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Foreign Policy Analysis
Veterans History Project Art Showcase: Occupational Poetry

Veterans History Project Art Showcase: Occupational Poetry

>>Karen Lloyd: Good
afternoon and I want to thank everyone
for their patience. I’m Karen Lloyd. I’m a retired Army aviation
colonel and director of the Veterans History Project
here at the Library of Congress. And on behalf of Dr. Haden
the librarian and all of our colleagues, I would like
to welcome you and thank you for joining us today for the
Occupational Poetry Reading and discussion portion of
the Veterans Art Showcase. The week-long art showcase kicks
off our year-long anniversary celebration commemorating
20 years since Congress passed
legislation to launch the Veterans
History Project under the American
Folk Life Center here at the Library of Congress. The mission of the Veterans
History Project is to collect, preserve and make
accessible the stories of United States military
veterans who served from World War I through
the current conflicts. So that future generations
will better understand their selfless service. Their stories are our stories. Stories of a nation told
by folks who were there, who witnessed history. Whether they were in the
foxhole, the cockpit, the ship deck, the mess hall,
and some even flying a desk. To date we have over 110,000
collections in our archive from volunteers who sit down
with the veterans in their lives and gold star families
to hear and really listen about their experiences. Our collection includes oral
histories, original photographs, letters, military
documents, diaries, journals, two-dimensional artwork, unpublished memoirs
and even poetry. Ah, poetry. Poetry is an incredible
part of the fabric of American arts and folk life. Occupational poetry is
especially important as it provides a direct
artistic record of daily life through verse which can be
passed down and preserved for future generations just like the veterans
stories in our archives. Earlier this year
I had the privilege to attend the National Poetry
Gathering in Elko, Nevada. It’s an occupational
poetry festival that has been going
on for over 30 years. At the gathering I was able
to listen to dozens of cowboys and veterans tell their
stories through poetry. And I am honored that a few
chose to join us here today to talk about their work
and recite their poems. I would like to thank all of
these very talented artists for being with us here today. Before we turn the microphones
over to these exceptional poets, I would like to introduce
our moderator John Fenn. Oh, by the way, I was
thrilled when John said yes, he’d choose to join us
and moderate the panel. John’s an expert at this. He’s too modest to
tell you that. John is the head of the
Research and Programs at the American Folk
Life Center. He leads a team involved with
public programing, publications, research and training in
the field of folklore. His academic background is in
folklore and ethnomusicology, and he holds a PhD from
Indiana University. Go Hoosiers. Prior to taking his position
at the Library of Congress, John was an associate
professor in arts and administration program
at the University of Oregon. He was also a core faculty
member in the folklore program and served on the
executive advisory committee for Oregon Folk Life Network. While a graduate student, John
worked for the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival as an
assistant festival producer and was heavily involved in
programming at WFHV Bloomington, Indiana’s community
radio station. He has conducted fieldwork on
expressive culture in Malawi, China, Indiana and Oregon,
exploring a wide range of practices, traditions
and communities. Throughout his career he has
merged training in folklore and ethnomusicology with a
commitment to documentation, public presentation,
stewardship and interpretation of cultural forms
and expressions. Please help me welcome John. [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Thank
you very much. I’m happy to be here and I’m
glad the Veterans History Project invited me
to be a part of this. Because I have the pleasure
of introducing the poets and moderating a conversation. So I’ll get right to that. I’ll start right
here on my left. Bill Jones is a veteran
and cowboy poet. He served with the
3rd Marine Division as an artillery forward
observer in Vietnam. After returning from Vietnam,
Bill received a master’s degree in psychology and has a variety of jobs including
railroad detective. Any poems about that?>>Bill Jones: No. No.>>John Fenn: He has written a
memoir documenting his service as an artilleryman in Vietnam
as well as several books of poetry including The
Body Burning Detail, Memoir of a Marine;
The Pretzel Hole; and There Ain’t Much Romance
in the Life of Us Cows. Next to Bill we have
Meezie Hermansen, born and raised in Alaska. And it’s no surprise
that she took up fishing as the family business. In fact, at the 2015
Fisher Poets Gathering which I highly recommend
attending if you can, Meezie told the crowd that she “knew she was a fisherman before
she knew she was a woman.” In 2012 she published Brain
Sand, a collection of poems and musings about commercial
fishing and life in Alaska. Next to Meezie we have Jerry
Brooks, known to her friends and colleagues as Brooksy. Coal miner for 26 years and has
written and performed poetry about her work at
poetry festivals and gatherings across
the country. Her album Shoulder to Shoulder
consists of recitations of poems by some of the most
prominent cowboy poets, and she’s received
praise from Range Magazine and other publications. Finally, we have Vess Quinlan. A cowboy poet, and he’s been
attending the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering since the very
first one was held in 1985. Vess began writing poetry and
prose when he was confined to his bed with polio in 1951. He recovered but never forgot
the effects of poems and stories that his grandmother had
brought him to keep him busy. Vess has been published in
a number of books, magazines and online publications. He’s also been a
staple performer in the cowboy poetry gatherings where he recently
ran writing workshops for veterans alongside
Bill Jones. Attendees express the emotions
they experienced in war through poetry and song. When not performing his work, Vess runs a working
ranch in Colorado. Now we’re going to be talking
about poetry, but we’re going to also — the structure
of the event, we’re going to be hearing poems. And so we’re going to do a
couple round robin sprinkled throughout the hour and a
half we have here together. And we’re going to start
right now with Bill and then we’ll hear
some conversation.>>Bill Jones: All right. Well thank you so much, John. It’s a pleasure being here. And I’ve discovered in my 70’s
I’m kind of glad to be anywhere to tell you the truth. But recently here I
had a heart event. They don’t call them
heart attacks anymore. They call them heart events. And it kind of felt like
a heart attack to me. But I was in the — you never
know how these things are going to turn out. And I was in the hospital. Anyway, when I was
having the heart attack, the first thing I thought
of was if I survive this, how can I get a poem
out of this somehow? That’s the way poets
think, you know? I want to — so anyways, in
the hospital the night before, and my wife of 45
years was there. So Gloria says, “Bill,
there’s something I want to talk to you about.” And I’m thinking, “Uh-oh. What is this, true
confession time?” I don’t know. Then I thought maybe
she was going to go on some long emotional speech about what a great husband
I’ve been, you know, charming, witty, fantastic lover. But this is what she said
and I’m not making this up. She said, “I’ve been
thinking and if you die, who’s going to do our taxes?” [ Laughter ] I thought I’d — that’s
a true story by the way. I thought I’d talk a little bit
about poetry and how I got here. Back when I was in high
school in the tenth grade, that’s back when
dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had a very gifted
English teacher. His name was Frank Ashcraft. And the first day he comes
in there and he says, “How many of you like poetry?” Nobody raised their hand. He said, “Well, see if
you like this poem here.” And from memory recited that
old ballad Frankie and Johnny. Remember Frankie and
Johnny were sweethearts, my how that couple could love. Swore to be true to each other,
just as true as the stars above. And it goes on. It’s like that cowboy
poem, the Strawberry Roam. There’s a lot of
different verses. It just goes on forever. The poem ends up, “Frankie
threw back her kimono, she took out a long .44. Root-a-toot-toot that
gal could shoot right through that hardwood door. And Johnny’s going
