Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, the Lanier Library Association, and River Styx. His first book, If You Find Yourself, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. He is also the author of the chapbook Latchkey Kids, which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction has appeared in such publications as West Branch, North American Review, Harpur Palate, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.
Gulls circle the Delaware, a fractured
creeping glacier since February.
Last week, beneath this illusion of land,
that boy was found lodged in water weeds,
the one who disappeared from his cold
crowded schoolyard pen in West Philly.
A cataract moon shimmered him just enough
to be glimpsed by some dock worker
drunk with exhaustion after a double shift.
The worker called 911 to report what
he thought it was, but couldn’t be sure
of what he saw. The dispatcher asked him
to look again and describe it, but he said, “no.”
A car was promised anyway, and the worker
waited a ways off, shoving his chin
into his coat collar to protect against the chill.
But there was nothing to protect against
that silence where the dark place beckoned:
You must see what you think you saw.
So he returned to the river’s edge
where his boot-prints led down a steep slope
towards the shore. He stumbled carefully,
aiming his heels for the luminous places.
Then he stopped, and after trying not to see,
prepared to open his shut eyes and be sure.]
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem was composed in 2014. It began as a scene that came to me in two lines “The gulls circle the Delaware’s dull mirror of ice. / Across that deadly illusion of land…” Both lines obviously went through some revision. Also part of the making of this poem has to do with my grandfather, who was a longshoreman along the Delaware for many years. He was retired by the time I became cognizant of what a longshoreman actually was. For this reason, I think I’ve always in some way mythologized that fact about him, especially since it’s become mostly a dying profession. I also once heard him at a barbecue talking about the bodies he would sometimes come across in the water. At the time, I thought he was just kidding everyone, which he often did when drinking. When I got older, though, I realized he probably was being serious. He worked on the Delaware River for over fifty years, so the odds of running into a body once or twice are probably very good.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Not many, which surprises me. I think three at the most. It started out with a different title and a more open form, which is the case with most of my poems. However, it seemed to take its true form very quickly, and the title became fairly obvious to me after someone telling me the original title was confusing. The biggest bit of revision came with the final line. At the time when it was being written, I was taking a workshop at Georgia State with Leon Stokesbury. He basically suggested some tweaking of the poem, especially the last line, which helped it arrive at its final form.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I only believe in inspired ideas. The actual writing down of an idea into a poem is something else entirely. Most of my poems and stories come through sweat and tears. I work, many times, for months and months on things. This poem is very much an outlier in that regard. It came out mostly fully formed in the first draft and became what it is now by a second. The third draft, which was mostly tweaking, became the final draft. So I guess you can say it was inspired. However, I think what is more the case is that I was trying for a long time to write about my grandfather working on the Delaware River. Words and lines had been percolating in my mind for a long time, and 2014 just happened to be the year that it came together.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
As I said, it began in a more open form, which is the way with most of my poems. What is also true of most of my poems, is that I always seem to gravitate toward a more consistent and uniform line. Many times I like a longer line closer to a prose sentence, which sounds much clearer to my ear. However, more open forms don’t tend to suit me. Seeing lines of varying lengths and breadths running down a page messes with my inner-obsessive compulsive too much. In this poem, meter is a little more pronounced, I think, and the line tends to remain closer to five beats. None of this, though, was consciously attempted. All I was really thinking about while writing it is making the situation dramatic and giving the language some music.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Nothing unusual, I don’t think. I usually write first drafts in a notebook, and then I type that draft on a computer. I then print the draft out and mark it up on paper. This process will be repeated until I feel the poem is ready.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It ended up in print faster, I think, than any poem I ever wrote. I started submitting it in April 2014 and it ended up finishing second for the River Styx International Poetry Prize. It appears in the January 2015 issue.
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?
I don’t have any hard and fast rules on this, though I should. It all depends on the poem and its progress. If I really like something, I may send it off earlier than I should. Usually, though, I go through a bunch of revisions, which keeps the poem sitting for a few months before I feel ready to release into the wild.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I have very strong feelings about the notion of “fact” in poetry. I feel the beauty of poetry, or any art for that matter, is the ability to invent dramatic situations of either language or narrative. Now, the facts, if there are any, would be that my grandfather was a longshoreman and that he talked once about seeing dead bodies in the river. However, the poem itself is pure invention. I am not, obviously, a longshoreman, and I was very young when my grandfather actually worked on the river. I have visited the Delaware waterfront many times, but never the industrialized waterfront that my grandfather would have known. The poem is a fiction, and I proudly own that designation because I believe it allowed me to get much closer to emotional truth than if I had tried to stick to only real-life personages and events that actually happened.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, without a doubt. It has a main character. It has a dramatic situation in which a character wants something. The character takes action to achieve this want, which then changes him psychologically.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I am always reading something. Though, I can’t recall who I was specifically reading when I wrote the poem. Philip Levine and Elizabeth Bishop are always at work somewhere in my subconscious that’s for sure, as are Etheridge Knight, Jack Gilbert, and Raymond Carver.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I think people like those who I grew up with and people in my family. People who would be considered blue-collar workers. I know it’s probably a little idealistic to think people who don’t normally read poetry would be interested in my poetry, but those are the voices that inhabit me and probably will inhabit me until the poetry gods decide that I've said enough.
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?
My workshop at Georgia State saw this poem and were helpful as was Leon Stokesbury, the teacher of the workshop. My best reader, though, is Brian Brodeur, who I have shared drafts with for years. He’s pretty good with poetry but not with much else. Oh, he’s also good with beards. He’s a master of the beard.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t think it does differ. It tells a very definite story, which most of my poems do. It also has a certain formalism, which is also usually true of most of my poems.
What is American about this poem?
The rhythms of the language, the dramatic situation, and the landscape depicted. I think only an American working-class culture could produce such a poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished, I would say. So many others, though, are hopelessly abandoned.