By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café is honored to feature the work from poets from all over the globe. This week, we present the work of poet Cathryn Essinger!
Cathryn Essinger is the author of five books of poetry—most recently The Apricot and the Moon and Wings, or Does the Caterpillar Dream of Flight?, both from Dos Madres Press. She is primarily a narrative poet with an interest in nature. Her poems can be found in a wide variety of journals, from The New England Review to PANK. She lives in Troy, Ohio, where she raises Monarch butterflies and tries to live up to her dog's expectations. Some of her poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation website, and others are online.
Cathryn is always surprised when someone Googles her and asks about her poems, especially her dog poems. When people start sending her pictures of their dog “driving,” she knows that a particular poem (“The Man Next Door Is Teaching His Dog to Drive”) has been reprinted somewhere.
"After they are published, poems sort of take on a life of their own, don’t they? Sometimes they return home, sort of like grown children, just to say hello."
Read more abut Cathryn Essinger on her website.
We reached out the Cathryn to talk to her about her work, passions, and influences.
Please meet Cathryn Essinger!
Annie Newcomer: Cathy, welcome, to our Flapper Press Poetry Café. In reading over your submission, this line especially touched me:
"I am not out to try to save the world—just to repair a little of the damage that we have done to the planet."
Can you expound on how your poetry accomplishes this tender goal?
Cathryn Essinger: Wouldn’t that be lovely, if poetry could repair the planet?! I think it’s going to take a lot more than poetry to fix the damage that we’ve done to our home, but I do think we can change some attitudes that have caused the problem. I wasn’t going to write about raising butterflies—it was just something that I like to do—but invariably it creeped into my poetry.
I raise Monarchs and Black Swallowtails, and when I’m lucky, a few other moths and butterflies. I don’t think a few more butterflies here and there are going to tip the balance, nor are Monarch butterflies likely to go extinct. But those of us who live in the Midwest could easily lose that incredible migration to Mexico that is threatened by everything from our lawn chemicals to climate change.
My neighbors know that I don’t use chemicals on my lawn and why. I also let the milkweed, violets, and Queens Anne’s lace run rampant in the hedgerow because they are all food sources for swallowtails. Most of my neighbors have lawns that I would call chemical masterpieces. (One of my biggest pet peeves are the lawn companies that advertise their products as “all natural.” Of course, they ARE natural, but so is arsenic and cyanide, and their concoctions kill nevertheless.) Gradually, however, people are coming around. I wrote about a local farmer who, after years of tilling the fields, in his retirement decided to raise bees and to let the milkweed grow for the butterflies. The title of the poem is “Roundup Ready,” which is the brand name of the weed killer that has wiped out the milkweed in most of the farmland in the Midwest and, thus, threatened the Monarch butterflies.
The poems in my chapbook, Wings, or Does the Caterpillar Dream of Flight?, talk the reader through the lifecycle of the Monarch caterpillar and butterfly. Proceeds from that volume I donate to various conservation groups, and I usually hand out milkweed seeds when I do readings. It’s fun to get emails from readers who say, “My seeds came up, and I have caterpillars in the garden.” Creating a safe place for small things to grow only saves a small bit of the planet, but writing about it can certainly make more people aware of the problem. Small things matter.
AN: I live on the border of Kansas and Missouri, about twenty houses from the state line. My poetry workshops are in both states. I can see ways in which poets in these two states differ. So I am curious, is there a uniqueness that you find in poets who reside in your state of Ohio? Or not? Please share your thoughts on this question.
CE: I’ve lived in both Kansas and Missouri, and I can see a difference in their populations. Ohio is definitely the heart of the Midwest, and most of our poets reflect that Midwest background. But, Ohio is also a very diverse state—lots of farmland, lots of big cities. I like to go to some poetry readings in Toledo, where I grew up and still have family. Poets in the Toledo and Cleveland area often emphasize their Rust Belt roots; in fact, there are journals named after that local reference and some wonderful urban poets. However, I live north of Dayton, on the farthest edge of Appalachia, and you can see that heritage in local writing as well. In fact, our state poet laureate for the last two years, Kari Gunter-Seymour, is from the Appalachian region of Ohio, and she published an anthology, I Thought I Heard a Cardinal Sing, which was a hugely successful collection of poetry with Appalachian themes. But, because of the migration from Appalachia to Ohio, you can hear southern accents all the way up to Toledo and Cleveland.
