Poet finds inspiration in the everyday

by Nancy Haskett

I grew up in Long Beach, California, and received my Bachelor of Arts and teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach. My husband, Mark, and I moved to Modesto in 1974, when I was offered a job at Roosevelt Junior High School. I have spent my entire career at Roosevelt teaching language arts, working as the school librarian for close to six years and serving as chairperson for the language arts department the past ten years.

I did my first serious writing in a 12th grade creative writing class. Even then, I think I preferred writing poetry instead of prose. One of the first times I remember receiving recognition for my writing was for a one-act play as the winner of a small theater group contest.

As a busy mom of two, I experienced a period in my life when I found less time to write poetry. When I was 32 years old, my mother died of lymphoma. An only child, I was very close to my mother, and it was a great loss. It took about six or seven years before I felt I could put my feelings down on paper, and when I finally did, it was in the form of a poem. I saw a notice about the 1988 Modesto Poet’s Corner contest and decided to enter and write that poem about my mother, which was selected as a winner and published.

I credit the Poet’s Corner contest with giving me the impetus to continue writing at least one or two good poems each year, and I am proud to say that I have had a winning poem (sometimes two) in every Poet’s Corner contest since. Meeting other poets as a result of this contest has enlarged my writing visions and goals. My poetry has been published in The Song of the San Joaquin, two of my poems were awarded both first and second place for the Jeanette Maino Gould contest in 2006.

I always tell my students that poems don’t need to be lofty or grandiose. My ideas for poems usually come from ordinary, daily events. The inspiration for one of my recent poems came from the discovery of a jigsaw puzzle piece in a flower bed during a walk with my grandson. There are poetic inspirations all around us everyday.

Many newcomers have moved to Modesto within the last ten years and may not realize how the city has grown. When I first came in 1974, there were only about 75,000 people here. I have seen lots of changes, not all of them good. I have always disliked the sprawl of Southern California. By contrast, one of the things I love about living in the Central Valley is the accessibility of driving just a few minutes to be on the outskirts of the city — to be in an orchard, to see a real coyote, to lean over the fence and touch a cow! Many of my poems have been reflections on the growth and changes in the city. Since I don’t want to see the Central Valley turned into another Los Angeles, my poetry speaks to that bias.

The other day my daughter heard a story from another teacher at a local high school about a student who poured a flammable liquid on his hand and lit it on fire as the teacher was circulating around the room to help the class with sonnet writing. There is definitely a poem somewhere in that!

As a teacher, I encourage my students to write poetry, and I enter some of their writings into the same contests where I submit my own. I believe that being a poet, myself, makes me better able to teach poetry writing. Students today are exposed to a wide variety of media, and good writing ability is not always their strength. As an eighth-grade teacher, it is my job not only to give them instruction on creative writing, such as poetry, but also to improve their essay writing skills. For this reason, I also require some of my students to respond to the annual Peace Essay contest, and many have been chosen as winners. This year both the second and third-place winners are students from my classes.


A worn sofabed
sitting open and abandoned —
an incongruity there at the end of a row
of dormant grape vines;
across the empty canal I see the rusted springs,
shredded cotton filling,
and bemoan thoughtless owners
who would dump unused furniture in the vineyard
at the end of our street.

Weeks later, turning my face
toward autumnal night skies,
I remember the bed and reconsider
another explanation:
how pleasant to lie on a lumpy mattress,
a block away from streetlamps and kitchen windows —

But now,
after reading today's metro news,
I realize the bed's true purpose:
conjured from dreams of the future,
it has taken shape as a premonition —
like Hamlet's ghost or Scrooge's vision,
it is meant to warn and ward off
those contractors and developers
who will invade our neighborhood,
uproot the grape plants,
chain-saw almond trees,
scatter the crows
and level the land
for hundreds of sofabeds to sit
inside the neat rows
of new single-family dwellings.


A menacing presence of earthmovers —
unwelcome neighborhood invaders
encamped at the end of our street,
their headlights penetrating the wintry morning fog
in glaring contrast to colorful Christmas lights
softly glowing on nearby houses.

Oddly silent, vulture-like,
waiting patiently
for our last pastoral hopes to die
there in the silent orchard and vineyard —
ready to dig up, carve out, uproot,
scatter and scavenge.

Come spring,
the sound of hammers will muffle birds' cries,
rooftops replacing almond trees,
cement curbs redefining our weekend bike route
through showers of falling blossoms
and the symphony of bees.

Only the canal will remain,
flowing incongruously
behind new cinderblock fences
and backyard barbecues —
a quiet and constant reminder
of what is lost.


The crows are displaced.

I see them in the neighborhood
looking oddly out of place,
strutting on driveways,
drinking awkwardly from sprinkler heads,
foraging in the gutters,
alighting on lawns in groups of twos and threes.

At dawn's break they awaken us
with raucous cawing,
as though they are angry at all of us,
as if we had anything to do with ripping out the trees,
plowing under the corn,
building all the houses.


Forever a child of the sixties,
I bought black grosgrain ribbon at the craft store,
cut off a small section and wrapped it around my left arm -
a conscious political statement against this latest war.

Most people didn't seem to notice.
A few made polite inquiries,
appeared satisfied with my answer,
often hesitant to pursue
an uncomfortable conversation.

It was meant as an outward sign:
a visible reminder to others
that some of us
don't quietly acquiesce.
I hadn't expected it would become something else for me:
a constant feeling of restricted movement,
a daily reminder of why I was wearing it,
an ever-present constriction

like a squeezing of my heart.

Hurricane Dogs

Stranded in trees and on rooftops,
some, tethered still, to second-story balconies –
they silently observe the rescue boats go by,
listening to shouts,
looking for familiar faces,
their houses, now islands
surrounded by fetid floodwater

and I wonder why it is
that we grow numb
viewing the human tragedy
yet are moved to tears at the sight of these pets,
helpless -
as we sit in dry comfort
thousands of miles distant,

Their silence speaks to us
about making sacrifices
in a time of hard choices -
about waiting patiently,

about staying ever hopeful.

At the Edge

The shrill cry
pierced the hot, afternoon air —
a sound unmistakable
yet completely unexpected and unheard
in this busy neighborhood not far from the mall –

each of us ran to the nearest window
and looked to the top of our tall redwood tree
just in time to see the hawk,
taking flight again,
a crow in its talons —
swooping low over our roof
then lower still over the street,
majestic wings pushing down, rising up,
struggling, momentarily,
with the heavy weight it carried,
then soaring once again,
flying northward
leaving us
almost awestruck —

all in a matter of seconds,
our comfortable complacency somewhat shattered,
reminding us that once
not that long ago,
this land was a vineyard
where predators thrived,
before we became the trespassers
who paved the roads and shut our doors —
forgetting that the wildness
still lurks,
right at the edge.