Iron Horse Cowgirls: Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s

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scan motorcycle womanStarting a new project is one of the most exciting things in my world. There is so much to learn and always interesting challenges along the way. This book has the working title of IRON HORSE COWGIRLS: Women Motorcyclists of the 1930s and 1940s. Many years ago I “inherited” an extensive collection of vintage snapshots. The photos had been taken and collected by an early woman biker named Louise Scherbyn. Louise loved everything about riding and motorcycles. She not only founded Women’s International Motorcycle Association (WIMA), but she was a great collector of motorcycle paraphernalia, much of which is currently at the Indian Motorcycle Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

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These 600+ photos have been in my possession for a long time but I confess to never having really looked at them all until I decided to put this book together. Notice the junior Iron Horse Cowgirl above? You can tell that she is wistfully dreaming of the day she’ll be able to ride off by herself into the sunset.

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This is one of my favorite photos of the collection, maybe because it’s “colorized.” This women’s motorcycle club was called the “Tag-a-Longs.” Is that because they tended to tag along with the boys on rides? And whatever happened to Jodhpurs? They made so much sense for riders of all types. I covet the boots. Goggles and aviator caps were the precursors to today’s helmets, but it worked for them. Strong, courageous and beautiful women!

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Many of the photos show what city and town life was like back then. I’m working to include some historical detail, like the WPA, the War in Europe, bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II as well as some other facts of the era.

It’s so interesting to let these photos tell me their stories. My job is to allow this to happen. Oh, and to build my audience on social media. But that’s a whole other blog!

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Two Motorcycle Poems

mc 5-19RIDING MOTORCYCLE

Every ride reminds me of death.

The two of us, a drunken pickup, errant deer

something explodes, slow flight after impact

a flash of time and then the fall

a branch in the throat, a leg turned all wrong

darkened shreds of skin–

Let this machine pass powerfully through me.

My body is the engine, his body is the fuel.

We rule our gears and mirrors and chrome.

Our leather stories are mortal sketches.

We swallow the horizon.

 

HARLEY GUYS AT BIKE WEEK

He watches for Dyna Glides, Sportsters, Heritage Classics and Fat Boys. Each is precious in his sight, as if he hasn’t already seen thousands of them, as if each were an endangered species. This is how Harley guys are. “One Hog and two Gold Wings,” he reports, tireless in his mission.

I am writing poems on Bear Butte to escape the rumble of V-Twins in town. The Indians come up here on vision quests with offerings tied with white cloth for the east where the sun rises, and black for the west where the sun sets. Not a shaman but a Harley guy descends the mountain path.

Hard to tell if he found what he was looking for, his face craggy as the mountain’s, pockmarked with switchbacks and fallen rocks. His legs and arms operate like gears with some teeth missing. There are many patches sewn on his leather vest, skull and crossbones the uniform of his tribe.

The streets of Sturgis are striped with bikes and one of them is ours. Harley guys are called to this place created by the Great Spirit for quiet reflection of earth and sky. A raucous roar winds through the pristine hills. August again. Like swallows and monarchs, they must all return to “Go.”

We rode ours, through the monotony of South Dakota, counting the miles and bales of hay piled in nines. In Butternut, there was a store, “Bibles & Bait.” Grain elevators along railroad tracks. The wind resisted all the way.

Sturgis is bible camp for Harley guys and old hipsters who never grew up or grew up just enough to become lawyers, stockbrokers, administrators or otherwise smart enough to eke out the wherewithal for a down-payment. Theirs is a fraternity of focus, admiration of leather and well-shined steeds.

The noise is deafening and some bikers wear earplugs but never helmets. There are dykes on bikes, fag bikers, bikers for Jesus, illiterate and itinerant bikers. We are the only helmeted bikers. I explain about my precious brain and face. The boys selling leather headwraps roll their eyes.

Sturgis is one big parade of colors and chrome, detailing and slogans like “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand” and “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” on T-shirts over free-swinging breasts. Tattooed spider webs on fleshy cheeks. I feel pretty tough in my leather vest.

