Tuesday, April 16, 2019

#096 Backstory of the Poem "Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of Years" by Mary Ellen Lough

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*** The CRC Blog welcomes submissions from published and unpublished poets for BACKSTORY OF THE POEM series.  Contact CRC Blog via email at caccoop@aol.com or personal Facebook messaging at https://www.facebook.com/car.cooper.7

***This is the ninety-sixth 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. 

****All photos are give copyright permission by Mary Ellen Lough for this CRC Blog Post Only unless otherwise noted.

#096 Backstory of the Poem
Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of Years     
By Mary Ellen Lough

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?          The poem began as a feeling, an atmosphere, I would say. It was writing itself throughout the evening which is described in the poem. I had a few phrases that were repeating themselves in my mind, so I excused myself from the dinner party and went out to the car and found a scrap of paper to jot some notes down. During the next day or two, I began to work with the notes to create a draft - fleshing out more of a narrative. Then I let it sit for a while. 
     I had taken a semester off school because I had a baby, and when I went back for winter session, I brought the poem in to be workshopped. It seemed however that the language was kind of congested and far out and the images did not create the experience for the reader that I has hoped it would. My readers suggested that I simplify the narrative and just say exactly what happened. So I did. And the poem then was like, presentable. But I also felt it was no longer moist and heavy and ripe - the way I had wanted it to feel, because that was the primary feeling of the last month of pregnancy and that evening, which was the poem. So the poem had become a dry husk to me and I wasn’t sure what next. (Above Left:  Mary Ellen Lough with her baby girl Elora in May 2013)

     Maybe seven years later, I began getting ten poems together for a small collection that my friend wanted to paint. She is pregnant and I felt ready to bring some of my pregnancy poems into the world. I had spent quite a bit of time since the first version of the poem immersed in archetypal thinking and mythology and maybe felt more confident leaving it a bit wild and unpolished and storied and to say it the way I wanted to. 
     Thinking of the poem imagistically for her painting, thinking about it mythologically, I found I could add certain elements back in and mystery back in without breaking the basic narrative for the reader. Or at least I hope that’s what I did. And I felt good about it. Maybe as good as I’m going to anyways. There’s still this compulsion to scrap the whole thing and just go back to the very first way I wrote it. But I don’t know. (Above Left:  Mary Ellen Lough in January of 2019)

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detailI was at a friend’s farm. I live in the mountains of southern Appalachia and my friends, Daniel and Veronica (Below) were leasing a plot of land and Veronica was trying to make a go as an organic farmer delivering CSA boxes. She had been living in a very tiny camper for the first year on the land, and that summer had decided to move into the partially enclosed barn.

     It had a couple of windows, but also lots of erm, air flow, and cracks and it was still very much a barn loft (Left: Daniel in the barn loft), so it was this very bohemian kind of set up. It was a warm evening, so we had decided to eat outside, and the first scene of the poem was exactly what it was like. It could have been a scene from a movie. 
     This lovely table set out in the grasses with fresh flowers and linen and homemade bread. They had cooked a big pot of collards from the garden, and we had brought a bottle of wine. And we wanted to walk while the sun was still out. We passed the fields where she was growing her crops, the soil was somewhat dry and caked, and her vegetables I remember were very tiny.

Except the strawberries. There was maybe one or two long rows of ripe, plump strawberries that were just heavenly to eat. My partner at the time was an herbalist with a passion for wild foods, so he was also pointing out wild herbs and edibles on the walk which we would stop and sample. When the feeling became all too much, I kind of held back from the group because it was not just the baby I was feeling, but the poem ripening inside me, and I needed space for that.
     Later, by the time I made it out to the car to write down my thoughts, it was already pretty dark and dusky and I wrote by the light of that little interior car light in my old grey mini-van that had maybe been clean for about four days out of seven years of ownership.  (Right:  Mary Ellen Lough's writing space today in her Southern Appalachia Farmhouse)

What month and year did you start writing this poem? It would have been mid-June of 2012. I was eight months pregnant. Elora was born in mid-July. (Left:  Mary Ellen Lough with baby Elora)

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? Oh gosh. Probably at least a dozen. I wish I still had the original notes I wrote down in the van. That would be cool. But I’m way not organized enough for that.

