Contributor Spotlight: Jamaica Ritcher

Jamaica Ritcher

Expansion, Contraction, and Time

I love that the term “essay” means “an attempt.” In the case of “Notes on Gastropoda,” my attempt was to take a subject many find repellent make it beautiful.

My subject came about just as described in the piece: one afternoon (a Sunday), late summer/early autumn, as I worded in my garden. I was surprised to witness two slugs doing anything more than slinking beneath a leaf or stone and struck by their slowness and sensuality, and by my changing perception, from seeing the slugs as pests to seeing them as lovely.                    

When I think of the essay process, words like expansion, contraction, and time come to mind. After recording the event in my journal (I keep a journal intermittently—some writing I build on, a lot of it just languishes), I hit the library and Internet, which led to reading about morphology and anatomy, the use of slugs as experimental models in memory research, and the history of biological taxonomy. I also did a fair bit of associative writing. Ultimately, I had far more material than what I would end up including. My earlier drafts were four or five times the length of this one, and while they contained ideas and language I was attached to, those drafts tried to be about too much and lacked focus.

So I did what I often do—what I should accept as an important part of my process—and I put the drafts away for a long time, close to a year.

Eventually, there was a workshop I wanted to apply to, and I decided to use some of  “the slug essay” for a writing sample. But my sample could only be two pages; I had to pare it down.

Through that forced culling, from eight or ten pages to two, I had to focus on what was most important. I knew I wanted to mirror the “slugness” of the subject with “humanness” of the narrator. I also knew I wanted to stay with a “Notes on __” structure, as it worked as a way to integrate research and observation with reflection, and because it connects to the tradition of naturalists. I turned in my two pages to the workshop still feeling like what I’d given the group was an excerpt of something bigger, and was surprised to find that many of my readers felt the 2-page version was more or less complete.

I continued to revise, moving sections around and adding or clarifying language, but what I kept or added was in service to a tighter focus: a parallel between simple and complex species, division in terms of taxonomy, divisions of labor, and the inherent separateness between individuals, and ideas about interpretation and intuition. I have a writing group—three wonderful readers—and their feedback helped keep in check the included details and ideas—that everything belonged.

I am still surprised to find some of the original sections gone—yes, Mark Twain’s call to “kill your darlings” certainly came into play here. Maybe those jettisoned words from early drafts will eventually make their way into other essays. Regardless, they informed the words that do remain here. Every word in this final draft is a direct result of those earliest, protracted pages. Like a garden, I suppose, in which everything that leafs and blooms is dependent on something else that has already had its time or otherwise goes unseen. 

Contributor Spotlight: Michael Hettich

Small Birds Singing, Even As They Fly Away


I don’t remember how old I was when my father started regularly sitting me down beside him on the living room couch and reading to me from his favorite poets, but I do know that I was young enough to understand very little of what the poems meant, that I was still innocent enough to be unconcerned with their meaning. I sat there secure and happy beside my father, who smelled of cocktails and his own tanned skin, who sat beside me in shorts, often, even in the chilly house in winter. He loved to intone those poems in a deep theatrical voice that he never used otherwise, with a self-conscious, oratorical enunciation that surprised and even frightened me a little. He seemed another person when he read poems to me, and yet he seemed exactly himself. This realization was as fascinating as it was disconcerting. My father, whom I (mistakenly) thought myself uncannily similar to, had this odd and wonderful secret self that spoke when he read those flinty poems. So, listening to him read, I wondered who else I might be and still be me.

I breathed with those poems, too. I listened to the ways they swayed and knocked and drew silence around themselves. He loved “The Second Coming,” “Mending Wall,” and “Once By The Pacific.” This last he explained to me once, though the explanation didn’t matter much, not next to the feeling of those low hairy clouds and the sea bashing itself against the shore. The explanation, in fact, made the poem less wonderful, and I tried not to listen when he explained other poems. He read bits and snippets of “The Wasteland,” though I best remember the mystery of “Journey of the Magi,” read in a quavering, mock-ancient voice I probably imitate, these days, when I read the poem to my students. I sat right beside him, the closer the better. I remember feeling as though I were making something in response to the poem, something clean and deep inside me that was mine and was also somehow connected to him—to his voice—and to the patterned sounds in the air.