to the graveyard, bring on your rubber-tired
hacks. Because he’s going to the
graveyard, he ain’t coming back. The story has no moral,
it really has no end. The only thing the whole thing
means is there’s no damn good in men.” Well, the girls really
liked that part of the poem. But then he says, “Okay, that’s
— you said you didn’t like it but I saw you laughing
and smiling so apparently some
of you did like it.” He said, “Now we’re going
to get into the good stuff.” And we studied Hamlet. And you know, to be or not
to be, whether ’tis nobler in your mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I was just kind of enamored by
the whole beauty of the words and the way they flow. One thing he told me or told
us — I’ll never forget this — he said all good literature,
whether it be poems or plays or literature, is
directly or indirectly about one of two things. Sex and/or death. And I was 15, I was real
interested in the sex part, not so much the death. But what I found out in my
70’s, it’s kind of reversed. But anyway, I started
reading poetry on my own and the first war poem
I ever read was a poem by Randall Jarrell called The
Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. I don’t know if you’re
familiar with that or not. But I was real interested
in that era there because my dad was a gunner
in World War II on a B-17. He never went to war. They made him a trainer. It was one of the great
tragedies of his life. He felt guilty about it
till the day he died. In fact, he felt so guilty about
it, he went back in during Korea and they did the same thing,
made him a trainer again. So anyway, I was
fascinated by that war. The losses in that war
were just simply appalling. I mean, you just can’t — the
British, our British friends, see they would bomb at night. Americans would bomb
in the daytime. And over the course of the war, we lost 57,000 air crew
members over Europe. Tens of thousands wounded. Another 33,000 bailed
out and spent the war in prisoner of war camps. And when I was a kid, I knew
some of these guys that worked with my dad who had
been in that war. You know, the most glamorous
war is the one you aren’t in, I found that out. But I got to talk to
a bunch of those guys. And I knew one guy that was
in Stalargluth III which — remember the movie
The Great Escape, Steve McQueen and all that? He was part of that. So I was asking about
that, and I said, “Was that pretty accurate?” He was there two years. He said, “Oh yeah, the movie was
pretty accurate except a couple of things.” He said the guy who played
Steve McQueen in the movie — it was kind of a
composite of characters. But it was based primarily on a guy named Jerry
Sage, Major Jerry Sage. And he really shouldn’t
have even been there because he was a paratrooper. But the Germans, you
know, figured everybody who flew was in the same thing. So they said that — I said,
“Well, what was Jerry like?” He said, “Well, he
was very brave. He was totally reckless
and he was a damned fool because he’s always trying” — it would have eventually
killed him probably. So I said, “Well, what happened
to this guy afterwards?” And that’s something
I’ve got an interest in. What happens to people
after wars? You know, how do
they cope with it? How do they? And he said, “Well, it’s
an interesting thing.” He said he was from Alabama
and after the war he went back to Alabama and taught high
school the rest of his life and then led a very quiet. I thought that was kind of
interesting, very interesting. But anyway, the poem that kind
of got me started on this was — it’s only five lines long. And it’s got a lot
of symbolism in it. And one thing you’ve
got to remember when you’re reading
this poem is the guy, the first-person narrator of
this poem, he’s already dead. He’s already dead. It’s kind of an unusual poem. It’s been reprinted
many, many times. And it goes like this. “From my mother’s sleep I fell
into the State, And I hunched in its belly till
my wet fur froze. Six miles from the earth,
loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and
the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out
of the turret with a hose.” So I thought that was
a pretty powerful poem. So I never thought that someday
I’d write my own war poems, but that’s the way
things happen I guess. So anyway, when I was in
Vietnam, I was drafted in 1968. That month they drafted
68,000 men that one month. 5,000 went to the Marines. I was one of those. I can’t tell you how
that happened exactly. It’s a long story. It’s not very interesting
either, so I won’t even bore
you with it. But I ended up with a 105
howitzer battery in Vietnam. We were on this one
hill once and the name of the operation is in March. Were you there in
March of ’69, Pat? Pat? No. No. [ Inaudible ] Oh, I see. So Pat’s a fighter pilot
and Vietnam veteran. Anyway, we went on
this one operation. The name of the operation
was Operation Purple Mark. It sounds like a birdwatching
expedition is what it sounds like. It wasn’t that. We got on this hill
here and it was — you can look over into Laos
and the first helicopter that landed, they shot it
to pieces, killed the pilot, one thing and another. And we were stuck there. Of course people in Laos, bad
guys in Laos, they could shoot at us but we couldn’t shoot back
because it was another country. Well, to tell you the truth
we did shoot back anyway, but that’s the way it goes. But anyway, we were
stuck on this hill here and couldn’t get any water,
couldn’t get the med evacs out. It was just a real nightmare. And they would try
to get us ammunition and they would parachute
ammunition in to us, except they had missed the hill and the parachute would
drift off into the jungle. And the NVA would get
the ammo and mortar us with our own ammunition
the next day. It was very disturbing,
very disturbing. So they called in these — they
called in these fighter jets to number one blow up the
ammunition before the bad guys. And they came from — I don’t
know, from Fubai and Chulai and Denang and these
carriers crisscrossed in the South China Sea. And they would come screaming
over 400, 500 knots and trying to blow up this ammunition,
and dropped napalm. And they had these
big silver canisters that would tumble
and flash in the sun. It was the greatest
show on earth. I mean, it was just absolutely
— you can’t even describe it. So these guys, most all of them
had a washtub full of balls, because they were just coming in
left and right, all directions. And you just couldn’t believe
it, what a show it was. And one of them crashed, and
I wrote a poem about that and called it Fixation. This is my poem. “The fiery crash growls, low and
evil sounds rattle the earth. A jet fighter plane
follows red tracer rounds into an adjacent hillside. Later a pilot tells
me what happened. “You get tunnel vision,”
he says. “Become obsessed
with the target. Forget to pull up
until it’s too late.” We sit stunned and silent
in sandbagged reflection. Chavez makes the
sign of the cross. “At least,” he finally
says, “he had on dry socks.” It is an omen, dark and
subtle, of our own ‘Nam madness. Target is destroyed,
mission successful. But in the end we
killed ourselves.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: We’ll
pass it to you now.>>Meezie Hermansen: Okay. Yes, I grew up in
a fishing family and then I became
a veterinarian. So my fishery is set netting,
so I’m the set net vet. That might be how I
ended up here, I think. They misinterpreted vet. [ Laughter ] I have no military background. My dad was in the Army
but he was stationed in Kodiak during World War II. So anyway, I don’t know a
lot about poetry either, other than I just like
what tickles my ear. So I’m going to recite
a couple for you. This first one is Winter Dreams. “It’s winter in the great land and the days are
dwarfed by nights. The skies are lit by dancing,
crackling northern lights. The river ice is snapping like beasts busting
through the timber. The cold cuts through my joints. They are much more
stiff than limber. The fluttering aurora catch
stars in a mesh of green. My thoughts start to wander
as I survey the scene. The longer days of summer now
compose my dreams with visions of the sockeyes return
to natal streams. Nets flung across the water like
these lights across the sky. Salmon hang like stars,
flashing silver sides. The days are getting longer
and soon I will be out there on the inlet rocking on the sea. But it’s still winter
in the great land and the days are
dwarfed by nights. Though the skies
are lit by dancing, crackling northern lights.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Thank you, Meezie.>>Meezie Hermansen: Okay.>>John Fenn: We’ll move
along to Brooksy then.>>Jerry Brooks: First
