Sunday, July 18, 2004

I interviewed with Wisconsin's Poet Laureate Commission yesterday, as expected.
"How did it go?" you might ask.
"Very well, thank you," I would say.
I think I did a good interview. "Charmed them," as our friend Pearl Mt. Castle might put it. Yet I wasn't a mouse in the corner during the interviews with the other two finalists, who may have "charmed them" even more than I did.
When Cathryn Cofell-Mutschler, chair of the Poet Laureate Commission, called me to set up this interview, I had my choice of time slots - first, second, or third. I chose the third slot, because I wanted the interviewers to have a clear sense of the other candidates when they were weighing my answers to their questions.
Questions came in fairly orderly fashion from the circle gathered round me. Some were questions I expected - "Why did you apply for the position?" Some were questions I didn't expect - "How do you think appointment as Poet Laureate might affect your writing and your career?" I hadn't thought about that very much, actually, thinking more about the work the Poet Laureate would need to be doing.
It was a comfortable interview, in the sense that I had six interested people focused on me for an hour, listening to my every word. How we do long for this kind of attention as writers, and how seldom we find it!
One member of the commission is the current Poet Laureate, Ellen Kort, who has served these past four years. She noted that if I were appointed, I could put the letters Poet Laureate Of Wisconsin after my name, P.L.O.W. "which spells plow." She knew that would warm a farm boy's heart.
At the end of the interview, they gave me a long-stemmed white rose, as they had done for the other two finalists, because we were finalists. A nice touch, I thought. I took my name tag off my rose, brought it home and gave it to my wife, and told her it was from the Poet Laureate Commission, "because you have to put up with me."
Those serving on the commission have a thankless task, really. No one, I am sure, will ever go up to any of those folks and say "I really want to thank you for all the time and energy you've put into selecting the next Poet Laureate." Just won't happen. But it should.
I did a good interview and I am prepared for whatever recommendation the commission makes to the Governor, and whatever decision the Governor makes. An announcement should be forthcoming sometime in the next two weeks, I think. I'll keep you updated.
In the event that the appointment goes to someone else, a "consolation prize" of sorts has already been offered to me. I got a phone call on Friday from the head of the writing department at a college in our area, about an hour's drive, asking if I could teach a fiction-writing course for them in the fall semester.
"Our fiction writer will be on sabbatical in the fall," my caller said. "No problem, we thought. We expected to offer fiction-writing in the spring. However, because we are in transition between our old curriculum and our new curriculum, the dean says we are obligated to teach the course this fall. Can you do it?"
"Oh," I said, and I was kicking myself as I was saying no. What an opportunity. "I have to tell you I don't feel qualified to teach fiction-writing. It wouldn't be fair to your students. If it were a course in writing poetry or creative nonfiction, I'd say yes in a minute."
Not silence on the phone exactly, I could hear wheels turning. "Let me check schedules and talk to the dean," my caller said. "I may be able to teach the fiction-writing course, and you could teach the creative nonfiction course I'm supposed to. I'll call you back."
He called back, said: "The dean is sending you a contract."
So, in the midst of everything else, I am exhilirated now to be putting together a course in writing creative nonfiction. It is quite an honor for a working writer (one who has learned the craft in the school of hard knocks, rather than in a writing program) to be asked to teach a class like this. As I said to Mary, "the farm boy will be telling the college kids what he has learned about writing prose."
I'll keep you updated on this development, too! Life is WHEE! quite a ride!
This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently on the farm and in the house her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I've been asked what Pearl looks like, and this is how I responded: "Pearl is white-headed, fairly thin, of a medium woman's height - neither short nor tall. Her face has seen some years, but her eyes still have some fire in them. She was wearing a long, dark house dress when I interviewed her, she walks with a walker, she wears a built-up shoe and brace on the foot and ankle most damaged by the polio." I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.
"I picked raspberries and gooseberries and shocked wheat and planted tobacco," Pearl said when I asked her if she had other stories about her life on the piece of ground she has inhabited for ninety years. "Working with my dad. I never drove the horses, he always did that."

"I had a little experience with the horse one time," Pearl remembered. "My little brother always rode bare-back to go bring in the cows. He had a case of appendicitis and could do the things he had been doing. So he sat up in the barn. And the little horse he rode bareback was a very gentle little fellow and so Pearl said she'd ride it this time, to go back for the cows. He saw me off. The barn's on a hill, and there was a big valley where the lake is now. I rode horseback out to get the cows, had them all coming in like we usually did. The horse came to the barn without Pearl on it. That scared my little brother to death, he was just sick about it - he had caused Pearl to get hurt, you know. Pretty soon I walked up the hill where he could see me. Everything was okay. A horse-fly had got after the horse, and it was switching its tail and shaking itself, and I slid off. Not hurt, but I slid off."

"I fear for farming in this area," Pearl said when I asked her to assess its condition where she lived. "The land is being filled up with homes. People are moving out from the city. They like the out-of-doors, they like to be out. Farmers are not making money. They are selling lots along the roadside. You can hardly drive half a mile anywhere that you don't see new houses being built. People are moving out because they like the out-of-doors and farmers are hard up so they're selling their land, which reduces agriculture in the area. It seems that many city people want their cities to grow bigger and bigger and bigger and they want to bring in business and so on, but they're cutting the agricultural area to hardly any big farms. One young farmer who does nothing but farm has to have a lot of land or he doesn't make a living on it because prices are not what they should be. So he farms several farms, and that's his business, and the fellows who own the farms go into town to get jobs. Farmland is being lost."

