For UI lecturer, it pays to write poetry

For UI lecturer, it pays to write poetry

URBANA — After having her blood drawn as a child, Julie Price Pinkerton became squeamish about her veins. Her brothers would tease her by pretending to make pinchers out of their fingers and threatening to pull out her veins.

Flash forward a few decades. Pinkerton, a poet and senior lecturer in the University of Illinois Department of English, began writing a poem that was a "short, silly piece" about how "bulgy" the veins in her hands had become.

The poem eventually became a much longer one, incorporating the illness and death of her beloved stepfather-in-law, Bob Gibbs, and how difficult it had been for nurses to insert needles in his "narrow, reluctant veins."

Pinkerton, who doesn't submit her poetry that often for publication because she's so busy teaching, sent "Veins" to Rattle, a California-based poetry magazine. From around 15,000 poems, "Veins" was selected as the 2016 Rattle Poetry Prize $10,000 Winner, chosen by editors in a "blind" process — they were not given the names of the poets.

Pinkerton was floored when she heard from Editor Tim Green about the win.

"When he called me, I had just had the worst teaching day of my life the day before," she said. "A couple of my students were yelling at each other, and it was a very unhappy moment. It was just a weird thing."

Pinkerton had to put Green on hold, sit in her walk-in closet and catch her breath.

Green was not surprised, telling her everyone freaks out when he calls them to tell them they'd won the prize.

Pinkerton then told her husband, Scott, and paced her home in Champaign for a half hour.

"I was in total disbelief," she said.

She shouldn't have been.

Besides Rattle — its tag is "poetry without pretension" — her poems and nonfiction pieces have been published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Literal Latte, Tamaqua, Fish Stories, dragonfire, Full Circle Journal and other journals.

Her poetry has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Another one of her poems was a semi-finalist in the 2012 Rattle Poetry Prize competition. And her poetry was included in the 2014 anthology "The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss" and in Rattle's "Poets of Faith" issue.

Pinkerton also has received teaching awards at the department, college and university levels, among them the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

She twice received the big one: the UI Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching — it can be awarded to the same teacher only every 10 years.

"Julie is an absolute gem," one student wrote at the Rate My Professors website. "Her class is fast-paced, witty, fun and genuinely useful for writers of all calibers. If you are one of those people who can't seem to make it to class on time, however, be warned that she absolutely abhors tardiness and will deduct points for it without mercy."

A native of Brazil, Ind., Pinkerton began writing poetry during her freshman years at the University of Evansville, where Mike Carson, a poet and professor of English, taught her freshman orientation class.

"He was so genuine. He has a white hair and a beard and there was just a glow about him in the classroom," Pinkerton said. "He was mesmerizing to his students. We could all tell he really cared about us."

She took more classes with him and remains in touch with him today.

"He's probably my spiritual mentor. Whenever things get bad in my life, he's the one I call," she said.

She ended up with a degree in advertising and interpersonal communication and took off seven years before returning to school, managing a Disc Jockey Records store in Terre Haute, Ind., and later working as the managing editor for an Indianapolis monthly alternative newspaper.

When she did write for the paper, she wrote mainly about music. She interviewed regional bands — she remembers one was named Latex Novelties — and musicians, among them John Mellencamp.

She moved to Champaign in 1990 and commuted twice a week from there to Purdue University — 100 miles from her door to the campus — to work on a master's of fine arts degree in English, with a concentration in creative writing.

After finishing that degree, she and her best friend, Rosemary Medlock, bought the existing stock of the Little Professor bookstore in Campustown in Champaign and renamed the shop Blue Rock Books.

Like other newbie Campustown businesses, Pinkerton and Medlock figured they would do well because of all the foot traffic.

The bookstore went under in two years.

"It was so much fun, but the crazy thing is I don't think I read a single book when I owned the store," Pinkerton said. "We didn't know what we were doing. To this day, when we talk to each other, we'll say something about the bookstore and then say, 'What are you talking about? We never owned a bookstore.'"

