Ted Kooser on the Magic of Metaphor

I recently came across an online interview with the poet Ted Kooser from World Literature Today that shared his thoughts on the power of metaphor. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading one of his books, Splitting an Order, and sometimes I’ll select one of his poems to imitate in my own writing. So when I found this interview with some snippets about the use of metaphor, I paid close attention to his words.

Kooser claims that metaphor is central to his poetry. He says, “I have grad students who will be working on a draft of a poem, and they will say, ‘Don’t you think I ought to put a metaphor in here?’ And well, you can’t plug a metaphor in a poem. It has to be organic. You know, there are pretty successful poets who really can’t do metaphor. But for me, that’s really where the magic is.” That struck me as a writer, because sometimes I think the same way, almost as if I could insert one into a poem like a surgeon. Instead, he suggests that the metaphor must be cultivated as an essential part of the poem, which means working with metaphor earlier in the writing process. It shouldn’t be an afterthought in Kooser’s opinion.

When speaking about metaphor, Kooser also used the terms tenor and vehicle—terms that seemed foreign to me despite having a degree in English. One way to describe them is that tenor refers to the object or thing under the writer’s direct consideration and vehicle refers to the writer’s imagined relative object or thing. For instance, take Emily Dickinson’s lines, “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” Here, “hope” is the tenor because that’s what Dickinson is directly discussing in her poem, and a bird becomes the vehicle, because she imagines hope as a bird. Similarly, in the paragraph above I used a simile, which is a type of metaphor, when I wrote, “almost as if I could insert one like a surgeon.” Here, the tenor might be reduced to the writing process because that’s what I’m directly discussing, and the vehicle becomes surgery because that’s my imagined relative object.

So what gives metaphor such power? Kooser claims, citing work by the poet Robert Bly, that metaphor becomes more powerful when the distance between the tenor and the vehicle is larger. In other words, the larger the distance, the less likely that these two things might share a connection to each other by way of metaphor. According to Kooser, that “moment of recognition” between these two objects—especially when they are very distant—is where the power resides in a metaphor. Perhaps, then, it’s the ability to see something in a new way that gives metaphor such power.

We could get along without knowing these specific terms for metaphor just as people write without understanding the terms noun, verb, or adjective. However, the terms provide a tool for analyzing our use of metaphors, which might also help some people become better writers. At the very least, I’m encouraged to stretch myself as a writer, reminded to stay away from clichés and the overused. Certainly, Ted Kooser, who served as America’s Poet Laureate for a time, is one writer who might serve as a model, both in his poetry and process, and he doesn’t rush his writing. In fact, I’ve read elsewhere that he’s happy if he writes twelve good poems in a year.

A Few Words for John Prine

I’ve been wanting to say a few words about the death of John Prine. It saddens me to write those words, and perhaps that’s why I’ve put off writing this post for so long.  So much seems to have happened since then, but here goes.

I came late to the music of John Prine, having only been introduced to him by chance as my wife and I were just starting our relationship about twenty years ago. That’s when I found myself on my wife’s yearly family trip to Crotch Lake in Ontario, Canada. Her father has been going to Crotch Lake since the 1940s, and the cabins at the north end of the lake haven’t changed much since that time. No electricity. No water. No indoor plumbing.  Rustic, sure, but more primitive than many people would enjoy on a vacation. My father-in-law spent two weeks there almost every summer for most of his life, often seeing the same people year after year.

As I stepped into this tradition with my wife’s family, I happened also upon the annual hootenanny, where “campers” shared a spaghetti dinner and afterward settled in for some guitar and singing.  That’s where I first heard John Prine. Angel from Montgomery. Paradise. Those songs existed outside of my listening, but quickly found a place when I came back to civilization.  They were the kind of songs to share with people, suggesting that they might appreciate John Prine, too.