Some Harley guys sleep with their bikes at the campgrounds, and their old ladies, not ladies at all but crusted versions of the little girls their mothers polished with pride, swearing like sailors and smoking Camels, their tender little bottoms callused, their perfect breasts sinking slowly with gravity and bad roads.

I sleep with my Harley guy in the lumpy bed of someone’s farmhouse. At night we drink beers and watch the stars from lawn chairs set next to our bike, which glows in the moonlight, a blinding beautiful red mixed of roses and fine cabernets, sleek of shape and smoothest smooth, rubber and steel, chrome breathing machine.

Each ride is love’s gentle brush with danger, the air above, the pavement below, my full body against his, both of us leather-hard and all the tenderness of Earthlove, spotting bald eagles and Fat Boys, proud to be American, flying with the Great Spirit, who laughs with us on each ride, which is to live.

After “Watermelon Hill”

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The play at the History Theatre, “Watermelon Hill,” was inspired by my adoption-related books. How tremendous it is for an author to have her work honored like this. I was recently asked to reflect on my experiences for the theater’s board meeting. Since I couldn’t attend in person, I wrote this little “report” and Lily Baber Coyle, the playwright, read it to the group:

This run of “Watermelon Hill” was no less than amazing. I attended every performance and spoke to hundreds of people. In addition to autographing and selling out my complete supply of books, I had the opportunity to hear so many stories. This play has generated healing for many whose lives have been touched by adoption.

Birthmothers confided in me, and some have never talked about their painful experiences until now. Adopted children said that they better understand why their mothers gave them up. Adoptive parents talked about having deeper understanding of these complex relationships. Members of the adoption triad shared about their efforts to contact birth parents, children, siblings, cousins and other lost family members.

Birth parents came to the play with their reunited children. Parents brought their teenagers. Friends, relatives, neighbors, spouses… everyone had a story to tell and “Watermelon Hill” opened the door and gave them permission.

Long-buried feelings surfaced. There was outright weeping and many hugs. People shared with each other — some total strangers. Almost everyone wanted to talk. I also noticed several who were too moved to talk, and wiped away tears while they seemed lost in thought. It all was both humbling and gratifying for David and me.

If you were there and I wasn’t able to spend enough time with you, feel free to contact me by email at lbmckay@yahoo.com. And thank you for your support.

As I said at our closing gathering, I congratulate Lily, Ron, Anya, the actors and everyone who had even the smallest part in this production. You have brought much-needed comfort to a huge number of people.

In 1966, when I was at Watermelon Hill, we were ordered to never tell. Thank you for telling and helping us tell, History Theatre.

I believe that a successful play is similar to a successful poem in that they both contain layers of meaning and emotion.

In our world today, it’s important that the many layers of messages within “Watermelon Hill” continue to be heard.

An Interview for the Play, “Watermelon Hill”

My colleague, Kendra Plant, recently interviewed me about the play at the History Theatre in St. Paul, “Watermelon Hill.” She asked some interesting questions so I thought I’d share parts of the interview here, along with some additional thoughts.

KP: How do you identify as an artist/writer?

LBM: As a poet, I am a reporter working to make sense of this world through my own set of filters. I try to access the qualities of humility, appreciation, empathy and gratitude in all of my writing and teaching, no matter how deeply I must dig.

KP: What inspired you to write Out Of The Shadows?

LBM: My first nonfiction book was Shadow Mothers. Out of the Shadows: Stories of Adoption and Reunion is the updated version. My subjects are women who placed their babies for adoption in the 1960s and were eventually reunited with their adult children. Working on Shadow Mothers taught me how to tell real stories in an honest and intimate way. When I envision people reading these books, I see friends sharing a bottle of wine curled up in front of the fire taking turns reading aloud to each other.

Personal experience was the initial reason I started this work. In 1966 I had a baby boy and placed him for adoption. I was told it was forever and I would never see him again. When Minnesota laws became a bit more open, we met again and have been close ever since. He’s almost 50 years old now. My story is included in the books.

Out of the Shadows includes the original stories, new stories, essays and additional content. It also contains updates of several of the stories, documenting how the reunions have developed over the years

KP: How did you navigate the challenges of making private stories public?