up, thank you so much for this phenomenal opportunity. For me to be in any way
associated with a project for veterans is just more honor
than I know how to express. So thanks. I was invited here
as a mining poet. There’s a lot more to mining
than simply the coal mines. And I would never
call myself a poet. I am a reciter of
poetry for the most part. I will do some of my
own stuff later on. But this is a long story
I’m starting out with, but there’s just no way that I
could represent mining poetry without doing a Robert
Service poem. And I couldn’t think
of any way — if you’re going to
talk about mining, you have to start
with the prospector. “I strolled up old Bonanza,
where I staked in ninety-eight, A-purpose to revisit
the old claim. I was thinking rather sadly
about the funny ways of Fate, And the lads who once
were with me in the game. Poor boys, they’re
down-and-outers, and there’s not a one today Can
show a dozen colors in his poke; And me, I’m still
prospecting, old and battered, gaunt and gray, And I’m looking
for a grub-stake, and I’m broke. I strolled up old Bonanza. The same old moon shone down;
The same old landmarks seemed to yearn to me; But the cabins
all were silent, and the flat, once like a town, Was mighty
still and lonesome-like to see. There were piles and piles
of tailings where we toiled with pick and pan, But turning
round a bend I heard a roar, And there a giant gold-ship of the very newest
plan Was tearing chunks of pay-dirt from the shore. It wallowed in its water-bed;
it burrowed, heaved and swung; It gnawed its way ahead
with grunts and sighs; Its bill of fare
was rock and sand; the tailings were its dung; It glared around with
fierce electric eyes. Full fifty buckets crammed its
maw; it bellowed out for more; It seemed like some great
monster in the gloom. With two to feed its
sateless greed, it would work for seven score,
And I sighed: “Ah, old-time miner, here’s
your doom!” The idle windlass turns to rust;
the sagging sluice-box falls; The holes you digged
are watered to the brim; The battle-field is silent
where of old you fought it out.”>>The claims you fiercely won.>>Jerry Brooks: Those who
dig the water to the brim, the claims you fiercely lost or
sold are watered to the brim. The claims you fiercely
won are lost or sold. But there’s a little army that
they’ll never put to rout. The men who simply
live to seek the gold. The men who can’t remember when
they learned to swing a pack, Or in what lawless land their
quest began; The solitary seeker with his grub-stake on his back, The restless buccaneer
of pick and pan. From the mesas of the Southland,
on the tundras of the North, You will find us, changed
in face but still the same; And it isn’t need,
it isn’t greed that sends us faring forth — It’s the fever, it’s
the glory of the game. For once you’ve panned
the speckled sand and seen the bonny dust, Its
peerless brightness blinds you like a spell; It’s little
else you care about; you go because you
must, And you feel that you could follow
it to hell. You’d follow it in hunger,
and you’d follow it in cold; You’d follow it in solitude
and pain; And when you’re stiff and battened down let someone
whisper “Gold,” And you’re lief to rise and follow it again. But look you, if I find
the stuff it’s just like so much dirt; I fling it
to the four winds like a child. It’s wine and painted women
and the things that do me hurt, Till I crawl back,
beggared, broken, to the Wild. Till I crawl back, sapped
and sodden, to my grub-stake and my tent — There’s a city, there’s an army (hear
them shout). There’s the gold in
millions, millions, but I haven’t got a
cent; And oh, it’s me, it’s me that found it out. It was my dream that made it
good, my dream that made me go To lands of dread and
death disprized of man.>>But oh, I’ve known a glory.>>Jerry Brooks: But
I’ve known a glory that their hearts will
never know, When I picked that first big nugget
from my pan. It’s still my dream,
my dauntless dream, that wends me faring forth
To seek and starve and suffer in the Vast; That fills my heart
with eager hope, that glimmers on before — My dream that
will uplift me to the last. Perhaps I am stark crazy, but
there’s none of you too sane; It’s just a little
matter of degree. My hobby is to hunt out gold;
it’s fortressed in my brain; And it’s life and love
and wife and home to me. And I’ll strike it,
yes, I’ll strike it; I’ve a hunch I cannot fail;
It’s a vision, It’s a prompting, It’s a call; I hear the
hoarse stampeding of an army on my trail, To the last, the
greatest gold camp of them all. Beyond the shark-tooth
ranges sawing savage at the sky There’s a lowering
land no white man ever struck; There’s gold, there’s
gold in millions, and I’ll find it if I die. And I’m going there once
more to seek my luck. Maybe I’ll fail — what matter? It’s a mandate, it’s a vow;
And when in lands of dreariness and dread You seek the
last lone frontier, far beyond your frontiers now, You will find the old
prospector, silent, dead. You will find a tattered
tent-pole with a ragged robe below it;
You will find my rusted gold-pan on the sod; You will find the
claim I’m seeking, with my bones as stakes to show it; But
I’ve sought the last Recorder, and He’s God. Robert Service. [ Applause ] Thank you. [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Thank
you, Brooksy.>>Vess Quinlan: Thinking about this whole
occupational poetry business and how the work we did
began to inform the poetry. I started thinking about the
myth of the cowboys opposed to the reality of actually
doing what we do for a living. And the contrast is stark. Probably a lot of little urban
boys in the 40’s and 50’s, and girls too had a
Gene Autry bed spread and a Roy Rogers lunch bucket. And in the movies the
ranch women were helpless, very attractive creatures. Poet Howard Parker said they
couldn’t find an angus bull in a herd of fluffy sheep, just totally helpless
little creatures. And they were always in need
of John Wayne to come along and rescue them from situations
that an idiot could resolve. Now that’s not the kind of
women that I grew up with. They were entirely different. And our whole business is
structured on the instinct and skill of the female. The males and the livestock
deal are mostly trouble. Yeah, the bulls work a
couple of months a year and then you put
them in a pasture and they spend nine months
fighting and tearing up fences. But it’s the females that do
all the work, that carry us. And I think that
knowledge transfers itself into the way our
families are structured and the way our families
depended on the women. And I’ve had a — anybody
that’s ever calved a bunch of first-calf heifers
learned this right away. Heifers can be thought of
kind of like teenage girls. I told somebody they
would giggle if they could, they’re so silly. And they’ll spook at a shadow
and are awkward to handle. They’re terrible creatures. But the minute that
calf hits the ground, that giggly heifer turns
into a devoted mother that would fight a
mountain lion for that baby. And I mean, it’s
like bam, like that. You see that change. So nobody that I know that ever
calved a heifer really can have a lack of respect
for the female. They’re the core of it all. That’s where life comes from. So I think the poetry that I
wrote over the years had to do with that sense of that. A lot of grandmother poems, a
lot of poems about the strength of the female and thinking
on how oddly we look at that in our movies and
in our culture. And it’s the opposite
of what it really is. And I wrote this poem
40 years ago I guess. And it pretty well tells
you what I was doing. “The winter thermometer
smiles warmly at two below. But a north wind
mocks its balmy claim and changes the two to twenty. You hunch over a stove
trying to store up warmth against the midnight cold
and consider a porch pile of clothes still damp
from two hours ago. An abandoned bed with soft
loving woman becomes a magnet and you a will-less
hunk of metal. But the red-necked heifer
has a big calf in her. You resist the woman
thought, check the heifer. Her time has come. You dust an arm with sulfur
powder, slip a hand inside, feel one soft hoof
and find a nose. It is right. But calves have two front feet. She clamps your arm as
you push the calf back, get the food down,
pull the exhausted baby and paint its navel
with dark red iodine. You let the cow up and watch
her lick the confused newcomer. Tiredness is chased
away as it always is by the warm magic
of the birth bond.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: So we
were talking earlier about how work has
culture within. We have to think
of work as jobs, but there’s culture, right? And as I was listening
across the poems you shared, it got me thinking
about the descriptive and textural language
