A Talk with The Weight of Ashes Author, Zachary Steele

DM: The beginning and the ending! My God! How long did you work on those sections? Did you outline? Do you write scenes first? What’s your process?

ZS: In many ways, this book was a gift to me. I’ve never had to work so little on a story or so hard to write one. The opening page was the first thing I wrote and sat in a file for a year while I finished another manuscript. It was so good, so perfect, I knew I had the voice and tone in place. The ending went through a few revisions, but the idea of a found family was there all along. I’m a notorious “edit as I go” writer and want to have the best version I can produce done before I move on. It may slow things down, but it helps me ensure good pacing and plot so subsequent edits aren’t as painful.

DM: Did you find it difficult to write from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old?

ZS: Not at all! I’m a child at heart. I find comfort writing from the vantage of the boy who I was. In the end, though, every writer needs to dig deep into the perspective of their characters, no matter the age. A character isn’t alive until you can feel what they feel.

DM: The structure was brilliantly done, and the pacing was spot on—short chapters designed to keep the reading saying to themselves, “Okay, just one more chapter.” How hard was it to maintain this sort of pacing?

ZS: Given that I wanted this book to appeal to teens—to give them a story of grief to potentially help them understand their own—the chapters needed to be short. Too much meandering in the story or in Mark’s head and memories and younger readers would let it go. But I do enjoy encouraging readers of all ages to read on by keeping the pacing swift!

DM: Talk to me about how important music was to The Weight of Ashes. I know you created a playlist (by the way, I’m stealing this idea from you for my novel). Also, where can readers access it?

ZS: Oh, music is vital to me. It awakens my creative spirit. Every story I write begins with a song. For this one, it was Like a Prayer. Scenes evolve out of the music I select. So, it just seemed like a cool idea to create a soundtrack for readers to see what inspired me. The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack can be found on Spotify, through my profile or listen to Steele’s Spotify Playlist: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

DM: Did you read many YA books before writing The Weight of Ashes? If so, what are some examples? Any specific books, movies, TV shows that inspired this book?

ZS: I read anything and everything I can. One of the unfortunate side effects of founding and running a writing organization is that most of my reading is selected for me. Work of speakers, members, Broadleaf board members, etc. I’d say elements of King’s The Body and Pet Sematary definitely inspired the story. It’s hard to miss those. But everything from Harry Potter to Stranger Things to any friendship adventure I’ve read or seen influences me in my writing.

DM: The Weight of Ashes is a work of fiction, but you mentioned the story was inspired by personal events. Do you think you worked through the trauma by writing this book? Or did you stir it up and maybe make it worse for a time? What would you advise to other authors attempting to write about traumatic events?

ZS: Halfway through this book, my 13-year cat companion Maggie died of cancer. Came out of nowhere and it hit me hard. She and I had been through a lot of life and trials together and it made going back to Mark’s journey that much more difficult. And important. But writing helped me process that grief, as well as the lingering grief I’d carried through my life over so many other losses. The only real advice I can offer to anyone attempting to write about traumatic events is to find a quiet place to let it out. Let it happen. Feel everything you’ve been holding back. We repress so much just to endure pain and come out whole. You have to say it. Make it real. It’s the only way to heal.

DM: I mentioned in my review that there was a speculative fiction element to The Weight of Ashes. I loved that aspect! It teetered to the point I wondered how it would end. Will you talk about genre-bending with this novel?

ZS: One of the more important things a writer must do is filter the reader’s knowledge through the eyes of the characters the story is told by. I wanted to make sure the reader only knew what Mark knew. He believes his brother can be resurrected. He believes the witch will do it. His friends are skeptical. The reader has to decide for themselves and I wanted that to be a difficult choice.

DM: What is Zachary Steele getting into next?

ZS: I’ve been working on a young adult fantasy series for some time. The Fallen Hero is the first book in that series and will have a home soon (I’ll definitely announce it!). It’s about a young boy who discovers the world of his favorite fantasy series is real and in need of a hero to save it from a rising darkness. We all want to be the hero of our favorite books.

