Send us your art submissions! We’d love to see them!
If you’re thinking about submitting, hear what our past Art Editors have to say about submissions to learn more about the art we feature on SR.
“I began viewing our submissions, and I was astounded by the elevated level of craftsmanship I saw in many of the pieces. We had everything: vibrant colors, text+art, and haunting photographs that sent shivers up my spine. After some time, a lot of thinking, and quite a few discussions with Founding Editor Patrica Murphy and Art Faculty Advisor Rebecca Fish Ewan, I came to realize that for this issue, we wanted work that challenged the norms, celebrated diversity, and demanded our attention.” – Anna Campbell, Issue 26
“Kat Babbie’s four textile works are beautiful and dynamic. Her work is also featured on the cover. Carolina Dutca and Valentin Sidorenko’s five photos also include delightful textile elements and beautiful photography. Takashi Ari’s haunting photographs of Hiroshima that explore the complicated interconnectedness of subjects in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima. To round out the photography, Ashley Miller’s surreal photographs explore themes of consumption. We are also lucky to feature Ali Liebegott’s three wonderful paintings, which explore themes of queerness, food, and domestic spaces.” – Isabelle Kinney, Issue 27
“…As I considered the submissions for art, I thought not only about the stories they told to me, but also what stories they might tell to others, and what stories their creators wanted to tell. And what diverse, thought-provoking stories they told!” Khanh Ngyuen, Issue 28
Does your art challenge norms, tell stories, and demand attention? Don’t miss this opportunity!
Submit your artwork for a chance to be featured in Issue 29 here.
Randon Billings Noble has compiled a diverse array of writers for a remarkable collection of lyric essays published by the University of Nebraska Press in October 2021. A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays “show lyric essays rely more on intuition than exposition, use image more than narration, and question more than answer.” Although no one summary can begin to capture the essence of these essays, one can expect revelation through flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab forms, plus a section of craft essays. This collection also features a number of past SR contributors including Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Sarah Einstein, Elissa Washuta, Julie Marie Wade, Eric Tran, Heidi Czerwiec, and Michael Dowdy.
Randon Billings Noble was featured in Issue 11. If you would like to see even more of Noble’s work, it is featured on her website and she can also be found on Twitter.
I’ve been searching for a book like this for over twenty years. Its remarkable dazzle–a sharp, eclectic anthology combined with whip-smart craft essays–carves out a fascinating look into the bright heart of what the lyric essay can be.
Aimee Nezhukumatahil, author of World of Wonders
A Harp in the Stars is available via the publisher, Amazon, or anywhere books are sold.
Check out Arizona State University’s new creative writing lecture series hosted and moderated by Mitchell Jackson, Guggenheim fellow, Pulitzer winner, and the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor of English at ASU. Join Jackson as he welcomes two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward as the inaugural guest at this virtual event via Zoom on Friday, February 4, 2022, at 6 p.m AZ/MST.
The Conversations in Craft and Content lecture series is free of charge and open to the public. Take advantage of this great opportunity to learn more about Jesym Ward’s craft including her writing and revision process, philosophies that guide her, and ideas about her work.
Learn more about the moderator, guest, and series on the Department of English’s website and register here!
Congratulations to Laurie Blauner for releasing a new novel and a book of short stories. Her latest novel is titled Out of WhichCame Nothing. Enter a parallel universe with Aaron, a boy wholly dependent on religious cult caretakers in this stunningly lyrical and descriptive world. This novel was published in September 2021 by Spuyten Duyvil and is available now on their website and Amazon.
The sense is almost one of a world somewhere between a fairy tale and a fever dream; a nightmare with ill-defined limits that is both all-encompassing and self-contained. This is not a contradiction by any means. It is a state of being that is as specific as a recurring nightmare we can’t let go of, a nightmare that takes over our being and drags us deeply into a well of consciousness where voices in the darkness are threatening to follow us into an uncertain darkness. And we go. Because we have no choice not to.
Laurie Blauner’s newest release, I Was One of My Memories, is an essay collection published by PANK magazine since winning its 2020 Nonfiction Book Award. In this book, you will find more of her lyrical prose as she covers topics such as obsession, lies, aging, and what it really means to be human. You can order this book from PANK.
I Was One of My Memories does one of the things that I love most about the thing we call creative nonfiction: it shows us its thinking, its flawed and idiosyncratic and completely delightful thinking. It is a thinking shaped by experience, pleasure, grief, and disappointment, while the diverse forms, the small essays, little animals of the mind, might be read as recursive attempts toward sense making.
J’Lynn Chapman, Contest Judge and author of To Limn / Lying In
You can find Laurie’s contribution to Superstition Review in Issue 21, which features one of the essays in I Was One of My Memories under the same title, and Issue 8, which features her poetry. You can also check out these books and more on her website.
We’re excited to share that past contributor John Vanderslice recently put out a new book! The novel, Nous Nous, came out in October from Braddock Avenue Books. Nous Nous is a literary crime drama told through a multitude of voices that follows a child kidnapping in a small town in Arkansas. Lawrence Baine’s world came crashing down around him after his beloved daughter was kidnapped and murdered. Baine’s tormented reaction, however, is to kidnap someone else’s daughter. This girl turns out to be the daughter of Elizabeth Riddle, an Episcopal priest, who struggles to guide her church while trying to rescue her daughter from the clutches of her unusual but suddenly dangerous captor.
One thing about the book which is both curious and a source of pride is that I drafted it several years ago in a Novel Writing Workshop class I was teaching. In that class, I make the students draft a short novel; i.e., 50,000 words. I assign rigid weekly word counts, and I put the students in peer groups so that they receive some regular feedback about their burgeoning drafts. I also think it’s important that I put myself through the same steps I am making them go through. I assign myself to a peer group and give myself the same word count requirements.
