The poems of Shari Wagner are poems of place. She locates us near “ploughed fields,” “Buck Ditch,” “Pigeon River,” and “State Road 9” among “beech” and “buckeye” trees. Her sense of place is never restrictive but reaches into China and even into the cosmos of love. Her poems also map a rich Indiana history. Both the poet and her poems have grown up here, in our state, in what used to be the old Northwest Frontier. Shari’s poems explore many terrains of Indiana history, often examining what it means to live in our state with a knowledge of its plants and rocks and history. Always, she expresses an underlying respect for her roots, including the Mennonite culture in which she grew up. Her poems explore people and place, often locating the human condition within the wider scheme of Indiana’s social and natural history. It is a history, her poems suggest, that—though often hidden—remains informative and fertile, if one approaches that history with a wise and discerning eye.
I came to Shari’s poems relatively late, discovering them only a couple years ago, and I immediately became a fan. I first read her book, The Harmonist at Nightfall, and recognized an Indiana that too often gets overlooked, even by residents. Her photographer’s eye works reciprocally with her gift of language to present a mosaic of what might otherwise be lost. Her work, in many respects, is thus a practice of recovering history, even those histories one might otherwise deem not significant enough to be remembered. Within her presentation of history, she interweaves family, memory, and insight—so that her poems offer a balance of how to be alive in both the past and present at once. The details in her poems are as immediate as the many varieties of trees indigenous to our state—and just as fertile. The broad leaves of her words sing in the breeze and offer shade on a warm day, allowing the reader to discern the tiny movements where past and present comingle in the air swirling within and just behind our speech.
I hope you enjoy the following feature of Shari Wagner’s poems, which includes a conversation about her practice as a poet. I am grateful to be able to publish her work and share her vision with the readership of The Wabash Watershed.
Shari Wagner was born in Goshen, Indiana, grew up in rural Wells County, and now lives north of Indianapolis in Westfield, with her husband and two daughters. She earned a B.A. in English from Goshen College in 1980 and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University (Bloomington) in 1986. Over the years, she has taught creative writing in grade schools, high schools, universities, veteran centers, and senior centers, and she currently works with almost all age groups through the outreach programs of the Indiana Writers Center. Her poetry has appeared in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Black Warrior Review, The Christian Century, Indiana Review, North American Review, Poetry East, Shenandoah, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. Her poems have also been published in anthologies, including Dave Eggers’ Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2013 (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011), and A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2003). She is the author of two books of poems, The Harmonist at Nightfall (Bottom Dog Books, 2013) and Evening Chore (Cascadia, 2005), as well as co-writer and editor of her father’s memoir, A Hundred Camels (Cascadia, 2009), and editor of Returning: Stories from the Indianapolis Senior Center (INwords, 2012). She has received nine grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, two Creative Renewal Fellowships from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, three Pushcart Prize nominations, and in 2009 was co-winner of Shenandoah’s The Carter Prize for the Essay.
The Woods In trees hemmed by ploughed fields I find the slender ironwood with muscles tense as adolescence when their nerves were fused to mine. The pallid beech with eyes of a sphinx still gazes further than anyone into the secrets of the heart—ocher rings orbiting the core. Deeper back, the honey locust grieves that the world pressed down her thorns on a rebel’s head. It’s April and basswood opens the umbrella I stood under in rain and thunder, waiting for you, my love, to come with seedlings of redbuds we planted like grace everywhere we touched until light shone in this understory where warblers weave a home. Year of the Rabbit Stepping on a crack would break my mother’s back so I walked to kindergarten looking down. In a secret garden between two shrubs, I planted teardrops from a watermelon. I used the good spoons to dig a route to China where someone squatted like I did, but upside down. This was the year the boy next door ran over my garden with his matchbox cars. I couldn’t stop stepping on cracks. The dirt grew hard. It bent the spoons. My mother came home from the hospital, her arms empty for the third time for what should have been a charm. From the Tree of Knowledge For Patricia Cupp It’s just a branch that broke but it fits your hand and like a hound on a leash sniffs the sweetness of whatever’s up ahead. On any steep slope it pulls you to glance over the rim. Going down, you lean on its stiff, pilgrim shoulder. Useful as a broom, it clears the cobwebs of any less-traveled