Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Frost Grape, Nightshade, Milkweed

Justin Longacre’s newest chapbook sheds new light on the familiar

Justin Longacre’s poetry chapbook, Frost Grape, Nightshade, Milkweed (Raggedy Mouths Press, 2018) evokes images of desperation, ruin, escapism and, ultimately, hope. It takes readers through events that they are likely to experience in their everyday lives, homing in on them to take apart the layers of sadness that people as a whole face bravely every time we get out of bed. It doesn’t matter if you work at a gas station, in an industrial plant, or if you’re jobless, drinking away your sorrows at a local watering hole. At the end of the day, what gets us through witnessing the crumbling infrastructure of parts of our city (and our own lives) is to see the beauty in the transitory moments, and to revel in the present. We asked Longacre a few questions about these themes and the role Toledo has played in his work.

While reading your poems, I felt like there were recurring images of ruin. With “The Great Devourer Comes to Library Village,” the garbage truck is a monster committing violence on our things. What role does the inevitable destruction of things that once played a part in our lives play in your work?

It plays a central role. Many of these poems came out of my experiences in the Great Recession and its direct aftermath, as well as more general experiences of coming into adulthood in a post-industrial midwest replete with images of ruin. This collection explores those specific contemporary manifestations, but I am also interested in ruin and rebirth as perennial, universal forces. I wanted destruction to be a palpable force in these poems, but I also wanted to present capital-L Life as a force equal to that opposing force. The title, for example, comes from three types of weeds in the area that are particularly tenacious. They grow through any ruins.

In “Something Has to Give,” there seems to be this idea of surviving on “that’s good enough,” when everything is crumbling around us. Then you write about “a city skittering desperate against smooth green walls.” How do you feel the city of Toledo is reflected in this poem, if at all?

Toledo is all over this chapbook and all over my work in general. I am obsessed with the place. That particular poem is a recession poem. It was very directly inspired by living in a crumbling house in a crumbing neighborhood in a crumbling economy. So, the socio-economic circumstances of time and place are really at the core of the poem. But, I think it also has something to say about a more universal experience of overcoming inertia, of deciding when “that’s good enough” is no longer good enough.

“Blind Robins” has this strong sense of small town escapism, people who are weary and drinking “until we can’t feel the frozen pleather under our thighs—can’t feel the wind whip us sightless.” There is a tired desperation underlying the mundane in this poem and others (“Speedway,” for instance). What draws you to this subject?

There is a tired desperation there, sure. I am writing about working people in a time and place of massive macro-economic upheaval. However, I hope there are also moments of real beauty and transcendence. One of my core assumptions is that those two things are not mutually exclusive. The middle section of the chapbook is really dedicated to the ways in which we attempt to find joy or, at the very least, release. Especially, I am interested in idiosyncratic local expressions of that impulse. There is a poem about Major Magics and a poem about Rudy’s Hot Dogs. “Blind Robins” was inspired by a bowling alley called Secor Lanes (RIP). I do think that our attempts at joy and release often have a kind of desperation to them. It is a desperation that I think that can be heroic. Plus, I really just like the images: little baggies of pickled fish behind a bowling alley bar, an animatronic walrus with a saxophone, a hot dog joint with a buffalo head mounted on the wall––I can’t get enough.

Ending with “And Still” made me feel like there is such joy in living in the present moment. Why did you choose this poem as the ending?

I am so glad that sense of joy came across. I placed this as the final poem for exactly that reason. Though this collection grapples with difficult socio-economic realities, I hope it isn’t a bummer. Poetry has the power to help us process experiences with a
renewed sense of wonder and significance. That whole last section of the chapbook deals with the ways in which language mediates our experience and helps us to create meaning. “And Still” was definitely inspired by such a moment. My family just happened to wander into a daylily convention at the Botanical Gardens, and all these varieties of daylilies were on display with their names on little index cards. I don’t really know anything about daylilies, but their names were delicious. There also happened to be a Pokémon event happening at the same time. Everyone was wandering around catching virtual Squirtles. It was beautiful. Writing about it helped me to reveal and remember that strangeness and beauty. I hope reading about it will do something similar.

Stephanie Longacre created the images. How do they connect with the poems? What is your relationship to her?

Stephanie is my wife. The book is dedicated to her. I have known her since high school, so she has shared many of the experiences found in the poems with me. She photographed leaves from each of the plants referenced in the title and manipulated them into images suitable for the press. The leaves are from stubborn, ubiquitous weeds in this region.

Longacre will be joined by poets Mark Ramirez, Ryan Bunch, Teresa Northcraft, and Timothy Geiger at 5pm on Friday, February 22 at Original Sub Shop. You can purchase Frost Grape, Nightshade, Milkweed there or afterwards at Handmade Toledo.

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