Saturday, March 9, 2019

#78 Backstory of the Poem "My Mother was 19" by John Guzlowski

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***This is the seventy-eighth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 
#78 Backstory of the Poem “My Mother was 19”
by John Guzlowski
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? “My Mother Was 19” is about what happened the day the Nazis came to my mother’s farm in Poland and killed much of her family.  It wasn’t an easy poem to write.  I had been trying to write this poem for about thirty years. 
How do you talk about your grandmother and your aunt getting raped and murdered, your aunt’s baby getting kicked to death?   Your mother being beaten?  Her escape from the home where this happened?  Her years after as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany?  What she had to do to survive?  How all this affected her? 
For a long time, I couldn’t write about it because I didn’t know enough about it.  My mother wouldn’t talk about it.  If I asked her to tell me about what happened, she’d just wave me away saying, “If they give you bread, you eat it.  If they beat you, you run away.”  
And when my dad sometimes talked about what happened when the Germans came, it was mainly whispers and bits of information.  I think he was afraid to tell the story because he didn’t want to burden me with the terror my mom experienced.   

So when I first wrote about it, the poems that came out mainly came from what my dad told me.  They were about everything that happened except for what happened.  
I wrote about the dry summer at the start of the war, the boxcars the Germans put my mom on, the landscape she passed through on the train trip to the slave labor camps in Germany, the work she did in those camps, and her liberation at the end of the war.  I even wrote a poem called “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” but it too was a poem that didn’t talk about what happened. 
This all changed when I had a book of these poems published in Poland.  My mom was in her seventies then, and up to this point, I had been occasionally showing her my poems about her and my dad, but she couldn’t read the poems because they were in English.  So when she saw the poems she would say, “Hmm, that’s interesting” and move on. 
This changed when I showed her my poems in a Polish edition. 
She read them. 
She sat right down and read about ten of the poems about her experiences and my dad’s experiences in the war, and then she looked at me and said, “That’s not the way it was.” 
That’s when she started talking then about what had happened when the Germans came to her home and what happened after the killing, her capture, her grief, and the two years of misery in the slave labor camps in Germany.

We kept up this conversation until she died four years later.  A lot of times I would go to see her and she would ask me to take out a pen and some paper because she remembered something else she wanted to say about her years under the Nazis.
It wasn’t always easy listening to these stories.  There were times when I had to ask my mother not to tell me anymore because -- even though I was a grown man and a teacher -- there were things she was telling me that I did not want to hear.

Once I knew what had happened to my mother, the actual writing was pretty straight-forward.  I’m not the kind of writer that broods over a line and rewrites it a dozen times.  I like poems that seem like they’re part of some kind of conversation, like one person is telling a story to another person. 

That’s what I try for in most of my poems, and that’s what I was trying to get at in this poem.  I wanted the reader to hear my mom’s story the way she told me the story.  I wanted the poem to say, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.”  In very plain language, without a lot of poetic fuss. 

So the poem begins with just some the essential facts, about who was killed, who was raped.  When my mom finally told me the story of that day, this is the way she told it.  Very plain. Very barebones language.  Then about half way through the poem I start giving the German soldier’s points of view.  This I think came from my dad, his hatred for the German, a hatred that never left him.  He saw his friends castrated, beaten, kicked to death, hanged and shot by the Germans in the camps, and the way I present that sense of the German’s essential evil comes from what my dad felt and saw.  (Below:  Jan Guzlowski far left)

The ending in the poem where I talk about God not giving you any favors and thinking that He does is just “bullshit” that’s my mom’s voice.  The war and what happened to her and the women and girls in her family taught her not to trust or depend on anyone or anything, not other people and not God. 

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?   And please describe the place in great details.  I remember where I was.   I was teaching at Eastern Illinois University, a small school in a small town just south of the middle of the state.  I was there only 3 days a week.  

The rest of the time I lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky where my wife was the chair of the English Department at Western Kentucky University.  In Charleston, Illinois, the small town where my school was, I was living in a boarding house.  I had a tiny tiny room there with a really uncomfortable bed, so I spent most of my time in my office in the English Department.  
The office was large, and I had a big desk that was always cluttered up with papers I was grading and books I was reading and an ancient computer that must have weighed 30 pounds.  

The clutter was so bad that if I wanted to write something, I would always have to clear a space on the desk.  Two walls were covered with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and I used every since inch of that space for all my books, the ones I loved and had loved for decades. 
The office had a great view.  

It looked out over 4th Street and the other side of 4th street there was a pond and woods and trails.  It was like a park, and a lot of times I would sit in my office with my back to the door and my eyes enjoying the woods and the pond.
This is where I did a lot of my writing, in the evening when the building was pretty much empty except for me and a janitor and maybe another prof who was hiding from his wife because he was drunk or stoned.

