As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Ed Madden in response to a video of him reading his poem “Trough” aloud. Ed Madden wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Ed Madden also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thanks for writing me. It’s been such a pleasure to read everyone’s letters about my little poem, “Trough.” A lot of you asked if the poem is based on a real story. It is. When I was a little kid, there was a horse trough behind my grandma’s house that had goldfish in it. I was fascinated by it. It was magical, the way those fish would rise from the murky darkness of the water, beautiful and mysterious. Back then, when I was really little, the whole world was full of mysteries and secrets. Maybe the poem is trying to find a way to get back to that way of seeing the world. Maybe poems can do that, remind us that the whole world is full of beautiful and magical and mysterious things.
Ed Madden reads "Trough" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Ed Madden,
My name is Miranda and I am currently a junior. I write to you about your poem “Trough”. The word choice and setting reminded me much of my own experiences with my family when I was younger. “Trough” made me think deeper into the meaning of some of the things I thought were just mere details, as well as question the importance of memory and the use of simpler objects to represent a bigger picture.
Several times since I was about nine or ten years old, my family has taken trips to Arkansas. Sometimes for the fun of Eureka Springs, and other times to Beaver Lake for rafting, swimming, boating, and even horseback riding. With the first few words of your poem mentioning horses, my mind went straight to the hills and green landscape in which I was able to go on a horseback ride for the first time. Another personal connection I saw was feeding the fish. My family still takes a trip to the lake at least once a year, and one thing that I look forward to most is throwing food in the water and watching the huge fish pile on top of each other to try and get the food that the dock had stored in individual plastic bags. Although these things relate to the imagery in the poem, other aspects stood out to me as well.
One of my favorite things about “Trough” is the nostalgia, but also the mysterious feeling that comes when referring to the fish as apparitions. Do the fish represent something bigger? In the last line when you say, “They are everywhere”, I can’t help but to feel the fish are representing a more important aspect of life, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what. Another peculiar feeling that I get from “Trough” is the mention of deep and dark water, and the reference it might also have to the fish and their ominous appearance.
Although fairly short and to the point, this poem tells a story that has left me thinking for quite some time now. I was wondering though, with the specificity in such mentions of “stolen from your grandma’s cupboards”, is this poem based on personal experience? Or is it just a story? I also read your poem “Ark”, and noticed the year 1966 at the top, just like 1969 at the top of “Trough”. What significance is there in putting these years at the top of your poems?
Thank you for your time, and for sharing your poetry with the world.
Kansas City, MO
I love that scene you describe of the fish piling on top of one another to get to the food you’re tossing in the water. I remember being on vacation in Florida once with family, and there was a pond between the condos and the beach, and just as you describe, when we threw leftover bread in the water the fish (and a couple of turtles) would rush toward us and swarm over each other to get to the food. You asked if the poem is based on personal experience. It is. When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the fish in that water trough behind my grandma’s house. In a way, some of my poems are like tiny memoirs, like memory poems, so when I put a date on some poems it is a way for me to place them in time. So you are right to say that there is a kind of nostalgia to the poem.
But you also say there is a mystery to the poem, and you point to that last line. I’m so glad you say that and see that! That last line is an odd one to me, because I didn’t really understand what I had written until I wrote it, and then I thought, YES! I like poems that can do that, come to an end that seems to be a conclusion but really is another beginning, an opening out, even a little explosion of meaning. I love that you say you get a “peculiar feeling.” I want to gesture toward that mystery, toward a world full of mystery.
Best wishes, and thank you for reminding me of the mystery!