Pinkerton began teaching rhetoric and creative writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in 1998 at the UI. After meeting and marrying Scott Pinkerton, who then lived in Phoenix, she moved there.

She taught at the Paradise Valley Community College. And during that time, she also helped care for elderly people, among them a wealthy, eccentric woman who at 99 was undergoing chemotherapy. Pinkerton and her husband moved back here after Julie's father became ill. He died; her mother continues to live in Brazil.

The poet has a fondness for the elderly. They and other things can inspire a poem. For example, one poetic impetus came from an older woman, a stranger, who was trying to call Grandview Memorial Gardens but reached Pinkerton's number by mistake.

The woman wanted to give away two plots at the cemetery. Pinkerton turned the wrong number into a poem, "Questions for Erma Claiborne."

Like most of the poems published in Rattle, Pinkerton's poems are narrative and accessible to all.

"For me, I love the ones that pull me in and keep me in that trance the whole time," said Pinkerton, who's seen four of her poems published in Rattle, a non-profit (rattle.com) founded in 1995 and published by the Rattle Foundation.

The magazine's $10,000 prize is the largest monetary prize for a single poem in the United States. In the Winter issue, which includes "Veins," Green noted it shifts "quickly between humor and sadness, as life often does."

So what will Pinkerton do with the windfall?

She and her husband plan to take a beach vacation in Charleston, S.C. And Pinkerton, who believes Christianity makes more sense than anything else, tithed or gave $1,000 of the prize money to her stepfather-in-law's Presbyterian church in Youngstown, Ohio.

To view more of Pinkerton's poems, you can go to juliepricepinkerton.com.

THE $10,000 POEM: 'VEINS'
By Julie Price Pinkerton

I

During my annual physical, I tell my doctor that I'm starting to gross out
over how bulgy the veins on my hands are getting. Look at them, I say,
they're like lounging blue sea worms.

It's normal, she says. It just means you're old.
(She and I are the same age.)
And it's summer, so you're warm. And old.

But this seems really sudden, I tell her. I just noticed them
last week while I met with a woman at a dementia care home
to try to get my husband's stepdad a room there.

Well then, you were probably stressed.
Fight-or-flight and that whole deal.
That makes veins stand out more.
Also, warm weather last week, right?

OK, but last night I was watching "Tiny House Hunters"
in our nice cool living room. I was drinking root beer.
I was not stressed. And my veins were still gross.

Then you're just old.

I hold up my most offensive hand.
Look, I say, some of the veins on this one form an "H."
Do you want to hear my husband's theory?
He says our dead cat Hankie is trying to reach me.
(My husband did not theorize this. I did. I sometimes put a degree of separation between me and the things I throw into the mix.)

Though this is not my year for a pap smear,
my doctor needs to check my ovaries. She inserts
more than one but less than five
fingers way up into me.
I gasp.
Relax, she says. Go to your happy place.

I sit up on the table when she's done with her hand-puppeting
and say Damn, it's like the morning after the prom.

For my weeks-long back spasm, she says
Here's what you're going to do:
You're going to go home, find one of your husband's long, long tube socks,
tie a knot in it —

— and bury it at the base of the oak tree at midnight? I say.

No, you're going to lie down on it to work the muscles in your back.
Squirm around on it awhile. It'll help.

II

My husband cannot remember the name of the memory care home.
The name is Brookdale but he keeps calling it Briarhatch.
That makes no sense, I tell him. Think about it. Dementia patients
walk down the hallway and suddenly a hatch opens in the floor
and drops them into a bush of briars.

Yeah, he says. Not great.

Before Brookdale can let my stepdad-in-law, Bob, move in,
he has to get over an awful infection
which calls for awful antibiotics.