It’s hard to believe, but I now have a fourteen year-old son that goes to Crotch Lake with his grandfather. He likes rap, like many of his classmates—and I still listen to John Prine’s music. In fact, at the beginning of this year, I made a concentrated effort to improve my fingerpicking on the guitar by learning a new John Prine song, Sam Stone.  That was back in January.

It’s early June, today. The yellow forsythia in Northeast Pennsylvania has come and gone.  And John Prine is dead. It’s still hard to believe. It still saddens me.

On the night following his death, my daughter, herself a budding guitarist, and I posted a tribute on Facebook. After playing several songs like Souvenirs, Storm Windows, and Paradise, we settled in on Spanish Pipedream. We played through it a few times while my wife recorded our efforts and then posted the results.  We were heartbroken, but the songs left behind by John made things a little easier.  And I’m happy to say that I’ve almost mastered Sam Stone, and I’m working on others such as That’s the Way the World Goes Round.

My son has even turned into a fan of John Prine.  I’ve heard music coming from his bedroom, from the basement, from his earbuds—lots of Prine tunes—in fact, that’s all he was listening to for a while.  He even picked up my guitar for a couple of weeks, learning to play some beginner chords.  He hasn’t played for a while, but the guitar is still in his room, leaning there with his fishing gear while he contemplates another trip to Crotch Lake.  Perhaps, he will be able to get there, despite the situation we find ourselves in at this moment.

One thing’s sure, though, as I write these words. He’s gained a new appreciation for John Prine’s music. His favorite song right now is probably Please Don’t Bury Me.  I love it, too.  It’s a great song.  In the refrain, Prine sings again and again, “Please don’t bury me down in the cold, cold ground. No, I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around. Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes and the deaf can take both my ears if they don’t mind the sight.”  And that’s what we’re doing, in a sense, right?  We’re keeping old John from the cold, cold ground. We’re keeping him alive with every song and passing him all around.

Some New Waders and a Stringer Full of Fish Books

There’s just something about wading into a cold stream with a fly rod.  After many years away, I’d almost forgotten the feeling. Last spring, however, I started reading Vermont River by W. D. Wetherell.  It’s a memoir about fly-fishing, a kind of love story about a year in the life of a devout fishermen.  It was just the sort of book to rekindle my pursuit of trout waters. And about this time last year, I bought myself a new pair of waders.

Continue reading “Some New Waders and a Stringer Full of Fish Books”

A Deeper Look at Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town”

In December, I had the opportunity to see Jason Isbell play an acoustic show at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have been huge fans since discovering him in the summer of 2015, and for the past five years, we’ve been obsessed. It was on the heels of his album Something More Than Free that we first started listening, and I remember watching a performance of Isbell (pronounced IsBULL, by those in the know) with his band recorded at KEXP radio station in Seattle, Washington. My wife and I were hooked, and just as our interest with another favorite of ours, Ryan Adams, had started to wan, Jason Isbell’s music permeated the empty space with something new and interesting.

Since that summer, we’ve seen him over ten times. We’ve traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to see him play in his home state. We stumbled upon his grandfather in Green Hill, talking for over an hour with him, and in that same incredible day, met both Jason and his wife, Amanda Shires. At this point, we’ve met everyone in the band, too. I’ve shared elevator rides with Sadler and Jimbo Hart, his bass player. We even bought Chad Gamble, the drummer, a drink after a show in New York City. Stella Artois! And in an amazing stretch, we saw Jason and the 400 Unit play four concerts within a week. It’s safe to say we’ve been obsessed.

Why? The simple answer is the music. But there’s more to it—he’s an artist with a compelling story. I couldn’t possibly do any justice within my time constraints, but here’s my quick take. He’s such a talented guitarist and songwriter, who like many people, has conquered some personal demons. On top of that, he seems down to earth and authentic. To me, he breathes this life into his songs.