path and like the old staff of a Taoist monk knocks on the door of each stone that crosses the icy creek. You balance on its hickory spine and follow where it leads, toward the curve of a question mark. The farm wife speaks of her lucky buckeye It holds its luster like the old, rubbed wood of a church bench but it’s from Buck Ditch that drains our fields and joins Pigeon River. Dad carried one, too, and his dad before him. “It wards off rheumatism,” Dad said, pressing this one to my palm. He packed his in a pocket with peppermints, odd nails, and a few fortunes from the Golden Buddha on State Road 9 in Howe. Dad was a deacon but even good Mennonites need a way to pray without ceasing— so they knock on wood and wish on bones. I confess, I’ll carry my buckeye till I’m planted in the grave. At the Juvenile Correctional Facility The girl at my table looks up when I ask if she likes poetry. She loves The Doors and wants to write like Morrison. If she could, she’d read poetry all the time, but the prison library doesn’t allow anything sad. “Make a list of your memories,” I say, “and what they were like.” My first kiss. Musical notes all over my body. “That’s good,” I say, “go on.” Hair past my waist felt like a coat. She adds a wrist that broke when she was five and the boy who said her eyes shone like the moon in Egypt. “Keep your pencil moving.” I remember lip gloss and getting a tattoo. When my best friend died, I cried like life had been disposed of—carried out with the trash. Behind bars, she was a tropical bird with nowhere to fly. Shoestrings laced everything inside. When it’s time to go, she gives me a page of memories to keep—but when I return two weeks later, she and half the class are gone, transferred to another facility. That’s how the story goes but not the way it ends. Wild Child, make yourself a poem that walks through a concrete wall. Shut your eyes and do it. Break on through to the other side. The Skunk Lady “Christina Hands Sullivan’s fame increased tremendously after an Elkhart business firm displayed an enlarged photograph of her with a notation: ‘If you want to see the dirtiest woman in the world, go to Howe, Indiana.’” —Dean Henry, “The Skunk Lady” On Sunday afternoons they circled as if to cage me, but I fooled them. I shuffled the shoes of my last husband and sang “Over the River, Charlie” till I was gone to feed my sheep on buckwheat cakes and barley. “Here’s a cigarette, Chrissie,” some gent would cut in and I’d puff till I was so dizzy he’d give me one more. They pitched pennies the louder I laughed, the higher I lifted my black woolen skirt. I wore skunks on my shoulders but they never stunk, they purred and were soft as sable from the plume of their tail to dark-arrowed head. Harsh light squelched their eyes but the night fired them red as they rooted through raked gardens and dug the grubs in fresh graves. The town paid me to catch them but I never hurt a one. I carried them home from the churchyard like the men I gentled who gambled and drank then drew near to me in the straw. I loved my husbands so fiercely it stopped the sun till with the smash of a bottle they’d hit the road or make a bad end. Like the tinker who mended umbrellas—when every bowed shaft and rib was straightened, he laid down on the tracks. His were the shoes I wore to dance. No one knew my strength came from dirt caked under my fingernails, matted to burrs in my hair. It took a town to wash it all out. Embarrassed by the herd of picnickers I drew, they burned my straw bed, my shack, and my shoes. They built me a house with a floor I could mop and stuffed my skunks in sacks bound for the river. When wives brought bars of soap and a comb’s bone teeth, I knew the end was near. “Don’t take in strays,” they told me, closing the door. “An old stomach ailment,” men might say a month later as they shovel my hole. But it was that cage of cleanliness that evermore lays me low, a pale body betrothed to the dirt.
Through Thick Brush and Around Large Trees: An Interview with Shari Wagner
By George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras: Good to have your work in The Wabash Watershed. I admire how you rely on Indiana as a focus for much of your poetry. Can you say a little about your personal history with Indiana and the deep roots you have in the state?
Shari Wagner: I was born in Goshen, Indiana, near the rural Mennonite community where my parents grew up, and, since then, have lived in most regions of this state—northeastern, central, and southern—and in rural areas, small towns, big cities, and suburbs. I was especially lucky to grow up in Wells County, in a ten-acre woods surrounded by farmland. As a kid, I relished the freedom of riding my bike wherever I wanted and walking with my dog along a creek that ran next to our woods. On one side of the bridge, I had a pastoral route where Holsteins grazed and, on the other, a pathless wilderness that took me through thick brush and around large trees, a discarded Frigidaire, a secret pond with an island, and an old orchard that I still like to believe might have been planted by John Chapman. Books by the Indiana novelist and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter were really important to me because in those books I met characters who also tramped through the woods and loved Indiana’s trees and birds and swampy places.