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? (Right: Mary Ellen Lough in March of 2017) Sure. So in the first draft it was this very mythic arrival to the top of the hill we had climbed, I had an almost out of body experience and I was trying to capture that in language, which of course is hard to do. I’m still not sure that I’ve done it. You know, even as a poet, there is still this reverence and aquiencense to what remains beyond language.  But I wanted to bring the past into the present and create a space in which the veil between worlds diminishes, and those are the parts I ended up tweaking and taking out because people were just scratching their heads. It went like this :

And so close to the baby’s arrival and so consumed
by sun and tiredness, I was blinded by my own arrival,
like religion before it has spoken a word, when
sight is the blindness of being first-born. It seemed

I had found a place my grandparents had
found before me. I could hear their voices surrounding
the bed where I was born, when I was first new.
Faces turned toward me as if I were the sun

of a new-found world: as if that day were now,
and we were new-found and blinded by our own arrival.
I found John standing in the tall grass and we fell into the field,
splintered by the brilliance of a hundred tiny suns

and the world was no longer tired.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I think there’s a way in which the birth narrative has lost its mysticism and regenerative-ness and dignity. It’s often depicted in a caricatured, extremely unrealistic, and disempowering way in film and TV, and sometimes I feel the natural birth movement has counteracted that with an extreme kind of graphic realism, by sharing birth videos and such.  The hiddenness of gestation, the mystery it evokes, the connection with our past, our ancestors accompanying this new kind of branch of our lineage - the awareness of all that has come before you - the power and magnitude of that, the brightness of the intensity of the love you feel for your partner in those moments of what is about to occur - I wanted the reader to have a different and more mythic experience of pregnancy and birth.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? It’s really the ending. The moment I came out of the woods alone and topped the hill and the sun was just so brilliant and it was this wide meadow at the top of the hill with tall grass, and the sun was disappearing everything. I’ve honestly never experienced something like it before. It had that Lion King-esque moment - where you are presenting yourself, this new life to the gods.
       I was very in love with my baby’s father, yet he often remained distant and aloof, and seeing him there on the hill in the sun, wanting to disappear into it all, with him. It is still emotional - the way he was always just out of reach, and yet somewhat mythological to me as well. That ending, where I was able to say what I felt and meant - about his distance - was a very last addition to the poem, and I was like, oh. That’s actually also at the center. SO there’s a way in which working with the poem and revision helps it become more true - helps YOU become more true.

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? No. I’ve read it a few times at poetry readings, but one of my favorite local painters and I had been talking about a collaborative project for a couple of years, and she is now pregnant and expecting her first child - so it just seemed like the right moment. This was her favorite out of the bunch, and the poem will be released in our book of poems and paintings we are hoping in the next year or so.

Anything you would like to add? Maybe this. One of my professors who workshopped the poem said, you can’t talk about ripe strawberries in a poem about pregnancy. It’s so trite. But the strawberries and the pregnancy were the reality of the poem, and it irritated me as I kept revising, not knowing what to do about this. 
 And I finally had that kind of that fuck you moment where when someone tells you not to do something you decide to just exaggerate it. I decided to accentuate the strawberries even more, instead of getting rid of them, so they became the title of the poem, (Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of Years) and then it worked. It just worked and I felt smugly satisfied.

Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of Years      

It was during the last days of pregnancy,
we went to dinner at a friend’s farm.
Linen, bread, collards and wine
were on the table beside the barn.
John said, let’s walk before we eat
and we set off for the path, picking
strawberries and wild mint.

We had entered the cool shade of woods,
and while climbing the last hill, I found myself
feeling distant to the world, and stumbling
over a root, I stopped while the others went ahead.

I wanted to be alone with an atmosphere
inside me, ripening as if it were not just the baby
but the Kentucky farm where I was born
pressing against my veins - memories,
stored in a blood I now shared,
requesting tendon, berth, bloom.
The woods were thinning out
like a veil between worlds and I could sense
my grandparents near, who had passed long before,
    as if this moment were a talisman
lifting itself out of centuries of their dreaming,
   As if I were not alone, but rather
an unfolding archive of former worlds
     and a hundred preliminary suns. 
Behind the hill, the sun of now was setting 
and I walked out into the meadow
and it was blinding
and I felt myself disappearing into it.
I could just make out John’s silhouette
standing in the field,
like the observer which occults the sun,
     as if he were always a distance I couldn’t reach
even if I wanted to.  Even if I found him there
and we laid down in the tall grass together. 

Mary Ellen Lough is a poet, teacher, community organizer, and single mother living in an old farmhouse with her five children nestled into a valley in Southern Appalachia.  She hosts the Farmhouse Poetry series there, offering eclectic classes on poetry, creative writing, depth psychology and dreamwork. 

She works for the Asheville Area Arts Council to teach poetry to veterans with trauma, as well as travels around the country teaching poetry as a path of soul recovery and wholeness, as a form of community and lifting up marginalized voices.  She trained with The Institute for Poetic Medicine and has two books forthcoming in 2020.

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#096 April 16, 2019
“Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of


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