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.