Dear Mr. Madden,
I recently read your wonderful poem “Trough,” and I enjoyed it greatly, especially because of the setting of the poem. The description of the barn and the pasture, which obviously paint the setting of a farm, remind me of some of my fondest memories in my entire life. My father is from Iowa, more specifically on a rural farm in central Iowa, and to hear the description of another farm, even though it is in Arkansas, rekindled memories of countless hours spent on my family farm. What I truly enjoy most about this poem is the tremendous amount of ways I am able to connect my personal experiences to the poem. I especially enjoyed the perspective of the poem that I interpreted, which was that of a young, curious child, which I certainly once was on my own farm. I would explore for countless hours on end, asking so many questions to my father and listening to the frightening cautions ushered by my cousins, similar to the caution given in the poem. As a young child, I was often fascinated by a certain element of the farm, which happened to be the old barn where my grandfather would have kept the pigs as well as the hay that the farm produced. Although this is not similar to a river, the two fascinations were similar in the amount of mystery and curiousness surrounding them, as I was not sure what the depths of the barn contained because it was far too dangerous for a child my age to enter with all of the machinery. I also felt a similar fascination as the child who is the focus of the poem with the creatures on the farm, which were goats in my case. I can vividly remember feeding the goats while being fascinated with their mannerisms, similar to the child observing and feeding the fish. Another aspect I enjoyed about the poem was the large amount of visual imagery and the high level of detail in the poem. Both of these elements contributed to my connection with the poem, as they allowed me to think about the setting of this poem and helped me to envision my family’s farm at the same time. I really enjoyed the description of the water as “tin and slick with green” and the simile of the fish “rising like apparitions to the surface,” as they helped me envision what intrigued the child so greatly. The final two things I enjoyed about this poem were the tone and theme that I felt the poem emphasized greatly. The curious or innocent tone of the poem helped me to truly connect with my young experiences and understand the events occurring in the poem, as these tones led to me to realize the point of view of the poem, which was very important to understand it. The tone, as well as the point of view of the poem, helped to develop the naive and innocent voice of the poem, which I felt was one of the best parts of the poem. I would also like to say that I felt that the voice of the poem being developed in this way was done fantastically, as I could only inference to discover elements that helped me piece the voice together. The theme of the poem, which I felt was best expressed by the statement “Children are often fascinated with the aspects of society that are the most mysterious to them,” I feel applies to myself and the focus of the poem greatly. After reading the poem and reading my reflections, I have formulated many questions. Was the poem based on your personal experience? Why did you create the voice of the poem in the way that you did? Why did you decide to write the poem in the first place? Do you feel that the theme I gleaned was applicable to the poem and your experiences as a child? Why did you include the large amount of detail and imagery that you did? Finally, what was your process in writing the poem? Once again, I enjoyed the poem you have written greatly and I am appreciative of the large amount of work you certainly put into writing such a masterpiece.
Barns are mysterious places, aren’t they? Like you, I was fascinated by animals and machinery, the smells and sounds. Even the big shop where my dad and his brothers worked on the farm had its mysteries—the hot splatter of silver where someone had welded something, or the bins of bolts and screws of so many shapes and sizes. Your letter brought this feeling of mystery and wonder back for me. The poem is based on my personal experience. It’s about me as a kid. It’s almost as if I’m writing to myself in the past—to “you,” trying to remember my childhood but also trying to figure out things about myself and where I came from.
I really like your question, “Why did you decide to write the poem in the first place?” I write about memory and rural culture a lot, but this poem came from a writing exercise I do with young writers. We read poems about the natural world, then I ask them to write about something from the natural world that intrigues, fascinates, disgusts, or disturbs. A bird you saw on a camping trip. The speckled side of a fish you caught with your uncle. Accidentally stepping on a big bug barefoot. Seeing your dog give birth to puppies. Planting a garden. Anything that sticks in your mind. I try to get them to come up with something immediately, not think about it, because if we think about it, we start coming up with different options and worrying about what other people are going to write about. I guess I think that if it’s the first thing you think of, it probably has some real emotional power for you. It’s resonating, humming in your memory like some piece of machinery you know is in the back of that mysterious barn.
When I teach writing workshops, I always write with my students because I find myself writing things that can surprise me in the energy and community of that workshop space. Once when I was teaching this workshop out in a campsite in the woods, the image that popped into my head was the horse trough behind my grandma’s house. After we all have our subject, we just write a page of description before we ever start on the poem, trying to use our five senses and describe both the thing from the natural world and the time and place of our experience. I time this part of the exercise, with the goal being to try fill a page with descriptive language in only a few minutes. I think that’s probably how we get to the imagery you asked about—with a page or so of raw material, you’ve usually got some vivid images to work with. I hope I’ve answered your questions
Thank you for sharing your memories. It’s really nice how a poem can bring people together by talking about memories they share.
Dear Mr. Madden,
My name is Katelyn. I am a student at River Ridge Elementary. I read your poem and I had the following questions:
Thank you for writing me! I’m not sure how long the poem took to write. I think the first version probably came to me pretty quickly, but I know that I revised this one a lot, cutting it down to the very small version you read. I remember it had a lot more introductory stuff, but I decided the poem felt like it had more energy when I hit the line, “For the horses,” so I cut everything that came before that and started there. I do that sometimes—write something long to get down all the details that I’m thinking, then cut it back a lot to just what seems most interesting. I like little poems like this that are tiny, vivid, punchy, maybe a little mysterious. I love that you think the ending is spooky! I don’t want it to be scary, but I do want it to make you think there might be something more to this poem than just a memory about a horse trough. I think when I was a little kid everything was a little mysterious. Don’t you think that the world sometimes seems full of mysteries and secrets?