DM: I so appreciate your time answering all my questions and I really enjoyed The Weight of Ashes. I wish you much success with your novel. Also, thanks for all the work you do encouraging us writers, helping us network, and giving us recourses to become better at our craft. You have a place in writer heaven.

ZS: Thank you so much! I have always believed that writers have to stick together, to support one another. We write alone, live in our heads, and create worlds as a means to escape our own. We absolutely need a community to help us stay rooted in our lives.

TO PREORDER: The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele is available from the following Atlanta-based bookstores: A Cappella BooksEagle Eye Book ShopFoxTale Book Shoppe, Little Shop of StoriesTall TalesStory on the Square. Support your local bookstore!

Cover Art by Katie Lynn Photography

To listen to Steele’s Spotify Playlist: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

Want to know more about author, Zachary Steele, including author events and information about Broadleaf Writers Association? Broadleaf Writers Association Founder & Executive Director Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction and The Weight of Ashes. He has been featured by NPR, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publishers Weekly, Baby Got BooksShelf Awareness, and was nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate Fiction. Currently, he is hard at work prepping The Fallen Hero for release in 2022. You can follow his ramblings on writing and life at http://zacharysteele.com/.

The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele, a Review

The sun rises without your blessing. But you can’t face the day until you wake. Sleeping through the light doesn’t mean the day didn’t happen.

Zachary Steele The Weight of Ashes

I haven’t met Zachary Steele in person…yet. He’s the founder and executive director of Broadleaf Writers Association, a nonprofit educational organization made up of writers and designed to help writers from all genres, backgrounds, and levels learn about the industry and improve their craft. I’ve followed the activities of the organization for a while, but recently joined during the pandemic, so I’ve only seen Steele on Zoom. But the writing world in the South is a small circle and once you enter it you inevitably circle back to the same people. That is, you run into those people who put themselves out there helping other writers navigate the mysteries of the industry. Steele is out there hitting the proverbial pavement doing his share, loading up on author karma by hosting authors events via Zoom or overseeing writer’s conferences. And somehow, on top of all his endeavors, he managed to author a book—a very good book—called The Weight of Ashes.

The Weight of Ashes, set in Hogan, Georgia during the 1980s, is a literary fiction novel that would appeal to both a young adult and adult audience. Protagonist, thirteen-year-old, Mark Murphy, is on the cusp of life when he’s hit with the tragic death of his big brother, Mitch Murphy. Mark loses more than a sibling with Mitch’s death. Their father left the family at a young age and Mitch stepped in as Mark’s father figure, protector, and mentor. His mother, reeling from the loss of her son, starts to drink heavily. To make matters worse, Mark’s cousin, Gordon, the villain of the story, caused the car accident in which Mitch was killed. Mark not only wants his brother back; he also wants revenge. And he believes the answer to both of his desires may be found with the witch who lives on Spook Hill. There’s a cost to bringing Mitch back, though. And there’s no way he can make it past his mother and her boyfriend, Officer John, and his police force, or bully/psychopath, Gordon, or the perilous wilderness to get to Spook Hill, without the help of his friends, Mo, Reggie, and Dunk.

Though The Weight of Ashes tackles death, loss, and grief, Steele created a plot that feels more like an adventure story focusing on the power of friendship. Because of the tight friendships between these characters, the novel reminded me somewhat of the 1985 blockbuster movie, The Goonies, or for a more modern reference, the hit show, Stanger Things. The language, tone, and plot suggest an element of speculative fiction. It hovers on the border making the reader wonder if there’s something supernatural at hand.

The story is told in first person point-of-view from the perspective of Mark, but the other characters are well-rounded and have personalities that complement each other and the plot. The chapters are short and tend to end with cliffhangers (though not in an ostentatious way), which is probably why it reminded me of the movie and TV show I mentioned. Steele’s style is episodic; he builds one wonderful scene upon another. Yet, the story isn’t completely linear. The reader isn’t simply led down a straight path wrought with conflict. Steele’s pacing is excellent. He does a nice balancing act with flashbacks, featuring Mark’s memories of his deceased brother and their mutual love for baseball and the Atlanta Braves, which enriches Mark and Mitch’s relationship for the reader and develops very relatable and sympathetic characters.