For me and my wife, though, it’s also about place. We traveled to Jason’s home state of Alabama, in part, because we wanted to become acquainted with the places mentioned in his songs. We wanted to travel along those same roads, see those same stretches of land. Many of you who read my blog regularly know that I often write about issues of place in literature, and many of my favorite books deal directly with place like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s that sense of place in Isbell’s songwriting that takes precedence, and even though he’s living and working in Nashville, Tennessee, he’s not writing kitschy songs about trucks, beers, and girls. That’s not his style, and if it were, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be spending my evening writing about him.

Instead, I’ve noticed the way many of his songs weave together place with change. Just thinking through some of his songs, especially on Something More Than Free, I’m reminded immediately of “Children of Children” and “The Life You Chose.” From Southeastern, his songs such as “Different Days” and “Cover Me Up” easily hit that mark. Without dwelling on the details, I think there’s something about growing up in these songs, about coming into your own as a person, that speaks to me. It’s songs like these that address the topic of change, which we all inevitably do as we age, but Isbell brings this theme to such poignant culminations of self-understanding and identity.

In December, I was fortunate to hear “Speed Trap Town” played by Jason and Sadler. It’s one of my favorite songs from Something More Than Free, and one of the few songs by Isbell that I feel comfortable singing and playing on the guitar. There are a few songs I’m always waiting to hear when I see Jason play, and this evening, he held this one back until the encore. Indeed, it’s that kind of song. Jason plays some simple, delicate chords, and Sadler lends some nice lead flourishes, but everything’s rather reserved, which allows the lyrics to take precedence in the song. What’s left is a powerful story, maybe even tragic, about leaving the past behind.

Coincidentally, last summer, I started searching for some blog posts about his music and came across a little piece by Andrew Ferguson, who lives in Scotland. In his post, he writes about the story-telling quality of “Speed Trap Town,” recognizing many of the same details I love about this song. His writing inspired me to reach out to him, and I’ve been reading his blog regularly, which often deals with music among other things. Like me, he’s a writer and guitarist, and maybe that helps us appreciate Jason Isbell just a little more, too.

Without giving the whole song verbatim, I’d argue that this song is a masterpiece about place and change. And like most songs of this caliber, there is an element to the lyrics that remain sufficiently complex and even ambiguous. The song deserves more thought and interpretation than one might normally expect. The gist of the story is that the narrator’s father is dying a long slow death, one that keeps him in the hospital wasting away, and that secondly, the narrator is grappling with the fact that his dad wasn’t ideal, having been a cheating husband and an absent father, in a small town where everyone knows his history.

Eventually the narrator recognizes his need to escape, to not get stuck here in this so called speed trap town. In the second stanza, he really hammers that theme. He writes, “Well, it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name / These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” It’s such a clever metaphor here to use football to emphasize the story of changing identity. The fact that the narrator wants to forget himself in alcohol, to slip perhaps into some kind of anonymity where he forgets who he is. And although “shallow cross” refers to a football play, the diction makes one think of losing their faith, which gets even more emphasized when he refers to a “boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” Yes, he’s talking about football, but I can’t help thinking that this also relates to his father. Children often idealize their parents, putting all their faith in them. As we mature and age, however, we begin to see their flaws, and our false impressions—our dreams of them—begin to crumble. It’s deep stuff.

Later in the song, more issues of faithlessness come to the surface as we learn that a decade earlier there was a “girl that wasn’t mama [who] caused his heart attack.” We know, therefore, that the narrator has been grappling with the flaws of his father, who was also a “tough state trooper” for a long time. Police officers are other figures we often tend to idealize as honorable and trustworthy people, but the narrator’s father doesn’t seem to represent that fidelity, because he’s “just pulling women over in a speed trap town.” At this point in the song, the narrator doesn’t seem to have any illusions about his father, but there seems to be a question of his own loyalty to his father, because he’s questioning his decision to stay in this small town.

And he doesn’t stick around. Instead, he decides to “sign my name and say my last goodbye,” which implies, at least to me, that he’s taking his father off life support. Concluding the verse, he then sings, “There’s nothing here that can’t be left behind.” This could be tragic, but in the last verse of the song, we find the narrator “a thousand miles away from that speed trap town.” And there’s something about his decision to leave his father that has cleared his conscience in a sense, for the imagery in that last verse of the song seems positive. He writes that the “sun came up” and he was able to sleep a “couple hours” and he’s drinking a “cup of coffee by an Indian mound.” Those last few lines are so cathartic, and they seem to betray a rebirth, a new start perhaps, where the past has been put to rest. I think of that especially with the “Indian mound,” because that imagery seems to suggest a buried past or a grave. The narrator has found some kind of peace with his past. He’s leaving the speed trap town behind after making a hard realization. He’s headed into something new, miles away from his old life.

It’s natural to wonder about the title, too. What is a speed trap town? To me, it’s a tiny town along the highway with a reduced speed limit—maybe going from 55 down to 25—for only a short distance. It’s easy then, when driving along through these towns, to just speed through them. They’re perfect places for speed traps. Of course, the larger metaphor is the idea of getting stuck in the same little place for a long time. Maybe even being held back, too, by those around us from moving on to something better. That might even be the very heart of this song, that simple realization that we can change our situation. He even says, “But it never did occur to me to leave ‘til tonight / When I realized he’ll never be all right.” To me, that suggests that the narrator had been holding on to the past, holding on to some illusory dreams, and that he’s finally made the decision to walk away from those things holding him “trapped” in this place. That’s scary for many people, because we often fear change. It’s much easier to continue on in difficult situations rather than forge new directions. We make excuses for ourselves. It’s our thinking, therefore, that often traps us, but recognizing these thoughts is a mark of maturity.

As for that show in December, I wasn’t disappointed. It felt like coming full circle, in a sense, because many of those first performances I watched several years ago included only Jason and Sadler playing acoustic. I’m always awed by their talent, always envious, wishing I could write or play guitar like them. And listening to “Speed Trap Town” that night only made me yearn for more. In the coming months, he’ll be releasing his latest album, Reunions. I can’t wait to see where he takes us this time around.

Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.

Another Bartleby Surprise

Last year around this time, I launched The White Whale with a post not about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but rather his short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It’s such a curious story, and when I had written about it before, I had been obsessing about John Jacob Astor, a name mentioned by the narrator at the beginning of the story, which to my surprise, I had spotted on the façade of New York’s Public Library on a trip about a year ago now. As my family knows, I have a habit of repeating words or phrases that sound interesting to me, and just like the narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I found myself compelled to reiterate that name, John Jacob Astor, many times to the irritation of my wife and children. Much of Bartleby was out my system, however, by this December, when another surprise fell into my lap.

As a high school teacher, I don’t receive many Christmas gifts from students, the routine usually having been dropped by the time I see them. This year, however, one of my students gifted me the graphic novel Crown of Horns from the Bone series by Jeff Smith. Seemed rather unusual, at first, but I realized her thoughtfulness since I had steered her toward graphic novels to help meet her requirement for independent reading. When I thanked her, I told her I’d make sure to read it over break so I could talk to her about it when we returned to school. As it turned out, it was the first book I read in the new year.

Here’s the surprise, which I would never have encountered, if it weren’t for the circumstances and the kindness of my student: I found another character named Bartleby. Yes sir! Bartleby! Bartleby! Bartleby! The name rolls off the tongue just like John Jacob Astor, and this new Bartleby is just as much a vagary as Melville’s Bartleby.

From what I can tell, Bartleby is a baby “rat creature” who Fone Bone, one of the main characters in the Bone series, has adopted. The rat creatures are monsters who attack the protagonists, but for whatever reason, this baby ran away from the others and joined the Bones. He’s also unusual, because as I’ve learned, rat creatures usually have their tails and ears cropped at some point, and although Bartleby lost his tail, he still has his big, fluffy ears. He’s rather cute, although baby rat creature doesn’t seem like a very attractive classification.

