Pine Row Issue No. 1 Spring 2020 - Featured Poet
selection from: ode to a strange earth / she is every wildflower I will never pick
she never put much stock in fears,
but she always sat with me when
my own nervous heart betrayed me
still & unapologetically warm, like a sliver of
sunlight through the curtains, she sat with me
until my heart was calm, until my
fears were finally still,
& then: her hands would move with a frenetic
energy, like an orchestrator of the universe
politely asking the atoms to bounce this way & that.
she would gather scraps of paper & crumpled
receipts & tell me to: write my worries down
& when i was finished, she would fold them
into paper airplanes & origami swans.
& every time i laughed & asked her:
why paper airplanes & origami swans?
& every time she would smile & say:
this way, they’ll never land.
Interview with Ashley Cline
by Mawi Sonna, Pine Row Editorial Board
What drew you to poetry?
By nature, I tend towards introversion. Yes, I will be the only one in a crowded venue belting “Run Away With Me” when it comes on the band’s pre-set playlist but, nines times out of ten, I’ll be the quiet one in the corner. There are just so many worlds that I’ll never inhabit in my existence, so I like to listen and observe and learn as much as I can.
So, while I never really meant to start writing poetry in the beginning, it does seem like a natural place for me to end. I love that poetry gives me the opportunity to use the lowercase “i” when speaking about myself; or that in poetry, I can pair words together that, anywhere else, would be read as absurd (“grinning Chernobyl wolf,” “coyotes caught in mid-bloom,” “helium nectarine / & buttercup adjective,” for example)!
There’s an honesty and charm to it, and a duality that I find very appealing. It’s a freedom of form: it’s knowing the rules of language and then flouting them entirely. It’s what’s being said vs. what isn’t, and feeling the difference. It’s a flux and flow between meaning and emotion, and knowing their pulls.
People are endlessly messy and kind and confounding; we have our sharp angles and fragile hearts and tender egos, and, to me, that is poetry: it’s both a snapshot and the condition of being human, and there’s so much to learn from that and all their simple and small truths!
Do you have a specific style or aesthetic?
When it comes to poetry, I’m not certain that I have a specific style or aesthetic—or maybe I do and I’m just too close to see it!—but I have been going through a prolonged obsession with space, actually. Quite(!) a few pieces orbit Saturn or black holes or the theory of unitarity, for example, so space often has this habit of sneaking up in my poems. But I’m also an absolute sucker for nature in general: the gentle hands of a honey bee, the way the rain sounds when it overflows the gutters. Nothing is too small or boring or ordinary! And as a result, a lot of what I write—or, at least, have been writing lately—finds itself bookended between these two extremes in a way. One on hand, you’ve the vastness of space and the unknown, and then on the other, you’ve the familiar, the grounded, and the simple: the casual urgency of the every day.
And currently: I’m going through what I’m calling my “feral phase.” Every so often, my brain grows quite attached to a word—in meaning and sound and imagery—and, right now, I simply adore “feral.”
But when it comes to the form or the style or the shape of a poem though, that might be the one thing in this life that I don’t overthink!
What inspired the poem “ode to a strange earth, section iv”?
What started as a very late-night phone memo kind of morphed into this poem, and I can’t think of a single thing that prompted the first line to pop into my head, other than the fact that it was well into the early morning and I should have been asleep. I think most of my pieces start in lieu of sleeping actually—the curse and, perhaps, gift of having a wretched little thing of a sleep schedule!
But, tracing this particular poem back, the earliest version of it—that phone memo and then the first draft I wrote when my mind still wouldn’t let it go for the night!—has roots in 2012. And it started as this kind of monologue in my head. As silly as it might sound, it came together in my mind much like a music video or a short film with a voiceover. The images were there, the story was there, the shape of it was there and then, all I had to do, was physically write it down.
I know, I know! That makes writing sound almost-laughably easy, which it can be. It can be easy at times, of course, but perhaps more often than not it’s work, a labor of love, of sorts: the draft, the rework, the hating it because you’ve read it over and over and over again and now you’re not even sure if what you’ve written down are actual, real words!