These women wanted to tell their stories. There are other women, many of whom I have met, who are too damaged to talk or even think about what happened to them. It’s important to know that we were told never to “tell.” This is all very important — to know about this dark place in history. There are factions in our society that want us to return to those punitive and inhumane practices. This should never happen again. To anyone.

KP: Did you find the writing to be cathartic?

I believe in this work and I’m happy to do it. What’s important to me is that Out of the Shadows as well as “Watermelon Hill” has brought healing and peace to many people, including women who have been damaged by these experiences, their families and loved ones.

“Watermelon Hill” first ran in 2001 and now, fifteen years later, it’s back, more skillful, soulful and profound than ever. I am thrilled and gratified.

So, You Want to be Published?

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(A version of this was first published at http://www.loft.org)

I first went public when I painstakingly printed the poem “God Made the Birds” in my Big Chief tablet and read it aloud to my mom, who was sweating over a pressure cooker at the time. She responded, “That’s very nice, dear. Now go write something else.”

And I did. For me it all led up to publications in newspapers, magazines, anthologies and finally books of my own. I self-published a poetry chapbook, which turned out to be the perfect place to start. The process taught me about ordering, themes, visuals and the printing process itself. I was lucky to have the help of Coco Connolly, an amazing artist. Plus, I was working in marketing and advertising, and that gave me more valuable experience, skills and contacts.

As Deborah Keenan has been known to say, “Publishing is a crap shoot.” One never knows the moods or whims of any editor. Editors for print and online literary magazines change regularly and lit mags often go bust. Still, my poems have been widely published. Why? Simply because I sent them out. When I received rejections, I sent them somewhere else. I never gave up and I’m still like that.

When my first non-fiction book, Shadow Mothers: Stories of Adoption and Reunion, was published, I taught myself how to apply my marketing knowledge to get my book into the world. Self-promotion is often difficult for creative types, but it’s a necessity. And it can result in some amazing outcomes, as I have learned.

The play, “Watermelon Hill,” was inspired by my adoption-related works. The History Theatre in St. Paul contacted me after hearing me interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. Lily Baber Coyle was hired as playwright. Lily and I spent the next two years interviewing people and conducting research for the play, which ran in 2001. It was the experience of a lifetime, learning about the theater and seeing parts of my own life experiences portrayed on stage.

This past winter I got word that the History Theatre will be staging “Watermelon Hill” again. It’s a whole new production starring some great actors, including the fabulous Sally Wingert. (Mark your calendars if you’re interested. The play runs March 19 through April 10, 2016.)

The universe can offer some remarkable rewards if we do our jobs with trust and diligence.

I have designed the class, “To Publish and Present,” especially for poets who are ready to go public with their work. This class is also for people who want to be more widely published. I loved the idea of sharing what I’ve learned over the years and giving back to my community of writers.

In this class we fine-tune our poems through structured critique in workshops as well as personal response from me. Participants are given practical guidelines and resources to maximize publishing efforts. The final section of the class focuses on how to most effectively present to the public. I offer this information in private one-on-one sessions, too.

Never give up on your hopes and dreams. Rewards are within reach.

Looking Back at Some Older Poems

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When I heard the news that the History Theatre was bringing back the play, “Watermelon Hill,” I revisited my poem that provided the play’s title:

WATERMELON HILL

     “Close the door and never look back. This is finished for you now.” -Sister Marie Dolores

After she got herself in trouble, they sent her

away to Watermelon Hill, which was not really

its name, but what the boys yelled to the swollen girls

who were to come due at that home for unwed mothers.

A crucifix glared from the roof.

Laurel Taylor was not her real name.

What was real was absolved by Mother

Superior with a flap of her cloak.

Under the Immaculate Heart of Mary

was posted a litany of daily chores.

Miles of buffed linoleum, bars on the windows,

Doctor Crutchfield on Wednesdays, jelly jars

filled with vitamins. The tables were set for forty

or so, depending on who was in labor.

The tuna casseroles smelled like bleach.

Girls back from the hospital sat on donut pillows.

Days passed and the moon sickened.

Laurel Taylor, on her horrible cot with the stars

moving inside her, tried to pray.

