David Dodd Lee's latest book, The Nervous Filaments, was published by Four Way Books in March 2010. Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, The Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlazeVox) was published in April 2010. Orphan, Indiana (The University of Akron Press) will appear in late 2010. The Coldest Winter On Earth will be published by Marick Press in 2011. Lee has published three other full-length books and a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), and Abrupt Rural (New Issues, 2004). Recent poems have appeared in Blackbird, Field, Gulf Coast, Interim, Verse, Zone 3, Pool, Denver Quarterly, The Hat, Pleiades, Caffeine Destiny, Mississippi Review, Nerve, and Massachusetts Review. He is the editor of the annual poetry and fiction anthology, SHADE, published by Four Way Books. Lee is also the publisher of Half Moon Bay poetry chapbooks, which include titles by Franz Wright and Hugh Seidman. In the past, he has served as poetry editor at Third Coast and Passages North, and recently he guest edited issues of The Laurel Review and Passages North. He has worked as a park ranger, a fisheries technician, and a journalist (film and art critic). Short stories have been published in Sou’wester, Crowd, Green Mountains Review, and Controlled Burn. Lee’s most recently completed project is The Other Life: The Selected Poems of Herbert Scott (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), which he edited. He teaches creative writing and visual art at Indiana University South Bend. For more information, please visit his blog.
A POEM ABOUT BLUEGILLS
There are poems about bluegills. There are poems
about trout. The bluegill doesn’t give a shit.
It’ll eat a bare hook but would rather not hear
about your childhood. The bluegill’s thick headed.
It hunkers down in the weeds, thinking. The trout’s like a young girl
in a wedding gown. Touch it and it dies.
You can pull a bluegill out a pike’s ass, it might
still swim away. I’m not talking about pumpkinseeds,
those little flecks of tinsel. The bluegill’s
the stud of all panfish. People catch pumpkinseeds
thinking they’re bluegills. A pumpkinseed shivers;
it thinks it’s going to convince you it’s cold.
Bluegills are fatalists. A slab in your hand may jerk its head
twice. Once hooked it goes for the mud. By the time
it’s resting on a flotation device it’s willing to die.
It doesn’t grope like a rock bass, swallowing air,
the bluegill’s a realist. It knows it’s just a wedge of painted flesh,
heavy enough to pull you half out of the boat.
If you’ve got a big white bucket of panfish
sitting on top of the ice, the bluegill’s the one still living,
thinking, its head like a stapler, mulling things over.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem was written in late 1996, and was the last poem to be written for Downsides of Fish Culture (which appeared in 1997). In fact I wrote it (after the book had been taken) as a kind of companion piece to “A Poem About Pike.” The book is full of northern pike. The bluegill poem was a kind of addendum then, though it appears in the middle of the book and really sort of centers the whole thing. I also wrote it as a kind of response to the exceedingly common “trout poem.” As if one fish deserves a poem more than another. In particular, I recall a trout poem David Marlatt had just published around that same time (it was also a love poem—Trout, the fish of Love) and so I took the chip I had on my shoulder and brought all sorts of attitude with me into the poem. In a more general way it’s a poem for the underdog, I suppose, in society. Also, I love spin casting. Too many poems out there about fly fishing. Too few poems about hurling a Mepps spinner around, or flipping a leaf worm alongside a creek’s undercut bank.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wrote a draft probably in around an hour. I remember I wrote it on an old windy computer on a big Formica table in my kitchen when I lived on Merrill Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I remember I was very happy with the first draft, having written it on the energy that comes when you know you have a book coming out and that the poem you are presently writing will be part of that book. I think I played around with a few lines a while later—as I was looking at it as part of the whole that was the book--but in the end I went with the original version. I probably changed two words.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I answered this in the question above I think. I was riding the crest of the wave that was the manuscript for Downsides. I’m very into the idea of a book of poems as series of related vignettes—the poems all feed off each other, and the ones that come in last for any given manuscript are written somehow based on the ones that came in first, like a big abstract expressionist painting. In that sense I was “inspired” by the body of work that so far constituted the manuscript for Downsides. (In a sense, it was like writing the end of a novel.) Other poems, earlier ones, I revised a hundred times. All that revision of course isn’t wasted, or rather the work one puts into even failed poems. The sweat and tears of those failures teach you something and the next thing you know along comes one of those gift poems, seemingly beamed down to you from the moon. I have a vague memory, for instance, of writing a catfish poem around that time—I’m not sure if it was called “A Poem About Catfish” or not . . . Either way, I have no poem about catfish in my “files” . . . I’m pretty sure I just bagged that idea and spun out the bluegill poem after getting a few other fish poems (Downsides is, after all, a book of “fish poems”) wrong first.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I don’t recall making any conscious choices. I knew it would be simple, flush left and one single stanza. I didn’t want the form getting in the way of the story (or portrait) and voice. But many of the poems in Downsides of Fish Culture I conceived formally before I began writing so my technique varied at that time (for that book).
