The Secret Signal to Wake

Cumberland Gap poet Denton Loving talks about changes in Appalachian culture and offers four new poems that apply the wisdom of nature to the human predicament.

This is a confession. 

People sometimes ask me how Salvation South came to publish poetry so frequently. It was an accident? It just happened? The universe commanded it, maybe? 

It certainly wasn’t something I planned. And here is where I must confess: when we launched this magazine three years ago, I could quote you Southern prose and song lyrics from here to eternity, but if you asked me to quote you some Southern poetry, about the best I could have done was the first stanza of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

These three years have offered me a deep course of study, though. I have been blessed with the chance to read many stanzas about the South, and I have come to think of them as “the songs we say.”

Poets from around the South began sending us their work from the minute we put up our Submissions page. And one of the first to do so was Denton Loving. We published five of his poems in the spring of 2022, only a few months after we launched. I took a liking to his writing immediately. Being from the Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia, I have a soft spot for mountain folks, and I could tell from Denton’s words that he was one of us.

The first of those poems was seven verses about what you have to do or not do, when fishing, to ensure the fish don’t swim away. Don’t whistle. Don’t let your shadow fall on the water. Spit on your bait before casting. Pour a swig of beer into the river. Cup your hand and draw up some river water, then whisper your dreams into it. And so forth. Just foolishness like I heard when, as a child, I fished with my Grandpa Burd Smith. 

Denton Loving is brilliant at taking the wisdom of nature and applying it to our human predicament. He is sly as a fox. He is a yarn-spinner—sometimes of threads so delicate that they reach into your heart and shift things around. 

But then, Denton throws in an eighth verse that takes fishing wisdom and applies it to matters of the human heart:

If you have a beloved, steal a kiss to prove
you won’t let a keeper swim away.

As Burd would have said, that tickled me a right smart. Then last year, my writer friend David Joy, who reads a right smart of poetry, told me Denton’s new book, Tamp, was one of his favorites of the year. So I read it. A particular poem caught my eye: “Genealogy.” It’s twenty-five two-line stanzas. Here is the first:

To be the son of a coal miner is to be a child of mountains
To be tkand to be a child of mountains is to be Appalachian

Denton follows this pattern through twenty-four more stanzas until the son of a coal miner has morphed into literal stardust. Just like Virgil wrote 2,000 years ago: sic itur ad astra. “Thus one journeys to the stars.” 

I think Denton Loving is brilliant at taking the wisdom of nature and applying it to our human predicament. He is sly as a fox. He is a yarn-spinner—sometimes of threads so delicate that they reach into your heart and shift things around. 

We’re happy to welcome him into our 2024 celebration of National Poetry Month.

—Chuck Reece

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Letter to Jeremy Wade

Last night I watched you dangle in a cage
while a school of bull sharks circled round,
just so you could shine a light into their eyes—
an experiment to see if their ocular tissue—
the tapetum lucidum—might glow devil red.
But only a yellow glare reflected back—
eerie in its own right. Tapetum lucidum
Latin for bright tapestry—like the Bayeux
with its ancient world woven inside, and all
those lives depicted in thread—except this
bright tapestry gives some animals superior
night vision. God knows why I get sucked in
as you interview villagers across the globe
who pause their digging in some river’s clay
to recall the night the monster with the red eyes
dragged a lamb or shoat—or maybe a child—
underwater. I wish you would tell me instead
about the phoenix, the quetzalcoatl, the griffin,
magical beasts with the kind of oracular sight
that can see meaning in waters far murkier
than where your monsters navigate. Oh, Jeremy!
When you dive into mysterious rivers, do you
ever wonder about your soul? If I looked
into the bright tapestry of the phoenix’s eyes,
would the light of my half-lived life reflect at all?


Strange how the Latin meant only to fade
but now the word—reserved for botany—

means to wither but also persist.
To dim but linger. Dwindle but endure.

A term for how trees like the beech hold
thinly bronzed leaves long into winter, 

awaiting that secret signal to wake.
Yes, we know what the beech needs—

warmer days, a change in the light—
but how much, exactly how much?!

Strange how even a tree has desires.
Strange how, until something new grows,

what no longer serves will cling.

The Octopus School of Poetry

Yes, that they have three hearts is remarkable.
So too, the way they navigate man-made mazes.