of the poetry and the language you
might use in the work. And I wondered if any of
you could reflect on that. Thinking about the
rhythm in poetry and some of the details some
of you brought up. I think especially
yours, you know, you’re describing a
moment in a poetic way.>>Vess Quinlan: Yeah.>>John Fenn: How does
the language of describing that to an assistant — or
what is the relationship in language you use in work
versus the poetic work you do with language to
describe occupation?>>Vess Quinlan: Well, that
line we just had about — of course where we grew up our language was a
combination of Spanish words. The poetry came from
the black blues. Most people don’t
realize that over a third of the old-time trail-driving
cowboys that brought the cattle into our country were black,
Hispanic, Indian, Irish. So there’s a combination of the Scotch-Irish
ballad form and the poetry. And we used the Mexican words,
Spanish words to talk about it because the only people
that had the skill to handle those cattle
horseback were the Mexicans. Europeans handled
cattle on foot. They didn’t know how to do that. So they had the equipment
and they had the language. And some of the old-time poems,
unless you knew the language, you wouldn’t know
what they were saying. Like there’s one short-verse
poem that says you talk about the McGee grass rope
coming from McGee plant. Talking about saddles,
calling them a cack. And if you used the
language purely, nobody would know
what you were talking about because of all those. I don’t know about the mining, if they have their own
terminology but I think they do. They have their own
language, their own words.>>Jerry Brooks: And it
varies from country and area. And of course hard rock
is completely different than coal mining.>>Vess Quinlan: Yeah.>>Jerry Brooks: And I
talked to a friend of mine that was not only a stockman but
also a coal miner in Australia. And we sat down, you know,
comparing the terminology that we used for
the same things. But I think my other material
might get more involved with that kind of language
than what Service does. Because Service wasn’t
a miner himself.>>John Fenn: Okay,
that’s interesting, yeah.>>Jerry Brooks:
So I don’t know. He has more the musical language
but not the mining terminology.>>John Fenn: Okay. What about Meezie? Do you have any thoughts? I was struck by a couple of
the lines in your poem too. Kind of describing these
moments in a way, you know.>>Meezie Hermansen: Yeah. I guess you try and just — I
mean the language is natural because I grew up in it. And so sometimes I don’t realize
it’s the language that here in DC or wherever
people wouldn’t know. But I guess I try and limit
it to sprinkling enough to make it authentic but
not make it uninterpretable. [ Laughter ]>>John Fenn: Not
get too insider.>>Meezie Hermansen: Right. I mean, the whole
key is communication. And you know, what I try and
do is communicate my world which back home is
pretty common, but nationwide maybe isn’t. But we all have that thing
that may be particular to us, but when you look at it,
people can relate to. And you can — we have more in
common than we have differences. And even if I speak to
something that’s particular, I try and do it in a
way that draws people in and makes it a shared
experience.>>John Fenn: Something
I noticed across all the poems is
there’s very much a first-person perspective, even if
the poem wasn’t written by the person reciting it. That was articulating a
particular experience. I mean, all of them. I’m wondering if when you’re
drawn to either compose poems or choose poems to pull
into your repertoire, is it that texture of experience
that really sticks with you? Like a particular experience,
not necessarily a mash of them? Yeah? Does anyone
have thoughts on that, kind of how you’re drawn to
create a work or choose a work?>>Vess Quinlan: I remember one of the early Elko
gatherings there was a lot of stringers came in
from the major newspapers and they were academics
working on their PhD’s so they could get a job. And so they were asking the
cowboys poetry questions. And I remember one conversation. A stringer rolled in and said —
she said, “Well, it puzzles me that cowboys would write poetry. It doesn’t seem to
work together.” And he said, “Oh no, ma’am.” He said, “Cowboys is
natural born poets. They’re sentimental as hell
and they love to tell lies.” [ Laughter ] She said, “Well, I noticed a lot of the poems are sentimental
in nature, you know.” She said, “Do you have someone
that helps you with your poems?” “No. No. Well no,
wait a minute.” He said, “I’ve got a little
cattle herder cow dog that rides with me and sits in the pickup.” And he said, “I try
them out on her. If she gets to growling I just
throw them out the window.” [ Laughter ] And he said, “She
only bit me twice.” And he kept going with
her and she couldn’t catch on to what he was doing. She was sitting next to me and finally she asked
him if he had an agent. He said, “Oh, no ma’am.” He said, “These poems wasn’t
written to be published. I just wrote them for
my own amazement.” [ Laughter ] And she looked across
him and me and she said, “Is he pulling my leg?” And I said, “Well,
maybe just a little.”>>John Fenn: Well let’s
share some more words. So we’ll start back
again at the top of the lineup and move through.>>Bill Jones: Well, great. Great. A lot of my poetry has to do
with bravery or the lack of it. You know, I spent 11 months, 25
days and 13 hours in Vietnam. Not that I was counting. [ Laughter ] But every day, almost every day,
there was a coward inside of me that was trying to get out. I fought him every day. And what makes people
do the things they do? I saw some incredibly brave acts that nobody got a medal,
nobody got nothing. Number one — I read
somewhere where to get a medal, number one, somebody
has to see you do it. And number two, it’s got to
be somebody who knows how to write because they write. And number three, they
still got to be alive. And that makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. But the bravest guy
I ever knew — there were no rich
kids in Vietnam. There were no rich
kids in Vietnam. I never met any rich
kids at all. General Westmoreland
said Vietnam was fought by the poor man’s sons. [ Inaudible ] They said it was fought
by the poor man’s sons and that’s probably true. Towards the end of the
war, most of the grunts, the infantry, were draftees. They were all conscripted. They didn’t want to be
there in the first place. Probably one of the
bravest guys I ever knew — these guys were all — these
guys were all Hispanics, Native Americans, African
Americans, people like me who had flunked out of
college and got drafted. That’s who we were. The marginalized,
the disenfranchised. They were also by the way
the finest people I ever met. So I get all emotional
talking about it sometimes. But the bravest guy I ever
met was a Hopi Indian. And I remember he said,
“You know,” he said, “this is one crazy
white man’s war.” That’s what he said. And he’d been in the Marines
five years and he was a private because he had a
little alcohol problem. And whenever he’d get a stripe
or two, he would get drunk, get in a fight, get it taken
away, something like that. But one time we were on this — well, I was on this hill
I just talked about. He was on the next hill. And they had separated us. They had divided us which
was a stupid thing to do. Everybody knew it was stupid. It was like Custer,
dividing your forces. We knew bad things were going
to happen, but what can you do? And one of the guys
got badly wounded and the NVA were using him
as bait when they would come out to try to rescue him. They’d throw grenades
and this guy, Chief — all Indians in the
Marines are called Chief. I know that sounds
politically incorrect but we always thought
they wanted to be chief. That was their main goal in life
which was not true of course. So he was picking
up these grenades and throwing them back
before they exploded. Well, the guy he rescued, he died before the med
evac chopper could get him. So when I saw him say a couple of weeks later, I
said, “Chief” — They put him in for
the Silver Star. If he’d have been an officer
it would have been the Medal of Honor, no question
about that. But they put him in
for the Silver Star. I said, “Chief, that was
really a brave thing you did.” He said, “What? What brave thing?” I said, “Well you crawled up
there and got Baron, you know?” He said, “Oh.” He said, “Did you know he died?” I said, “Yeah, I know he died, but still that was
a brave thing.” He said, “Well, if I’d have
known he was going to die, I would have never done
that in the first place.” [ Laughter ] Anyway, the battalion
commander came in, said, “This guy’s a private