The Weight of Ashes is a Bildungsroman, or coming of age, novel with fairytale elements where the protagonist Mark enters the woods and comes out wiser, perhaps not quite a man but with a self-awareness he didn’t have before entering the woods. Mark must confront actual obstacles—avoiding the police, Gordon, flooded creeks, dangerous animals—to accept his brother’s death. As I mentioned, he cannot do it alone, which is one of the main issues Mark comes to understand. Here’s a moment where Steele alludes to the classic novel, The Wizard of Oz: “We moved along the drive like Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow walking through the forest. About halfway, between a trio of dangling vultures, I came to a stop.” This is the scene where the teens have finally made it through the obstacles presented by the forest and arrive at the witch’s house. It echoes the journey Dorothy and friends made down the yellow brick road to meet the wizard complete with flying monkeys or in Steele’s novel, “dangling vultures.” Steele also references The Hobbit, which was huge (still is) back in the 1980s for this age group. Authors don’t randomly do shout-outs. Bilbo was an adult when he goes on his adventure, but it’s still a classic Bildungsroman novel and a fairytale as well–like The Wizard of Oz, like Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes. The fairytale structure is a classic way of telling a story; I think it works well for any age group but is particularly effective for this story and for YA readers who may be more comfortable and open to reading a tough topic in a structure they’re accustomed to reading.

Even with an adventurous plot and characters geared for a younger audience, the subject matter—grief—is quite serious and transcends all ages. Mark goes through all the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The message is the same whatever the age of the reader. You should lean on your friends and your family to help you get through the tough times, and I commend Steele for borrowing from his own experiences to help teens, young adults, and adults realize they’re not alone.

There’s a real sense of nostalgia winding throughout the novel. Remember when you were thirteen? Remember how important your crew was? Well, that’s the peer group Steele created here. If you’re an adult reader, it’ll take you back to that magical age when everything seemed like it was all about to happen. Steele simultaneously captures the character’s childishness and insecurities around entering adulthood, mentally and physically. I think the character Dunk says it best here: “We aren’t kids anymore. We’re hormonal superheroes, fighting the villainy of a sex-crazed world.” These characters are at that age where anything seems possible, and their excitability comes out in a humorous and highly entertaining way.

Readers may become wistful remembering their teenaged years reading this book; The Weight of Ashes is full of pop cultural references from the 1980s that sets the tone. Forty and fifty-something-year-old readers will recognize shows like Family Ties and Star Trek’s: The Next Generation, or Jason Vorhees from the movie Friday the 13th. You can practically hear a soundtrack playing while reading this story with all the musical references to Madonna, The Bangles, Ozzy Osbourne, and Whitesnake, just to mention a few. Music was everything in the 1980s. What you listened to dictated what group you hung out with—the jocks, the skaters, the punks, the metalheads—and this book was reminiscent of my childhood. If you genuinely want to go down memory lane, Steele created a playlist on Spotify that accompanies The Weight of Ashes. Get a copy and tune in here to listen: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes, comes out with a bang, more fireworks, then more fireworks, and ends with another bang. The first chapter took my breath away. And I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect ending to a novel in years. When the beginning of a book doesn’t grab you, you put it down, you never read it. You may say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it.” If the ending sucks, you never forgive the writer, and you may not ever read that author again. I won’t go down the road of Game of Thrones. Just saying…I guarantee you have the best of both worlds with The Weight of Ashes, including a middle full of surprises—tragic, scary, fun, lighthearted—that make you appreciate your friendships and even feel compassion for the bad guy at the end. Steele took a challenging topic and made it accessible for every age. Applaud, applaud.

TO PREORDER: The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele is available from the following Atlanta-based bookstores: A Cappella BooksEagle Eye Book ShopFoxTale Book Shoppe, Little Shop of StoriesTall TalesStory on the Square. Support your local bookstore!

