By Ziyi Yan, Heidi Pan, Florianne Che, James Diaz, and Ben Covey
Our featured contributors for Issue 1 tell us about their inspiration, their writing process, and more! We asked them each a series of questions about their pieces, and they gave us their responses in myriad forms. Here, you can read their commentary on their own pieces, along with commentary from the editorial team. We hope you enjoy this deep-dive into minds behind some of the poignant and thought-provoking work in our first issue.
Florianne Che's work juxtaposes distant yearning and its minute manifestations, absence and its excess, the natural and the contrived. "i do not know when objects started screaming" is both a poem and a story; it weaves an eerie narrative which defines and redefines itself through multiple readings. Here, the speaker's relationship with nature is one of family but it is also an exchange– perhaps even a deception. In "Omitting," the speaker surrounds absence from multiple directions until it comes to the forefront of the piece. Yet just as we become familiar with this absence, we are pulled away. After all, emptiness is a space that can only be surrounded– never filled.
Florianne's commentary on "i do not know when objects started screaming" and "Omitting"
Inspiration / Process
My titles often come to me before the actual pieces themselves, and "i do not know when objects started screaming" (IDNKWOSS) is no exception. This phrase came to me during an early morning drive, and as I approached a bump in the road, I thought of a world where the inanimate could vocally respond to our touch. More specifically, how they might cry out in reaction to the pain we unknowingly inflict on them. After that, it was simply a matter of building onto and revising this idea of a sinister earth fighting back against its tormentors after millennia of silence.
"Omitting" was a much quicker process. I have a document of half-baked thoughts, phrases, and flowery language that I add to every so often. One night, after I was feeling especially inspired, I had decided to compile some of these standalone stanzas into an actual piece. After a few days of tinkering, I finalized a piece all about absence, lacking, and the space left behind.
Like many writers I know, I tend to stray away from directly answering what my pieces mean. Instead, when I'm writing, I think about how I want my readers to feel. I liked the sense of dread emanating off of IDNKWOSS, especially in the lines "I could only witness her hunger" and "I have been spared from punishment." I wanted someone reading the piece to become unsettled by the narrator's perception of nature.
When I started "Omitting," I had recently finished one of Kazuo Ishigiro's books. I sincerely, sincerely admire how he intentionally separates his narrators from reality. There is always this subtle detachment from their circumstances, as if they're in a dreamlike state, that I absolutely eat up in each of his novels. That feeling was what I attempted to replicate in Omitting, though I'm aware I'm a ways away from reaching his level of artistry.
I'm beyond honored to be featured in Dawn Review's first issue. I only recently began writing poetry and prose (I converted from my long beloved creative non-fiction genre a few months ago), so having these works published means the world to me. I hope that whoever reads them will craft their own unique interpretations, because the best part of writing is when it is shared.
Chlorophyll green, chartreuse green– green is the color of fortune or pestilence. Basked in an eerie, viridian light, James Diaz’s collages take upon a preternatural air of intrigue. Bathed in this sickly glow, their collages combine the hard urban edges of light posts, basketball hoops, and antiquated motel signs with miniature configurations of human silhouettes, usually solitary. Diaz’s iconography features metallic, corroded structures interspersed with fragments of natural beauty—a birds nest, geese, age-bent trees—and straddles the line between disarming and disquieting. Each collage also features poetry, pasted in pale thin strips that perch in clumps around the main composition. The poetry itself often adopts an ethereal tone, describing the movement of cars as “floating,” in sharp contrast with its depiction of the world as “brutal." Anxiety and wariness are ascendent in Diaz’s poetry; the lines augment the pieces thematically or offer a complimentary narrative. These melancholy, peripheral spaces seem to color the mind with a spectral beauty that sinks, softly, into unease.
James's commentary on "I have a mother like that too," "That night in the rain," and "Mercilessly and unnamed"
Collage work is sort of like dowsing for water in a psychic desert. I came to it by accident. A few years ago, in a deep depression and dissociation spiral, I began cutting up images and words and seeing how they landed. Which is to say I found water in the midst of emotional dehydration.
The work has become more focused and intentional since then, more tilted toward the healing well, less prone to an overabundance of dark. In the beginning, my collages were SOS's from a flailing body lost in the deep. There wasn't much hope in the work then, except in the form itself: because to create anything at all is a sign of life.
The pieces here, in The Dawn Review, are part of a series called "Threadbare, We Stars," which focuses on childhood trauma under the impact of poverty, and how imagination keeps us here. "I have a mother like that too," was an especially hard piece to make. My mother has a borderline personality, and, on any given day, can be loving or suddenly cold and cruel. Even as an adult, it can be very heartbreaking to try to navigate a relationship with my mother. Like the image itself, it can be like trying to find warmth from a small fire in winter in a bathrobe by a bus stop. A metaphor for a big, devastating, inner-feeling.
