One autumn morning, I was standing at a bus stop when a couple with brown complexion like mine approached. I greeted, and I got back a weak nod from the gentleman. I searched the lady’s eyes to make contact but nothing came of it. The bus came before I could make an attempt at small talk, and we all hopped in and went our separate ways.
There is nothing unusual with this kind of communication, which basically means I’ve accepted it as the norm. When I first moved to Finland, I used to be so excited when I encountered another African, because we are a minority here. Most times my excitement was met with a quick glance or complete avoidance.
This behaviour confused me at first, and I wondered “Why do we Africans behave differently, when we are in white spaces?” Because back home, when we greet “Sawubona” we actually mean I see you. I see you as a fellow human being and we journey this life together; we coexist.
It was when I started working with fellow immigrants, and hearing their stories, that I started to understand what’s in the eye. The pain, loss, displacement and the sheer act of trying to survive in a new place with its own set of values and traditions. By looking each other in the eye, we risk an outburst of emotions.
So, I pose a different question to you, dear reader. What’s in your eye, when you encounter another fellow human; fear, mistrust, kindness, acknowledgment, etc? And does it require a change of perspective?
I often lament about the negative side of social media. Today, I want to add that I am sometimes thankful for the opportunity to make real connections with people whom I share the same interests, and concerns. Ben Ditmars, is one such person I found from the dizzying world of Instagram.
Ben is an author of surrealist short poetry. He has been featured in several anthologies such as the Mind’s Eye Series and literary journals including the Yellow Chair Review and Semaphore Magazine. Every month, he meets with his poetry group in central Ohio to workshop and experience new verse. You can find links to his books, podcasts and other works on his website: www.benjaminditmars.com He can also be found on Instagram.
In this conversation, Ben delves deep into global warming; a topic he is passionate about. He doesn’t only share thoughts and process behind his book, Sleeping with Earth, which is available on Amazon, but also makes a plea to save Earth.
Khaya Ronkainen: A line from Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, comes to mind when I hear of midnight poet. But please tell us a bit about how you became a midnight poet.
Ben Ditmars: My first collection of poetry was a short chapbook called Night Poems. It was a theme I chose because of late nights in college, and facing my own fear of the dark. I felt less afraid the more I wrote and continued writing about night as a metaphor for insecurities and setbacks felt throughout my life.
KR: I think embracing the dark is an act of bravery. Now, the title of your book, Sleeping with Earth, is intriguing for lack of a better word. Also the subtitles of sections under which thematic poems are grouped conjure up even more interesting images. What inspired the book title?
few metaphors reflected in the title:
Sleeping with Earth as spontaneous sex with no attachment; using Mother Earth for the sake of pleasure.
Sleeping with Earth (i.e. on the earth) to feel closer with nature.
Sleeping with Earth, more cryptically, as death. I felt we will all be sleeping in the earth someday, as bodies or ashes, but the planet need not end with us.
KR: I must say, at first the title sounded playful. But I quickly discovered that the book deals with one of the important and serious topics, our planet. Nonetheless, I still find the poems erotic, explosive and like a shot of espresso. What do you hope to achieve with this book?
BD: I hope to raise awareness. And I hope to personify the earth in such a way that the cataclysms of a massive scale become relatable. I feel when things are vast or far away the ability to comprehend is made more difficult. In a way, ‘Sleeping with Earth’ brings the countless issues caused by global warming or environmental degradation ‘down to earth’ for readers.
KR: In your letter to the reader, you say “I’ve tried thinking of words to describe this collection. How can I summarize in few words my purpose?” Having read the book, I totally get where you’re coming from. That said, the collection still reminds me of the concept of “taking, making and wasting” from a completely different subject. Even so, laments about exploitation of Mother Earth is something I also pick up from your poems. Do you regard this collection as political poetry? Yes or No. Why?
BD: I see myself as a nature poet primarily (human nature, physical nature, etc.) yet I am driven politically to defend such things. Creating a voice and narrative around the plight of the planet was important for me to accomplish. The earth and those inhabiting it are at a clear turning point, where the choices we make now will affect the entirety of all life going forward. Yet, I am sympathetic to businesses that must create things necessary for society to continue. Waste will always be a by-product of taking and making, whether it’s with producing televisions or medicine, cell-phones or wind turbines. But it’s possible to set goals and limit this as much as possible. Some (such as a current president I won’t mention) might simply proclaim “waste” inevitable and make no effort to avoid it and that is the worst mistake we can make.