It was best to give up your baby, not see or hold it.

It was best to place your baby, make a plan for it.

Laurel Taylor tried to pray in the chapel,

her cardigan sweater open like a gate.

She fought to be good, to give her blood to some

nice family, to cleanse a child from her name.

Laurel Taylor tried to keep the monsters away

but under some god’s baleful eye, they rose

in a spine-cramping pain that was only the start

of the tearing off.

She lost her son in that war. Wading in water,

being able to see her feet again, she knew there would be

no anointing, no Extreme Unction.

After signing the surrender, she knew

the penance is fault and the loss is eternal.

And here is the poem that was featured in the recent Poet-Artist Collaboration at the Crossings Art Center in Zumbrota, MN:

MOTHER’S BASKET

After the rain, in her green bean days

Mother hung sheets in the yard

clasping an arsenal of wooden pins

between her brand new dentures.

After the sheets, Mother weeded

the potatoes and peas

her back curved like a turtle.

She knew nettle, knew how to avoid

conflict and not rock the boat.

Keep your nose clean, she said, and,

it takes two to make an argument.

In her realm of sweat and pickles

Mother believed in things.

In the harmony of Monday wash

and Tuesday ironing. She knew how

to ask St. Anthony to find her keys

and that things should be done

because she said so.

Mother whipped through crosswords

as quickly as folding a basket of clothes.

Words were easy. It was time that was hard.

After the gravel driveway was paved, after

she broke her arm and the doctor taped it

to her soft body, after the garden was seeded

for grass, Mother watched a riotous sunset

as if she were seeing it for the first time.

She saw apples and cinnamon rising

like a pie and peapods wriggling along

the tree line.

Lastly, here is a poem that examines every poet’s favorite subject: time:

PART TIME WORK

I only work part time.

The rest of it is spent

wishing for more.

While I wish, time

melts in the summer sun,

trickles into the street

and is washed down

the gutter with crumpled

leaves and gum wrappers.

My valuable time is now

in the company of sewer

rascals including rats,

that scrabble through pipes

like sand in a rainstick.

Opportunity lost,

only part of time is left

as an airplane scours

the eastern sky for hours.

Pondering or Pandering?

Let’s talk about honesty in writing. Have you ever read a poem or prose piece that didn’t quite ring true? Maybe you couldn’t tell exactly when or where, but the piece felt flat or unsatisfying. Forced or false. The language might have been overly flowery or obviously coarse. Writers sometimes overlook how smart readers tend to be. Readers have almost a sixth sense about what the writer is up to.

We as writers must respect our beloved readers enough to give them something real. We want to invite them to follow us in this solitary journey. After all, where would we be without them?

How do we write from a place of honesty? Here are some of the questions I ask myself before sending my work into the universe:

  • Is this genuine? Am I present in the work with some risk involved?
  • Am I writing to learn or find some possible solution?
  • Am I experiencing something here in a fresh way?
  • Am I seeing or showing something through a new lens or filter?
  • Is this a cliché? Can I say this in a more unusual and interesting way?
  • Is my language clear and concise? Do I make a point or conclusion of some sort?
  • Is this showing off or something true in itself?

In a way, we write to fail. We write to reach something impossible.To turn ourselves inside out and muck around with what’s there. I rejoice when I come upon an honest effort to communicate from a place of humility and sincere desire.

So do the editors of the publications we admire.

When Poetry Goes Beyond the Page

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Here is my Motionpoem, “Carousel.” Just imagine it projected across the vast facade of the St. Paul Union Depot:

Carousel

On October 10 and 11, as darkness fell, this film and three others were shown in St. Paul, Minnesota. Larger than life is an understatement. Hearing the words of my poem boom through huge speakers like an important announcement was humbling. I knew it would be big but I wasn’t prepared to feel so dwarfed by the experience.

I was taken into the film. It encompassed me. I was light and color, spinning, riding, yearning, doomed, and then, slowly, lowered down into the earth. It was a very close encounter.

The film, “Carousel,” was exactly what I had in mind — and more so. I think it helped me peek around the corners of my poem, and under the floorboards, to see further interpretations. Poetry is all about communication and my messages were successfully conveyed. For me, the additional images, sounds and emotions inserted by the film makers are multicolored icing on a sumptuous cake.

