Sunday, May 31, 2009

Music and Poetry

After reading other poets, songs and music are a great inspiration for me. I love to listen to movie soundtracks while I write. I can’t go wrong with the music from Lonesome Dove, or A River Runs Through It.

The other day I was listening to satellite radio, and Harry Chapin was singing “Taxi.” Remember that one? Well, maybe you’re not as old as I am. The story of the song is that this taxi driver picks up a woman, and before long he realizes that she’s his old girlfriend, and they spend some time talking until he gets her home. He remembers that when they were going together they both had big dreams. He wanted to fly, and she wanted to be and actress. It all turned out very differently. I went to utube, and listened to it one more time. Then I looked through my poems for what I had written, after a meeting with someone from my past.

I avoid school reunions. I went to two, but I might not go to very many more. I came to the conclusion that those people who cared about me, and we had things in common, were the ones that didn’t need a reunion to see me, because we still corresponded and saw each other when we could. There is a sadness to those get-togethers. The posers still pose, and the popular kids still point at the not so popular and whisper, even after all those years. I do admit, it isn’t always that way. Small schools seem to be different. The school I attended in Kentucky has an all school reunion each year, and it’s fun to see my father talking to school mates while I do the same across the room. I always leave with a smile and am thankful for such wonderful friends.

Anyway, I’ll share a poem with you about an unexpected meeting of two people, like in Harry’s song.

Bill Collector

It’s not a first-rate job.
Not one you go home and brag about.
You make up rules,
over a hundred dollars and off it goes.
Under thirty, no way.
But sometimes the boss gets wise,
demands you take a hard line.

The arrogant ones are easy.
They curse and insist you
leave the lights on, while they finger
a wad of money and glare at you.
Of course you disconnect the electric,
tell yourself they deserve it.

After thirty years I remember the day
I walked up to that rusted out trailer.
How the half naked kids clung to
the woman’s legs, while I told her
why I was there.
Then I really looked at her, recognized
the girl most likely,
student council president.
I prayed she wouldn’t recognize
the class clown,
the kid she wouldn’t be caught dead with.

Call the office or I’ll be back, I said.
Down the road I stopped in a quiet spot,
wrote on the order in triplicate
Bad dog unable to disconnect
No customer contact,
then hid in the back of the van
until the tears stopped.

Robert W. Kimsey

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Family History Poems

So, it’s raining again. The fog is hanging low in the valleys, and the streams are full. No fly fishing this week for sure. I’m going through pictures that I can put on the blog, and am looking at some lecture notes I’ve had in a pile on the desk, waiting for changes.

I use the questions that are asked at sessions, to generate ideas for the next talk. When I speak to poets about where to find ideas, I do have some favorite things to do that might help. One of those things is to look at family history. Not just your own, but other families that you might know or have been told about. Volumes of books have been written about the history of a particular family. Those types of ideas can feed a collection of poetry also. Remember that the person that’s speaking becomes so very important, and that person isn’t always the poet.

A woman who has done a beautiful book of poetry is Diane Gilliam Fisher. Her book Kittle Bottom takes us back to the time of the West Virginia mine wars of 1920-1921. It is a wonderful book that is written in the voices of the people who lived during that time. Diane researched the book of some years. Every moment in her book is a moment that changes the people involved, and I remember thinking back through my family history to find just such a moment. By the way, a kittle bottom is a flat-bottomed rock that hangs in the roof of a coal mine, and can fall at any time. In my part of Kentucky I always heard it called a bell rock.

I have never written a complete book on one period of time, but it is a marvelous idea. I’ll bet that if you look back over the years, you will also find a moment in time that changed your family forever. Here is a poem that I took from my family, and put myself in the mind of my Grand Father, on just such a day.

Hard Lessons

Daddy said the first day on the job you learn the rules.

If your lunch bucket gets left topside you’re out of luck
unless the next team brings it down, and if the roof starts
to fall, YOU RUN. You run like Billy-be-damned for daylight.
You don’t stop for nothing.

You run like the devil hisself is breathing that cold, damp,
black air down your neck. You run for the shaft
or the outside as fast as you can.

If you ain’t used up all your luck and you make it to daylight
then you can turn around and look who’s behind you, then
you wait for the count and see who’s not.