III

Bob has what a lot of people call bad veins.
Nurses can't ever draw blood from them or insert an IV without a big production.
Bob's veins know an interloper when they hear one coming.
They hunker down in his arms hiding from those who summon them to come out
come out, wherever they are.

A regular, no-frills nurse tries to stick the IV needle in.
She digs and digs as though the needle is a pick-axe and Bob's arm
is a steep mountainside hiding a shimmering vein of opal.
She is useless.

Sure enough, someone has to call in the Big Kahuna of veins
from a far corner of the hospital. This nurse knows things.
She is a snake charmer, coaxing Bob's tired arm-vein to stick its head out
of the wicker basket long enough to be shish-ka-bobbed.
The antibiotics begin their work.

IV

Bob gets better.
Then worse.
Then better.
Then worse.

V

My back spasm won't go away,
even after four massages I couldn't afford
and some unholy-looking writhing
on the knotted-up tube sock.

I go see my orthopedic doctor
who writes up an order for physical therapy.
Before he can escape,
I ask him about my veins.

When you age, he says, everything you have
gets stiff, leaky, and starts to fall apart.
End of story.

VI

I forgot to mention that Bob is the nicest man I've ever known.
When he was dating my husband's mom, 35 years ago, Bob was too good to be true.
Too kind. Too decent. People were skeptical. But he turned out to be the real deal.

VII

So imagine this nice man
still going about his life,
still mowing the yard,
still drinking the cold water from the cup his wife brings him from the house,
still waving at her as she keeps a close eye on him,
still counting on her to fill in the gaps
of his memory, towing his cloudy brain along
like a barge that she
tugboats down the river.

VIII

Bob's final month was a long menu of rottenness.
He was shuttled back and forth eleven times between the hospital
and the nursing home. If you want to make a dementia patient worse, move them around from place to place like a hunted-down witness for a murder trial.

Bob went off the rails in the evenings, his confusion cooking up to a frenzy.
The shadows in his room grew longer and more sinister.
Corners filled up with things only he could see.

It didn't help when half a dozen nursing home people gathered around him
trying to talk him back into his bed. Please don't arrest me! Bob cried.
The nicest man any of us ever knew got so scared that he punched
a pregnant CNA in the belly. Not hard, but still a punch.

As the ambulance pulled away with Bob inside, headed back to the E.R.,
the nursing home director said Please, you can't bring him back here.

IX

When laboratory mice were used to test certain theories
about the human brain, they were dropped into tall, cylindrical
columns of water for what is known as a forced-swim test. The researchers measured how long the mice would swim before realizing that they could neither touch the bottom nor climb out. Once they became aware of their situation,
they would stop swimming and collapse into a forlorn float.

X

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact day
that Bob stopped knowing us.
It was gradual, hidden somewhere
between his fever and his infection
and all the little moments of us trying
to make him feel loved.
We cleaned out all the Snickers
from the vending machine, breaking off
little chunks when he was able to eat.
The hardest thing was when Bob wept.
It was often during the last month.
Are those happy tears? Bob's wife asked,
and he said yes. But you could see decades
of sadness, rivulets rolling off his chin.
I started to understand the difference
between crying and weeping.
If crying is the shattering of glass
or the doorbell ringing, weeping
is a dog lost in a forest.

XI

Veins are good things, I tell myself.
Bob would've been happy to have these
simple, easy-access veins, "H" and all.
They keep me alive. They're normal.
The weather is warm. I'm just old.
I ask my brain to be on my side.
Not to leave me until the very end.
I try not to look at my hands.

XII

In the competition between Bob and the infection,
the infection won. It wasn't even a good enough sport
to let Bob play for best-two-out-of-three.
The doctor said it was time to take out all the IVs.
They were only prolonging Bob's struggle.
As decisions were made and needles were removed
from punctures in his narrow, reluctant veins,
Bob was elsewhere in his deep sleep,
already packed for the next world.
He wasn't trying to touch bottom.
He had no dreams of climbing out.

Topics (2):Art, People
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