Posts Tagged ‘Pump House Regional Arts Center’

Lost, 1867

November 10, 2013

I’ve been compiling a collection of poetry about immigrant women’s experiences in the Midwest. I can’t possibly use in novels all the compelling tidbits I find when doing historical research! When something calls to me, but it won’t work in whatever book I’m writing, I often channel it into a poem instead.

Two years ago one of my poems, Facing Forward, was chosen for an exhibit called “Mark My Words” at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI. The exhibit organizers selected twenty poems and twenty artists, and asked each artist to create a piece in response to one of the poems. I was thrilled to be included! (You can see the poem and accompanying artwork HERE.)

The Pump House

Last spring the good folks at the Pump House put out another call for entries. “Mark My Words Again: Artists Respond To Short Poetry” was more of a challenge because I don’t write many short poems, but I managed to submit a suitable entry:

Lost, 1867
From the train, the prairie looked flat as a cracker.
She didn’t learn until settling on their new place
that the land sank and swelled like a restless sea;
that the tall grasses, gently beckoning, hid swales that swallowed
the silk bonnet blown from her head while they wagoned to town,
the plump ruffed grouse she’d hoped to shoot for Sunday dinner,
and—as she pegged out wet laundry, humming a hymn—
the child who toddled from her side, chasing a butterfly.

In this poem, I wanted to reflect how life has both changed and stayed the same since 1867. While the loss of a bonnet may feel irrelevant today, the loss of a child evokes timeless emotions.

My poem was given to an artist, who had three months to create a partner piece. I didn’t see the results until the exhibit opened.

Mark My Words KAE

A reception to celebrate “Mark My Words Again” was held at the Pump House last month, and it was a fascinating evening. The poems selected for the exhibit were diverse, and so was the artwork. Some artists chose to illustrate the poem they were given; others used an idea in the poem as inspiration to move in a new direction.

My poem was given to talented photographer Jerry Weigel.

Mark My Words Again photo

Jerry said, “The poem reminded me that we only find new things when we are lost.  Like the child chasing the butterfly in 1867, this little guy lost himself in the vine tunnel just to see what was on the other side.”

Heartfelt thanks to Lynne Valiquette and the “Mark My Words Again” committee not only for selecting my poem, but for mounting such an extraordinary exhibit!

Mark My Words

October 12, 2009
Mark My Words

MARK MY WORDS, at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI

When I worked at Old World Wisconsin, I read every account left by 19th-century immigrants to the Upper Midwest that I could find.  These diaries, letters, and reminiscences continued to be relevant (and compelling) after I took a job developing and scripting instructional video programs for Wisconsin Public Television.  Most recently, while writing a novel about Swedish immigrants (The Runaway Friend), I went back to archives and local history collections to see what else I could find.

I’ve been developing a collection of poetry about immigrant experiences.  I was honored to have one of my poems, “Facing Forward,” chosen for the MARK MY WORDS exhibition at the Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse, WI.  The exhibit organizers selected twenty poems and twenty artists, and asked each artist to create a piece in response to one of the poems.

My poem is about a Norwegian immigrant couple starting a new life.  I wrote “Facing Forward” to honor those women who faced inconceivable hardships, but still took joy and strength from Wisconsin’s landscape and opportunities.

Facing Forward

In the old world, Emil muttered prayers over trenchers
of lutefisk, peered at the sky and sniffed the air to decide
when to plant potatoes, counted coins before Rilla shopped.
She tended her hearth as she’d been raised to do, an endless
chain of chores, and worn-fingered women doing them.

In the old world, when the hungry time came,
rye crop blackened with rust, children whimpering,
empty bellies and purses, Emil said We will go.
Rilla wept to leave her mother and sisters, lefse and cod,
smoke-stained village, mossy gravestones, all she knew.

In the new world, walking west, Rilla bore weight:
an unborn child in front, the toddler on her hip, worry.
When the oxen foundered she knotted her mother’s
kale seeds and candlesticks into the shawl
tied over one shoulder, and hefted the rifle too.

But in the new world Rilla walked with a step lighter
than heels rubbed raw, feet on fire, muscles’ ache,
sunburned skin.  She walked toward the prairie,
the unexpected promise of possibility, new grace
in her heart, a life not defined before her wedding day,

while Emil trudged behind, dragging an anvil
of doubt and fear, missing his father,
looking over his shoulder; but looking forward, too,
toward the woman he once knew, wondering
what he’d lost, and how she’d come to find it.

Reading "Facing Forward" at the Mark My Words reception

Reading "Facing Forward" at the MARK MY WORDS reception

“Facing Forward” was given to Monica T. Jagel.   Monica, a certified botanical illustrator who works primarily with colored pencils, does exquisite work.  I spent months wondering how she would illustrate a poem that covers travel from one continent to another!

The artist, Monica Jager.  What talent!

The artist, Monica T. Jagel. What talent!

Last Saturday evening, my husband Scott and I attended the opening reception for MARK MY WORDS.   Seeing my poem hanging beside a gorgeous work of art was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me as a writer.

Monica made an unexpected choice.  Instead of simply illustrating my poem, she chose to continue the story.  In her own words:  “Now time has passed, the struggle is over.  The kale seeds were planted and harvested.  Her memories are carved in stone but the future holds possibility.  This strong woman can rest with the warm light from her candlestick that she has carried so far.  She is Facing Forward.”

I love it.

Facing Forward, by Monical T. Jagel.  All rights reserved.

Facing Forward, by Monica T. Jagel. All rights reserved.

If you look closely, you can see a map of Scandinavia “hidden” on the tombstone.  Monica also told me that in order to paint the kale, she called Seed Savers Exchange, ordered the oldest variety of kale they had, and grew some in her garden.

Heartfelt thanks to Monica; also to Lynne Valiquette and the rest of the MARK MY WORDS committee for putting the exhibition together.

At the reception, poets read their work, and artists explained how the poems inspired theirs.  The collaborative effect is fascinating!  The show will be at the Pump House Regional Arts Center through November 14.  From there it will move to the La Crosse Public Library.  If you’re traveling through the area, check it out!