In an oddly physical way, not understanding seemed to keep the poems potent. I was charmed. I felt something more mysterious and resonant even than I felt when I listened to music: a possibility beyond the range of ordinary talk, beyond ordinary consciousness (though, of course, I didn’t think in those terms). I felt as though I’d been suddenly made aware of a world of mystery and possibility that existed, not only in the realm of fairy tales and children’s stories, but right here beside my father, and right here inside myself.

For me the essence of poetry has always been this prayer-song power, this power to speak our inner life through rhythmically-intensified sound that simultaneously charms us into and out of ourselves, for a breath, and leaves us more firmly ourselves. Poetry enacts a welding of spiritual and physical, of primal and intellectual, that brings our two energy essences, body and mind, together for one ecstatic moment of life. Of course, this happens rarely: very few poems contain sufficient accuracy of mystery, which is an accuracy of complex feeling across image and line. And the essence of poetry is this dance, a rehearsed, formal cry of the heart. Having felt true poetry, even once, we go looking for it our entire lives.

My father loved to listen to music, too: bebop, in those days, almost entirely. He loved Bud Powell and Theolonious Monk, Monk most of all, and he’d often stay up late listening, jabbing his fingers into the air to simulate particularly jarring Monk chords. I remember, many nights, trying to sleep, while my father, in the living room, blasted his jazz. I cursed him for keeping me awake, and I listened carefully to the many-faceted, insistent music. Do we hear music while we’re sleeping; does it influence our dreams? I remember my parents fighting to those chords, and I remember them laughing, too. The music formed the backdrop to family discussions, to cookouts in the summer and board games on winter afternoons. I loved the way the musicians sometimes called out in their playing. I loved hearing my father call out in pleasure as he listened.

The organic life of poetry is remarkably like that kind of jazz. But poetry is song caught on the page; it is internal song. It does not need to be sounded aloud but must be sounded internally, must be heard, truly heard, in the resonant cavities of the heart.

How do we say the unsayable? How do we hear what can’t be said?

It is of course a cliché to say that we live in an age of unprecedented noise, that we have learned to shut down, many of us, to survive. We close off the outer world and make our own silence, pull away from others, protect ourselves. There is more music in the air than ever before, and it is louder, more basic and less grounded in a deep response to self, less private in its sources. What have we lost? We have more of everything, I think, but we have far less as well, and we’ve forgotten how to listen.

Poetry reminds us, as hardly anything else can, to listen carefully, even if we don’t fully understand what we are listening to or for. Sustained, attentive listening can bring us something that is ours and that is larger than ourselves. And here is where poetry is most valuable: It brings us to ourselves by making us listen. It’s impossible to hear a poem without pausing, breathing both as oneself and another (the poet) and listening to the cadences flowing through the body, echoing there. We must stop. We must breathe. We must listen to the self inside, so far away sometimes, protected in there, atrophying in there, feeling extreme things and growing distant at the same time.

To truly read a poem—any poem—we must breathe with the breath of the poet who wrote it.

Once we remembered old stories in our poems; now we remember our intimate selves; someday we might use poetry to remember that we have intimate selves.


I began writing poems in 1973 or so when, as the quiet kid in the back row of my first writing workshop, I discovered what then felt like magic: a language that gave me power to transform my world and to tell the most potent truths at the same time, a language through which I could reveal myself while I made up stories I could move safely behind. I realized intuitively even then that I could ground myself for a lifetime in the practice of poetry, could be content and even happy in that humble practice. When the other students in the class actually responded to my writings, I was confirmed in my new faith: I could be a poet!

I read everyone, and I filled notebook after notebook. I was lucky to have friends who were jazz musicians, who practiced for hours, every day. They became my models. I emulatd their modesty and workmanlike dedication to their craft. I was inspired by their intelligence. I was inspired by improvisation.

