11 January 2018

a poetry project—"the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county" & an adieu to news, not blues.

by jennifer hetrick

when i created news, not blues in 2010, it came out of the need for better days in my own life in hard times and me realizing the world and its people outside of me needed this, too. once in a while, people who didn’t know me in-person would figure out that i was the soul behind this publication and would tell me how much they loved scooping it up in public at the handful of distribution sites which kindly offered to carry it. that helped my heart tremendously, and it also helped me to understand that my pursuit carried a necessity.

the blur of my obligations began to take away more time from this community contribution which is finalized at everything printing in bechtelsville. by 2015, i couldn’t keep up anymore, and being literally too busy to live prevented me from updating our community sooner. one of the major endeavors which contributed to my dwindling life-minutes for this is what i’ll be using these final publishing moments to explain.

positive news publications and online outlets are thankfully popping up here and there in the community, including the visitboyertownpa.com (searchable as visit boyertown PA on facebook) and visitpottstownpa.com sites, which i co-manage with rachael kehler, the owner of the peppermint stick candy store in boyertown, and pottstown-based website designer raymond rose of CWT websites. but my hope is also that more people will recognize the untapped inner-drives within themselves to be the go-getters for good around us because more will only benefit us, unlike negativity lacing traditional news venues.

thank you tremendously to everyone who kept up with this publication for as long as they did, probably wondering where they heck it went for the past few years. you have been an integral part of heart-energy and pushing the good around us forward, which is vital.

and now onto what i’ve been doing since 2015, besides attempts at authentic living, working many jobs, pulling relentless and determined sidewalk weeds while not in job-mode, and sprawling in the grass, under the sun (my absolute favorite practice in warm weather—i highly recommend it).


a poetry project—the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county

in 2015, i started a three-year poetry project on the manufacturing history of berks county after i applied for grant funding from the pennsylvania council on the arts through the berks arts council.

the project is called the labors of our fingertips: poems from manufacturing history in berks county. through it, i interviewed more than 70 seniors around our region who had worked in mostly long gone factories and mills in their earlier days, some spanning their job history back into even the 1940s.

i hunted down seniors through word-of-mouth across my own jobs and connections, and i also hosted presentations in retirement and assisted living homes to gather my poem-sources.

in 2015, 2016, and 2017, i interviewed at least 25 seniors each year about their memories in manufacturing and crafted poems from what they recalled, including stories stemming from places like knitting mills, metal-casting foundries, and candy factories. bulletproof vests, underwear, chocolate, trucks, goggles, sweaters, and kitchen stoves are just some of what the poems dive into across the first, second, and third volumes published through foothills publishing in rural new york.

while i sell the books, which are pictured above, i also donated copies to the seniors who are in a particular volume as well as historical societies and libraries in berks county. the final kind of donation was offered so that those who can't afford to purchase the books can still appreciate them through requesting them from their own library, if the volumes are not already on the shelves there. and this is because i know very well what it is like to scrape by in life even while working hard and living frugally with a fierce pennsylvania dutch cheap gene.

i received state arts grant funding for all three years of the project, and community support and business sponsorships as well as book sales were a big part of helping this work which has taken a hardly measureable amount of hours to complete. it is one of many reasons i've been off the radar. i also began teaching poetry as a visiting artist in schools and state parks in 2016, and i teach a traveling poetry class, too. but doing poetry readings to share these writings around berks county as well as a few in chester county added up to more than 40 in total. my brain is a little too tired to do more math and see if the genuine final number is higher, in typing this at 12.56 a.m. before another early day of work. yet the poetry readings are worth mentioning because of their part here and also because they began to literally change my life, as i'd only mostly participated in open mics before this. as a writer, i've always enjoyed the comfort of hiding behind my words à la the wizard of oz. but in time, i felt the this work, my question-asking, the writing of these poems, and the poetry readings changing me while also bringing honor and a newfound dignity to seniors in a way which is often just not in the cards in our culture. it meant so much to them to have someone, a young person, a stranger, a female poet—sit down, ask them about their lives, document it all in line breaks, and stir forgotten glimmers of mattering in the world versus a sometimes lower self-worth tugging at the center of one day into the next. i felt humbled yet empowered to be the one ensuring that this handful of seniors would not have the significance of their contributions left out of sight.

