An Accidental Encounter with a William Stafford Poem (A Trip to the Methow Valley, Washington, Part 1)

Where have I been the last couple of months? Well, I’ve been poeting–lots of poeting. Unreported poeting. You see, from the end of September through the end of October, I was engaging in a poem-a-day challenge that my writer friend and co-challenger, Andrew S. McBride, and I called Patchwork Poetry Writing Month–PaPoWriMo, for short. The “Patchwork” part derived from the fact that during October, I was hosting two sets of out-of-town family, planning a birthday party for my now seven-year-old, and traveling to eastern Washington. So we started the challenge early–backing up the start to September 24–to fit in 30 days of writing by the end of October.

My goal for PaPoWriMo was to produce enough new poems to complete a book-length manuscript of persona poems to submit to first-book contests with deadlines falling on October 31 and throughout November. I’m happy to report that I was able to write 18 new poems, and re-write more than a dozen older ones, to complete a manuscript of 46 poems in time to make those deadlines.

One of the happy interruptions to my PaPoWriMo challenge was a trip with my husband and son to the Methow (pronounced MET-how, with the “t” and the “h” pronounced separately) Valley for five days during the third week of October. This was the third autumn in the past four years that we’d gone there to relax, stare in amazement at the fall colors, and hike the numerous trails immediately outside of–and even connecting–the towns of Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp, WA, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. For Mark and me, the Methow Valley Community Trail (open to walkers, bikers, equestrians, and skiers, depending on the season) reminds us of the village-to-village foot travel we used to do in England and Scotland. For our son, the trail offers an opportunity to ride his little bike as fast as he wants without having to negotiate traffic.

Our first day’s walk led us to the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, an impressive footbridge spanning the Methow River on the Methow Valley Community Trail. We had explored this section of the trail last year, but it wasn’t until this trip that I noticed, just to the side of the trail on the south side of the bridge, a plaque displaying a poem by William Stafford! Since I could hardly believe my eyes, I asked Mark to take a picture of it:

At Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, Methow Valley Community Trail

William Stafford’s poem “Where We Are” at Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, Methow Valley Community Trail

Since it’s hard to read Stafford’s poem in the photo, here’s how it goes:

WHERE WE ARE, by William Stafford


Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will
love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that’s gone.

Far over the valley there is an island
for everything left; and our own island
will drift there too, unless we hold on,
unless we tap like this: “Friend,
are you there? Will you touch when
you pass, like the rain?”

This poem, which I’d never read before seeing it there on the plaque beside the Methow River, transfixed me, and still haunts me. The idea that one’s seeing calls the landscape into existence makes my hair stand on end, and the image “Daylight will / love what came” is deeply true for the east-of-the-mountains light that seems to bless whatever it touches in this place.

This extraordinary light, in fact, is one reason Mark brought his Nikon with us to the Methow Valley. However, that camera proved cumbersome on the trail, and he didn’t want it getting rained on, so he shot all of the following photos using his iPhone 4s:

Methow River, looking downstream from beside the Stafford plaque. Photo by Mark Kummer.

Methow River, looking downstream from beside the Stafford plaque. Photo by Mark Kummer.

Fall colors along the Methow Community Trail, just downstream from Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge and Stafford plaque. Photo by Mark Kummer.

Fall colors along the Methow Community Trail, just downstream from Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge and Stafford plaque. Photo by Mark Kummer.

OMG aspens!  Photo by Mark Kummer.

OMG aspens! Photo by Mark Kummer.

Oh my heart. Aspen, alder, and cottonwood leaves on the Methow Valley Community Trail. Photo by Mark Kummer.

Aspen, alder, and cottonwood leaves on the Methow Valley Community Trail. O my heart. Photo by Mark Kummer.

Coming up in Part 2:  our walk along the Big Valley Ranch Trail and my poem responding to William Stafford’s “Where We Are.”

Cheers, and more soon!

Reflections on NaPoWriMo

Dear Readers,

My thanks to all of you who read, inspired, and gifted me with such generous responses on my poems this past month. I feel like you’ve been on a long road trip with me, and you don’t even mind that I talk too much while I drive, that I eat more than my share of the Doritos (or the artisanal small-batch, fair-trade, non-GMO dried kale chips, depending on where we last filled up), and that we somehow ended up in Philly even though I’d originally said we’d be going to Charlottesville.