Doing it in that class really proved fundamental to the book. One reason is that I received some superb suggestions early on from my peer group which help me clarify some of my characterizations and character issues. The other important result of doing it in that class is that I chose to use a braided narrative structure. I mean a rolling series of chapters in which four different points of view rotate. I figured that would be an easy way to keep me charging though the draft, bring new energy to each chapter as I began it. It did all that, but it also proved to be essential to creating that leave-them-on-the-edge-of-their-seats suspense that authors, especially ones who struggle with plotting, aim for and struggle to enact. And as I looked for ways to make the braids coordination tighter and tighter, I discovered all sorts of interesting and useful connections between the characters that I simply had not planned or envisioned when I started. So that draft came together wonderfully.
Not that there wasn’t a lot of editing ahead of me. I shaped the book for several years after drafting it (while working on other things), and I also found that when it came down to the time for fine-tuning sentences and paragraphs, I’ve never worked with sharper editors than those at Braddock Avenue. They did not legislate anything, but they did make some excellent suggestions that the book truly benefited from.
Anyway, it just feels like kismet: the subject matter I chose, the platform on which I drafted it, and the publisher I eventually found.
John’s story “Capuchin” was featured in Issue 14. He is the author of several books, about which you can learn more on his website. Head to Braddock Avenue Books to purchase a copy of Nous Nous. Thank you for sharing, John!
Congratulations to Jen Knox for her new book Dandelion Ghosts! Her nine flash-fiction stories explore the human condition in a magical and captivating way. Jen says that these stories are “basically fairy tales for adults.” The book came out in September published by Unleash Creatives.
In this collection of tautly woven stories, Jen Knox offers us surreal adult parables. The fantastical nudges up against Odd Lots, paying rent, and worrying about aging parents. Logic ricochets off into all kinds of boundless directions, pushing out our sense of the “ordinary” so we learn to expect anything in these stories: a young girl who discovers the backs of her knees spill out coins, an installation artist who talks to the muse in her plump belly. Each character stumbles through a tired, not always empathetic world, but her fears, anxieties and strange talents leave open the possibility for something a little bit better.
Kate Cumiskey lives with her partner Mikel in coastal central Florida. She has a social justice novel, Ana, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press, and a biography, Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story, forthcoming with Silent e Publishing; both will be out in late 2022. She is currently concentrating her writing to reflect her perspective of social justice without judgement or paternalism as regards homelessness, and continuing her work in meeting the needs of homeless human beings in her community. She also leads efforts locally to ascertain safety and educational fidelity for students within the public school system through boots-on-the-ground advocacy.
Our Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, read and reviewed Kate’s recent book of poems, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels and was lucky enough to also interview Kate about the book. The interview was conducted via email.
Bree Hoffman: “Candor” is the first poem in your book, and it lives up to the name by truth-telling right away. What was your thought process when opening the book with “Candor,” and what is the desired effect for the reader?
Kate Cumiskey: I’ll start with answering the second part of this question. This poem, I hope, serves as a bit of a warning to readers, “there be dragons here.” I don’t want readers to be surprised by the literal candor in the book. It’s important to me that writers speak truth, and with this book I particularly wanted to focus on truths we don’t normally speak out loud, but which do keep us isolated in that they make us feel alone. In fact, such things as hemorrhoids, death, and rape, while two of those are fortunately not universally shared, are common and lose a bit of their power when acknowledged as such. I had been struggling with a bit of inertia when this book was initially accepted by Finishing Line Press – how do we speak truth in such horrific times? – and I reread Candor to get myself back into the fray of writing what is happening to all of us, right now. FLP was gracious enough to allow the book to change with the rapidly changing, deadly times through the publication process. Candor had originally been the title poem of the book, but that too changed through this process. The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me. So, Candor is a warning for readers.
BH: In poems such as “Dirge” and “Favoring Boys” your activist roots come through. How does activism influence you as a writer, and how do you hope to factor them into your work in the future?
KC: It is interesting that you choose “activist roots,” as I think of this book as very active in voice, and independent from my roots, so to speak. I do not tend to think of my parents as activists, but you are spot-on; certainly they were, both of them. I hope it is evident in the poems that my mother and I had a very complex relationship, but she was in fact the bravest person I’ve ever known. She did things I’d never dream of, and that I’d consider down-right dangerous, for example, always picking up hitchhikers no matter what, until literally the week before she passed away in 2017. That’s activism. She also reserved judgement on people outside her own circle, such as homeless individuals panhandling, saying judgement was for God-she’d give out money and when less radical individuals called her on that, saying, “what if they spend it on drugs?” She’d say, “It’s a tough life, maybe that’s what they need to get through the night.” My father was a NASA pioneer, and even though his designs were crucial to getting humans to the Moon and our technology into interstellar space, when I asked what he was proudest of in his career, he replied, “I couldn’t keep a secretary. Every one of them out-degreed me and went on in the Program. I helped them all do that.” Activism in the workplace, helping females move forward in what at the time was absolutely a male domain. So, yeah, activist roots. Right now, I’m working on a series of poems about withholding judgement. In fact, one of the central poems to that book, Cokeheads I Have Known, is forthcoming in an anthology, The Literary Parrot, Series Two. I am pushing myself hard to speak about our shared humanity, and to encourage readers to strive to leave judgement behind. Again, there be dragons here. It’s hard to examine your own boundaries.
BH: I noticed recurring themes of motherhood and generational trauma several times. Could you discuss why those themes resurface in your work?