and he did all this?” Yes, sir. He said, “We’re going
to make him a lance corporal.” Skip PFC, you know, just
make him a lance corporal and send him on R and R
to Hong Kong as a reward. He went to Hong Kong on R and
R, got drunk and went AWOL. So anyway, he came back, he
spent a little time in the brig, busted back, slick-sleeve
private once again. So this is a poem I
wrote about Chief. I often wonder what
happened to him. I guess he went back
to the reservation. I asked him, I said —
I didn’t know anything about Indians or
Native Americans. I said, “Are you Apache?” That’s what I thought. That’s the only tribe I knew. He said, “Apache?” Boy, he really got
mad about that. He said, “Apache’s are
renegades and thieves. I am Hopi. Don’t ever — ” It was the
same as if I had to call one of my black friends the N word. I’m sure that would have
been the same thing. But I had no idea that
these tribes were different. I thought Indians were Indians. But anyway, I wrote this poem
about him called Heathen Killer. “The new chevrons and
Silver Star pinned on by the battalion commander
and sweetened with a week of R and R, a big mistake we smirk,
and are rewarded with stories of an AWOL chief busted in a Hong Kong back street whore
house by an unsuspecting cop — poor bastard — trying to
rouse a sleeping Indian from the binge of the century. We celebrate Chief’s return, walk to the bail Z bearing
gifts of canned fruit. Beaming, he embraces us all. We love the guy. A little thinner from a red
line brig, bread and water brig, still a slick-sleeve
private, he brags. The officers shake their heads. “Go back to map reading and
peer through binoculars.”” So that’s that. [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Do you have
another piece for us, Meezie?>>Meezie Hermansen: Yeah. This is one that, like
he was talking about, sometimes you take something
very particular and unfamiliar but you can use it
in a way that expands to a communal experience. And so the only background
you need to know, it’s about a fish pick. A fish pick is just a handle
with a hook on it that you use to help get the webbing
off of a salmon. And so this one is
called Tools of the Trade. “Sometime after I was
born, I learned to walk. And shortly after I learned to
walk, I was given boots that fit and gloves that don’t. This is the world out
of which I was grown. When I started off,
I was far from swift with a fish pick honed
from a piece of drift. A dull bent nail lashed
to the whipping and twine, it was carved perfectly fit
to fit this hand of mine. The deep red paint matched all
those gills, the salmon I’d pick as I picked up skills. Dad made them custom. In my hand it stayed. It became my first
tool of the trade. Now I’m all grown
and my dad is gone, but in my life he
still lives on. Sometimes it’s the little
things you miss so much, like the little red pick
that you used to clutch. There’s picks at the gear shed. They have them for sale. But you’ll find out quick
as one flies over the rail that these factory picks
all sink like a stone. They don’t float like the
ones dad lovingly honed. Now when you drop one,
which you know you do, it’ll sink out of sight
down deep in the blue. Each one that goes sailing
caught up in the mesh, what’s seven bucks
sent to Bangladesh? I look back now on
this life I’ve had. Nothing fit better than
that pick, carved by my dad. And aren’t we the same
when you think it through? I’m carved original
and so are you. Though the world tries
to make us factory cut, here’s the secret. You know what? Be the best yourself you can be, not just another
in the bin you see. For the world needs your heart
as it is made, so do your best with your tools of the trade.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Thank you. On to you, Brooksy.>>Jerry Brooks: Okay,
we’ve prospected for gold. Now we’re going to go — the prospector, once he
located the good ore, he was not interested anymore. He was out of there because — and he didn’t want
to be a producer. He didn’t want to produce gold. He just wanted to find it. But then we get into
the industrialization of the mining process,
this poem comes out of the copper
mining in Butte, Montana. It was written by Edward Lahey who I was introduced
to by a cowboy poet. Edward Lahey, he
was a troubled man. His father had been a miner. His father shined
during Prohibition. Edward wrote a great memoir of
his dad called The Thin Air Gang if you want to look it up. Because Butte, Montana,
if you don’t know, they called it Butte, America. All the immigrant miners
that came over to work in the copper mines in Butte,
this is where that comes from. It’s called Contract Miners. “Underground we fought the
earth together for the hell of it, and Peacock Copper. From the womb she
was no tender lover. The stone boat rocker wouldn’t
budge a crumb to a beggar’s cup or toss a meatless bone to a blind man’s bitch
till we made her. Compressor moan and drill
chatter in her lamp-lit face, forced surrender from the stone. Midwife to the mine,
he taught me how to spit a lift and
slant a lifter. He grinned greenhorn at my
back when I smelled fear curl down the drift and cling
to shaky fingers one by one as they lit spliced
fuses, each by each. And we ran down the
cross-cut tunnel. Soon the shudder of
ground brought us back to witness birth. The mice sat in the
corners of our eyes. They were wise. We watched them listen to timber
groan beneath the gravid loins of working earth. With care and art, mindful of
the mice, we imitated moles. We spilled through
mealy low-grade zones to court her frigid heart
where once solutions boiled and dying darkly cooled.” Ed Lahey. [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Thank you. On to you, Vess.>>Vess Quinlan: I was
talking about the heifers. I remember riding
through a pasture and these heifers are curious. And they’d hear the
saddle squeaking. You’d look behind you and you’d
have heifers following you single file all the
way across the pasture, all the way till you left the
pasture wondering what was going on. And because of that
happening, having that happen, I fell in love with this poem
many years ago and it’s written by a man named Bruce Kiskaddon. And what it tells you is how
the working cowboys were sort of the bottom of the barrel. They were the part of society
that couldn’t get a job after the war and
so they ended up — that’s why we ended up with
this wide range of people. And there’s an old cowboy
story about a guy who ran away from home back east or
someplace and went to Nevada, got him a job on a ranch outside
of Battle Mountain, Nevada. And his uncle was a salesman
and so one day his uncle come through on the train and
got off the train, went in and here’s this nephew of
his lined up at the bar with a bunch of cowboys. And when the nephew saw his
uncle, he run over and he said, “Please, please don’t
tell mom I’m a cowboy. She thinks I play piano in a
whore house in Wallace, Idaho.” [ Laughter ] Buck Ramsay called
us a cult of skill. All you had to do
was get enough time to make a hand and
you were there. That’s all you had to do. And that was essential
because you had to trust the people
you’re working with. You had to know they
were good hands. Working the cattle in a
corral with a bunch of people, if there was anyone in there
on horseback you don’t trust, you’ve got to know
where he is all the time so he doesn’t run
a cow under you. Same thing in the mines. Same thing in the military. It’s got to be the same
thing in a fishing boat. You’ve got to be able to
trust the people around you.>>Jerry Brooks: Absolutely.>>Vess Quinlan: Anyway,
whatever happens in that melding of that crew, that band of brothers I think the
military talk about it, these guys carry forever. This guy ended up — this was
one of the only real cowboys that wrote great poetry
in Bruce Kiskaddon. He ended up running an elevator
in a hotel in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. “It’s likely that you can
remember A corral at the foot of a hill Some mornin’
along in December When the air was so
cold and so still. When the frost lay
light as a feather And the stars were just
blinked out and gone. Remember the creak
of the leather As you saddled your
horse in the dawn. And when the glow of
the sunset had faded And you reached the corral after
night On a horse that was weary and jaded And so hungry
your belt wasn’t tight. You felt about ready to weaken
You knowed you had been a long way But the old saddle still
kep a creakin’ Like it did at the start of the day. Perhaps you can mind when your
saddle Was standin’ up high at the back And you started a
whale of a battle When you got that old pony untracked. How you and the horse stuck
together Is a thing you can’t hardly explain And the rattle
and creak of the leather As it met with the
