Spotlight: Ashley Stimpson

Ashley Stimpson on “To the Dogs


I wrote “To the Dogs” at my desk in Baltimore, a few weeks after a trip to the Badlands. I wrote it as a gift for my boyfriend, Jeff, who was with me at Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where we sat together in the dirt, surrounded by this absolutely raucous community of rodents. Looking at each other with big eyes and big smiles, shaking our heads in disbelief. “Get a load of the East-Coasters!” the dogs probably chirped to one another. 

The piece arrived quickly—it was a deeply affecting experience that sat poised in my fingertips for days. Although unintentional, it came to be less about prairie dogs and more about the shedding of the protective layers I keep wrapped around myself like a poncho, the filters through which I make sense of the world, organize it, hold it at a safe distance. You can see these layers fall away one by one here. 

First (embarrassingly enough) the cynicism, the hasty assumptions, the attitudes that promise to preclude disappointment by asserting its inevitability. Then, the metaphor-making, the if-this-than-that ego-trip of “higher consciousness.” And, finally, the rationalizing, the fact-reciting, the impulse to know well before you know. I experienced this undoing with the prairie dogs that day, and I experienced it again as I wrote about them. Very little changed from first to final draft. 

With all of that static out of the way, I was able to feel it, and convey it, I hope—the magic that happens when you’re stripped of all your tired posturing and stupid pretenses. This is the thing I love the most about being outdoors: nature’s ability to repair us to our most innocent, most open-hearted condition, and then to knock us over with the kind of pure delight we’re usually too skeptical, too smart to notice. 

Spotlight: Brad Garber

Decline into Disorder: Brad Garber on “Earth Day


While it is a thermodynamic constant that nothing is constant except chaos in the universe, the chaos often takes form, a fractal, a snapshot of peace.  When I wrote “Earth Day,” I tried to take a asteroid’s view of a disintegrating planet. When I attended the first Earth Day, in 1970, at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I was a sophomore in high school full of youthful optimism.  DDT had, thanks in large part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, been banned from use in the United States.  There were holes in the ozone layer, however, in addition to algae blooms due to phosphates, brown/orange skies in Los Angeles and lead in city waters. There was, in all of this, a pervading sense of hope that government and individual action could turn things around. John Lennon’s “Imagine” would not hit the airwaves for another year, but the tide of hope expressed in that ethereal anthem was building.

Now, here we are on the cusp of the 6th Extinction.  “Earth Day” is an expression of despair and resignation.  While people who could have made a difference in the inexorable speed of the entropy that threatens to affect all living things on the planet deny what is happening around them, sea levels rise, polar bears and orcas starve, mass human migrations threaten peace and stability and 500-year weather events happen every year.  “Earth Day” is not a happy prose poem full of optimism.  It is an observation about the decline of something unique and beautiful. It is about life and death, excess and indifference.  It is about the sad state of affairs where there are “children with flies drinking their tears.”

Spotlight: Louella Bryant

Louella Bryant on “Frog Heart


There are moments in our lives that widen our eyes and capture our hearts. Other moments sear and scar. Both the beautiful and painful carve deep grooves into our memories and, in some irreversible way, define us. 

Often when I can’t get to sleep, I relive the ugliest memories—an injurious accident, words I regret saying, anything hurtful or shameful that makes me shudder. Dwelling on frightening and dreadful experiences relates to the early days of human development when our primary thoughts helped ensure survival. In safe and peaceful times, cavewoman had no need to fret. But when a predator approached, she had to take action, climbing a tree or dashing into the water. When she felt ashamed, she retreated to a hidden spot until the dark time passed.

It’s the dark and disturbing times that writers labor to capture and that readers are attracted to. The sense that we are not alone in our struggles compels us to reach into the darkness either to read about disturbing events or to write about them. 

Frog Heart” describes one high school biology class that still haunts me. My favorite classes were English and French. Later I would major in Elizabethan literature at college with no concern for how studies in Shakespeare and Milton would earn me a post-degree living. I was following my bliss. So in secondary school, I put off the required science classes as long as I could and finally took them grudgingly. I rarely did homework and studied only before a test. I was so much the teacher’s problem child that one day she assigned me to outline the chapter we were to read and hand in the outline the next day. Surprisingly, I found the material fascinating, and in class the next day I could answer every question Mrs. Hanzal posed. 

Then the frogs came out. She had them in a large plastic basin with a lid and told us to work with a partner. My partner, a boy whose name I don’t recall, picked out the largest of the frogs and our work began. I wasn’t ready for what ensued. I’d had no interest in becoming a veterinarian or a doctor or even a nurse. So what was the point?

Frog origins date back 265 million years. The carnivorous amphibians breathe through their skin and for centuries have symbolized rebirth, prosperity, and even fertility. In fairy tales, kiss a frog and it turns into a prince. Stick a pin into its heart, and it dies.

I had started to understand biology and even enjoy it until I was told to kill the frog. That moment leaped into my long-term memory. I thought writing about the event would evict it from the limbic system of my brain. Ironically, the essay “Frog Heart” makes the memory all the more vivid.

Spotlight: Ron Stottlemyer

Ron Stottlemyer on "Whippoorwill


As I think about the origins of "Whippoorwill," featured in Issue 11 of Split Rock Review, the phrase "persistence of memory" comes to mind. I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old when I sat on the back porch and learned how to whistle the whippoorwill's song all those years ago. After a page or so of false starts, the poem found its own narrative form, falling into place the way a movie moves us back from a close-up to reveal the different elements of the scene—in this case, Dad smoking slowly, inhaling the smoke for a minute, and pointing to the darkening pasture as the whippoorwill sounded. The rest of the poem seemed to slip out of the cursor: sounds, images, and statements I never imagined appearing before me. It was truly a surprising moment to hear that boy's voice telling the story, long faded with so many others of those lost evenings. I was actually startled with the clarity of the images (the three thin notes of the whippoorwill, the ripple of spring water they resemble), the narrative gestures that I couldn't invent on demand ("Hear that?" Dad pointing with his cigarette hand), and the statements about distance and absence that open up the poem in its closing. 

Likewise, the form the poem assumed was quite different from what I had adopted in the last several poems. The simple verse paragraph of narrative was a departure from the more discursive shape of the couplet structure I'd been using to open a space for speaking. Looking through poems written years ago, I saw that the verse paragraph form of "Whippoorwill" was actually a kind of a call to return to that form for writing about a resonant moment of the past. I'm sure that would be obvious to anyone else, but it was news to me.

All of this reminds me of an encouraging insight about writing that Stephen Dunn offers us in Walking Light. Sometimes you look at a good piece of writing you've done and discover, as he puts it, "you can be better than yourself for a little while." I like to think that our motive for sitting down to write isn't the hope of writing a good poem, though that is always near the surface. Nor is it the hope of finishing a manuscript, or even convincing ourselves that we can still write. Rather it's the possibility of experiencing that wonderful moment of exceeding what we thought we were capable of saying. With it, there's also the hope that we may actually rescue a little part of who we have been.