Megan Merchant & Luke Johnson Lyric Epistolary Collaboration for Side A

What do we do when the black hole comes,
—to L

my son asks before the hours lighten. I know so much of this life
is unreal, but yesterday I cut my lip and flooded my mouth

with blood. I read about parents that chew food then mama-bird
it into their babies’ mouths so they won’t choke. Haven’t I been

doing this with the world? I have cellophaned windows and boarded
the doors to keep them safe, clammed the news

with Vivaldi, given his finger-guns shadows until they grew into
beaks on the blank wall. And still,

a war rages, our entanglement of invisible threads. News makes
it across about a mother who shielded her infant with her back

while the shells burst and another who braved her way into the front-
line rubble of her house to play a piano one last time—the notes

ricocheting across glass and splintered wood. If I say I am most
afraid of people, don’t I also mean ourselves? Instead, I say

unimaginable, because there is distance. I tell my son the nearest
black hole is 3,000 light years away, while here, it is spring outside.

The trees blast pollen—the yellow shrapnel coats everything. I sneeze
so loud the birds shit-scatter. Without a second thought, we pile

heavy books to kill spiders that lumber between sheets, not even looking
to see if their abdomens are swollen with eggs.

When my daughter, not yet three

turns to study the contours of my face & says 
I see you says: how long before the stars burn out

which startles me, morphs her hands to hardness 
a variable chill, I say never say: sometimes all we 

have is this & turn her toward my chest to spare
confusion. I fear of course the world dear reader

& cannot stomach sorrow, all the ways a child
drowns like spiders trapped in spit. I read a story once

of a simple priest who stopped to sleep in a garden 
at noon, & woke beside a wolf in snow who curled

to keep him warm. The day before, the priest
had paused to praise an opening dahlia, & placed

its blue flame in his hair while undressing
by a stream. Sequined light, shadows of spring

clouds smeared by wind, he washed beneath
the Spanish moss & watched the flower fall

away—his secret lost to sin. When the dream
was over the wolf was gone & the priest began

to weep. When my daughter touched my fearful
face, I too began to weep. I read the story alone

in a room of a church made blue by rain. My
mother moved among its worn pews wiping 

away the dust. We were poor & without grace. 
I was without grace & groaning with blue. On the walls 

the children hung papered stars, wrote prayers 
in sparkled paint. One of them asked the Lord 

for a pony, another for a million bucks to rebuild 
Noah’s ark. But one of the stars was without name 

its prayer crossed out with blue. My brother
hiding. The boy without a spoken name who

lives beneath my bed. 

Mini-interview with Megan Merchant & Luke Johnson

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as collaborators (or continues to)? 

MM: This isn’t so much one moment, but one element—developing the skill of close listening while also allowing myself to be present with the internal pings that the poem elicits (the rush of emotions, images that flood, and music coming through). For me, this dance is a developing skill—how to be an active reader and honor what Luke brings forth, while also allowing my poet-imagination to swirl about.

LJ: We’ve both read and followed each other’s work for a few years. But this project just sort of developed organically. The most beautiful thing for me, has been discovery. Seeing how two poets draw from the same subconscious to both world build and imagine. It feels like we’re sharing shovels in a sand box. Play.

HFR: What are you reading? 

MM: I am currently reading a manuscript that I am editing and also reading some really great poems for the mentorships that I offer through Shiversong. Most of what I have time for these days are readings catered to poets that I am working with—looking for tone, technique, music, image, or just good poems to share.

LJ: I took a break recently from book buying. My house just isn’t large enough (lol). So I’ve been digging back through the library and reading bits and pieces from loved books here and there. I can’t seem to get over Matt Rassmussen’s Black Aperture. The line play, spatial aesthetic, gravitas.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted the lyric epistolary project?   

MM: I was feeling very stuck in my patterns and my poems weren’t surprising me. I have known Luke for a while and am a fan of his work, so when I saw (via an online post) that he was looking for something fresh to write about, I reached out to see if he wanted to work on a project together. I was looking for expansion, to be unsettled from my habits and usual tricks, and also a little motivation to show up the page. It’s nice to have accountability and also connection.

LJ: My first full length had landed another Finalist, and while that’s exciting, something about it made me feel empty. I felt stuck in old patterns. I wasn’t freaking out about it but did want and need something new to grow and learn from. I wrote a post online documenting that feeling, and Megan came to the rescue. Poets really do pick each other up.

HFR: What’s next? Are you working on another collaboration?

MM: We are going to keep tapping into this magic for a bit and see what it wants to become—maybe a chapbook, or a full-length. Right now, I’m so enjoying the process that I’m not too focused on the ultimate shape.

LJ: It looks like a chap or full length will be born from this. But I’m not obsessing on it. I’m letting the calls and responses flower in their individuality and rhythm.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

MM: “‘When any civilization is dust and ashes,’ he said, ‘art is all that’s left over.’”—Margaret Atwood

LJ: I want to encourage more poets to try this out. If poems are meant to be a shared language, then why not share in each other’s creations? I believe nothing is original because we’re all borrowing from the same collective subconscious. And that’s beautiful. The need for individuality and originality is too American for my liking. Too capitalistic. Too land grab and imperialist. I don’t want to possess poetry. I want it to be free of me, and in me.

Megan Merchant (she/her) is the co-owner of shiversong.com and is the author of four full length collections. The latest, Before the Fevered Snow, was released at the start of the pandemic with Stillhouse Press. Her most recent awards include a drawing of a mermaid from her son for being the World’s Best Mom and the Inaugural Michelle Boisseau Prize with Bear Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.

Luke Johnson lives on the California coast with his wife and three kids. His poems can be found at Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Florida Review, Frontier, Thrush, and elsewhere. His manuscript in progress was recently named a finalist for the Jake Adam York Prize, The Levis through Four Way Press, The Vassar Miller Award, and is forthcoming fall of 2023 from Texas Review Press. Website: lukethepoet.com. Twitter: @Lukesrant.

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