KC: Again, you bring up something about the book I’d not noticed! Brava; I love it! I remember discussing what I was most concerned about in my work with my dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley. He’d asked, and I responded, “Being labeled a ‘domestic poet’.” He replied with his fabulous candor, “Well, you are a domestic poet, but you’re in good company.” He was saying he too was a domestic poet. That long-ago conversation freed me of the concern, and I allowed my work to truly reflect my domesticity–what’s more domestic than parenthood? I took a sort of semi-conscious approach to this book, letting it be whatever it wanted to, even to the point of playing with, allowing myself to play with, voice in person. That evolved into my writing some of the easier poems first person, and dealing with more difficult topics, like that generational trauma you cite, in second person, and letting the poems stand that way. It’s subtle, but there, and I hope creates a bit of chaos and discomfort and puzzlement in readers. Like trauma does. I believe the deepest root of that trauma goes back to my father’s loss of his parents before he was eight; he was a Mississippi Depression orphan, son of a sharecropper and a teacher, and although he missed them, as a practical Christian he knew he would be with them again, and told stories about them as if they were just away for a while. Which, from a Christian perspective, they are. So, I really missed my grandparents growing up. In fact, as a small child in school I was confused by other children having two sets; I thought of my Atlanta grandparents, my mother’s, as my father’s parents, too, before such things were explained to me. It came as a real blow that I had missing grandparents. This deepened as it became very apparent I most resemble my paternal grandmother, who was also incredibly domestic, and a teacher; my mother was decidedly not. In fact, because I loved these things and she didn’t, she had me take lessons in sewing, cooking, even deportment and etiquette. Because back in the day a woman should be graceful and I was clumsy as a child, I also took dance lessons for several years; I still love to dance. As far as my work, the obvious answer is also that I use these underlying specificities in my past to attempt to connect with readers. It is important to me that each reader experience each poem differently; what the reader brings to the reading through their own past is as important to me as the words on the page.
BH: What advice would you offer to our readers about writing?
KC: Connect! Read! Reach out to writers whose work speaks to you, if they are living, and ask the questions you are burning to ask. Ask for help. If you are stuck too deeply in your own, isolating experiences, force yourself to look outward and write just what you see, sans analysis. Take a piece of rotting fruit, put it on the table, smash it to bits, and sit down and write that. Keep the self completely out of the work. That’ll get you writing. Work outward from there: write the doorway, then the hall, then the threshold. Then, write what’s outside that door.
BH: What does your personal writing process look like when you are building a book of poetry?
KC: It’s a mess! In fact, I’ve recently opened an office in a classic old building in order to grapple with my lack of organization, and am working on a schedule. Seriously, although outwardly I’m a bit of a mess, I’m actually pretty organized and disciplined. I keep poems in print and on the computer, and when they start to build up in number, I have a serious look at them to see if they belong in a group, in a book. And I am always sending out finished poems to find a home in a journal or anthology. My mentor Mark Cox worked hard with me on how to put together books when I was in graduate school, and I still use his method, which is deliciously physical. I find a space with a large surface area – The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels was put together in my brother’s beautiful kitchen, in the afternoon overlooking Turnbull Bay, Atlantic Center for the Arts just visible on the opposite shore–and lay out the printed verses. I choose the opening poem, and circle until I find the poem which calls to it, which wants to be next. I keep going until the book is finished. Any poems left I simply hold for another day. Another book or spoken word venue.
Kate Cumiskey’s, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, is her latest and perhaps most intimate book of poems published thus far. In a recent interview with Superstition Review, Cumiskey said of its origins:
“The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me.”
The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels expands on this promise, and provides a candid, autobiographical collection of poems relevant to Cumiskey’s lived experiences. This includes the appropriately titled, “Candor,” a poem that opens up the collection and lives up to its name.
Write your history; write that fear at 2 a.m. the night
your son overdosed. Write tile beneath your knees.
Write rats in the kitchen, raccoons in the roof, your dog
over the fence, gone all night.
I found Cumiskey’s poems to be moving and sincere in their attempts to reclaim ownership over her lived experiences. Her poems cover topics including sexism, assault, politics, loss, and hope for the things she cannot fix. It’s hard to separate the author from the poems in this particular collection, because the two feel so intrinsically linked, and it’s readily apparent when reading them.
Bit by bit my body settles into age: fractious, screaming all the way
down. Only in twilight sleep I feel my lower jaw shift, relax, offset
to the right, the side I sleep on. My mouth clamps, thin-lipped, crooked,
and settles for sleep into Mother’s fighting look, the one she wears
when will not be moved. Then I can rest. And it feels good
like falling into my own skin.
(From “Just Lately I Feel My Body Settling”).
To purchase a copy of The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, head to Finishing Line Press. Congratulations and thank you, Kate!
Keene Short is a writer and baker in Spokane, Washington. His work has appeared in jmww, Bridge Eight, Blood Orange Review, and elsewhere. In this post, we feature an essay of his, “Jeremiad,” along with an interview our Nonfiction Editor, Paress Chappell, conducted with Keene about the piece.
I wake up before dawn to drive to a small airport in Cascade, Idaho, in time for the one flight by bush plane into a research station in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I am the only passenger on the bumpy flight, the plane full of faded yellow and orange upholstery and a few remaining patches of brown shag carpeting. After the plane takes off and whirs over the Idaho wilderness, I look out at the tiny crystal lakes in the rocky ledges and drops below. The pilot flies close enough to some of the slopes that I can see the frost on the trees and the waves in the alpine lakes. There are so many unmapped, tiny lakes, as blue as veins.
I am here for a short fellowship to write about climate change, history, and public land use, but I find myself mostly thinking mostly in religious terms. My parents and teachers framed the public lands system in the US for me as a model of an environmental utopia, an iteration of the commons shared co-equally among all humans and non-human animals. A paradise on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, easy and teleological.
The one book I bring with me to the River of No Return is a copy of my father’s dissertation, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands, which he expanded into a book and published in a limited run in 1989, predating my older brother by a year. It’s been on my shelf for a long time, but I only committed to reading it while spending a week writing in the same public lands my father would have studied.
The plane lands bumpily in a long stretch of grass next to a tributary of the Salmon River called Big Creek. The pilot pulls a lever repeatedly to start the brakes, and the plane finally stops just short of the research station’s only human inhabitants waiting in the cold to greet us: Pete, the manager, his 9-year-old daughter, and five college students staying the in the fall for a semester’s worth of credits. The sun is still behind the mountains, and the air will be cold all morning, they tell me.
