My mother began writing poetry during the Depression, on a wheat farm outside Fargo, North Dakota. When she was seventeen, she sent a number of pieces to an anthology for consideration. The editor wrote her back, accepting three of them, but when he discovered how young she was, the deal was off. He promised her a copy of the anthology as a consolation prize.
She never submitted anything to anyone again. As a child, I was dimly aware that she wrote, and she may have shown me a half-dozen poems over the years. But two days after her death, at the age of eighty-five, when several of her grandchildren were searching for photographs to put up at the funeral home, the house sprouted poetry—more than a hundred poems, tucked away in drawers, in linen closets, hidden behind cereal boxes in the cupboard. Some were scribbled on the back of church programs and shopping lists, on Motel 6 stationery.
Her granddaughter Anne typed the poems, bound them, and distributed copies to the family. My father, who died within six months, asked me to do something with my mother's writing, but what that might be, I didn't know. I was deeply moved by the poems, but I was her son. How could I judge their literary worth? They were a long way from doggerel, but they weren't Wallace Stevens, either, and I wasn't about to send them off to The Paris Review.
Five years passed. Then this spring August Kleinzahler and his wife, Sarah Kobrinsky came to dinner. August was our visiting poet at the Michener Center for the semester and Sarah is a fine poet and writer as well, no surprise. The surprise was that she'd grown up in Fargo. We started trading stories and before the evening was over, I pulled out the Kinko's-bound sheaf of my mother's writing.
She called me several days later. Delighted by the poems, she was filled with questions and ended up writing an article for The High Plains Reader, Fargo's alternative newspaper. In her digging into all this, Sarah made a number of discoveries, the most miraculous of which was that the farm house, where my mother had spent much of her childhood and where I had lived as a child, was still standing and was now a city park. I remembered it as an astonishing place, built from the yellow clay bricks of my grandfather's brickyard, surrounded by hollyhocks, purple lilacs, and a windrow of silver Russian olive trees.
The upshot of all this was that in July, I drove to Fargo with my brother and sister and our spouses. Sarah flew up from Austin and we did a reading of my mother's poetry in the hundred-year-old farmhouse.
I did not expect a crowd. I assumed we would be reading to ourselves and maybe a few members of Sarah's family, but when we arrived at the farm we were greeted by two television crews, a newspaper reporter, the director of the Nordic Culture Club, even the caretaker for the Parks Department and his wife and daughter who'd meandered in for coffee.
The next day Sarah and I did an hour-long interview on the radio, followed by another reading that night on the rooftop of a downtown hotel that had been planted with prairie grasses.
It was an emotionally charged weekend. Still the big brother, I found myself shooting my sister looks, hoping she wouldn't burst into tears, but to tell the truth, I was as much on the edge as she was. It seemed a great cosmic joke that our mother, one of the world's most modest people, had somehow become a celebrity. It was a revelation to sit in an audience, hearing Sarah read my mother's work, and think, "Geez, this is real poetry."
Sarah had selected the poems, picking some that were written when my mother was young—playing and toying around with Swedish country accents, experimenting with form. These were followed by devotional pieces, letters to God, poems with a lot of snow and wind. Much of the later work was no more than fragments, dealing with the death of a daughter, other losses, religious doubt and struggle.
Listening to the poems, I found myself struck by two ideas simultaneously. The first was how powerful language is, how it can convey its force, seventy years after the fact. Words were as durable as the yellow bricks from my grandfather's brickyard. The seconds thought was how easily all those poems could have vanished without having been uttered by anyone.
The drive back from Fargo was long, with miles of wheat fields, distant silos, and plenty of time to think. I couldn't help but compare what I'd just experienced with the universe I occupy most of the year—not just the world of young writers and MFA programs, but the wider literary world as well. Perhaps a comparison like that is unfair. My mother wrote poetry as a private act. She didn't consider it a profession or even a vocation.
All the same, when I consider how much time we "real writers'" waste licking our wounds and obsessing over where we rank on some mythical literary ladder, almost any alternative can seem attractive. Envy is the great occupational hazard. I admit that I enjoy grousing as much as anyone. What crummy book just got a great review? Who got a fellowship-prize-six-figure-advance when it should have been me? We have our work judged too often. We stay too roiled up.
To be fair, writing is a seriously anxiety-provoking profession. It takes bravery or bullheadedness to commit yourself to a life of this. You can spend five years on a book and come up with nothing. Or a decade. There is more rejection than is good for anyone. The blows keep raining down.
Still, it is important to remember that most writing of value comes from some quieter place. It furnishes its own rewards, sustains us in ways we couldn't have imagined when we started, and, in time, with a few breaks, is capable of making its own way.