A Conversation with Author, Janisse Ray, about her latest Book, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans

Southern author, poet, naturalist, activist, Janisse Ray, has been busy during the pandemic. I recently reviewed her latest collection of poetry, Red Lanterns, and now, months later, have had the pleasure of reviewing Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans (Trinity University Press/2021), and interviewing Ray about her homeland, ecotourism, women empowerment, and much more…

DM: Some say writers are always looking for a homeland. Do you think your experiences and travels have led you back to Georgia? If so, how?

JR: Dawn, thank you. To describe this homecoming in terms of being “led back” isn’t entirely apt. More accurately, I could not shake the place. In my childhood the stories of family and land were drilled deep, and I felt that I was abandoning my people and my place when I left. Ultimately, I returned. The sad part is that as I was changing, my place was changing, and we were distancing ourselves from each other, so now I live in a place I sometimes don’t recognize. I think this is a global problem. So, yes, in many ways we all continue to search for a homeland.

DM: In “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” you wrote about duende. As it relates to writing, I interpret duende as possession by a muse. Do you think the duende enjoys making writers suffer? Why must it be fatal?

JR: Sometimes we’re on earth to do a job. It’s that simple. The ancestors, the land, the spirits of the land, or the mystery needs us to do it. It doesn’t mean to make us suffer. It means for us to do our work.

DM: The imagery of clear-cuts depicted in “Opening the Big W” reminded me of surgeon amputating limbs. But some claim clear-cuts would help prevent the spread of forest fires. What’s your opinion on this?

JR: Great question. Thanks for allowing me an attempt at an answer.

If a fire is running through a forest, then certainly cutting it and clearing out underbrush would keep the fire from spreading, by removing fuel. Clear-cuts quickly become tangles of undergrowth and new growth, and these can drive fires even more quickly than forests do. Even a grassland drives a wildfire. So if we’re talking about an individual forest or area, yes, a recent clear-cut might help prevent the spread of fire.

However, an increase in wildfires in the West and elsewhere is caused by the climate crisis, not by forests. The atmosphere is hotter, and this heat dries out ecosystems at a faster rate. We have longer periods of deeper drought, which dries out forests. Then a fire gets started, and it races through forests, towns, suburbs, grasslands, lawns, homes. We have created an atmosphere conducive to burning. In essence, the earth is burning up.

Clear-cutting forests releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere, so in the end, clear-cutting only buries us deeper into the tragedy and catastrophe that is climate change.

To prevent forest fires, we need more forests. We need a huge tree-planting campaign, a trillion trees. We are not going to solve the climate crisis by switching to alternative fuels alone; we need more forest to store carbon and thus do their part in stabilizing the climate. I want to make sure I’ve answered your question very clearly: clear-cutting a forest for any reason, in the long run and in the big picture, only creates more forest fires.

Bryce Canyon

DM: In my review of Wild Spectacle, I stated that writers are time travelers, flashing forward, flashing backwards, moving into the present all in the same piece. Can you talk some about your methodology in terms of narrative time?

JR:  I took a lot of liberties with narrative time in this book because it’s a collection of essays. I was attempting a structure based on a movement through idea instead of through time. However, ultimately, I think chronological order is a wonderful order—easy to understand, natural, sensible. It’s just not part of the narrative arc of this book.

DM: When I was very young, we often traveled through Death Valley, California. I wanted my son and husband to experience the isolation of the place, but when he visited the salt flats a few years ago, it was absolutely covered up with people. In “Snapshots of a Dark Angel,” you stated that ecotourism “allows nature to compete in the market economy.” Is there a solution?

JR: The solution is more natural areas. More of us living lives that are closer to the land, so that we don’t have to go away to get to nature. More ticketed reservations at natural areas, less of a free for all. More areas closed so that they can heal and be restored.

Recently, I visited a natural area in West Virginia, Dolly Sods, that is being loved to death and I mean “to death.” I would not be the one to make this call, because outdoorspeople will be very disappointed, but that place needs to be closed to humans. Closing natural areas or limiting the numbers of visitors is part of the solution.

DM: I live in the concrete jungle and though I purposely go outside or garden, it’s different than connecting with true wildness—what you captured in your book. What advice would you give to city dwellers wanting to connect or reconnect with nature?

JR: Make the time for it. Make reservations. Have good equipment. We’ve all been in the tent that wasn’t rainproof and that’s miserable! Bugs can make an outdoor experience miserable too, so plan for those. A good bug shirt (net zips over the face) is a great investment for an outdoorsperson.

DM: I could be making this up, but oftentimes I felt like your essays were musical, like songs. Do you play any instruments? Do you “compose” your essays like a musical score?

JR: Thank you, Dawn. No one has ever said that, and it means a lot to me. I play guitar very badly. My ignorance about musical composition is a regret I carry.

Doctors Creek off of the Altamaha River

DM: Wild Spectacle champions woman empowerment. Was that one of the points you wanted to make, or is this an element that’s simply part of what makes up you?