And “ode” has gone through some reworks over the years: I’ve reformatted it into its current sections, I’ve adjusted punctuation and stylization, I’ve cut the original last paragraph (though maintained the original final line in the new, and current, title). But the imagery always stayed the same.
I just wanted to tell a short story of love and loss. I wanted to convey that kind of dull ache I think we can all feel in our chest at times, you know? That kind of quiet acceptance of heartbreak. There’s no anger or malice—because why should there be?—just this gentle understanding that there are beginnings and ends. Because I think there is a beauty in that kind of tender space between extremes, and navigating the nuances of the in-between is something I find myself thinking about quiet often, actually. And something I think poetry quite excels at exploring.
There’s a lovely sense of energy and movement in this piece. Were there places in the poem you, as the poet, had a sense of control? On the other hand, were there places you found that the poem surprised you?
Oh, thank you! This poem truly was a rare moment of clarity: one where I knew the beginning and the middle and the end as I was writing it, and I knew what kind of notes I wanted to hit and where. The most surprising place that this poem has taken me, actually, exists outside of the words themselves.
When I first jotted it down, no one really knew that I wrote anything at all. I had earned a degree in journalism, so people knew that I wrote, of course! But I’m not sure that I had really told anyone that I wrote poetry at that point; I almost-hoarded everything I wrote that wasn’t for a paper or on a deadline!
And since then, it’s certainly been an exercise in honesty and sharing and looking both inside and out—and a lot of writing and reading and finding community—but “ode” was the first poem that really made me think: maybe this doesn’t have to be something I keep to myself. And for that, I’m forever grateful to this little poem.
What is your writing process like in terms of drafting and drawing inspiration?
My writing process can be fickle at times, because I have to write linearly. If I don’t have that opening line—even if I know the ending or title or shape of the poem—I can’t move forward. And that can be frustrating at times! But, perhaps in an attempt at balance, by time I’m sitting down to actually write a piece, it’s typically been rattling around in my head for some time now: I’ve taken to calling that mental clatter my first draft.
As far as inspiration: to say that I’m inspired by everything seems a bit cliché and idealistic, doesn’t it? You know, the romanticized picture of writing or that classic muse trope, it can all grow a bit tired when you’ve been working on the same poem—the same hundred words or so—for three weeks and still can’t seem to crack the code of it! But, if I step back and think about it, I am influenced and inspired by my favorite poets and writers as much as I am by Twitter or pop music or my dog’s endless love.
Whether for better or worse, I am endlessly Very Online. More than once, a tweet or a headline I saw while scrolling Twitter much-too-late at night have inspired whole poems. (And my thanks to astrophysicist/cosmologist Katie Mack and astronomer/author Phil Plait: two of my favorite poems* that I’ve managed to hammer out were a direct result of their tweets and genuine enthusiasm for science!)
I’m also tragically non-musical, but simply adore music. And in an attempt to bridge that divide, I’m constantly listening to, thinking about or writing about music. It’s a near-obsession, to be honest! So much so that I’ve given countless TED-esque Talks to people: once, I spoke at length to a man at a bar—who was polite about it, but clearly did not want to be involved in the conversation anymore—about the importance of pop music. Another time, I created an entire five-week college course around the concept that “Carly Rae Jepsen deserves your attention, and you deserve to be happy.” The most absurd plot twist in my life, thus far, is that an actual university let me teach a course about pop music, one of the truest loves of my life!
But music doesn’t just anchor me in this world, it anchors my poetry as well; whether it’s a lyric that sparks the idea of a poem, or just a song that informs the whole of it. For example, I just wrote a poem called “knuckle teeth, with lines from Carly Rae Jepsen.” Another poem was “in conversation” with “Graceless” by The National; and the poem “the things we borrow”** was written with Scottish indie band, Frightened Rabbit, lyrics in mind: “So you just stepped out / Of the front of my house / And I'll never see you again / I closed my eyes for a second / And when they opened / You weren't there” and “I have fallen in the forest / Did you hear me?”
In a way, creating any kind of art is just rearranging the familiar—it’s borrowing and building and honoring and reimagining and dressing up or dressing down—and I think that’s one of my favorite parts of writing, actually: that gathering of small pieces and then, in the words of Scott Hutchison: “making tiny changes to the earth.”
