Some Poems from Big Cypress
All around you the plants drip like rain. They reach for you. You feel your legs giving way, you cannot tell where one plant ends and another begins. You know if you go any deeper, bromeliads will sprout from your arms, the rain will slowly dissolve any memory of what it means to be human. You like the sound of this—for a moment you think, I can lose my self in this deep swamp. But you do not know if you will ever be able to make it back. You cannot tell if this feeling is an invitation or a warning.
Observing from the edge this brown obedient patch of mirror, you’d never guess that you could plunge eighteen times your height to the center’s depth. And if you could—like an anhinga—submerge, swimming with your feet, then glide above, body meandering the distant past, head held above in the present of fronds and ivies, what would you find there? Periphyton plumped and crumbled a dozen seasons or more, yards of crystals that once graced the spines of mosquitofish, stony fins that wandered an ancient inland sea? Those are pearls that were his eyes,
say the alligators, surfacing, watching.
Sawgrass folds away as the flower is found, a winged purple thing, in color calling to mind children’s eyes. Two miles into the morning, it is the only orchid blooming anywhere. Wind lifts the sepals:
we will not be back this way
(Calopogon tuberosus var. simspsonii)
Out Here Distinctions Blur: An Interview with Wendy Burk and Eric Magrane
by Bonnie Jean Michalski
Poet and recent addition to the Poetry Center’s staff Wendy Burk and poet and professional hiking guide Eric Magrane recently completed an artist residency in Big Cypress National Preserve, a freshwater swamp of more than 720,000 acres that nourishes the Everglades and marine environments of southern Florida. Eric and Wendy reflect on their adventures in Big Cypress and give us some insights into their upcoming one-day Writing in the Field poetry class, which will combine poetry and the wilderness in similar ways.
BJ: How did two Tucson-based poets find themselves in Florida?
EM: We were selected to be Artists in Residence at Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress is a giant freshwater swamp filled with alligators, orchids, sawgrass, and apple snails. While there, we wrote a collaborative poem series based on our experience of the Preserve.
WB: This is our third residency in a National Park. In 2001, we were residents at Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, and in 2003 we continued our collaborative poem project at Buffalo National River in Arkansas. We now plan to collect our three poem series into a book-length manuscript centered on these three waterscapes.
BJ: How did you get there?
EM: We drove so that we would have use of our vehicle at Big Cypress. It took about three days to drive—most of that being in the expansive states of Texas and Florida.
WB: We actually first learned that the National Park Service offers Artist in Residence programs at the Poetry Center. About eight years ago, we were browsing through a binder in the old house on Helen Street and found an application. For Big Cypress, we received travel grants from the Tucson Pima Arts Council and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. So, the City of Tucson and the State of Arizona also helped us to get there.
BJ: How long did you stay? Did you stay in a five-star hotel?
EM: We stayed at Big Cypress for three weeks in National Park housing, sharing a large house with one of Big Cypress’s park rangers. Our housing was in the middle of the Preserve; we could walk out of our door onto the Florida Trail, into cypress strands, pinelands, and tropical hardwood hammocks. We were also a short walk from the Oasis Visitor Center, where we had access to a studio and library related to the Preserve.
WB: May is the hinge between dry and wet season in Big Cypress. By the time we left, we saw the water levels rise and experienced a few dramatic thunderstorms. In fact, we left Big Cypress in the pouring rain. Stopping at Kirby Storter, a favorite boardwalk that passes through several habitats and into an alligator hole, we got soaked to the skin as we watched a white ibis fluttering through the swamp, seeking shelter.
BJ: Describe your day-to-day at Big Cypress.
WB: Every day we walked and wrote, in books we carried in our pockets or in our heads. Eric, how would you describe that process?
EM: It’s a process of paying close attention. When we first arrived, the swamp felt a little intimidating—we were nervous that if we wandered off we might stumble, literally, onto an alligator or cottonmouth. But through getting out each day, alone or with rangers, we learned to see the environment, the different habitats, and how they related to each other. Learning the names of what we came across, such as the grass-pink orchid or the cardinal bromeliad, and learning how to distinguish different plants and habitats within the landscape helped me to feel that I could write from the place. Everything about the landscape also felt prehistoric and mythical; I think this is part of what helped us to choose prose poetry as the form for our Big Cypress poem series. And the process of writing collaboratively is always fun—I find that my attachment to the poem is a bit different. For example, I might leave lines or images in that I normally wouldn’t, knowing that they might mesh well with Wendy’s aesthetic and voice.
BJ: I’m interested in your idea of the prose poem mirroring the mythical, which to me also suggests the collective. Eric talks about collaborating as a writer with Wendy; did the alligators, cottonmouths, ibises and even the cypress trees also find a voice in your poems?
WB: With this residency, I thought a lot about the reader, particularly a reader who might look to the poems as a way of learning about Big Cypress or interpreting the landscape. In that sense, the poems seem to arise from our human perspective, as a way of modeling human connection to a natural environment. However, the characters or actors within that environment are definitely the birds, trees, reptiles, flowers, and weather. And we enjoy pushing the boundaries between what’s human and what’s not. Eric has a poem that says, “out here / distinctions blur,” which I think describes our collaborative work as well.
BJ: Did you take a lot of photos? If so, did the process of taking the photos play into your writing process at all?
EM: We brought along our digital camera and did take plenty of photos. We’d download the photos onto our laptop every couple of days. Sometimes looking through the photos a day or two after we took them would help jar open a poem or show us how to frame a poem we were working on, so to speak. Looking to take photos while in the field is always a little bit of a balancing act, though. In a project like this, I’m conscious to not fall too much into taking photos. If the first response in coming across something noteworthy is always “let’s take a picture,” I’m afraid the language/poetry response could become secondary.
BJ: You two are teaching for, but not at, the Poetry Center this summer. Can you tell us a bit about that class, and perhaps how your residency at Big Cypress might be relevant?
WB: With our “Poetry Goes for a Hike” class, we would like to give others the chance to experience writing in the field, as we did at Big Cypress. So, the class will be completing a moderate 3- to 5-mile hike at the top of Mount Lemmon, and writing as we go.
EM: We go to hiking for many of the same reasons we go to poetry. Moving through a landscape, one footstep at a time, encourages an attentive mindset similar to moving through a poem. In the class, we’ll practice ways of inhabiting that mindset—where the inner and outer, natural and wild, worlds meet. And in July it’s great weather up high in the Catalina Mountains, quite a bit cooler than down in town. No alligators, but plenty of pine trees.