one more from Sarah McCartt-Jackson

stonelight3In my recent microreview & interview of Stonelight (Airlie Press) by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, I noted how nature is often used as a lens in these poems to engage with human understanding and feeling. In detailing the narrative of Ora and her family, this lens feels natural, a kind of environmental intuition. Much like in poetry writing, the speakers across these poems scratch out meaning from what they have and are left with.

I say “left with” here specifically to imply loss. One of the things Ora has to reconcile to herself is a series of pregnancies which at times lead to miscarriages. In “Ora names her children (before they are born)” (below), one can see how the act of reconciliation plays out in linguistic and metaphorical richness. McCartt-Jackson’s rich facility with language and phrasing is in full display here as the natural and human world are braided in a way that invokes a soul to one and a wildness to the other.

“Naming” her children after elements of the natural world, Ora’s act of reconciliation is also one of reclaiming. She recovers what is not there – not there either through loss (as elsewhere in the book) or through not having arrived (as in this poem) – by bringing it into communion with what is there. The result is a speaker both haunted by and haunting the world around her. With every loss and possibility, Ora emphasizes her presence through this ability to name. The ending here, ultimately, troubles the certainty of this presence in a way that echoes throughout the whole of Stonelight.

Ora names her children (before they are born) – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather hat
and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.

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Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Be sure to consider entering a manuscript for the Airlie Prize.

To find out more about Sarah McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site.

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microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

stonelight3

In Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, Sarah McCartt-Jackson adds to the tradition of lyric narrative collections that includes Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, books that take on the materials of human life and through them evoke human presence. Informed by McCartt-Jackson’s background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism, the poems of Stonelight move individually as statements of intimate experience, but also work together to tell the story of Ora and Eli and their family. One of the main engines behind this poetic storytelling is the use of nature as a lens to understand and feel human interactions.

The opening poem, “Kentucky Rose,” embodies what I mean in its opening lines:

This soil is a vein of stone the company calls blue heron
to indicate its grade—
a bituminous grease in the pleats of eyelines
and thumbnail quick,
in the corners of Eli’s mouth
until everything tastes like the long coal throat of Mine 18,

In these lines, the worlds of nature and human life are blurred in the physicality of Eli’s experience. The arduousness of coal-mining is evoked in the description of the soil working itself down into “eyelines” and “thumbnail quick.” Yet, the inclusion of the name of the soil “blue heron” frames this meeting of worlds. Bringing to mind a blue heron and its grace and flight, the following lines then sink down into Eli’s more grounded experience. This intense sensory experience continues to the poem’s end:

And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.

Here, the intensity of Eli’s work is paralleled with a carpenter bee, an image whose focus and drive is as apt as it is startling. The implications here are double: not only is there the drone of the work, but also the feeling of necessity. Both are doing the work necessary for a living. From start to finish, this poem upends any idea that natural life and human life are at odds; rather, they exist as troubled neighbors leaving impressions on each other.

This use of nature as a lens for human understanding and feeling is found again in “Jacob’s Ladder,” which details Ora experiencing a miscarriage. The poem begins:

They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
and do not return until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,

and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
into the sandstone,

Here, the world of superstition is brought in, framing what is at stake in childbirth for Ora. The narrative that begins here, that “children born on the wrong side / of the river grow wild,” is developed through nature metaphors of “fleabane” and veins gone “all grass stems and cricket legs.” This metaphoric language evokes directly what is meant by “wild” and what is to be feared. And yet, the narrative continues in the second stanza with the implication that this wildness will affect the land as well. As with “Kentucky Rose,” human intensity is paralleled with nature. Here, however, the parallel serves storytelling directly. Later in the poem, the reader finds out that Ora is unable to make it to the other side of the river:

So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.

In these closing images, the experience of miscarriage is translated into nature metaphors. This reads like a natural progression from the opening stanza’s logic. Where what is feared for the child born on the wrong side of the river is expressed as a wildness whose mystery evokes troubled images of land and insects, the mystery that is death is approached through imagery that withholds further understanding. Here, nature represents what shuts out human life and renders it unknowable.