Picture of Bartleby from Crown of Horns
Bartleby, a defiant little rat creature from Jeff Smith’s book, Crown of Horns

More importantly, he’s a nonconformist, perhaps the reason for his name. Melville’s Bartleby is considered by many to be literature’s ultimate nonconformist, who instead of doing as he’s told, simply states again and again, “I would prefer not to.” Along with the opening of Moby-Dick, this is probably Melville’s most famous line. It’s also the thing that marks Bartleby as a symbol for breaking the rules, which obviously relates to Jeff Smith’s Bartleby. Not only has he broken away from all the other monsters, leaving the great herd behind, but he looks different from them. It’s a great name to emphasize his nonconformity. It’s interesting to note, too, that Bartleby was a name invented by Melville, at least according to some sources I’ve read. I don’t know if that’s been verified by scholars, but it does add even more individuality to the character by having a name that’s never been heard before. And undoubtedly, when I came across the name in this graphic novel, the allusion to Melville’s Bartleby was instantaneous.

Of course, now I wanted to know more about the author, Jeff Smith. Turns out, he’s a graduate of the Ohio State University just like me. He started writing comic strips while attending Ohio State, having published pieces with some of the same characters from the Bone series in the school’s newspaper. In fact, he cites Moby-Dick as his favorite book, according to his Wikipedia page, which presents even more evidence for Smith choosing the name Bartleby with Melville’s story in mind. I’ve read that Bone also has many references to Moby-Dick, something I would have never imagined.

Besides just another great example of serendipity, which always intrigues me, this experience serves as a great reminder to keep an open mind about the world. There’s little chance I would have ever picked up the Bone series on my own. Sure, I’ve read a few graphic novels. I’ve enjoyed them, but if it weren’t for the thoughtfulness, and kindness, of one of my students, I would have never found this book. And maybe that’s the ultimate takeaway, that I should always try to lean into new things, because who knows what may come. It’s not a bad lesson to take with me into a new year and a new decade.

Poetry About Small Town Life in Pennsylvania

Back at the end of October, my friend, Edward Luecke, began putting together a video to promote my collection of poetry about Montrose, Pennsylvania, called Public Avenue. On a Wednesday night at The Susquehanna County Historical Society, we shot about an hour of video with a series of questions that explained the project and my writing process. Ultimately, we both knew the video would only be about five minutes, and from that footage, we decided to focus on my decision to write about Montrose as well as the subject matter of some of the specific poems.

About a week and half ago, I posted the finished video on my blog’s Facebook page. The response has been tremendous, the video having been shared over fifty times and reaching a greater audience than any of my previous posts over the past year. It’s a great way to bring this year’s writing to a close.

Indeed, I have learned so much over the past year while bringing this project to completion, not only about my own writing process but also about the history of my hometown, assembling and hand-binding books, and promoting my work. I’m so grateful to those involved, and although I already acknowledged some of the people who helped along the way, I’d like to thank them again and include some of the many others for whom I’m grateful.

So many thanks to my wife, Brenda, for being a great first reader and always challenging me to do better with my writing; Edward Luecke, for his camera work, editing, and patience; Tracey Gass Ranze, for providing such great detailed feedback, kind words at the right time, and inspiration to publish; Michael Czarnecki, whose little book of poems, Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems, fell into my lap so many years and provided a template for constructing my book; Lisa Gruver from The Susquehanna County Historical Society, for scanning the cover image from an old postcard in their collections; also Louise Sammon and Betty Smith, from the Historical Society for their kindness and expertise over the past few months while I completed research, and especially Betty, for allowing us to film after hours for much longer than I ever imagined; Betty Bryden and Alice Mischke at The Butternut Gallery & Second Story Books, for my inclusion in the exhibit The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words and for their continued support of my book and poetry; Ellen Stone, the first poet in the family, for providing feedback on the poems and more inspiration; Diana Lombardi, for fielding lots of questions as I explored possibilities for the cover artwork and for taking the time to teach my creative writing class how to create and bind books; George Barbolish, for providing more feedback on the cover artwork; Lydia, my daughter, for letting me raid her brush pens that made such a great difference in the many versions of the hand-drawn and painted covers of the book; for Beverly DeGroat and Mark Terry, for sending me the photos of Jim Olin’s barber shop; and Ann Stone, my mother-in-law, for trusting me with your books and clippings about Montrose, which provided such a wealth of information about our small town. So many, many thanks for your help with this project.

