By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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You’ve published enough books, old man.
Let someone else have a turn.
The letter doesn’t say that,
but it might as well.
Might as well tell him, too,
that he’s exceeded his limit
on walks with his dog
or pickup basketball games
with his granddaughter
or afternoons saving the world
with the help of his grandson
and some plastic dolphins.
Please forgive my verbs for working so hard.
Hard work is all they’ve ever known.
Maybe not the best cover letter
for an old man to submit
to the young editors at university presses.
It’s raining. It’s often raining when I write.
The drops throw themselves against the window.
They want to be in a poem, too.
They don’t care which one.
What are you writing about?
asks my four-year-old granddaughter.
She expects I’ve put her in yet another poem,
and she wants out. Now.
I’m sorry, my wife tells me
when I open the letter that says exactly
what I was afraid it would.
It’s the same voice she uses
when she cups her hand around a moth
and walks it to the door
and watches it dart off.
How do others do it: sit at their desks
and labor over poems
in the hope that maybe a magazine
named after a flower or a constellation
might be interested in the day
their mother forgot them at the rest stop
or their cat decided to stop eating forever
or they fell in love with the color yellow
or looked in the mirror and saw a dead sister?
Lullwater, Crab Orchard, Pegasus,
Maverick Duck, Main Street Rag,
Moccasin, Katydid, Nimrod, Taproot,
Seaweed Sideshow Circus,
Bottom Dog, Milkweed,
Red Moon — I could make a poem
out of the places that have returned my poems.
How can my words travel to RainTown
or Chattahoochee or Cimarron
or Cream City or Cold Mountain
or the River Styx or the Pleiades
and come back unchanged?
Adastra, Anabioisis, Anhinga, Apalachee,
Aquarius, Axe Factory.
I’m working my way through the alphabet.
Every time I go to the mailbox,
I’m one step closer to Zephyr, Zoetrope,
Zombie Logic, and a world record.
Say a man writes 2 poems a week for 50 years
— take away 1 poem for every week
his hands got distracted
with a papier-mâché Mount Vesuvius
his daughter was molding
or a fort he was building with his Cub Scouts
or a protest sign he held up at the statehouse.
You do the math:
52 weeks times 2 poems a week equals 104,
minus 15 neglected poems equals 89,
times 50 years equals 4,450,
minus 52 for the long year his mother took to die,
minus 26 for the six months his father took to die.
That leaves 4,372 poems by the time he’s 70.
Maybe 400 or so, if he’s lucky, make their way
into print, which leaves 3,972 poems
just waiting to be thrown away when he dies.
But, look, he’s at work on yet another poem.
Why do I keep writing? Maybe because
words ask the same toughness of an old man
or woman as they would of a young one:
to be seventy — or eighty, or ninety —
and still be held to a code of honor.
Poems don’t want excuses.
The trees must have noticed
my attention wandering.
I look out the window to find them
holding up their latest work.
Their first drafts have turned incandescent.
Who’d believe anything as ordinary
as a maple could have such an extraordinary
vocabulary, with so many variations
on red and orange and yellow?
While I’ve been dawdling,
the trees have been busy revising.
The light’s the only critic they trust.
They count on the sun to polish
their scribbling, to see their first drafts
all the way to print. What would we ever do
without such independent publishers?