Featured Poet: Susan Powell
Susan Powell and her grey wolf, Idgie.
“I was born in Altus, Arkansas, during a snowstorm on January 31st, 1954, two weeks before my expected arrival that Valentine’s Day. After the war and ten years of praying, my parents were finally credited with an off-beat child who did everything early, from walking at ten months to reading Sunday School stories ‘for kids’ at three.” As if obsessed with making up for their lost time, Susan ran headlong into the truth of the only child syndrome: “You’re always guilty, when you’re the only one to blame.” This philosophy gave her the right to do anything she wanted in her own time. Her very existence, these sixty-six years, has made a poet of her just “trying to clarify the imagery, squeeze the truth from the sublime . . . create a time zone that truly surpasses our time” (interview with Gerry Sloan, March 2020).
Powell attended high school in Danville, Arkansas, and started a music degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, though her studies were interrupted by a serious auto accident, after which she continued her studies at Arkansas Tech University and changed her major to English, under the tutelage of B. C. (Clarence) Hall and especially Francis Irby Gwaltney, to whom she dedicated her poem “Southern Comfort” (published in Nebo and available online). She also formed a close relationship with the poet Miller Williams, who is included in the “Southern Comfort” dedication. Powell was student editor of the Tech literary magazine 5 Cent Cigar, later rechristened Nebo.
Powell received her BA from Tech in 1976 and her MFA in poetry at the University of Arizona in 1981 where her primary mentors were Tess Gallagher and Richard Shelton. She subsequently taught at the University of Arizona, the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville, Little Rock, and Fort Smith campuses), Arkansas Tech University, and the University of Central Arkansas. She also taught at North Arkansas Community College (now NWACC) in Rogers and at Garland County Community College in Hot Springs, where she founded and directed creative writing and film programs. She was also a member of the Hot Springs Film Festival Committee, as well as the director of Serious Poets, Etc., a reading group that performed around the state.
In 1996, Powell was bestowed with what she considers a notable honor: she and her constant companion grey wolf, Idgie, were asked to serve as literary ambassadors when American grey wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. It was a wonderful experience for both of them. Their cabin was located close to the wolf enclosure, so Idgie learned exactly what the wolf howl meant. In 2005 Susan started Talley-Ho Arts, conceived as an artist colony with its own printing press, which she inherited from her paternal uncle, Arkansas historian Norman “Bud” Powell. With the addition of an 1890s log pony-barn, also inherited from family, she sought her twin passions: fostering the verbal arts through workshops and printing, and the continual preservation of historic log structures. The Press at Talley-Ho is located in the Boston Mountains near Winslow, Arkansas.
“Powell is a recognized advocate of restoration vs. razing of historical log structures within her native state. Her quest to save these neglected and/or abandoned examples of original Arkansas architecture began in 1981 when she purchased the first of five log structures she would restore or rebuild over the next 25 years, proving the versatility of the antique log as a medium for Green construction. Powell effectively uses old and new methods, as well as materials, conducting all log restoration, new log construction, which includes peeling, chinking, wood finishing, and design. Each project is Transcendental from conception to completion: the result is a union of traditional and artistic methods, antique and prepared materials, unexpected combinations of color and texture—a pure poetic vision that manifests off the page, a physical poem. The term NEW OBJECTIVISM takes the poet W. C. Williams’ philosophy of poetic structure a step further by showing that a concrete object, such as a log barn, can be recreated in such a way as to become art, just as its process is an art form” (Talley-Ho Arts website).
Presently Powell is recovering from multiple aneurysms and strokes, with her new wolf companion, Kegan, by her side. She has re-envisioned Talley-Ho, and herself, like the logs she recovers and constructs anew. In this new vision of melding the past with the present she would like to include workshops for Traumatic Brain Injury survivors, which would help them address limitations through creative expression. Powell shares an Arkansas Tech background with fellow poet, Gerry Sloan. Three generations of Sloan’s ancestors attended the Rudy (Arkansas) one-room schoolhouse, one of three log structures reconstructed at Talley-Ho.
