Concerning Craft: Shirley Brewer – Revisited

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet poet and educator, Shirley Brewer. Shirley previously contributed to the Concerning Craft series exploring the creation of her poem “Fairy Tale, Interrupted”, which we published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue. In the interim she released a collection of poetry, After Words, a reaction to the murder of Stephen Pitcairn in Baltimore. When she showed up again in our Summer 2014 issue I wanted to seize upon the opportunity to return to one of our contributors to explore not just their approach to their craft in the present moment, but to observe an evolution in technique and aesthetic. Without further adieu, Shirley Brewer on her poem, “Above Chicago“:

I have developed a daily habit I find most nourishing. Every morning I read The Writer’s Almanac. Starting the day with a poem keeps me focused on my passion. I also enjoy reading the prose tidbits Garrison Keillor includes beneath the poem – birthdays of writers/anniversaries of events in history. I sometimes find material for new poems there.

Such was the case this past January 25th, when I read about the first transcontinental commercial jet flight on that date in 1959. I might have let that nugget pass, but knowing Carl Sandburg was on the plane tweaked my interest. I love Sandburg’s poetry, and once visited his family home, Connemara, near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where I bonded with a newborn goat named Wyatt. The Sandburgs raised goats, and the estate was still flourishing.

In writing “Above Chicago,” I decided to begin with actual items from the flight menu. Have the reader salivate! The names of the dishes had great alliteration: Maine lobsters, filet mignon, macaroon ice cream balls. I courted assonance in the first stanza as well: macaroon, ooze, saloon, fueled troubadour. I could have submitted this to LPR’s Food issue!

Although I have no idea about the actual flight plan, I love imagining the jet flew “Above Chicago,” and I can visualize Sandburg singing lines from his famous poem about that iconic American city. He was quite the musician, as well as a superb poet. I wanted to include crimson, as Sandburg used that word in a number of his poems and I think it must have been a word he liked.

Gin and ink wed inside his journal, a line that just appeared! Sandburg – in his early 80’s at the time – did keep a journal. And the booze flowed freely on that flight. Like all of the other passengers, Sandburg participated in the frivolity of the occasion! One of the pleasures I relish in poetry is selecting a verb that sounds fresh and fits, and wed seemed like a winner.

I decided to end the poem with another reference to Sandburg’s Chicago poem. Hogs and butchers in the last line to balance the filet mignon in the first line! What pleases me about crafting a poem is making word choices, and playing with sounds. It may take at least a dozen or more revisions, but it’s such a joyful task!

The subject of my previous Concerning Craft piece was Cinderella, in my poem, “Fairy Tale, Interrupted.” Poetically speaking, both Cinderella and Carl Sandburg piqued my interest! And when I care enough to write a poem, I’ll begin the process and see where it takes me. I think, initially, I wrote “Fairy Tale, Interrupted” as one stanza of fifteen lines, before I decided it would work well as five tercets. I often don’t decide on the format until I’m well along in my writing. Two stanzas of nine lines each seemed to work well for “Above Chicago.” I wanted to begin the second stanza with Sandburg’s reference to Chicago as City of the Big Shoulders, an image I find miraculous.

I obviously had a long history with Cinderella – a story and movie I have loved since childhood. A blurb on The Writer’s Almanac inspired “Above Chicago.” Whatever the genesis, once the idea set in – I want this idea to be a poem – I go into my space where I just write and see where it takes me.

Both poems surprised me. In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” I start by writing about Cinderella. Then, I speak directly to her. I didn’t plan that ahead of time. In “Above Chicago,” I initially thought I would write only about Sandburg on that transcontinental flight, maybe touch on the food and drink, and Chicago inserted itself! I love it when that happens.

In both poems, I pay attention to sounds. I’ve already mentioned alliteration and assonance in “Above Chicago.” In “Fairy Tale, Interrupted,” each tercet ends with a rhyming word.

“Fairy tale, Interrupted,” appeared in LPR’s Audacity Issue. I think of Carl Sandburg as a thrillingly audacious poet. Maybe I’ll write a poem in which Cinderella meets up with Carl Sandburg. And they’ll raise a goat named Wyatt.

Every poem is an internal adventure. Whether the source is family, the past, mythology, an item in the news – the poet invites us to experience the depth of his/her vision. I find the process both challenging and exhilarating. The poem I craft tomorrow may be totally different than anything I have previously written. I can only hope all of my poems carry some freshness into the world. Carl Sandburg once defined poetry as “the journey of a sea animal living on land, waiting to fly in the air.”

Oh, Carl, I’m glad you flew in the air on that first transcontinental flight! 55 years later, I honor your journey – the literal one as well as the metaphorical. I know you’d concur that, in poetry, there’s always a place for cat feet and glass slippers.

Shirley J. Brewer graduated from careers in bartending, palm-reading, and speech therapy. She has served for two years as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology inBaltimore County. She also teaches poetry at LitMore in Baltimore, and at Howard Community College. Shirley presents workshops on Creativity, Poetry, and Healing Through Writing. Recent poems appear in: The Cortland Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Pearl, Comstock Review, Passager, as well as in Little Patuxent Review and other journals. Her poetry chapbooks include A Little Breast Music, 2008, Passager Books and After Words, 2013, Apprentice House/Loyola University.

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