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.

Contributor Spotlight: Dina Greenberg

Dina Greenberg on “After Florence, Roof-top Stigmata

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As Florence dervished across the Atlantic, clocking wind speeds of 140 miles per hour—earning distinction as a Category 4 Hurricane—residents of Wilmington, NC braced for a direct hit. All of the weather models seemed in agreement: even if the monster storm grew weaker before making landfall, predicted storm surge would still deliver unprecedented damage. 

So my husband and I made the call to evacuate and, like many of our friends and neighbors, shored up the house as best we could and headed out of town, toward safety. Even as we waited in unusually long gas station lines and crisscrossed caravans of National Guard vehicles headed east on Rt. 40, toward Wilmington rather than away, I understood we were already members of a privileged class. 

Our house was less than a year old. Homeowners insurance would cover any damage it sustained. We had a place to go, the means to afford it. Yes, we had friends in the same economic sphere that chose to stay in their homes. But they chose to stay. On September 14, Florence made landfall over Wrightsville Beach, just a few miles east of Wilmington. By then diminished to a Cat-1, 90-mile-per-hour storm, she still wrought widespread devastation that is still being calculated. 

After Florence, Roof-top Stigmata” began during those first days of self-imposed exile, as a strange sort of survivor’s guilt settled upon me. On the incessant TV news, bloated rivers overflowed their banks. First responders navigated streets and fields and highways, flooded by three feet of rain, a seemingly endless deluge. When we’d first hoped to return, the city of Wilmington was still islanded, inaccessible. And finally, when we did return, I was struck immediately by the random nature of Florence’s ire.

Our home was completely spared, others so badly damaged they would need to be stripped to the studs, and still others completely destroyed. For me, the ubiquitous blue tarps (still) covering leaking roofs throughout the region, are symbols of inequity, telltales of financial and social status. The blue tarps signify reliance on FEMA funds and the demoralizing struggle to reclaim what many families worked a lifetime to achieve. 

Now, as I drive through neighborhoods marginalized and disintegrating long before Florence, I cannot help but notice that lingering prevalence of blue.