JR: For a long time, the empowerment of women was a banner I flew. I knew it in a way that an academic would know it. I knew to keep my own name when I married, for example. I knew to choose how I wanted to dress, whether to use makeup or not. I knew about choice. But the older I get, the more I see the multitudinous, insidious, horrific—sometimes very small but very damaging—ways that women are held down and held back. In Wild Spectacle I am not trying to make a point. Feminist, women-empowering, equal-rights thinking is a part of who I am. Thanks for asking that.

DM:  You no longer fly for travel. But…if you could travel without the concerns of fossil fuels affecting the climate, or any environmental concerns, where would you go?

JR: I would go to Scotland as soon as possible. Also Cuba. I wouldn’t mind visiting Europe about twice a year! I’d love to see the eastern European countries that continue to be mostly agrarian. And wouldn’t it be nice to experience Africa and Antarctica and Iceland? I may fly again one day or figure out how to get around the globe by boat. But at the moment I’m enjoying staying put, because I know that’s what the earth needs and because I think that travel can be a form of colonialization.

DM: Thanks so much for the interview. It was a joy to read Wild Spectacle and I wish you all the best for your book and in life.

JR: Thank you so much, Dawn. You are so kind to do this. Thank you for your smart and beautiful questions and for loving stories the way you do.

TO PURCHASE Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans: Wild Spectacle and support Indie Bookstores, visit Eagle Eye Book Shop. Eagle Eye is also hosting a reading with Janisse Ray and the non-profit, Trees Atlanta, on Saturday, November 6th from 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM. For more information about this free event & to register go to: EagleEyeJRTreesATL. There will be signed hardcover copies available as well. OR, PURCHASE directly via the publisher at Trinity University Press.

For a complete list of Janisse Ray events, visit JRBookTour.

Okefenokee Swamp

MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is a naturalist and activist, and the author of seven books of nonfiction and poetry, including including Red Lanterns, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which won the American Book Award. Her work has appeared widely in magazines and journals, and she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Nautilus Book Award, and numerous other honors. Ray lives on an organic farm near Savannah, Georgia.

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“Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans: Wild Spectacle,” by Janisse Ray

Cover by Derek Thornton, Notch Design

I let my eyes fill with the innocence of green. I hear our right to speak in tupelo leaves and I hear dignity in water dripping off my paddle. I see freedom in the sandy-bottomed water. I hear justice in dragonflies as they clack and buzz. I feel on my own bare arms the forgiveness of the yellow sun.

What better nature could one have?

“What better nature could one have?” seems like such a simple question, asked by author, poet, naturalist, activist, Janisse Ray, in her latest collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans (Trinity University Press/2021). It’s a question I think she lives by. Asking herself daily, how can I help? What can I do to ameliorate the destruction caused by others? How can I lessen my own impact? Wild Spectacle answers those questions. By sharing her lifetime experiences, adventures, and knowledge actively living in the wilderness Ray has contributed something invaluable. I travelled to the Yaak or gone birding in Belize, but Ray’s shared experience made me feel as if I had. And though while Ray’s essays equally honor and exalt in nature, she points out, quite poignantly, what we have already lost, and cautions the reader about losing even more.

Sometimes, Wild Spectacle feels as if you are reading an ode. Other times, especially times when Ray writes about friends she’s lost, the tone sounds like an elegy, a tribute, though her grieving isn’t just reserved for humans. In “Snapshots of a Dark Angel,” she laments a teenager’s cruel treatment of a lizard: “I cry if a single tree falls. I feel the tree speaking through my body. I feel actual pain. The image of a crucified lizard, its tiny eye winking in the brokenness of its body sticks in my mind. I cry as if tears are all I have to speak with. How can we be so careless of life?” Expecting to witness the splendor of the Monarch butterflies during their migration to Central Mexico, Ray and her husband, Raven Waters, visit a Monarch sanctuary. An epic snowstorm hits and an estimated eighty percent of the Monarch butterflies freeze to death at the El Rosario Butterfly Biosphere Reserve they visit: “The butterflies were deep enough to wade through, deep enough to drown in.” Ray and Waters did get to witness the Monarch’s spring flight, though much diminished. Later in “Las Monarcas,” Ray describes their flight and the opening of their wings to the sunlight as a “Halloween party.” And quite poetically observes their flight—”the live butterflies dance and dabble, now thousands of them filling the atmosphere like confetti, like tiny balloons.” Wild Spectacle is an emotional teeter-totter and the juxtaposition of nature’s grandest moments coupled with reckless human waste and behavior—oil spills, clear-cuts, pollution, extinction, the effects of climate change—is heart wrenching, but needs to be said.