This reckoning with mortality is woven throughout the poems of Stonelight. As the narrative of Eli and Ora plays out in poems whose rich language is stitched with human heart, what remains compelling is how these characters survive and understand their survival. Even as disaster strikes, Ora’s perceptions of the world around her echoes and defies disaster. Seeing her lost children in nature, and through nature seeing herself, Ora is set down as one of poetry’s most compelling characters.

This presence is accomplished through McCartt-Jackson’s ability to braid together poetry, folklore, and research. In “O Death” (below), whose title is borrowed from an Appalachian dirge, McCartt-Jackson goes in the opposite direction of a majority of the poems in the manuscript. Where, as in the poems cited above, human characters are shown to interpret their experiences through the lens of nature, here we have an unnamed speaker evoking Death in a way that renders the experience human, intimate, and ever-present. Despite the contrast in approach, this poem continues the work of expressing the urgency of the world of Stonelight and its characters.

O Death – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

One by one the cicadas clutching the brittle bark turn their spiracles to the light to breathe her in. Their breath leaves ours on the sky-veined insect wings of the world fluttering in the edge of lampglow between umbra and fire. O candle whose light we love even as your wax taper wanes. She rattles but we do not even hear her, ears pressed to the cold cookstove, to the ragged beanvines, to the dog’s frothy tongue. O stone torn from the coalface, time-split and aching, receive her shaking tail of sound into each seam. Overturn each rock, unearth the roly polys and roll their husks between fingers so she will uncoil from the corngrass and lie on a rotting barn beam where moles scurry into her open mouth, and then turn one by one their bodies inside out. O twitching cicada hull hatched one by one with her rattle. O rattle. She sheds a snakeskin rustling on our front porch step, the silent rings in which she has traveled. Our yard, filled with each year of her scaly chaff, hisses like the white undersides of leaves blowing before the flood-rains. Each day we turn our faces to the woods, to the shade curled in a fern’s fiddlehead, to the shade clasped inside a hollow shell. O night, let their antennae burn.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: What excites me most about Stonelight is that this collection combines elements of poetry and fiction. I wrote the book with a narrative arc so that the reader can experience the poems, and the lives inhabiting them, much like experiencing a novel. I was also able to incorporate my background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism. Throughout the book, readers encounter folk beliefs, words of our ancestors, and a lush environment teeming with flora and fauna. I hope Stonelight guides the reader through the journey with Ora as she experiences her triumphs and tragedies.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: One of the challenges of writing these poems was creating the narrative arc. I had to outline the book much as an author would outline a novel. When I went to put the poems together, I had to identify plot points that might be missing, then write new poems to help fill these gaps. The narrative arc went through many iterations before settling in its current stream.

Another challenge was the sheer history of the poems. Writing about the turn of the previous century required a lot of research—both historical and personal. I spent a lot of time reading old geology books, government documents, oral histories, and naturalist collections. This research gave me some new, rich language that readers might not immediately recognize, but I insisted on using these terms as they are. Because of that, I tried to help readers along with metaphor and imagery, while also providing extensive notes at the end of the book. In this way, we learn something about history, belief systems, and the folk—the people—that I have created in Stonelight.

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Special thanks to Sarah McCartt-Jackson for participating! To learn more about McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site. Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!

smj*

Kentucky poet, folklorist, and naturalist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has received honors from and been published by Copper Nickel, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, The Maine Review, Tidal Basin Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and has served as artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shotpouch Cabin (Oregon State University). She is the author of Stonelight (Airlie Press), which won the 2017 Airlie Prize, and two chapbooks, Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press) and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press), which won the 2015 Mary Ballard Poetry Prize. She works on a farm in Louisville.

Fire Writers Conference

This past Monday I had the honor of leading a workshop for the Fire Writers conference, a one day series of creative writing workshops conducted for high school students from public and private schools across Yamhill County. The conference was held at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon. Workshop leaders included Kate Carroll de Gutes, C. Morgan Kennedy, Fonda Lee, and Kate Ristau.

Alex Dang opened the conference by performing his poem “What Kind of Asian Are You?,” a powerful poetic statement that interrogates the poet’s struggle to define his identity while dealing with problematic stereotypes imposed from the outside. Dang’s presence was important for me, as it made room for my own presence. Performing as a writer of color involves summoning up not only nerve but conscience. How can I best present my work with integrity and conviction? Who will hear it? Teaching is also performance, and these questions come to mind often in my work on and off the page.

