What is copper?
Is it skin caressed
by ten thousand summers?
Is it the bark of arbutus,
scaling to reveal new green?
Can you stretch copper thin as oil on water,
thin as blood?
What is silver?
Is it the hair of grandmothers
drawn into ribbon braids?
Is it trout arcing upstream?
Is it dust streaking the sky
with its journey?
What is gold?
Is it maize that rises from fields
in names that stroke the tongue:
choclo, elote, mazorca?
Is it sunlight flashing
off corrugated roofs
into courtyards where roosters
flaunt their primeval hues?
Is it lemon trees heavy with fruit
nursed by streams that remember the ice
of secret mountains?
Can you hold it in your hand
lock it in vaults, or is gold
a creature of glint
living only in memory?
Nedjo Rogers worked for years at a mining-focused environmental group. More at nedjo.ca.
Questions and Answers
1. As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?
Something that’s worked for me personally: submit to theme issues, like the one this poem appears in. First, do a web search for keywords like “Canadian poetry journals”. That should get you started with several lists of literary publications in Canada. Look up their submission guidelines and note down any upcoming deadlines for issues that have a theme that speaks to you (I do this in a spreadsheet with columns for journal name, theme, deadline, and so on). Then, for each theme, go through your poems. Maybe you find some that are perfect fits. Great! But even if you do, take the theme as a writing prompt. Do a bunch of new work with the theme as your springboard. Then pick the best pieces, refine them a bit, and send them in. You never know, maybe one or two will get accepted. And if not? Hey, you got a few good poems out of the exercise, ones that could be great candidates to send in for an open submission.
2. What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
For several years I worked in a project supporting Andean communities impacted by Canadian-owned mines. I did field work in Peru and Bolivia, met with community activists and leaders, toured their communities, witnessed firsthand the poisoned waters, mountains of slag and tailings, and courageous resistance. I also travelled widely in Central and South America, spent time in small rural communities. It was this dual experience – destruction and beauty – that moved me to write this piece. The different words for corn – elote, choclo, mazorca – I learned from a grandmother in a tiny village in Nicaragua when I spent a week helping out in her kitchen and in the fields. The lemon trees are in Tambogrande, Peru, where a Canadian company once aimed to dig an open-pit mine right in the middle of town and where a nun lived who mailed me photos of the drilling rigs operating just outside her convent’s walls. I wrote knowing none of this background would be visible to someone reading the poem – how could it be? – but would nonetheless give the piece grounding.
3. How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
What I first wrote was much longer. In successive passes I pared it down, keeping only what seemed to me the sharpest and most emotionally true. Then I honed those passages, refining them often with tiny one- or two-word changes or deletions. And put this way I have to acknowledge a parallel with the mineral theme. First draft the raw deposit. Then removing the overburden, getting to the ore. Through the refinery, again and again. At last, the smelter, a final cleansing fire.