Actually, I have lived all over the Midwest. We moved a lot with my father’s job when I was growing up. I used to tell people, “Name a state in the Midwest, and I’ve probably lived there!” I do think there is a Midwest sensibility that, for me, is an emphasis on nature and farmland, but for others it is the industrial heartland and the work ethic that goes with that kind of daily labor.
AN: With your interest in nature as well as writing poems, do you feel that it is important for a poet to do research in order to be factual in their poetry, or is imagery and metaphor sufficient? Why do you think this is either important or not important?
CE: I think that question pretty much answers itself—if I didn’t do the research, I wouldn’t have anything to write about! I don’t set out to research any particular topic. I just follow my own curiosity and find out what I need to know. If a poem comes out of those interests, that’s great, but I don’t set out to research a topic so I can write a poem, although I certainly know writers who do that. For me, it’s just an exploratory experience, and the poem becomes part of that.
That said, it’s awfully important to get the facts right. Please don’t confuse the difference between butterflies and moths or tell me that some critter overwinters when it obviously does not. If you follow your own interests, whether it’s reading the evening news or hiking up a mountain, that becomes research and, invariably, a part of your writing life.
I am always delighted when a poem teaches me something, so I love reading those poets who work their research into their poems. Paula Lambert has taught me a lot about birds in her poetry, and Dick Westheimer writes about current events in such a way that you know he has done his “research” by following the evening news. Myrna Stone, however, is a formal poet who bases most of her writing on research and the biographies of women who have been neglected by history—the wives of famous men, for instance. I have learned a lot from reading these poets! And I should mention Marion Boyer, who has recently published a volume of poems titled Ice Hours about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Beautifully researched and a chilling read.
AN: You describe yourself as a narrative poet. For those who do not know the definition of narrative poetry, might you share your thoughts on what defines this form and the ways it differs from other forms? Also, include why you are drawn to the narrative.
CE: I could make an argument that ALL poetry is narrative with very few exceptions, simply because everyone expects a story. It is almost innate to our thinking process—put three birds on a wire and someone is seeing correlation in that arrangement. (Need an example? Two of the three birds are sitting closer together—are they a mated pair? Why is the third one there? Is it an offspring or another adult that is being excluded?) Correlation is not causation, but we are so hardwired to follow a narrative thread that we have to be reminded ourselves of that fact. Even imagistic poems, and even surrealism, define themselves by their emphasis, or lack of it, on narrative.
What we find disturbing about surrealism is that someone has messed with the narrative. We struggle to find the storyline, and that itself becomes the story. Even the imagistic poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams begins with “So much depends upon,” and then the reader threads the pieces into their own narrative. That said, there are some language poets, some song lyrics, maybe some haikus, that manage to avoid a narrative, but even there I think the lack of a narrative sort of defines the poem! We are storytelling animals, and that defines the way we see the world and how we think about it.
AN: I am looking into tagging monarchs in the fall at the University of Kansas. Do you tag monarchs?
CE: I hope you get to tag Monarchs. It's a wonderful experience. I don't tag many because I only bring in the ones that I think are "making poor choices." Making a chrysalis on the hubcap of my husband's car is a bad choice, as is trying to climb the bird bath, or three caterpillars on one very small piece of milkweed. I actually brought home a caterpillar one time that was waiting for the light to change at a major intersection in Troy. I have no idea where he came from, but it was a bad choice. I do kind of keep track of the ones in the garden just to see if they are growing and finding enough to eat. I bring some in to entertain the neighborhood kids and to try to convince my neighbors to stop poisoning their lawns.
Another reason that I don’t tag is that I like to look up in the fall and imagine that they are ALL MINE! In the poem “The Migration,” I mention that it’s fairly common to follow flocks of butterflies on radar. I wrote in that poem, “According to weather reports, the leading edge is already south of Tulsa, 500,000 strong, flying at 2,500 feet, just ahead of a cold front, winging toward the Texas funnel into Mexico.” You can’t imagine that scenario without wondering if a few of the Monarchs from your own backyard are among that group making their way to safety among the oyamel firs of Mexico.
AN: I love this answer. I have such fond memories of the neighbors who engaged with me as a child. Do you ever have opportunities to share poetry with the neighborhood children?
CE: I don’t often share poems with the neighborhood kids, but I taught college freshman and sophomores for many years. In my mind, they are still “kids.” Once I tell them that I am a poet and we read a few poems along with our other assignments, invariably someone will come up to me and say, “I’ve written this poem; can I show it to you?” There are a lot of closet poets out there. Sometimes people just need permission to talk about poetry.