"I wonder what the future will bring?" Pearl asks. "We have to have farms. One of the biggest farms in our neighborhood, between here and Lewisburg, it has about thirty houses on it now, not a single farm field on the whole place any more. That's an example of what's going on. If you keep putting on new houses, where are they going to grow corn? And this is supposed to be the Corn Belt."

"We have several factories in Lewisburg now," Pearl said. "People are coming into Lewisburg instead of going out due to General Motors or the other big businesses in Dayton. The community is growing in terms of people. Their work is right here in Lewisburg."

"We didn't have electricity on this farm until 1939," Pearl said. "Neither did other people in the area. Along came Rural Electrification out of Greenville - the office was in Greenville, Ohio, which is twenty miles away. They came through before they built, wanting to know if people would accommodate them, and be patrons of their business. That was in 1939. My father, of the old school, went along with everybody else, ten dollars to be wired in. When they started putting in new posts out here for the electrical wires, Dad wondered what it was all about then. He said he didn't care whether he had electricity or not. This was in 1939 and all the family was gone from home - it was just my father and me. Electricity would be such a convenience for me. With the big family - all the nieces and nephews by this time - how could I handle it? I've got to look out for Pearl. So I talked to my dad about it, I said 'Dad, the farm is in your name, but I'm going to put this money into wiring the place - it was costly - what about it?' And he said I could buy the farm. It would be in my name. He could still live here. And he did, from 1939 to 1954, just like he always did, and made what he could make off of it. But Pearl paid the taxes and insurance and got electricity put in. So I had the conveniences everybody else had."

When did Pearl learn to drive?

"Everybody had cars," Pearl said. "The father of an extra-good friend told me, he said 'Pearl, you've got to have a little car.' So I bought a second-hand Model T in 1924 - that was my first car."

"My first radio was right here on this table," she said. "That was back in the 1920s some time, and that chair right there sat right here where Dad listened with ear-phones."

When television came, Pearl said, "it was just another thing, just another invention."

"This is a good time to be living in Ohio," Pearl said, "with all the history being celebrated. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903 and that's the year I was born."

To be continued....
JULY 9, 1998

A cool morning, air wet with haze. I am home after a trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a meeting. I flew Super Death Airways - but spent three times as much time on the ground as in the air. Tuesday evening in Midway all six flights on their board were delayed. People working for the airline were all under stress. There was a terrific system problem of some sort. I will repeat my observation from my Atlanta trip that an airport takes on its own reality; all airports are essentially the same and indistinguishable from one another, featureless, without weather, hypnotizing in their monotony.

I will add one more observation: why the hell is Grand Rapids, Michigan, intending to look like Los Angeles? Stop and go traffic on its freeways, sprawling across farmland as if the supply of good ground is infinite. So Grand Rapids has tripled in size since the 1960s - can't it look like a midwestern town instead of an LA knock-off? It is obvious that we do not think about the big picture in our everyday little decisions. I am inclined to agree with Wallace Stegner that man is a rogue, weed species. Grand Rapids, were it a thinking entity, would be thinking about gobbling up some more of the world around it.
To be honest, the same charge can be made against Fond du Lac, Rosendale, and Ripon. The same charge can be made against the development being done in the fields behind the Village Mart in Fairwater.
A stray cat stands on our driveway, thinking he owns it. The windshield of the pick-up is dark with bug parts. I drove home from the airport last night. I had forgotten what driving at night will do to a windshield in Wisconsin in summer.

How many of us could be set down randomly on a piece of ground and be able to identify where, roughly, we are? What would you need to look at to succeed? What kind of test would this be? Who could pass it?

Our good retired farmer is working the flower bed at Five Corners this morning. He is offering the flowers water and they are taking a drink. He is smoking a cigarette. He stays to his business and doesn't look up.

There! That is a distinction to make in the world - between those who look up and those who don't. I'm afraid I am one of those who looks up and that's more a curse than a blessing.

You run a lot of make-ready, sometimes, creating the context for one good idea.


JULY 10, 1998
I lay abed an hour longer than usual again this morning and I'm moving kinda slow. Those damn birds, they have got to start singing louder at 5 a.m., if they're to roll me out! But at least I'm moving now, breathing, heading to work, another day another dollar. Consider the alternative.

All of a SUDDEN - I am lost in the day. I've driven to where the hawk lives without a single thought, only silence, without realizing I haven't had a single thought. Then the leaves of the trees, being two-toned as they are, snap me to consciousness, suggest a storm is coming. The corn, too, seems to have itself curled against fierceness. Even starlings are hunkered down in a row along the ditch at Five Corners. The coming day doesn't look bad to me. Perhaps it is the heat for which things are preparing.

Ripon is all set up for its celebration, which starts this evening. Note to myself: stay home; you know how much you don't like crowds.

In the distance, the caw of crow.

Who owns the day?

What I choose has chosen me. 

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