Something accidental always seems to happen in a piece. You think you're going one way but you end up in another place entirely. There's something to be said for getting out of the way of whatever that force is. To riff on the physicist Eddington: something unknown [in us] is doing we know not what. I am healed by the work, and I can only hope it offers some little bit of that to others as well– from SOS, to the healing well. Though it is never easy, it is a blessing to be here still despite everything we've had to endure. "We know not how," but here we are. Here we are. These pieces are about that place.
Ben Covey's work is so much more than the sum of its parts. In "List of Great Midwestern Sorrows" and "Asleep at the Wheel," he uses disparate forms to wrap his way around the simultaneous hope and desperation inherent to the Midwestern experience. While many contemporary poems tend to linger on abstractions, Ben's pieces are both intensely personal and intensely evocative of the breakdown and regrowth constantly taking place within our society. Without further ado...
Ben's commentary on "List of Great Midwestern Sorrows" and "Asleep at the Wheel"
What was your inspiration for "List of Great Midwestern Sorrows" and "Asleep at the Wheel"?
Both of these, as far as I can remember, came out of a writing class taught by the incomparable Miriam Greenberg, who was a visiting professor at Cornell College (my alma mater) in 2020, just as the reality of the pandemic was really setting in. It was a bitter irony at the time, because the class was explicitly meant to get us out into the world, exploring and gathering material for our poetry. Much of her writing, which she used as an example, takes on an almost journalistic form, and the lessons she taught focused on extracting meaning from the world around us. Locked, alone, in a 10x20 sqft. room, that was naturally sort of difficult.
During one particular writing session, though, I got to thinking about my life as a Midwesterner and what that meant. I have always been ecologically minded, volunteering at prairie conservation projects in the area and just generally making an effort to engage with and learn about the land. My love for this place and my sorrow for the general state of things blended together and spilled out of me, and voila– "List of Great Midwestern Sorrows" was born, start to finish, in about 10 minutes. I remember Miriam telling me at the time that I absolutely needed to edit and submit the piece, and as it turns out, she was more than correct in her instincts.
Asleep at the Wheel comes from a similar place, although specifically it was inspired by a 14-
hour straight-shot drive from Denver to Iowa City in a car that was literally being held together by duct tape. My exhaust assembly and windshield wiper fell off during that drive, but we had to get back before classes started up again and we were also trying to outrun a snowstorm approaching from the west. I ended up convinced that Kansas was purgatory and that we had died somewhere in eastern Colorado, and that my spirit was only persisting because of the 2 cans of Rockstar energy coursing through my incorporeal veins. That drive was one week after the CDC announced they would be taking action to combat the virus, but no one was sure how deadly it was yet. Every stop felt like a gamble, both because there was a chance we could catch the bug, and a chance the car would not start again. It was possibly one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but those make for the best poetry, don’t they?
How did these two poems reach their final forms?
"Sorrows," as I said before, sprang out of my head fully-formed. I think I did end up rearranging a few things to make it more sonically rich, introducing a couple other ideas I had after the fact and suchlike, but other than that the editorial work was very light.
Not so for "Asleep at the Wheel," which I think went through 5 or 6 drafts before I was happy with it. It’s all about balancing the sonic structure with the ideas present, and as we all know, that balancing act isn’t always easy.
Tell us about your intention in writing these poems, as well as the revisions you made along the way– what images and devices did you focus on, and why?
When editing these pieces to tighten up the imagery, I was most interested in pairing the
emotions to the landscape. These pieces are both heavily rooted in a specific place and, in turn, in my life. I inhabit these spaces, and they inhabit me - that was an idea that needed to come through most in the final draft. "Sorrows" started out as a pure litany poem: just a straight-up list of things and experiences that I was familiar with as being both distinctly Midwestern and deeply melancholic. I ended up injecting more emotion into the piece as time went on, and I think I spent the most time on the ending of the piece. The transition from “Dirt road pheasant tail, forest fire red; anger in that plumage” into an ending that (I hope) captures the vengeance of nature and the mourning I feel over the steady and unyielding march of habitat destruction was particularly important to me.
These are things that I have seen first-hand; deeply foundational images to my life. I have been very fortunate to live within 20 minutes of one of the largest prairie restoration projects in the entire state of Illinois, Nachusa Grasslands, for my entire life. I have seen the battles taking place there, not just between regulators and activists vying for use of the land, but between the native plants and the invasive species slowly encroaching on the habitat as well. I am pleased to report, though, that the land seems to be winning. Recently, they have established a breeding herd of nearly 100 bison and have been able to provide genetic diversity to other herds all over the Midwest.
For "Asleep at the Wheel," I have much less to say, although when I was editing I wanted to
solidify the idea of a world dissolving as I moved through it. The dominant feeling I wanted the piece to invoke was one of movement as if being carried, and I think most of the imagery points to that. A world crumbling and being reborn. A world lost within itself.
How does the form of your work help you to convey its substance?
