Summer of the Bicentennial— shiny new quarters,
diesel fumes and Swisher Sweets, Daddy's hand
on the tall gear shift of his snub-nosed Freightliner,
weeks on the road with nothing but the radio,
his coming home a ritual of air horn and hissing brakes.
One weekend he taught us the ways of the river,
how to force up the dead with the cast of a grappling hook
and a pair of muscled arms. Night's I dreamed
that the great blue heron folded her wings and entered
the water like a stone, like the woman who jumped
from the bridge a mile upriver— her blue dress surfacing
the same shade as our mother's, the river mending the hole
they made, water glinting like the surface of a coin,
air shimmering with dragonflies and Daddy's thin blue smoke.
On The Great Plains' Eastern Edge
People here don't dream of falling, but the opposite
of falling— of drying up and being blown
across the far-flung horizon during months of drought
when topsoil embeds itself in every surface—
sheets hung on the line to dry, shut eyelids,
hair up in a braid, firmly clamped lips—
when even good roots can't hold and there's no water
left in the well to wash it all clean. Every year
when the twisters come there's a new story
about your grandmother's neighbor pulled from sleep
and shaken like a tablecloth before being dropped
in the family plot to rest beside her husband,
dead these twenty years, or the minister and his wife plucked
from the closet where they huddled clutching the Bible
and each other and set down without a scratch
in the yard, not even a ripped page to show for it.
When the rains do come, by God's own grace
and after a dozen farmers are dead from self-inflicted
gunshot wounds or a noose swung over the hayloft's beam,
those who remain dream of the swelling up, the washing
away and slow drowning— a different kind of falling.
Our bloated bodies come to rest in the muck
of gray-green lakes. The silt makes room,
shifts in the gloom and the bluegills come, curious,
the pike, resilient, to nibble at cotton fibers,
spitting out buttons and clasp to get at the heavy, rotting flesh.
Lover, Say Prairie
Say prairie and mean an underground sea
watering the roots of tall grasses that sway
like the thin bodies of girls dressed in sackcloth.
Mean the sharp angles of sodbusting plows
that mirror the men who guide them, whittled down
by work, weather, and wind, men down to sinew
and sweat, down to the stunning silence.
Say prairie and mean the song of the canary,
caged to accompany the lone woman
in her house made of dirt and sod, the one
window, a warped portal looking out on the flat
horizon, miles and miles until the sky weds the land,
a hazy, indistinct joining, the way their two bodies
meet under a quilt in the insect-loud night.
-from Blood Almanac
BIO: Sandy Longhorn was born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1971 and received her BA in English from the College of St. Benedict (MN) in 1993. In 2003 she received an MFA from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Her first book, Blood Almanac won the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Connecticut Review, Free Verse, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Midwest Quarterly, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches at Pulaski Technical College and lives in Little Rock, AR.
Whispering, mystery, and the land: an Interview with Sandy Longhorn by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: What I probably most like about your poems is how they almost seem to tell their story with a whisper. Looking at the first lines of “1976,” we immediately notice the repetition of long s and vowel sounds, particularly in moments like “summer of the Bicentennial”, “diesel fumes and Swisher Sweets,” and “on the tall gear shaft of his sub-nosed Freightliner.”
Is music/sound a way in which you attempt to “instruct” or guide the reader’s reading of this poem? A way of giving the poem another layer of sensation and possible interpretation?
Sandy Longhorn: I’m fascinated by the interpretation of my poems “whispering.” I like it. I’m certainly not one to jump up and down and draw attention to myself, unless among close, close friends, so I think it fits that my poems should be quiet as well.
I do think that music/sound is the poet’s fundamental tool, although I hesitate at the word “instruct.” The sounds should guide the reader, as you say. I use sound to pace the poem, and I read everything out loud over and over as I’m drafting, revising, and polishing (three distinct phases for me). Oh, and yes, the sounds should add depth and intricacy to the poems.
AMK: You play with the sonnet form a number of times in this book. Both “1976” and “Lover Say Prairie” are poems of 14 lines that live within the framework of iambic pentameter. While these are both very musical sonnets, the eschew end rhymes, which are expected of a traditional sonnet.
I’m wondering what draws you to this form and why is you’ve interpreted it this way.
SL: I have to admit that this question surprised me. I am someone who struggles with formal poems. In reality, formal work intimidates me a bit. I have a tin ear for scansion, which I speculate could be because I come from a region with a relatively flat accent (northeastern Iowa) and I have zero sense of musical rhythm. (I almost failed music class in the fourth grade because I couldn’t clap to the beat!)
I wasn’t thinking of the sonnet when I wrote either of these poems. I guess they could be considered “accidental” sonnets. At the time these were written, I was in grad school, going through workshops and form & theory classes, and it seems to me that what I was studying in form & theory must have leaked into the writing a bit.
AMK: How have you interpreted the volta in these sonnets— a turn in the poem that typically occurs between the 6th and 8th lines?
SL: While I wasn’t thinking of the sonnet in the poems, I do often try to incorporate “a turn” of the volta’s nature in many of my poems. I love how when drafting poems they often begin going in one direction and through the process of writing I discover something new along the way, “turning” the poem.