To listen to Steele’s Spotify Playlist: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

Want to know more about author, Zachary Steele, including author events and information about Broadleaf Writers Association? Broadleaf Writers Association Founder & Executive Director Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction and The Weight of Ashes. He has been featured by NPR, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publishers Weekly, Baby Got BooksShelf Awareness, and was nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate Fiction. Currently, he is hard at work prepping The Fallen Hero for release in 2022. You can follow his ramblings on writing and life at http://zacharysteele.com/.

A Conversation with Author and Poet, Janisse Ray about her New Collection of Poetry, Red Lanterns

DM: Your poem “Red Lanterns ” is so rich with symbolism. Because the collection is also called Red Lanterns, I felt a need to get to the bottom of this poem and I looked up various cultural meanings for red poppies (i.e., fallen soldiers, good luck and fortune). Poetry is so subjective, and I still feel this poem is a mystery. I have my thoughts, but will you please talk about the inspiration for this poem? Why red poppies?

JR: This poem started when my now-grown son’s stepmom called me to say he had been gathering poppy flowers. She had found a glass jar of them hidden under his bed. He was a teenager, and I’m sure he and his friends were attempting to experiment with the mind-altering affects of substances like opium, made from poppies. I was not worried. I was thrilled, to be honest, that my son was recognizing the incredible power of plants and the treasure chest that plant medicine can be. Plants have been very powerful in my life, medicinally and spiritually and culturally, and I’d like for that to be true for my son.

Around the same time, my mother (who never smoked) was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a lobe removed.

You’re right that a lot of layers are swirling around in this poem, some more visible and highly developed than others: the beauty of flowers, the use of poppies in marking graves, death, plants as medicine, even western medicine versus alternative medicine, my relationship with my mother, mine with my son, how a family holds together or doesn’t hold, the things we can’t provide each other, the holes in all of our hearts, what we keep looking for to fill those holes. It’s complicated, suggestive, metaphorical, not entirely revealed (not even to me, who wrote it!)

I admit, yes, there’s a strange juxtaposition here even in the title phrase: lanterns mean illumination but the lanterns are red. Red is such a powerful color–it signifies warning, it’s loud and unapologetic, it’s the color of blood. And it’s also beautiful, it repels bad luck.

In a literal sense, the red lanterns are the poppy blooms, and they can be illuminating in the mind-altering sense of the word.  

I’ve never voiced this before now, but probably at the bottom of this poem is a deep grief about the life most of us inhabit, which is one of material possessions, industrialization,  machines, and clear-cuts, versus the one portrayed in the image of my son “at the river, swimming in a silver pool.” Perhaps the poem is seeking something to bridge those two opposites, and the garden of poppies is that. Yes, maybe the poppies are a bridge, between life and death, wellness and illness, the natural world and the built world.

DM: You mentioned that these poems span decades. How did you decide to organize them?

JR: Thank you for asking such good questions. Although I began as a writer of poetry, back in high school, I fell in love with nonfiction in grad school. I knew I wanted writing to be a profession not a hobby, and I was not going to be able to make a living with poetry. So I haven’t published much. This is only my second collection. My first book, A House of Branches, was strictly eco-poetry, and I felt as if some of the poems didn’t fit in it. With this collection I expanded my definition, which is why you see love poems or death poems here. As far as organization, I had no clear reasoning for their placement, except in general themes—the poems about romance are together, for example.

DM: Your poem “Ode to Joy” commemorates Troy Davis, who was convicted in Georgia for killing an off-duty police officer. Even after most of the witnesses recanted their original statements, lack of physical evidence, and pressures internationally, Davis was put to death by lethal injection. I mentioned in my review that odes are meant to be sung, and I loved the imagery around the choir in the church, but why use the term “joy” in the title? Is it ironic?

JR: As an activist—especially an environmental activist—my work is trying to save life and lives. The experience trying to save Troy Davis’s life hit me hard. All my life I have opposed the death penalty. I was taught as a child the Biblical scripture of “Thou shalt not kill,” and I take it seriously. So yes, “Ode to Joy” is ironic. But one day not long after Mr. Davis’s death, I was listening to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which is the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony. That section is based on a Friedrich Schiller poem called “Ode to Joy.” Here is a stanza from it: “Gladly, as His suns fly/ through the heavens’ grand plan/ Go on, brothers, your way,/ Joyful, like a hero to victory.” In some ways, of course, the poem is “Ode to Troy,” but when I think about him, I think he deserved the honor of finding joy even in the injustice, even in the brutality.

