May 21, 2009

Durum wheat

by Lisa Martin-Demoor

Memory at its finest lacks corroboration
—no photographs, no diaries—
nothing to pin the past on the present with, to make it stick.
Just because you've got this idea
of red fields stretching along the tertiary roads
of Saskatchewan, like blazing, contained fires —
just because somewhere in your memory
there's a rust-coloured pulse
taking its place among canola yellow
and flax fields the huddled blue of morning azures—
just because you want to
doesn't mean you can
build a home for that old, peculiar ghost.

Someone tells you you've imagined it,
that gash across the ripe belly of summer,
and for a year, maybe two, you believe them.
Maybe you did invent it, maybe as you leaned,
to escape the heat, out the Pontiac's backseat window
you just remembered it that way
because you preferred the better version.

Someone tells you this.
But what can they know of faith?
To ask you to leave behind this insignificance.
This innocence that can't be proved: what the child saw
of the fields as she passed by, expecting nothing.

You have to go there while there's still time.
Back to the red flag of that field, blazing in the wind.
While you're still young enough to remember
a flame planted along a road. While you're still
seeing more than there is to see.

"Durum wheat" by Lisa Martin-Demoor, from One Crow Sorrow. © Brindle & Glass, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Alexander Pope (books by this author) was born in London on this day in 1688 — at exactly 6:45 p.m., as he later noted in his journal. He started a long poem when he was in his teens, and published it just before his 23rd birthday, called Essay on Criticism (1711). He made fun of some of the most established literary critics of his day, which led to all-out attacks on his writing, his Catholicism, and his personal appearance. However controversial it was, Essay on Criticism turned out to be one of the most-quoted poems in the English language, with lines like "A little learning is a dangerous thing," "To err is human, to forgive, divine," and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

It's the birthday of the ambitious writer Harold Robbins, (books by this author) born Frank Kane in New York City (1916). He was abandoned as an infant, raised in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Hell's Kitchen, and had a series of foster parents, the last of whom adopted him and gave him the name Harold Rubins, which he changed to Harold Robbins for his first novel. He left home at the age of 15 and had a series of odd jobs, and it was while he was working in a grocery store that he realized that fresh produce was hard to find in the city. It was the Great Depression, and the food distribution system was so bad that farmers were letting their crops rot even while people in the city couldn't get their hands on fresh food. So Harold Robbins stepped in, started buying food directly from farmers and selling it to wholesalers or canning companies. By the time he was 20, he was a millionaire.

But then he lost it all speculating on the sugar crop. So he got a job with Universal Pictures as a shipping clerk, and he worked his way up to a position as the executive director of budget. One day, the vice president of the company overheard Harold Robbins complaining about a novel they had just bought to film. The vice president challenged Robbins to write a better book himself, and that is exactly what he did. It was 600 pages long, he sent it off to an agent, and three weeks later Alfred A. Knopf signed on to publish it. It was Never Love a Stranger (1948), and even though Robbins went on to write more than 20 novels, it was his favorite. It was about the underworld of New York, about hustlers and gangs, and it talked so directly about sex that the police confiscated copies. But it sold well, and he went on to write book after book, including his most famous, The Carpetbaggers (1961), which is loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes.

It was on this day in 1951 that the Ninth Street Exhibition of  Paintings and Sculpture opened in Manhattan, on East 9th Street, in the first floor and basement of a building that was going to be demolished. The artists in the show came to be known as the New York School — New York's post-war avant-garde artists. The Ninth Street Exhibition was the first time the New York School artists had a substantial display of their work, and it included art by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Fairfield Porter.

It's the birthday of comedian and politician Al Franken, (books by this author) born in New York City (1951). He grew up in Minneapolis, went to Harvard, and a couple of years later got hired for the first season of Saturday Night Live.He went on to write books, start a political talk show, and then run for office. He said, "When you encounter seemingly good advice that contradicts other seemingly good advice, ignore them both."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »