Ohio Poetry: An Interview with Chuck Salmons

Written by Manuel Iris, Writer-in-Residence, Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

Our 2023 Writer-in-Residence, Manuel Iris, is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Attend his upcoming workshops and writers' office hours. And, listen to him as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head" podcast.

If you live in Ohio and love poetry, it is likely you know about the work of Chuck Salmons. Serving as part of the leadership of the Ohio Poetry Association, opens a new window, he is not only a poet, but also a bridge between other poets and its readers. His generosity is always present inside and outside the poem. Intelligent and kind, he writes honest, refreshing poetry. The following interview explores his story, work, and personal poetics.

Manuel Iris (MI): Chuck, you are not only a poet but a poetry-community builder. Your work for the Ohio Poetry Association (OPA) has given you the opportunity to know, like very few people, the poets, and poetry of our state. What can you tell us about Ohio poetry nowadays?

Chuck Salmons (CS): The Ohio poetry scene is vibrant and dynamic. Nearly any day of the week, a reading, workshop, or other poetry event is taking place somewhere in our state. Poets of all ages and skill levels live and write in the Buckeye State and contribute to the poetry community. The advent of the Internet and social media has afforded people the opportunity to share and be exposed to poets and poetry from not only their local and statewide communities, but beyond our state and even national boundaries, so that we can hear and be heard by a diverse audience far and wide. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite its awful impacts on families and the public at large, forced many poets and arts organizations to think outside the box and begin to reach writers and audiences in new ways, mostly to great benefit and success of poets. New reading series popped up all over Ohio, and bookstores began to host their readings and interviews virtually. At OPA, we pivoted to offering programs both in person and online, and during the pandemic, we saw poets from all over the world take part in our workshops. It was really an amazing thing to witness. 

There also is a bit of a changing of the guard occurring in Ohio right now, with regard to reading series and small presses. In recent months, we’ve seen several long-running open mics come to an end and new ones start up to take their place. And a few small presses have closed their doors only to be replaced by new indie publishers with various focuses on the style of poetry they publish. 

Also, now that Ohio has a State Poet Laureate program, the art of poetry has gotten a bit more publicity, especially under the auspices of our current poet laureate, Kari Gunter-Seymour, who really has taken full advantage of her opportunity to represent poets and poetry in Ohio. I think the next poet laureate will have a high bar set for them, but I’m excited to see who takes the reins because we have so many fantastic artists who could fill that role and be successful at it. 

MI: Tell us a little bit about your personal story, focusing on the moment when you realized that poetry was your calling and not just a hobby.

CS: There are really two moments of epiphany for me when it comes to poetry. The first was during my sophomore year of college when I took my first creative writing class. To that point, I simply had been dabbling in poetry with the idea that I was writing song lyrics. I was not very well educated about what poetry is and its role in society. Poetry still seemed a bit arcane and beyond my abilities. I did not consider myself an artist but a kid from a blue-collar family from the South Side of Columbus who was probably destined to work in the construction industry for the rest of his life. Then I read a poem by Charles Bukowski during that creative writing class. Its title was “The History of One Tough Motherfucker”,  and I was blown away. All of a sudden, here was a poet whose voice—a gritty, blue-collar persona—reminded me of the those I had heard growing up in south Columbus. From that moment on, I realized poetry could be something else, something beyond the formal, highly metrical and often inaccessible writing that I had been reading all through elementary and high school. I then took a much greater interest in writing poems that reflected my own background, the neighborhood I grew up in and the people in that neighborhood. 

The second moment was a more of a self-realization. At one of the OPA retreats at Malabar Farm State Park in the early 2010s, I had a moment where I finally recognized myself as a poet. I had not published much to that point and did not really consider myself an artist because I wasn’t having any real success. But something happened in that setting that convinced me otherwise. Perhaps it was the group of people who were with me that weekend, or maybe the workshop leader, who helped me gain the understanding—and the acceptance—that I was a poet and not just a writing as a hobby. It was a startling but wholly gratifying realization.

MI: Now, what is poetry to you? How do you personally define it and live it?

CS: Poetry is exploring through language what it means to be human. Now, one could argue that fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, journalism, and even journaling do that as well. But poetry seeks to use language in new, exciting ways to help both the poet and the audience come to a place of enlightenment or understanding. It is the putting together of words and phrases in ways that may never have been done before. Poetry elevates and illuminates. Poetry calls to action. Poetry reminds. Poetry makes us feel more connected. And really good poetry stays with us. We carry it with us as a means of coping. I’m not exactly sure where it comes from. But at a recent reading at the Columbus Poetry Forum, the poet Roy Bentley read one of his own favorite poems and then posed the question about where it came from. His response was perfect (and I’m paraphrasing): Was it some great unconscious that we are all part of, or was it something I ate? That is the essence of being human—the uncertainty of things. Poetry can help us get over those fears and anxieties that arise from a lack of certitude simply by being beautiful works of art. We can read good poems and remember that it’s okay to be unsure, we’re not alone in that state of being. For the reader—despite never having actually met the poet—a good poem can create a sense of togetherness. Few art forms can do that. 

