Peninsula Poetry: Jami Hanreddy

Jami Hanreddy was a language arts/English teacher for most of her career and authored several books for English Language Learners, one of which is now in its seventh edition. 

Before retiring to northern Door County in 2010, Hanreddy taught students to find their own voices in their writing, but she had not given much time to finding her own. It took a few more years – and encouragement from Estella Lauter and Max Garland, former Door County and state poets laureate, respectively – to believe poetry might be the vehicle she needed to explore the “vast reaches of mind and spirit.” 

Hanreddy lives in an interspecies household in Gills Rock and wonders at the life she is privileged to lead with her companions near Death’s Door.

What is your writing routine? 

I used to get up very early every morning to write. Maybe from 5 to 8 in the morning. Then walk the dogs and eat breakfast and do it all again the next day. But we got another puppy last fall, and if I stirred, then she stirred – and you know what that means with a puppy, right? But she’s nine months old now, and she’s learned from our older dog that sleeping in is a good thing, so I think I’ll be able to revive that routine soon.

What do most well-written poems have in common? 

Perhaps if it touches or tickles the intended audience in some way, then for me, it’s done its job. And that audience, of course, may be only a few or it may work for a great number of people. But, of course, as an English teacher, I did guide my students to look at specific things in poems that made them beautiful, profound, amusing, that touched on human foibles as well as heroism, on absurdity and paradox, as well as just the sheer music of language.

What do most poorly written poems have in common? 

Well, I’m picky about punctuation and phrasing used meaningfully in order to fulfill an author’s intent. If certain punctuation and line breaks make you misconstrue the message, then that’s very distracting. But these things are easily cleaned up with the help of feedback from your writing group or a friend. What’s really hard to fix is vacuity, a poem without heart or depth of feeling or humility.

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to “solve” it?

Not always. There are some poems that you can just let wash over you. You can let your intellect rest for a bit and just savor the music, the rhythm, the heart-stopping punch line. 

But I personally get bored by poem after poem that only the author understands. I am not in favor of elitist, Joycean jokes that alienate a large swath of people for whom poetry has become something to avoid.

Why can’t a poem be straightforward and beautiful, full of profound ideas and masterful metaphors to which we all can relate? Of course, Amanda Gorman has set a new bar for just that in her recent reading at the inauguration last January.

What book are you reading right now?

I recently finished Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. It’s a fascinating read if you truly want to understand a variety of perspectives you might not have been unaware of before. But I definitely recommend first reading his other novel, American Dervish – a Door County Read selection that was very well received here a few years ago – and also his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, for some context before tackling Homeland Elegies.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.

Elemental Elegy

he was earthy
she was airy

he wore boots and plaid flannel shirts
she donned silky frocks with flowing skirts

he moved steadily through the hours     task after task completed
she gazed rapturously at birds     wolves     pages     him     as days depleted

he allowed no room for lies     no need for penance
she squeezed the truth a little to drink its essence

he was solid and ever humble
she could make the heavens rumble 

he could tell stories that made you blush
she matched his fire thrust for thrust

he was salt of the earth and never mean
yet she was the rain that washed him clean
Italian Blessing

At 50 years old
when youth has run its course
when the body has fully ripened
and become just a little too plump
for her to be comfortable in her own skin

she finds herself bicycling alone one afternoon
on an uphill climb in the Dolomites
wondering if her lowest gear
will be enough to take her over the top
when a gang of four approaches from behind

making her just a little nervous being 
the only woman on the road that day
and being not just a little self conscious
in light of their lithe bodies and balance
as they ride along hands free

to grab her ass?
to knock her over in derision?
or worse?  to completely ignore her?
But no… instead they bestow
just the blessing she needs at this moment

Ciao Bella they chorus 
as one after another 
place a gentle hand 
at the small of her back
and with a wink and a nod
help her over this hump

Harald’s Heart

On a typical grey day in June in Santa Barbara
the kind that drives the tourists mad
Harald and I headed down to the beach 
we rotated to every fifth day or so 
for our daily excursion.  

It wasn’t the socked-in kind of grey
the kind where you can’t see the Channel Islands
and can’t even make out the roll of the wave before it hits the beach.  
It wasn’t the kind of grey where your face becomes wet
dripping with fog     or sweat from the run     or both.  

It was the pervasive kind of grey saturating everything
and the air was crisp not wet even though there was no wind.  
All was simply grey --  the sky     the islands
the grains of sand     the seagulls     the shells 
the 15 or so wooden steps down to the beach. 

And the dog
my beautiful boy
today he was grey too 
having just had a haircut which revealed 
his salt and pepper undercoat.

The rest happened all at once as I was still collecting myself
He ran down the grey steps to the grey sand 
dotted with grey grasses and grey shells 
and under the close grey sky he ran 
along the wet, shiny grey sand at the water’s edge.  

And before I had gotten all the way down the stairs
for the sheer joy of it he turned on the juice and ran full-out 
like the greyhound that we knew was in him somewhere or so the vet said
ran full out not chasing anything
no seagulls     no frisbees     no ball     just to run… soar.

And at that moment my heart leapt.
No, it was more of a silent whoosh! like an alien abduction
and I too was running down the beach
although still there in the middle of the stairs
frozen there.

I was feeling the wind that I made as I ran
in my hair     in my fur     as I was sucking the salty air 
into the lungs in my powerful barreled chest.
I was not in my body but in his
racing     racing     racing     joy     joy     joy!

He felt it too and he/we stopped and looked back over our shoulder 
to acknowledge my body back there on the stairs. 
We cocked our head and smiled at one another 
racing along the grey foam for another five minutes or so 
until an old friend called to me and the spell was broken.

a local poet laureate
once told me 
that if there was one 
word that should never
be used in a poem
it was:  LINOLEUM

but Mary Oliver’s cat drank milk 
from a blue bowl on yellow linoleum
and arched and stretched her black body 
before going out into the world to leap to and fro
for no apparent reason

and it was from the safety of the checkered linoleum
under the kitchen table that I heard 
my uncles curse a witch named “Brazen Hussy”
that had beguiled my grandfather

and it was on the speckled linoleum 
of the high school multipurpose room
that we stood mesmerized by their twelve strings and blonde frizz
as they sang of Silence and Ms. Robinson

And besides… 

it was only the yellow linoleum
that gave that musty old kitchen in Brugge its warmth
as even then on our honeymoon 
I knew it was over
“P” WORDS  (for pup pee training)

My pandemic puppy’s personality
evolves piece by piece     pound for pound
so it’s plainly impossible to pen a poem
portraying the panoply of who she is at the moment
or who she will pan out to be in perpetuity.
But there may be portents of things to come
in how and where she chooses to pee and poop.

Not on her pillow or mine, praise be!
But also not on the predicated predictable grass.
Instead she pounces on putrefying leaves ‘
first pushing her perspicacious snout
deep into the pile as she pants
after plush baby bunnies 
or pusillanimous mice.

When she decides to postpone the death penalty 
for the bunnies and pardon the mice
she pliès to pee, then takes plenty of time
to pace back and forth and forth and back
to make sure there are no poisonous snakes or spiders
or so the pet pundits claim
before she pretzels into poop position
and leaves the leaves a perfect present.