That their eight arms simultaneously perform
separate tasks. That they can unscrew jar lids

even when they’re trapped inside the glass.
But of all the strange facts, I can’t get past

their ability to squirt jets of black ink,
theatrical for sure, but an effective tactic 

to distract a hungry eel or seal or albatross—
not unlike the poem, shooting fireworks

to ward off what haunts us. Such a nifty trick.
Almost worth the burden of those extra hearts.

Lock the Moon

Let’s lock the moon where it sits
in the eastern sky, as two raccoons
wrestle over cat food, knock about

the water bowl, and leave tracks
that vanish in the dew. Everywhere,
fireflies engage in their own
urgent fracas. The cats ignore it all.

Let’s divide the sky into five quarters.
On a plate of gold, I will cut the flesh
from the stone and serve it to you. 

I was reborn the night we met,
a night like this with fireflies
and trains traveling cross-continent.
But in what direction do we move?

Climb this tree with me, my love.
Place one foot here. Push yourself
up, and I will pull. Ignore the moon
always laughing at desire.

Fifteen Questions for Denton Loving

1. Where’d you grow up and what was it like?

I’ve lived most of my life in the Cumberland Gap region of East Tennessee, for many years on my family’s farm in an unincorporated area named Speedwell, and then from the time I was a teenager in the small city of Harrogate. When I think about my most formative experiences, most occurred on the Lincoln Memorial University campus. My mother was a librarian there, and from the time I was in middle school, my school bus dropped me off at the campus entrance. By the time I began attending the university’s model high school, I felt as though I already knew the campus intimately. Even when I was much younger, I befriended college students. I learned to play pool and foosball in the student center. The university’s science building was located next to the library, and students and professors encouraged me to check out their chemistry experiments and wildlife biology displays. I attended theatrical and musical productions, and I almost always knew some of the students performing. I met students from Jamaica, Micronesia, Ethiopia, England, Sweden. Every year, the university hosted dozens of Japanese students from the Kanto International High School. And yet, most of the students who attended LMU were from rural backgrounds, most from within sixty miles of the university, which meant a lot of them had grown up on farms or in coal communities or small towns where I had been and that were all familiar to me. I developed real relationships with so many of these students. I still think back about that community with a sense of nostalgia and longing.

2. Who were the people who educated you, formally or informally?

There are so many different people who educated me in all their various ways, both formally and informally, but let’s narrow the field to focus primarily on poetry. 

When I was first beginning to take writing seriously, I was in a mixed genre writing group that included Sylvia Woods. She was the first person I met who was writing poetry in real time before my eyes, and she entertained all my questions about why she made the choices she made: where to break a line, why words should or shouldn’t rhyme, why a certain word produced a desired tone, how to think about rhythm and structure, etc. 

I also had opportunities to be around Jane Hicks who answered lots of questions. I remember asking her to look at an early poem one day when we were both at a conference in South Carolina. We found two empty chairs, and she went through the poem with me, line by line, telling me what worked and what didn’t. I probably learned as much from Jane in that five-minute period as some people would have gained in an hour-long workshop because she’s such a good teacher, and she was able to zero in on what I was ready to learn at that stage in my writing.

The first serious poem I ever wrote was an imitation of one of Maurice Manning’s poems from A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c. I essentially deconstructed one of his poems and built my own around his structure. I was just trying to understand the mechanics of how the poem worked—Maurice’s particular poem and the poem in general. Since then, I’ve continued to learn from reading his work and listening to the way he speaks about poetry. 

Darnell Arnoult is the person who has encouraged me the most as a poet. She has seen so many first and early drafts that it’s a wonder she still answers my emails. Darnell probably knows my poetry better than anyone, and she has probably influenced me more than anyone. A lot of my early poems originated in workshops Darnell taught. She was the first person who thought I had enough poetry to form a book, which later was published as Crimes Against Birds, and she largely arranged the order of that book, which in itself was another incredible lesson in learning how to shape individual pieces into a larger narrative.

Books were so foundational and so real to me. They never felt lofty in the sense that you had to be special to write a book. I took it for granted that I would write a book someday. Looking back now, that seems ludicrous.