MI: What are your poetic obsessions? Is there any subject or interest constantly re-appearing in your poems? What does it mean to you?

CS: Those who know my work will know that I write a lot of poems about family, especially father-son relationships. My relationship with my father has evolved as he and I have gotten older. Historically, we have had very different personalities and worldviews, and we were not always that close. He is a retired landscaper and while I like working with my hands, I was always better with my brain. Consequently, I was the first person in my family—both father and mother’s sides—that ever went to college. So, our relationship has been such that we have not been as close as perhaps we would like it to be. But we’re getting better. And my poems about him and/or us help me to explore and understand that relationship, both past and present, and how it has shaped to people we have become. Likewise with all of the poems I write about family. Sometimes when we’re in the moment, we don’t fully understand how an experience shapes us. Through poetry, we can explore those moments by finding the language that illustrate their importance and impacts.

MI: For you, what is the relationship between poetry and community? How do they create each other?

CS: We all come from a community of some kind and sometimes more than one. A family is a community. A church, mosque, or synagogue is a place of community. Schools are places of communities. Workplaces, museums, parks, sports stadiums—all of these are places of community. So, we all are shaped by our communities, which can give rise to artists and writers whose work reflects where we come from and the communities to which we belong. But poets and artists also can create, shape, and even heal communities through their work. They can give a voice to people who don’t have one or don’t know how to use their own, especially with regard to issues that inhibit their ability to live a safe and prosperous life. Poets in particular are often adept at raising awareness of challenges created by such issues as racism, social justice, and economic inequality, and they have a talent for bringing people together and empowering the members of their communities to effect change through their work. And organizations like OPA, Lit Youngstown, Lit Cleveland, and the Wick Poetry Center are wonderful resources for helping poets make an impact. They also are great at helping artists establish new friendships and communities and build partnerships. 

MI: As the final question: Would you please share with us 5 poems that, according to you, represent your work? 


Planning to cook for her,
I scour my mother’s kitchen,
search the fridge
for food still holding shape—
crowded condiment bottles,
leftover beer, soda, molding cheese.
So we dine out—
a rosemary loaf, basil
penne on blue plates,
a bottle of her favorite wine.
This night her appetite is strong,
but we know it won’t matter
because with chemo
everything tastes metallic.
Lifting her glass with a wink
she says, The poet who drinks sour wine
will always write a fermented line.
We laugh, our glasses raised
to praise her doctor, the kind nurses
who hit her vein the first time,
every time. She pretends to savor
the sauce, lauds the wine—smoky,
full-bodied, a merlot with memory.
She’s right about the wine.
A glass or two loosens her tongue.
Four years since the divorce
and she wants someone to be there
when poisons pump through her veins.
She’s looking for a reason
to fill the fridge with fresh food,
someone to cook with,
someone to share the merlot.
A son can only do so much.

Originally published in Evening Street Review, no. 11 (Autumn), 2014

Patch Job

I arrive at Dad’s new house,
a HUD home he bought during a hangover
from his second divorce.
We patch holes of all sizes—
each dap of spackle
conceals scrapes and gouges,
scars never lost.
When he and Mom argued,
Dad punched holes in our walls.
His fist pierced the drywall
like Yeager through the sound barrier.
Hand-sized holes every few months,
as if bumps and bruises
where our house had fallen again.
Dad usually filled them right away,
but some lingered like burns.
Mom hid holes with pictures—
family vacations, birthday parties,
our dogs running around us
in the backyard—moments
when Dad took time
from twelve-hour days to smile,
days thrown together like a patch job.
Now we move wall to wall,
patching holes, filling voids,
spackle spread thick to bond
but thin enough to hide
behind a coat of paint.

Originally published in Patch Job (chapbook), 2017

Close Encounter

When my wife turns to me
and asks if I’ve ever seen a UFO,
I tell her about a night
Dad and I came home
after fishing the Big Walnut
(as always, empty handed)
and I saw five orbs glowing,
floating toward the tree line
in a musical dance like the five notes
scientists play to welcome the visitors
before sending Richard Dreyfuss
on a journey that will demonstrate
Einstein’s greatest theories.
A formation like so many have seen,
as they are quick to explain
during those middle-of-the-night TV shows
about Nessie or Yeti or Bigfoot,
or how the pyramids were really built
by ETs that copulated with our ancestors
and bred a new human ingenuity.
The object passed beyond the trees
and over our neighborhood
as if to land at Grandmother’s church,
a chaste, white building
where on Sundays parishioners
sang, prayed and
fell to the floor, writhing and wriggling
and speaking an ancient language,
possessed by the tongue of God.
Or perhaps by the guttural utterings
of intergalactic visitors—
Klaatu barada nikto—
a language of the heavens
brought to us from some distant planet
and passed down through generations,
except the meaning was lost in translation
and sometimes the visitors return
to quell our arrogance and remind us
why we’re here.
I was never compelled
to sculpt a model of Devil’s Tower
or drive into the desert alone,
bewitched behind the wheel.
But when my wife looks at me,
as Terri Garr looks at her husband
from across the dinner table,
disbelieving yet loving him still,
I tell her that when we caught fish
we always released them.
I tell her, on that night
I nearly hopped my bike and
rode through the night chasing aliens.
Instead, Dad walked into the yard with me
and we watched the lights dip
below the trees.
Dad’s truck and my bike sat
mutely in the garage,
and we simply let it go. 

Originally published in Stargazer Suite (chapbook), 2016


Atop Hogback, you see the U.P. stretch 

its wilderness beyond Marquette, Lake Superior 

an open sea of shimmering cobalt and cold cruelty. 

Where better to best a classmate in a game of chess 

this last Saturday before you defend your thesis 

and set to proving your father wrong about you leaving 

a high-paying job that gave you nothing but ambition 

for something else. This May day, sunlight warms 

the blossoming north woods, paper birch 

forests awaken to an unfolding of possibilities. 

And neither you nor your opponent are sure

of your next move. You should not be still

in this game—his skills better than yours,

more calculating, more studied. 

His brow dispels a presumed authority. 

You breathe the cleanest air you’ve ever inhaled,

save that ferry ride from Marblehead to Kelleys Island,

crossing Lake Erie with your grandparents

who took you and your brother everywhere

they journeyed, both of you nestled into the capped 

bed of your grandfather’s white Chevy pickup 

truck loaded with camping gear and a cheap

magnetic checkerboard with plastic pieces. 

The gulls grew raucous, waters calm 

enough for you to wander the upper deck

and stumble upon two strangers playing 

an odd game with exotic pieces, astounding moves. 

You pause, watch, listen, a new lexicon 

wrapped in the drawl of English accents—

En passant. Castle. Checkmate. 

A shaking of hands as the defeated departs. 

The winner invites you to sit down. You explain 

you do not know how to play.

He offers to teach you, possibilities mesmerize. 

You envision the kings fat and lazy, 

the queens nimble and pretty

as you make your first move. Soon the lake is memory, 

hum of ferry engines lost in breeze.

Now vanquished, you are ready to shake hands, 

hike down the mountain.

You reflect on the strategy that failed you,

weigh the wrong moves. And the right ones.

You look forward to a stronger king, a wiser queen.

You will ask her to marry you, to carry you awhile. 

And she will. And she does. Even now.

Originally published in Evening Street Review, no. 37 (Spring), 2023


after Landscape 14.34, by Alice Carpenter, 2014  

What wild creatures haunt 

our childhood dreams—

lanky, leggy, gathered 

hip-hinged beneath a waxing moon.

Plotting, plodding, they roamed 

open fields as we slept unaware. 

Only in dreams did we dare

dance with such devilish beings

intent on dragging our souls 

into Satan’s lair.

Or so we were told

by Baptist grandparents

who tucked us in, held our hands, 

prayed to a god that lingered

somewhere in shadow,

prayed that we sleep safely until morning.

By the time we grew old 

enough to trust our doubts,

these creatures—whose only sin was 

a longing for our world to see

virtue in their otherness—

have left us. We yearn,

cling to a past dimly lit, 

wondering if they still lurk 

in hillsides, too murky, 

too foreign for us to trek 

alone in the blue bruise of night.

Originally published in The Ekphrastic Review (online), 2021


About Chuck Salmons

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Chuck Salmons is a poet and for more than decade has served as part of the leadership of the Ohio Poetry Association, opens a new window. He earned a B.A. from Otterbein College and a M.A. from Northern Michigan University.

Chuck's poems have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Pudding Magazine, Evening Street Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Common Threads, The Fib Review, Red Thread Gold Thread, Shot Glass Journal, Everything Stops and Listens, A Rustling and Waking Within, Eclipsing the Dark, Poets to Come, and Appleseeds. His chapbook, "Stargazer Suite," was released in December 2016 and is available from 11th Hour Press, opens a new window. His second chapbook, "Patch Job," was published by NightBallet Press, opens a new window in 2017.

He won the 2011 William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest, sponsored by The Poetry Forum of Columbus, and has garnered awards from Ohio Poetry Day. He is a recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for his poetry. Chuck regularly gives readings throughout Ohio, both solo and as part of the poetry trio Concrete Wink, opens a new window. He also leads workshops for various groups and audiences.

Chuck's poetry has also been exhibited visually in artistic form. He has been a featured artist in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Art in the Lobby program in Columbus three times.

Chuck has worked in a variety of fields, including construction, education, and retail. He loves science, which often influences his poems, and works as a Communications Manager at the Ohio Geological Survey.

Attend Manuel's upcoming workshops and writers' office hours, opens a new window. And, listen to him as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head" podcast.