet Award from the Southern Women Writers Conference. “Clear Cut” was a finalist just once.
TK: In light of that, why do you believe that Coal Country has received more notice?
CL: I think it was just synchronicity or serendipity or some other force that makes things turn out the way they do. The first contest I won did not entail any publication. The Passager prize did include publication. I was lucky, perhaps, that the poem did not win a couple of contests, but rather, simply placed. Then, the last two contests did not state in their guidelines that the poems could not have been previously published, so I was able to enter.
A rather odd thing is that “Coal Country” won honorable mention in another contest, The Spoon River Review Editor's Choice Award. I received a letter from the editors, telling me I had won Honorable Mention. Unfortunately, my letter withdrawing the poem from their contest (due to the Passager award) was either not read or was lost. When I alerted the editors of their oversight, I never heard another word from them and my name was not mentioned anywhere. I still have the letter, though.
But, in answer to your initial question, I think it was just the chronology of the contests.
TK: So tell me—and I mean this in all sincerity—have any of these prizes changed your life?
CL: I can't say any prizes have changed my life, but as I've told many people in the past: “It looks good on a resume.” And, to be honest, I don't think it hurts at all to have some extra lines on one's C.V. “Coal Country” has won over $1,000, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that most poems don't make any money for the poet. I am still surprised at any recognition my poetry gets. I am, after all, still an emerging poet. At 58. Go figure. I think Amy Clampitt must be my guardian angel…
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).