That day the bell-rock almost got Daddy, blowed his hat off,
he come home after the siren, stood in the door of our house
on the Big Sandy, white eyes staring from his black face.

Then he come over to me and slapped me hard.
I could see the tears making creeks on his cheeks,
and he pointed his finger at me and whispered,
”Dammit Boy, you ain’t never going in a mine.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Remembering Old Friends

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died serving my country. This is a great time to honor our veterans, and to remember those we have known, and have made a difference in our lives.

When I look back, I remember some veterans who did not die in a war, but were forever changed. Here’s a poem about one very special man that I will honor this weekend. Maybe someday this day will be a thing remembered from long ago. I pray so.

Old Soldier

Sitting on the loading dock,
some damn fool would always say
something to get him started.
A word or phrase, a headline or jab
would send him down that road.

It was never those of us
who had been in the service.
When it started we’d look away,
down at our feet,
zone out to another place.

His face would go gray, he’d shake
and look across the years and
even in January the sweat
would drip from his nose
along with the tears.
And he’d tell the story again.

You could almost see him in that foxhole,
back in France, fighting for his breath.
The enemy tank above him,
his guys down the road firing everything
they had at it and him screaming
every time the tank shelled their position.

The dirt in his mouth,
the smell of gunpowder and urine all around.
All day buried until the tank moved off
and his pals came and dug him out.

It always ended the same,
him wiping the tears on his sleeve,
embarrassed, gathering his lunch box,
limping back to the storeroom.

The damn fools who started it all
headed back to work, laughing and giggling.
Those of us who avoided crowds,
always faced the door,
flinched at loud noises,
just sat there
struggling for breath.

©Robert W. Kimsey
Kudzu 2006

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Finding Water

I remember when my Grandfather and Uncles decided to dig a well up the hill from ours. We had a wonderful spring that not only gave us clear, clean water, but also supplied a number of other families. Our house was on a road that had been the warrior and hunting path from the Ohio River camps and lead south to the Cherokee Lands. The spring had always been there, and when my family built the house it gave us cool water and gave me my first bath when I was born in the upper bedroom.

On the day they were going to work, the spot was found, and they started to dig. It was hard work, and they struggled, handing out buckets of clay and rock, until the water started to seep in.

Years later I was reading my diary, and started a poem about that day, but mostly about the gift of finding water. I’ve seen men that were able to cut a willow fork, hold it in two hands and walk along until it pointed to the earth. That’s where the water was to be found. I’ve also seen men that were able to take two steel rods and bend them into the shape of an “L.” They held them in their hands and walked, until the rods crossed, and indicated the spot. This was used in place of metal detectors to find iron pipes in the ground.

Anyway, I started a poem about a Water Witch. After 20 stanzas it was so long that I couldn’t take it anymore. I put it away, and decided it was a lost cause. Later, some other poets and I were talking and it was suggested that sometimes a poem chooses the form it should take. I recovered the notes, started cutting the poem, and getting rid of useless words and information. Then, I put the phrases down that really mattered, and decided that it was a Pantoum. I love the way the repeated lines set up their own rhythm. It worked!

You can see the pattern, and the repeated lines in this 12 line Pantoum. Remember, each line in a Pantoum must be able to stand alone, but also must be pertinent to all the other lines. Go ahead, get out one of those poems you are struggling with, and look at it in the light of a different form. See what happens.

Water Witch

A gift passed down by blood.
Hands born to hold a willow fork.
Seeking water hidden under dry sand.
Finding the life giver that cools the soul.

Hands born to hold a willow fork.
Quivering over the earth as he walks.
Finding the life giver that cools the soul.
Giving and giving after he is gone.

Quivering over the earth as he walks.
Seeking water hidden under dry sand.
Giving and giving after he is gone.
A gift passed down by blood.

Robert W. Kimsey

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mountain Stories

Hey, I hope you’re having a great day. I got up this morning and went birding with some friends. It was a good day, with some suspected birds and some surprises. We had wonderful views of a Blue Grosbeak. One of my friends and I wrote a little book on birding a few years ago, and the darn thing is a steady seller. It just goes to show you that if you have something you love, there just might be a book in it.

I’m in the coffee shop this morning. Couldn’t be this close to town and not have a fresh cranberry muffin and a cup of coffee. So, let me tell you what I was thinking about last night.