I settle into the situation: No phone service and only a few hours of internet slower than dial-up during the day when the sun hits the station’s row of solar panels. There is one electrical outlet in my cabin, which I use to charge my laptop, also only when the sun hits the solar panels. There is no heat, and I’m not permitted to use the fireplace this late in the dry season.
I write a few paragraphs in my cabin, then wander up the grass landing strip. I follow a deer into the brush who lets me get startlingly close in a shady trail next to the landing strip, munching on this and that, looking up at me with an unreadable expression.
Outside my cabin is a grassy field that ends at the row of solar panels. The river separates the field from the blond-grey mountainside, crisscrossed with ponderosa pines. The research station, with so few humans living so far off the grid, feels like the setting of a post-apocalyptic novel. This shared, off-the-radar community blends technological limits and twentieth-century agricultural methods to sustain itself, as if after some war or disease or atomic fallout. Maybe there are shades of utopia as well. Everything here is an extreme, and everyone here takes these extremes for granted. The cabin’s solitude, the river’s noise.
My father breaks the old guard conservation movement into two sects: “the mystics, such as John Muir, who considered wilderness preservation to be an ‘act and obligation of worship,’ and the more pragmatic utilitarians, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.” Both sects drew upon white settler colonialism, dividing the land according to what they wanted, a religious project of reorganizing stolen land rather than preserving it.
When I hike upstream in the early afternoon sun, I’m struck most by the burned trees that still loom over the trail from a series of wildfires. I pass three in a row on the trailside. I want to pick at them, strip off bits of charcoal, see how deep the damage goes. I want to see if there are still tree rings, what they might look like deep inside. I think of toasted marshmallows allowed to let burn to a crisp on an open fire, turning to ash on the outside but gooey on the inside. In the burned trees, will there be untouched streaks of sandy orange and sandal? Or will it be gnarled and drooping, the innards melted, disorganizing the lifespan of these ponderosa up until the fire? I want to peek inside and see proof of life. Does that make me a mystic?
When I return, I peruse the library in the other half of my cabin, filled with taxidermized rodents and hawks caught in competition above the shelves. Most of the books are standard ecocritical texts from the last four decades. A lot of Terry Tempest Williams, a lot of Scott Slovic. A lot of Barry Lopez and Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson. There are few novels and even fewer books of poetry. For inspiration, I snatch the Ecocriticism Reader and the library’s copy of the Bible.
When I finally sit down to write after a quick meal the sun is far below the mountain, and a bird flies into the window. I am in denial about the meaning of that awful low smack until I see the creature on the cabin deck. The bird’s chest and eyes move in equally violent rhythm.
I don’t want a bird to die on my watch, and I don’t know how to help. I go to find Pete, but he is nowhere to be found. When I return, the bird is still there, but as I climb the steps, he hobbles onto his feet, his talons tight between the wood of the deck. He looks around, not cocking his head but unsure, rocking a little bit. The bird is in shock, I think, feeling my own heart speed up. The little body is in shock.
I don’t know the species. His feathers are black with a white underbelly and chest. The creature is small, so so small. I go back inside to get a plate of water, spilling it on the way out again. The cabin door makes a short squeaking noise, a barely audible chipper. When I place the plate in front of him, the bird seems to jump and his eyes open much wider. I nudge the water closer, leaning in a little. The bird shakes a bit, then takes flight, giving one small squeak on his way out. I lift the plate, dump the water into a nearby flower pot, and go back inside, my hands shaking. I wonder if an omen is still an omen when the omen flies away again.
I read in the Book of Amos: “’But I gave you empty stomachs in all your cities and lack of bread in all your towns, yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord. ‘And furthermore, I withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest. Then I would send rain on one city and on another city I would not send rain; one part would be rained on, while the part not rained on would dry. So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water, but would not be satisfied; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.’ I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and sent locusts to destroy your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.”
Mystics used to emphasize the land, air, and water in their prophesying, denouncing tribal kings for their iniquities with threats of very real earthly punishments attributed to God. The land gives and the land takes away. The prophets knew what they were doing when they warned of impending drought and famine and disease, when they warned of refugee crises and wars and political collapse, a central part of their rhetoric.
Frank Church himself, a former US Democratic Senator for Idaho, is more difficult to place. He ran in the presidential primary election of 1976 as a progressive environmentalist, though he only won a few primaries in Western states like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska before withdrawing when it became clear that the more moderate Jimmy Carter had sealed the nomination. My dad tells me that he volunteered with the radical environmentalist Church campaign as a college student, helping to put up posters for Frank Church with the Idaho Young Democrats. He always tells me this same story about the candidate:
Frank Church came to Rupert, Idaho, my dad’s hometown an hour from Pocatello. He hung out after giving a campaign speech at the town’s high school and my dad stuck around too, asked a few more questions as Church waited for a friend to pick him up. I imagine him in a trench-coat, smoking a cigarette, talking shop with a college student version of my dad.
Forty years later, when I was a graduate student in Nebraska, it felt like a big deal when Bernie Sanders came to Lincoln, the state capital. Thousands of students skipped classes to wait six hours in line to hear him speak, waiting to pass through metal detectors and have their bags checked on the way in. A large crowd for a college town. I wonder if Frank Church drew a large crowd for a small rural town. I’ve been to Rupert so many times. It’s a community of farmers and immigrants, not the place a presidential candidate visits even in primary season, a small, isolated town that has only become smaller and more isolated.
I hike upstream along the river with my camera, along the dusty trails rising and falling, narrowing closer to the thrashing edge of the rapids and into the quiet grassy hills away from the river, its churning locomotion. Past the rapids and a set of caves I worry will be filled with bears, I cross a bridge, maneuvering myself between the looming post-burn charcoal pillars and the emergent stubble of regrowth.
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is on stolen and occupied Shoshone-Bannock and Nimiipuu land. The US began imposing restrictions on land usage first with the establishment of the Idaho Primitive Area in 1930, then the Wilderness Act of 1964, and finally the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, which Frank Church successfully sponsored.
