A Memory to a Poem

Notes on a Slip of Pink Paper.

Where did this come from?

These are my workshop notes on A Slip of Pink Paper. You can read the poem in its current form here.

This poem about childhood comes directly from childhood events. The poem is nowhere near complete and has already gone through many sloppy transformations.

There Have Been Various Titles:

  • The White House
  • The House in Durham
  • Durham, C.A. 1978.
  • Notes on a Slip of Pink Paper
  • ?

It is still a work in progress and titles tend to come last. In fact, many of these “poems” are just ideas that need to be worked and worked before moving into what I call finished or complete. Before being able to say that this poem is complete I need to ask these questions: What is the poem trying to say? What am I trying to say? Is it worthwhile? Is there a landscape? Does it progress? Does it lead the reader somewhere? How about the language and word choices? Are they strong, weak, too much, too little? The line breaks and stanzas, do they work? Is there a reason that they break where they break? What tools do I use to create feeling, substance, and tone? Do I have structure? Do I make use of sounds? Honestly, critically, this work is just words slapped haphazardly onto the page and moved around. The real work still needs to be done. 

We climbed over split rail fences, 
through dead and dying orchards. 
across old rail tracks that once
transported swine, beef and grain, 
but now the trains were ghosts 
and the rails vanished into the dirt.

This is probably my favorite verse because of the imagery, but where is the sound? What am I trying to convey? Do I want to create a feeling of running? How fast are they running? Are they scared or excited? Can I create one or both of those feelings through my word choices?

Oftentimes, a poem comes from a memory, or a feeling. I rarely have something that I think is right on the first draft, but I also rarely return to the work to improve it. This is a problem that I am here to solve. My new conviction. Much of this lack of work comes from me not always knowing what the poem is doing on the page in the first place. I get it out there instagram quick, but in truth, it is rarely good or ready. That’s okay as long as I am willing to do the work to make it better. What is it truly about?

I’ve decided to try and explore this mental block through a new practice I’ve titled, Where did this come from?

So where did this beginning of a poem come from?

Memory. Definitely a Memory.

In 1978, my mother moved us into a white house in the small town of Durham in Northern California. We lived with some of her friends. A couple of women who were divorced from their husbands. I believe we shared the house with one or maybe two other families. One woman, her name was Georgia, had three children, but there was another woman named Debbie and she had two children. These women were my mom’s friends. 

The Town

There isn’t much I remember about the town itself. I believe I spent half of kindergarten there because there was once a photo taken of my kindergarten class, but I  know I spent another half of kindergarten in another town because I have stronger memories at the second school. In fact, I don’t remember anything from kindergarten in Durham, except maybe a faded memory of a playground. Why I don’t have any other memories of the place may be because we didn’t live there for long. I remember having my birthday, which is in February, at my kindergarten at Ponderosa elementary not Durham elementary. I also remember a couple of students in my class at Ponderosa. I remember making candles in milk cartons, and painting, and that if we behaved well in class we could sleep with a stuffed animal named Grover, a character from Sesame Street. I also remember that I absolutely loved my kindergarten teacher Ms. Carelson. I don’t remember anything from Durham, not a teacher, not a classmate. My guess is that we lived there in the summer and fall since school photos tend to be in the beginning of the year, and because in my memories of the white house in Durham it is always hot, dry, and dusty. 

The House, The Place, The Kids

What I do remember about my short time in Durham was the house and the animals.This was the seventies and our mothers’ liked to party. There wasn’t a lot of parental supervision and I don’t remember any other homes nearby. There were many people in and out, and many children running wild into the orchids and surrounding fields. We lived at the end of a long dirt road that was off another road. Across from that road was a fire station. I have a memory of walking to the mailbox to check the mail, probably on request of the moms, the other children were walking with me or I was walking with them. Most likely a boy, Billie, was in the lead. He was the oldest and a bully, and would often boss or lead us other kids around. The mailbox was an old steel post mount mailbox with a front access door posted on a tall wooden post. I liked the sound and pull of the door whenever I opened or closed it. It was located at the end of the dirt road, and across from the fire station. When we reached the mailbox we discovered wrapped around the base of the wooden post a giant rattlesnake. It was a huge, fat snake that wrapped around the post at least three times. When we approached, its rattle rested on its body. It wasn’t frightened of us. There was a boy, maybe in middle school or maybe high school who killed the snake. I don’t remember the killing, but I remember the boy taking the snake away in a wheelbarrow. The snake’s tail and rattle draped over the side and dangled as it was wheeled away. I also remember Billie asking if he could have the rattle and the teenager said no. I was happy about that because I didn’t like Billie, and Billie usually got whatever he wanted, but this boy was too big for him to try to take it by force. 

What in the Poem is Real?

The dead kitten is real, and so was the porcupine and the dog. There were snakes, many snakes. California mountain kingsnakes and the rattlers. The pink sheet of paper is also real. There was a day when we came home to find the sheet of paper taped on the front door from animal control. I know my mother had a dog, and we must have been away from the house when animal control came as we were able to keep Baby (the dog). There was a chicken coup that smelled terrible, and rabbits, and feral kittens. All of these animals died. We talked about ghosts and played with spiders. Billie would abuse us there. Hit us. Touch us where we didn’t want to be touched. Hold us down and punch us in the chest. When I think back on these very faded and dimming memories, I wonder, was it him killing the animals or was it someone or something else? Perhaps there was a fox or a coyote, and Billie just found the animals and hid them for us to find. It’s hard to know. A child’s memory blends and bends. For example, maybe the snakes were in another house. Along with the chicken coup. We lived with these families more than once, and we visited them at the various homes where they had lived. We moved many times, more than 30 times before I turned 15.

The Process of Making a Memory into a Poem

Most memories become impressions, and those impressions can become stories and poems. The question is what do I, the poet, want to say in the lines of the poem? I had never mentioned the rattlesnake, or the boy, or Billie or even the women in the lines of the poem. Why did the memory stay? The greatest impression was of the animals. Many animals had died there, and it disturbed me. Over and over again the poem and the memory return but lack shape. The house. The snakes. The kitten. The fence. The orchards. The chicken coup. The friend. This imagery returns. 

Even if a story or a poem is from real life, once it is on the paper or on the screen it becomes a part of the reader. Yet, this can only happen if you can make it accessible. So, we break it down to imagery and words and sounds that cause an emotional response. What response to do I want? Nostalgia, childhood, innocence, exploration, discomfort, and unease? The writer must decide. When a child discovers that not everything is okay in the fairytale, and the adults in charge seem to be gone. That’s possible. Is there a word for that?

Now the work goes from where it was born to how it must grow-up. How to make it grow and work and become accessible this is the process. The process of making a memory into a poem.

This is the next step.