There are so many other poets who helped me along the way: George Ella Lyon, Anne Shelby, Marianne Worthington, Jim Minick, Jesse Graves, Rosemary Royston, Barrett Warner, Major Jackson, Emily Mohn-Slate, Cassie Pruyn. Jennifer Stewart Miller, in particular, has been a guiding star for me in the last few years. I’m so fortunate to be part of a great workshop group that includes her. Just when I think a poem is sounding pretty good, Jen gives me a kick and makes me dig deeper. I’ve grown so dependent on her mentorship and good judgment. I hardly feel like a poem is finished until Jen says it’s finished. Of course, this list excludes all the great prose writers that I’ve learned from too. It really has taken a village.

3. Do you have any early memories of being in love with language (reading, writing, hearing, saying, etc.)?

I always loved to read and write. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I’m fortunate that I grew up in a house where both my parents read and valued reading and education. My mom was a teacher, and later a librarian, and I have very early memories of going to the library and bringing home more books than I could carry at one time. My mom also had an old manual typewriter that I played with endlessly. I know I typed out really simple stories, but I seem to recall also typing my name over and over and words that I liked, making lists of whatever interested me. I always said that I was going to be a writer. But books were so foundational and so real to me. They never felt lofty in the sense that you had to be special to write a book. I took it for granted that I would write a book someday. Looking back now, that seems ludicrous. I had no idea of the actual work that was involved in writing. But it was always out there in my mind as something I would figure out one day.

4. How do you feel about being a Southerner: proud, ashamed, both, otherwise?

My identity as a Southerner has always been a bit fraught. My mom was born in Pennsylvania, and her family has lived in the central part of the state for generations. I was born in Maryland which has historically been considered a Southern state, but it didn’t feel that way when I was growing up in Tennessee. My dad’s families were both in Tennessee and Kentucky since before statehood. So we have generational histories in the South, but in the community where we moved to, it always felt like my family was viewed as being from elsewhere. I’ve heard Lee Smith tell about the way people in Grundy, Virginia, spoke about her mother, saying that she was a real nice person for someone from “off.” Ironically, Lee’s mother was just from the other side of Virginia. 

Later, I started reading writers from Appalachia, and I realized that both sides of my family, Southern and Northern, had lived for generations in Appalachia. That identity made more sense to me with its connections to the mountains.

5. Have you ever left the South for any significant period of time? If so, did it have any effect on how you understood the region, or how you understood other regions?

As I said, my mom’s family is from Pennsylvania. I never lived there, but I’ve spent my whole life traveling back and forth. The Mason-Dixon Line is more than something I learned about in school. It’s a physical demarcation that I’ve crossed dozens of times. I guess I grew up feeling that I had at least one foot in the north. So I was always aware of differences. But especially as I grew older and as I identified more precisely as an Appalachian than as a Southerner, I began to see how much more alike we all are. I noticed this again when I went to graduate school. I realized that shopping in a Walmart in Bennington, Vermont, or Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is remarkably similar to shopping at my local Walmart in Middlesboro, Kentucky. The people have different accents, but they all have similar needs and desires and struggles. The way I viewed the world changed a lot after this realization. I try to remember how similar we all are. That’s not to say that we don’t live in a very divided country, but I see more rural versus urban division than anything distinctly regional. I wonder how much we allow geography to be an excuse for further division. In a way, it makes sense because American culture has really grown more homogenized over time. We inherently want to find some kind of identity, including a regional identity, even at the risk of separating us from others. But the more people I meet from all over the country, the less I’m able to buy into location as an excuse for certain beliefs, especially beliefs that hurt other people.

6. Do you have any sense of whether other parts of the United States are starting to see the South differently? And does it matter whether they do or don’t?

I don’t really know if perceptions about the South are changing. What I do know is that we have a lot to work on internally. So many of our systems are broken: education, healthcare, civil rights and especially our politics. But the systems are broken everywhere else too. I don’t mean for this to sound like resignation. There is a lot of work to be done. For me, that means to vote, to recognize injustice and call it out, to make opportunities for others whenever I can. 