jar and the strain. You have been on a stand in the
cedars When the air was so quiet and dead Not even some
flies and mosquitoes To buzz and make noise ’round your head. You watched for wild horses
or cattle When the place was as silent as death But
you heard the soft creak of the saddle Every time
the horse took a breath. And when the round up was workin’ All day you had
been ridin’ hard There wasn’t a chance of your shirkin’
You was pulled for the second guard A sad
homesick feelin’ come sneakin’ As you sung to the
cows and the moon And you heard the old
saddle a creakin’ Along to the sound of the tune. There was times when
the sun was sure blazin’ On a perishin’ hot summer day
Mirages would keep you a gazin’ And the dust devils danced far
away You cussed at the thirst and the weather You rode
at a slow joggin’ trot And you noticed that somehow that the leather Creaks
different when once it gets hot. When your old and your
eyes have grown hollow And your hair has a tinge of the
snow There’s always the memories that follow From the
trails of the dim long ago. There are things that will
haunt you forever You notice that strange as it seems
One sound, the soft creak of the leather, Weaves into
your memories and dreams.” [ Applause ] You can imagine Bruce Kiskaddon
writing that poem running that elevator up and down.>>John Fenn: Thank you all
for sharing that round again. So I have two questions
I’m hoping to get through in this next round. We’ll see how it goes. The first, there’s been hints
of it, but I’m wondering if you could each sort of
think about what introduced you to the possibility of poetry
within your working environment? You know, was it a person? We’ve talked about
communal experience. I’m just wondering if
you could each sort of address what brought
you into the poetry in your working world.>>Vess Quinlan: I got
introduced to cowboy poetry — I had always been kind of
interested in cowboy poetry. And I got a job as a
cook on a wagon train on the original Oregon Trail. And this local doctor came out
one night on the Oregon Trail. We had these mule skinners
that handled the mules. Rough-talking, wild-drinking
guys. And Kent Stockton
came out one night. He’s a doctor for
locals, cowboy doctor, and we’d been friends for years. But he came out and
around the fire there, cowboy poetry is very effective
around a campfire by the way. He recited the old
Bruce Kiskaddon poem When They’ve Finished
Shipping Cattle in the Fall.>>John Fenn: Oh yeah.>>Vess Quinlan: And I looked
around in the firelight at these guys, these
mule skinners, and all of them had tears big as horse turds running
down their face. And I thought, I don’t know what
this is, but there’s something about this and I want
to get involved in it. And that was my introduction
to cowboy poetry.>>Bill Jones: Dr.
Stockton wasn’t it?>>Vess Quinlan:
Dr. Stockton, right.>>Meezie Hermansen:
For me, I fell in love with poetry as a little kid. A friend of my folks lent
me the Best Loved Poems of the American People
when I was eight. And I just loved poetry since. And then I saw something
in Smithsonian Magazine. They did an article
on fisher poets, and I’d been writing
poetry but not sharing it. And then I found out
there’s people doing this. And it was kind of cool. And so then I got ahold of a
CD of it and just listening to their voices, it was
something really cool. And so I told my sister
that I wanted to go, and by go I meant go and sit in
the audience and enjoy myself. But I’m the last of eight kids
which means I’ve been bossed around my whole life and
she said she would go but she wasn’t going to
go watch me watch people, so I had to sign up. And so I checked with John
Broderick the organizer what the literary requirements are, and
the literary requirements are that you commercial fish. So I got involved in
this little thing.>>John Fenn: What
about you, Brooksy?>>Jerry Brooks: Well, I’ve
loved poetry all my life. I was reading when I was
four years old and the book that haunts me all my
life is 101 Famous Poems. It’s always formatted
in that tall version. And I pored over poetry
and pored over poetry. And Robert Service
was so popular and everybody knew
about Robert Service. And you led that slide
as you get older. And then I met these people who
— they were retiring ranchers and the first time I
went into their house, there was three volumes
of Robert Service poetry up on the shelf when
I walked in the door. And I said, “Oh, so do
you like Robert Service?” “Oh yeah.” And then she introduced
me to the cowboy poetry. And then while I’m mining
and getting interested in this cowboy genre
of poetry, I’m starting to see all the parallel
tracks of all the stories, of all the occupations. The miners, the sailors — a lot of nautical
stories get integrated with the cowboy poetry. And like I say, I’m
not the poet myself, but appreciating all those
parallel tracks and everything. I made the statement one time that cowboy poetry made
me a better mine foreman, if that makes any sense at all. But I’m convinced it did. [Laughs] So the mining poetry
and getting interested in more and more mining poetry — the first mining poem I
ever heard was probably My Darling Clementine. [Laughs] Does that cove it?>>John Fenn: Oh yeah. I think you covered it.>>Vess Quinlan: Well, I
got the livestock papers when I was growing
up and I was little. Every one of the trade papers, livestock papers
would publish a poem. And a lot of them
were Kiskaddon poems. When they did the first deal at
Elko, I think the folklorists that put all that together
knew the John Lomax and they knew the stuff
that had been collected. But I think they were really
surprised that practically all of us know Kiskaddon poems. And they didn’t know who
Kiskaddon was, not really. And the reason we all
knew that was every bit of the livestock
papers would have one. And my grandmother
would cut those out. And there also was a
poem on the calendars. When you’d get the
calendar from the sale barn, it would have a Kiskaddon
poem on it. And they used to take
Kiskaddon’s poems and send it to a woman named — a
girl named Catherine Field down in New Mexico. And she’d draw an illustration
to go with this poem and they’d all come
out of that stuff. Well, when I had polio,
I ended up confined. I started when I
was ten years old, I was an apprentice,
potential top hand. Polio, next thing I’m in the
hospital and I’d been turned over to doctors and therapists
and occupational therapists and counsellors,
all kinds of people. And I had become damaged goods
so there was no more snubbing me on colts, no more of that stuff. But they brought me
the box of poems cut out that my grandmother
had under the bed. And I’d read those poems
all the way through. And my granddad come up one time and saw I had these poems strung
all over the place reading them and looking at the cowboy
cartoons and he said, “Now you’re ruined that boy. You put all that
cowboy stuff in his head and you’ll never get it out.” He said, “Everybody knows
you can make a cowboy out of anything, but you
can’t make hardly nothing out of a cowboy. So he’s done for.” That’s where it came from. It was in the culture when I got
there, long before I got there. When you would go
to a range meeting or a cattleman association
meeting or anything before we
had the cell phones where we could get whatever
we wanted on the phone, there was always somebody
there that could recite a poem. Or my uncle Hank used
to play the accordion and there was always
somebody there. So we had to entertain
ourselves I guess, maybe is where this comes from. So how else are you going to
do it when you don’t have — you know, we were remote enough that I remember the only
radio we could get was late at night we could get those
giant stations out of Mexico. And I still remember
as a kid listening to Anuna Cajuella Mexico. And they would sell you baby
chicks and then they’d preach for a little while and then
they’d play some hot country music and then they would sell
you some more baby chicks. And that was the only radio
we had in the mountains. That’s what we could
get so the rest of the time we entertained
ourselves and I think that’s where this comes from.>>John Fenn: That segues into
what my second question was, because I promised two. Brooksy, you’ve also
almost answered it. You’ve all had pretty long
engagements with poetry and sort of the realm of work. I’m wondering what you
see occupational — what does occupational
poetry do for you? It made you a better
mining foreman and it made you a cowboy. That’s what you just told us. But you know, what is the
function or any function of it that you see across
your time with it?>>Vess Quinlan: My immediate
reaction is it connects us together. At one of the early gatherings