A Poe(m) for Thanksgiving

The Turkey

Once upon an empty plate, while I pondered, long and late
Over many a quaint and curious cookbook of delicious delight,
While I simmered the onions and butter, suddenly there came a flutter
As of a gobble gobble at my door, a quiet gobbling at my door,
‘Tis my imagination, thought I, playing tricks at this dark hour.
                                                    Only this, and nothing more.

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was late in a cold November,
When all the pilgrims gave much praise for plenty of meat and stores of maize,
And the natives, too, had gathered round to celebrate with joyful sound;
From far away they made the trip, on ol’ Mayflower, their only ship.
And then I heard the noise once more and looked about the kitchen door.
                                                   Nothing there, just the floor.

And the onions cooking, sizzling slow, the celery sliced and diced so nice,
Thrilled me—filled me with disastrous memories of Thanksgivings past
So that now I thought, to quiet my heart, I stood repeating
‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there come to have a taste,
‘Tis only a visitor I hear out there, too soon, of course,
                                                     For tomorrow I baste”

But in then strolled a fattened fowl, the biggest baddest turkey of all,
Not a feather flew or dropped he; no, this big bird he never stopped,
‘Til up he popped upon the top of the stainless steel refrigerator.
Much I marveled this Tom turkey that you might think that I’d gone crazy,
No, I hadn’t even uncorked the wine, and the bird spoke, too, so clear and fine,
                                                       These three words, “Why not ham?”

And then he said, I’ll never forget, “Hey, tomorrow’s not here yet.
And you’ll have cranberry sauce and green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy,
Maybe butternut squash and muffins, and, of course, that wonderful splendid stuffing,
Maybe some creamed corn on the side, and for dessert, there’s plenty of pies.
Man, I can’t barely wait for all these plates, but tell me, please, it’s not too late,”
                                                        Quoth the turkey, “Why not ham?” 

Reflections on Moby-Dick and The White Whale

Last week, a friend sent along a message about November 14, noting that this day marked the publication of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. That would have been back in 1851, making the book 168 years old. He also said that makes November 14, White Whale Day, too, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect upon a few things related to my blog.

I launched The White Whale in January with a post about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” another story written by Melville, and its connection to a recent trip to NYC. Since then I have published fifteen blog posts, and I’ve done a tremendous amount of personal writing, I’d venture to say more than I’ve done at any other point in my life. My audience has grown over the course of the year, and as of today, there are 204 likes on my Facebook page, which may not seem like much, but I’m content, especially when I compare that figure with other blogs. My most popular blog post, so far, has been about the first Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania, the small town where I have lived for over fifteen years.

Along with the theme here of celebrating the birthday of Melville’s Moby-Dick, I’d like to say that I intended to reread the novel in the past year, tackling at least a page a day, but that fell by the wayside. I really do enjoy Melville’s writing, though, and in the past few years, I’ve stuck by my decision to have my students read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” but I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters of Moby-Dick. I was in graduate school the last time I read through the novel, and the book was on the oral exam list for my master’s degree. They asked me about the “shark sermon” delivered by the cook, Fleece, in Chapter 64, and I believe that at some point during my response, they decided he’s wriggled enough with an attempt to answer this question, let’s move on to something else. They had found my Achilles’s heel.

