I remember lying upstairs in the old farmhouse, snuggled down in a feather bed, buried beneath layers of homemade quilts. Fully awake, I would listen to my mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles talking, their voices drifting up to me through the vent in the floor. I enjoyed the music of their speech, the meter: the up and down patterns and the various inflections and tones of each individual.
Many of the patterns were identical. They were from the same family, after all. But some had moved away, as my mother had, to the “big city” and their speech had changed – evolved. I found this fascinating!
Mawmaw would say “Well, I’ll red up the table then.” Her voice deep in her throat: resonant and rich. Mom answered “Okay, Mother. I’ll help you clean up”: this said much lighter and higher in the throat. Aunt Louise replied “Fetch them dishes on over here then, Mam-aw.” Like Mawmaw, she spoke deep within the larynx, emitting the same sonorous sound. Beautiful! Exhilarating! It was difficult to drift off in spite of the caressing feathers and quilts. Who could sleep with this verbal lullaby just one floor below?
My paternal grandfather and my father were both poets. My mother and father divorced when I was nine-months-old, so it wasn’t until age 11 that my father and I began to get to know each other. I remember him coming into my house and laying a piece of paper onto the dining room table. “That’s the first stanza of a poem,” he informed. “Your grandfather wrote a poem starting with these four lines and then asked me to. It’s your turn.” I remember picking up the paper, curious…poetry, I’d never tried poetry.
I picked up the pencil my father offered me and finished my version of the poem titled “Poetry Problems.” My father lifted my composition to his eyes, perused it and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You have the gift.”
I have since written hundreds of poems, most of which have been published, and have daily thanked the memory of my grandfather and my father for the genetic gift to me.
With this wealth of dialect and poetry surrounding me throughout my childhood, it was no wonder I became a writer. What else could I do but scribe the music of my family’s voice?
One day I sat down to see
If I could write some poetry,
And found I had a hectic time
To get the silly stuff to rhyme.
No words would go either here or there,
They simply refused to go anywhere,
And so with a sad and doleful frown
I slowly put my pencil down.
Instead of trying to go on again,
I wouldn’t do it at all if I couldn’t do it then.
Maybe if I had worked long enough,
I could finally have written the kind of stuff
That poets get paid for – every day,
But, no, I had to have it my way.
So I’ll tell you something you all should know
Don’t ever quit ‘till you’ve reached your goal.
Don’t do as I did, and quit – just like that.
If at first you strike out, go back up to bat.
©1978 Debra Shiveley Welch
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