Thanks to you, I’ve learned a lot along the way. This has been my first time to participate in National Poetry Writing Month, and in gratitude to you and as reminders to myself for Aprils yet to come, I want to recap these highlights:

  1. Poems, poems, poems! By my rough count, I wrote 22 new ones. Even though this is far fewer than most of you who committed to April’s NaPoWriMo, Poem-a-Day, or 30/30 challenge, this has been my most prolific writing stretch in twelve years. I also got six or eight other snippets and starts out of the effort–partial drafts that weren’t ready for prime time, but that I hope to develop into full poems. (Stay tuned for my first one from this batch, tentatively titled “I Want a Megalith.”)
  2. New and wonderful sources of inspiration. I discovered that prompts abound on the web. Though I sought and found poems in my usual sources–walks, others’ poetry, a quiet voice that drops words and lines on my head to reward me for doing household chores–the daily deadlines of NaPoWriMo often required a more e-caffeinated start. In addition to the thought-provoking daily prompts from Maureen Thorson and Robert Lee Brewer, I found brilliant and original exercises created by Danielle Mitchell and Rachel McKibbens.
  3. The afterparty ROCKS. Nothing prepared me for the lively, high-humored amazingness you people hand me, and each other, in your comments and posts. In the course of three weeks, I received a business tip from Marilyn  Cavicchia, Editor and Poet, to sell my horse-hair ponies on Etsy; was initiated, also by Marilyn, into the sacred rite of post-Easter roasting of Marshmallow Peepswas provoked to make a proposal of marriage (still unanswered–you’re breakin’ my heart over here, Judy!) to ChocoalteIsAVerb; and was featured on Vince Gotera’s vibrant and encyclopedic poetry blog. And best of all has been…
  4. The inordinately supportive, positive comments you have been making on my poems. They have been so lovely. In the last week of April, I received eight rejection notices (plus another one this morning) from journals and book & chapbook competitions, but arriving as they did while I was basking happily in the glow of your generous words, their sting was largely blunted. I’m especially thankful to Andrew Shattuck McBride, who–in addition to taking off the top of my head, in the best Dickensonian way, with such poems as this, this, and this–knows how to give one hell of a peptalk. Thanks to his and your encouragement, I’m energized to start a new round of revising and submitting this month. Seriously, friends, you are only egging me on when you do that.
  5. Resetting priorities. Participating in NaPoWriMo has broken my unhappy addiction to news websites and fostered, in its place, a radiant enthusiasm for your writing and art sites. ChocolateIsAVerb’s word-collages, DadPoet’s video-readings, Cupcake Murphy’s OddGoodTrue-ness, Doug’s “Bad Poems,” Arna Baartz’s SilverPoetry, Reno King’s poetic blues stylings, Mick Axelrod’s performance-vibe poems, Vince Gotera’s and Catherine Pritchard Childress’s poems, plus those I’ve already mentioned above, and many others, have brightened my days and strengthened my soul. As wise nutritionist Danielle Mitchell says at LitNivorous, “You are what you read,” and thanks to all your sharing of your creative gifts, I am growing better-nourished by the day.
  6. A further nutritional discovery: even when I put protein powder into my antioxidant berry smoothie, the Kentucky Bourbon still makes it delicious. This I discovered seeking brainfood when,this April, I was awake poeming at late hours. But it was friend, colleague, and writer Jeffrey Klausman who introduced me to the Bourbon recently, and long ago to the practice of writing poems. (Next time I wake up hung over and surrounded by inky shreds of paper, Jeffrey, I’m blaming you.)
  7. Note to self for next April: arrange childcare beforehand. When I rashly jumped, a week late, into NaPoWriMo, I failed to anticipate that my six-year-old was going to be at school for no more than eight and a half days for all of April. Spring Break encompassed the first nine days of the month, and parent-teacher conferences the last five. In between came the stomach flu. Hence all those late-night writing sessions. For next year’s NaPoWriMo, I’m going to save up my royalty money (ha!) and hire a nanny for a couple hours each day so I can write during my son’s school breaks without losing so much sleep. This, in turn, will reduce the need for late-night protein smoothies flavor-enhanced with Bourbon. It’s a win-win.

While I catch up on sleep over the next few months, I’ll return to my pre-NaPoWriMo blogging schedule of one or two posts per week. I intend to keep working on and posting new poems, just at a more leisurely pace, as well as myth-book reports and the occasional metaphysical screed.

Also in my plans is to catch up and keep up with all of YOUR blogs. This road trip with you has been a blast, and it’s not over yet.

Oh! Now I know why we ended up in Philly. It’s to go birding with DadPoet!

With my gratitude to you,

NaPoWriMo, Day 17 (Day 24 for Everyone Else)

First of all, my sincere thanks to Vince Gotera, who featured this blog and my poem from yesterday on his wonderful poetry blog, The Man with the Blue Guitar. His write-up of my efforts here is the funniest thing I’ve read all month. I’m tremendously grateful to Vince for his generous feature.

