Of all the family stories that Lisa Haag Kang heard growing up about her great-grandmother, Jennie — who survived a drunk, abusive father only to marry an abusive husband — the story that most intrigued her all these years was how Jennie escaped that abusive husband and went on to marry another man — a hobo.
“I thought that was such a strange thing,” said Haag Kang, Washington, who works as a freelance writer and poet and also teaches classes at several area colleges and universities.
“I did some research and found that during the ’20s and ’30s, when there was the Depression and there wasn’t much to do, these men would just go.
“I looked into it and read some journals that had been published at the time about hobos . . . people who looked at that phenomenon, and I realized there were a lot of people like him, but to me it seemed very weird.”
The poet in Haag Kang decided to turn these kind of fragmented family stories into inspiration. Now they are the central focus of a new chapbook of poetry, “Recombinant Loves,” which was a runner-up in the Main Street Rag 2012 Poetry Chapbook contest.
It was published in June and is now available for purchase.
The 40-page chapbook features 24 poems that tell the story of Jennie’s stuggle to escape her abusive marriage and support her two young daughters, Ev and Agnes.
Haag Kang is planning a reading of the poems this fall at Lindenwood University. She also has talked with Washington Public Library about giving a presentation there.
Haag Kang describes “Recombinant Loves” as “a family history in verse,” although it touches on larger themes, so that you don’t have to be a relative to relate to the poems or feel a connection with them.
They tell of abuse, love, memory loss, infertility, even posttraumatic stress disorder.
The photo on the cover shows Haag Kang’s grandmother (Agnes) and great-aunt (Ev).
The poems begin telling the story of their mother, who left her home in Wisconsin at 16 or 17 years old because her father was drunk and abusive. Her stepmother had taught her how to sew, so she left one day and got a job, said Haag Kang.
The first series of poems tell the story of Jennie meeting and marrying her first husband, who worked as a saw sharpener in the logging industry.
“ ‘Trophy Hunter’ is sort of about having a trophy wife,” said Haag Kang. “Then (“Jennie’s Song I: Naked, Clothed in His Branches”) is a little more sexual maybe, about how sometimes women sort of hide in a relationship, how they can sort of disappear into something else.”
Under the title of each poem, Haag Kang has included a location and year, which helps the reader to follow along.
“Following the Timber” is short, just four sentences, telling how the couple had to leave Wisconsin and go to Colorado because there was nothing left, “the forest is gone,” the trees were all stumps.
“When they got there, it was very bad,” said Haag Kang, noting that “Jennie’s Song II” tells the story of how she ran away from her husband and the abuse.
The poems telling “Ev’s Story” delve into her not being able to have children and life with her husband, who served as a bomb diffuser in World War II, after he returns home.
“It started out that I just wanted to record these stories, because my mom writes, and she always wanted to take this on as a project, but she’s a prose writer, and it was hard. You can’t make the leaps that you can in poetry,” said Haag Kang. “Here, it’s sort of generalized.
“But when I thought about it, there are so many parallels with life today — the Depression and the recession, veterans coming home from war . . . ”
Some readers have told Haag Kang that the collection of poems seem dark, but she sees them as just the opposite.
“I saw in it people who kept going during those challenges, people whose lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted, but they made it work and there was no giving up,” said Haag Kang.
“The poem about mending, to me, was about getting through that (abuse) — mending and stitching clothes, but also mending her life.”
‘I’m a Word Person’
Haag Kang began working as a freelance writer in 2007 and earned an MFA from Lindenwood University in 2010.
Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines and journals. She is a regular contributor to the children’s magazines Dig and Calliope.
Over the years she has won various awards for her writing.
“I’m just a word person,” Haag Kang said, noting in high school, she took four years of French and two years of Spanish before taking Chinese in college. “I’ve just always been sort of fascinated with words.
“I think in a way that’s why I like poetry, because it’s sort of a super concentrated form of writing that I find interesting. Every word has to be doing something, even a period, a comma — those are like words to me too.”
In addition to writing, Haag Kang teaches a variety of civilization, philosophy and composition courses at area colleges and universities, including East Central and Lindenwood. The classes focus on East Asian, Japanese and other nonwestern civilizations, she noted.
“It’s . . . an interdisciplinary approach to looking at these cultures through history but also through art, literature, bringing whatever tools we can to bear,” she said. “I don’t like battles-and-dates kind of history . . . I like to try to bring history alive for people.”
Haag Kang, who recently learned that her second chapbook, “A Benign Sort of Cannibalism,” was the winner of another contest and is expected to be published in April, routinely looks for contests to enter. The Poets & Writers website (www.pw.org) is a good place to look, she said. So is Duotrope.com.
“Different publishing companies will have contests,” she said, “usually in the spring, sometimes for full length manuscripts, other times for chapbook length, which is about half the size.”
Full length would be 60-120 pages long, so a chapbook would be closer to 20-30 pages, usually not up to 40 pages, she explained. Successful chapbooks are cohesive, almost like one big poem.
“If you send off 30 of your best poems, they may be really good, but it isn’t a chapbook. Even full length poetry books, there has to be some sort of cohesiveness,” she said.
“They have to be interrelated conceptually. Poetry asks more questions than it answers, but the reader needs to see some kind of recurring element.”
To get copies of “Recombinant Loves,” people can visit the Main Street Rag website, http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/recombinant-loves/ or contact Haag Kang directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-435-2292.
Watch The Missourian for details of her presentation at Washington Public Library.