Before this experience, I thought of public art as something nice that is just there. I never gave much thought to the interactive qualities of it. During “Carousel,” children danced and tumbled on the grass with the music. People walking by gave double-takes before stopping and gazing up at the building. Some shrugged and kept on walking but most seemed mesmerized and watched the whole thing. Seeing so many people seeing my poem, I was struck at how far-reaching and powerful this art form can be.

As Todd Boss, founder of Motionpoems, has been known to say, It’s putting poetry right in people’s faces where they can’t ignore it. Don’t you think the world would be a better, kinder place if everyone appreciated and wrote poetry? The next time you come upon public art, think about who might be influenced by it. Then start writing your story or poem on the possibilities of public art.

 

An Interview for “Arrivals and Departures”

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I was recently contacted by Saara Myrene Raappana who is working with the motionpoems team on our “Arrivals and Departures” project. Saara asked me if I would answer a few questions about the creation of my poem, “Carousel,” soon to be a motionpoem and projected across the facade of the St. Paul Union Depot. (Friday, October 10 at sundown and you’re all invited.) Here are the questions and answers:

Q:When did you write “Carousel?” Was it inspired by the contest, or did it already exist? What inspired it?

A: Like many of my poems, “Carousel” evolved over time. It began with awareness and experience. While visiting the Santa Monica Pier in California, a friend and I mounted brightly painted steeds on that historic icon. Weeks later I had the opportunity to ride on Cafesjian’s carousel at Como Park in St. Paul. Carousels seemed to haunt me for several months. The dizzying circular movement, the horses ahead, the horses behind, the other animals and the lonely sled. I imagined being one of the horses — part of the herd but an individual as well. The endless ride and ultimate hopelessness of the situation fascinated me. Words started to arrive, unbidden and out of order. Gnashing. Garish. Chase. Singular. This poem wanted to be more formal than much of my other work. My job was to get out of the way and let it happen.

Q: The image of the horse who never departs nor arrives but is perpetually “in the chase still” and “running for my life” is a haunting one. Is there anything in particular that you connect this image to, metaphorically?

A: Uh… perhaps life itself?

Q: There’s a tension between the title, Carousel — its implication of the friendliest of carnival rides — and the poem’s theme of a race for and from life that goes on in perpetuity. Were you aware of that tension while writing the poem? If so, how?

A: I was absolutely aware of the tension. To quote Archibald MacLeish, “A poem should not mean/but be.” My goal in writing this poem was to “be” the essence of the carousel as I envisioned it — its malevolent aura, rather than the outward appearance of a fun ride.

Q: You said on your website that being chosen for “Arrivals and Departures” was like winning the lottery. Since being selected, have you talked to the filmmaker or received updates? What’s it been like to wait to see “Carousel,” the motionpoem? How does it differ from waiting for a paper publication? How is it the same?

A: The filmmakers at Pixel Farm graciously invited me to their studios for a meeting. I was honored that they wanted my opinion on the feel, tone and look of the film. During that meeting it was instantly obvious that we had the same ideas about the poem. Since then I have seen preliminary visuals and heard some of the background music. The filmmakers get full creative license, and I support that process. Waiting for this only builds the excitement for me. Being published is always gratifying and this is so much more — a giant, moving poem, of mine.

I might compare it to this: Some years ago, my book about adoption and reunion was inspiration for the play, “Watermelon Hill,” which ran at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Seeing my experiences portrayed onstage was one of the most profound moments of my life. I’m eagerly anticipating this next one.

 

How to Launch Your New Book

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I am currently teaching a class titled “To Publish and Present.” Many people are intimidated with the whole idea of taking charge regarding the precious work you have produced over a number of years. This is meant as some practical advice. It might look overwhelming at first, but take one step at a time and your book will be successfully launched into the world.

