Pine Row Issue No. 2 Autumn 2020 - Featured Poet
Brittle caragana, pruned out last spring
and blasted dry by winter's barren gales,
oldest center trunks of our oldest lilacs,
the whole thick top of an ash tree snapped
like a twig by a storm that uprooted cottonwoods
standing for a century, rotted fence posts, scraps
of two by four, plywood curling like the pages
of splintery books, all of it green and sap full
and fragrant and flowering once,
into the pile it goes:
cross-hatch of precarious balance
meant to channel the pure cold air
that feeds the flame.
Rumble of propane weed burner at the base,
a first crackle, like hard frost breaking,
and all at once the fire is a bright dress,
an unbearable heat, dragon roar
consuming the bones of summer
until they are ember, soft soot, ash
drifting down around us all,
pale as snow, dust that we are,
marking us as its own.
Interview with B.J. Buckley
by Andrew Hutto, Pine Row Editorial Board
In “Burn Pile,” there is a decision to taxonomize some of the natural images: “caragana”, “lilacs”, “cottonwoods”. Clearly, you appreciate the nuance of different shrubs, flowers, trees, and naming them gives the reader a clearer picture of what’s being described. How did you come to this practice?
I'm a native westerner, and even as a child spent as much time outdoors as in. Very early on I received several of the little Golden Field Guides, edited by Howard Zinn, as gifts, and used them to explore my yard first, then parks and other open spaces in town, then the prairie, forest, and mountain habitats around me as I grew older. I always wanted to know the names and histories of the living things around me. I still have them all, and still use them, even though I've progressed to more grown-up versions. I carry a box of various field guides in my car all the time.
Where do you find these observations in your day to day life?
I've lived in various different rural areas in Wyoming and Montana since I finished college -- a 25,00 acre cattle ranch in the Powder River country of Wyoming, the forested Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, MT, and currently about 30 miles west of Great Falls, MT, on Greenfields Bench in farming country -- grain, hay, legumes -- with the Rocky Mountain Front in clear view from my yard. I've lived mostly outside, both working and recreating, in some of the most beautiful country there is. It's important to know and understand the other living beings, plant and animal, we share space with, to know the weather and topography, the wind, to try to live in harmony with all of it. Not knowing can lead to causing unnecessary damage; not knowing can get you dead out here.
In its 22 lines, “Burn Pile” only contains two sentences. You have masterfully retained a type of syntax with well placed commas and the colon after “goes”. To that end, could you give some insight into how you work with form in your poems?
My first exposure to poetry in childhood was to formal, metrical, rhyming poems, read aloud to me at home and in school, and that music still informs my ear; so much of a poem's meaning is carried in the sounds and rhythms of its language, even when one is not writing in received forms. I also went to school during the heyday of diagramming sentences; for me it was like dismantling a clock to see all the different, intricate parts, and how they fit together to make something as marvelous as literature in all its permutations. Then one had to try and put it back together differently and see if it still worked! I love how much complexity can be contained in a single line or a single sentence.
How do you view form in relation to the content of the poem?
Many times I will hear a melodic cadence of sound in my head before the words of a poem come; other times, I will have a line or few sentences, and I read them aloud to myself over and over, to try and hear the kind of music they want to be. I write in received forms, I make up forms, I try newly invented forms, I listen for the particular phrasings in the way people speak. Lately, I've been working with prose poems, trying to make paragraphs with arbitrary line endings carry the kind of music formal poetry does.
"Burn Pile" began just as a list of all the accumulated materials around our place that needed to go into the pile, so that none were forgotten; and in the course of gathering and piling, I was thinking of the little histories they held, the transitions from living to dead, the transformation that fire works on wood. I love sonnets, not just as an exact rhyming, metrical form, but more for what they accomplish: the juxtapositions, contrasts, and tensions between elements, the turns. So when I eventually sat down to write, I started with the list and let the language of it carry me, with the idea that the finished poem would do what a sonnet does, minus the structures of rhyme and meter.
