Contributor Spotlight: Holly Painter

HOLLY PAINTER on “CRYPTIC CROSSWORD IX

Holly Painter photo.jpg

When I moved to Auckland, my partner’s dad tried to teach me how to do cryptic crosswords. 

At 22, I’d done my share of American-style crosswords, and I wasn’t bad at those: I could usually get through most of Wednesday’s NYTimes puzzle, though Thursday’s was a step too far.

But the British-style cryptic crosswords are another beast entirely. Each clue is one part definition or synonym and one part wordplay clue, involving anagrams, spoonerisms, sound-alikes, containers, and bits and pieces. Both parts of the clue generally point to the same answer, but you have to think sideways, and often the two parts in concert form some distracting, irrelevant image. 

So, for example: “Quarrel twice with bird (7).” Here, we’re looking for a kind of bird. Two synonyms for quarrel – spar and row – give us “sparrow.” Not, perhaps, the most quarrelsome of birds.

Take another: “Ginger Spice will request a mother’s ID (8).” To request a mother’s ID is to card a mom. And “cardamom” is a spice in the ginger family. Geri Halliwell is only there to throw you off.

Add to all of this lateral thinking the wordplay indicators and common abbreviations relating to geography, sports, drinking, chemistry, the church, measurements, and so on, which solvers keep tucked in their memories, and you can see why I was “in a jumble” (an occasional anagram indicator). 

Every week, when we met for lunch, my partner’s father would bring a stack of photocopies of the week’s crosswords from the New Zealand Herald. They were blank copies, scanned before he’d done them, in an afternoon at most, often in less than an hour. His own father, who was pushing 90, mostly deaf and starting to lose his memory, could knock out the cryptic in minutes. He’d been doing them for half a century.

I was lucky to crack a few clues, and I never finished a full Herald crossword.

What I did do was notice that the clues, lyrically deceptive, often read like poetry. And I tucked that away where I should have been storing my list of abbreviations of British military ranks.

Years later, when my son was born, I started doing cryptic crosswords again, and I finally got the hang of it. I remembered what I’d noticed before, and though I was too tired to write poems, I was awake enough to compose clues as I was burping him and endlessly walking him. When he finally slept, I’d jot them down, and after a few months, I had a slightly larger baby and hundreds of clues that I began to assemble into poems in two parts. The clues made up the main poem and the answers formed a haiku, often on a different topic.

The act of writing these interlocking poems calls on all the different parts of my brain that I began exercising ten years ago in New Zealand. I’m still not a fantastic solver, but as a cryptic crossword poet, I’m in my “first abridged textbook (5).

Contributor Spotlight: Holly McKelvey

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My visual story "Portraits of Place: Walking the Lake Superior Hiking Trail" recounts a backpacking trip taken several years ago through the beautiful wooded landscape along the northwest shore of Lake Superior. It was a trip that had been planned months before, and as the day of departure grew closer, it became increasingly clear that the weather was not going to play along. Looking back through photos of that trip, I see rain jackets and ponchos channelling rivers of water from hunched figures down to the ground, marshy puddles around a camp fire coaxed into life from the reluctant grain of sodden wood, socks being held up to dry over limp flames, and tents being set up and broken down beneath the tentative cover of dripping tree branches. But I also see smiles, humor, and joy in our surroundings. And indeed, it is the beauty of the surroundings – the vibrant greenness of the woods, the grey canvas of birch bark that glowed under the rivulets of rain running down it, the animated roar of water in the rivers – that define this trip in my memory. The rain provides a context for understanding this northern temperate forest, a study in contrasts between the dry Californian chaparralscape where I was living at the time (and which was undergoing fire season), and the abundant greenness of this north Minnesotan landscape. 

This understanding of place through its ecology is something that I've long been fascinated by – with a background in geology and ecology, and having lived in ecosystems ranging from chaparral to cloud forest to coastal and from super urban to near wild, how could I not? More recently, I've tried to approach this exploration of place more intentionally as I identify the species and ecological systems places are shaped by. I seek to evoke these ecologies in my art: the roles they play, the emotions and the reactions and the feelings they elicit. Celebrate them. Draw them. Recreate feelings of place. This process forms the basis of my ongoing "Portraits of Place" series, which also includes chapters on urban biodiversity in cities like LA and Palermo; for my submission to Split Rock Review, however, I found myself wanting to step outside of the urban sphere and revisit this marvelously rain-drenched camping trip in the deep green wilds of a landscape deeply new to me.

Today I live in a coastal urban ecosystem in northern Germany. I haven't written a Portrait of Place for it yet . . . but as I listen to the gulls and the ship horns and watch the sky outside my balcony fold itself over into layers of sunshine on top of downpours on top of heavy mists, I have a feeling that a new chapter is on its way.

Contributor Spotlight: Janna Knittel

Janna Knittel on “Driftless

 Janna Knittel. Photo credit: Jean de Marais

Janna Knittel. Photo credit: Jean de Marais

I often get ideas for poems from reading about animals, plants, and landscapes. I was reading an article that referred to the Driftless Area in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which is so named because of the lack of glacial drift, deposits left behind by retreating glaciers. The terrain is so varied and rugged because the land was not scraped down as parts of the upper midwest were during glacial periods.

The name itself was very evocative for me: The word “driftless” hints at a vague emotional state, a feeling of being lost or stuck. I started writing the poem with an intent to simply describe the geology as mysterious, a place where a traveler could get lost, feel trapped, where things aren’t always what they seem. I read a bit more about the geology of the places so I could include names of the rock layers, which I included for their sounds as well as their factual place in the landscape.

What I didn’t expect, and what makes the poem work, is that, by the end of the poem and the last sentence—“If you were a glacier / you’d dig down to gems”—the poem had become an ars poetica, a poem about the art of poetry. The interlocutor, the “you,” is the poet being challenged by the speaker to defy difficulties and dig deeper in order to create.

NOMINATIONS: Best of the Net and Orison Anthologies