Cover of Moby-Dick (1930, Random House)
Cover of Moby-Dick published in 1930 by Random House

For those of you interested in reading Moby-Dick, or anyone that might also need a refresher, I’ve discovered that The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts stages an annual marathon reading of the novel in January. For those who can’t make the trip, there’s a live stream available. This year the event is scheduled for the first weekend in January, and according to their website, the reading takes 25 hours. I’m hoping to hear the shark sermon, once again, as I continue to wrestle with that demon from my past.

I’d also like to say a few words about the thumbnail image I’ve been using for the past year. The illustration of Moby Dick rising out of the water, clutching a rowboat with panicked sailors, is well-known, as any internet search quickly reveals. The image appears on page 510 of the 1896 edition of Moby-Dick. From what I’ve gathered from a blog post about Moby-Dick’s artwork at Apollo, there had been several illustrated editions of Melville’s novels by this point, but it wasn’t until this edition that Moby-Dick had been published with illustrations, probably because of its mediocre sales. Enter Augustus Burnham Shute, who completed four illustrations for this edition.

Intrigued by his work, I’ve been ever slow to discover much information about A. Burnham Shute, as he signed his illustrations. According to another website, Shute is also credited with illustrations for Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Two illustrators were hired at first, but as the publishers worried about meeting the book’s deadline, they brought on Shute to complete drawings for some of the chapters at the end of the book. What’s interesting, however, is that looking through copies of this book, Shute doesn’t sign his name to any of these illustrations whereas signatures of the other two illustrators are clearly identified with their pieces. I’m left wondering if the publishers wanted to disguise that Shute had been hired to ensure the project’s finish. Nevertheless, Shute is given recognition in modern editions, at least in the book’s credits, even if his name doesn’t appear alongside the artwork.

As I’m wont to do here at The White Whale, though, I started chasing something deeper about A. Burnham Shute, but there’s really very little to be found about him. No Wikipedia page. No biographies. Even my Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick includes no information on Shute’s biography or drawings. Many of his drawings are collected at the Wikimedia Commons, but in terms of biographical information, I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until I searched newspapers for his obituary that I found anything specific about his life. According to the notice in The Boston Globe, which only runs a few paragraphs, Shute worked right up to his death on March 16, 1906, which lately had included book illustrations. The article states, however, that Shute first gained recognition as a newspaper artist, suggesting that Shute may have been the first artist to have his drawings published in The Boston Globe. Beyond his professional life, there’s almost nothing mentioned, so that remains a mystery, something to be chased on another day. Maybe the next time November 14 comes around I’ll have more to share about his life.

For now, I’d like to say thanks to my friend, John, for inspiring this post. Sometimes all it takes is a few words of encouragement, and I’ve found a new topic that interests me enough to do some research and writing. And likewise, thanks to all my readers over the past year as we continue to plumb the depths.

Public Avenue, Finally Released

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, so much so, that I haven’t had time to really write proper posts for my blog, although I have been doing plenty of writing. Last weekend our local art gallery, The Butternut, opened the doors on its latest exhibit, The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words, and after many years, my collection of poems about Montrose, Public Avenue, made its debut. I had about 25 copies on-hand for opening day, and I was happy to see people purchasing my self-published, hand-made books. Then, this past Saturday I gave a reading at the gallery to many friends, family, and supporters of my writing as I formally launched the book.

Cover of Public Avenue, Poems about Montrose, Pa

Having now made it through the past month of editing and assembling the book, I’d like to share some of my thoughts from the reading as well as a little background on this project. It’s amazing to me that the book is finally complete, and I’m especially grateful to everyone who helped along the way.

At the outset, I’d like to say that I’m indebted to Michael Czarnecki, a poet from upstate New York, for the design of my book. While still in college, I met Czarnecki at a little coffee shop where he read poems from a slim collection entitled Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems. That collection of poems has been treasured by me for many, many years, and ever since purchasing that book, I’ve wanted to create something similar. While in college, other small books of poetry also fascinated me, and I loved flipping through Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches as well as Howl and Other Poems. Something about these books that were physically smaller just pleased me, so when I came across Czarnecki’s undersized, self-published book of original poems, I felt encouraged that some day I might produce my own book. And although Czarnecki and I have been Facebook friends for several years now, he probably has no idea how much that collection of poems has meant to me.