The closing lines of your poem contain a wonderful reimaging of the Biblical, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”. You write “dust that we are, / marking us as its own.” The marking in this passage stands out to me as crucial to the logic of the poem. How did this “marking” idea come to you, and how does it affect your understanding of the poem?
If a person lives in and interacts with the natural world on a daily basis, it marks you in many ways, some quite literal: you get scratched and torn and bruised and and punctured and sometimes have parts broken; you get sticky from sap, stung, bitten, itchy from chaff, muddy, dusty -- or sooty, covered with ash, from working the burn pile. For me, it also changes the way I see, move, think, and navigate both the external and my internal world. It forces me to look closely at how thin the line is between living and not, how easily that line is crossed, how nothing escapes it.
This past spring a poet friend invited me to join her practice of writing one poem a day for the 40 days of Lent,and I accepted. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, during which the faithful receive a mark of ash on their foreheads, from the burning of the previous Palm Sunday's palms, kept through the year. As I returned to my notebooks, looking for an appropriate way to begin, I came upon my list from the day we made the burn pile, and everything clicked. The natural world is my only church, and I endeavor to be both in that world and of it, to belong, at one with all of it, temporal, mortal, the same dust.
What does your writing practice look like?
I keep an ongoing stash of poetry notes, both written and voice-recorded: words, lines, ideas, sometimes as much as a stanza, newspaper headlines, anything that catches my attention. I've rarely had the luxury of daily uninterrupted writing time, so these accumulations are crucial when I do finally manage that. Lately, I've been returning to journal notes from my decades on the Wyoming ranch, and writing a series of prose poems from them, so part of my current practice is much more focused then it usually would be. I made a list of titles first, and am gradually working my way through them.
How does revision play into this process?
I work on a piece until it's as finished as I can get it; I mark any parts I'm not happy with; and then I put it aside for a time -- sometimes days, sometimes weeks or months -- and work on the next thing. I find that I can write first versions in the midst of some ongoing disruption of daily life, but that for effective revision, I need quiet and focus. I always begin revision by reading the poem aloud to myself repeatedly, and listening for any trips and stumbles, and I fix those first. I take out excess, and I check that each word serves what I'm trying to say. Then I spend a long time playing with the syntax -- sentence and line length, punctuation, phrasing. I've always thought of grammar and syntax as ways of translating the silence of words on a page to the nuanced sounds of a voice speaking in the reader's ear -- I want that urgent music. Sometimes I even get it.
How do you find time to write?
I think one really has to make time to write, somehow, or it won't happen. I'm not one of those people who has a set writing time every day. I've taught Poetry-in-Schools/Communities for more than 4 decades, which takes from the same pool of energy as writing; and I've often had part-time jobs between residencies, as well. So I have to make use of every opportunity, no matter how short. I keep a small notebook and my phone with me at all times, so I can snatch minutes here and there for notes; and I try for either a bit of mid-morning time or the last half hour before sleep a couple times a week to go over the notes, mark what looks promising, or begin a new poem. I've been lucky the past few years that two friends have made my Christmas gift a couple of weeks of "alone time" at their houses in Wyoming to do nothing but think and write. That's been priceless.
What writers have you been reading lately?
Olio and Leadbelly by Tyhimba Jess, An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, and I'm rereading all of Louise Gluck, always one of my favorite poets.
If you could give a young poet one bit of wisdom, what would it be?
Read everything you can get your hands on! Read diversely -- across cultures and across time. Young writers have a treasure house now that writers of my generation didn't have, because so much poetry is available without cost online. I would also say that even if money is tight, you should subscribe to at least one journal; if you are hoping to be published, you have to support the people who might accept your work. And don't just stick to poetry: read science and nature, read history, read memoir and biography, read trashy fiction! Every writer has something to teach you.
B. J. Buckley is a rural Montana poet/writer who has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities Programs for nearly five decades. She has new work in Whitefish Review, Sugar House Review, ellipsis, and Southern Humanities Review Online, where she won Honorable Mention for the Witness Prize. Her most recent book is Corvidae: Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, Lummox Press 2014.