7. Who are some contemporary Southern poets or poems we should know about and why?

This is a dangerous question because I know so many great poets, and I’m sure to forget someone. Let’s start with all the names I’ve already mentioned. But there are so many others too. Linda Parsons, Kari Gunter-Seymour, Lisa Parker, Catherine Childress, Jeff Hardin, John Davis Jr., William Kelly Woolfitt, Annie Woodford, Tiffany Melanson, David B. Prather. For the last couple of years, I’ve taught at Table Rock Writers Workshop with Phillip Shabazz who is amazing. Ben Weakley is writing about his experience as a war-time soldier. Dan Leach just published a beautiful collection called Stray Latitudes. Ed Madden’s new collection, a pooka in Arkansas, is great. I’m in awe of Joy Priest’s work.

8. Tell us about a great poem about an issue facing your South.

Racial justice is an issue that’s not only facing the South. Our entire country is dealing with an enduring legacy of racism. My own extended family has transformed from being entirely white when I was growing up to becoming multi-racial. And so, despite my white, male privilege, and even though I don’t have children of my own, I think a lot about the way people of color are mistreated, especially young people, that they are all too often killed for “driving while Black” or for playing with a toy gun. Reginald Dwayne Betts’ poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving” addresses this from the voice of a Black father. The poem reads in part:

I try to remember how similar we all are. That’s not to say that we don’t live in a very divided country, but I see more rural versus urban division than anything distinctly regional. I wonder how much we allow geography to be an excuse for further division.

… My two young sons play
in the backseat while the video of Tamir dying
plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing
I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar
of poetry, the moment when a black father drives
his black sons to school & the thing in the air is the death
of a black boy that the father cannot mention…

9. What’s a poem from another era that’s close to you and why?

James Still’s poem “Those I Want in Heaven With Me Should There Be Such a Place” is a poem I was introduced to when I was pretty young, possibly in high school when Mr. Still visited my English class. The poem begins, “First, I want my dog Jack, / Granted that Mama and Papa are there.” It’s a list poem of sorts, and I love list poems. Also, I feel a kinship to Mr. Still and to his work every time I read or think about this poem. I like to think that what I write about shares a certain sensibility with his subjects and language. 

Still was a 1929 graduate of my alma mater, Lincoln Memorial University. And later I attended the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, which is where he settled and wrote for most of his life. So we share those physical and emotional spaces. This poem reminds me of that connection as well as of the fleeting quality of our lives.

10. You do a lot alongside your writing. You’re an editor for the online journal Cutleaf and Eastover Press, have edited an anthology, co-directed a literary festival, and mentor a lot of writers. It seems like service to community is an important part of the gig for you. Is that right?

Early in my pursuit of writing, I latched on to the idea of literary citizenship, another way of describing service to this particular community. I was welcomed into a community of writers before I had actually earned any credit with my own writing. Maybe a few of them saw that I had some potential, but it took me a long time to write anything that could prove my worth. 

I also love the writing community, and I get just as much if not more out of providing opportunities to other writers, whether it be through publication of a few poems or a book, or leading a workshop. For ten years, I co-directed the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, and that was one of the greatest privileges of my writing life. I met so many wonderful people, and I witnessed incredible growth for so many of the people who attended those festivals. A lot of those people have written and published books, or they’ve expanded their identity as artists, or they found some sort of creative fulfillment that, I hope, has made their lives better. 

I suppose I’m always looking to create similar opportunities. So this year, EastOver Press is partnering with Table Rock Writers Workshop. Georgann Eubanks and Donna Campbell have directed Table Rock for a number of years, and they’ve created this beautiful atmosphere for writers at every level to gather for a week in August outside of Little Switzerland, North Carolina. I’m really excited to be part of that community and to bring new writers into it too.

My dad was a man who could rarely sit still. The story goes that as a toddler, the only way my grandparents could keep my dad from escaping the house when they weren’t looking was to tie him to some piece of furniture.

11. Please let people know about the Orchard Keeper Writers Residency.

OKWR is another way to extend opportunities for writers. A few years ago, I remodeled a trailer on my farm and opened it as a retreat space primarily for writers, but some visual artists have used it too. There is a minimal fee that helps to cover the utilities and upkeep. But the objective is to keep it affordable. Writers from as far away as Florida, New England and California have all come to write and work in this space, which I named Orchard Keeper in part because the property is surrounded by an old orchard of apple and peach trees. It’s also a nod to my favorite Cormac McCarthy novel, The Orchard Keeper, which is set in East Tennessee.

