Contributor Spotlight: Jim Johnson

“I Usually Don’t Like Nature Poems”


Another poet once told me.  

And I thought, I usually don’t like selfie poems.

Robert Frost was a good observer, though perhaps not a good woodsman. I apologize for picking on him, but the poem “Two Look At Two” that has had so much popularity has become a formula for the casual stroll into the pastoral, two holding hands seeing another, and, of course, connecting. This has become the clichéd nature poem so many who don’t like nature poems don’t like.  

A nature poet must study their text.  

That by writing about my place, the area that I know, I suppose I am a regional writer and often not considered a part of the larger conversation. Yet I remind you, as I must remind myself, that in order to perceive our world, we need to see first from where we are. This extends to the natural world where if we don’t learn to perceive what is going on soon, there will be no larger conversation.  

Aldo Leopold wrote in the 1930s about the need to see in our own backyards instead of driving all over the continent. The prevailing assumption was that wild places are of no use unless seen by humans; therefore, roads needed to be built. That explosion of roads without an understanding of sustaining ecosystems has not only threatened our wild places but also the existence of our species.

When I began writing, I was fortunate to have attended a writing workshop taught by Sigurd Olson. He had parkinson’s disease then and I don’t remember learning about writing, yet I was inspired and decided I wanted to write about the wild. But I wanted to write poetry. Poetry, I thought, was a way to see, as to perceive, using all of the senses. Poetry I felt was a way in.

I published nine books of poetry. The first books focused on Northern Minnesota history and culture, particularly my Finnish-American experience, and natural history. As we cannot deny the importance of the local, we know we must also respect our plants and animals. We are not the only species and, instead of dominating, we must learn how to coexist. In the same way that we have learned how to make our bodies healthier, we need to extend that awareness to the natural world that we are inseparably connected to. If we stop feeding the land a toxic diet, as well as purging and plundering and destroying habitat, then the planet might have a chance to survive.

But as Leopold wrote, to build a road is so much simpler than thinking of what the country really needs.

In my three recent books—The First Day Of Spring In Northern Minnesota, Yoik, andText for Our Nomadic Future (Red Dragonfly Press)—I tried to write for the plants and animals. Of course I don’t know what plants and animals think. Scientists have discovered, though it takes them so much longer to learn what we poets already know, that trees communicate with their own and other species. If a plant or animal is only a name in a textbook, who will care? So I not only identify plants and animals, I tried to give them a story.  As the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano wrote, scientists say the world is made up of atoms, but a little bird told me it is made of stories. So I listen to birds.

Although the translation can be difficult. I realized that as ecology has taught us to search animal populations for analogies to our own species, looking from the other way, the stories we tell may not be far from the stories told by plants and animals. This is because poetry is possibility. So I suppose I shouldn’t dismiss Frost but instead take this idea further.

Recently I put together a collection of my poems featuring plants and animals into a manuscript titled Selected Poems: One Morning In June (to be published summer 2019) to focus my concern for the natural world into one volume and, hopefully, reach a larger audience.

So when I go out into the wilds, beyond the end of the road, on a trail or through the brush, I go out into a larger conversation. What Leopold called the chit-chat of the woods that is so difficult to translate.  And isn’t this the larger conversation we now need in this time of climate change, extinction of species, catastrophic weather?  Shouldn’t we go out and engage in that conversation and try to understand?

Contributor Spotlight: Connie Post



Poems come to me at inconvenient times. They arrive as a thought or just an image that occurs to me as I’m driving or merely sitting in the backyard. Something ordinary in my day, may become extraordinary to me. There are moments that congeal into something real and palatable. I used to write a few lines down, keep the paper on my desk, and believe that I could come back to the work at any time, and create the poem that presented itself in my conscious mind. I have made a new commitment in the past five plus years about my creative process and it seems to be working well. Unless there is a family emergency, I drop what I am doing and write the poem. The space that is open inside me, feels like a temporary portal that is open for a finite amount of time for that poem alone. I must walk with it, befriend it, let it tell me its secrets. 

In my writing life in my twenties and thirties, I often had preconceived notions about the poems I wanted to write. I don’t do that any longer. I start with a thought, a phrase, a few words even. I enjoy the journey of seeing where the work takes me. In a workshop with Ellen Bass, I remember her words: “You should know something at the end of the poem that you didn’t know in the beginning.” I try to integrate this concept into all my writing. My most successful poems are those that were “easy birth” poems as I call them. If the poem doesn’t start to come together pretty quickly (within and hour or two) I set it aside for weeks, months, even years. I return to it when the portal is re-opened for that creative work.  

On the poem “Cooling Trend,” the concept of the poem about rearranging all the seasons was due to my fears about climate change. It was because I noticed nothing about the weather seemed predictable anymore. It was winter and it felt like spring. It was fall and still felt like summer. It made me sad and scared me. I wanted to experiment with the idea that everything we know (or think) to be true can be changed and can metamorphosize. The earth changes in ways that represents our own internal story. The earth, like us, responds when violated. I hoped to convey the idea that we can find our way back to ourselves, and maybe we can find ways to heal the earth.  


Hope Jordan on “Ode to a Luna


In June of 2017, I was in a poetry workshop with Peter Balakian at the Colgate Writers Conference. Colgate, for those who have never been there, is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful campuses in America. The weather was brilliant, so Peter decided to have individual conferences outside. As we sat opposite each other under the trees, I was trying to formulate an answer about my poetry when a man walked by, staring at something on the ground. Peter got up to see what the man had been looking at and I trailed behind. It was a luna moth, which are about the size of your hand, uncommonly beautiful, and uncommon to see, especially in the middle of the day. It felt like a visitation. Peter and I followed it around for a few minutes, took a photo, and then resumed our talk about poetry. Later, he joked that we’d each have to come back with a poem about the luna the following June.

Although Peter didn’t write a luna poem (“You won the bet,” he said), I did, and I brought it back to Colgate in 2018. I liked a lot of the language in the poem, and I’d submitted it for publication a few times, but there was something unfinished about it. No journals picked it up. I returned home from the conference, put the poem away, and resumed my daily life of commuting to Boston for graduate school. As part of my assistantship, I taught an undergraduate poetry class. I like to teach contemporary poems, so one day I introduced my students to Peter’s poem “Ode to a Duduk,” which had just been published. As I worked my way through the lesson, I realized that my luna poem was an ode, just like the poem I was teaching. I decided to try rewriting my luna poem using Peter’s duduk poem as a template. 

The two poems are very different – mine is about a living creature and his is about a musical instrument – but I wondered if the exercise might solve my problem and bring the poem to life. I kept most of my original language and added a few lines. I was happy with the result. I wanted this poem to communicate what it’s like to read and write poetry – an encounter with mystery, almost unbearable beauty, deep sorrow and an enduring sense of how ephemeral are the materials we’re given to work with in this world