Veterans Art Showcase: Occupational Poetry

On Wednesday, November 6, in honor of Veterans Day and the 20th anniversary of the Veterans History Project, the Veterans History Project, the American Folklife Center, and the Poetry and Literature Center will host a discussion on occupational poetry (free tickets are encouraged and available via Eventbrite) at 1:00 PM in the Thomas Jefferson Building, Room 119.

In anticipation, we’ve asked three of the event’s participating poets to share a poem, answer a few questions about their work, and respond to another occupational poet’s poem. 

Meezie Hermansen, fisher poet

Meezie Hermansen

Meezie Hermansen was born and raised in Alaska. A lifelong Cook Inlet East Side Setnetter, she has worked the family site near Humpy Point every summer since learning to walk. Hermansen currently works as a veterinarian in Soldotna but returns to beach camp every fish season. She continues to work in an industry her family has been proud to be part of since the Territorial Days of Alaska. She writes about her fishing adventures and performs at the annual Fisher Poet Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, each year.

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
The dull bent nail lashed with a whipping of twine
It was carved perfectly fit to fit this hand of mine
The deep red paint matched all those gills
Of 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 grown and my Dad is gone
But in my life he still lives on
And sometimes it’s the little things you miss so much
Like that 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 the factory picks all sink like a stone
They don’t float like the ones Dad lovingly honed
No, when you drop one, which you know you’ll do
It’ll sink out of sight down deep in the blue
Each one that goes sailing, caught up in the mesh
Well, that’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
Tho the world tries to make us factory cut
Here is the secret, you know what
Be the best yourself you can be
Not just another in the bin you see
For this world needs your heart as it is made
So do your best with your tools of the trade

How does poetry connect you to your chosen occupation?

Growing up in a fishing family, I do not remember a time before fishing. I started writing poetry as a way to capture the pictures and stories of the work we do. My good friend Tele Aadsen once told me to find words among the fish.

Poetry helps me share my life with those around me, helps me paint a picture of the fishing life. My writing is meant to invite people in, have them sit for awhile and open my world to them. It is about making connections so something unfamiliar becomes familiar and the distance between us recedes. It is something we can all do. Whatever your occupation or hobby, whatever captures your passion, that is what the world needs to hear about. I encourage everyone to, in their own way, find words among the fish.

What moved you to write “Tools Of the Trade” and how does it help you process the world at large?

We all have unique yet shared experiences—things where maybe the details are particular but still relatable. “Tools Of The Trade” is about a very specific uncommon object, but it stands for so much more. It is about childhood and growing up and grasping for that thing that makes you feel like it fits. And it is about us.

Many of us think we are small and insignificant, but by being genuine people—unapologetically real—we can have an impact. I am not in a position of power. I don’t think I can necessarily change the entire world, but I can strive to change my world by touching those hearts that are put in my path.

You just read “The Apology” by Vess Quinlan, who will share the stage with you at the Library of Congress. What stands out to you?

I love how the entire image painted in the mind shifts with the last lines. There are details throughout the poem that are little sensory brush strokes. From the opening line of stepping across a horse, the details are of this hardworking life. The portrayal of his wife is that of a fretful witness, but with the last lines she transforms into a willing participant and partner. It is a beautiful thing.

 

Vess Quinlan

Vess Quinlan, cowboy poet

Vess Quinlan is the fourth generation in his family to raise livestock and feed. He became a working partner on a “rundown outfit” in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where he raised alfalfa, cattle, kids, dogs, and sheep. He is an American Cowboy Poet, who is widely considered to be one of the most respected poets of his genre. Quinlan attended the first Elko Gathering of Cowboy Poets in 1985 and is often invited to perform at other gatherings, including the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

The Apology

Did you ever step across a horse
In the chill before the dawn
And leave a woman wondering
How long you would be gone?

She’d know you were home
When she heard you at the door
You’d not even tell her
What pasture you were headed for

You gave no thought that she might worry
When you stayed out way late
Maybe lay awake and listen
Trying to hear you at the gate.

Did she think you might be hurt
From a cow wreck or a fall
And wonder where to look
Or which neighbor she should call?

You’r Gray as granite now and careful
No careless cowboy anymore
And decide to ask forgiveness
For all the worry you caused her.