Devil’s Tower

I love when poets write fiction or non-fiction, something other than poetry, because poets pay attention to diction, or word choices, how words sound together, the order. At the heart of Ray is poetry and out in her essays; she hypnotizes her readers simply by naming the birds, flowers, trees, and the places she’s visited. In “I Have Seen the Warrior,” Ray layers the names of flora and fauna like a list poem:

The day was feverishly gorgeous. Carter Prairie was popping with water lily, spatterdock sticking up its yellow bonnets, swamp iris in amethyst and plum, golden club like birthday candles. In shallower places carnivorous plants were going crazy: yellow bladderwort, purple bladderwort, and both the hooded pitcher plant and the golden trumpet, blooming their happy flowers. Hatpins were everywhere, like tiny marshmallows on sticks or white balloon on strings or little flags on delicate poles. All the metaphors I can think of for hatpins are happy.

I initially thought Ray was someone who viewed the world through different lenses, but after reading Wild Spectacle I find the opposite is true. It’s us who wear the lenses, lenses separating us from the natural world, the indoors verses outdoors. I recently read that prison inmates in the U.S. get more outdoor time than school children and that the average child spends four to seven minutes per day outside. I wonder if we knew the flowers—spatterdock, swamp iris, hatpins—by name, like Ray does, if we would respect, honor, and nurture the planet more.

Though there’s a fervent lyrical romanticism throughout Wild Spectacle, Ray reminds us that there’s danger in wildness. Ray recognizes the fragility of life while encountering a group of elk in Montana (to listen, click title “Exaltation of Elk”), while boating in freezing waters in a cave in Sitka, Alaska (“Dinner Party”), or nearly drowning in Cabo Blanco, Costa Rica (“The Denude of Cabo Blanco”). Probably the closest she gets to death was when her friend’s son, Zack, mistakes lamp oil for Gatorade in “I Have Seen the Warrior.” This happens to be one of my favorite essays. They’re miles deep in the Okefenokee Swamp when the poison hits, miles from help, from a hospital, and Ray must become something other than her human self, rowing back through the “primordial gunk” for help. Ray describes this scene, moving from first person to third person, articulating an out-of-body experience with mythic allusions:

The woman was becoming bigger and bigger until she was archetypal. She was a warrior, teeth and claws and strings around her neck, bangles rattling on her wrists. She was transforming into one of the matriarchs pictured on a tarot card. Her torso grew into a lioness’s, horns sprang from her head, and in her hands she wielded a lightning bolt…I birthed Zack and I birthed myself. I birthed too the power of any woman to not be afraid, to not let the fear of death stop her from doing what was needed.

There’s something utterly Pagan about Ray’s work. I hunted this goddess down, even asked my friend who knows all the gods and goddesses, all the mythical figures, to help me identity this deity, but we never could quite put “Her” together. The deity Ray describes is part Astrape, part Sekhmet, part Kali and the rest is a deity Ray surely created within herself. Whatever Ray invoked that day gave her the strength to paddle her ass off out of Okefenokee Swamp. I was practically yelling for her to paddle faster. I couldn’t read fast enough! But I was also struck by the power of motherhood and Ray’s call to women to recognize where to draw inner strength.

Okefenokee Swamp

Good writers can time travel—flashforward, flashback, move in and out of time and land in the past, present, or future with ease, without jarring transitions, without the reader noticing these narrative leaps. I poured over “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” “In the Elkhorn,” and “The Dinner Party,” hoping to absorb Ray’s method. In “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” Ray moves in between the actual place she visited—what she did, what she learned, who she met—grounding the essay with information about Cabo Blanco itself, along with her understanding and the poet, Federico García Lorca’s, interpretation of duende. There’s an element of stream of consciousness at play as well. I often thought of her essays as a musical score. The narrative breaks create a rhythm, a tempo, much like a chorus, and is a space for the writer and reader alike to reflect or meditate. Sometimes the narrative voice is piano, sometimes forte, but always building, building to the crescendo of her message.

I love Ray’s fearless honesty, lush poetic language, amazing adventures, the people she remembers, how she glorifies nature. What I found most remarkable was how she articulated these elements so fluidly, organically. The book is an intimate account of Ray’s life living and writing around activists, artists, teachers, biologists, botanists, nature writers, farmers, and even arachnologists (or spiderwomen as Ray refers to them); the list is exhaustive. Wild Spectacle is prayer to Mother Earth, and like prayers Ray both exalts and grieves Her. This book will surely mark your soul.

 Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

TO PURCHASE Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans: Wild Spectacle and support Indie Bookstores, visit Eagle Eye Book Shop. Eagle Eye is also hosting a reading with Janisse Ray and the non-profit, Trees Atlanta, on Saturday, November 6th from 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM. For more information about this free event & to register go to: EagleEyeJRTreesATL. There will be signed hardcover copies available as well. OR, PURCHASE directly via the publisher at Trinity University Press.

For a complete list of Janisse Ray events, visit JRBookTour.

MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is a naturalist and activist, and the author of seven books of nonfiction and poetry, including including Red Lanterns, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which won the American Book Award. Her work has appeared widely in magazines and journals, and she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Nautilus Book Award, and numerous other honors. Ray lives on an organic farm near Savannah, Georgia.

Next week look for my interview with Janisse Ray!

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.