As for butterflies, honestly, the kids are pretty well educated! The elementary school teachers are doing a great job raising butterflies in their classrooms. It’s their parents and other adults who have missed out on the natural education. If I take some caterpillars or butterflies to an educational event, it’s the kids who come up and tell me that “this is the butterfly that goes all the way to Mexico!” That doesn’t mean that they are willing to touch them, however! Usually it is dad or mom who will demonstrate that the caterpillars are harmless, and the butterflies can be picked up without damaging their wings. I let them walk up the children’s arms, which is a good chance to explain that butterflies taste with their feet.
AN: Today, you will share three beautiful nature poems. Since you submitted, however, I leaned that you are also working on WWII poetry. Might I ask you to share one from that series?
CE: I'll be glad to send a WWII poem. This is the poem that started me on this project. The title is "Home," and it was published in The Naugatuck River Review, which features narrative poems.
I show my mother an old picture of five girls
with their arms linked, and although she can
no longer tell you what day it is, she smiles
and says, Oh, Easter, 1945, the war is over.
The boys are coming home, coming from Japan,
Okinawa, and the Philippines. No more dancing
with other girls, or with flat-footed, 4F boys.
Soon there would be sugar and butter, new shoes,
kisses and weddings. I am wearing my last pair
of silk stockings that your father sent from Hawaii.
We were so happy. The girls are in flowered skirts,
but my mother is wearing cream colored suit,
to compliment her curves. Cut on the bias
with a sculpted lapel, it is almost too stylish
for Kirksville, Missouri. Where did you get the suit?
I ask, and she replies, If I'm wearing it, I made it.
She made her wedding gown, regretted the purchase
of a headpiece, but there was no time! They had
their lives to catch up on.The ivory gown
was lost among many moves, but the cutlery
and the kitchenware that my father brought
home from the Navy, each piece labeled USN,
They used for a lifetime—mixing shortcake,
stirring the soup, buttering the biscuits
that came out of the oven so hot they were
impossible to hold. My father would laugh
as he tossed one from hand to hand,
saying, It doesn't get any better than this!
AN: Thank you. What a fine example of a narrative poem. Before we share your "Nature's Narratives," is there a question that I didn't ask you that you wish I had or anything about your poetic life you might like to share with our readers before we turn to your poems?
CE: Here is a response that I wrote recently for a local group that is putting together an anthology. They wanted to know “Why” you write poetry.
I write poetry because I want to find out what I am thinking about. I am not one of those little girls who wrote poetry even in grade school, and yet I always knew that I could write. It was sort of a default way of thinking for me. I came to poetry after first trying fiction, which I found frustrating and difficult, because I kept fiddling with the individual sentences instead of getting into the narrative. So, narrative poetry became a transition between fiction and poetry for me. I don’t have the patience to sit down and write a novel. The only novel that I ever wrote I converted into poems, and I felt much more satisfied with the results.
My son is a successful fiction writer, and I am sure he throws out more in one sitting than I do in a month of twizzling with a poem. I am also antsy and can’t sit still for long periods of time, so I often memorize things that I am working on and rewrite while I’m walking. That may be another reason that I am drawn to nature poetry—a walk with the dog always clears my head and gives me an opportunity to rework troublesome wording. The squirrels really don’t care about your problems, and the dog has grown accustomed to my mumbling.
AN: This has been a delight to converse with you, Cathy. I hope that you will participate in our ACT TWO feature in 2024–2025 that we offer our previously published poets.
I am astonished by your many levels of interest in nature and life that we have barely touched on in this flash interview. We will be eager to invite you back to our Flapper Press Poetry Café in the future.
CE: Thank you, Annie, and Flapper Press, for letting me talk about the things that inspire nature poetry.
The backstory on this poem is pretty much what happens in the poem! A cardinal hit our winter window and fell, head first, into a snow bank. I went out to see if he was still alive. He was cold and stunned but turned his head to look at me. I put him in a container—the closest thing at hand was a cake box! I brought him in to warm up, assuming the worst. About an hour later, I heard motion in the box and lifted the lid slightly to see if he was on his feet. I should have known better, because he immediately saw that sliver of light and bolted out of the box. He flew threw every room of the house, the dog following in amazement, until I could get ahead of him and open a large patio door. He flew to the top of a very large maple tree and began to sing his heart out. He had a story to tell, and I was glad to be part of it.
There are all kinds of superstitions about birds in the house, but this fellow's intensity was remarkable, and until I held them in my hand I don't think I realized how red a male cardinal could be, and it was February, the Valentine month.
The cardinal that I rescued from a snow bank
is now proselytizing from the top of the maple.