DM: What poets do you turn to for inspiration? Which ones were the most influential for this collection?

JR: Well, let me start a list here of poets whose work I admire, most of them are earth poets in one way or another, and some of them mystics (in no particular order): Pablo Neruda, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, Rainier Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Rumi. I deeply admire the work of Daniel Corrie, who is far too obscure but very much alive and at work today. He lives in southern Georgia as I do and writes geologic, earth-shifting, brilliant poetry. I think he’s the best poet at work in the United States today.

DM: Were any of these poems the result of your earlier essays? Or, vice versa, are one of these poems “expanding” into longer form?

JR: No, the poems come from a very different origin-point and sensibility than the essays.

DM: What advice would you give aspiring poets in terms in terms of crafting and publishing?

JR: I would repeat the same advice that everybody offers, which is to keep reading, keep writing, keep dreaming, keep hoping. I would add that art is about building a culture and a civilization—it’s not meant to be used by attention-seekers. It’s about meaning. Yet, some of the current ethos in poetry is toward flippancy and shock-value and the look of words on the page.

DM: I’ve read articles indicating that poetry readership is declining compared to other literary arts? What do you think needs to happen to change that? Or do you agree with this statement?

JR: I thought this for years, until the day Mary Oliver died. Our nation went into mourning. Oliver was mourned on national news, on millions of personal social media posts, on blogs, in magazines. That’s when I realized how very wide her reach had been, how many people had read and been moved by her words, how beloved she was. It was a transcendent moment.

Dawn, my larger concern is the decline of all literary arts. I recently purchased a newly released novel at a bookstore that I found unreadable. It was well marketed but poorly crafted and poorly edited. This happens far too often in my life. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of writers are publishing beautiful, ground-breaking, transformative work. However, so much of what is touted as literary these days is sloppy drivel. This is unfortunate because it confuses readers. Books are one of the most powerful tools we have for human transformation. When a reader picks up a book that is unreadable, some light inside that person dies. Some first opinion is made that can not easily be changed. We lose a human. There are a number of reasons for this sea-change, and they would take a very long conversation, but some of it is driven by the publishing industry, some of it by our need to be seen and heard, some of it by the movement toward unvetted self-publishing, some by a crazy desire to divorce one’s self from the past, even the good parts of the past.

DM: In “Rant, Wonderfarm,” you used a term “Ecozoic,” which sadly, I had to look it up. Will you explain to the readers who may not know what it means what this term means, and what it means to you in “Rant, Wonderfarm?”

JR: Geologists have given names to eras in the development of life on earth, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago began the Cenozoic era, which has been one of extinctions. Thomas Berry coined this term in the 1980s to change the narrative from one of destruction to a more hopeful one. In the Ecozoic era we humans will have learned to live more sustainable lives on the earth. So it’s a term of hopefulness, of possibility, of restoration, of rewilding, of integration. That’s how I use it in the poem—in this case in honor of so many people who are choosing to spend their lives in careful consideration of the land, especially on the land.

DM: What does your writing routine look like in a day?

JR: If I am free to do so, I write all day every day. In that case I work at a desk in an upstairs study in our old farmhouse. If I am not free, and often I am not, I write whenever I can, jotting ideas or scenes or overheard conversations or notes in my journal.

The pandemic caused a disruption in my writing life because my daughter has been unable to go to school. She does Virtual School at home, and this requires one of us parents to sit beside her. So half the week, these days, I am my daughter’s teacher and tutor.

Your question makes me rueful. For one thing, the answer is informed by the fact that I’m a woman, and women in our society are often assigned caregiver roles. My father died in December 2019 after a long, long illness, and I was one of his primary caregivers. Since his death I have helped my mother get back on her feet. A neighbor became sick last summer, and I was her primary caregiver for the last weeks of her life. My daughter needs a tremendous amount of care. So there’s that.