Dear Mr. Madden,
My name is Quinn and I attend the Gilman School. I was struck by your poem the most out of all of the poems in the Dear Poet event. I thought it was interesting how I misinterpreted your poem the first time I read it, and how the details I misinterpreted add to the poem when understood. I had combined the warning from the cousin, the snag on the barb wire, and the comment about the fish being hungry to conclude that the narrator had been stuck in the barb wire and eaten by the fish. I realize that this is not actually what was being described by the poem but I believe the details that create the fear of this happening adds a shaky feeling to the poem. Without these details, I would have assumed that the tone of the poem was optimistic, imagining the narrator happily feeding the fish.
I wonder what the connection made between the narrator and the fish represents. There are two details in the poem that I think locks the fish and the feeder together. Firstly, at the end of the first stanza, “What draws you?”. I believe this would be a meaningless sentence without the later context of the fish coming up to the water like apparitions for the food. The question describes the narrator being drawn to the pond just as the fish are drawn to the food at the surface. The other detail is the last sentence of the poem. When I had first read the poem, the “They are always hungry” made me, for an instant, imagine myself as a fish and imagine what it feels like when I am hungry. For me, it added an effect similar to personification to the fish, and when this combines with the question to the narrator at the beginning, the fish and the feeder seem like similar creatures. This connection seems like it could be significant, yet is so subtle that I am not sure whether it was done on purpose. However, I am inclined to believe that it was done on purpose because, like I said, “What draws you?” seems to have no other purpose.
After rereading the poem a few times, I noticed, “where a catalpa tree bears its crop of worms”. This was only significant to me because of the effect gained by the feeder and the fish. Instead of making the fish seem like a person, the poem seems to represent the person as a fish. This is an important distinction for me because as the person is represented as a fish, my imagining of the scene is unsettling and mellow, as I imagine the feeder with impulses and movements similar to the fish. This interpretation would not be possible for me if the line was instead “where a catalpa tree contains its crop of worms”. The word “bears” personifies the tree and the “crop” makes the worms seem like inanimate objects. This contrast makes it impossible for me to look into the personification of the fish too much. If there was a theme of personifying life or of not personifying life, then the personification of the fish would not be as significant. The specific wording of the line adds to the setting of the story without interacting with the fish and the feeder relationship. This one is even more subtle, and I wonder if you did this on purpose.
Wow! You are a careful and smart reader, and I loved reading your interpretations of my poem. That’s brilliant how you connect the narrator to the fish with that first line, “What draws you?” You’re right, both the child and the fish are drawn to something. The fish are drawn to the food, the child is drawn to the mystery of that horse trough with its fish, and the narrator (me), well I’m drawn to memories of the past, all those fish rising up like apparitions or ghosts. I’m glad you noticed the catalpa tree, too. In some ways, it’s just part of the language and description of the place, since there really was a big catalpa tree in the front pasture. We would pick catalpa worms, a kind of caterpillar, off the lower leaves and use them as bait for fishing. I didn’t think of this consciously as I first started writing, but the image stuck because it felt right to me, felt related to the poem’s other images.
If you’re right and the feeder is also the fish, and this is a memory poem, then, we could almost say that your first reading—the one you call a misinterpretation—is also almost true. It’s so easy to get swallowed up (sorry, I couldn’t resist that!) or lost in memories, good or bad. Honestly, I think mistakes and misinterpretations are part of what we do when we write and part of what makes writing interesting. Once, I read this poem in Arkansas and a bunch of my family were in the room. I said that I thought the fish were pretty when I was little, but I imagined my grandma probably kept the fish there to eat mosquito larva so that her backyard wouldn’t be filled with mosquitoes. Granny Lola was a very practical woman. But my Aunt Elaine immediately said from the audience, “Uh uh, Eddie, that’s not true.” (They called me Eddie when I was a kid, and some of my uncles and aunts still do.) She said that my grandma, her mom, thought the fish were pretty and that’s why she put them in the tank. So I was wrong, but I was also right.
Thank you for your letter. I really wish I could be in your classroom to hear you talk about poems like this.
