Gail Gehlken’s photo used in her second book.
Country Muse Gail Haskew Gehlken
Imagine being a high school senior, sitting in class as your English teacher plays reel-to-reel recordings of authors reading their own poems and plays! Sound unbelievable? In today’s high-tech world, students have instant access to the written and spoken word, but, in 1963, hearing authors reading their written words was momentous, especially in a small, rural classroom in Thomasville.
"Hearing the works read aloud was magical to my ears," Gail Gehlken recalled. "I never forgot that experience and later wrote a poem as a thank you to my teacher, Mr. Jimmy Davidson, for the inspiration I received from those recordings."
In fact, the power of those words convinced Gail Haskew Gehlken to become a writer! She earned a degree in Secondary English Education at Livingston College (now the University of West Alabama) and taught English for eight years before staying home to raise her three children. Ten years later, she returned to the classroom. She also attended the University of South Alabama to earn her Masters in English, with postgraduate work in creative writing. One of the requirements for this degree was foreign-language proficiency, so she took German classes.
"I enjoyed them so much that I completed a German language teaching certification and taught German along with English in Mobile County," she explained.
She received two Goethe teaching grants, allowing her to study and tour in Germany for two summers. She also received another teaching grant from Alabama Humanities. During her career, she has taught in schools in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama, retiring in 2008.
For Gehlken, teaching was indeed her mission, but writing was her passion. With a growing family and a full-time career, however, she had little time to edit and revise her writings through the years. Nevertheless, she kept her stories and poems in journals. After retirement, she was able to pursue her passion.
Her writings would earn her both success and recognition. Gehlken has won four Hackney Literary Awards and numerous other awards from the Alabama State Poetry Society. Her works have been published in "Literary Mobile," Birmingham Arts Journal, "Alabama Sampler," "Anthology of Alabama Poets" and Potpourri Literary Journal.
In 2011, she was honored to be one of 12 participants for the Marge Piercy Poetry Intensive in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
She has written two books of poetry, "Standing Stone" and "A Good Season." She has another book coming out later this year.
Gehlken’s poetry reveals her heartfelt reverence and love for country life. She never decorates her lines with pretentiousness, choosing instead to let her simple words meander through the heights and depths of human emotions. Written in a modern style, her intimate life experiences are both personal and universal.
Gehlken grew up on a small farm in Thomasville, watching and helping her parents in their gardens. She and her two brothers, Bobby and Paul Haskew, spent hours during spring and summer, working together in the garden, harvesting and preserving vegetables.
"My brothers and I helped can tomatoes, cut off the corn, and shell beans and peas for the freezer," she laughed. "As children, we were allowed and encouraged to do everything related to gardening, cooking, sewing and taking care of animals that set positive lifechanging habits for my brothers and me. We learned not just to work with nature, but to pay attention and respect it."
For Gehlken, life on the farm defined her. Both of her parents taught her to find absolute joy in the small things in nature and to appreciate the bounties she had been given. Later, she would recall many of these childhood experiences in her poem, "For the Children."
"For mother, gardening meant not only vegetables, but also flowers," Gehlken reflected. "She could grow from seeds, grafts, division or rooting, so we all learned how to grow and care for every plant and flowering shrub in our yard including camellias, azaleas, altheas, hydrangeas, gardenias, roses and weigelas."
Gehlken’s father would pass on his intense love of trees to his children. Gehlken especially preferred trees with interesting bark such as beech, sycamore, shag bark hickory and river birch, and those with impressive foliage and flowers such as magnolias, cow cumbers (big leaf magnolias), poplars and maples. She revealed her deep-rooted kinship to the trees around her childhood home in her poem, "Poplars, Hackberries and All."
With these childhood influences, growing vegetables and flowers became a natural part of her adult life.
"As a poet, I write about what I know and love," she mused. "I have flowers blooming year-round, somewhere in the yard. I grow the same flowers mother grew; many I have rooted from her plants. I have also added many native plants and perennials, plus a collection of old garden shrub roses that bloom most of the year."
This double althea was rooted from one of Gail’s mother’s plants. Gail prefers older, heirloom flowers. She uses many of them in her poems.
Gehlken and her husband Jack are both dedicated gardeners. Bobby, an advocate for no-till farming, influenced the Gelhkens to try this method in their own garden. (See the May issue of AFC Cooperative Farming News.)
"Because we started using mulch to cover the garden, we never have to turn the soil," she added. "Though we keep a thick layer of leaves and pine straw as mulch in the garden and flower beds, there are always weeds and grass to pull. Sometimes I even enjoy that. Many ideas for poems come while pulling weeds," she chuckled.
Gehlken’s connection with the soil, composting and raising chickens can be found in her poem, "Well, Glory Be." Gehlken explained that she was constantly amazed and surprised by nature. She touches on this awe in another poem, "A Green Feast."
Gehlken feels blessed that her children and grandchildren now work in their own flower and vegetable gardens.
"It a joy to see them tending their plants and discovering all the insects that visit in the gardens," she added. "Sometimes they even find a green snake in the bean vines. I am saddened by the fact that fewer and fewer children experience gardening and walking in the woods. It’s a wonderful education for any age!"
The Gelhkens live in Irvington, in south Mobile County. It is the perfect setting for chickens and guineas and gardens, along with pecan and fruit trees such as figs, pears, peaches, satsumas, lemons, kumquats, blueberries and persimmons.
"I make preserves and relishes, like mother did, and follow her rule of canning a minimum of 40 quarts of tomatoes every summer," Gehlken laughed.
Gail Gehlken works on poetry for her next book coming out later this year.
Her poem, "Alabama Women," poignantly captures her memories of canning with her mother.
Like my mother,
know how to open each hour,
fill its seconds and minutes
with sweetened juices and pulp
like packing mason jars
with hot, spiced pear relish
before capping with sealing flaps
and gold twist rings
to hold a luscious taste of August
for a cold December day.
She learned another important lesson from her mother: to never stop learning new things. When Gelhken left for college in 1963, her mother started nursing school, earning an LPN license and working at Thomasville Hospital until she retired.
"Mom’s patients called her, ‘the nurse with caring hands,’" Gehlken reflected. "Along with caring hands, she was as kind, patient and hardworking with people as she was with her plants."
Gehlken still follows her mother’s example of always learning. She is now taking drawing and watercolor classes in botanical art at the Mobile Botanical Gardens.
In addition to being a wife, mother and grandmother, she is also a quilt maker.
"I’ve always sewn, but I only started making quilts since retiring," she explained. "Sometimes I use my poems as a springboard for quilt designs. I said I’m retired, but only from teaching in the classroom!"
Whether celebrating satsumas, squash or Speckled Sussexs, Gelhken finds poetry in all of life. Her syllables are steeped in soft bayou breezes and chinaberry shade, swallowtails and star jasmine. Her poems suggest solace for the soul and invites her readers to make "room for joy in simple things."
For the Children
Let the children play outdoors
Let them dig holes
Allow time to find cocoons
Encourage children to run
Help them make collections
Watch as they taste rain
Show them bluebirds
At days end
Though too tired to give chase,
Well, Glory Be!
To weeds, ever patience to stay
to dirt, rich in microbes,
and seeds, coded for pumpkins, butterbeans,
to lavender blooms on leafy green stems
to the feathers of Speckled Sussex,
to satsuma trees and Stuart pecans,