Later on, when I was an adult, Scott Russell Sanders’ essays about Indiana and the importance of having a sense of place became incredibly important to me and inspired me to go on pilgrimages throughout the state, writing poems about the places I visited. These trips, sponsored by a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis and grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, took me to the Jasper-Pulaski Wilderness Area to watch the sandhill cranes perform their ritual dance. They took me to climb a hill at Angel Mounds where anthropologists believe a chieftain would have sung the sun over the Ohio River each morning. They led me to look into the secret attic where Levi and Catherine Coffin hid fugitive slaves. They brought me to many more new places and also to circle back to places that had been sacred to me in childhood—like Griffin Ditch, that Wells County creek.
GK: I grew up surrounded by Indiana woods as well, Shari, and I sense its lasting presence. Some ill-informed people, outside the state, consider Indiana nothing but fields of corn or perhaps only the various industrial belts. You paint an intimate portrait of your relationship with the state, and I find it very moving. Can you describe how the presence of Indiana has permeated your writing, especially your poems? I’m curious to learn more from you about Indiana “themes,” of course, but just as significantly how you see the larger rhythms of the state (it’s “psyche,” if you will) interacting with and shaping yours.
SW: Indiana does figure into much of my writing. In my first book, Evening Chore, quite a few poems are inspired by my Mennonite family history in Northern Indiana, and in my second collection, The Harmonist at Nightfall, all of the poems are about Indiana places. The third book is not finished yet, but it will be a collection in the voice of a farm wife who lives near Shipshewana, Indiana. She’s a fictional character, but her experiences are partly based on real family stories. She eats out at my favorite restaurant in LaGrange County (Marner’s Six Mile Café) and, though she’s very attached to her farm, likes to go on mystery trips—excursions where she boards a bus with strangers, no one knowing where they’re going until they get there.
I think my themes have a lot to do with connecting what are often thought of as oppositions—for example, people and the natural world, the dead and the living, past and present, truth and myth, the moment and eternity. Anywhere on this earth could be a place to search for those connections, but Indiana is the landscape I know best and where I’m committed to finding the universal in concrete particulars. Mennonites are big on community and harmonizing, so I think that heritage probably contributes a lot to my themes. I know the way I look at the Indiana landscape is also deeply influenced by the tribal communities where I have lived—for a year in Somalia and Kenya, and for several years with the Clifton-Choctaw in Louisiana. I marveled at how the Clifton people had so many meaningful stories connected to trees and springs and old houses along their community road. Some were Civil War stories or ghost stories or family stories. I think part of what I’m doing in The Harmonist is connecting Indiana places to stories that are in danger of being lost.
Indiana is so diverse that it’s hard for me to think of its overall rhythms or psyche, but I do like to think of the state as connected by its waterways—some above ground like the Wabash and White Rivers and others underground like the Lost and Blue Rivers. Our waterways begin in pretty ordinary places but as they travel, they feed into other waterways and eventually, of course, meet the sea. I like to think I was shaped by Griffin Ditch, something in the pull of its current pulled me to go further than I would otherwise go. Rivers and streams were incredibly important, of course, to Indiana’s various tribes, as well as early white settlers. In fact, the Miami once had a dance ground at the confluence of the Rock Creek and Wabash, near my hometown of Markle and Griffin Ditch. I’ve been there—it’s still a clearing but filled, now, with Queen Anne’s lace and thistle. As I’m walking through this state, I’m always listening to both the present and past and Native American rhythms are certainly an important part of that.
GK: Besides your connection to Indiana and Indiana authors, what writers do you turn to for inspiration? Which writers offer particular kinds of inspiration for your life and for your writing?
SW: If you don’t mind, George, I’m going to limit myself to poets since there are so many writers who have inspired me.
The poet who I think influenced me before I ever wrote a poem is a Scottish writer often identified as a novelist or poet for children. I hadn’t considered Robert Louis Stevenson for years until my mother unearthed my old, worn Golden Book copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses so I could read it to my young daughters. There was something about Stevenson’s cadence, his favorite sounds, archetypal word choice, and awareness of mortality in the midst of delight that struck home with me, and I realized that his poetry must have had an early and profound influence on the development of my own voice. After that, I read more of his poems and also his biographies. I soon realized that we shared some things in common, like a childhood with long hours of solitude, a love of walking through wilderness areas, a strongly religious family background, and time spent among a tribal society—in his case, among South Sea islanders. Fortunately, I haven’t had the health concerns that Stevenson faced, but I’ve been inspired by his courage and adventurous spirit. With Stevenson, too, there’s an Indiana connection. His wife, Fannie Van de Grift Stevenson, was born and raised in Indianapolis—in a house on Monument Circle. She was also an adventurous sort and as a child played in the forest that was an easy walk from her home.