For today’s poem, I followed a complicated prompt. My workshop group, a lively cadre of Bellingham poets calling ourselves On Assignment, tasked ourselves to write a poem incorporating the following words or concepts: maps / getting lost, stochastic, lightning, and diacritical marks. Crazy, right? Here’s what I came up with:


You taught parachuting
and rode a seal-bay racehorse named Éclat
across Cascade passes.

You said you loved the sky,
its ecstasies where it met the earth.

You said one time, Éclat’s steel shoe
scraped a rock and sparked a fire.
You stomped it out but Éclat took flight.

You both knew ways back to Mazama
and met there by nightfall.

Later that summer your skydiving partner
mispacked his chute and jumped off the map.
Éclat sliced a tendon on a downed electric fence.

You moved to Las Vegas,
took up day-trading with a man
you suspected had murdered his wife.

You called me once, told me you’d got rich,
laughed that this kind of success
was stochastic as lightning.

Years later, I still glimpse Éclat from the freeway
grazing with the other retirees
in the tree farm on the floodplain of the Snohomish.

And I picture you pacing somewhere
in a darkened apartment in an opulent city
glancing out the windows

to check on the clouds, tightening
the screws on all the switchplates
and waiting for something dangerous,

something dazzling, to strike.

NaPoWriMo, Day 14 (Day 21 for Everybody Else)

Today’s poem is for Australian artist Arna Baartz. Her blog is Silverpoetry, and while I was visiting, I got curious about her gorgeous artwork there. So I clicked over to her art website, which features her colorful and complex paintings. Please do visit Arna Baartz; she’ll even give you a cupcake!

Arna told me in a comment that one of her paintings was part of a series about the question, “What would fall out, if the heart were a pocket and we were each turned upside down?” Reader, this got me thinking:


Turn the pocket of my heart upside down,
and out will trot the buckskin horse
who raised me to middle age
before going the way of all grandfathers

Turn the pocket of my heart inside out,
and watch the tumble of my tabbies and torties
and my gone firstborn, an Abby

Upend my heart and pour out the woman
who hid away so many parts of herself
for safekeeping, she forgets where they are
except when her grandbaby trips over them

The feather-shaped leaves and all their siblings
The trails I’ve hiked, and those I haven’t
Dried ink and some still wet

The Voice who once told me to be his child
and then went mostly silent

Dump out my heart and meet the kind-souled stranger
I’ve been married to for twenty-one years
who tells me I say the strangest things

The miniature of him, who agrees
but also suspects this is all quite normal

NaPoWriMo, Day 6 1/2 (Day 13 for Everybody Else): More Horsekeeping

Hi. A disclaimer: this isn’t a proper National Poetry Writing Month Post. This is only a NaPoWriMo-related post. This is “NaPoWriMo, Day 6, Now with Visual Aids.”

This is me taking a day off from drafting a new poem to take inspiration from day-before yesterday’s poem and go groom my horse. Photos are included to establish my barn cred, but I’ll try, along the way, to keep things at least somewhat literary.

Readers, please allow me to introduce Rose:

My love is like a brown, brown rose

My love is like a brown, brown rose

Rose is a 23 year-old Quarter Horse. I’ve had her since she was 7.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single horse in possession of a thick haircoat must be in want of a human upon whom to deposit most of it.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single horse in possession of a thick haircoat must be in want of a human upon whom to deposit it.

Rubbing the rubber currycomb around and around and around and around:

I placed a currycomb in Tennessee

I placed a currycomb in Tennessee

I scrubbed enough hair off of Rose to make a whole other pony!

I wandered lonely as a dustcloud

I wandered lonely as a dustcloud

For the next two hours, I brushed her: stiff brush, medium brush, soft brush, face brush. I also trimmed her mane, cleaned her hooves, and shampooed some mystery gunk off her lower legs.

After all that standing tethered, Rose enjoyed a carrot reward. Here, Rose is saying, “Thanks for the–hey, is that green grass over there?

I went into the barn because I wished to live allergically

I went into the barn because I wished to live allergically

Yes, Rose. Yes, it is.

Grazing is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Grazing is truth, truth grazing,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Tomorrow, so long as my arms haven’t fallen off, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled NaPoWriMo posts. Cheers!

NaPoWriMo, Day 6 (Day 11 for Everybody Else)

Today’s prompt is to use the five senses. Watch out:  we’re going to get dirty.


Time to unhair the horse of her winter coat,
time to uncrust the mud from her mane and legs.
To start, rub the rubber curry comb around
and around and around on her itching withers where

her winter blanket stretched and dug, and back
along her spine and down her barrel. Next,
curry gently on the belly, legs,
and flank to break up mats and hard-caked mud.

