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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt “Keeping Watch: The Practice of Poetry” by Margaret R. Yocom here.
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Voices SS2012


Volume 38

Keeping Watch - The Practice of Poetry by Margaret R. Yocom

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

—Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?”

[E]ntrance into the liminal is fundamental to the life of writing....In the work of such a person, what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and “authorized” versions of a culture’s narratives can find voice.

—Jane Hirshfield,
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
(Hirshfield 1997, 205)

“Ask yourself a question,” friend and poet Jennifer Atkinson advised me this spring when we were talking about ways of inviting poems to come. “A question for which you have no answer.” I nodded, thinking of my fieldwork in Maine. I have plenty of questions like that. Could my poetry writing help me explore what is just out of sight, and beyond understanding?


My poetry has quite naturally turned to the natural world and the people of my major folklore fieldwork area—the western mountain and lake region of Maine—where I have been writing about the Richards, a family of loggers and homemakers, woodcarvers, storytellers, and knitters, as well as about others in the community: hunters, river drivers, schoolteachers, and more. The challenges of doing fieldwork in logging country, in a town of twelve hundred souls about 40 miles from hospitals and other services, also claims its space in my writing, both of poetry and ethnography.

Sunrise on Greenvale Cove, Rangeley Lake, 2004. Photo by Margaret Yocom.Sunrise on Greenvale Cove, Rangeley Lake, 2004. Photo by Margaret Yocom.

Why, for example, I’ve asked myself, do some women in Rangeley love to hang out their wash at the first sign of winter’s passing, when clothes will actually dry outside and not just freeze? Yes, as they tell me, the laundry smells fresh. Yes, the air whispers Spring! But it’s cold in March, in the mountains, and that cold makes itself known through red, chapped faces and hands. Is there more? Something unsaid? Something there on the margins? Like poet Renée Ashley, I am “drawn to what flutters nebulously at the edges, at the corner of my eye—just outside my certain sight.” As she writes about what she wants in a poem, she speaks to my practice of poetry as an ethnographic lens:
I want a share in what I am routinely denied, or only suspect exists. . . . I long for a glimpse of what is beginning to occur, both in the margins, the periphery of the poem, and in a life.....[I want poems that are] a means to suspect or intuit the consequences of what we do not know....I need to see some movement from the corner of my eye and get curious, want to know what it might be, what fleeting, unnameable, shapeless-but-in- motion thing—acknowledged but uncertain—is skirting my certainties.... (Ashley 2007, 60)

by Margaret Yocom

Wires hum with snow melt.
Crows and a west breeze
call from spruce and fir.
One patch of soil pulls
down sudden March sun
to the near garden.

Our house has become
small, his words too wide.

turquoise, lavender,
lemon. Steam rises
from towels. With clothespins
I craft northern lights.

No one asks a thing.

If I open my coat
I am the shape of wind.

[“First Wash” was originally published in the Beloit Poetry Journal, 58(4) (Summer 2008), p. 16. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.]


Still, I worry, sometimes, about this new ethnographic lens of mine, this poetry. Should I be using my imagination to explore these questions, to reach toward what seems unsayable, unnameable? Some answers come from the people in Rangeley. Rodney Richard, reading a draft of my poem about his father, William, exclaimed with pleasure, “Well, I’ll be damned!” and pocketed a copy. The Rangeley Public Library honored me along with other writers of folklore and poetry at their 2006 Literary Gala and at a reading of our poetry.

Jane Kenyon, who made her home in rural New Hampshire, says that naming is part of the work: “The poet’s job is to... put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name. The poet’s job is to find a name for everything; to be a fearless finder of the names of things; to be an advocate for the beauty of language, the subtleties of language” (Kenyon 1999, 183).

And I believe her. With other poets and ethnographers, I’ll do my best to keep watch, write it down, and get it right.


Margaret R. Yocom, an associate professor of English at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, teaches traditional narrative and storytelling, traditional arts, gender, ethnographic writing, and folklore and creative writing. The director of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, she established the concentration, minor, and Masters program in Folklore Studies in 1977. She has written about ethnographic fieldwork, regional study, family folklore, gender, material culture, and folklore and creative writing. Her most recent work includes “But Who Are You Really?” Ambiguous Bodies and Ambiguous Pronouns in ‘Allerleirauh’” in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms (2012) and “‘We’ll Take Care of Liza and the Kids’: Spontaneous Memorials and Personal Response at the Pentagon, 2001” in Spontaneous Shrines and Other Public Memorializations of Death (2006). She is the assistant editor of Ugiuvangmiut Quliapyuit: King Island Tales (1988), and she co-wrote Logging in the Maine Woods: The Paintings of Alden Grant (1994). Her poetry and creative writing has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, The Folklore Muse, and elsewhere. Her current book projects features the traditional art and storytelling of the Richard family of Rangeley, Maine. Active in public sector folklore, she is the folklorist at the Rangeley Lakes Region Logging Museum and is on the executive boards of several cultural groups. She serves as American Folklore Society liaison to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Works Cited

Ashley, Renée. 2007. Writing on the Brink: Peripheral Vision and the Personal Poem. The Writer’s Chronicle 39(4): 60–65.

Dunn, Stephen. 2001. Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions.

Hirshfield, Jane. 1997. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: Harper- Collins.

Kenyon, Jane. 1999. A Hundred White Daffodils. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

Myerhoff, Barbara. 1976. Number Our Days, directed by Lynne Littman, Community Television of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.

Stafford, William. 1998. Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation. Ed. Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Yocom, Margaret R. 2000. Exuberance in Control: The Dialogue of Ideas in the Tales and Fan Towers of Woodsman William Richard of Phillips, Maine. Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of Edward D. Ives. Ed. Pauleena MacDougall and David Taylor. Orono: University of Maine Press and the Maine Folklife Center, pp. 265–297.

Yocom, Margaret R. and Gaylon “Jeep” Wilcox. 2000. ‘Just Call Me Sandy, Son’: Poet Jeep Wilcox’s Tribute to Sandy Ives. Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of Edward D. Ives. Ed. Pauleena MacDougall and David Taylor. Orono: University of Maine Press and the Maine Folklife Center, pp. 405–409.

This article, excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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