On "Summer Storm"
By Karla Huston
Being asked to write something about a poem I wrote more than ten years ago and about an event that happened twenty-five years before that is like attending a class reunion—both curious and scary. You know the feeling: you look forward to seeing your best friend since grade school and hope you still have something in common.
The poem “Summer Storm” likely started from an exercise—to write about a storm, either real or imagined. And storms, whether weather-related or emotional can be fodder for lots of writing. But I didn’t start with that intent. I wanted to show what happened in a small moment taken from a much larger event. While I hadn’t been writing long, I knew enough about the process to understand that creating a narrative about the entire day wouldn’t work. There was too much story to tell.
Briefly, a bunch of friends decided to camp on the sandbar along the Mississippi River near one of the locks and dams close to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I was living in the late 70s. That summer, we’d had record rains; so much had fallen that everything was sodden and whole hillsides—boulders and heaps of sludge—were slipping onto roadways, blocking traffic along the both sides of the river.
Maybe it was dangerous. Or maybe we were just impetuous 20-somethings bent on a good time, but we—four or five couples—boated to the sandbar, secured tents, unrolled sleeping bags and located food and beverage coolers in a large screen tent where we gathered to hang out and play euchre.
Across the river, thunderheads started to build and move like ships forming a huge gray-black wall. Undeterred, we joked and talked inside the screen tent while the storm gathered momentum.
Soon rain and wind arrived, and we hung onto poles to keep the tent standing while swaying in the wind. To celebrate our situation, someone decided to pass a bottle of bourbon. As the bottle rounded the square, the winds became fierce, blowing rain, throwing hail, and hurling sand and debris. We saw our sleeping quarters flattened by wind. Seeing them in sodden heaps seemed kind of funny at first—until we thought about crawling inside later.
That’s much of what happened, in more detail than anyone needed to know, but it’s important to show what I didn’t include, which was most of it. As I started to write, I somehow knew to show the event in medias res. I kept the screen tent scene only, with the bourbon and friends and our quarrel with the weather and didn’t include the rest. I knew that too much of the story would render the poem boring, begging the question, “so what?”
Trying to seize the power of the storm, I looked for strong words then, and revisiting the poem now shows how many single syllable u sounds I included: clutch, lurch, gusts, bluffs, huff, slung, and bullet. I hear hard c sounds, q sounds, too, contrasted with soft s’s. These weren’t conscious choices that I remember making, yet playing with words, finding the right one based on meaning, sound and rhythm is one of the most pleasurable parts of writing.
The “old man,” who, in the heart of the storm, hurls mud and clams and weeds, is perhaps a cliché—“old man river?” We were on the Mississippi, but “he” brings another character into this narrative other than the ubiquitous “we.”
The quarrel with the weather outside ended when the storm wore itself out, some of us deciding to break camp and head home back to dry warmth and safety.
For many, writing through an experience is a good way to bear witness to “stormy” events. For me, though, time is the way I distill an experience into something artful. While I may write in a journal or a letter to an imaginary someone about an emotional experience, when I try to write too close to the “storm” of an event, I find what I’ve written is often not artful. I’m too emotionally attached, and these pieces of writing may be good catharsis but don’t make for good writing for me.
When I sent this packet of poems to Poet Lore editors for their consideration, I never imagined they would choose this piece. Though I don’t remember what else I sent, I thought this poem was the weakest of the lot. So I was both surprised and pleased with their selection. Looking back at it now, I think I like it.
Karla Huston has published six chapbooks of poetry, most recently, An Inventory of Lost Things: Centennial Press, 2009. Her poems, reviews and interviews have been published widely, including in the 2012 Pushcart Best of the Small Presses anthology. A book of collaborative poetry, written with Cathryn Cofell, was recently published by Sunnyoutside Press. Visit Karla Huston's website for more information.
We clutched together in a screen tent,
nine of us lurching between
tent poles and gusts, watching
clouds gather up in the west,
the angry wave of them
hovered over the Mississippi River
bluffs like a black wall. The wind
huffed down the face of the limestone,
threw clay and trees onto highways
and shorelines. We shivered
and while the sky slung bullets,
the old man reared back, spit mud
and clams and weeds.
The wind made sodden debris
of tents and sleeping bags
while under the plastic canopy
we passed the bourbon—an amber torch,
the burning liquor the only thing
that quenched the quarrel outside.
—Poet Lore Volume 97, No 3/4, p 22
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