Sandy Longhorn Interview, with Nicelle Davis
Your poems are brilliant explorations of “being human” in light of animal impulses. In what ways does poetry as an artistic form embody the subject matter of your poems?
Thanks so much for taking an interest in my work and asking such insightful questions.
It’s hard to know how much of my affinity for poetry comes from a natural predisposition and how much comes from having read and read and read a lot of poems. Regardless, I know this: I am attuned to line breaks and sound play, to white space and enjambment, to typography and breath. Poetry is an aural art and that may connect it more to the body, more to those “animal impulses” than prose. Prose is a much more difficult medium for me to handle; it is so sprawling and crowded at the same time. I find myself wandering and getting a bit lost when constructing prose sentences.
My subject matter leans toward the natural world, as you’ve observed, and the ways we as humans interact with our environments. The concision of poetry brings a focus to that subject matter for me that I haven’t found when trying to write essays or stories.
Your poems beautifully incorporate nature in a way that is never cliché or sentimental. What advice would you give a young poet who wants to write ecological poems?
Thank you, again. The cliché and the sentimental are my biggest fears. During revision, I comb through each poem searching for any slips in those directions and excise them as quickly as I can. Identifying these has taken years of regular practice and years of listening (openly) to feedback from writers I trust. It’s good to defend your work and stand behind it; however, the eye and the ear need to be trained, so the beginning writer needs to be ready to learn from constructive criticism as well.
If a young poet wants to write ecological poems, I suggest cultivating a stance of observation. Be aware of the senses. Take note of what the wind feels like on the skin, of how the grass smells after being cut, of which hum & buzz belongs to which insect and where that insect hides. You have to build an arsenal of sensations based on your experiences with the world. For example, in “Lament at the End of a Long Convalescence” I write about an urban coyote. At the time I drafted this poem I was recovering from a back injury and I read a report in the local paper about the proliferation of coyotes in our urban neighborhood. This matched information from other folks in town and my own sighting of what I thought was a coyote, but I couldn’t quite believe it until the article confirmed it. “Vespula Cures” is a poem again about my back injury and a memory of a friend with MS who investigated alternative treatments involving wasp venom. Add to that my visits to several beehives belonging to a few close friends and the poem was born. Finally, “The Nature of Conflict” draws on observations about farming from my youth. By observing closely and absorbing the natural world, the writer then has a wealth of information to filter into poems.
In your poem “Lament at the End of a Long Convalescence” you write: “This coyote and I stow our valuables / in dark dens and retreat carrying the taste / of blood on savage tongues—iron and salt.” I find this comparison of you and the coyote to be perfectly woven; how do you strike such a balance of magical realism and realism?
Oh my! I’m not sure you can fully appreciate how ecstatic I was when I read this question. When I was in graduate school, someone challenged the idea that Midwestern literature had much magical realism in it. That’s been over a decade ago, but I still feel the sting of it, given that I identify as Midwestern (although I now live in the South) and love magical realism. In time, I found that my voice does indeed reach for the mystery of it quite naturally. I’m thrilled that you see it in my work.
I’m not sure I consciously attempt to strike a balance between magical realism and realism in my work. Again, it seems to be a natural tendency. The gift of magical realism is that often the truth of being human is better told through the heightened metaphor available in this form. I suppose it follows Emily Dickinson’s advice to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” or Picasso’s adage about art lying its way to the truth. To return to the previous question, feedback from trusted readers lets me know if a poem has become unbalanced, if the elements of fantasy are too confusing because they are not grounded in reality.
What new poetry projects are you working on?
I’ve just completed a chapbook manuscript of Midwestern fairy tales. These poems are not retellings of the traditional Western fairy tales that many of us grew up watching via Disney movies. Instead, I’ve created fairy tales that reflect the reality of my coming of age in the Midwest during a farm crisis.
Since finishing the fairy tales, I’ve moved on and seem to be obsessed with writing poems about a speaker in fragile health who is reaching out for comfort and for healing.
What are you reading now? What role does reading play in your life as a writer?
I firmly believe that reading poetry makes one a better poet. While I enjoy reading fiction and non-fiction as well, I have a limited amount of time given work and family responsibilities. I choose to read poetry for the most part. I also choose to read very recent books, those published in the last ten years or so, rather than the classics. This may be a taste issue; it may be due to the fact that most of the classics were written by white men (usually privileged) with whom I have very little in common; and it may be considered a “mistake” by some, but it works for me.
I’m currently re-reading Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which is one of my all time favorites. Other recent favorites include Traci Brimhall’s Rookery, Jeannine Hall Gailey’s She Returns to the Floating World, Matthew Nienow’s The End of the Folded Map, Alison Stine’s Wait, and Mary Biddinger’s Saint Monica.
Lament at the End of a Long Convalescence
The coyote that slinks through our alley each night
has forsaken the stars for a skyline perpetually lit,
night vision no longer a necessity.
This coyote and I stow our valuables
in dark dens and retreat carrying the taste
of blood on savage tongues—iron and salt.
As in a refrain we hum. As in thirst.
As in what the body considers necessary.
A torn muscle cannot be set like a bone.
This coyote hobbles and favors its hip, mirror
to my hip, my hobble. We scuff the ground
together in search of a tender country
that might offer us a place to rest.
Our hearts pitch and pinch with each pulse.
In alley gravel, shards of glass expose rough facets
to the streetlamp—not drops of dew lit through
by a full moon—but we extend our hinged tongues
and try to taste them anyway. The singe
of lacerated tissue shocks the muscle pain,
subdues it to a dull, pathetic static.
The yellowjacket grasps the flowerhead;
nectar-stirred & pollen-covered
the return flight no longer a light
bob and weave.
All is burden heavy.
What complicates the story
is the threat that aches
in our own bodies.
When our muscles refuse, we borrow
the potent stinger,
lance-like & barbed.
Old wives and snake oil salesmen agree.
They give the capture nets away
and sell the secret for a hefty fee,
how to place the wasp inside a glass,
trap her against warm skin until she fights & froths
and finally stings.
We count our debts in red mounds that rise
around the wounds;
we feel the venom
trace through blood.
When it enters our hearts we swoon,
trusting that when we come to, the pain will cease
and our bodies will move again with ease.
The Nature of Conflict
Once, in a fatherless past,
she ran, leaping
toward the sheep asleep
in the fold.
The goal was always to be held
loosely by a clean nest of straw
and woolly necks,
not by a clamping set
of hot-flannelled arms.
The trouble was always
in the mother-body,
her smothering attempts to prevent
any future sprinting,
her holding tight
until the bright explosions
behind closed eyes
created their own surge
in what was once,
at heart, docile.