“Pull me down into the stout mud of buried crayfish and broken clay pots” (p. 20), into the world recreated in the poetry of Steve Ausherman.
And hurry, because this place is disappearing.
The aim of Ausherman’s chapbook, “Creek Bed Blue,” however, seems to reach beyond mere relic. The writer’s powers of observation — arguably almost as important a tool as language itself — seek to to depict an environment all of us will care about preserving, by reminding country folk of their roots and showing city-dwellers a world they may not yet know.
Above all else, Ausherman’s poems are a meditation on place. To ground readers in his beloved “creek beds” and “grassy fields” (p. 1), he endeavors to craft images they can not only see, but touch, smell and taste, too. All sense of the world he’s telling us about, in fact, is made via the image.
There is, as writers say, no telling here, only showing.
The most banal country objects buzz truer when personified through someone’s fond recollection; “She hears the carrots humming in the darkness from the back fields” (p. 12), Ausherman intimates in a poem dedicated to his mother, a litany of sounds called “Breaking Upon the Anvil.”
The litany is one of many forms Ausherman employs in this collection. Readers of poetry will delight in its variety, from couplets and prose poems to short and choppy lines interspersed with longer, contemplative ones.
Nature-lovers unfamiliar with poetry will have plenty to enjoy in Ausherman’s many remembrances, anchored by elements of the outdoors: “Small clouds of white snow burst / with each fall of my boots on frozen ground” (p. 19).
The author shows unwavering reverence for elders and familial relationships, the almost elegiac tone he takes for talking about both people and places.
“ … Taste my heritage running down DNA strands, / of corn, of church pews,” Ausherman instructs (p. 23). “Dance down your sacred bones” (p. 24).
In Ausherman’s poetry, remembering is prayer, description is worship and observation is tribute.
Read for yourself:
Red Fox Night
Fiery thieves breaking into homes
of scrub-bristled thicket stickers.
Chase the sky
you dying-sounding animal
howling at 2 a.m.
Dance your sacred dances.
Dance down the bones of your ancestors.
Race your toothy-hair talons
into your dreamy world
before the rise of suburbs
upon this aging land.
Dance down the skin of starry skies.
Dance down your sacred bones.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve Ausherman about his poetry and influences:
SMF: Tell us about the process of compiling and publishing your collection of poems, “Creek Bed Blue.”
SA: The book of poems is a culmination of a decade-long process of writing about my childhood, family, and the rural landscape of York County where I was raised.
Hitting my mid-30s was like an emotional wake-up call to me in that I was seeing family members pass away and the farm areas where I grew up being crowded out by golf courses, suburban development and ever-increasing flows of traffic. I began to write about York in order to understand both my past and the changing emotional and physical landscape that my family inhabited.
After having many of these poems published in various literary journals throughout the years, I was lucky enough to have an offer from Encircle Publications to publish the work after I had submitted it as a manuscript to a chapbook competition.
SMF:Yours is a poetry of nature, of rural living, of place. Do you write from a place of nostalgia, or a need to pay homage or immortalize?
SA: I feel both nostalgia and a sense of loss when I write about my family. I want to immortalize both family and place in my work. I want to be careful to celebrate farm living while acknowledging the hardships — physical, financial, emotional — that this life involved.
My grandparent’s generation were raised on farms and weathered the hardships of the Great Depression. Their generation was unlike ours in the way that wearing your heart and hardship on your sleeve was considered poor form. My mother recently shared with me that my grandfather had to go live at another family’s farm when he was 8 or 10 years old because his parents couldn’t provide enough food to feed all of their kids. She told me that his brother had to go to a different family’s farm to live, as well. Each boy worked on those farms in exchange for food and a roof over his head. My mother said that she didn’t know this fact about her father until she was well into her 30s, as no one ever spoke about it.
In part, I write to both discover experiences such as my grandfather’s, and to understand the hidden rivers of my family’s experience that flow just below the surface of our collective lives.
SMF: Do you agree with the part of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s blurb of your book that the “rural way of life” you capture is “disappearing”?
SA: I do believe that this rural way of life is disappearing. In many ways, it had already disappeared by the time that my mother’s generation was entering the workforce. By the mid- to late 50s, supermarkets had replaced the process of people buying local produce at farmer’s markets and local grocers. That was the death knell in many ways for family farmers like my grandfather. Even if I (or the people of my parent’s generation) had wanted to work the family farm, there was no kidding myself that it couldn’t have been a sustainable way of life. I would’ve needed a job to buy gas, groceries, clothes and to pay property taxes. No amount of strawberries, corn or potatoes that I could’ve pulled out of the ground could cover local property taxes alone. This process fact of people not being able to afford to work the land and hand that way of life down to their children is evident in every corner of York County, where subdivisions sit where farms and fields used to prosper, and supermarkets, shopping malls and apartment complexes sprout in plots where once only sprouted corn.