I read Neruda and Vallejo in Robert Bly’s translations, but I also read Eliot and Pound and Creeley and Ted Berrigan and Paul Blackburn and the Objectivists, particularly George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. Of course I read Whitman and Williams and Blake, Frank O’Hara and Loiuise Bogan; Dickinson and Rukeyser and Rexroth and Whalen. I was interested in everyone. Poetry seemed like some kind of miracle to me then.

My senior year in college I got the chance to work closely with the Finnish-American poet Anselm Hollo. He was gentle and wild, disheveled and brilliant—and he flattered me immensely by treating me as a peer. I remember sitting with him, one afternoon, talking and smoking, when another student neither of us knew burst into the room complaining about having to read so much god-damned poetry. Anselm laughed loudly and told the kid he’d come to the wrong place to complain—“Michael and I are both poets,” he said. I blushed at the high praise, certain it couldn’t yet be true.

Later I found more challenging mentors, chief among them Burton Raffel, the most generous, demanding, intelligent and honest teacher I had, by far. For over twenty years he carefully read and annotated most of the poems I wrote—and I wrote a lot of miserable poems! My gratitude is beyond words.


For the past quarter-century I have taught at Miami Dade College, in downtown Miami, a job that requires a heavy work-load and places very little value on poetry or publication. Thus, though I’ve published a dozen books and chapbooks during that time, I’ve had to discipline myself to get up early every morning, in order to get any writing done. Though difficult at first, this early-morning writing discipline has become one of my great life-pleasures, and I rarely miss a day of it.

And during the past ten years or so, I’ve also worked extensively in collaboration—with visual artists, other writers, and musicians. Of these, my most extensive collaborative experiences have been with visual artists. With three visual-artist friends, I have coordinated the Sweat Broadside project, a south-Florida-based collaboration between writers and artists to create broadsides. Since 2008, more than 150 broadsides have been made, comprising two portfolios. These broadsides have been exhibited at various South Florida galleries as well as in Manhattan, Kansas City, Minnesota and elsewhere. They are part of the permanent collection at the Jaffe Center for the Book. 

I have also been involved in collaborations to make handmade books with fellow writers and artists here in Miami, and recently, a number of artist-friends and I have started WAIL (Word and Image Lab), an umbrella organization supporting collaborative projects and letterpress bookmaking.

In my experience, collaboration always makes my work better, either because it challenges me in the moment of creation/revision or because it suggests processes of composition and revision I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. I would say, in fact, that all true collaboration extends the work of its collaborators, hopefully in ways unpredictable at the outset. I go to collaboration, finally, to explore sensibility in way(s) I can’t do by myself. I do it to become just a bit more vulnerable than I would otherwise be, a little less reliant on familiar techniques and strategies. And I also go there to have fun! 

Contributor Spotlight: Rachel Morgan



Writing about place is wonderfully unsettling, because place is never just location, but the people who live there, economics, ecology, history, ghost stories, and geography. I think of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” as a type of modern pastoral. “By the road to the contagious hospital” there is disease, mud, and despair, but “among the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf” life cannot help but erupt. Place is never one thing. Place is a dichotomy, at least.

What it means to come from a place, but not be of that place can be lonesome. In fact, I started early drafts of “No Longer Two, But One Flesh,” “Posted,” and “Still Life with Rusted Out Washing Machine” (Issue 4) when I lived in Los Angeles. Listening to planes land at the Van Nuys airport and traffic on the 405 could not be further from the occasional call of a whippoorwill I’d heard growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.

Shortly after we moved to the city, I talked with a neighbor on our shared stoop into the evening, watching jet trails fade into the west, thinking there’s an ocean to cross before any chance of land. Maybe it was the coastal geography, earthquakes, or the influence of Hollywoodland, but living in L.A. was living on a literal precipice. For the next few months, I wrote rough first drafts from the edge looking for sturdy ground. Distance creates perspective, so I could write honestly about poverty and isolation, recalling winding roads littered with the try-hard trailers or my relatives. However, the following summer we visited the small coal mining ghost towns of my ancestors, and I was surprised to discover the beauty of the place emerged through language. Oral tradition is strong in the American South, and I saw the landscape through my grandmother’s practical and figurative language. Contagious hospitals were old coal mines, but wildcarrot curls were mountain laurel. Maybe writing about place is simultaneously memory and research, both offering just half-truths.


