Janna Knittel on “Driftless”
I often get ideas for poems from reading about animals, plants, and landscapes. I was reading an article that referred to the Driftless Area in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which is so named because of the lack of glacial drift, deposits left behind by retreating glaciers. The terrain is so varied and rugged because the land was not scraped down as parts of the upper midwest were during glacial periods.
The name itself was very evocative for me: The word “driftless” hints at a vague emotional state, a feeling of being lost or stuck. I started writing the poem with an intent to simply describe the geology as mysterious, a place where a traveler could get lost, feel trapped, where things aren’t always what they seem. I read a bit more about the geology of the places so I could include names of the rock layers, which I included for their sounds as well as their factual place in the landscape.
What I didn’t expect, and what makes the poem work, is that, by the end of the poem and the last sentence—“If you were a glacier / you’d dig down to gems”—the poem had become an ars poetica, a poem about the art of poetry. The interlocutor, the “you,” is the poet being challenged by the speaker to defy difficulties and dig deeper in order to create.