While Stevenson is one of my touchstones from childhood, Robert Frost is certainly a poet who became formational for me in my young adult years. I loved his descriptions of the natural world, especially in regards to his imaginative similes and metaphors, and I strongly identified with the tension between wanting to stay in the woods and at the same time being called back to the social world of people. I was fascinated, too, by Frost’s use of dialogue in poems like “The Witch of Coos,” “Death of the Hired Man,” and “Home Burial” and suspect that my own desire to write in various voices—like the voice of Christina Sullivan in “The Skunk Lady”—is fueled by admiration for those poems.
Many poets have become important to me in later years. Mary Oliver, of course, has been important since she writes with such keen observation of the natural world and gleans such wisdom from her experiences. Lisel Mueller (who grew up in Evansville, Indiana) has been inspirational, too. Her fabulous “Monet Refuses the Operation” is possibly my all-time favorite poem. Mueller is someone who is always looking for connections, and her love for myth and fairytale resonates with my own interests. Yusef Komunyakaa, who I studied with at Indiana University, is another poet I turn to a lot. For some years now, I’ve been teaching a workshop at the Indiana Writers Center called “Defining Moments: Poetry as Memoir,” and, since I’m in awe of how Komunyakaa explores memory with empathy and openness, I often include his poems in my hand-outs. Two of his childhood poems from Magic City—“Venus’s-flytraps” and “My Father’s Love Letters”—are definitely on my all-time favorite list. A younger poet who I recently discovered while looking for models to use in a memoir class for veterans is Brian Turner. I admire the way his poems witness against violence and discover beauty in the Iraqi landscape and culture.
I could mention many other favorite poets who have inspired me, such as Matsuo Basho, Robert Browning, William Stafford, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Linda Paston, Ted Kooser, Jane Shore, Jane Kenyon, Li-Young Lee, and Julia Kasdorf, but I think I better stop!
GK: It’s good to hear your poetic-voice landscape, Shari, to add now to the Indiana landscapes you’ve mapped earlier. And—yes—I understand the urge to rein oneself in at some point, as there are many voices that feed us. Speaking of that which nourishes a person, besides being a writer, you’re also a photographer. How did that practice come about? And what connection, if any, do you see between photography and writing?
SW: I’m just an amateur, but I do enjoy taking photographs, especially of landscapes. I took photos of all the places I visited for The Harmonist at Nightfall and found that just the act of looking for the right angle made me notice things about each place I might have otherwise missed. Later, when I began to write, I’d spread those photos around me as a way to trigger memories and return to those places. I was glad my publisher included some of the photos in my book and honored that you asked to use some on this website. More recently, I’ve been taking photos that relate to my farm wife poems. I don’t know if they will find their way into the book, but I’m hoping a few do. In any case, they’ve led me to look closely at every aspect of my aunt and uncle’s farm—to poke around the root cellar and even crawl into the silo.
As for connections between writing and photography, it seems to me that there are some. With both, you search for subject matter, focus, and point of view. An attitude of exploration is essential and so is an openness to what arrives as a gift—an unexpected slant of light or simile. You try to avoid the cliché and sentimental, while looking for imagery that elicits emotion. With both, the choice of what you don’t include is as important as what you do.
GK: Your mention of your aunt and uncle’s root cellar reminds me of Theodore Roethke’s “greenhouse” sequence. As you likely know, the poet’s father owned and operated a twenty-five-acre greenhouse, which became a kind of Edenic environment and, later in life, a working metaphor for Roethke. The root cellar strikes me as a powerful image for, as poets, we need to examine not only the light but the dark places of the psyche as well. Darkness, too, can possess great fecundity. I see some of that interplay in The Harmonist at Nightfall, in which you examine various aspects of Indiana, even—well—locating the book’s title, as you do, at nightfall. Can you say a little about that interplay and what some of the dark parts of Indiana are, as you see them (history, culture, ancestry, and so on), which you try to transform and make generative either in that book or in other poems?
SW: That’s an interesting question. And, by the way, you can add Roethke to my earlier list. I love those greenhouse poems where everything is so intensely alive—even the root cellar with its “congress of stinks” and shoots dangling “like tropical snakes.”
In the natural world a lot of dark and dim places are actually pretty wonderful—like the caverns of Southern Indiana and the shadowy canyons of Turkey Run State Park. But, of course, the dark events associated with human history reflect a different kind of darkness—that of ignorance, greed, or fear. In Indiana history, the dark events that stand out for me are the removal of the Miami, Potawatomi, and Delaware tribes and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the Golden Circle. The decimation of species also deeply disturbs me. The Indiana forest was once lit by bright green and yellow Carolina parakeets, and the sky would darken with the flight of huge flocks of passenger pigeons. But the birds were hunted for sport or food or their feathers until not one bird was left. It seems sad and ironic that the animals the Miami believed were sacred and had sanctions against killing—wolves and rattlesnakes—were the same creatures settlers shot and clubbed in huge festive outings.
