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Transplanted Farmer Grows Corn in the Summer, Poems in the Winter

May 20, 1991

FARRAGUT, Iowa (AP) _ Come this summer, Michael Carey once again will tend to his fields, keeping a careful eye on the endless rows of budding corn and beans.

Winter is over, so Carey becomes a farmer again. His first occupation - poetry - takes a back seat while his crops are sown and reaped.

It is winter when Carey nurtures his verse from blank sheets of paper, and winter when he tries to sow in Iowa’s children the art of writing precisely, of seeing that a single word can be as full of life as a single seed.

Part of Carey’s mission is to make Iowans - and others - see the beauty inherent in the very simplicity of his adopted state.

″Iowa is a subtle gently rolling land with subtle people,″ he writes. ″The language of its people reflects that. It is not like the blatant mountains always calling attention to themselves.

″It’s not the ‘A-Team’ or ‘Charlie’s Angels’; it’s a warm story before a warm fire in a hundred-year-old house. You have to stop to hear it.″

Last winter, Carey was on the road for 18 weeks in 15 different schools, hired for a week or two at a time.

At night came the time for his own writing.

″I came to Iowa to write, but what made me a poet was the farm,″ he said. ″When I became a farmer, I stopped trying to be a poet. Everything I see and touch and do now has resonance. My whole life has become a metaphor.″

It was a fluke that made this 36-year-old son of a New York radar expert a farmer.

He met his wife, storyteller Kelly Gee, while attending the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City in the late 1970s, then agreed to help out on property she and her siblings inherited. After a death in her family, the Careys were asked to take it over.

″The idea seemed ludicrous to me. What did I know about farming?″ he wrote in the North American Review literary quarterly. He got in the business just in time for the farm crisis.

″We never saw the good days of farming. Neighbors told me that if I could make it now, I could make it forever. I saw good farmers losing everything around me. I saw that everything hinged on debt load. If you had a lot of debt, it didn’t matter how good a farmer you were.

″If you had no debt, it didn’t matter what you didn’t know. This gave me confidence. I just jumped in, fresh and ignorant as the morning.″

Through this twist of fate, he is running 800 acres of corn, beans and set- aside acres in hilly southwest Iowa. There are no animals to feed, since animals are a year-round commitment and Carey isn’t around in the winter.

″I fatten poetry,″ he joked, leaning back from the old family dining room table.

On the road in winter, Carey is praised for exposing the inventive, expressive side of his students. He teaches the art of writing clearly, not just in rhyme. He encourages students to join the unjoinable, to create their own metaphors, to think rather than to respond.

Iowans have the image of being hard-working, family oriented people, but the knock on the state is that it’s a cultural wasteland.

″We’ve got culture here, but it leaves,″ Carey said.

He worries that the loss of people will ruin a lifestyle he has come to admire.

″Our towns are shrinking,″ he said. ″You have to be ecumenical or there aren’t enough to have a church. Once you get below a certain number, the fabric of society starts unwinding. I’m afraid there won’t be a school in my county 10 years from now.″

Carey said it’s all because Iowans don’t realize their virtues. With modems and satellites, many professionals can live wherever they choose, and many would choose Iowa if they knew about the place, he said.

To New Yorkers, it’s ″quaint″ that a rural football player stays on the field at halftime because he’s needed in the trombone section, Carey said, but he sees it as heroic and demanding.

″Iowa’s story is rarely told by people who choose to stay, by people who love it,″ he said. ″This is due in part because of our humility and in part by our cultural brainwashing. ‘If he’s really good, what’s he doing in Iowa?’ is a question I’ve heard too often.″

Carey is flattered by national reviews but annoyed that Iowans wait for outsiders to anoint its poets or musicians. ″Why don’t we credit our own people?″ he asks.

The same goes for the state’s products.

″Our corn is somehow worth much more when it’s in a tin can that says Del Monte on it,″ he said.

Carey considers himself an Iowan now, but he laughs when he thinks of his early days in the state, when he watched his neighbors and copied what they were doing. Sometimes, he’d stop to ask:

″Hi, Gil. What are you doing?″

″I’m greasing bearings. It’s a little custom we have around here called preventive maintenance,″ Gil replied.

″Great. What’s a bearing?″

″Oh, they’re the little metal balls that go around your axle to keep your wheel from breaking it like yours did last week.″

Some neighbors would stop by to offer other advice:

″You know, Mike, you don’t have to use your blinkers when you come to the end of a row. Who are you signaling to, the foxes?″

But Carey has caught on. Now he greases those bearings, signals only when it’s needed and even plays the futures market, one year selling his entire bean crop a year in advance. He got $2 a bushel more than those who waited for the actual harvest.

″I became part of the rural family,″ he said.

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