ProJo Poetry Column

This article appeared in the Providence Journal awhile ago and I just found it. It is a column by Tom Chandler, RI’s former state poet laureate and a professor at Bryant University

Childhood is an endless wellspring

Sunday, September 14, 2008

All poets face the blank computer screen with exactly the same thought: If the next poem could be about anything, what shall it be about? After all, the imagination is a wide highway, with exit ramps leading to sparks of ideas and dead ends in pretty much equal abundance. In my poetry writing classes I am regularly asked by students for topic ideas. I politely refuse such requests, since coming up with a compelling topic is really the heavy lifting of the art, its most difficult task. However, I do try to steer them in the direction of their own lives, explaining that their experiences as unique individuals are a never-ending source, both rich and fragile, and that looking back into childhood’s mirror will almost always provide the necessary prompt.

Julia Meylor Simpson grew up on a farm in Iowa, one of seven children. A few years ago her sister sent her a photo taken on her 10th birthday, a joking way of reminding her of her dorky past. Naturally, the picture triggered memories, and Julia found herself suddenly reliving that single day, lost among the thousands since. As she puts it:

“It was easy to crawl back inside the frame and remember when a two-digit birthday was something significant to look forward to for weeks. I’m sure my parents felt the hardships of that life every day, but they gave us all they could. And for me, looking back, that meant a rich, imaginative world where anything could be something else. The idea that an old pig house could ever be used as a playhouse is almost unthinkable in today’s plastic-wrapped, antibacterial-gelled world. But my father moved it close to my mother’s garden, and it was perfect — three child-sized doors and screened windows. Actually, the barn, the corn crib, even the grove of trees that shielded the house from the northern winds were magical places, each with its own smells and fears and stories.”

Julia has worked as a reporter and editor on a daily newspaper in New Jersey, and was an English teacher at Seekonk High School for 12 years. She works now in corporate communications, handling a variety of writing projects for Amica Insurance in Lincoln. Her poems have appeared in English Journal, South Dakota Review, and Connecticut River Review, among others. She is also a member of the Rhode Island Writers’ Circle, and has published her work in its annual anthologies. She lives in East Providence with her husband and two daughters.

Found a Photo from Forty Years Ago

A girl stands outside in patchy snow.
Bird-bone arms pinned to sides,
hair whacked short, Coke-bottle glasses.
Today’s her birthday.
There will be angel food cake
speckled with colors,
ten candles sinking in buttercream icing.
Behind her,
an exposed oak tree scratches blackboard sky,
a pig shed serves as a playhouse,
a mile of frozen earth borders a ditch
and two-lane blacktop.
The birthday girl smirks: Ten, one-zero.
She is a wizard in training,
charming endless acres of constancy
into forest, castle, jungle,
offering to the gods, a great journey.
Ten! Ten! Ten!
She thinks her adventure’s just begun.
She skips into the farmhouse,
neglecting a slipper,
trailing a few magic beans.

5 thoughts on “ProJo Poetry Column

  1. Thanks for sharing this story and poem, Julia. Tom’s explanation rang home, and the backstory and poem are both beautifully written. I’m helping to lead a writing workshop and am looking for pieces that use description to place readers in poem’s location; this will work beautifully as an example!


  2. I’d be honored if you used this in a workshop. I taught high school English for 12 years, so I worked with many excellent young writers. We even took them to three different Dodge Poetry Festivals during those years. Quite a road trip and quite an experience for all! Let me know more about where/who you’re working with. Thanks! J.


  3. It sounds fabulous. We have a poetry open mic that started up here around the first of the year–the only of its kind in our corner in NW Montana, and it’s been drawing a great set of committed poets. Since most haven’t had an opportunity for feedback on and to refine their pieces, we’ve started a writing workshop in conjunction with it. I’ve participated in workshops in the past, but this is the first time I’ve been involved in leading one–it’s been a great learning experience for me as well as for the attending poets!


  4. I went to your blogsite. As soon as I saw it I knew I’d been to your site before. It is beautiful and your writing is wonderful. I will be back. Good luck with your workshop. Have never been to Montana, and would love to someday.


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