New Poems and Old Ancestors

Although I haven’t been writing this spring–on purpose, I might add–when I started my new poetry project last fall I focused on creating poems out of the genealogical research that I do for my family history blog The Family Kalamazoo. It makes sense to narrow in this way, as I am always spreading out in too many directions. However, it’s difficult to write poems about a subject that is so personal to my family. It makes sense to write a poem about a maple tree or a new baby because these subjects are universal, but what makes someone else’s dead ancestors interesting to readers? That is a difficulty.

So far I’ve had one poem from this small grouping published, and that was in December. It was in the online journal Blast Furnacebut here is the poem, a prose poem:

When Your Grandfather Shows You Photographs of His Mother

You identify yourself in the antique image. Long slender neck, narrow torso, your face tipped to avoid the light. Your hands rest in the valley between your thighs sharp under yards of stiff calico. Your face long, well-sculpted by a lean diet and youth, nearly but not ascetic. Blue veins clutch the temples under translucent skin, a milky film that just contains you. In the next photograph your black dog Carlo poses at your side.

But Carlo isn’t your dog. Three degrees separate you across the time dimension. You never beat a man with his horse-whip for using it on his horse, though you wish you had that sort of courage and that sort of hands-on life, or burned all the books except the family Bible, praise her lord. And yet you hold your bodies as both shields and thresholds.

Because a face never reflects the same, every photo sees something else. You’re your father under the red star and your mother’s grandmother in the morning sun. But not your mother who is the image of her aunt. You never did let her kiss you. You see Carlo and his mistress in another photograph, and her smile is so familiar. Now the gauzy mask of your mother’s face floats across her-your features. Another light source and hour. Another shift of the hologram that is you.

If you happen to be one of the three people who read this blog from the first post you might find the subject recognizable. I rewrote that first blog post into this prose poem. I am fascinated with how we look like our ancestors and relatives, but in some lights, various shadows, or on different days, we might look like a completely different person–or share his features. It’s as if our general counteance is always shifting.

This is the great-grandmother I wrote about in the poem. Even I find our resemblance (when I was younger, of course) astonishing. The black dog in the one photo is Carlo.

My idea with the poems is to create a chapbook–a publishable collection that is smaller than a full-length poetry collection. Maybe around 20-25 poems. And I want to focus on my female ancestors. These are the people difficult to research because they don’t show up in old documents and newspapers as shopkeepers, dog breeders, or politicians. What was the day-to-day of their lives really like? I am trying to find out by researching and then allowing the material to develop into poems. At the moment a poem is completed, I feel that I have brought to life the experience of one woman.

It’s difficult to find literary magazines to send individual poems to because the subject matter is not contemporary and only universal in the notion of the project as excavating the lives of generations of women. In other words, I need to find places that specialize in or are sensitive to the intersection of history and poetry.

Are you interested in two unrelated subjects that you have been able to connect in your own life?

In case you are wondering why I am not writing on purpose, it’s because I was writing so much for so long that I knew I needed a period where I don’t take on any old or new projects. I’m resting my brain. Except for blogging, of course, dear peeps.


I have a DOLL GOD Giveaway going on at Goodreads right now. Hop on over there and sign up if you want to win a free copy!




Filed under Book Giveaway, Memoir, Photographs, Poetry, Poetry Collection, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing goals

57 responses to “New Poems and Old Ancestors

  1. Random thoughts: yes, you resemble your ggm. I love your prose poem. Yes, a fallow period is good for writers. Do enjoy yours. Interest in “two unrelated subjects” sure sounds like seed to throw in a fallow field.

  2. I love everything about this, Luanne. I’m also interested in women in history–the women who lived “ordinary” lives, which of course, are sometimes anything but that. Your great grandmother sounds like an amazing woman–the horse-whip–and the book burning. Yikes! I love her love of her dog. Perhaps you got your love of animals from her? The photos are great. In the one with Carlo (and where did that name come from, I wonder?), she looks ghostly. In the second photo where she’s smiling, she looks girlish.

    As far as unrelated subjects–well, I guess I always like to see connections between things. 🙂 I’m in the planning stages of some food and history related projects, and one will also involve women and family.