there was an old lady — I don’t remember
now who she was. She was in her 90’s I think. But she said, “Now we
have found each other and we will never let it go.”>>John Fenn: Yeah.>>Vess Quinlan: That
gathering brought all of those. We were separated but not
isolated, if you follow, because of that culture
that existed, the Saturday night
dances and all that stuff. We may have lived a long
ways from each other, but we were nonetheless
a community that covered a big area. And so maybe that is
what that was about. And maybe it’s the
same for the miners, as it connects the
culture together. It holds the culture together. What else would do it?>>John Fenn: Yeah.>>Vess Quinlan: What
else could do it other than the common writing
and the common stories. It’s not just the poems. It’s the stories
and the whole thing. I think that — I said
one time that I think part of the motivation was trying
to explain to other people why on earth you would choose
to try to make a living in such a risky occupation and
why you would keep doing it year after year after year. You were talking, Meezie,
about the up and down. You never know.>>Meezie Hermansen: Well, and I know for fishing
there’s a lot easier ways to spend time in nature. [ Laughter ] I don’t know. It’s very similar I guess.>>Vess Quinlan: Yeah.>>Jerry Brooks: Well, like Buck
Ramsay said, we are what we do, not the stuff we lay claim to.>>Vess Quinlan: Yeah.>>Jerry Brooks: When I went
to Elko for the first time, I’d been working in the
coal mines for years. It took me a long time
to get over there. I had no idea what I was getting
into, but it was intriguing me from what Susie had
told me that day. And I got over here and I was
hearing people that made sense to me for the first
time in a long time. And it’s just so easy
to — I’m always — I’d rather seek all of
our commonalities rather than our divisions anyway. So that’s what really brings it
all home, brings it together. And it’s through the
poetry, through the stories.>>Bill Jones: Some of the
best friends I ever made, with the exception
of in Vietnam, were through the
cowboy poetry thing. I mean, what you
see is what you get. That’s pretty much it. There are not many
phonies in that deal. One summer I didn’t work
at the ranch in Wyoming and I even made a little money
going around doing cowboy poetry at different after-dinner
theaters. And I was real big at fertilizer
conventions for some reason. I don’t know why. [ Laughter ] But anyway, that was
a real experience. And it’s just been — I mean, Vess and I have been
friends for 35 years I guess. Yeah, we see each
other occasionally. Brooksy, I’ve known
her 20 years. Pat here, I’ve known
him a long time. CJ Hadley who publishes
Range Magazine, she’s — [ Applause ] She came all the way
out her from Reno, Nevada just to hear us. Yeah. And I paid
for her airfare. [ Laughter ] First class. It was $11.80. She had some points.>>That’s true.>>Bill Jones: Yeah. So anyway, it’s been
a real experience. I wouldn’t trade
it for anything.>>John Fenn: Well
let’s do one more round of sharing some words.>>Bill Jones: All right. All right, my friend
Jon Forrest Glade, I met him at the
University of Wyoming. He was an outfitter
there in Wyoming. And he wrote one of the finest,
one of the best Vietnam poems that I’d ever read
called Blood Trails. And in fact, we based the first
Vietnam poetry book that I put out — we named it Blood Trails
after that particular poem. But he was drafted in Wyoming
out of his outfitting business. Or it was his dad’s business. And he was sent to the —
there’s the book there, we passed out Blood
Trails there. The 101st Airborne in Vietnam. And he was there four and a
half months before he was shot in his right leg. He was crippled the
rest of his life. I mean, it really just
did a number on his leg. And when he got back, he
couldn’t cowboy anymore. I use cowboy as a verb here. So he got a job as a cook on
the old Double Diamond Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming which is one of the great old-time
cowboy ranches. At one time they had 50
cowboys working there. And I worked at the ranch
right next to there. The ranch was owned
by Jerry Spence. You know, he was Mel Demarcus’s
lawyer, Karensville I think. I worked there for years,
never saw Jerry Spence. I don’t think he ever
came to the ranch. Anyway, Jon was working
as a cook there for the buck house guys. And he’d been around
a little bit. So he thought he was going to expand the horizons
a little bit. So one morning he made a
quiche for them for breakfast. And he said they all ate
it and didn’t say anything. And the next morning he came
into the cook shack there and they were all
gathered together. They said, “Jon, we need to
talk to you about something.” He said, “Well, what
could it be?” They said, “Jon, we like you
and we think you’re a good cook. But if you ever make
that egg pie again, we’re going to have
to kill you.” [ Laughter ] Anyway, he wrote
some great poems and this is one of
them, I think. This is a poem — this was in a book several years ago
called From Both Sides Now. I had a couple of poems in it. John had a couple poems. My friend Rob McCrary had
a couple of poems in it. And it’s from the American side
and the North Vietnamese side. And what was remarkable to me
is it’s absolutely astonishing, the poems are all
about the same thing: fear and bravery and loneliness. And I mean, the enemy
writes poetry too. They write it too. Anyway, he wrote this poem
and he had a book out that — he had a book out and his
book was kind of heavy. Kind of dark and kind of heavy. So he wanted to kind of
lighten things up a little bit and he’s not sure
whether it really — the other stuff was so heavy, he’s not even sure this
light stuff even worked. But I think it worked. So I thought I’ll do it or you. It’s called Viper. This is from — he wrote
this in Ashaw Valley in 1969. “Once when we were in the jungle
I remember watching three GI’s trying to kill a snake. They were armed with
machetes and entrenching tools and were chasing
it back and forth. Maybe if they had left it alone
it would have just gone away. But they were trying to kill it
because it was probably a viper. Vipers are known as grass snakes and leaf snakes and
bamboo snakes. But more commonly
as two-step snakes. If one bit you, you could take about two steps before
you died.” That’s true. “It would have been simpler
and a lot safer to shoot it, but the noise would have
given our position away, and Charlie was deadlier
than any snake. The viper was fast and agile and
the grunts were too frightened to get within more
than a few feet. I thought the whole
thing was funny until they chased it my way.” [ Laughter ] [ Applause ]>>Meezie Hermansen: So I owe
a lot in my life to salmon. Years of college, part of my
worldview, my introvert finger. We were picking up gear one
day, nice beautiful, calm day. And the tide started
picking up steam. And by the time we let loose,
corked line went flying through my hands and I
grabbed on and the web grabbed onto my finger and just about
pulled me out of the skiff. And yeah, I finally got
my finger unfettered and it was obviously askew,
but you don’t go to the doctor in the middle of fishing season
for something as expendable for a pinky finger,
especially one still attached. And it’s still attached,
it just doesn’t like to run with the pack. So these hands have
handled a lot of fish. They’ve done a lot of fishing. And so I wrote this
one as a tribute and I call this These Hands. “These hands are
soaked in the blood of almost 50 years of salmon. Run after run, season after season they’ve cradled
dying flesh, removed mesh after mesh after mesh. It’s a weird dichotomy
taking the life of something you say you
love, not to ease pain but for your own gain. And I know we feed the world,
and I know we feed ourselves, but that matters
not to this fish. Its journey home interrupted. These hands are soaked
in the blood of almost 50 years of salmon. I feel like I should feel worse. I feel like I should
feel remorse, but it is a life I enjoy. And the salmon are dying,
whether on the deck of my skiff or the bed of the river. Either way, they will nourish. Another generation will flourish and I will always cherish
the life they provide. These hands are soaked
in the blood of almost 50 years of salmon. May I never take
them for granted, the salmon or these hands.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: On
to you, Brooksy.>>Jerry Brooks: A young man
from Lubock, Texas by the name of Andy Hedges sent me
a text at about quarter to midnight one night
because he had discovered that S. Omar Barker,
known as a cowboy poet had in his little scrapbook
memorabilia — if you go to the library
in Las Vegas, New Mexico, they have the S.