Contributor Spotlight: Vanessa Couto Johnson

I tend to think of there being two modes of writing: writing linear to the self (writing based off of the writers experiences or the writers imagination and thoughts; this is generally the more common mode of writing) or lateral to the self (writing done through interaction with another medium, most likely another text or texts). I like to do both, alternating.

The thesis manuscript for my MFA consisted of my early lateral writing done during my second and third year, some writing that is what I call “constraint-based erasures. I would choose a book and invent a constraint in which I would use the book as source text (for example, treating each page as a word bank for a line in a poem). Lateral writing can be a meticulous process, but once there is a method already planned, it is primarily a matter of sitting down and doing the work. After I get in the proper mental state and rhythm with the source text, a couple poems can be produced with each dedicated, uninterrupted sitting.

Lateral writing can feel quite productive while being challenging in a way different from linear writing. While in linear writing the challenge is between the writer’s mind and the blank page, in lateral writing the challenge is between the writers mind and the source text, with the blank page waiting. This can feel like revising, but of course without a need to preserve the original meaningindeed, with a desire to be as far as possible from the original meaning/intent, to see how the same sort of language can say something new.

I wrote “presence and ferrous as I wrote a sequence of sixty-five prose poems in three weeks, often writing three or four poems a daya productivity rate in linear writing that I had never experienced before (and have not yet experienced since), a productivity rate that anomalously rivals the rate I have experienced in lateral writing. This sequence was written just after I returned from studying abroad for five weeks in Ireland in summer 2013. I only wrote one or two poems while there, and while recently back in the U.S., I felt so liminal in my sense of location and home that I had to write as much as I could before the fall semester would commence (my final one, and I already had my thesis manuscript written, so I could dedicate myself to this work).

I will not get in to why I wrote the poems I wrote, of how much my time in Ireland was significant to me; my hope is the poems themselves can express that. That said, I can explain some of the poetics behind the work.

In these poems I wrote, I wanted to explore location in every sense of the word: not just geographic, but also temporal; not just of the self, but also the self relative to others; not just external, but also the internal, cognitive location (awareness and meta-awareness, living-in-moment and slipping into nostalgia or imagination). 

My concern was also epistemic: what can the traveler manage to know?  In what ways does not permanently living somewhere restrict knowledge or enable knowledge? Also, being an outsider in a postcolonial culture can feel odd, as one seeks to assert oneself as having an identity while simultaneously seeking to assert and learn the local presences identity/what makes them who they are.

At this point in my writing, I had written three brief sequences in prose poem form, and the prose poem felt like the appropriate form for this work. As I have said in a post on my blog:

I believe the prose poem can be an ideal form of expressing complexity: it exists as a lump of being, not spaced into digested piecemeal. While a sentence itself is a linear existence, other sentences function directly lateral to that sentence. I think the prose poem can express simultaneity, as there isnt the overt sequential nature of linebreaks (granted, there still is sequence because sentences are in an order). The simplicity of the prose poem form also allows it to harbor/counter the odd/bewildering more easily. The form does put emphasis on content (and content as a unit).

My first efforts at writing prose poems actually were a hybrid of linear and lateral writing: I took selections from a physics textbooks concept questions and broke them in to lines; then, I wrote a prose poem in surreal response (more like running wild with the concepts) to the questions. I am honored to say this work became my first chapbook, Life of Francis, published by Gambling the Aisle in December 2014.

During my third year of grad school, I made the site, essentially a blog on my poetics and aesthetics. I began it especially with the hope of encouraging others to write both linearly to self and laterally to selfto be willing to shift and experiment, to not wear thin a singular mode or pattern. Let us not become weary when there are so many possibilities. Let us be curious in/when writing.