Through a puzzled laugh you hear her say,
“I slept right through the goofy things you’d do.
Because when we were twenty
I was immortal; just like you.”

How does writing poetry connect you to your chosen occupation?

The connection poetry has to my chosen occupation of ranch hand and eventually growing feed and raising livestock on our subsistence family outfit probably comes from my having been born to the culture. I am fourth generation on both sides of my family to follow someone else’s cows around for low wages and then take a pay cut to try raising feed for and following my own cows around. The “Cowboy Poetry” came up the trail with the first bunch of cattle stolen in Mexico and driven hundreds of miles north to market and is an odd combination of blues storytelling from the Black Cowboys, English, Irish, and Scots Ballads rewritten to fit the adventure, and Spanish words and cattle handling skills learned from the Mexican Vaqueros.

I have always kind of wondered if the urge to tell the stories and write the poems is an attempt to explain to oneself and others why anyone would choose such a dangerous and risky occupation.

What moved you to write “The Apology” and how does it help you process the world at large?

I could not have written “The Apology” as a young man. It occurred to me only after having been married for over 60 years to my high school sweetheart that her version of living in an old adobe house 16 miles of dirt road and three gates from a paved highway with no telephone, a toddler, and a new baby might be a little different from mine. Her reaction to my attempted apology for my lack of consideration shows that I still underestimated her. Her confidence in her ability to be a wife and mother in difficult circumstances matched my young male notion of personal invincibility.

You just read “Fixation” by Bill Jones, who will share the stage with you at the Library of Congress. What stands out to you?

I read this poem over 30 years ago. My reaction after all these years is much the same. Having never served in combat, I have no place in my head to put the situation he describes. There is no abstraction here. No light filtering down through leaves making delightful patterns on a forest floor. The images in this poem, like Bill’s other Vietnam poems, demand that I consider my values. Evaluate those things I thought important and reach down deep for the gratitude we all owe those who served on our behalf. Bill reminds us all that under certain circumstances dry socks may be all that matter.

 

Bill Jones

Bill Jones, veteran poet

Bill Jones served with the 3rd Marine Division as an artillery forward observer in Vietnam. He went to boot camp at Parris Island and infantry training at Camp Lejune. Since returning from Vietnam, Bill Jones has received a Masters degree in psychology and has held a variety of jobs, including railroad detective. He lives in Lander, Wyoming.

Fixation

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 till it is too late.”
We sit stunned and silent
In sandbagged reflection.
Chavez makes the Sign of the Cross.
“At least,” he says
Finally,
“He had on dry sox.”

It is an Omen
Dark and subtle
Of our own Nam-madness.
Target is destroyed, mission successful.
But in the end…
We kill ourselves.

How does writing poetry connect you to your chosen occupation?

Military veterans have been writing poetry all through history (Greeks, Romans, as well as modern poets of the last few centuries). There always seem to be sufficient wars through the ages for veterans to write about. Recently, I discovered that the Vietnam War (my war) produced as many poets from the “North” Vietnamese as from the American side—the “enemy” writes poetry, too. The subjects of these poems are astonishingly similar. They write about fear, loneliness, death, bravery, and the savagery and futility of all wars. All wars, when stripped down to the basics, are the same. I have a connection with all veterans from all wars.

What moved you to write “Fixation” and how does it help you process the world at large?

It took me 30 years or more to write “Fixation” and to have some sort of understanding of the relationship to this incident and my (our) participation in this particular war. Wars affect everyone—individuals, families, cultures, society, governments—and all wars have long-term, inevitable and unintended consequences. Through this poem, I attempted to illustrate war’s senseless and destructive power.

You just read “Tools Of the Trade” by Meezie Hermansen, who will share the stage with you at the Library of Congress. What stands out to you?

Ms. Hermansen’s poem impressed me with its overall theme of loss—both of her father and her changing culture from her childhood, the “fish pick” being a symbol of that loss. There is a lot going on in this poem; for example, the creeping technology that is replacing the old tried-and-true ways: “Sometimes it’s the little things you miss so much.”

2 Comments

  1. Patrick dixon
    November 6, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    Three powerful poems. Wish I could be there for the reading.

  2. Riki Saltzman
    November 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

    I’m so delighted to see this wonderful project come to fruition. And I’m proud to have had a small hand in introducing the organizers to one of my favorite occupational poets. #whatfolkloristsdo

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