Indianapolis has a long poetic tradition from Sarah T. Bolton and James Whitcomb Riley to Etheridge Knight and Mari Evans. Indianapolis and Indiana were integral to their work, and I was glad to see Adrian Matejka continue this tradition in his book, Map to the Stars. That book features the 30th Street Bridge over the White River in a couple of different places, including in “Collectable Blacks” that closes the book. Much of my own work has focused on rivers and creeks, so much so that I invited local authors to contribute to a bookmap I designed of the Upper White River watershed, including Illinois State Poet Laureate Kevin Stein’s memories of Killbuck Creek in Anderson and Carrie Gaffney’s short memoir of a bridge over Pleasant Run. I included Matejka’s “Star-struck Blacks,” which opens Map to the Stars, last year as part of the readings when I led a Next Indiana Campfires paddle on the White River between Yorktown and Daleville further up the White River from the 30th Street Bridge.
This is a long prelude to prompt you to write a poem about a river or creek, maybe on a bridge or in a city, and about something challenging like death, suicide, race, pollution, poverty, etc. This isn’t playing Pooh sticks and enjoying the vistas of the rivers. Rivers are dirty, polluted, profane, yet beautiful, wild, profound. They connect the poor and rich and all colors of people. They connect big cities to smaller cities and towns and farms, and if you trace back along tributaries, they connect all parts of society.
Pick a difficult topic. Pick a specific place like a bridge or a river bend or a bluff or bank or trail. Anchor your poem to that place, but follow the metaphor of a meandering river to connect to your challenging topic and fully explore it. The river will carry you away and bring you back home to the heart of your poem. Embrace this connectedness and egalitarian nature of rivers, their danger and power and beauty.
Kevin McKelvey is place-based writer, poet, designer, and social practice artist. His poetry book, Dream Wilderness, was published last year, and another book, Indiana Nocturnes, written with Curtis Crisler, will be published this year. He is at work on a novel and regularly completes workshops, art installations, and placemaking projects around Indiana. At University of Indianapolis, he serves as associate professor in the English Department and as director of the university’s Masters in Social Practice of Art program. Kevin grew up on the edge of a corn field near Lebanon, Indiana, and attended DePauw University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.