The land is useful today for scientific research, especially for the stability of the Salmon River in a changing climate, but the original purposes were more sentimental. According to the legislation, congress finds that “certain wildlands in central Idaho lying within the water shed of the Salmon River—the famous ‘River of No Return’—constitute the largest block of primitive and undeveloped land in the conterminous United States and are of immense national significance.” Through an act of congress, Frank Church was able to create a legally designated block of wilderness for its immense national significance. This is an act of mysticism, a gesture toward environmental utopianism.
The Taylor Ranch has regulations to prevent overuse of resources, and it functions as something close to communal living. I share the kitchen and outhouse. We clean up the spaces and items we use. The regular inhabitants work in the garden, the farm, or with the water and solar rigs. In exchange for restraint, the land is renewable for another year. White Americans are new to this longstanding concept, and we’re still very bad at it. A bush plane flies in twice a week to bring supplies and relieve us of our garbage.
A list of Pete’s commandments hang above the door to the kitchen and dining cabin, the common cabin, written on butcher paper in blue marker, emphasizing personal responsibility, solitude, and companionship. While cooking my morning oatmeal next to someone else boiling water for tea, the gas ovens go out, and the regulars jump to change the propane tanks, instinctively volunteering to maneuver the gigantic beige metal cannister as tall as I am to a storage place while hauling in another equally large cannister.
For a while, I wonder if this is the kind of shared collaboration Hardt and Negri suggest is necessary to reestablish the commons, “produced socially, through communication and cooperation, by a multitude of singularities.” Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, though, points out that Hardt and Negri’s limited idolization of the commons perpetuates settler colonialism by conveniently ignoring the Indigenous people whose land would then be shared in common by the colonists’ descendants. Even if proposed in good faith, the federal public lands system enacts a version of this erasure. Utopia for some is dystopia for the rest.
I imagine someone like the prophet Amos visiting this place. I picture him quickly turning bored, running his hands through his long hair and getting itchy with cabin fever, biting his nails, pacing the library and looking out the window at the deer in the field, walking up to the windows in their grazing, wondering about the nervous, shaking creature they see inside.
The Sagebrush Rebellion, consisting of libertarian western landowners fed up with the environmental policies of the 1970s, plays a key role in my father’s analysis. White landowners, generations removed from the government-subsidized colonization of the 1800s, rebelled against the conservation policies that figures like Frank Church helped to enact. The environmentalist response to the Sagebrush Rebels’ theatrical protests was a carefully designed, science-driven counter-insurgency that “often employed research data in making their claims, in which environmentalists abandoned ‘their own brand of symbolism (invoking the founding fathers, for example) in favor of evidence.’”
Is this a pattern? The New Right, coalescing around Reagan, appropriated the environmentalist left’s strategies of symbolic rhetoric, and so conservationists shifted from mysticism to pragmatism. What strikes me is that ways of justifying land use, one way or another, are grounded in mythology more than history or sustainability. My father points out that both camps reached as far back as the Puritans, who “saw in the American frontier a ‘chosen nation in progress—a New Israel whose constituency was as numerous, potentially, as the entire people of God, and potentially as vast as America,” for a model of relating to the land.
As I read this, I start to feel self-aware. I wonder how radical my dad used to be. I wonder about the Idaho Conservation League, the ecoterrorists he used to research, maybe even hung out with. I wonder, and then I worry. I’ve never known either of my parents to be radicals except in past lives, before they were teachers and back when they were students. I worry what the furnace of academia can do to people, about credentials, publications, tenure, administration with a corner office overlooking campus protests, above the fray, above where battle lines are drawn.
Maybe the question for me is not between mysticism and pragmatism, but rather a more pressing iteration of the same dichotomy: Am I an activist or an academic? Will I make the practical decisions my parents made and simply study the rhetoric of environmental movements, or will I participate in those movements at the frontlines? Will climate change give me a choice?
I decide to hike the mountain today. The further up the trail I trudge, the more silent the wilderness becomes. The fabric of this place is deceptive. I wait for animals, anticipate them, turn my head and stop to listen, nervous each time I pass a thick ensemble of trees that I might encounter a bear. For the longest time, I see nothing but the odd grasshopper.
My imagination wanders. I wonder what I could become in twenty years isolated here. There could be fires and floods to wash me out. I imagine myself alone like in so many post-apocalyptic stories, wandering long lost paths and making my way laboriously north. I look at a burned tree standing over a storm-grey hillside which surely hides a thousand spiders and a dozen snakes, and I step forward. Crickets bounce away from me on the trail with each step I take, moving out of my way like I’m a boat parting the waves.
At the highest point overlooking the river, there is a graveyard of trees in a green slope of shrubbery and grass, their shadows like fingers pointing east in the afternoon. My body is weary up here, and my face and limbs are hot. It is quiet I’m alone and ambivalent. I sit on a log surrounded by trees, living and dead, and listen to the wind, the birds, waiting for something to find me, but nothing does. I contemplate myself, the place, the geography and how it’s organized strategically into cartography, which, this far into the mountains, is hard to see from my vantage. I could die up here and nobody would know. A bear could find me, or I could trip and spiral down a sharp edge. Rattlesnakes, falling trees, dehydration.
As Jennifer Ladino puts it, “Contemplation is shaped by narrative, of course. Narratives provide us with details to mull over, but there’s an affective dimension to contemplation as well.” She has also come to the Frank Church to teach and study, and I think about that narrative, as well as the story of what my life is or could become given a wrong turn. She favors constructive, life-affirming emotional responses to ambivalence: “Compassion needs words, stories, reflection,” which geographic places (as narratives) can encourage. The prophets relied on stories of apocalypse, as environmentalists do today. Places of injustice tell stories of injustice. What about this place inspires hope? I mull over the seconds in which I feel grateful.