*“picture Saturn’s rings” and “standing at the base of a martian cliff in spring, or how i learned to dance in mosh pits,” respectively.
**“the things we borrow” was also written in the weeks following Scott Hutchison’s death, and includes the phrase: “I’m away now. Thanks.” On May 8, 2018, Hutchison, vocalist for Frightened Rabbit, tweeted those four words out to the world. He was reported missing on May 9, and found the following day on the banks of the Firth of Forth. And, in one of those small, cosmic full-circle moments, “the things we borrow” has recently found a home at 404 Ink, a Scotland-based magazine. It’s a homecoming of sorts that still makes me genuinely smile when I think about it.
Were there any writers and poets in mind that have influenced your work? If so, who are they and why?
It’d be impossible to begin this answer without mentioning Bukowski because he was the first poet I read that wasn’t simply the Frost and Shakespeare and Poe I was taught in school. And his free verse-style showed me that poetry could kind of break all the rules of meter and rhyme and everything else that I had come to know as poetry. It was a very liberating moment! One that stripped the veneer away from poetry, and made it a much more urgent and visceral thing, you know?
But these days, my favorite writers and poets create a bit more gently—though they maintain that urgency that pulls at your chest—and include: Hanif Abdurraqib, Kate Tempest, Sarah Kay, Jonny Sun and Rebecca Solnit.
Abdurraqib and Kay have this immeasurable beauty with words, and Tempest immerses the reader—or listener, she’s also a fierce musician—with such ease, that she makes my heart ache for places that I’ve never been! And Sun speaks so effortlessly of such eternal and deep truths, that you almost feel silly that you didn’t think of them yourself! And the latter is less poet—in the literal sense of the word, that is—and more essayist, but Solnit has this ability to write in a way that forces you to slow down. Her words: an invitation to spend more time with them, and the craftsmanship is just lovely!
I honestly consider myself quite lucky whenever I get the chance to read their works.
What advice or the best advice you’ve been given on how to craft a poem? Are there any rituals to starting a poem?
I’ve loved Ray Bradbury since I first read “Fahrenheit 451” in high school, so when I saw a copy of his “Zen and the Art of Writing” in a used book store, I purchased it immediately! And nestled in the back of that collection is a poem he wrote: “Go Panther-Pawed Where All the Mined Truths Sleep.” I think of that phrase quite often, to be honest.
But, generally, I tend to think of writing advice as nutrition facts: it’s nice knowing them, but they don’t drastically affect my life.
And I don’t say that because I think I know more than anyone else—quite the contrary! I’m often amazed at how much I don’t know! But, for me, writing is this thing that’s so inherently personal that any advice on the matter reads like someone telling me how best to treat a toothache, when I know it’s my stomach that hurts.
Of course, there is a lot to be said about persistence and practice and work ethic and patience, and how you can’t edit a draft that doesn’t exist, so just start writing! Even if you think it’s rubbish! But for me, the crux of writing comes down to being vulnerable and being honest—even if what you’re writing is fiction, there’s still an honesty to those characters and vulnerability in the emotions that you’re creating and conveying. Embrace them, and embrace that fear or trepidation of being seen or known differently or, in a way, intimately.
As far as rituals to starting a poem: I need that opening line. Even if, in the eventual writing of it all, that line winds up being the end—or maybe even the title!—I still need one, very solid line that I can’t seem to shake. I’m so far from the disciplined writer who sits down at a desk every morning and writes! I’m much more the slightly over-caffeinated writer in the corner of the coffee shop with her ear buds in and music on, or the should-be-sleeping poet sitting cross-legged on the bed at 3 a.m. with the laptop on her lap and the dog snoring a few feet away.
In my experience, writing is really just finding what works best for you, and then holding on: earnestly.
An avid introvert and full-time carbon-based life-form, Ashley Cline crash landed in south Jersey twenty-eight years ago and still calls that strange land home. Most often found listening to Carly Rae Jepsen, her essays on music and feelings have been published by Sound Bites Media; her poetry has appeared in 404 Ink [Issues 5-6, Space and Earth], Third Point Press, and Francis House. She graduated from Rowan University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, and her best at all-you-can-eat sushi is 5 rolls in 11 minutes.