Omar Barker room. When Andy got there, the family
just gave him all the materials including stuff that
other people don’t see. And in that scrapbook was a
small poem entitled Coal Mine. So I read this off my text and
I went, “Well [inaudible].” Margo, at,
Margo Metagrano — I wish she was here — at that
time was compiling a collection of S. Omar Barker poems for her
next CD that she produces — she produces one every
year and invites all kinds of cowboy poets to do the
artists that she’s compiling. This year S. Omar Barker — and
I called her up the next day. I said, “You’ve got to hear
this S. Omar Barker poem.” And she listened and she
said, “I want to put this one on the CD, not those
others we were takin about.” I said, “But how am I going
to get permission to do it?” And Margo says, “The Barker
family has given me permission to use any material of his
I want to, no problem.” And I said, “Cool.” I’m going to put two
little poems together, that little short one of S. Omar
Barker’s and then I’ll finish up with one of my own. “Black. Black. The dark maw yields hard
harvest from forgotten fields of fragile fern or jungle vine. Surely a witness and a
sign that time immeasurable and strange cannot
destroy but only change.” Now I read that poem
and I thought back to a mining poem
I had been trying to write a few years a back
that I had pages and pages and pages trying to say exactly
what he just did right there. So that was frustrating,
but I have come up with one little poem that’s
almost worthy of sharing. I call it First at the Face. “The smell of fresh-cut coal
frothing off the working face like a dark dream. Cut and roll, cut and roll. Gathering, arms scooping,
slinging back to a steel conveyor
running at a staccato beat, jackhammering my ears
yet almost hypnotic. Breaking that beat, the
seams counterpoint crack, bursting as it surrenders
to the cutting bits. Carving into the dust and solid,
craving the clean black taste, excavating a new place for air. Standing where no
one else ever has. Savoring fresh-cut coal. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Vess Quinlan: I
decided to do this poem after you asked the
question of the language. I was sitting in a
restaurant in Tucson, out of Tucson where IBM is. And some of the IBM engineers
had obviously come in there for lunch and they were
talking IBM language, computer language
back and forth. And I’m sitting there
listening to that and of course I didn’t
understand a word I was hearing. It was like listening
to a foreign language. And I wrote this poem
called Idiom and it kind of answers your question
about the language. “It is language of the past,
a tongue of another time. It’s strange perhaps as the
talk of bytes and chips, RAMs and keys of memory. It’s hard now to find
someone who understands, knows them meaning of side bones
and broccoli feet, of hangs, tugs and single trees, which way
to move at gee and which at haw. The old skills are shelved
like a worn-out tool, forgotten in the
rush of progress and only a few still speak the
language of the Percheron.” [ Applause ]>>John Fenn: Do we want
to do some questions? Yeah? Well, this has been wonderful
but I want to make sure that anyone out there who has
a question can ask our esteemed guests and interpreters and
reciters before we release them. Any? Because I have a
million more questions.>>Jerry Brooks: You do?>>John Fenn: I’m a folklorist. They’ve answered a lot of my
initial questions I think. Just based on the poems
you’ve shared and the kind of descriptive work that
happens in poetry, I’m wondering if instead of asking a question, if there’s any final thoughts
you have about the role of poetry in your
personal experience within a working environment. Any closing thoughts?>>Meezie Hermansen: I have one. I think we think of
things like poetry and the arts as fluff, you know. And it’s not as serious. But really, I mean, if
you’re trying to meet someone and find common ground, I
think you listen to poetry with a different part. Like if you’re in a
discussion and you’re listening with your brain, it
reaches through the heart. Sorry, I’m not used
to wearing a mic. But I mean, I think
it helps communicate on a different level,
because it just — people hear it different. And in that way I think there’s
almost more of a responsibility with something like
poetry and the arts.>>John Fenn: Yeah, that’s certainly
something I’ve experienced in the past 90 minutes.>>Jerry Brooks: We’re
closest to what we do. There’s nothing on earth that expresses feeling
the way poetry does. Where am I going with this one? [Laughs] It’s the feel
that comes through poetry. That’s the only way that it — you can’t tell somebody how you
feel with just feeble words. But when you put it into a
poetic format, it seems to work. Does that make any sense? That’s the only way I can
see that the poetry enters into what you do
and the occupation.>>John Fenn: And I think to Meezie’s point,
I mean, it is work. I mean, it’s not fluff. It’s articulating experience. And I think there’s
also something that I’ve gotten
just by hearing it. I mean, I could have read
all these poems, right? But hearing them come from a
person, from a point of view.>>Meezie Hermansen:
Poetry should be out loud.>>Jerry Brooks: Always. Always.>>John Fenn: I agree.>>Jerry Brooks:
Read it out loud.>>John Fenn: Well,
we are at time.>>Jerry Brooks: Are we?>>John Fenn: So
unfortunately, yes. But I do want to — another
round for our guests please. [ Applause ] For sharing the poems, for sharing their
thoughts, for sharing ideas.>>Karen Lloyd: We have a
little token of our appreciation from the Veterans
History Project. And again, thank you
so much for coming and I know you mesmerized me and I certainly think you
mesmerized everyone else. And so, Vess, thank you so much.>>Vess Quinlan: Thank you.>>Karen Lloyd: We will
see you in January.>>Vess Quinlan: Yeah.>>Karen Lloyd: I’ll
see you in January.>>Jerry Brooks: Is
my FBI file in here?>>Karen Lloyd: Thank
you so much.>>Meezie Hermansen: Thank you.>>Karen Lloyd: I’m so
glad I got to meet you.>>John Fenn: You can
see her in February.>>Meezie Hermansen: Yeah.>>John Fenn: At
the Fisher Poets.>>Karen Lloyd: Bill.>>Bill Jones: Thank
you so much. Thank you so much. Thank you.>>Karen Lloyd: And John.>>John Fenn: Thank
you very much, Karen.>>Karen Lloyd: We very
much appreciate it.>>John Fenn: All right, yeah. Thank you all for coming. [ Applause ]

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