I am also reminded, in answering this question, of economics. I was born poor, and because I chose writing as a profession, I relegated myself to a certain poverty. Slowly this is changing for me, but I have to acknowledge that often writers cannot accomplish the writing life and routine they desire if they also have to support a family. This was my case. Before the pandemic I traveled a lot to paying gigs, which was a great honor and good fun and intellectually stimulating but which interrupted any kind of writing routine I desired.

There’s that too.

DM: What’s next the big thing for Janisse Ray? Any events your fans need to know about?

JR: This is May 2021. I am in the middle of copyedits for a collection of essays (Wild Spectacle) due out from Trinity University Press in October. I’m excited about this—the essays are exciting. I have one last round of revisions for a piece coming out in Still, and I’m working with Karen McElmurray on that. It’s about the death of my neighbor, and I’m trying to get it right. For a month in July I’ll be in residence at Oak Spring Garden outside DC working on a project on pitcher-plant bogs. I’m putting a book proposal together for another really fun project that I won’t talk about, in order to keep the spirits happy. I have finished a manuscript about writing and craft, and I’m in the middle of revisions with it; I like it. And the last thing—I am working on a novel. I’ve written one other novel that I never attempted to publish because I can tell it’s not good enough. But I think I’m figuring out fiction, and I feel hopeful about this novel. It’s based on a true story of what happened to some children in the 1940s.

DM: Your husband, Raven Waters, painted the image for the cover of Red Lanterns. Is that the first time you two have collaborated on one of your covers?

JR: Living with a painter is thrilling. Raven’s work is a source of constant inspiration to me. For one thing, he is extremely dedicated and exceedingly prolific, as anyone who follows him on social media knows. His studio is in the middle of our large kitchen, so there’s art happening much of the time right in front of me. Right this very moment he is outside building a studio—I hear his hammer. So the time will come when he is painting in his own space, but for now I love watching art materialize on his easel.

Regarding collaboration, I think this is the first cover. Raven drew a map of my grandmother’s farm that was part of the book Wild Card Quilt. He took the photo of seeds that is on the cover of The Seed Underground. One of his paintings of a cowboy illustrated my tribute to William Kittredge that appeared in Terrain magazine (“Hole in the Sky”). He and I worked together on a small anthology about Moody Forest, years ago, which is now out of print.

Collaborating with visual artists is deeply satisfying. The landscape painter Philip Juras did the painting on the first book of poetry. Photographer Nancy Marshall took the art photographs in Drifting into Darien. Johnny Dame’s awesome painting is on the cover of Pinhook. These are artists I personally know and love.

Since we’re talking about collaboration, I’d like to expand this idea and say collaboration with artists has been a lovely benefit. I’m thinking here of co-edited anthologies, and also of the show that the superb musician and songwriter Randall Bramblett and I did together at Word of South this year.

DM: Thanks so much for this opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Red Lanterns. I always say poets are rock stars and you certainly meet the mark.

JR: Dawn, thank you so much for providing this opportunity. I’ve enjoyed this unexpected collaboration with you. You put a tremendous amount of thought and wisdom into these down-to-earth, inviting, thought-provoking questions. Thank you for giving me the chance to speak.

TO PURCHASE Red Lanterns: Signed copies are available on Janisse Ray’s website: www.janisseray.com/bookshop.

MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction, including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a New York Times Notable Book. Her collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans, is due out October 2021. Red Lanterns is her second book of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, Nautilus Award, and Eisenberg Award, among others. She has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm in the coastal plains of Georgia.

Red Lanterns, Poems by Janisse Ray

Cover Art by Raven Waters

Make Art . Live Art. Farm Art. Go Home. Come Home. Savor.

from “Rant, WonderFarm” by Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray—writer, poet, environmental activist, organic farmer—probably doesn’t need an introduction. She’s an award-winning writer with literary achievements too many to list. I met her while I was a graduate student, and everyone, not just the students but the faculty as well, was a little in awe of her. I think writers, and especially new writers, feel insecure in their flesh. We’re still working out our voice and craft, and Ray is the real deal! Yet she was so also very down to earth, such a kind and friendly person.