    • Merril, I’m so glad you can relate! I hoped you might with your knowledge and love of history. I am so proud of Cora Wilhelmina DeKorn Zuidweg for whipping that man! He was whipping his horse right in front of her house and she ran outside, grabbed the whip out of his hands, and lashed him with it. Yes, it might be an assault, but well-deserved! The book burning happened after the leukemia (she died at 57) reached her brain. I’m sure I did get my love of animals from her!
      Food and history! Another great pair, in my opinion. Of course, when I was in junior high, every class project we had I signed up to do the food part–red flannel hash (history), French onion soup (French), etc. Will you be blogging about your food and history projects???

      • Thanks for the additional info on your great grandmother–and what a great name she had!

        I also wanted to mention that the journal “Signs,” which covers women’s history and culture used to also publish poetry. I haven’t looked at in a while, but perhaps they might be interested in your women’ history/family poems.

        I don’t know if I’ll blog about the projects directly or not. They’re still in the planning stages. But as you know, I often write about family, food, and history anyway. 🙂

  3. “Because a face never reflects the same.” I love this, Luanne! I could spend hours going through old family photos. I’ve always been fascinated by the similar mannerisms among relatives.

    • Isn’t it amazing?! I had no idea, either, that resemblances could occur several generations later. I thought that romance novels where the protagonist looks like the portrait in the estate of an ancestor from several generations ago were ridiculous. But apparently not! I know that when adoptees meet birth relatives they are frequently astonished by this also.

  4. ‘what makes someone else’s dead ancestors interesting to readers’ is that they, too have dead ancestors

    • And that seems to work for a lot of us because I am fascinated with the dead ancestors of others. But I don’t understand people who throw out old photos of ancestors, things like that. Why are they so uninterested in their own background?

  5. Such amazing questions and ponderings you raise. I loved the way you structured your prose poem and related (no pun) to the people and pets in your photos. You are so right that times, events and light/shadows affect how we see ourselves (as well as them) in their image – and isn’t that the ultimate goal – finding our family connection past, present and future.

    Luanne – i think your focus on females would fit into any literary focus on gender as well as history and family. Brevity Magazine (online) is one that comes to mind as possible publication for your work in this area.

    • Ah, thanks so much, Sammy. You have such a beautiful way with words. One of these poems was accepted yesterday by California Journal of Poetics, so I’m pretty jazzed about that!
      Looking back at this post, I realize that the reason I am so late with commenting here is that the day I posted this my father passed away. He wasn’t expected to die right then. It seems so odd that this is the post on that day.

      • I imagine it was bittersweet to realize the timing of this post and the coincidence of looking for ourselves in images of our ancestral relatives even as you lose your father’s physical presence.

        Selfishly I’m glad you took awhile to respond because it gave me a chance to re-read your thought-provoking post and reflect anew. My only frustration with blogging is not having a book of favorite posts from favorite bloggers so I can scribble notes and thumb through the posts again and again.

        God forbid I start printing them out because that’s a pile of epic proportions !!!

        • LOL! I know what you mean though. Just having a list of your likes or comments isn’t it. Maybe we could create private blogs where we reblog posts we particularly want to remember. I wonder if you can reblog if your blog if private. Hmm.
          It was very bittersweet–and what an odd coincidence.

          • Luanne, I do have TWO private blogs set up to reblog stuff: one I call ‘Lessons’ for WP info posts or writing posts I want to learn from. The other is for blogposts I want to save and re-read.

            GUESS WHAT!!! I never read either one of them!!!! There’s just not enough time in the day to keep up with current blogposts, my own blog and re-read what I saved!!! Unless I want no non-cyber life 😎

  6. I agree with Derrick, but I’ll take it one step further: your interest makes them interesting. The connection with said ancestors that you forge (and share) through your art makes them interesting.

    I love the technique you describe, that when the material has ripened into a completed poem you feel you will have brought one woman’s experience to life. What a lovely way to honor and remember those women, who are so often (as you noted) lost to us through the bias of culture.

    • Jennifer, I was thinking that exact thought this morning re something else: that when someone is passionate about something it becomes interesting for other people. Why is that? I can’t figure it out. So often I’ll read a blog post about something I barely give a passing thought to–until I read the post, that is LOL. Then I’m caught up in it because the blogger is passionate about it.
      But you would think that a lot of women and some men would be interested to see the lives of these invisible women explored. Maybe that is how I should reconceptualize the whole thing–not genealogy, but invisible women.