I hope he is mentioning the warmth of the house,
the fancy new birdfeeder with sunflower seed
and the heated water bowl on the patio.
I suspect he is talking mostly about himself,
like most of the converts that I have met,
as if their revelations might be passed on
like a simple communion, since none of us can
depend upon being God-smacked by a window,
or expect a warming hand to lift us from the cold.
We have to make do with whatever falls our way.
And yet, today I held a red bird in my hand,
feathers askew, topknot blown to one side,
brighter than a valentine taped to the closet door.
In truth, I could have held him all day, made him
a familiar at my window sill. But I know
he should be singing for his mate, advertising
his prowess, promising to defend their nest.
I hope she will not find him wanting, can warm
to his exuberance, is not offended by his urgency,
or the new longing in his song that only I can hear.
I volunteer at a local rehab center where people bring foundlings—little squirrels, rabbits, opossums, skunks, ducklings, fox, turtles, bats, ground hogs, weasels . . . almost anything that has been broken or abandoned. We take them in, try to repair the damage done by their encounters with civilization. Many can be rehabbed and eventually released back into the wild. Some, of course, cannot, and it makes you realize how much Nature over-provides. Trust me—there are plenty of squirrels and rabbits in the Midwest. Very few of the animals that come our way are endangered, and yet we take them all because even starlings and grackles deserve a second chance. This says more about people, of course, than it does about the wildlife, but I like what it says.
Brukner Nature Center, Troy, Ohio
April, and already the Spring casualties are arriving.
Blown from their nests, abandoned in attics,
broken from falls,
they all arrive cold and hungry with a story to tell.
If they share their fears, take comfort in each other,
we have no way of knowing—
they are mouths to be fed. The nestling spreads his
wings and cannot keep his balance, but his mouth
opens steady as a flame.
We poke insect paste down his throat. How easily
we imitate a mother's bill. He eats and poops
and sleeps--the perfect baby,
except for his hunger which arrives like forgiveness
every twenty minutes. Designed to survive, they
cry and squirm and accept
the world that is given to them. The albino tumbles
with his siblings in a Tupperware nest. He does not
imagine himself unique.
The turtle with the broken shell accepts his medicine
as if it were his lot to open his mouth
and swallow things whole.
They have no way of knowing that they are expendable,
that they are working the odds, that Nature
always over provides.
A knock on the door and another litter arrives—kits
laced so tightly in the bottom of a box they are
impossible to count.
This poem was previously published at Innisfree Poetry Journal.
This poem was written in early fall during the pandemic when we were all staying pretty close to home. I raise butterflies, mostly Monarchs, hoping to preserve the migration from the Midwest to Mexico. Monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate, and we are in endanger of losing the migration because we have destroyed most of the milkweed with Round Up Ready crops. Milkweed is the only plant that Monarch caterpillars can feed on. Raising butterflies mostly involves creating a space with native plants, free from pesticides and lawn chemicals. In this poem, I am actually waiting for some Black Swallowtail caterpillars to form their chrysalis for the winter. They do not migrate and are not endangered. They spend the winter in some kind of suspended state before emerging in the spring. I am offering them a safe place to overwinter once they are ready to form a chrysalis.
I have written a chapbook about raising Monarchs titled Wings, or Does the Caterpillar Dream of Flight? I donate the proceeds from this chapbook to Monarch preservation sites, such as Journey North, and to our local rehab center.
I write a lot about animals and try not to personify them too obviously. A well-known poet once told me to "never personify animals" because it would make me read like a Disney movie. I think I have spent a good part of my writing career trying to prove him wrong! I actually have a poem that addresses that up at Poetry Foundation website titled "My Dog Practices Geometry." I have not included it here because it has been reprinted quite a bit.
I Ask the Caterpillars about Meditation
The caterpillars in the garden
have eaten all of the dill and
are moving on to the parsley.
Every morning I go out to ask
if they are ready for a hand into
the future, and every morning
they reply, Just a bit longer . . .
But nights are getting cold, and
I remind them that I've saved
a place for them to pass the winter,
suspended in chrysalis, protected
from mice and unseasonal warmth.
All I want in return is to ask
them how they fold in,
infinitely, upon themselves,
and go into a meditation so deep
that time is no longer a constant.
But mostly, I want their advice
on how to return in the spring
as a changeling, where everything
is familiar--the dizzying mix
of sun and shadow, the breeze
that stirs the linden--and yet
nothing is ever quite the same
Click to hear audio of Cathryn Essinger read her poem "Fractals in November, or Why All Things Remain the Same"
Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit, that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community. Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!
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