I’m concerned that you aren’t writing. So many of my friends are having trouble. Me included. With me it’s usually temporary, and happens when the trout are rising to the fly, and I feel the call of cold streams. I want to encourage you, and I hope you will do the same for me. We are the storytellers. I still believe that if we take away the computer, cell phone, and all the other “stuff” we carry on our belts and in our bags, we aren’t that far from the fire. We are at our best when we’re looking into the flames and telling those stories we’ve heard, while we add our own twist to the mix.

When I was a child I remember family gatherings, and after supper the kids played while the adults gathered around the stove and told the same stories that I’d heard for years. I’d sit on the steps and listen, and when I was older they were the fuel that fed the fires of my imagination.

Last night I was going through my poems that I might use for a reading, and came across the poem I’ll share with you today. There are a lot of stories in the mountains, and one of the special ones for me is the story of Jack-O-Lantern. It’s used to explain the lights that drift through the hills and hollows. Some say it is swamp gas, others say it is something else. In the southern mountains I’ve heard the story of a man who was so mean that when he died and went to hell, the devil gave him an ember and told him to go and start his own place, cause he wasn’t welcome. That’s him in the mountains at night, still looking.

In Kentucky we had another story about two lost men. I’ve always had the story in mind. Many years ago I went back to the place where I was born, and the house was gone, and as I stood there looking at the spring, and the hills where I played, this poem started to form. Maybe you have visited a special place and felt the same as I did on that day. If you have, get that paper out and see where it takes you.
Here’s the poem.


In the hollow there is a story.
A tale for children, of a man
whose friend was lost.
He took a lantern, went to find him.
Neither was ever seen again.

On crisp fall nights the light from the
lantern can still be seen
on the Kellen Hollow ridge,
down the slopes of Grave Yard Hill.

It is me.
It is me.

It is me out there scanning the dark,
one hand in front hoping for a warm touch,
the other raised to cast the golden light as far
as a fishing line into the darkness.

It is me looking frantically about while
the children down below are told the story.

It is me.
It is me.

Searching for the family that is no longer there.
Searching for the home that is no longer there.
Searching for the fire that has long since gone out.

It is me.

Robert W. Kimsey

Monday, May 11, 2009

I love Trains

Hey, sorry I wasn’t at the cabin when you came by today. Had some errands to run. Seems like you just can’t let the garbage cans go for any length of time. Bears like them full, and raccoons have an eating orgy if the lids aren’t tight, so this morning I headed for town and the garbage transfer station. After I finished that chore I headed for my usual table at the L&L Beanery, and decided to wait for you there.

I’m glad you’re ok with meeting me here and at the house, but you haven’t said much. I’d like to hear more from you, and if you have poems you’d like to share, no problem. That's what writers do. I’d love to read them, and maybe I’ll put one in the blog, with your permission. It’s nice here, the coffee smells terrific, and it’s a beautiful, cool day in the mountains.

Look across the street, the tourist train is idling at the station. It’ll load around eleven, so the tourists will start to arrive soon. Some days it’s comical to watch them, trying to fill the time, and corralling kids who were more than ready for the ride when they left the house in the city this morning. Today’s a school day, so most of the kids are little ones, and asking why they can’t get on the train, and when, and why, and why, and why ….well, you can hear it as well as I can. The retirees will arrive on busses or with friends to see the mountains. All will have a good time meandering along the Toccoa River to the border, then back a few hours later. I often run out and stand at the crossing just down the street and wave at the kids. They must think I am a crazy old man, but I love trains.

When I was in the Navy I used to catch the train in Cincinnati, and ride it back to the coast, arriving the next day in the early morning. When I was a kid I’d sit in the apple tree and look out over the valley and watch the smoke from the train headed down river, and dream dreams about going there. Well, I’ve been there, and what an adventure it has been.

Jumping Trains
Robert Kimsey

Back when boxcars were open it was easy
if you caught it on an upgrade after some curves.
It’s pretty simple if you’re tall and can grab the door

get a good shove-off, and all of a sudden you’re pulling
yourself up, and you realize if you fall you’ll be under
the wheels, dead before you know it,
and the train won’t even hesitate.