at the bulk of my poetry readings, which were in art galleries; museums; libraries; retirement and assisted living homes; senior centers; historical societies; schools; cultural centers; and episodes of art and poetry-geared shows on bctv.org, i often brought along poem-sources from my books as special featured guests to share more about their lives through questions from the audience. i heard again and again that this served as a favorite aspect to the poetry readings. a photographic evolution and the actual poems of these readings are on the blog for this project at http://thelaborsofourfingertips.blogspot.com and on the facebook page for it searchable as the labors of our fingertips: poems. i sell the books directly on my own (thelaborsofourfingertips at yahoo dot com or by phone 610.401.3392) and also online through www.gofundme.com/berkscountypoems. my teaching work can be seen at poetrywithjenniferhetrick.blogspot.com and on facebook under poetry with jennifer hetrick.

enjoy these poem-samplings from this project.

from volume one (a full poem) 
willie kramer, south heidelberg township | born: 1932

i still have my cutting knives. but i spent
18 years in the color department before i began
slicing leather that soon became what people

would later sit on in automobiles. i kept cups
of colors in front of me, starting in 1957.
i matched mixed paint to the samples car

manufacturers mailed to garden state tanning
in fleetwood. we carpooled from cressona,
schuylkill county and had some icy-roaded

scares on route 662 in the chillier months.
about 20 different hues took homes inside
50-pound barrels. they never put it this way,

but i became an incidental chemist, regularly
measuring and weighing what i blended.
one guy applied a base coat. another fellow

did a top coat. they called me a color matcher
until i spit up blood, spending several days
in the hospital. afterward, they moved me

to the cutting department, where i worked
for 20 years—split only automotive hide
and had to work fast, following the patterns.

one day, i saw three birds perched up high
in the factory. the mom and dad flew out
and sat on the street’s power line. they called

for their baby bird to join them. the mom flew
back, chirping up a storm next to the baby. it
flittered out the window behind her, to the wire.


from volume two (an excerpt of a poem)
leonard crowdell, boyertown borough | born: 1928

crooked water in 1963—i noticed this in my drinking glass
on the RMS queen elizabeth as the captain announced our
invitation to glide to the side of the ship because lady liberty
with her quieted torch stood as that american symbol of what
touches the stretch of sea opposite my homeland—leicester,
england. the crew expected that ship to tip, tilt a little bit from
huddling onlookers reaching at its edge, gripping the rails,

their eyes fixated on her wordless promise in copper. my
father bought me a construction set in my days of boy-world,
when i used a toy crane to pick up cargo of railway carriages.
he made shoes and boots; mother cut the patterns of dresses.
once old enough to have my own job, i worked for the bentley

engineering company. how i digested the idea of moving
here on loan for great american knitting mills, inc. in bally—
apprehensively. but after 3 years, i told my boss i wouldn’t
be returning across that wide pond. my first day in the place,
a november morning, i toured the operation to examine those
broken machines i’d be repairing, and as we paced slow lanes
around the distinct lines of gold toes, we took in new history.

president kennedy had just felt the sudden song of a bullet
meeting the brain. but with three shifts of socks to fashion
and orders to fill, production pushed pitiless responsibility…

from volume three (an excerpt of a poem as extended haiku)
evelyn fehr, west reading borough | born: 1929

we all knew it by
anything but its true name,
the only jump rope

factory around—
berkshire cordage mill along
furnace road. my dad

worked there, said he would
get me a job, too, and he
did, in wernersville.

each handle shined red,
brightly. the ropes’ colors kept
my young eyes gleaming

in the later years
of the 1940s. i
tacked those wooden ends

to the rope, slamming
my machine into action
by pressing my foot…