Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we have Hayley Mitchell Haugen reading poems from Kari Gunter-Seymour while diving deep into the Ohio poet laureate’s most recent book, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen. As always, thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Kari Gunter-Seymour for Lyric Essentials? What in particular drew you to choose these poems from Gunter-Seymour’s collection, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen?
Hayley Mitchell Haugen: This year I was honored to publish Kari Gunter-Seymour’s collection, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen through my press, Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, creating a wonderful opportunity for me to engage with Kari’s work. Before I published the book, poet George Franklin selected her poem “Trigger Warning” as the prize-winning poem for Sheila-Na-Gig online’s spring 2020 poetry competition.
To me, this poem is indicative of Kari’s work and represents everything I am looking for as an editor and reader of poetry.
First, voice is very important to me. I like to know up front in a poem who is speaking, but I am also drawn into a poem when that voice has a sense of urgency, not just that the speaker has a story to share, but that she must tell her story. In “Trigger Warning,” a mother is struggling to come to terms with her son’s experiences at war and his subsequent PTSD:
November is the month my son dreads.
Too many dead in November, he says.
When they come to him now, it’s as
full body experiences, rapid-fire,
built of muscle memory, bile in his mouth,
propellant fumes, exit wounds, zippered bags.
I cradled them, until
there was just nothing there.
As the poem begins, I am immediately moved by the pain of the son, for which the mother has a limited “frame of reference” outside of her own loss of her father or beloved dogs. As the speaker looks out her window and finds a brief moment of comfort in the images of nature, the deer “dappled / by light as they forage for acorns, / capped confections, hidden / beneath tapestries of coppered leaves,” as a reader I am not simply being told of an experience, but I am living this moment with the speaker. To me, these moments depict a poet at the height of her craft, fully engaging me in the physical environment of the poem, but also leading me smoothly into the emotions that follow. What I appreciate most about Gunter-Seymour’s work is that these emotions are always well-earned by her speakers. In “Trigger Warning,” the mother confesses,
What I am afraid of, is never finding
the brave heart my son had been,
the farm boy, the quipster,
the Ren & Stimpy impersonator
who boarded the plane, now camouflaged
in anxiety meds and a skeletal body.
I cannot read these lines without feeling the mother’s unique yearnings, and these feelings gain depth and meaning through Gunter-Seymour’s exquisite craft of poem, as the remaining stanzas continue to weave images of loss, nature, and memory, all “triggered,” the final moment of the poem argues, in the same manner as the speaker’s unspoken guilt, “unreeling from our darkest places, / the awful wait for the agonal breath.”
“Planting by the Signs,” though differing in content and themes, is another of Gunter-Seymour’s poems that highlights her skillfulness as a poet. As a poetry professor, I constantly encourage my students to embrace universal themes through the personal experiences expressed in their work. Sometimes they understand this concept, but often they do not, and I see this lack of reach in many of the submissions I receive as an editor as well. “Planting by the Signs” illustrates this skill beautifully. The poem begins in reflection, the speaker recalling her grandmother’s wisdom for planting potatoes “‘cause the signs is right.” Through her own connection with the land, the speaker comes to “respect her [grandmother’s] study of the stars, / the astrological systems she relied upon” for many of her agricultural, domestic, and motherly duties. Expressing this appreciation through its rich imagery of the first five stanzas, the poem works well as a personal piece and could probably end on that note of memory. Gunter-Seymour, however, pushes beyond the personal when she brings in Michael Bloomberg’s ignorant comments about farming and the “stunted corn stalks” that are “saturated in GMO’s and fusty air.” The land, whether we understand the signs or not, is at the mercy of all of us.
EH: As a fellow Ohioan, do you find a personal connection between your own poetry and Gunter-Seymour’s?
HMH: My connection to Ohio, where I teach for Ohio University, and north-eastern Kentucky, where I live, comes via Los Angeles, where I came of age as a poet, so I do not feel a personal connection to Kari’s poetry due to any shared sense of place. I certainly connect to Kari’s work as a woman and a mother, however, and through knowing Kari I have been introduced to the work of many Ohioan and Appalachian writers through her Women of Appalachia Project and Women Speak anthologies. I credit Kari for expanding my appreciation of the many talented writers in our region.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
HMH: I have two collections in the works. The first is a chapbook titled The Little Book of Being. These A-Z titled poems are what I think of as occasional poems. They are inspired by the interesting experiences of others or by those little moments in life where the poems just jump out and beg to be written. My larger collection, The Blue Wife Poems, explores depression in women from both an historical and personal perspective. In addition to writing and teaching, I am currently putting together a special book for Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, titled Pandemic Evolution, featuring poets’ responses to the diorama art of Matthew Wolfe. Matthew photographed his art for the first 100 days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The book will be published in March, a full year from the start of the pandemic in the United States.
Kari Gunter-Seymour is the current Poet Laureate of Ohio and works as the founder/executive director of the “Women of Appalachia Project,” an arts organization she created to address discrimination directed at women from the Appalachian region. A ninth generation Appalachian, she is also the editor of the anthologies “Women Speak,” volumes 1-6 and “Essentially Athens Ohio.” A retired instructor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, she holds a B.F.A. in graphic design and an M.A. in commercial photography, with her award winning photography has been published nationally. Her poetry appears in several publications including, The NY Times, PBS American Portrait, Verse Daily, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Stirring, Still, CALYX , The LA Times. She is also a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee.
Purchase A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen from Shelia-Na-Gig.
Read Gunter-Seymour’s announcement as Ohio’s new poet-laureate.
Watch Gunter-Seymour read for Sundress Publication’s Poets in Pajamas series.
Hayley Mitchell Haugen holds a PhD in English from Ohio University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington; she is Professor of English at Ohio University Southern in southeastern Ohio. Light & Shadow, Shadow & Light from Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) is her first full-length poetry collection, and her chapbook, What the Grimm Girl Looks Forward To is from Finishing Line Press (2016). She edits Sheila-Na-Gig online (https://sheilanagigblog.com/) and Sheila-Na-Gig Editions.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at: http://ericahoffmeister.com/