Some decades later I’m eating lunch on the square
thinking maybe I slipped under the wheels
been dead for thirty years, and this is just a dream.

If I am, then what idiot would make up a dream
where he is wearing three hundred dollar suits,
working twelve hours a day in a cubicle,
banging on a computer,

instead of climbing high mountains,
wading free stone creeks for big trout,
sitting in a log cabin in front of a fire
listening to night sounds in the Blue Ridge?

Who indeed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Poems About Home

It’s still raining in the mountains. My dirt road is a stream, and it’s chilly on the porch, so we’ll need to sit by the fire for our session today. All this is just not favorable for writing. Well, maybe it is, but I’ve written enough “dark and dreary” poems for now. Why don’t we just have a cup of tea and talk for a bit?

Have you noticed how many poems and stories there are about where we (writers) came from? I was born in Kellen Hollow in Eastern Kentucky, and when I was around seven we moved to the city. I spent the summers and holidays back roaming the Kentucky hills, and I have dear friends from that time still. I think about those times often, and most of my poems in Paths From the Shawnee Spring are from that era, and about the people I knew.

A friend of mine passed a week or so ago. He was one of those men who became your pal after you met him. I worked in his blacksmith shop in the summer with his son. Well, work is pushing it. I really just manned the broom and ran errands for him, and he fed me. It was a wonderful time, and what a treat to be there when the old men came and gathered around, and told stories about the river, town, and the old ways. Their stories still come to me as poems and prompts.

When the blacksmith shop closed he taught in an industrial arts setting, and did welding jobs to keep his family. He was a special person, and I will miss him.

You’ve known men and women just like him. They will feed your writings if you let them. They have so many stories to whisper to you. I was thinking about him this morning, and I have a poem to share that is about my friend Ellis, and others who went away to make a living, but always had a special love for home.

for Ellis

How many of us crossed the Ohio for jobs and education,
ate in diners and beer joints while searching for our
own people; making little Kentucky communities
wherever we could? Always living in
South something,
West End something,
Lower something.

How many of us sat and told stories about home after
working double shifts at the shoe factories, or sweated
on assembly lines; used our last dollars for gas so we
could spend a few hours smelling honeysuckle and
visiting around the Sunday table,
before heading back north?

How many of us died in coal mines or driving
gravel trucks down snake-back roads so we could
hang onto a small piece of sacred mountain land
that our kin had fought to keep, after riding flat boats
down a river into the unknown?

How many of us would push the dirt off our faces,
stand up out of our graves, put on our boots and
do it all over again?

All of us who call ourselves Kentuckians would.

Robert W. Kimsey 2008

Monday, May 4, 2009

Memories of Rain

It’s been raining in the Blue Ridge. We haven’t been able to sit on the porch for a few days. Today the results of all that are plain, with the leaves so thick the cabin is once again surrounded by the forest.

On Saturday we took some visitors to the airport, and the drive through the Ocoee Gorge was slow and nerve racking with the fog on the road, and the water coming off the cliffs. On the way back the rain was intermittent, but the fog was still thick on the river. The kayakers who were coming in for the day were just gray shapes, there, then gone.

I don’t know why I’m sharing this with you. I guess, just to tell you that there are times that are brought to mind when the rain moves around me. Hiking in the woods as a boy, fishing the high mountains in a mist, almost unable to see the fly on the water in front of me, and special times with friends when I was a teenager in the city.

I wrote about one of those times a few years ago.


The teachers called it the smoking lounge.
We knew it as the back of the gym,
open to the sky, gray brick to lean on.
You had to be pretty hard up to stand
in the rain for a Marlboro.
But we did.

Bad boys and girls and a few fools
that wanted to be, gathered in a ritual
of long draws, suck it up your nose,
run the gauntlet moments.
Acting like we didn’t care.
But we did.

It was the place where bad grades,
detention letters, and lost loves
could all be flipped away.
A burning butt containing hate and fear
crushed under a heel.
And we did.

All pretenders, frightened
that we would be the ones
to hold up the world.
Stories of your uncle, his brother and others
in a jungle bleeding so we could stand here
and cup our cigarettes from the rain,
just like they were doing, knowing
that next year we’d be there too.
Dying like they were.

And we did.

© Robert W. Kimsey
2005 Kentucky State Poetry Society