      • Well, enthusiasm is contagious, and when someone is excited about something, we respond to the joy their excitement communicates. I really like your reconceptualization – invisible women is a much more intriguing (and perhaps more accurate) focus.

  7. I’ve never intentionally paired up unrelated subjects, but it’s happened on its own loads of times!

  8. I like how you did it with pairing unrelated themes, makes a good reading. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ah, thank you so much, Cecilia. Thank you for stopping by! and for chatting! P.S. I’m sorry it took me so long to respond here. My father died the day I wrote this post so I am behind in getting back to things.

  9. Bravo for taking on the history of “unknown” women in the family, a subject I ponder often, as I know so little about my female ancestors, too. I think you might be wrong, Luanne, in that I think this IS a universal subject – How women get lost in history because their work is deemed unimportant. I love how you are “bringing to life” these women from the past in your poems. Such a cool idea.

    • Susanne, that’s how I looked at it–that it’s a universal subject. After I started to send out these poems, I started to question that. Or maybe they didn’t think it was a good subject for poetry. Or they just didn’t care for the poems. But then yesterday another one was accepted, so that gives me encouragement. I feel as if these women have been invisible or unseen after death and maybe even to a certain degree while they were alive.

  10. I love your project and hope you can publish more poems, as well as the chapbook you plan. I don’t know why it would be more difficult to publish poems of such a personal nature compared to the more universal ones. The poems that come from the personal speak to me more, definitely more readily, that those poems about love in general, or birds, or apple trees 🙂 I really enjoyed your prose poem (and how cool you had it published and it’s one of the forms I’m studying in my class!). I have a scanned copy of a photo of my paternal grandfather and grandmother. My youngest nephew is the splitting image of my grandfather (who my nephew and I never knew, by the way). My sister (the keeper of the original photo) insists that I resemble grandmother … not sure about that … but it’s an odd configuration … me and my youngest nephew resembling my paternal grandparents.

    • Marie, I had one accepted yesterday–yay! I’m starting to get more and more interested in prose poems. Right about the same time you’ve piqued my interest in flash fiction. Maybe those two forms will reach to meet each other! Oh, that is so neat that your nephew looks like your grandfather! And that maybe you looked like your grandmother. Isn’t it incredible how these features pass on throughout the generations? I’m truly amazed by it!

  11. I, too, am intrigued by the connections to our ancestors and the similarities we share over the decades. My wife and I have done a lot of ancestry research about my family, and it’s those “stories” we discover that are so wonderful! Nice post. 😊

    • It’s great that you and your wife have done the ancestry research together. It’s fun and so rewarding and then you are sharing the little tidbits you dig up with each other! Have you found any professions in common in your family tree? Anything like that?

  12. I love reading about your plans for translating your female relatives into your poetry. I enjoy learning about your creative process. Keep your good boundaries and get back to “work.” <3

    • Hah, I think my boundaries are a little screwy right now. I was purposely not writing, but now I feel as if I can’t write. Ugh. I hope to solve that before too much time passes, but I don’t think I’m ready to write yet.

  13. Beautiful Luanne, I’m also interested in those ‘lost’ women of history.

    • I actually thought this is a topic important to culture, in general. Shouldn’t it be? I mean, we know about the history of wars and royalty and lots of men, but what do we really know about the lives of unknown women?

  14. I think it is a wonderful idea Luanne. Great to see you pushing those boundaries and creating the work that inspires you. To write about the people you are linked with, your lineage, is a beautiful testament to their existence. Love the piece.

  15. I love the idea of your writing poetry about your female ancestors, and the one of your great-grandmother is beautiful. I see The Family Kalamazoo as a chapbook!
    That’s interesting about your purposefully not writing – I write in fits and spurts with deplorable discipline so I wouldn’t know when I was not writing on purpose. 🙂
    Getting close to 70 seems to create a sense of urgency for my work.