Dear Ed Madden,
Your poem “Trough” speaks to me because it transports me to a time when I was very young and would ride horses with my father on his ranch. The line that particularly caught my attention was “your cousin warns—big enough to drown in.” (line 5) When I was younger, my whole family would go spend a week at my father’s ranch in Colorado. Since my father passed away we have stopped going, but the ranch still holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite places in the world. When we would go to the ranch, I remember getting to run around and play to my heart's content. The fresh mountain air always gave me so much energy. My favorite part of the Colorado Ranch was the horses. About a hundred yards from the main house, there was a little stable where the ranch hands kept all of the supplies for the horses. There were brushes, reins, saddles, boots, buckets and lots and lots of oats. One of my favorite things to do was going into the little shed and sitting in the corner to read. I had to bring a flashlight with me because it was so dark in there, but it was worth it because of the smell. The little barn always had a strong smell of sweet oats, and I absolutely loved it. Sometimes, if no one was around, I would sneak out and feed the horses. I distinctly remember something my cousin said to me when she caught me in the act. I was about eight years old, and she was ten at the time, so naturally I looked up to her and heeded every word she said. She told me not to go near the horses because they would bite me, but having always loved horses, I was fairly certain this was not true. I continued to ignore my cousin’s warning because nothing could keep me away from my horses. Obviously, her warning was well-intended because horses do have large teeth, but I knew what I was doing. After years of spying on Fritz, the ranch hand, I had picked up a thing or two about horse etiquette and safety. For example, one should never walk directly behind a horse because they could get spooked and kick you. Also, when hand-feeding horses, it is important to keep your hand flat or else they could accidentally bite your finger. Horses primarily eat grass, hay and oats, so they have no intention of eating a finger, but every once in a while they could get excited and mistake a finger for a carrot or a chunk of oats. For this reason, it is imperative that one keeps her hand flat while hand-feeding. This ensures that the horse only eats what is on the hand and not the hand itself. I remember making a connection with one particular horse named Ducky. He was light brown with a blonde mane and a wart behind his right ear. At the end of the day, I am so glad I ignored my cousin’s advice because if I hadn't, I would never have gotten to make that connection with Ducky. So, one of my favorite parts of your poem “Trough” was the initial image of the horses running “between the barn and the pasture.” (line 1)
In this poem the main values I glean are curiosity and courage. The child’s curiosity drives him to explore the trough in spite of his cousin’s warning. This poem teaches a valuable lesson. It tells us that while one should heed others’ advice, it is equally as important that one experiences the thrills and dangers of life for oneself. Even though it is important, facing your fears is far from an easy task. It takes huge amounts of courage to overcome one’s inhibitions and to truly experience something you have only heard about from others (in this case, the boy’s cousin who has seen the trough for himself).
One element of “Trough” that really sparks my interest is your word choice. Personally, I have such fond memories of my time around horses and in the country, yet this poem reads dark which conflicts with my experiences. The repetition of illustrative words like “dark,” “still,” “warns,” “drown,” “snags,” “darkness,” and “apparitions,” emotes fear or discomfort. These specific words show the protagonist’s true feelings of doubt, hesitation, and deep-rooted fear towards his adventure in the trough. Similarly, I am intrigued by the tone you create with your word choice. The words you used give the poem an atmosphere of unrest and mystery, which is reflected in the trough itself. “The dark water” and the “enormous fish... rising like apparitions to the surface” of the trough are visualizations of this poem’s dark and cloudy tone. (lines 7-8) The aspect of this poem that puzzles me the most is your reasoning for why you decided to set the tone this way. Is there perhaps a childhood memory you have that has left a lasting impression that could be the root of your ominous and eerie attitude towards your experience with the trough? Personally, my memories of water troughs for the horses at my father’s ranch are filled with childish laughter and glee. This might make it more difficult for me to understand where you are coming from in your poem, but I would very much like to know your story. I wonder how we could have had such different experiences in such similar settings. Staying in the countryside with family, pastures of horses, and stables all seem to be things our childhoods have in common; however, I perceived my surroundings differently. I am eager to know more about where this poem is set and the personal significance it has for you.
I loved reading about your trips to the ranch, about the barn and the horses. My little brother and I had ponies when we were kids that lived there at my grandma’s pasture. Ducky! What an odd name! I can’t talk about odd names, I suppose, since our ponies were named Cocoa and Frances Fireball. I am moved by your really insightful reading of the poem, and by the fact that you say the main values (I like that you call them values, not themes) of the poem are curiosity and courage. Yes, exactly! Thank you for giving me a clear way to think about my own poem: it’s about curiosity and courage. You ask about the tone. I don’t think you and I have had different experiences with barns and horses and farms, as I also remember my grandmother’s house with great fondness as a magical and special place. Maybe it’s dark because the past, as we get older, is sometimes dark—not threatening, but just dark, cloudy, unknown, as if there are things we can’t remember, or things we can’t really know about the past or even about ourselves, but sometimes some bright memory rises to the surface.