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Peninsula Poetry: Chera Van Burg

Though a recent migrant to Door County, Chera Van Burg first came to the county over 30 years ago. Van Burg began writing poetry at a young age, and at 10 years old, her poem won a countywide contest and was published in her hometown newspaper.

She has written song lyrics, which along with her poems, are published in Germany, Mexico, and the U.S. She was a finalist for the 2022 Hal Prize in poetry.

Van Burg has a master and doctorate degrees in clinical psychology. Her last psychology position was a 10-year stint at San Quentin State Prison, where she supervised mental health teams and developed a doctoral psychology internship program.

Van Burg was the Executive Director of an environmental non-profit organization, Species Alliance, 2006-2011, and remains on the Board. In 2007, she was a presenter at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. In 2010, she produced an award-winning film, Call of Life

Van Burg currently focuses her time on writing. She continues to attend poetry classes and workshops, and participates in local writing groups. Her writing is informed by environmental and cultural issues, as well as psychology, spirituality and nature.

What’s your writing routine?

I like to begin writing just before sunrise. It is the time when my dreams and stirrings from the night before are still with me, and the world of imagery and symbols seems more accessible.

What do most poorly written poems have in common?

Poorly written poems tend to use clichés, too many adjectives, overuse or misuse metaphors or similes, and can be overly dramatic. Ultimately, they fail to convey a meaningful experience to the reader.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

Well-written poems use precise language in terms of meaning, connotation and sound of words. For me, great poems evoke powerful emotion and are imbued with a transcendent, universal quality. 

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to ‘solve’ it?

While there are certainly poems whose meaning is clear, and therefore solvable, there are countless poems in the literature with abstract or vague meaning, which can give the poem a sense of wonder or mystery.

What book are you reading right now? 

I am listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This audiobook, which is beautifully read by her, weaves botany, ecology, and indigenous wisdom into a narrative that illuminates a regenerative way of being. I am also re-reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which reflects upon the human condition, life and death, mysticism, love and the task of the poet.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.

What Came Before 

What came before the crush of houses built dense 
as corn rows thinning the air, before the land 

was flattened and dulled into squares, inched with 
stray grass, leaving tracks of annihilation? 

Glacier-carved ridges were here with dense bones 
of dolostone, muscled in layers of sandstone, 

shale, and limestone, descending into the tissue 
of valleys tarped beneath the textured skin of soil 

veined with water, circulating air and light, seeding 
the centuries with red oak, sugar maple, beech, 

birch, white pine, cedar and hemlock rooted into 
networks co-evolving with fungi and other kin, 

webbed into forest, its wordless language felt in 
the fringe of wild-flowered meadows stretching 

out to reach the edge of cat-tail marshes bowing 
to riparian sycamores and willows weeping 

of their love for the water cradled in creekbanks 
flowing to release into a Great Lake, the one called

Niigaani-gichigami, leading sea, and Oniatarí:io, 
lake of shining waters, by the first ones here.
This Morning

This morning a blaze of color broke through
my windowed gaze, orange flare so bright 

it lit the dull green spines of aloe growing 
tight and twisted as blackberries, its quick 

flits like tiny bursts of fireworks waking 
purple-soaked spikes of Pride of Madeira 

groping the upward slope. Still for a moment, 
it shaped into Oriole, its name from old French 

or Latin, golden. This one called Hooded, first 
one seen in the rounded ravine surrounding 

the worn-out cottage I called home those last 
years in California, years turned inward, 

senses shuttered against the slow burgeoning 
of an ungentle culture bent on oblivion 

in a climate of drought and fire. Saturated in
aliveness of luminous bird, I sprung open 

like a rusted lock on an old trunk holding a life, 
its tattered straps snapping free. Stumbling 

out, untethered into the light, bare feet following 
eyes tracking beloved bird. I bowed down 

to its nature, the curve of my body knowing it is 
my nature, the way to move through this world.