Contributor Spotlight: Toni Bennett

Toni Bennett on “Crow’s Feet

My picture “Crow’s Feet” is of a wooden crow I bought in Canada on a trip to a cabin where I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation but ended up writing poetry and taking photos instead. I should have seen the signs as to what my future occupation would be! I set it on a piece of acrylic from the hardware store and photographed it from below.

I very much see myself as a documentarian who is allowed a liberal dose of poetic or artistic license. I want to show people what exists at one specific point in place and time that no one notices because we are all busy rushing around. I am also very concerned with matters of connection. As I try to do in my poetry, I want my images to show the invisible lines connecting things we didn’t realize were connected.

After photographing many different subjects (group events, rodeos, zoo animals, travel, pets, urban scenes, etc.), lately I’m gravitating towards the inanimate. I have a whole series of doll photos that started when I would go visit my mother and would photograph her huge doll collection. I’ve been “toying” with some toy dinosaurs and a toy schoolbus and had a couple of those photos published. 

I am drawn to this photograph arena for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I don’t like being looked at when I’m taking pictures. A more artistic reason is that I’m fascinated by the oxymoronic dualism of the dynamism of static forms; I want to show the vital essence of dead things. I once submitted a doll portrait to a stock company and had it rejected because I didn’t have a model release. They thought it was human and I felt validated that they saw the life in my photo of an inanimate object. What is it in a plastic doll’s silent lips that speaks back to us humans who make creatures in their likeness as if we were gods ? What is it in a pile of rocks that tells us something we didn’t know or forgot? Or what is it in the lines of a neon sign that gives us hints of who we are by focusing on how we decorate our city landscapes? 

I suppose I have a sort of “animistic” bent when looking at objects. As a child, I used to think my dolls got up and played on their own while I was asleep. As a matter of fact, the very crow that is in this photograph has been noted being an inch closer to the edge of its shelf every once in a while and I have to keep pushing it back. I’m hoping my photographs show the life inside all matter. It’s not their fault that their molecules move slower than ours.

Contributor Spotlight: Richard LeBlond

Rambling As An Art Form

By Richard LeBlond

Aldous Huxley said "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything." That statement is so broad it becomes the opposite of a definition.

Wikipedia’s definition is more useful: “Formal essays are characterized by ‘serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,’ whereas the informal essay is characterized by ‘the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme.’” The quotes are from William Holman’s A Handbook to Literature (9th ed.) (Prentice Hall, 2003).

The formal essay may be the source of PTSD for some high school seniors who must write one for their college applications. By comparison, the informal essay appears to be almost pleasurable. I am an informal essayist and can confirm that at times it is almost pleasurable.

In college, I wanted to be a novelist and changed my major from journalism to English literature. I then spent the next 40 years avoiding coming to terms with what was the biggest disappointment in my life. I became an administrator in the National Park Service, then a citizen at large in dangerous countries, an environmental administrator, a bookkeeper, an editor. I finally settled on a career as a biologist for a state natural heritage program.

Shortly before I retired in 2007, I decided I would try to do something with the stories I had been collecting since childhood. I had thought they would be the genesis and content of my novels. But after 40 years I finally accepted that I am incapable of being a novelist because – and this was a stark realization – I have almost no imagination. My inspiration comes from observation. I sit at the back of the literary bus, behind the poets and fictionistas, writing essays. Telling stories from memory rather than from imagination is as close as I can get to the novel.

The two essays in issue 11 of Split Rock Review are from my life on Cape Cod in the 1980s, and that is when they were first drafted. I thought they were ok back then, but I did not hold them in high regard. They were, after all, just essays and not the novels I was supposed to be writing. But after accepting my limitations, I realized I can now shamelessly tell my stories as they had originally unfolded, embellished only by the tatters of memory.

Yes, you can smell the exhaust fumes in the back of the bus, but the view out the window is still good, and I am rambling with impunity.

Contributor Spotlight: Dana Yost

Dana Yost on “Night Light for the Harvest

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As with much of what I write, “Night Light for the Harvest” started as a bigger piece which I revised downward. In this case, that not only helped the poem but fit the subject matter.

As those of us who live in the rural Midwest well know, modern farming has, for some time, been big business: big, expensive machinery using sophisticated technology and science, operations in which a single operator can farm more acres—often in the thousands—more quickly than it once took several smaller farmers, big international markets, big corporate grain and meat companies. Along with growth comes loss, however: big, often damaging, consequences, to rural populations and the economies of small towns.

It makes for material for social, political and economic commentary, and there’s been plenty, including my own in my journalism and books. But here, I wanted to strip away the “bigness,” if you will, just as I wanted to write a stripped-down poem.

Fortunately, a crescent moon lit the sky two autumns ago when I drove past a nighttime harvest in west-central Minnesota. Its ancient, primal arc provided both image and metaphor for the poem I wanted to write.

A sickle is a hand tool with a sharp, curved blade that can cut grain in the field. It recalls an earlier, simpler way of harvesting. But because moon has always been in the sky, the timelessness of the crescent moon also links ancient means of harvesting with today’s half-million-dollar combines and semi-trucks with forty-five-foot-long grain trailers. No matter the method, farmers have to do two things: plant the seed and harvest the crop. The blade of a sickle might not cut as fast as a sixteen-row combine header, but it cuts nonetheless.

It didn’t hurt that it was a sickle-shaped moon that night. I’ve long found it one of the most fascinating objects in the night sky.  It hangs and gleams like its own object, apart from the unseen remainder of the moon, a creation of art and myth, carved or painted into the sky. It also has a metaphor within a metaphor, at least for me. We don’t have see the rest of the moon to know it’s there. Inspired by the sickle-shaped moon two years ago, I didn’t need to see the harvest work in the field to know it was going on, either. I didn’t need to, nor did I want to.

I had my tool. 

Of course, the bigness isn’t going away and my small-town grocery store isn’t coming back. But for a while, as I lived in the poem, as I pictured a farmer swinging a sickle back and forth, I cut away not only words but worries.

Contributor Spotlight: Benjamin Mueller

Benjamin Mueller on “Upon Witnessing the Pelican’s Dive

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My poem, “Upon Witnessing the Pelican’s Dive,” has evolved quite a bit since its earliest form.  Initially, I drafted a poem about a trip to coastal Maine that I took with my wife and two-year-old twins.  My kids were at an age where they were grasping at new words, rolling them over in their mouths, listening to their sounds.  Prior to the trip, my wife and I tried to explain what oceanmeant.  We tried to provide context for something they had never experienced.  In part, this poem is about their first time experiencing the ocean and seeing it through their perspective.

The idea of the poem expanded when Icarus came crashing into the lines. I had been reading Jack Gilbert’s beautiful poem “Failing and Flying,” about Icarus’ flight.  I love the way Gilbert portrays this story in the context of a failed relationship, ultimately seeing his flight as an “end of his triumph” as opposed to a tragedy.  This put Icarus in my head, which then led me to the great painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I was struck by the serene, everyday landscape of the painting while the tragedy of Icarus occurs off to the side of the painting.  In the foreground, a shepherd is looking up, thinking he has heard something or seen something out of the corner of his eye, but does not notice the fall of Icarus. The feeling of the shepherd from the painting shows up in my poem as the narrator looks up to see a pelican diving into the water. 

As the poem came together, I liked the way all these ideas swirled together, the mixing of innocence of a child’s experience, with an escape of modern life, and the old Greek story about the perils of technology and exceeding our limits.  In these modern-technological days, it can feel like we are exceeding our limits on a daily basis.  It’s important to have these moments that bring us back to the earth.