    • Do you read Amy’s Brotman family history blog? She is one who has published her family history blog in a series of books. She sent me the information for doing this. But she is much more rigorous and focused and spends more time on the family history project, so her blog makes sense as a book. TFK would definitely have to be edited first ;).
      I had to laugh so hard at you not knowing when you weren’t writing on purpose. I think I am losing my focus on not writing on purpose and falling into the just-not-writing camp.
      Are you getting better, by the way?

      • Finally went to doctor today – when I had to resort to walker, I knew I’d let it go on too long…doc said I had a sprained knee and gave me a shot of cortisone in my knee which practically sent me into orbit but which he assures me will make me feel better later. When is later, I asked. No answer.
        I am so far behind in reading and writing I may have to go back to arithmetic!!
        Haven’t read Amy’s blog – I admire her for her persistence, though…you and I have the right spirit, but the flesh is weak.
        Did you have any interest in the dolls?? I’m so daft I can’t remember what you said.
        Catch ya later, Luanne. Have a good weekend.

        • Ugh, I sure hope you are on the way to recovery. You did wait a long time to go to the doctor! It must be so difficult to feel so constricted for such a long period. Amy’s blog is great and now she’s back from a trip to Europe and writing about it. Very interesting as it relates to her family. She lots a lot of family that she researched in the Holocaust. Re the dolls: YIKES! I remember reading late at night when I was on my phone or something where I couldn’t respond and now I don’t know where you wrote about them! But I will say, probably not, as I just posted about someone with a doll obsession and how I am NOT like her! One of the ways I cut down on doll buying is to only collect certain types: Asian (and only certain of those), Red Riding Hood, literary, etc. They were international, right?

          • Yes, mostly international…US native American…cultural…I need to read your latest posts…I’ve fallen way behind again. I thought you were probably only interested in those related to your family! I hope your weekend is a good one…

  16. I love pairing unrelated subjects together – you never know what it might reveal. It is great exercise when you are facing writer’s block.

  17. It really is fascinating to find these family resemblances from previous generations. I see this in my grandmother, who died 13 years ago at the age of 94, and how her mannerisms are carried through into my mother and my daughter. I would love to write about my grandmother, including her recipes and her stories, so interesting, for instance, when she lived in Australia for 7 years. Her father was a Baptist Minister and wrote a book called Seven Years Under the Southern Cross about their time there. I inherited the silver tea tray and set given him upon his retirement before he returned to England. And interestingly, Granny was dyslexic and struggled with telling left and right – just like my daughter. There are many links I would love to explore further. And how wonderful that you are doing just that with your ancestors Luanne. When you’re not writing that is 😉

    • Did your grandmother’s traits bypass you then? going to your mother and then to your daughter? Oh, her story sounds fascinating and so does the silver service! The dyslexia link is interesting, too. Don’t you wonder how many of these things that we think of as relatively modern or recent are long standing human traits? I love researching family history and part of that is, I think, because it’s such “local history”–the small picture, rather than the large picture.
      Trust me, lately I am definitely NOT writing.

      • Oh I didn’t put that well did I? I forgot about me, ha! I was very close to my dear Granny, miss her now.
        ‘Local history’ – yes, fascinating, definitely so much to be learnt from the small picture.
        Hope your writing break is beneficial. I’m having to take an enforced blogging break due to ongoing laptop issues…or, as I call it ‘The Never Ending Story’. I’ll email… xo

        • It doesn’t seem to be ending, does it?! What is wrong now?! Stupid computers.

          • It’s my ‘new’ laptop – it’s a lemon. And now they tell me I can’t get my money back as it is over it’s 30 day guarantee, so has to be sent back to the manufacturer’s and they say it will be 15 working days. Still, at least I am writing on my memoir on the old Word on my old laptop (pray it keeps going, ha!) so a silver lining there. But I agree. Stupid computers….grrrrrrrr

  18. There are a series of comments here which you may or may not come back to find, sometimes our lives have things that come up. I suspect your father is not doing so well at this time. I am going from where I left off, which was a post about cats and moving forward to catch up with your life, Luanne. So sorry I fell behind. . .
    I think it is so exciting to see the resemblance and also, the differences in our ancestor’s lives and appearances. You do look, even now like this great grandmother, Luanne! Hugs, Robin

    • Robin, I am behind with these posts and just realized that this post was published the day that my father passed away.
      Yes, the resemblance is really uncanny. So strange after so many generations! xo

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