“I’m going to read poetry to some chickens.”
To his credit, my husband didn’t even blink. “Okay.” [Pause] “Why?”
As I entered the last months of my year-long Poet Laura term, the rule-follower in me wanted to make sure I’d fulfilled all of my assigned responsibilities. (They’re not mandatory of course, but I can’t look at a list without wanting to complete it.) A post about tea? Check. A post about chocolate? Check. A post about poetry on the moon? Check.
But one task had eluded me, partly because I couldn’t figure out how to execute it: Read a poem to a chicken.
Then, I remembered that my friend Jessica Reed, uber-talented poet and all-around wonderful human being, actually raises chickens. After living across the U.S., Jessica relocated to an Indiana farm near her family, in order to be closer to the land and live within its natural cycles and rhythms. I admire her so much for this! (Jessica Reed is the author of World, Composed and Still Recognizable Forms.)
Jessica listened to my chicken-related intentions with even fewer questions than my husband had had and was most willing to accommodate a visit to the coop for, of all things, a poetry reading.
Sort of. Once those logistics were handled, I began to visualize myself standing outside a coop (I couldn’t picture myself inside yet), declaiming verses to my avian audience, one arm extended, orator style.
How could I ever do something so kooky?
I’ve always taken myself too seriously. I’m easily embarrassed and find it difficult to laugh at my own foibles and failings. When I feel eyes on me, I flash back to my school years, when I was painfully uncool, unhip, unaware, and when I always seemed to say and do the wrong things, drawing the laughter of my peers. As I grew up, I learned to modulate my voice, appearance, behavior to avoid that laughter.
As an adult, of course, I know that my modulations are unnecessary. Nevertheless, I feel awash in discomfort—even panic—when I find myself doing something out of bounds, as it were.
And a chicken poetry reading certainly qualified as out of bounds.
But it occurred to me that this might be a quick and decisive way to get over my hang-ups. Engaging with the absurd, allowing my friend to witness (and possibly even take video—yikes), and then writing about the experience for others to read, might stamp out the self-consciousness and inhibitions that weren’t serving me.
I made a decision—I would approach my task in the spirit of play, just as it was intended, and with the lightness I’d committed to at the beginning of my Poet Laura term.
I figured the first step was to tell more people what I was planning to do, starting with my son, who was visiting home.
“I’m going to read poetry to some chickens,” I announced, just as I’d informed his father the previous week.
He smiled. “I’m sorry for the chickens.”
“What? But why?”
“Because they won’t be able to understand your work.”
I decided not to overanalyze. “Aww,” I replied, relieved but still dubious. I thought for a moment. My son was always full of joy and ready for fun—maybe he could give me some ideas. “So, what do you think I should read for them?”
“Outlanders,” he replied immediately, referring to a poem I’d written a few years ago. At first, I felt gratified that he’d even remembered it. Then, looking at his sparkling grin, I remembered the first line: “I saw a mangled mallard . . . .”
I think that sort of humor is known as macabre.
And yes, he probably got it from me, I thought, as I visualized the resulting Silence of the Chickens.
After that, I opted to assemble the reading list on my own. Prior Poets Laura have chosen the high-brow: Dickinson, Shakespeare. I decided instead to match my playful task with playful poems on the subject of, you guessed it, chickens:
And I was ready! (Kinda-sorta.)
The morning of my reading was so overcast that Jessica and I exchanged hurried texts—should we? shouldn’t we? Finally, we resolved to go for it, and I drove 45 minutes southwest from my Indianapolis suburb to Danville, Indiana. As I approached her home, I passed one cultivated field after another—corn and soybeans, the state’s main crops.
Keeping an eye on the sky, I continued to worry. The clouds looked ready to burst, and there was no way to predict when. I turned my car into Jessica’s long gravel driveway, then stopped, forgetting my concerns for a moment.
Before me lay purple and yellow and orange wildflowers within fields of rich green native grasses. I stepped out of my car and stood for a few minutes, dazzled by the colors popping against the gray backdrop of the weather. I could hear the buzz of pollinator insects, reveling in fields of nectar. Jessica had told me about her quest to reclaim Indiana’s original prairie land on her farm, but as I stood there, I felt the full meaning and impact of her endeavor.
Returning to my car, I drove the rest of the way to the house, where Jessica greeted me and generously gifted me two dozen freshly-laid eggs. When we made our way out to the coop, it didn’t occur to me that I’d actually go inside it. But Jessica had already opened the door, using her boot to prevent the chickens from exiting.
I can do this, I thought.
Taking a deep breath, I entered my “stage” as a rainy mist began to fall all around us. Amid a toss of bread crumbs, a flock of hens gathered around me, pecking at the ground. Then and there, accompanied by yellow-blonde chickens and one gorgeous black and white Plymouth Rock chicken aptly named Rocky, I began.
I started with Frobel’s “Beckon to the Chickens” couplet, repeating it three times in what I hoped was an intriguing voice, then proceeded through my reading list. (Initially, I felt reluctant to share this video record of my adventure, but I know that Tweetspeak readers are nothing if not kind!)
As I suspected, once I gave in to the process, there was something genuinely freeing about engaging in this silliness, at times softly, at times at the top of my lungs, reawakening the part of me that loves the humorous, the incongruous, the wonderfully weird. I let myself play. I took in the sway of prairie grass, the mist of cool rain, and the company of a dear friend whose supportive presence forestalled embarrassment.
And, afterward, of course, I wrote a poem.
The Gray Coop
(modeled on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”)
So much depends
a gray coop
misted with rain,
and a bit of poetry
to the blond
—Dheepa R. Maturi
- Poet Laura: For the Birds—A Poetry Reading … for Chickens - September 7, 2023
- Poet Laura: The Butterfly Effect—Year of the Monarch - August 4, 2023
- Poet Laura: I Surrender - July 6, 2023