How We Tell Stories
As a college undergraduate making my first real poems, I read Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us (1981) with fascination and awe. Her powerful poems of witness about the civil war in El Salvador in the late 1970s gave me an important model for politically engaged writing and joined the work of others I admired—Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder. Rambunctious, spirited voices of rambunctious, spirited people. Claudia Rankine clearly writes in that current today as does the Irish poet, Paula Meehan. Like Forché, these writers don’t force politics on the poem. Activists all and intentional in their craft, they become the people whose experiences and character give rise to such poems in the first place.
I write in late May after the hottest April on record in what looks like becoming the hottest year. A fossil fuel economy widely acknowledged as unsustainable sputters on, its legacy of exploited lands, peoples, and animals appearing in poems at least as far back as William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” and John Clare’s “The Mores.” Though the pressures of sociological and ecological crises are felt differently by every artist, none can escape knowledge of them, and all art tells us something about what the maker is doing with that awareness.
We launch our first on-line issue of Cold Mountain Review at a time when received narratives themselves are in crisis and when the nature of narrative itself is up for debate. Many of us are rewriting scripts of gender and sexuality, power and powerlessness, place and space, human and nonhuman. In this issue, Lesley Wheeler’s “Before Lexington” crosses out the familiar prosody of a received story to reveal a submerged narrative of American Indian dispossession. C. Dylan Basset registers a similar wariness about language’s ability to pass itself off as truth in “Myth of the Given,” where meaning emerges at the borders of language and the narrative voice, when confronted by another animal being, finds itself under revision.
For whom do we care and why? What happens when familial bonds traverse species? K.C. Mead-Brewer’s protagonist in “Chameleons” discovers the multiple pleasures and opportunities for transformation in giving birth to an octopus, while the husband’s inability to shift his paradigm and perspective leaves him pressed between the pages of a book, literally stuck in a narrative no longer meaningful in this new family formation. Alternatively, our featured painter, Daniel McClendon, found a new visual style by giving himself up to a process that altered his vision of other animals while simultaneously recasting his paintings.
This courage to allow ourselves to be changed, to creatively adapt to altered circumstances, is also on offer in Katherine L. Hester’s story, “Forage,” where a young woman finds her own alienated narrative of home inadequate. Unconvinced by the urban elitism of her new college friends, however, she finds her story of home unexpectedly transformed by an adventure with a mushroom forager. What if our ecological and social crises are a matter of not being there or of being there too little to care? Marcia Krause Bilyk’s photographs ask us to look, really look, at the living plants around us. Her images defamiliarize by taking each plant out of its context and encouraging us to see its individual uniqueness so that we might encounter it anew in the world in which it lives.
Paying close attention is what artists do. In this issue, we’re honored to have new work by both Susan Ludvigson and Brendan Galvin, poets many of us return to again and again for insights and craft that have deepened over years. For both of these writers, the creative conversation is with a more-than-human world—feathered, furred, and finned. Taken together, their poems give us not only a critique of our current relations with our fellow creatures but also a guide to how these relations might become more alive, more responsive. Perhaps changing the world involves re-enchanting it. Jennifer Murphy’s paintings of our local Appalachia suggest as much. Her human dwellings pulse with histories and ask us to question where we draw the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate. In a different way, Ivan de Monbrison’s figures fiercely disturb the boundaries of the human body as self and landscape engage in an inter-subjective dance.
Finally, this issue of CMR records some literal conversations through interviews—with R.T. Smith, whose vision of “serious mischief” founded the magazine over forty years ago and reanimates it today; with Ed Madden, who is reconfiguring the public poem of protest from his position as first poet laureate of the city of Columbia, SC; with Julia Barello, whose ecological installations ask us to reconsider the nature/culture binary; and with documentarian Chad A. Stevens, whose recent Overburden takes us to the heart of the tragedy that is mountaintop removal; his new documentary confirms what many in Appalachia have long known, that the fight against Big Coal is being led by strong women in this region.
These are some of the issues raised by our current gathering of gifted writers and artists in Cold Mountain Review this spring. How we tell stories—who tells them and to what purpose—matters. Yet though we can no longer live with some narratives, we also can’t do without the meaning-making opportunities narrative provides. Here’s to reclaiming the strands of old stories we didn’t need to lose and inventing the new stories we so desperately now need.