Kim Stafford then gave a keynote address entitled “Poetic Testimony for Strange Times.” In this address, Stafford spoke of the importance of embracing what he terms the “3 gifts”: your fire (your own way of kindling self and following “what makes you pay attention”), your truth, and your writing. He also shared stories about his travels as Oregon State Poet Laureate and read poems written by high school students he’s met during his tenure. Hearing Stafford speak is always a lesson in generosity and how the writing life can answer and honor human life one word at a time.

49898424_1987904911257037_4298754598161612800_oMy own workshop was entitled “Mira/Look: Ways of Poetic Looking” and focused on exploring the power of naming, describing, and evoking, framing these acts as forms of “seeing.” The exercise involved reading, and some in the moment writing of haiku. The students in both of my sessions were impressive in their enthusiasm for writing and in their depth of responding to the ideas I presented. I also participated in the haiku writing alongside them, something I don’t normally allow myself to do. Here are two haiku from these sessions:

the space between my front teeth
the air pure
morning observation

resistance
is being tired but alive
winter sunrise

Experiences like this conference always bolster my self-esteem as a writer. Whether it’s engaging in generous conversation about each other’s writing projects, sharing writing tools and strategies with young writers, or simply listening and sharing worries and concerns about the writing life, a gathering like this one strengthens my conviction as both writer and human.

Special thanks to Lisa Ohlen Harris, Deborah Weiner, and everyone else who helped make this conference possible! And a warm thanks to the students who shared their time and writing with me, and to the teachers who continue to guide their way.

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As part of his keynote address, Kim Stafford shared the following poem by his father, William Stafford, which approaches the idea of “the muse” with tact and purpose, side-stepping the usual problematic tropes around the idea. I suppose what I mean when I speak about experiences like this conference strengthening me, I mean something of salvation. A reminder that, like the one given to the speaker of this poem, one is able to save one’s self.

 When I Met My Muse – William Stafford

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

The Writing Life: TV interview

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1This week I’m excited to share an interview I did over this past summer as a guest on Stephen Long’s show The Writing Life.

In this interview, I talk a bit about my history with the Spanish language, from it being my first language as a child and the one I learned to pray in and still speak with my family in, to finding my way into written Spanish. This relationship with moving between language on the air to language in print parallels the relationship I have between my two tongues.

During the interview, I share the poems “Thank You For Not Smoking: una traducción práctica” published at Hinchas de Poesía and “Speaking Spanish in NYC” published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry. The latter poem is also part of my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).

Enjoy!

 

suggestion via Rita Dove

Suggestion is a key element to poetry. Whether it’s a matter of word choice, how using the word “broken,” say, suggests its opposite, “fixed”; or within the structure of a metaphor itself, the juxtaposition of two things bringing to mind a further connection, suggestion is one word for poetry’s ability to tap into language’s conspiratorial nature.

The poem below, “Flirtation” by Rita Dove, is a good example of what I mean. Dove takes the contextual framework of the title and aligns it right away with a variety of evocative images:

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

First, the movements here of an “orange, peeled / and quartered” are said to flare “like a tulip on a wedgwood plate,” a parallel that works both on a visual and sensory level. This parallel implies subtle physical shifts, similar to one person becoming particularly aware of another. The type of attention described here is sharp and visceral.

peel-and-unpeeled-orangeThere is suggestion at work in Dove’s line break’s as well. The enjambment of the above lines, with line breaks on “peeled” and “flares,” creates tension as image and simile develop. This tension is broken by the following line “Anything can happen.” whose conceptual certainty is echoed in the use of a period to create an end stopped line.

A similar push and pull occurs later in the lines:

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

The line “across the sky. My heart” is especially effective as the enjambment and line break here both end and start a sentence, but also imply another parallel, that of a heart being like a sky. This deft way with the line creates a dizzying atmosphere, which brings us back to the title and its implied feelings. Dove continues to develop this atmosphere straight through to the poem’s elegant ending.

Flirtation – Rita Dove

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh–
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

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from Selected Poems (Vintage)