The way this process seems to be working is I am writing a story, then putting the words into stanzas, I’m doing 5 line stanzas with this one, then I have to go into each stanza and find poetry in the words. Rearrange them, change them, delete and add words, but somehow I have to turn the prose into poetry. The advantage to the long poem is I have a lot of words and space to work with, on the other hand I have to figure out what to do with all the words and how to fill the space to make a proper long poem. Based on what I have read so far this is NOT how it is usually done. Most of the really good long form poets write poetry. They do not start with a prose structure. So I may or may not continue with this particular process but I will keep at it for now with an open mind about it’s efficacy. If this fails I will try the more traditional methods that other successful poets have employed. Why reinvent the wheel…
This is the story of my people
the Lewis clan from Taney Holler in Harlan County, KY.
It starts out kind of rough around the edges because I was only 11 years old
when I started writing it down in 1920.
I left it as it was written at the time
because it seemed like the honest thing to do.
Later it gets smoother and more like a real story
or maybe some kind of poem because I went to school
and studied hard so I could leave the holler
and have adventures out in the world.
All my life I kept my roots deep in the hollers and fields
and towns of Harlan County. No matter where I wandered
I always circled back around to the front porch of the house
I was raised in and where I plan to be when my time comes.
I am putting these words down so my kin who come after me
will know where and who they come from…
Mr. Jubal Townes – Wood Chopper
Oh man that ol’ Jubal Townes
could swing a ax. Big as a house,
his laugh would BOOM
his ax whistlin’ Dixie, then BAM
Stack it straight stack it tight
Laney Lewis, stack it neat
as spinster’s china cabinet
BOOM DIXIE BAM
In the barbershop they say “Jubal?
That cat’s choppin’ is art.”
“Yep, that is a man can split a log.”
“He chops wood for widows.”
“Well he surely keeps ’em warm.”
“A peculiar man Laney Lewis.”
“The War it done him wrong.”
“Damn War done wrong by all them boys.”
“He says choppin’ takes up space
don’t leave room for thinkin’.”
Boys come back broken,
all of ‘em in every holler.
It’s in the eyes, the way they
talk, act around folks, or think.
Jubal, he chops wood.
Most of them boys
hang around pitchin’ horseshoes
and spittin’ tobacco juice.
Waiting for nightfall
when the stillhouses open.
In the process of trying to find poetry in these words…
Well maybe he was, but Mr. Townes didn’t strike me as any more
or less peculiar than most of the other men in the holler. The main
difference I could see was that he spent his days splittin’ wood for
folks while the rest of ‘em just hung around pitchin’ horseshoes
and spittin’ tobacco juice.
Come nightfall all them fellers, even Jubal Townes and my Pa
could be found at one of them stillhouses. What they did there
I don’t know because the one time I tried to see for myself,
well my momma took a switch to my legs and I ain’t never tried it again.
Still, sometimes I think it might be worth a spell of momma’s switchin’
to know what the men did in those shacks ‘cept drink corn liquor
One thing for certain about Jubal he had a streak of different
in his soul that even the preacher couldn’t explain.
It was said that something happened to him in the War.
But I reckon lots of things happened to lots of other men in that War
and far as I know none of them could hold a candle
to Mr. Townes’ log splittin’ talents.
My big sister Angelina, named on-a-count of my grandma said
she was a difficult birth and just about killed my Ma
and the only thing that saved ‘em both was a Angel sent down from the Lord.
Even the Doctor said,
“It was the Lord’s hand that birthed that baby.
All I did was follow His lead.”
So Grandma named her right on the spot
before anyone could ask what her name would be.
And she was like a angel all her life.
Well Angelina worked in Clarksburg during the War,
first as a helper at the USO then later when the factory opened
she went to work there makin’ howitzer cannons
so’s our boys could shoot the huns’ boys
from here to the county seat which my brother Amos says
is about ten miles as the cannonball flies.
Angelina says she learned a lot about soldiers
and other kinds of men there in Clarksburg.
She said some of them couldn’t talk or hear or even see
though there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with them that anybody could tell.
There was a lot of wounded boys that came through
the big Veterans hospital in Clarksburg
and Angelina got to know some of them at the USO
and by bringing ‘em coffee and donuts and cigarettes at the hospital.
Why them boys even got her to try a cigarette,
probably so’s they could laugh
when she turned green and coughed and up-chucked
like Jamie Steele did the day Robert Travis
snuck some of his Pa’s corn liquor into school
and double dared Jamie to drink it.
But Angelina got the last laugh on them boys
when she showed ‘em how a Taney Holler girl
blows smoke rings, cause she may have been like a Angel
but she was still a Holler gal born and bred.
So Angelina was talking about Mr. Townes at dinner one night.
She said he chops wood the way a flamenco dancer dances,
“it’s rhythm and power that comes from the center of his body,
he is a fulcrum and the axe is an extension of his will.
When he swings, it is more like a brushstroke or dance step than an act of violence.”
Well Granny started laughing like I never heard before,
except maybe at the greased pig chase down to the county fair.
She just laughed and kept repeatin’ “now don’t that beat all” over and over.
My Ma turned the color of biscuit dough
and looked like she might fall over right there in the kitchen
‘til Grandpa slid a chair up behind her.
Pa fetched his jug from over the stove
and giving everyone a drink, even a few drops for me and Amos.
Then he stood in the middle of the kitchen and announced
we was toasting the, “smartest young gal and the first of
a long line of Lewises who is gonna find their way in the world
outside these hollers and the world will be a better place for it.”
And Angelina did leave the holler and go to live in the biggest cities in the world. An’ I got postcards from each one of them. From places I never heard of before but I sure learned about ‘em ‘cause one of the things Angelina did was send us a crate full of books called the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I never did go to those books looking for answers but that I found them,
and plenty more questions to keep asking. My teacher, Miss Louisa Barret,
said those books was one of the greatest inventions ever
and they was gonna fill this country with smart people
who knew how to get things done, and I was gonna be one of them.
Oh my, but this story has gone off the rails.
Maybe I better finish telling about Jubal Townes.
When Jubal heard about what Angelina said about him
he got her to try and explain it to him.
He was struggling to connect wood chopping
with some kind of fancy Spanish dance step.
Well they ended up at the Clarksburg library
where she showed Jubal pictures of what the dancers looked like
and then they listened to a record of some Spanish fellow
playing a guitar faster than even Joshua Steele could play
The Devil Went Down to Georgia on the fiddle.
So Jubal liked what he saw and heard about flamenco
and took Angelina’s words as a high compliment.
Having been a soldier in the War Jubal knew
the world was full of just about anything you wanted
if you just looked in the right places. Thanks to Angelina
he had got off to a good start at the library.
Before long Jubal was enrolled at the Weslyan College
because of the GI Bill to learn Spanish
and study up on the country with the intention
of going there, to Spain, one day.
He also started sporting a flamenco hat he got on mail order.
He tried to learn the guitar but his hands were just too big and calloused.
So he learned some dance steps and flamenco songs
which he practiced while chopping wood.
It was a site to be witnessed, a man tall and broad enough
to fill a doorway, stomping the ground in work boots,
singing the Arrinconamela all the while filleting black locust hardwood
with a four foot long broad axe that he wielded like a paintbrush.
I would venture a guess that Jubal Townes of Taney Holler
and lately of Andalusia in the South of Spain
was the most unique axe-handler since Paul Bunyan
and was a sight the people of Andalusia are still talking about today
some 25 years since he passed.