Ernest Hemingway, 1939. Photograph by Lloyd Arnold.

Ernest Hemingway, 1939. Photograph by Lloyd Arnold.

The Essayist in Me

As a public school student, then an English major, then a pubic school English teacher, I’ve spent a lifetime writing essays and thinking about the writing of essays. The analytical approach feels as natural to me as breathing. And though these days, most of my energy goes into fiction and poetry, I like the way an essay assignment focuses my thinking. Twice in recent years Martha Nichols of Talking Writing has asked me to write a piece for her remarkable online publication (links below). Twice, I have also been honored to write a guest blog for Superstition Review (also linked below). I’ve written several book reviews for Texas Books in Review.

Learning from a Master

I’ve admired Ernest Hemingway, especially the early fiction, since I opened the pages of The Sun Also Rises in the spring of 1970. In 1981 I finished a masters thesis on Hemingway’s early fiction. One of my published poems started out as an attempt to emulate the simple diction, the lovely rhythms of the early work. The opening paragraph to A Farewell to Arms is one of the most stunning passages I have encountered to date. It keeps me thinking about the gray area between prose and poetry.

Prose Poems, Flash Memoir, Flash Nonfiction . . .

Lately, I’ve spent a good bit of time working with poems that simply refuse to turn into . . . well, poems. What struck me about a couple of these is that they sounded more like mini-essays than poems. I took out line breaks and let them turn into what is being called flash nonfiction. Much the same has happened with memory pieces that begin as poems but resist the shape and shimmer of poetry. I’ve turned several of these into some kind of hybrid—prose poem/flash memoir/flash speculative nonfiction. I’ve begun to send them out. This adventure is new to me, but I hope to see some of my short prose pieces in print or onscreen soon.

The Master at Work

Here’s Hemingway at his best — A Farewell to Arms, the opening paragraph (Scribners, 1929):

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Poetry as Emulation

The poem below grew out of an imitation exercise in an amazing course on prose style taught more than thirty years ago by Professor Marc Bertonasco at California State University, Sacramento. The assignment was to imitate Hemingway’s style with subject matter of the student’s own. I wrote about the Meischen family farm. A decade later, I dug out the exercise and worked at it until I had a poem.

Farm Summer

I was trying to write, commencing with the simplest things.
Ernest Hemingway

In July we hauled hay and we couldn’t remember
a hotter summer. The hay fields were dry and dusty
and the dust stuck to your face and neck. You could feel it
in your nose and mouth and at the back of your throat.
The hay dust was light. It tickled inside your nose
and throat and against your skin it itched. Then it was

August and we picked cotton. The ground was dry now
and the soil had turned to a fine grey powder. Pickers and
picksacks stirred the dust. It weighted the air. It coated
your tongue. It closed your nose and clogged the sweaty skin
on your face and neck. Afterwards we plowed.

You could feel the heavy pull of the stalk-cutter
and disk-harrow as you watched the cotton stalks
fall beneath the heavy blades and the stubble disappear
between the disks—and behind them the bare and dusty field.

A cloud of dust hung thick in the air and at twilight
a tired and blackened face stared back at you
from the mirror above the sink. In the late evening

the gulf breeze drifted in and we sat on the porch, watching
the last light disappear from the sky, listening to the murmur
of voices inside the house—and up on the rise the coyotes howling.

Layers, Plain View Press, 1994