AMK: Reading “Lover, Say Prairie,” I just can’t get enough of it. And while I know I’m moved by its music and images, I think that what really draws me to it is how it pleads with this “lover” that he/she commune with the speaker’s sudden moments of surrealism.
I’m thinking of the “underground sea,” the metaphor of “grasses…like…girls dresses in sackcloth,” and “say prairie and mean the song of the canary.”
First, would you agree that these moves are surreal?
SL: Thanks for picking this poem and for the kind words about it. It’s on my list of favorites from my first book, "Blood Almanac," and I haven’t gotten to talk about it much. I’m not sure about the label “surreal,” but one of my goals is to transform the Midwestern experience (where I grew up) into something as magical and mysterious as the Southern experience (where I’m living now). I purposefully take what might seem mundane (the flat & boring middle country) and try to show it to the reader as I see it (complex & dense with interest).
AMK: Do you mind discussing how you came to lines like “Say prairie and mean the song of the canary”? “A hazy, indistinct joining, the way their two bodies / meet under a quilt in the insect-loud night.”
Do these lines come easily to you or is this poem the result of draft after draft?
SL: Many of the images in this poem derive from my reading about the settlement of the American prairies. The canary line came about because in my reading I discovered that many women arrived on the prairie newly married. Because homesteads were so far apart, there wasn’t much socializing. They often brought a canary to provide song/companionship. The lines about sex have to do with the rural Midwestern sense of modesty. My people were generally closed-up and inhibited. Sex wasn’t discussed; passion wasn’t expressed. The second stanza attempts to delve into the bewilderment, loneliness, and somewhat forced silence of the women I come from.
Some of the lines, especially the ones with the strongest sense of sound (i.e. the vowel sounds of “prairie” and “canary”), come easily, but most of the lines are reworked several times in subsequent drafts. As you can see in this poem, I can become a bit addicted to repeated sounds.
AMK: When do you know you’ve written the last line of a poem? When did you know these poems were finished?
SL: I’m still searching for the answer to this question. I struggle with each poem to understand its organic structure. This is one of the drawbacks to not working in form. At least there, you often know how many lines the poem will have. I rely on two close poet-friends to help with revisions. We exchange poems and provide comments for each other. Often, I send poems that feel the least sense of closure and use their guidance to determine the next step. What does Roethke say? “I learn by going where I have to go.” It’s a constant process of writing and rewriting until I get that contented feeling in the pit of me that says, yes, that’s it. As for these poems, “1976” had the clearest sense of structure during the initial drafting. The other two required many, many drafts before I felt the structure was complete.
AMK: “On The Great Plains’ Eastern Edge ” is a poem that touches not only on the study of the speaker’s local landscape but that makes use of the nightmarish dreams of those who exist within it as a buffer between story and narrative— if we can agree for the moment that narrative being the poet’s setting down of the poem on the page and story being that which is going on within the poem. The result is a poem that tells two stories: the stories of the landscape and the stories of the people who are lifted up (or are let down) by it.
I’m wondering just how aware you were of this duality as you wrote the poem.
SL: This duality that you are pointing out is the crux of the book and much of my current writing as well. I am descended from farmers; however, both of my parents were the first in their families to leave the land. I’ve always been stretched between the two: country/city. Also, when I was in grad school in Arkansas, I began to understand regionalism, first and foremost by being taught by Southern writers. I saw how the people of the South are informed by the history of the land, and I began to look at my somewhat boring “homeland” and try to dig deeper into its mysteries. I wanted to understand why I whispered, to go back to your earlier question. In the end, the poem is about the fact that where I come from whole communities depend on the land and the weather, and both often seem to swing to the extremes, when what is needed for success is moderation…just enough wind, just enough rain, just enough sun. Farming, in a sense taming the prairie, is a battle for control over the chaos of the land and the weather, and I’m coming to believe that fighting that fight results in the stern, somewhat repressed, people I call family.
AMK: This is also a poem that starts off as a narrative of drought and tornado. But, as the poem proceeds, it turns to more the lyrical gestures of the “bloated bodies…/ of gray-green lakes,” the “silt [making] room,” and ends in that imagined moment of the hungry pike and blue gill.
I’m not sure that any good poem can only be lyrical or can only be narrative. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that a narrative poem, must also be lyrical. I’m not sure a lyrical poem needs a narrative.
How would you define lyricism and how important do you think it is to a poetry in general?
SL: For me, lyricism is a focus on the compressed and concise image. It is building the poem through a series of images rather than through character & action. When pushed, I classify myself as a predominantly lyric poet. I was drawn to poetry because of the power of imagery. Having failed at drawing & painting, I found I could form the images swirling around in my imagination with words with much better results. I struggle to write straight-up narrative poems, which always feel a bit clunky to me. However, I really love to read narrative poems that are written well. I think that lyricism is crucial to poetry, at least to my taste.
AMK: Thank you so much.
SL: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for your insightful questions and close readings of the poems.