For PPoP (People Petrified of Poetry)

I grew up in Bisbee, a small mining town in the far southeastern corner of Arizona. The Divide, a mountain pass in the Mule Mountains north of town, separated us from most of the rest of the world, and it took a very long time for television signals to reach over those steep mountains and come down into the canyons of our little outpost of civilization.

Before that happened, our family often spent long summer evenings listening to our father read poetry from his favorite book, the Treasury of the Familiar. That tattered old volume with its threadbare brown cover is still one of the jewels in my library collection. It’s amazing that sitting here, close to sixty years later, I can still recall the moving words to some of those beloved poems.

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone.
The brave old earth must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.

I can remember the thrill of listening to the cadenced version of Horatius at the Bridge. An evil enemy army is encamped on the far side of the Tiber, waiting to attack Rome. Faced with certain disaster, Horatius is the only one who stands up and speaks up:

In yon straight path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me?

As I wrote those words even now, I had a little shot of goosebumps on my legs. Because Horatius and two others do indeed keep that bridge, three brave men facing down the horde.

And what about the Wreck of the Hesperus?

It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the wintery sea,
And the captain had taken his little daughter
To keep him company.

As one of seven children, I was always amazed that the captain’s daughter was an only child.

We kids always laughed aloud at the unsuspecting yokel who, despite being broke, has the misfortune of taking out a girl who who proceeds to eat and drink everything in sight.

When she hollered for more
I fell on the floor
For I had but fifty cents.

And I loved those Six Men of Indostan, the blind ones who go to see an elephant. Afterwards, each of them insists that the elephant is most like the only part he has personally touched–a snake for the trunk, a rope for the tail, a wall for the side.

And so those men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

Having learned to love poetry, literally at my father’s knee, it was no great shock when, as a high school sophomore, I arrived in Miss Barbara Reavis’s classroom where we were all expected to recite the Ode to a Grecian Urn. Aloud. From memory. At the head of the classroom, standing beside the teacher’s desk.

When people tell me, “I don’t like poetry,” I understand what happened to them. They probably had to recite that same poem. For them, that unfortunate combination of having to deal with a poem exacerbated by an almost terminal fear of public speaking has left those poor people, People Petrified Of Poetry, scarred for life.

The purpose of this blog is to ask them most respectfully to consider getting past it.

As far as I’m concerned, poetry isn’t evil. Rather, it’s the language of the heart. Years ago, when my life took a very wrong turn and when I found myself living at my lowest ebb, that’s how my thoughts came out–as odd bits of poetry, jotted on scraps of yellow paper, under the dark of night. And that poetry, self-published originally as a chap book in 1984, was also my first ever published work, After the Fire.

In the early eighties, when I finally set my hand to the task of writing, I took those bits of poetry to a professor who taught poetry at the U Dub. As I walked into his office, I was well aware of my outsider status since I was a University of Arizona alum rather than a Husky. I do not remember the professor’s name. I do remember his desk. It was covered with an immense pile of papers that resembled a towering haystack, and he sat behind the mess, peering at me over it like an oversized frog. He started by telling me that I most likely had no talent since I obviously hadn’t taken the necessary classes. But then he read a few of the verses and reluctantly allowed has how maybe I did understand poetry after all. He told me that what I needed to do was submit the verses to literary magazines where I most likely wouldn’t get paid in anything other than free copies of the magazine.

I wanted to be a writer, but I was also a mother with two small children to support who wanted to be paid for her work. I didn’t submit anything to any of the literary magazines.

Those of you who have come to signings may have been able find copies of earlier editions of After the Fire when they were available at events. For a time the book was published by the University of Arizona Press, but their marketing was spotty, and copies weren’t always where I needed them when I needed them to be there. That book differed from the original chapbook edition, however, because I was able to supply essays that told the background of where I was and what was occurring in my life at the time I wrote each individual verse

Those poems and the accompanying essays led through some very dark places as I came to understand the pitfalls of being involved in a marriage to a man who would eventually die of chronic alcoholism a year and a half after I divorced him. The happy ending to this story is that it was while doing a poetry reading of After the Fire in 1985 that led me to meet Bill and took me to this whole other chapter in my life.

After the Fire, September 10, 2013

After the Fire, September 10, 2013

So why am I talking about this now? Because After the Fire is about to be re-issued by HarperCollins. It will go on sale on September 10, the same day Second Watch goes on sale. They even PAID me for it, and not just in author copies.

You’re probably wondering why people who are convinced they hate poetry should consider giving After the Fire a try. For one thing, if you’re a fan of my mysteries, this book will give you some inside information about me and also about the origins of some of my characters. It will also give you some glimpses of what makes me tick and will show you what events and circumstances in my background made me the writer I am today.

I know that writing this blog is not unlike an autobiography written in weekly installments, but After the Fire is truly my autobiography.

It’s also a helping hand. When I was married to my first husband and caught up in the grim reality of losing a loved one to addiction, I was convinced I was completely alone in that experience–that no one else in the universe could possibly have been as stupid or as blind as I was. The isolation of addiction makes that easy to believe, but once After the Fire was published I started hearing from plenty of other people who had walked or were still walking that same rough path. It turns out, I wasn’t nearly as alone as I thought I was.

There’s an important message in After the Fire, and it’s right there in the title poem, written in the language of a broken heart:

I have touched the fire
It burned me but I knew I lived.
It seared me but it made me whole.
He called me.
I went gladly though I saw the rocks,
Fell laughing through the singeing air.
I have known the fire.
I’ll live with nothing rather than with less.
The flame is out. There’s nothing left but ash.

When I saw the cover art for this new HarperCollins edition, I was floored by how beautiful it is, because that’s what can happen after a fire–the new growth that follows, not unlike the reality of my new life, can be breathtaking. The burned out trees surrounded by masses of lush flowers makes the book look like an all-occasion greeting card for people stuck in some very difficult circumstances.

So when you’re putting in your advance order for Second Watch, think about ordering a copy of After the Fire as well. I promise, even if you HATE poetry, you won’t be sorry.

Not only that, you might possibly turn it into a bestseller.

If you do, I can tell you for sure that the poetry professor from the University of Washington will be utterly astonished!