One story my grandmother recently told me: Teaching is my destiny. My mother teaches, and my grandmother taught, and her mother taught too. I’m a fourth-generation teacher. She was in high school during the Second World War, and she was required to tutor her mother’s male students to ensure they passed the minimum requirements so they could join the army and fight overseas. When she should have been studying for her own calculus tests, she instead taught algebra to future Marines, and the next day, exhausted, she failed her calculus exam.
I hike back down the mountain, hungry and running low on water. I poke around a short way upriver before returning to the cabin, and there on the trail a herd of bighorn sheep encounters me. They drink from the river as I make my way around the bend. One sheep stands in the middle of the trail and stares me down. I stop. We are directly in each other’s way. The sheep could charge, and I would have to stumble down a rocky slope into the river or trip uphill into a fallen, blackened tree, the charcoal rubbing into the cuts I would make on my palms. But the animal looks to the side, indifferent. The rest of the herd ambles uphill on the trail behind the sheep. I wait until they give me permission to move forward.
“More significant, however, was the loss of two allies, Senators Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. The two New Right regulars cosponsored legislation to ‘bar all oil and gas exploration in their state’s wilderness areas.’ Why would two conservative, western politicians turn their backs on [the New Right]? ‘Constituent pressure,’ responded a Simpson aid. ‘They [Wallop and Simpson] are quite aware that a great many people in Wyoming want those wilderness areas left as they are.’ One week later, Senator Henry Jackson of Washington announced that fifty-one senators had agreed to co-sponsor legislation to prevent oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of national wilderness” (Short 65).
I wake up early and try to write a few more words, but my fingers are too cold and the bush plane is arriving anyway. It only took one week to acclimate to the situation, or so I tell myself as I stuff my lightened backpacks into the plane and climb into the passenger seat.
The pilot picks up two hunters in another station, landing on another long stretch of grass. There are a few donkeys, cabins, a stream. The hunters have much more than I do, and I’m glad when they place their firearms in the plane aiming away from the seat I’m sitting in. But I know Idaho hunters, as friends and family. They’re not stupid enough to put a loaded firearm in a vehicle (as some suburban gunowners I know have done). They also have a garbage bag of soda cans and single-use plastic, better to take home than leave out here. I notice they have no animals, no deer carcass or pile of coyote skins.
The plane lands in Cascade, and the hunters exit first, their stuff piled onto my stuff, their import pressing mine into the corner. I sit in my car in the airport parking lot for a long time scrolling through news feeds while storm clouds move over the hills before I drive north past red and orange leaves in the trees and small towns advertising pumpkin pie, espressos, free wi-fi. I pass church signs advertising Sunday service, visions of hope and despair intertwined together. Apparently we are sinners but we are also saints.
I want to stop in one of these many Idaho small towns. I want to walk into a roadside diner and order a cup of black coffee and a slice of pie and linger in the early autumn chill and listen to the old-timers in the corner talk about how warm it’s been these last few years, how dry last year was. But I don’t. I never do. Instead, I drive a few miles over the speed limit through each town like I’m a lost insect.
Paress Chappell: What were your goals as you were writing this piece?
Keene Short: This piece began as the daily journal entries I wrote when I went to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in 2018. That year, I kept a daybook, which was inspired by Brian Blanchfield. Originally, I wanted to record my experiences in the Frank as meticulously as possible, every hike and animal and conservation practice, to get an understanding for what a place is like after a specific type of conservation policy is enacted. Most of that journaling has been scrapped (the original draft I had was 25 pages, including a lot of quotes from the books I read at the time). I kept the original structure and focused on observations about climate change and conservation and rhetoric—I focused on a few recurring ideas and concerns I had.
PC: How has writing in different forms like fiction and poetry affected your nonfiction writing?
KS: Writing nonfiction for me often feels like solving a puzzle, and poetry and fiction (for me at least) require a different kind of creativity. They’re more constructive, more like creating puzzles for other people to solve. As a reader, at least, I like fiction and poetry that gives me an opportunity to think. In nonfiction, the pleasure so often comes from watching someone else’s thinking, from seeing someone else work through their own experiences or a complex set of ideas. This might be a false dichotomy between the genres, of course. I know they’re more nuanced than I’m presenting them. Where I find the pleasure in reading often differs from where I find pleasure in writing, and I think those moments are surprising enough to make me rethink my writing.
The inventiveness I try for when writing fiction or poetry can often bleed into nonfiction, when I face a problem of dots I can’t connect to make a cohesive essay. When I’m stuck in nonfiction, I might start to move from idea to idea through associative leaps or a more narrative structure or a scene. My most creative works of nonfiction have borrowed from the generic conceits of fiction or poetry, through things like extended metaphor, persona, or even fiction. I use these craft techniques to get around difficult problems I encounter in nonfiction, especially when it comes to subject matter.
PC: In “Jeremiad” you mention a dissertation written by your father about public lands. How did your father influence your view on the environment and public lands?
KS: My dad—both my parents—introduced me to environmentalism early in my childhood. Environmental destruction was one of my earliest fears, and one that has lasted with me and grown, as I’m sure is true of many people. My dad in particular had a range of academic and pragmatic environmental authors on his shelf, including some activists.
I took my father’s dissertation to the River of No Return because it seemed like an ideal place to read it. It had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I wanted to finally sit down and read it. The Frank is an excellent example of the strengths and limits of twentieth century land conservation policies like those advanced by Senator Frank Church himself, as a project of preservation but with a limited scope of the beneficiaries of that preservation. I wanted to think through the problems and arrive at a better understanding of what I can do now, today, in the midst of environmental catastrophe. But I also found myself wondering how effective academic approaches can be as climate disaster is already here. My dad embedded himself in academia, and I found myself wondering if he left anything behind in that decision, if I would likewise have to leave something behind if I chose to follow that same path or try another route toward environmental justice.