Powell’s publications include Women Who Paint Tall Houses, Goldentongue Press, 1995; Any Act of Leaving, The San Pedro Press, 1983; and Sunshine and Shadows (with Sandra Burns), Rose Publishing Co., 1976. Her poems appeared in little magazines like Telescope, Ploughshares, Salmon Magazine, Nebo, and Rock Soup. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Blue Moon Café
It was three-story faded gray clapboard,
with petrified pine knots the color of rust.
Some of them had burst out of their shrinking
jackets and were missing,
vacant silver circles staring back
at those who remembered the heyday
of the Blue Moon Bar and Café.
When the county went dry in the early sixties
the law shut it down,
and bootleggers became a necessity
for those who couldn’t travel
fifty miles to Paris
across Mount Magazine,
the highest point in the South.
No drinking meant no business,
which started to show on the building
that already looked older than it was,
abandoned for the price of a beer,
or a pint of 20/20.
The light didn’t work anymore,
but the old ones still saw it,
a neon blue quarter moon
hanging above the door,
beckoning entry. The promise of loose women,
hot food, liquor, and dancing
could get anyone back in the mood.
Jazz and blues flowing from Ed Fountain’s piano,
Chicago tunes meant to cure any depression,
had the power to ring hauntingly true
at the foot of the mountain,
most Saturday nights at the Blue Moon.
The one who wakes up and claims ownership
of the body may not be the same one
they counted down to sleep.
It’s difficult to tell who she is from here
where mirrors aren’t allowed, nothing subjunctive
for the brain-injured, especially those who lose
the bone shields around their temples, creating
Frankenstein foreheads, including the holes
where the bolts were, large sections of skull
missing, waiting for the swelling
to subside before anything can be replaced
with mesh wire.
Female patients don’t handle the head-shaving
well at all, the longer their hair the harder
they take it, those garish bald spots,
full of staples like train tracks
along the borders of that new crevice
broken open between the bones.
Regardless of their sex, they all wake up changed,
some more than others, none without scars
and sorrows when they look
in the rear-view mirror, months later,
on the way to a place they won’t recognize
What He Must Have Been Thinking
Below the barn
where you practiced smoking cigarettes
for days ‘til you could do it
in public like an old hand,
where at twelve
you lay in secret with your cousin
and couldn’t kiss her
no matter how willing you both were,
you stood that day looking back,
the field perfect with snow behind you.
No one wondered when you walked out
from the dinner table
to set up your deer stand,
the shotgun thrown over your shoulder
like a fishing pole from another summer.
They never even guessed
when the gun went off
and the dog came back without you.
“Just like that boy to bag a deer
before the season opens,”
your father smiled into his steaming
coffee. “Like as not,
he’ll want it skinned tonight.”
Just that morning
you watched your face for signs
in the bathroom mirror,
as if at any moment it might turn
against you, showing everything at once
you couldn’t tell them.
Snow blew up behind your footsteps
like powdered sugar
from too small a bowl. Nothing
resembling a trail they might find
you at the end of. Nothing
so physical as that.
For a long time,
you just stood there considering
the ways a body could fall
into that whiteness.
But we can only guess what you must
have been thinking when you trained the gun
like a light down your throat
and your shadow flew up to meet you
halfway in that cold, white awakening.
Sometimes it’s not the grammar
but how the words roll out like ships
across your tongue. First, you must look
behind the facts, crawl backwards into
the smallest corners.
Second, you must have good hands, each word
shaped according to its color.
Some will walk or swim. Others will sing
incessantly. Some won’t talk at all.
When I was in high school, I knew a man who could
twist balloons into any animal he chose.
This is analogy. A dog with a hat or a cat
holding its dish, which is red. The right words
are the ones that talk after themselves.
The rest fall down somewhere and never get up.
The bridge through the unconscious is a long one.
This is the beginning of all you will know.
The words will haunt you there, aiming
inflections like guns. After leaving and coming back
to the right occasion, the right amount of time
elapsing between visits, we give our whole bodies up.
To the air, we are indebted like birds,
each flight a syllable worth keeping.
Your eyes will remember their blue,
not the green when you were sick
or the gray of your passion,
the blue. That particular shade
of blue when you had slept well
or had good sex or finished a poem
that needed no revision.