I needed the right subject matter, too. And as I summarized at the reading on Saturday, the sense of place has always intrigued me as a writer. I remember reading Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and The Shipping News for the first time and quickly becoming a fan. Her stories seemed saturated in the details of a particular place. Later, when she began writing books about the Western United States such as Close Range and Bad Dirt, my fascination with the sense of place only increased. Barbara Kingsolver is another writer who also comes to mind. Her book, The Bean Trees, was the first title I added to my curriculum when I began teaching high school. Some of her other books such as The Poisonwood Bible, and especially, Prodigal Summer, have also stayed with me over the years. And certainly, Tim O’Brien’s novels about Vietnam such as The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato continued my fascination with place as a central idea in my reading interests.

My non-fiction reading, too, often centers around place. This past summer I read Vermont River by W.D. Wetherell, which chronicles a year of fly-fishing in the author’s life. Now, I’m halfway through a book about fishing around Martha’s Vineyard called Blues by John Hersey. And of course, I’m reminded of some of my favorite books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. A more recent title on my reading list, however, has been Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which focuses on criminal relief in Alabama and a terrible miscarriage of justice in Harper Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, where the setting only serves to underscore the irony surrounding the wrongful conviction of a black man.

When I began to write short stories in earnest, hoping to send them off to literary magazines for publication, I wanted place to take a front seat in my writing. As I was living in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, I drew inspiration from my surroundings, including the people and places and traditions that made this region unique. For instance, one of my earliest stories dealt with an illiterate landlord renting to students in a small college town similar to Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Later, when I moved away to Columbus, Ohio, to attend graduate school, I continued to write stories focused on rural Pennsylvania with topics about hunting and fishing, the land often serving as an impetus to the conflicts of my characters.

When my wife and I moved back to Pennsylvania, finding jobs in the same county where my wife grew up, we purchased a house in her hometown, Montrose. I was still writing stories about this area, so I was thrilled to be in the thick of my subject matter. I wrote several short stories and flash fiction pieces, had a few published, but eventually found myself writing poetry, where I could more directly address the details of living in Montrose and Susquehanna County. Over time, I wrote a piece here or there, when inspiration struck me, until after a while I realized I had a collection of poems that might be brought together and published.

To discuss the specific poems briefly, I’ll just say that I wanted the collection to bridge the past and present, hoping to pay respect to our history but also include the right amount of details to locate our town in the present. I wrote several poems that address places such as the county courthouse and other notable landmarks, the places that people know with long memories, even if some of the features have continued to evolve. Likewise, I wanted to include people, some whose names are remembered in books about Montrose, like Isaac Post, who is considered a Founding Father of Montrose, as well as others, who remain alive in our more recent memories for what they have brought to our community such as Joe Welden. It’s been my hope, too, that these poems come together in a way that feels a little bit larger than the fourteen poems that comprise the book, and that taken as a whole, the poems communicate more than each poem by itself.

To that end, I fell upon Public Avenue as the title for the collection. I wanted something that could encompass both the theme and setting of the poems, and that title has been significant to me as I imagined these pieces. Indeed, I wanted the poetry I’ve collected in this book to reflect the public face of our town. The title, too, has helped me narrow the poems to include in the collection, for I’ve culled many of the poems from those I’ve written over the past years to make sure that these best embody the title of the book. Since several poems also reference street names, including Public Avenue, that also became just another piece in the puzzle.

It’s been difficult to put into words the excitement I’ve felt as this project has culminated in the past few weeks. The road has been long traveled to reach this point, but as everything came together, I’ve felt such gratitude. So many people—my wife, family, and friends—have supported me along the way. Being able to finally share these poems this past weekend with an audience, some people whom I’ve known for a long time and others that I’ve only met for the first time, has been such a gift.