KR: I totally agree, we are at a turning point. It’s up to each and everyone of us to take care of our planet. Businesses would be better off adopting circular economy rather than linear ways of creating, for instance. But I digress…
Poems in the book follow a natural progression, that is, they read like a story with a beginning, middle and end. As a result, I had difficulty choosing just one poem to discuss in detail. So, let’s take a look at the few excerpts from different poems, I’ve selected:
in the beginning, before heavy elements or stars magnetism rested in the dark sensation of a solar breath (from Procreation)
I cannot contain the blast from shared uranium or go insane from mercury, the slow and steady poison inside every drop of lead I drill inside you (from Fracking Fluids)
pain will trickle down with economics and the billions saved, while showers burn and filters catch the lies (from Lead in the Water)
– Ben Ditmars
From these poems, I get a sense that the book is written for denialists. I say this because I detect frustration from the speaker’s tone, and raw emotions throughout the whole collection. Talk us through your thought process as you write these poems?
BD: The book is not so much written for denialists as those I hoped to reach. I think there are people on the fringe or are merely apathetic, when it comes to the climate debate. Perhaps, they don’t want their jobs in the gas or coal industry to be affected but still see the vital importance or rising sea levels? I took this into consideration as I wrote this collection. The writing happened so quickly (in a matter of few months) and I tried to only conceal my frustration, when it affected the flow of verses.
KR: Why do you care so much about this issue?
BD: I care because this world will be left to my children someday. They will ask what I did to save it. And because it is not as important an issue as it should be in the country I live in. The health of the planet affects all life, whether it is with storms, drought or famine. America will not be isolated forever from the worst of it.
KR: I hear you! Your passionate plea is hard to miss. Now, looking at the poem below, I like how ends. It almost leaves ‘a door open’ as if to invite a conversation. Was this intentional? How do you hope the reader continues the conversation on environment and pollution?
but since we are creatures hell-bent on vibration with
angular momentum collapsed down,
the world turns, we can’t look away. (from Hell-Bent)
– Ben Ditmars
like the idea of an open door. I might rephrase it as revolving
the reader sees a deeper message of connection and discusses
vibration with the earth as geological; rocks and sediment building
upon layers like our bones. We are magnetically connected, both
spiritually and physically to this pale blue dot. As Carl Sagan once
said, there is nowhere in the near future our species can migrate.
KR: Ah! Sagan long dispelled the idea of humans moving to another planet. Now, to poetry as an art form. Sometime ago, I read an essay by Rebecca Watts, The Cult of the Noble Amateur. The question she asked then still remains difficult (for me) to answer, “Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?” How would you answer to this question?
BD: Social media has changed poetry. Even my wife has lamented about some of the work she sees as less technically sound. But that is not a bad thing. It proves that poetry is stronger and more capable of adapting itself to the world we live in. Everyone needs their ten minutes of fame, and everyone needs to be heard. I think that’s the truth of this digital age. Perhaps poetry is more about personality than in past eras but so is mostly everything else.
KR: I think you are correct in saying that poetry is capable of adapting itself. And as Willard Spiegelman once said, “Whatever happens to poems, however, one thing is certain: poetry will survive.”
how does poetry feature in
your everyday life?
How does it help brighten your days or cope with challenges?
allows me to form connections and process emotions. I try to make
sense of the world through my writing.
KR: Beyond the blogs or social networks, where do you connect with other writers?
like to connect with other writers in my monthly poetry group. It’s
very different from other groups in that it is smaller and more
intimate. I think that has turned off some recruits but also
attracted others. Also, I
did a podcast called Lyrical Versification with my fellow poet Amber
Norrgard. It has been a few years but I believe it is still on
KR: What in your life compels you to write poetry?
BD: We all have our 10,000 hours. I went through many modes of expression before I found the right outlet. I tried writing fiction, I tried writing plays, but nothing felt as real as poetry. There’s a naked honesty to it that takes you to new places inside yourself.
KR: Lastly, have you read any book of poetry lately that made you think differently about poetry? What and why?
Actually, yes. There are two poets: Sreya Bremtin has a new collection that really moved me called Risk the Blossom. Also, H.E. Hoover has Imagination Is My Escape. Both are incredibly heartfelt and personal. They say something unique about life and experience from both the old and young perspectives.
Thank you Ben, this has been a stimulating conversation.
p.s. All excerpts and images used with author’s permission.
Over to you, poetry lovers. If you have a comment or question for the poet, feel free to continue the conversation below. Thank you for reading!