The Photic Zone interview series spotlights Split Rock Review contributors to gain insight on their creative work, their sense of place and practice, and the small wonders that bring them joy. It is curated by Michelle Menting.
Jenny Godwin on "Promise Me Water"
My poem "Promise Me Water" featured in Issue 10 of Split Rock Review came to me at the peak of California’s drought. I write this essay on a plane leaving my now-home in Colorado to visit the town I wrote this poem in, Nevada City. It’s a much wetter world there in Northern California this Spring, no phantom gullies missing their waterfalls or wildflowers struggling to drink enough to bloom.
I wrote an enormous number of poems involving water during the three years I lived in California. It was instinctual, and maybe my own sort of water dance. Though I don’t consider myself religious, the feeling of rain cascading down after months of drought was truly the closest thing to holy I’ve ever felt. And that pull I experienced to water bodies during those months of intense drought felt spiritual.
"Promise Me Water" arrived in pieces a few years ago as I sat by my former city’s trinity of river channels, the three forks of the mighty Yuba. I wanted an assurance these stream beds would fill up once again. The grass practically crackled that summer and the threat of fire was never far from us. When the water did finally come, I felt my body cracked open like a nut, and I literally did dance in the rain with friends. It was a technicolor experience.
Now a Coloradan, deep in our own intense drought, my thoughts keep returning back to summer days spent on the Yuba, hoping for rain, watching how the river roared once fed.
On Helium, Carbon, Nitrogen, and the Quirks of a Quirky Poet
Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken / by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain / everythingness of everything, in cahoots / with the everythingness of everything else.
—Dianne Ackerman, from “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”
“Helium,” “Carbon,” & “Nitrogen” are micro-poems from a twenty-poem sequence entitled Corpus Callosum, which is the name given to the thick band of nerve fibers that divides (and connects) the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and more importantly, allows for communication between them. I thought this was the perfect title for a series of poems based on the first twenty elements, poems dedicated to exploring the intersections of hard science, human narrative, and our emotional responses to each. Thus, the poems are not merely based on the scientific properties of the elements, but the history behind their discoveries/discoverers, as well as my own experiential reference points and contexts for understanding.
I’m not exactly a science geek, but I love the geological, biological, and medical sciences. It’s rare for me to not be straddling at least one of those spheres alongside the personal. My son, who has non-verbal Autism, has been the focus of much of my work, as well as the geology and geography of the Southwest, in addition to anything ornithological (dead or alive, two-dimensional or three). But given that science isn’t my first language, I tend to gravitate toward the narratives of minerology and neurology. In those vast expanses of foreign terminology, I find the language of poetry, which is also the language of discovery—of discovering proofs and theories, subjective and universal truths, intersections of logos and pathos, contact zones between the indigenous and the imaginary landscapes of the self.
If I had to classify myself, I’d say I’m a confessionalist with a quirky scientific bent, which might just make me quirky. I’m rarely witty or funny in verse—I save my humor for my fiction. I suppose my fervent belief in “poetic education and access for everyone” has also led me to explore and tout the benefits that come from regular and creative commingling of the sciences and the arts. Poetry is a form of processing, of personalizing the universal and spitting it back out again as a newly hybridized product. What could be more important for us to practice (and celebrate) in the 21st century than the hybridization of form, which is comparable to the multi-modal nature by which we transmit all other types of information? If news and entertainment can be blended so effectively, why not science and art? Perhaps the latter is the only thing we should be striving for.
Patricia Hamilton on "Lullaby of the Wall Street Investment Banker"
In the aftermath of the mortgage banking crisis of 2007, my husband, a management professor, was explaining collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps to me. “Those are just forms of gambling!” I exclaimed. My realization that Wall Street bankers had been wantonly toying with the lives of millions of people for their own thrill-seeking pleasure lit a slow-burning fuse.
My father had spent several years as a loan credit examiner on the trail of one of the biggest fraudsters in banking history, so greed and corruption in high finance were not new phenomena to me. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of peoplewere so far removed from the lives of ordinary Americans that they never paused to calculate the consequences of their actions—a catastrophic failure of moral imagination. What could awaken their consciences? What might foster empathy in them for people outside their own affluent circles? Immediately I began to conceive the resistance I might encounter if I offered to drive a Wall Street investment banker around the neighborhoods of people whose lives his actions had disrupted or ruined. That furnished the poem’s premise: what would such a person see if he were to visit the region where I live?
I remember telling a friend that I wanted to write a poem called “Lullaby of the Wall Street Investment Banker,” but for some reason I wasn’t ready. Another two years passed before I accompanied my husband on a trip down U. S. Highway 45 south from Jackson, TN, to Tupelo, MS, one sunny June afternoon, scribbling notes on what I saw along the way. Once I had specific images to work with, it was a matter of listening to the narrative voice in my head that kept beckoning, “Come with me.”
That slow fuse I mentioned? Eventually it led to the small explosion that detonates in the poem’s last stanza.