This is an interesting question, specifically because neither of these pieces fall within structures that I typically use when writing a poem. Most of my other work ends up as a large, skinny block of short, enjambed lines, but for some reason I chose to eschew that in these poems. "Sorrows" is especially an anomaly for me, but I am quite pleased with the way it turned out anyway. The large block of text kind of owes itself to the litany poem in one way, though it just as easily could have turned out as a literal list, several pages long. I think keeping it tightly bundled in a block like that did help convey the density of emotion and the interconnected nature of the subject matter, though. No matter where you go, the world is not composed of disparate parts but rather of millions of imperceptible or unrecognized relationships, which is what this poem gets at, I think. Agriculture juts up against ecology, while human settlement creates spaces for entirely new ecosystems to flourish in the interim. The line about foxes hiding from thunderstorms comes directly from a family of foxes that lived in the ditch down the road from my house, until the farmers came in and tore out the treeline to till up a few more square feet of farm. A lesson in impermanence, if ever there was one.
"Asleep at the Wheel" more closely follows what I usually do in poems like that, which is establish momentum and simply keep it moving, as if pulled along by gravity. Some of my other work does this to a greater degree. In a more refined way, I think that strategy is particularly effective here, where I begin in a more rooted place (with the cold coffee and the radio) and grow increasingly abstract as I move along. As I mentioned before, the experience this poem stemmed from was one of near-total delirium, of feeling as though I were riding a capsule down to earth after a trip to the moon. In fact, if I were to re-write this piece, I would probably use that metaphor to do so.
How do these poems fit in or stand out among your other work?
Ideologically, my work falls pretty neatly into two categories. The first is work that is rooted in
reality, in real experiences. Most often, I write about nature and history, the interplay between past and present, and our/my place in all of it. The second category is work inspired almost entirely by my dreams, or other similarly abstract things. I have always tried to build an online brand around the second category because I think that work can be more provocative, but if I am being honest, I prefer the first kind of writing. I love exploring my dreams through poetry, but doing so can feel a little slippery on a good day, and on a bad one, entirely meaningless. Writing about the land tends to strengthen my sense of connection to it, just as writing about dreams strengthens my connection to myself and to my subconscious.
Both of these poems, of course, fall within the first category, but as with most art, there is no
rigid distinction. The airy, detached quality present in "Asleep at the Wheel" does, in many ways, carry over from the other more surreal writing that I do. It is, as all things are, connected. On a semi-related note, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the Anthropocene and the ways in which the human species has impacted our environment, about how history is not only an ideological foundation for our society but a physical one as well. I touch on this a bit in Sorrows - the implications of living someplace and being more or less complicit in the destruction of it, both in the near term and long term. The history of middle America is storied, troubling. How do I, as someone born here and simply trying to live, contend with my role in the larger picture, in the desolation playing out on every level, past, present, and future? It’s a question that I have never successfully answered, but these pieces fit into that in a small way.
How have your personal experiences informed your writing in these two pieces?
Both poems address an uncanny brand of melancholy specific to the Midwest, as well as what that means to me. Whether living in it or moving through it, you can feel it, I think.
It’s something I personally have seen most vividly in the Rust Belt, starting in Central Illinois and Iowa and sort of snaking down through Missouri, Kansas, and elsewhere - but it exists in some form in the northern part of the Midwestern range as well. Communities there - especially smaller communities like the ones I grew up in and around - are defined in part by decay. These are communities that have experienced a steady, painful decline since around the 1950’s, and largely don’t have much of a chance of revitalization. Heavy industry has no reason to set up shop around here when Chicago is a stone’s throw away and completely rife with ample labor and cheap subdivision housing. Agriculture is growing increasingly automated. These communities are simply drying up, starved of not only work but of culture, of art and music. I have lived in and among these places for my entire life, moved through them, known them, and consistently I have seen the problems deepen. Much that remains in some of these small towns are drinking, gambling, drinking some more - and yet, somehow, the human spirit endures.
The proverbial list of Midwestern sorrows is far longer than anything I could pen here or in a
poem. We are beset on all sides by an opioid crisis, a failing public education system, a dying economy - the list goes on. It feeds into a kind of endless loop of mourning for me; the people around me are suffering, but as they do, the land blossoms. If the economy were to thrive again, I know all these beautiful places would be lost forever. Just recently, Dixon Illinois, a nearby town, was approved for a large solar energy contract - something worth celebrating! However, this entails the destruction of roughly 500 acres of grassland to lay the groundwork. It’s a zero-sum game, no matter what.
How are these two poems in dialogue with one another, and have they influenced each
other in any way?
I mentioned before that these pieces came out of the same writing course, which naturally
means that I was feeling a lot of the same things when I wrote them, though I think they do have distinctly different things to say. Where "Asleep at the Wheel" strikes an almost vengeful tone against the outside world, "List of Great Midwestern Sorrows" addresses it lovingly. One watches as these things pass by in a blur while the other stops for a moment to look around.Together, I think they form a complete picture of longing - a wanting for elsewhere, for “greener places,” as well as an address to the agony of motion and to the very real, grounded agony that a long road trip can instill. There is pain in movement just as there is pain in remaining still. You can either watch the world burn as you stand in it, or watch the smoke billow in the rear view.