Ray was the keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony for the students one year ahead of me, and she told a hilarious story about the family mule, Tecumseh, who found his way inside their house in south Georgia. Tecumseh, as mules are prone to do, would not cooperate. This story has stuck with me for years not simply because it was hilarious, though it was, but because how Janisse told this story. Storytelling is not just about this happened and then that happened; it’s about wielding your experience, imagination, memories, and craft in such a way that you engage others, so they feel as if your story is also their story. This is what Ray has done with her latest collection of poetry, Red Lanterns. These poems mutually celebrate and mourn the current state of our world—what we should honor and love, what we stand to lose, what we will never get back—and all captured by one of the most talented storytellers of the South.

Red Lanterns is a mix of love and protest influenced by Romantic and Beat poets and melded with Ray’s special type of word magic. Most of the poems are what you may categorize as eco-poetry. For those unfamiliar with the term, its main emphasis is to bring awareness to environmental issues, looking at the world in a non-anthropocentric manner, with humankind being part of the problem itself.

The Romantic poets are generally known for expressing a deep love for the world and its natural landscape, but even Wordsworth was not all butterflies and rainbows, using poetry, for example, to bring attention the cruelty of child factory workers of 19th century England. When I received my copy of Red Lanterns, it included an invite to a Zoom meeting; Janisse wanted to take a photo of faces of her readers holding up Red Lanterns. She also asked if we would individually read a few lines or a stanza from her poem, “Trees.” She was gathering different voices to later share recorded collective voices on social media. Poems are meant to be heard, to be read out loud, so I thought, what a wonderful project, but also, experiencing this poem in a group-read made “Trees” so much more powerful. Try it yourself and read these lines from “Trees” out loud:

We live among trees, / sleep under them, / pass by and through them, / yet we mostly do not see them. / Mostly we are oblivious // They shade us, shelter us, envelope us, moisten us. / They give us oxygen // They feed us, offering their seeds, their nuts, their fruit, / their pomes, their leaves // They make music for us—percussions, rattles, shivers. // And every day we destroy them. / We cut them, burn them, run over them, / scar them, skin them…

Obviously, this isn’t the whole poem. You need to get your own copy of Red Lanterns! Focus on the tension-building here, though. First, Ray establishes the glory of trees and what they provide. This is followed by almost a question that we must ask ourselves, “Why do we destroy something so valuable to our own existence?”

There’s a dark romanticism about her poetry, as if she’s discussing being in a relationship with an abuser or even someone who takes and takes, never giving back. Many of Ray’s poems explore the same themes as those in the film Mother!—the one-sided relationship we have with Earth. Ray doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Yet, while she pushes readers to consider their relationship with the planet, she does it in manner that celebrates the simple wonders of nature, which is what a Romantic poet does best.

In two of Ray’s “dark romantic” poems, “Rant, WonderFarm” and “Mr. Coal,” she juxtaposes pristine, almost sacred, images of the natural world against environmental destruction caused by pesticides and mining. The devastation isn’t limited to the landscape, however; everything has a consequence, and both humans and animals alike suffer. In “Rant, WonderFarm” the devil is Roundup and the chemical spraying of farms. Even so, there’s a sense of hope at the end of this poem. I love this stanza: “We’re building soil now, / finally building soil: / local soil. Organic soil. Soul soil,” because it reminds me of a prayer— simple, powerful, persuasive. Ray mentions names of farmers—a community of farmers in this poem—and even with the dark side of farming that’s present, the communal sense stands out as the victor. With “Rant, WonderFarm” I had a vision of the farming life depicted by Georgia artist, Mattie Lou O’Kelley. I know farming isn’t as simple and neat as the paintings of O’Kelley, but the recognition and holiness of community stand out in both O’Kelley’s and Ray’s work, which I believe is the message Ray is conveying in “Rant, WonderFarm.”

