Contributor Spotlight: Laura Lee Beasley

Laura Lee Beasley on “The Hen’s Secret

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The idea for my poem "The Hen's Secret" first came from a project I completed in elementary school to study ancient Egypt. Our fifth-grade class coated raw chickens in salt, oil, and herbs, and then wrapped them in gauze. We buried the chickens in a side yard of our elementary school, closed up in shoe-box sarcophaguses we'd decorated with glitter.

I'm working now on a collection of poems centered on Charles Darwin and his wife Emma. Darwin was always collecting specimens to dissect and help him better understand the world. Like Darwin, my grandparents, high school art teachers, had a collection of specimens they called simply "things to paint." They kept locusts and monarch butterflies in plastic magnifying boxes. On a windowsill, they kept “the supplicating frogs,” a pair of frogs found dried behind an air conditioning unit, their webbed front feet clasped at their chests as if in prayer. 

My poem is a sort of set of instructions, instructions to place the chicken's heart on your tongue. I like to think about this in terms of our connections with the natural world. These connections can bring us a sense of understanding, but this is always somewhat at odds with how, in the process, we can damage and take from nature. This mirrors, I think, the complicated relationships artists have with their subject matter. I try to figure this out a little bit in my poem.

Contributor Spotlight: Jacob Hall

Jacob Hall on “Whistle

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Whistle” was the first poem I wrote after moving to a new place. Having just moved the 570 miles from north Ohio to central Missouri, I was in that pocket of novelty and fear and unease that always seems to accompany major relocations. I was spending a lot of time alone and I was getting used to a demanding workload. I had a pretty consistent feeling that everything could fall apart at any moment.

During those first few months in Missouri, I found myself concerned with a lot of questions about circumstance: How did I end up here? Is there any use in plotting linear routes between two given points in time? Or does circumstance have to be more lyrical, more amorphous than that? I think these questions and that sense of unease in a new place both play a major role for the speaker and their actions in “Whistle.” It’s a poem where the present seems to short-circuit, leading to a meditation on the past, which in turn wraps back in with the present scene. Writing the poem was an exercise in weighing the events of the past against the present and interrogating how one thing might lead to another, or how two impressions or experiences can be tangled without an explicitly causal relationship.

The speaker in “Whistle” is knotted up in the present while attempting to reconcile that moment with various incarnations of the past – the neighbor’s lawn, the pasture behind the schoolhouse. Inside of that dynamic, I think landscape acts as a kind of axis between differing places and times. It’s the overgrown grass on the lawn and in the pasture that bridges those two spaces for the speaker. It collapses the distance between one time and another, and it opens up questions about the distance between other supposedly antithetical things (ability and inability, life and post-life, fallibility and godliness).

In the end, I think the poem questions the strictness of those kinds of divides; it favors a more complicated relationship between one and its other. It’s an important poem for me and I’m looking forward to returning to some of these ideas for future work.

Contributor Spotlight: Dawn Potter

Dawn Potter on “Sonnets for the Arsonist

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Sonnets for the Arsonist” had, for me, a very unusual genesis. It arose from an experiment that my friend, the poet Nat Fisher, suggested. For various reasons we had both been struggling to write, so Nat wondered what would happen if we began a back-and-forth draft. He would contribute a handful of lines until he ran out of steam, and then I would toss out a few lines, and then he would, and then I would, and so the experiment began.

Though Nat and I are close friends, we do not have similar writing styles or goals: he has a bent toward surrealism; I have a bent toward narrative; and thus the experiment quickly became peculiar. I kept trying to make a story out of what we were producing, while he kept injecting unnerving imagery and twists of language. The result was strange and bracing and delighted us both, but it was in no way a usable poem. Yet as the experiment petered out, and we moved back into our private work, I found myself unable to keep my hands to myself. I copied out what we’d made, and then I began playing with it. My story urge pressed me forward, and I began unraveling the threads of language in search of a character. And thus the arsonist took shape and his tale assumed the form of four loose American sonnets.

The final version does not much resemble the original experiment, though elements remain: there was always a church, always a fire. If Nat were to write his own poem based on our doodlings, it would be much different from mine . . . but it, too, might have a church, might have a fire. The experiment was revivifying in large part because our imaginations both clashed and intersected. We were surprised and not surprised. In many ways this ambiguity of recognition is the great power of poetry, for both reader and writer. Enacting that dance in tandem with another striving poet was a gift and a lesson.

Contributor Spotlight: Abigail Cloud

Abigail Cloud on “The Swarm

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I call it Up North or The North Country or The Wild. My family calls it The Farm, complete with The Barn and The Crick. In truth, it’s not all that wild, a farmhouse in rural agricultural country in Michigan, not even that far north, only about midway up the state’s two-peninsula stretch. But it’s close enough to deep forest, low enough in population that it feels like I am alone enough when I’m there. I walk The Farm, The Cemetery, The Crick alone. I do not walk The Woods alone.

Up North, I can indulge my birdwatching habits right from the giant windows of the house. A massive trumpet vine grows off one side of the house and lures in orioles and hummingbirds by the dozens. I didn’t know until recently that my mother genuinely doesn’t care for hummingbirds. That fascinates me, and reminds me of other flying creatures that people cannot abide. The first swarm stems from the fear of nigh-untraceable movement in hummingbirds. It also attaches to a central project I’m completing dealing with signs, warnings, and divination—the myriad ways in which we try to attach meaning to tiny occurrences. Up North, every small thing rises to be noticed.

Up North, I’m quiet and the Earth is not. The Earth revs awake as the sun hits the first field, and sleep-talks through the night. The magnification of natural sound makes me feel like I have super-hearing, but it also turns sound elemental. The second swarm comes from a moment when I could hear an oncoming cloud of something before I could see it. I tracked it by that bzhir of wings, wondering if it could possibly be bees. It reminded me of that scene in African Queen when Rose and Charlie (because they are Rose and Charlie by this point, no longer Ms. and Mr.) are beset by a swarm of stinging insects, and the wild seizes them instantly, pushing off from shore their only recourse. My horde mostly stayed above me and I could see its progress when it neared enough to identify its members—gnats; I was never engulfed. But for a few seconds, without consciously realizing it, I was ready to bolt.

The exploration of which this poem is a part is full of questions—questions about the surrounding environment, certainly, but more importantly questions of the self. While my poems often explore forms of divination (real and imagined), collectively they act as their own form of divination, making and remaking meaning wherever they can.