12. Four of my favorites in Tamp are “Hurtling,” “The Eyes of God,” “Learning to Drive,” and “The Topography of Tears.” You could say that quartet is about drivin’ and cryin’ (to echo the Georgia band), or yearnin’ and learnin’ (to echo Earth, Wind, & Fire). You’ve got the car, that vehicle of masculinity, and crying, that bogey of at least one kind of man. Metaphorically speaking, where can cars take us? Where can tears take us? Where does our yearning want to take us?

My dad was a man who could rarely sit still. The story goes that as a toddler, the only way my grandparents could keep my dad from escaping the house when they weren’t looking was to tie him to some piece of furniture. I think cars represented a sense of freedom to my dad’s generation that isn’t nearly as strong for me, and even less so for younger generations.

The first dream I had about my dad after he died was one in which he and I were in a car, him driving and me riding, like when I was a child. I still often dream about my dad driving, and there’s something really comforting to me about envisioning him in that position of freedom and control. Those images were easily transformed into poetry because the car is such a natural symbol for movement and quite literally a vehicle to help us reach whatever it is we’re yearning for.

The stigmatism of crying changed for my dad after he suffered a stroke in 1996. There was a period afterwards where he had almost no control of his emotions. If the least thing made him sad, his eyes would well up with tears. Later, his health improved, but he became a softer person, more accepting of expressing his feelings. I think the fact that we all cry at some point is evidence of our basic humanity, that we are emotional beings, that we cry both when we’re happy and sad.

So driving and crying and yearning. Perhaps this is the holy trinity of my work, at least in Tamp, because I do think that the driving and the crying in these poems both speak to a larger sense of yearning. 

As I grow older, I better understand who [my dad] was and where he was coming from, and because I understand him better, I maybe understand myself better, too.

One of the basic tenets we teach in creative writing classes is that every character must want something whether it’s world peace or a glass of water. I think this applies to poetry too. Even in poems that rely primarily on images and language and less so on character and narrative, some sense of yearning or desire is needed to give the poem enough fire to come alive. I’d be afraid to say all the places that yearning can take us in our personal lives, but in poetry, exploring that yearning often takes us to surprising new depths, revealing our truer selves and a poem’s truer meaning.

13. Specifically with “The Topography of Tears,” do you have any sense if all that “Be a man, boys don’t cry” bullshit has subsided any, or at least been tempered any?

I don’t have evidence to back this up, but it seems more widely accepted that a lot of these ancient ideas of masculinity are pretty toxic and not very helpful in raising young boys to be good men. That said, I’m sure there are other ways that parents will always try to condition their kids into whatever behaviors they find more acceptable. If it isn’t boys crying, there must be something else. 

Anecdotally, one of my best friends who has a young son tells me they have more conversations about school shootings than about the right way for a boy to act. We should care a lot more about kids not being killed at a routine traffic stop than whether they cry too much. All of that is to say that our country has changed a lot since I was a kid, and it seems that most parents have different priorities.

14. Tamp appeared a few years after my mom’s death, after I’d become well-acquainted with grief, and Major Jackson says your book “reminds us that to grieve is to love, a sacred act that aims for clarity.” I so love that. It suggests grief is so much more than wailing and withdrawal, but in fact has a hopeful function, and the griever isn’t necessarily a victim to be pitied, but someone connected to the divine, even if it’s a struggle. I’ve come to accept it, but I know I’m still grieving my mom; are you still grieving your dad?

Yeah, I definitely still grieve for my dad, but thankfully, my grief has transformed in the years since writing the poems that make up Tamp. Writing the poems actually helped in that transformation. They gave me a place to put that pain, and they forced me to find language to articulate what I was feeling. 

15. What did/does grieving your dad clarify for you, whether that’s about him, yourself, or anything else?

I had experienced the death of different loved ones before my dad’s passing, but what is unexpected about grieving for my dad is that I feel like my relationship with him is ongoing and ever evolving. I can better imagine how he must have felt in certain situations. I sympathize with him more. I forgive him more easily. As I grow older, I better understand who he was and where he was coming from, and because I understand him better, I maybe understand myself better, too.

Author Profile

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collections, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag), and Tamp (Mercer University Press). He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks). For over a decade, he co-directed the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University where he also co-edited drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work. His fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in numerous publications including River StyxCutBankIron Horse Literary Review, and The Chattahoochee Review.

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