BASIC ORDER OF THINGS TO DO TO LAUNCH A NEW BOOK (USING MY SUBJECTS OF ADOPTION AND REUNION AS SAMPLE CONTENT)

BEFORE THE BOOK IS PUBLISHED:
1. Make sure there are no typos or clunky parts in the book. It’s a good idea to hire a professional proofreader, since the author is usually the worst person to do this task.
2. Make sure all front matter is complete and accurate (ISBN, copyright info, Dedication, Acknowledgements, Table of Contents…
3. Make sure all text and headers are accurate and consistent for size, positioning and type font (the proofreader should include this.)
4. Prepare your “elevator statement” (the short version – what this book is about, why it’s important.) This is your key marketing message.
5. Prepare your longer remarks based on your elevator statement.
6. Research your niche (adoption, reunion, open adoption, healing…) You can do virtually all of this on the internet. Email everyone with your pitch. Offer to give readings and presentations and lead discussions.
7. Practice the things you’ll be offering. If you have a longsuffering husband like I do, practice on him.
8. Keep an ongoing list of places to send review copies. These are people who might review your book, or use it in another way – with clients, colleagues or associates. You will be sending out free books, but make sure the recipients know that they are helping you get the book into the world.
9. Get a head shot taken and have it handy in your computer.
10. Write a powerful press release and have it handy in your computer.
11. Write a pitch for radio and TV programs and have it handy in your computer. (Do a show on…etc.)
12. Have the book cover handy in your computer.
13. Start lining up readings when you know the exact publication date. Many bookstores book authors months in advance. Contact stores where you travel, where you have family and friends… anyone who can help you get an audience. Typically, you approach the store with an email that contains your book description, with head shot, cover and press release attached.
I love to support the indies. Common Good Books, SubText, Bookcase in Wayzata, Mikawbers, Magers & Quinn, Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, etc. Notice bookstores wherever you go. Wander in and talk to the owners or managers about your book. Ask them if they would like to carry it or take some copies on consignment. (You get paid, minus the standard 40% discount, if they sell them.) Consignment is good for the small stores because there is no risk.
WHEN THE BOOK IS PUBLISHED:
1. Send out all your review copies. Follow up with a phone call and/or email. Don’t be afraid to ask the local newspapers to review your book. Contact the little neighborhood papers and tell them about your new book. Suggest they do a little article about you. They usually appreciate any new content.
2. Keep booking readings, but be careful not to do too many in the same area. You need to make sure you have an audience. A good way to do this is to team up with another author (one who has a good following) and pitch both authors to the bookstore.
3. Talk to everyone about your book and ask them to help you get it into the world.
4. My friend, the highly successful and generous Warren Hanson (A Cup of Christmas Tea, The Next Place, etc.) sends an extra book to anyone who orders his book. I have tried this, too. I say, “Either give it to someone who needs it or give it to someone who can help it get into the world.” Being generous is good. Plus it’s good for the karma.
5. Contact book groups and offer to appear for a free reading and discussion. (If they do your book, they have to buy copies to read it.) These can be very good gigs.
6. Now that you’ve had some experience talking and writing about your book, contact radio and TV stations. Any station that has a talk segment. You can do much of this via email. Send them your pitch material. Make sure you have a “call to action” for interviews. An 800# or easy email, website or some easy way for people to get your book. You mention that twice toward the end of the interview.
7. Check out book festivals and, if it makes sense, buy a table or share one with another author with a similar or complementary book.
EVERY DAY THEREAFTER, ESPECIALLY DURING THE FIRST YEAR:
1. Keep checking the internet for new contacts and possibilities. (Using adoption as sample subject matter.)
2. Talk to everyone about your book. You never know who might know someone who knows someone who can help you.
3. Go everywhere. Always say yes.
4. Explore the social service agencies post adoption programs, American Adoption Congress, MN Coalition for Adoption Reform…
5. Create a following. Do a blog on your website. Or do a whole new website for this book.
6. Propose a workshop session for a conference. Write articles for adoption-related magazines (Adoption Today and Adoptive Families) with excerpts from your book and your website.
7. Be a guest blogger for other sites, with a lively and informative article (of course, quoting or mentioning your book.) There is a vast universe on the internet. You could write a form letter offering to guest blog and blind copy it to a bunch of adoption-related sites.
8. Talk to birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees – all sides of the adoption triad. Be a friend to all.