Pine Row Issue No. 2 Autumn 2020 - Featured Poet
Swimming the Baptism RiverTettegouche State Park, Minnesota
Submerged to my shoulders in coffee brown water,
crayfish clawing at my ankles, the high metallic scrape
of their pincers heard above the river’s ragged surface
and vicarious danger that one of the kids
jumping from the cliff could hit the rocks.
I watch them, pretending not, feigning
the high bridge focal point as I tread water
beyond their orbit. It takes work
to swim against a channel that wants to sweep us all
into the cold, clear mouth of Lake Superior.
What if I call this an actual baptism?
Struggling to climb back onto the loose-stone beach.
Looking around while drying off, preparing to leave
in a light drizzle that dapples the lake and river
shines my shore-bound skin.
What She Wanted
When Aunt Beverly lost the ability
to light her own cigarette and later the awareness
of it not being lit as she inhaled then lifted
the Virginia Slim from her face, it was a gamble.
Whether she realized she was pantomiming
a smoke or if she believed she had already
ignited it on her own, there we were
trying to shove that lighter into her face.
As the cancer invaded her brain, she lost insight
into her own body’s shutting down,
insisting, even as I held the cigarette to her lips,
that she could walk on her own.
Traitor, she would say, if I didn’t agree
to help her drive away.
She wanted her dishes, wanted her house.
She wanted the homemade bread long after
the loaf had been eaten. She railed
against thieves each time a smell of toast
drifted from the dining hall.
When she came to believe she had already died
and was now transparent, she ordered
me to watch as she sipped her chocolate milk.
Her eyes barbed fury as she waited for my reaction.
Didn’t you see it go down?
Friends and family exchanged notes in a book
left on her table: In quite a mood tonight, and
She thinks bad men are watching from the corner.
No one wrote about the uneasy quiet
as our last visits moved
from the smoky lounge to her room.
None of us mentioned Beverly’s placid face
demanding nothing at all.
Interview with Micki Blenkush
by Amanda Little Rose, Pine Row Editorial Board
Please guide us through your writing process. How do your poems develop? What is the most challenging part of your process?
Most of my poems begin with a lingering sense of experience or a word or phrase that “floats up” and persists like a hum in the background. My usual process is to free write on sheets of scratch paper and then go through and circle or highlight those sheets for anything interesting. I then keep those pages in manila folders named such things as “tiny bits” and “drafty thoughts.” Sometimes there is enough energy in this material to begin a poem right away, but often there is much sifting and sorting and waiting for things to come together. Sometimes I work from prompts, but I find the most satisfying results from my slow rolling collage-like approach.
Do you show your work in progress to anyone? Why or why not?
I do have several poet friends with whom I exchange poems regularly, as well as a local in-person (currently Zoom) group that meets monthly. I find it helpful to get outside perspectives, but only after I’ve worked on the poem for a while. I always listen for what the poem wants to be above all. At times, especially in a larger group, feedback becomes a process of elimination: Nope... Nope… and Nope… Sometimes, it feels necessary to put a poem through that to recognize how it needs to stay as it is.
What inspired you to write “Swimming the Baptism River”? What about “What She Wanted”?
Both came from life experiences that I seemed to need to work through via writing. “Swimming the Baptism River” was written soon after that swim and drafted while still on vacation. “What She Wanted” did not fully come together until years after my aunt passed away.
Do you believe in writer's block? Why or why not?
I do have times when I feel less than satisfied (or downright horrified) with how the words resist hanging together poetically. I’ve come to regard these times as fallow, as necessary rest for future work and growth. At the same time and as is the case for many creative folks, I become rather irritable if I don’t at least tinker with writing consistently. During times of feeling less inspired I work more on editing, or keep the free writing going, feeling that I can at least continue to gather raw material or keep things from getting clogged or rusted. I avoid using the term writer’s block because it is so limiting. I prefer to think in terms of flowing to less flowing, moreso on a continuum.
Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write and publish poetry?
The good news about poetry is that unless you’re unusually optimistic, you have probably already realized that it’s not something to get into for the money. Therefore, you’re already doing it because it satisfies you in some way. Writing for the love of it or simply because you must, or you may go mad, are the very best reasons to continue. Seeking publication can be time-consuming but is rewarding. Do spend a little time reviewing journals to look for the best fit. If you believe in a poem, keep sending it out.
How important is the accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to understand a poem?
I’m more of a narrative poet and will look for threads of narrative in any work to ground me. At the same time, I’m very much a fan of poets whose creative work requires a little more effort to connect the juxtapositions and complexities. I feel like there is room for a range of accessibility and varied style and approach, just as I appreciate a range of musical styles.
Who are your favorite poets, dead or alive?
So many that it’s difficult to name, but those who come to mind first are Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Sharon Olds.
Is there an author or poet whose work you are reading right now?
I’m re-reading Electric Arches, by Eve L Ewing, for a poetry book club and loving it all the more the second time around.
Micki Blenkush is the author of Now We Will Speak in Flowers published by Blue Light Press. She was selected as a 2017-2018 fellow in poetry for the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program and is a 2015 & 2019 recipient of grants awarded through the Central MN Arts Board, funded through the McKnight Foundation. Micki’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including: Typishly, Cagibi, and Crab Creek Review. She lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota and works as a social worker. mickiblenkush.com