Rub back and sides again to pick up more
of the hair you loosened there. Keep circling:
now croup and haunches. If your shoulder aches,
you’re doing the job right. Just switch the curry

to your other hand. By now, you wear as much
loose horse hair as the horse, and you, too, smell
like the bedding of her stall. Then, go around
and repeat all this on the horse’s other side.

Satisfying, isn’t it, to see the clumps
of dirt disintegrate and drift away,
even though some lodges in your nose and mouth?
Next, take your medium-stiff bristle brush,

and starting from the necktop, whisk and flick
in short brushstrokes. Every eight or ten,
sift the brush through the currycomb, held in
your other hand, to clear the bristles. Brush

one area until no more dust flicks up,
or the horse begins to shift from irritation.
Then proceed until your arms and wrists agree
this horse is clean, or, for now, clean enough.

Poetry Off the Page with Nance Van Winckel

Yesterday, I spent a wonderful day at Egress Studio in a workshop led by Nance Van Winckel. She has augmented her work as a poet by venturing into the visual arts, most notably photo-collage, in which she embeds her poems into her photographs, often integrating public-domain images as well. The results are colorful and kinetic. She says she challenges herself to create work that will be as inviting to image-oriented viewers as it is to text-oriented readers. The key, she explains, is to incorporate the text in such as way as to make it seem that the visual medium itself is speaking. As a comparatist/multi-field wanderer/genre-crossover geek myself, I must say that this type of artistic hybridization completely floats my boat. It whets–and, happily, sates–my hunger to connect image-based with text-based systems of symbol:  to combine visual and verbal vocabularies to enhance (or question) meaning. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to make trees.

Have I mentioned trees yet? If not, please know, Reader, that they are right up there with horses and hiking among my obsessions. My attraction to them is horticultural, yes, and spiritual/symbolic, definitely–but most of all, aesthetic.  I love to LOOK at trees.  Trees are so visually elegant to me that I want to draw them and paint them decorate my universe with them. But since drawing and painting trees is beyond the slim range of my artistic skills, I draw and paint leaves. Leaves in oil, leaves in acrylic, leaves in acrylic ink, leaves in watercolor, leaves in watercolor pencil, leaves in colored pencil, leaves in black pencil, leaves in my five year old’s chewed and broken Crayolas. In short, I am a fan of leaves.

I’ve attempted to write about trees, and my aesthetic passion for them, but my efforts have fallen far short of my hopes for conveying what I perceive of them visually. Imagine my delight, then, in being directed to Make Something that integrates text and image, and being given numerous materials for doing so, by a generous and encouraging teacher. I knew immediately that I was going to make leaves, and then make them into a tree. Freed from my usual expectation that I should try to make a realistic representation of a tree (and from my inevitable disappointment at not having the technical ability to do it very well), I set about constructing a more abstract tree.

First, I chose pages from an antique book on mechanical engineering that Nance Van Winckel brought for workshop members to mine text from and collage with. Overcoming my resistance to scissoring up a gorgeous old book, I cut out leaf shapes, choosing passages titled with such tasty phrases as “Elementary Theory of the Dynamo” and “Separately-Excited Machines.”   After glueing the leaf cut-outs into double layers, I used a permanent ink pen to write the text of my little poem on them. Then I painted both sides of all the leaves with Mod Podge (an all-purpose gluey-glazey stuff that dries clear). I also cut out some small captions of diagrams and illustrations of dynamos to glue on as “fruit.”While all those were drying, I began constructing the base and branches of the tree using an intriguing dried seed pod that Nance had brought and two lengths of black wire.  Having noticed that the seed pod, which was delicate but fairly rigid and had a dark brown color with the appearance of polished leather, was curved in the middle and level on both ends, I decided to make it the “ground” for my little tree sculpture. Two natural indentations in its raised center were perfect places to wrap the wire around; pointing upward, they became the branches. With the four holes of a button holding the wires in place, I began to experiment with how to attach the leaves to the ends.Even when dry, the paper stems of the heavier leaves proved too floppy to withstand having the wires wrapped around them, so I began to consider other adhesive options. Nance recommended the perfect solution:  threading the wires through holes in the leaves. She also suggested including some beads for added color, so after some work with needle, thread, and more glue, I was ready to place the leaves onto the wire branches. Finally, noticing how well the lilac stamp-ink appeared on a fellow workshopper’s dark-brown seed pod, I used the same shade to stamp a title onto my pod:  “Go To See.” (And you WILL see that I am not above the occasional groaner pun.)

Nance’s workshop did a terrific job providing us participants with numerous examples of exciting ways to propel poems “Off the Page,” and getting to practice was even more fun! I certainly will be doing more experiments with poems in visual mediums.