From my parents, I inherited a broad range of ideas about nature, but I never really knew what to do about them. Maybe this is what I mean when I separate academics from activists. In my own experience, it’s easy to write an academic paper about the need for climate action, but too often this becomes an ending point rather than a starting point, and academics can fly home self-congratulatory that they’ve contributed to solving the climate crisis by artistically or rhetorically articulating the urgency of the problem. It’s a divide between theory and praxis. One needs the other, but theorists who don’t engage in praxis, I think, are taking the easy way out. It’s no longer enough to study the forces that are destroying our planet. What matters now, and has mattered for a long time, is recognizing that the people killing our planet have names and addresses and stock portfolios. I’m not at all trying to indict academics of the past. What I want is for academics to start taking action now, before it’s too late.
PC: How has growing up in Flagstaff shaped your view on the environment?
KS: Flagstaff is a niche, fun, weird, and also very touristy town, and I think its contradictions made me prickly when it comes to the environment. It’s a beautiful town that white settlers built on stolen land (like every beautiful place in this country). I directly benefit from the compartmentalization of land into large public recreational sectors (for hiking, biking, birdwatching) but I know that this compartmentalization comes at a cost, and produces a distinctly artificial definition of nature as one that can be framed for an audience. For years, it’s had a housing crisis, and it’s the only place in Arizona that can sustain a ski resort, which is only possible now through the use of artificial snow, which has its own environmental and cultural concerns that the ski resort has chosen to disregard for profit. I miss Flagstaff dearly and I’m mad that its leaders have leaned into its worst tendencies, emphasizing tourism and privatized student housing over community-centered events and affordable housing for residents. The people who make Flagstaff a lovely town, the artists and activists and teachers who live there and taught me to care about the world, are not the people who have the power to make these decisions, and I think that realization has equipped me for understanding climate change as a conflict rooted in power disparity, in class struggle to be specific. National leaders at COP26 who are most vocal about the urgency of climate change are from countries that contribute the least to the greenhouse gas emissions but are already bearing the worst effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the biggest emitters (such as the US) hesitate to implement necessary changes. This is the same power dynamic in Flagstaff. And, like Flagstaff, what I want is partly to reconcile the past, but changing the future is significantly more important to me.
To learn more, visit Keene’s website. Thank you for sharing, Keene!
Our Issue 28 Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, interviewed Robert Krut, a three-time SR contributor, about his new poetry collection Watch Me Trick Ghosts. The interview was conducted via email.
Robert Krut is the author of four books: Watch Me Trick Ghosts (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2021), The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019), This is the Ocean (Bona Fide, 2013), and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). He teaches in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lives in Los Angeles.
Bree Hoffman: In a previous interview with Frontier you said that as a writer it is important to be “open to new ideas, new voices, new styles, [and] new suggestions.” What role has teaching poetry professionally played in the conception of your own poems? What have you learned from experiencing writing both inside and outside of the classroom?
Robert Krut: I don’t think I can overstate the importance teaching has played in my own writing, particularly recently. It has helped with my attempts to stay agile, excited, and engaged over the years. Working with students means working with numerous types of writers, each an individual requiring different suggestions, both in terms of reading and writing. There is a responsibility to share the entire scope of literature with them, and present them with the latest and most exciting poetry out in the world right now—this, in turn, helps keep me engaged, as well, and not complacent in my reading and participation.
During lockdown, in particular, my poetry courses were more than classes I was teaching—they were biweekly opportunities to talk with other writers (over Zoom, of course) who were all fully engaged in their process. If any of them happen to read this, in fact, I’d like them to know what an impact they had on my energy and enthusiasm toward writing over the past two years—their interest and passion really provided a spark for my own writing. In Norman Dubie’s great The Clouds of Magellan, he wrote “Work with young writers—never for them,” and it’s a quote I’ve thought about for years and years. It becomes more and more clear to me as a teacher. Working with poetry students isn’t a top-down operation. In the best cases, it is truly an interactive community.
BH: One recurring theme of your poems is the element of grimness that is present in the mundane. In “Walk Don’t Walk Walk Stand Still” we see it in the things people avoid, and in “The Dinner Party” we see it in the wounds people share with one another, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. What were some of your influences when writing these poems?
RK: Grimness in grimness has always been boring—I have always been fascinated by its presence, or at least the implication of its presence, in the mundane, that mysterious element in the everyday, as I’m sure many people are.
Way back in high school, my part time job was at a video store, which was perfect for a movie-obsessed teenager, but also meant I wound up working just past midnight. I would drive home through suburban New Jersey, fascinated by what I was seeing at that hour: stopping at my favorite 24-hour place and seeing people arguing in the parking lot, driving past the school and seeing people smoke right in the middle of the football field, passing a stray dog scratching at the church door near our house. It was all engrossing.
That job not only afforded me a reasonable excuse to be out so late, but it also led me to watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first of many times, which solidified this interest, and put it right there on the screen—in those opening moments, when Jeffrey finds the ear in the field, I saw the perfect representation of what I found interesting in the world, and it served as a sort of concrete seed for what would come, years later.
That was the same year I read “A Supermarket in California,” which shares similar DNA, the other side of a quiet town, slipping into something doomed. Those are the worlds where this book finds most of its poems; there, or in the flipside, in the mundane of the grim—they go hand in hand.
BH: There is a really interesting relationship that these poems have to other people as well as the world, creating a tone that is isolating and internal. For you, what is the role of these interpersonal connections in “Watch Me Trick Ghosts”?
RK: I sensed from the earliest stages of writing this book that it was going to be a quieter one, one that is, indeed, internal. As the themes began to become clear, it seemed to be the introverted sibling to the extroverted previous collection. This was led by the ideas I wanted to explore, but was surely enhanced by the fact that the vast majority was written during lockdown, where we were all isolated by circumstance. When you mention interpersonal connections, I flash to the fact that I wasn’t walking outside to talk to neighbors up close; there were simple hand waves from across the street. I wasn’t meeting strangers in crowded places; I was driving past closed up shops. This book is not “about” that particular time—that would be too narrow for my taste—but the writing couldn’t help but be influenced by it. In the end, it is indeed an internal book, centered on solitude in some ways, voices you hear when you are alone, and spirits tethered to your body as you move through the day. The title poem was one of the very first, and it served as a sort of guide.