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Pretty quickly. Within nine months. I don’t remember how it all came down. I have it recorded that the poem appeared in Sycamore Review in the summer of 1997. The poem appeared in the book a few months later.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It varies. Sometimes I send poems out a week or so after they’ve been written (and revised) and I often realize I’ve sent the poems out too early. Part of my process can include this absurd ritual of dropping poems into a mailbox and then going home and finishing them. It happens less often these days, but it still happens. Many poems I never send out at all. It sort of depends on how much free time I have available. Not all of my poems are at their best when taken out of the context of the manuscript they are a part of. I have a manuscript that University of Akron Press is publishing in the fall of this year and I believe about six poems have been published (or will be). That’s six out of something like fifty poems. But the structure of the book is such that I’m not sure most of the poems should be published separately.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
That’s all balled up into a composite portrait representing a large general truth or feeling in this poem. It’s an appreciation for one thing, of the bluegill, inspired in part by the poem, as I mentioned above, David Marlatt wrote about trout, a species of fish that seems to have, as I also mentioned above, its fair share of appreciation poems. Every kid has caught a bluegill, sometimes on a bare hook. But the large “Bull” gills are another matter. They are hard to hook and they can bend your fishing rod in two. There is something thrillingly noble and dangerous-seeming in the shape--the blunt wedge of it--of a bluegill’s body, the thick thoughtful forehead, especially after the fight, once you pull the dark fish from the water. They aren’t hyper little flipping things once they get that big for one thing—immediately they go somewhere very Zen and await their fate and it’s somehow an honor to gaze into that large upside staring eyeball. Fishing is very emotional. Seriously. And all this is somehow doubled when it’s just you out in the world standing on top of a frozen lake, just you and the fish. Together. With maybe a small bottle of schnapps.
Is this a narrative poem?
In a large metaphorical kind of way, sure. I know we’re suppose to feel shamefully old fashioned about keeping company with anything “narrative” these days as poets. It seems to me though that all poems are narrative in some way. I would say, though, that I don’t particularly feel like what one might call a narrative poet, and never have.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
No, I really don’t. I recall that Robert Hass’s “My Mother’s Nipples” did a number on me and influenced the shape of “Nude With Northern Pike.” I read too variously to be able to answer this honestly. I may have been reading Kate Braverman or Lorrie Moore or Jim Harrison or Rick Bass or Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which I had purchased around that time from C. D. Wright, an old semi-water-damaged copy of the original Mill Mountain edition (It was expensive). I remember I fell in love with James Schuyler’s “Morning of the Poem” around that time. See how I’m not answering your question?
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No, not really. I write, as Tom McGuane said somewhere, to astound myself. Is that too over the top? Perhaps I could change it to “To entertain myself.” Amuse? Something like that.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I shared it with no one. Herbert Scott saw it, and he published it in the book. No one ever edited it. I’ve had a few bad experiences where I took advice and edited a poem and then it would appear in some magazine and I’d immediately go back to the old, “inferior” version. I think we spend a lot of times changing poems without making them actually much better. They’re just different. That isn’t to say I haven’t experienced the collaborative thing that happens when you are engaged with a really great editor.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
In the construction that is the narrative that is the story of all the poems I’ve published (in book form) starting with “A Poem About Pike” and ending with my dictionary poems (some of which I wrote as recently as three weeks ago and hope to publish as a chapbook), “A Poem About Bluegills” is the right poem for the slot in which it resides as one part of the continuum that represents an arc of utterance, various and ever changing, arranged—one hopes tellingly—between this poet’s birth and death. May I keep adding to this arc for years (hand me the fish oil supplements).
What is American about this poem?
It’s very place oriented—so in that regard it is very much about the Midwest, its culture and its landscape.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished. In fact I think I popped open a bottle of beer at one p.m. in the
afternoon—probably on something like a Tuesday--in celebration, then drove over and handed Herbert Scott the finished book manuscript. “It’s done,” I think I said.