In “Mr. Coal,” Ray draws from the Southern Gothic and personifies Mr. Coal as a “dirty thief,” a “home-stealer,” the devil, himself:

Right where the blood comes in is where / Massey tore down the mountain. / Mr. Coal lives down there under /ground. Wants to pull us all down with him: / Your people are all sick, what you got to live for? he asks. / Down here, we can make us a bright light, / come on down. /He says with his face dirty, / his teeth black, little halfmoons, / under his fingernails pitch black. / His tongue is black. / His heart is darkest of all, Nothing but a lump.

Though Ray alludes to a specific mining area in Breathitt County, Kentucky, the poem could easily speak for any of the mining communities of Appalachia. This poem is a powerhouse of blended imagery—the deplorable conditions and practices of mining companies, black lung, mountaintop removal, polluted water and land, loss of homeland, and the list goes on and on. What made this poem resonate with me was the narrative voice. Ray uses the vernacular of the miners and mining families, and this is crucial. One of the reasons the marginalized peoples of these mining towns have been dismissed is because of stereotypes around rural people being ignorant, and largely this has to do with how they speak. If you want a better idea about these misconceptions regarding impoverished Appalachians, watch the documentaries, Hillbilly or Harlan County, USA.

“Mr. Coal” is artfully crafted. It personifies Massey (Massey Energy Company) as the devil whispering in the ears of the townsfolk. It gives voice to a people who have had extraordinarily little voice (their health, the rights of their land, their future), as it portrays a no-win situation where people are dependent for their livelihoods on the very thing that kills them.

While many of these poems could be categorized as protest or activism poetry drawing from the Beat poets, one of the most significant poems that addresses our current societal state is “Ode to Joy.” Troy Davis was convicted for killing an off-duty police officer in a robbery gone bad; the poem depicts the hours immediately before Davis was executed. Most of the witnesses against him later recanted their testimonies; no DNA evidence or the gun ever linked Davis to the crime; and he maintained his innocence to the end. He was executed by lethal injection while hundreds prayed outside for him and while international leaders and amnesty organizations sent pleas for mercy. This poem pays tribute the protestors who stood vigil outside Jackson State Penitentiary.

It is an intense poem, perhaps a crossover between flash and poetry, but with more poetic elements, especially the repetition of “I am Troy Davis” threaded throughout that hits you in the chest. The repetition of Troy Davis’s name and the line “I am Troy Davis” gives the poem rhythm, a musical quality (something the Beat poets incorporated), but remember, odes are meant to be sung. “Ode to Joy” describes what it’s like to be part of a movement, of protest, of giving voice to those who are not heard, who need your voice. It honors the spirit of protest regardless of the result.

It’s also about loss. In the poem, there’s a stay in the execution and a sense of joy pervades the crowd. The narrator leaves and enters a church where a choir is singing. The choir keeps singing even with the stay. It was a short stay, however, and Davis was executed. There’s this sublime image at the end of the poem of the narrator’s soul floating over the city of Jackson, “over the church with its doors flung wide and its roof cracked open to the stars.” It’s a paradox. Did the choir with the sheer strength of their voices crack the roof open or is our system so flawed it can even break a church? It’s probably both. The poem is brilliantly crafted and reminds us that we are all Troy Davis.

Along with eco-poetry, dark romanticism, and protest/activist poetry, Red Lanterns is also about grief. There are some very intimate poems; I wondered if they were autobiographical since the narration was so close, honest, and very personal. The collection is well-balanced and approachable. While there are some strong words against humankind and the wounds we’ve inflicted on the planet—wounds we have inflicted against ourselves—Red Lanterns judiciously celebrates the simple pleasures of nature, love, family, friendship, and community, which I’m pretty sure sums up Janisse Ray.

TO PURCHASE A SIGNED COPY (yes, I said signed) please visit Janisse Ray’s website at: www.janisseray.com/bookshop

MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction, including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a New York Times Notable Book. Her collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans, is due out October 2021. Red Lanterns is her second book of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, Nautilus Award, and Eisenberg Award, among others. She has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm in the coastal plains of Georgia.

If you enjoyed this read, please share on social media and tell you friends and family. Be on the lookout for my interview with Janisse Ray about her collection, Red Lanterns, next Saturday, May 15th.