What month and year did you start writing this poem? It was January, 2004.  My mom was 82 and nearing the end of her life.  I had just flown out to see her in Sun City, Arizona, right after Christmas, and now I was back at work teaching at Eastern.  I was sitting at my desk surrounded by all that clutter, and I started looking at all the notes I had taken while I was with my mom, notes about the stories she had told me about what had happened to her.  What really drew me was the story about the day the Germans came to her farm and did the things they did.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final?  (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it? I wish I had the rough drafts.  I have always been messy about stuff like drafts and papers.  I can’t find any of the drafts of anything I wrote back then.  Now it’s better because everything is on my computer, but back then it was all in folders, and the folders have disappeared over the years.  We’ve moved about 6 times since I left Eastern Illinois University, and each time we get rid of stuff.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? Drafts of this poem?  I can only guess how many drafts.  Bunches.  At that time, I was a slow writing poet.  I’d do about 5 or 6 poems a year, reworking and reworking.  I had to finally force myself to stop work on a poem after 2 weeks. 

What I can say, however, is that I had a problem with the poem, and that problem was talking about my mom getting raped.  In a lot of the drafts I tried to hide it.  In fact, in the earliest draft of the poem, my mom’s getting raped isn’t mentioned at all.  The biggest change I made in the poem was telling the truth about that.  Once I did, I knew that the poem was done.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? The lines that I cut were the lines that talked about my mom’s sister Sophia being raped.  When I finally decided to tell the reader my mom was the one that was raped, I knew that I had to put the focus on that rape.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? A lot of time when we think about war, we focus on the struggles and suffering of soldiers and heroes, what they go through.  What I want people to take away from my poem is that mothers and fathers and children suffer as much if not more in war.  In the Second World War, 100 million people died.  Most were moms and dads, infants, school kids.  I want people to know that and remember.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional for you to write and why? The last part where I talk about God not giving you any favor and how believing that he does give you favors is bullshit.  That’s the most emotional because I heard my mom say it.  It’s her voice alive in that poem.  When I read that section alive, she’s with me again even though she’s been dead now for 12 years.

Has the poem been published before?  And if so where? The poem appears in Echoes of Tattered Tongues, my book of poems and short prose pieces about my mom and dad and the war. 

Anything you would like to add? Yes, I also write novels.  My first crime novel Suitcase Charlie, about a serial killer loose in the neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago, has just come out.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both loved it.  The next mystery in the series is scheduled to come out in the summer.  I’m working on the 3rd right now.  The detectives are Hank and Marvin, and they have plenty of their own problems too. 

My Mother Was 19
Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mother’s farm
killed her sister’s baby
with their heels
shot my grandma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times

They saw my mother
they didn’t care
she was a virgin
dressed in a blue dress
with tiny white flowers

Raped her
so she couldn’t stand up
couldn’t lie down
couldn’t talk

They broke her teeth
when they shoved
the dress in her mouth

If they had a camera
they would’ve taken her picture
and sent it to her

That’s the kind they were

Let me tell you:
God doesn’t give
you any favors

He doesn’t say
now you’ve seen
this bad thing
but tomorrow
you’ll see this good thing
and when you see it
you’ll be smiling

That’s bullshit

I was born in a refugee camp in Germany after the war.  When I was 3 we came to the US and moved to Chicago.  Growing up in the tough immigrant neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, I met hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians. In much of my work, I try to remember and honor the experiences and ultimate strength of these survivors.
You can also find me on twitter and facebook. 


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”

046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov

052  December 27, 2018
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
"Natural History"
by Camille T Dungy

058  January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister

059  January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon

061 January 19, 2019
“Neptune’s Choir”
by Linda Imbler

062  January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone

063  January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky

064  January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas

065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille

066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
by Patrick Bizzaro

067  February 06, 2019
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson-Brown

068 February 11, 2019
“Lunch on City Island, Early June”
by Christine Potter

069 February 12, 2019
by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

070 February 14, 2019
“Daily Commute”
by Christopher P. Locke

071 February 18, 2019
“How Silent The Trees”
by Wyn Cooper

072 February 20, 2019
“A New Psalm of Montreal”
by Sheenagh Pugh

073 February 23, 2019
“Make Me A Butterfly”
by Amy Barbera

074 February 26, 2019
by Sandy Coomer

075 March 4, 2019
“Shape of a Violin”
by Kelly Powell

076 March 5, 2019
“Inward Oracle”
by J.P. Dancing Bear

077 March 7, 2019
“I Broke My Bust Of Jesus”
by Susan Sundwall

078 March 9, 2019
“My Mother at 19”
by John Guzlowski

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I've seen a few of John's poems and loved them - it's fascinating to hear the reality underpinning them.