It also strikes me as ironic that the parts of history we call “dark” are often created by those who fear the mystery and otherness that darkness as an archetype represents. If we can embrace the unknown as part of ourselves—part of our own shadow—then I see hope for ourselves and the earth. Throughout Indiana history there are examples of people who saw themselves intimately connected to “the other” and their actions reflected that. For me, the prime example would be Levi and Catherine Coffin of Fountain City who over the years hid hundreds of fugitive slaves in a secret attic—its door behind the headboard of their bed.
GK: Those are powerful stories, Shari. And your stories about animals, in particular, make me think, as well, about the bison that used to roam Indiana and Kentucky until a similar decimation took place. I find your sensitivity to interactions with the environment moving. I see a similar respect in your poems for history, as we’ve discussed earlier (if you think about it, it wasn’t that long ago that Indiana was “the Northwest Territory”). I know you also write memoir. Does Indiana history and the environment emerge when you write in that genre as well? What makes you turn to one genre over the other at particular times and/or for certain topics?
SW: I just finished collaborating with my father on a book that weaves his stories of being a family doctor in Markle, Indiana, with the history of the area, going back to 1850 when the first doctor arrived, and, even before that, to when Little Turtle’s granddaughter, Kilsoquah, lived in a nearby Miami village. Making the Rounds: Memoirs of a Doctor and a Town assumes that health is related to a sense of belonging to a community, something Wendell Berry asserts in his essay, “Health Is Membership.” That sense of belonging is strengthened and deepened when you know your community’s stories—when you appreciate the history of the quarry you swim in and the main street where you walk.
A Hundred Camels, another memoir my dad and I worked on together, reconnected me to another landscape, though far from Indiana. That book includes my dad’s experiences in Somalia as a Mennonite mission doctor, as well as historical and cultural background and descriptions of the landscape. Our hope for that book was that it would help American readers care about Somalia and its people—just as our hope for Making the Rounds is that readers will care more about Indiana’s struggling small towns, communities that have trouble retaining and attracting young people, especially young doctors.
As to why I choose poetry or nonfiction, that depends on a variety of factors, including purpose and audience. Sometimes I’ll write about the same material in both genres. Years ago I wrote a poem retelling a folktale I heard while living in the Clifton-Choctaw community—a story about a rattlesnake that hypnotized a little girl so that she fed him the food from her plate. About five years ago, I grew interested in going back to that folktale (a story the community treated as fact and not fiction) and using it as a metaphor to explore the disorder of anorexia. Working within an essay, I could treat the topic more overtly and reach out in a lot more directions.
GK: Speaking of reaching out, what advice do you have for young poets?
SW: Read poetry—lots of it! Become well-acquainted with the old masters but read contemporary poets as well. Read first for enjoyment and then to study how the poems are constructed. How do form, content, sound, rhythm, and imagery all work together to reinforce meaning and create a unique voice? Open yourself to diverse voices, but when you find a poet who speaks to you in a personal way, read and reread everything that poet has written. Buy his or her books. Recite the poems aloud.
And write everyday—at the same time and place if possible. If you establish the habit of writing, you’ll be astonished by how much you start looking forward to that space in your day. About ten years ago, I finally set up a writing routine after reading Donald Hall’s memoir, Life Work. Hall wrote that he couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning so he could get started writing and described his routine with such enthusiasm that I decided I needed one, too. Now writing has just become the natural thing to do in the morning with my first cup of coffee. I love that segment of my day when I lose contact with the clock. In fact, the challenge for me is pulling myself away from my writing to do other things.
Something else I’ve learned is how important it is to have a receptive attitude when starting a poem. Instead of approaching it with the idea that you know where it’s supposed to go or with the idea that it needs to be perfect, approach it as an explorer. You might make a lot of false starts, but that’s fine. Let curiosity propel you forward. Discover what you’re going to write in the process of writing it. And take that same openness out into the world—poems don’t always have to come to you, you can also go out to meet them, often in some unlikely places. Remain open to new ideas when you join writing groups or take workshops. I find that the writers in a workshop who make the greatest progress are the ones who aren’t defensive, who are actually eager for criticism and see revision as part of the creative process.