BH: What are you currently working on in your writing and various workshops?
RK: In terms of my own writing, I’ve just been trying to write a little each day right now—sometimes that’s a whole draft of a poem, and sometimes it’s just a few lines. After a book comes out, I typically have an “deep breath” period where I’m writing, little by little, getting back to full momentum for where the poems will go next. As for my courses, this Winter I’ll be teaching a class specifically designed for third-year students who are beginning the process of creating a manuscript for their upcoming senior projects—I’ve taught this for the past few years, and it’s always an exciting process, and never the same. I’m looking forward to reading some great new work, and the chance to work closely with the students.
BH: What advice would you give to fellow writers and readers?
RK: The old standbys still hold. Write every day. Try to write every day. I know that’s an easy thing to say, and it’s hard to truly follow it all the time, but I have found that periods where I really try to write something every day, even something that turns out to be garbage, the momentum leads to truly productive periods.
And read a lot. Specifically, read people who are writing differently than you—don’t wind up in a literary echo chamber.
Finally, writing is such a solitary experience, which is often one of the nicest aspects of it, but it can slow down inspiration and growth. Reach out to friends, and other writers, while working. One of the rare benefits of social media is that, even if you don’t have someone in your immediate circle who writes, or reads poetry, there are ways to find a community, even if it is online. I love the independent nature of writing, alone, in the early morning hours, or late at night, but it’s not until I start sharing, editing, revising, and sharing again, that the poems start to breathe.
Carolyn Guinzio is the author of seven collections. Her new collection A VERTIGO BOOK (The Word Works, 2021) was the 2020 winner of the Tenth Gate Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Nation, The New Yorker and many other journals. She lives in Fayetteville, AR. Visit her website to learn more.
Our Issue 28 Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen, wrote a few interview questions for Carolyn and this is her lovely response:
Carolyn Guinzio: I have found that I can reach places with visual poetry that I could not get to with text alone. It started somewhat accidentally, when I was with my son in a second hand store in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we live and where he has grown up. Covered in dust in a corner we found a film reel. It was unwrapped, and it had no price on it. We held it to the light and realized it was a trailer for the movie Elizabethtown, which takes place and was shot in the town where my son was born. The strangeness of inexplicably finding it there was inspiring. We knew we could make something from it. I layered macro-photos of frames from the trailer over photographs of our current environs: our road, the hills, the windows of our house— and then layered micro-poems primarily about my son: his birth, his earliest years (we lived in Kentucky the first 18 months of his life). My hope was to get at something about time, memory, place, and loss. We lived on the eastern edge of the Central time zone, so we had to cross into Eastern time to get to the hospital: something I always found peculiar and a little disorienting. What time was my son born? How do places impact our sense of our own identities? Something about the layering of images with these ideas I felt helped me examine a complicated pursuit in a way that was more evocative and subtle than I was capable of through just text.
I was a total convert after that, particularly since place is so important to me in my work. The next thing I tried was about the experience of revisiting old haunts on Google Earth. There’s nothing like it to make one realize how limiting a virtual visit can be. I love these technologies, and having access to them is what makes so much of what I try to do possible, and yet, and yet— looking at an image of the street where I grew up does not feel like standing on the street where I grew up. A combination of media might get me closer to what fragments of memory actually feel like.
Often, a fleeting image or concept will pop into my head, and I’ll wonder: can I make that happen? The project Ozark Crows, which was excerpted here at Superstition Review, began with a single image in my mind, of two crows in the sky holding a ribbon of text between them in their beaks. The sky and trees around my home are filled with an extended family of crows, and I was already somewhat obsessed with them— their intelligence, their way of interacting with each other, ranging from the irritable to the tender. They interacted with us, too, leaving a piece of glass in the spot where we tossed out some stale cornbread, for instance. By then, I’d read so many books about crows that I was able to understand a lot of what I was observing, and this gave me so many ideas for the pieces in the book. It was incredibly difficult, and I don’t think I ever had more fun on a project. That Spuyten-Duyvil Press was able to make it into a book, and such a lovely one at that, is something I’ll always be so grateful for.
Because of my interest in place, most of the images I use are taken in places of personal significance, primarily where I live: the ground, water and sky where I’ve spent the last twenty years with my family, in the Ozark Mountains just outside Fayetteville. I think I’ve documented it to within a square inch of its life!
The project I’m currently finishing began the same way: with an image that appeared to me, and that I wondered if I could make. I love skeletonized, disintegrating leaves— I find them almost more beautiful than perfect, supple leaves. They themselves are like poems to me, a poignant memento mori. We are all trying to make something lasting and meaningful, something that can reach across time, and when I pick up a leaf with a beautiful pattern chewed into it by some infinitesimal worm, when I hold it to the sky and make a macro-photo of a tiny fragment of it, I feel like I’m participating in, acknowledging, a meaningful continuum. What if a fragment of a poem was visible through these holes? What if it was handwritten? Because I make things digitally, I want to mitigate the coldness of that form. I thought that the intimacy of the handwritten word— evidence of a human hand— coupled with the fact that the text in these pieces is so small that one has to lean in closely to glean even a fragment of meaning, I might succeed in making something that had a sense of warmth and life despite being created digitally. I am drawn to the idea that something as small as a hole in a leaf can contain a universe, or at least a poem. I’m also hopeful that, despite the crush of data we all experience, the isolation of the last year, the divisions and alienation, we can still reach other somehow.
All of this is not to say that I don’t also love writing. My newest collection, A Vertigo Book, is made entirely of words, and in fact, much of it was written during a period when taking photographs was difficult because I was suffering from a particularly terrible bout of vertigo. The words, the very shape of letters, felt like a way to hold onto the earth and keep it still, almost like bird feet clinging to a wire. And it’s probably no accident that, after months of looking up to photograph crows, the LEAF project requires me to, instead, keep my eyes on the ground.