What is shocking to me is that everyone talks about “going green” and “sustainable living” and there is no more green and sustainable way of life that the American family farm. There is no better way to reduce your carbon footprint than by buying local produce. Meanwhile, York County soil and farmland is some of the best in the country and we are growing lawns and parking lots upon it instead of food. It is a shocking dichotomy in a time of dwindling resources, high energy costs, and a time of record unemployment, but it appears that there is no going back from this process of suburban sprawl.
In my writing I want to pay homage to the food — the sour cherry pies, fastnacht donuts and sauerkraut of Central Pennsylvania. I want to remind people that that falling down farmhouse that they pass on the way to work once held pigs and cows, hay bales and tractors; that the hawk circling in the air is hunting mice in nearby fields and that the whitetail deer, groundhogs, and foxes are all things that can be lost if all that is valued is the newest restaurant going up nearby, or a new subdivision going in, or building yet another strip mall. I know that things change and ways of life are lost to time and history, but I’d like my poems to inspire people to reflect upon what exactly it is that they are losing in this process of endless growth and what might be done to stop it.
SMF: I wasn’t in the least surprised to learn from your bio that, in addition to being a poet, you are also a painter and a photographer — your poems are so rich with imagery, and the voice you write in is one that is comfortable in the role of observer. Can you speak a bit about how these artistic outlets inform each other?
SA: I love the visual arts. I purchased my first camera at the age of fourteen from money I earned mowing lawns, working at a local greenhouse, and working for my dad’s small business and haven’t stopped taking pictures since! I love the way that photography makes you slow down and see the world in new ways. I love the cropping involved in composing a new image and the creative choices that you are making both intuitively and intentionally in that process. The process of shooting is similar to me to the process of writing … of reveling in the play of words, an inspiring thought, or in recording an overheard snippet of conversation. On the other hand, printing photos reminds me of the process of editing writing. Whether “burning-in” light areas on photo paper in the darkroom or color balancing a digital print utilizing Photoshop software, there is a similarity to the process of cutting words, playing with voice and syntax, or rearranging lines to better serve the poem.
Painting feels like the process of writing poetry to me. Colors mix and paint flows. Forms dissolve and reappear in the constant and playful application of paint upon canvas. In this way, it feels like traveling and writing about the light out of a train window, or lightning over an exotic city, or the process of trying to capture the smell of a tropical jungle in ink and memory. Painting allows you to juxtapose ideas and images in ways similar to that of poetry. Poets and painters remind me of one another. They are madcap fools, romantics, dreamers and drunks who are desperately in love with a beautiful and painful world and want to get it all down on canvas or paper before they die. Such fools … poets and painters.
SMF: Who are some of your influences and/or favorite writers? Presses and publications?
SA: I love the writing of the beat-era poet Gary Snyder for his love of the woods, Eastern thought and travel. Wendell Berry’s poetry moves me in the subtle ways in which he captures the hardship, beauty and sublime nature of country living. I love the books of Natalie Goldberg … her books on writing inspire and provoke, her memoirs are subtle and yet astound. I love Richard Russo’s books and the way that he writes about dying American towns and the spirit of the people still holding on within them.
I love reading the bi-annual publication The Aurorean for the love of the natural world that the poets within its pages exhibit. Rattle publishes poetry that often blows my hair back it is so good. The Sun magazine never fails to act as a splash of cold water in my face with the honesty of the stories, interviews, and fiction found within its pages.
SMF: You grew up in York County, but currently reside in New Mexico. What are your newer poems like? Does the new-to-you physical landscape inform your poems to the degree that rural Pa. informed the poems in your book?
SA: New Mexico is a stunning place. There is no way that words can bring to life the vistas, high mountain peaks, rich sunsets, starry skies, sand dunes, desert waterfalls and ancient Native American ruins of this beautiful and nature-filled place … but I try to do so in my poetry. I still write about Pennsylvania, but also write about my adventures exploring the American West, traveling the world with my wife Denise, and the everyday beauty and sorrow of living and working in this culture.
I am working on a new book. I want my next one to be a full-length poetry collection. I envision it being split into several sections that celebrate my adopted state of New Mexico, capture memories of travels, and share stories of some of the characters I have been blessed (and cursed) to have known throughout the years. We’ll see what happens.