Contributor Spotlight: CJ Muchhala

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Our family has a cabin near the Wisconsin River and the initial inspiration for many of my poems is my observations in the surrounding woods or by the river—a wild tom turkey displaying for his mate, perhaps, or the way moonlight glints off the water.  However, “Lessons from the Garden for the War Machine” is an exception.

At home in our small backyard, one of my perennial battles in summer is that perennial weed called “creeping Charlie” (aka ground ivy). After consulting a lawn expert I learned that my efforts at pulling the weed out had only created an expansion of sturdy little Charlies. I could have done more to toughen the grass against Charlie, but, she said, it was too late now. A herbicide might kill it eventually but I would need to keep applying the poison over a long period. Since I was unwilling to do that, the lawn expert left me with one final piece of advice: “live with it.”  As you can see from the photo, that’s what I’ve done. My backyard is now Charlie’s bailiwick. 

I’m not sure how inspiration works, but my battle with Charlie seemed a metaphor for the so-called “war on terrorism.” It seemed to me that we were trying to uproot a persistent system instead of strengthening countries against its expansion, and so the poem was born, its shape created to suggest a yard and to work against Charlie’s sprawl.   

Contributor Spotlight: Sherryl Melynk

Sherryl Melynk on “Shithawk Eggs

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My baba was a rotund woman, which is what my mother called her. My father called her fat. It didn’t matter a wit to me what anyone called her. When she pulled me into her soft body to hug, I knew I was safe from the world. Except that I wasn’t, which is what I discovered when I poked the shithawk nest down and found baby birds instead of eggs. As a child, I never blamed her for placing me in a situation in which I would make such a traumatizing discovery. I blamed myself. I was a conduit of evil: what kind of girl could kill baby birds? It wasn’t until I considered the event from an adult perspective did I think about my grandmother’s involvement. What kind of grandmother would send a child each spring to knock down bird nests?   

Baba’s doting on me masked her complex nature. She’d take my chin in her warm hand to tell me how smart I was, and in the next breath call my father, her son, a no good lazy drunk. She’d brush my hair with long loving strokes each evening, and the next morning, beat our German Sheppard dog into submission for killing chickens. She’d say that I was the prettiest girl she’d ever seen and that my father should have married a good Ukrainian woman like all her other sons. And, I agreed with her: why hadn’t my dad married a woman with the right nationality so I could be a whole Ukrainian girl like she wanted.

Understanding baba’s complicated personality has been difficult. How could the same hands love me so fiercely and drown barn kittens because there were too many of them? I’d like to say that it taught me about the complexity of human nature, but it hasn’t. It’s taught me that people are bizarre and inexplicable; especially people you love. 

Contributor Spotlight: Aliesa Zoecklein

Aliesa Zoecklein on “Vacation Keepsake

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My poems aren’t usually straight narrative, but I pretty much wrote “Vacation Keepsake” exactly as the event happened. When I saw the plover take that step and then react, I put down my binoculars and thought, Shit, did this just happen? I knew immediately that I would write about it.

I rarely write poems focused solely on the natural world though nature is in many of my poems. I’m drawn to the fragmented, the dark and dreamy; I like trying to articulate the spaces between my reality and my imagination.

am, however, learning that sometimes it may be enough to record, to simply get down what happened without too much extra. That terrible little moment was both dramatic and ordinary, the kind of moment that happens around us all the time when we’re busy doing something else. 

In the moment of seeing the plover, I felt helpless so, for me, the speaker’s inaction is at the heart of the poem. Here’s a human-made problem, a specific example of that problem, but with no resolution. The binoculars simply magnify and add irony:  Even though the speaker has a close-up view, a precise focus, such seeing doesn’t influence the outcome.  The last image I remember, which is not in the poem, is of the plover flying low over the water, trailing that fishing line and block of wood. I’d like to think that she worked her leg loose of the line, but here I may be employing imagination to help me feel better. 

Contributor Spotlight: Brian Czyzyk

Brian Czyzyk on “No Tongue Can Tell

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No Tongue Can Tell” was partially inspired by Kevin Young’s “Ode to the Midwest.” The epigraph of that piece led me to the Bob Dylan song it’s taken from, from which I derived the title of this poem. Dylan also makes a brief appearance in the poem as a nod to that.

While this may seem like an indictment of the Midwest and small towns therein, my intention was to point out how multifaceted this region can be. While its social environments may not always be the most accepting, there is undoubtable beauty in the natural environs of the Midwest. It’s a place full of contradictions, and I love that. I want to challenge peoples’ preconceived notions of place and of others.

As a queer person growing up in small-town Northern Michigan, representation in my day-to-day life was limited. Representation still remains elusive, but I’m not talking about representation purely in terms of sexuality: how many other queer male poets from the rural Midwest can you name? Granted, the specificity of that definition does limit the potential scope of your findings, but I know I’m not the only one (the incomparable poet Michael Walsh comes to mind). I’ve recognized this as a niche that needs to be, not filled, but expanded. My life experience is not everyone’s life experience, but it contains echoes of shared truths. Someone, I can’t remember who, once said that poetry should be so personal it becomes universal. And that is my aim.