Contributor Spotlight: Louella Bryant

Louella Bryant on “Frog Heart

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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.

Contributor Spotlight: Ron Stottlemyer

Ron Stottlemyer on "Whippoorwill

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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.

Contributor Spotlight: Toni Bennett

Toni Bennett on “Crow’s Feet

My picture “Crow’s Feet” is of a wooden crow I bought in Canada on a trip to a cabin where I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation but ended up writing poetry and taking photos instead. I should have seen the signs as to what my future occupation would be! I set it on a piece of acrylic from the hardware store and photographed it from below.

I very much see myself as a documentarian who is allowed a liberal dose of poetic or artistic license. I want to show people what exists at one specific point in place and time that no one notices because we are all busy rushing around. I am also very concerned with matters of connection. As I try to do in my poetry, I want my images to show the invisible lines connecting things we didn’t realize were connected.

After photographing many different subjects (group events, rodeos, zoo animals, travel, pets, urban scenes, etc.), lately I’m gravitating towards the inanimate. I have a whole series of doll photos that started when I would go visit my mother and would photograph her huge doll collection. I’ve been “toying” with some toy dinosaurs and a toy schoolbus and had a couple of those photos published. 

I am drawn to this photograph arena for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I don’t like being looked at when I’m taking pictures. A more artistic reason is that I’m fascinated by the oxymoronic dualism of the dynamism of static forms; I want to show the vital essence of dead things. I once submitted a doll portrait to a stock company and had it rejected because I didn’t have a model release. They thought it was human and I felt validated that they saw the life in my photo of an inanimate object. What is it in a plastic doll’s silent lips that speaks back to us humans who make creatures in their likeness as if we were gods ? What is it in a pile of rocks that tells us something we didn’t know or forgot? Or what is it in the lines of a neon sign that gives us hints of who we are by focusing on how we decorate our city landscapes? 

I suppose I have a sort of “animistic” bent when looking at objects. As a child, I used to think my dolls got up and played on their own while I was asleep. As a matter of fact, the very crow that is in this photograph has been noted being an inch closer to the edge of its shelf every once in a while and I have to keep pushing it back. I’m hoping my photographs show the life inside all matter. It’s not their fault that their molecules move slower than ours.

Contributor Spotlight: Richard LeBlond

Rambling As An Art Form

By Richard LeBlond

Aldous Huxley said "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything." That statement is so broad it becomes the opposite of a definition.

Wikipedia’s definition is more useful: “Formal essays are characterized by ‘serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,’ whereas the informal essay is characterized by ‘the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme.’” The quotes are from William Holman’s A Handbook to Literature (9th ed.) (Prentice Hall, 2003).

The formal essay may be the source of PTSD for some high school seniors who must write one for their college applications. By comparison, the informal essay appears to be almost pleasurable. I am an informal essayist and can confirm that at times it is almost pleasurable.

In college, I wanted to be a novelist and changed my major from journalism to English literature. I then spent the next 40 years avoiding coming to terms with what was the biggest disappointment in my life. I became an administrator in the National Park Service, then a citizen at large in dangerous countries, an environmental administrator, a bookkeeper, an editor. I finally settled on a career as a biologist for a state natural heritage program.

Shortly before I retired in 2007, I decided I would try to do something with the stories I had been collecting since childhood. I had thought they would be the genesis and content of my novels. But after 40 years I finally accepted that I am incapable of being a novelist because – and this was a stark realization – I have almost no imagination. My inspiration comes from observation. I sit at the back of the literary bus, behind the poets and fictionistas, writing essays. Telling stories from memory rather than from imagination is as close as I can get to the novel.

The two essays in issue 11 of Split Rock Review are from my life on Cape Cod in the 1980s, and that is when they were first drafted. I thought they were ok back then, but I did not hold them in high regard. They were, after all, just essays and not the novels I was supposed to be writing. But after accepting my limitations, I realized I can now shamelessly tell my stories as they had originally unfolded, embellished only by the tatters of memory.

Yes, you can smell the exhaust fumes in the back of the bus, but the view out the window is still good, and I am rambling with impunity.