there's someone in that cottonwood - "Through the Second Skin" by Derek Sheffield

Lucky - Derek Sheffield

When Bradley laughed because Dean didn’t even know 
his rabbit’s foot was cut from a real rabbit, Dean’s thumb
froze mid-stroke, feeling a claw under the green fur. 
No wonder he lost his popgun. No wonder 
Laura beat him in the UNICEF drive. He counted
on his fingers all the things taken from him. 

In the parking lot alive with children and parents 
waving from car windows, he found bus six
and kept thinking about the foot in his pocket,
the prints it must have made along a river 
or leading from a dark burrow.

When the bus stopped in front of his house,
he walked straight to the backyard 
and chose a spot under the plum tree. 
With his father’s shovel, he dug a hole,
then placed the foot inside and covered it.
He knew it might take hours for the rabbit
to grow back. He waited on the porch.

If he sat there long enough, he thought,
he would see his mother’s car.
from Through the Second Skin
(Orchises Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

I first encountered Derek Sheffield's poetry in the pages of Poetry Magazine. Specifically it was his poem "A Good Fish" that grabbed my attention - so much so, in fact, that I mentioned in a 2008 blog post here on silaron that I thought it was "bloody fantastic" (I was British back then?). After that brief moment of attention I went quiet on all things Derek Sheffield for almost five years.

Then, unexpectedly, and presumably after a diligent publisher Googled the aforementioned blog post, I received a note in my inbox from Orchises Press informing me that Derek Sheffield's first book was coming out and would I like to do something about it? First I thought "First book?" and then I thought "Yes please!"

Through the Second Skin arrived a few months later and I was pleased to find that "A Good Fish" had good company. Sheffield clearly took his time writing the poems and assembling the book, and he has been rewarded with an excellent collection of well-thought and well-honed poems. Or I should say we have been rewarded. And we didn't even do anything to deserve it!

I was also pleased to learn that Sheffield wasn't only a neighbour-in-verse but also an honest to goodness neighbour. Sheffield lives just across the border in Washington State where he teaches at Wenatachee Valley College and edits poetry for Terrain.org.

Derek and I connected by email and after we finished reviewing great "Cascadia" book stores and hiking spots (Sheffield is an avid birder) we got down to our interview. Our subject bounced around from suprises, to birding, to the limits of names and borders, to bioregions, to the weird world of American book publishing (it involves a lot of contests, apparently) to SURPRISES! Ok, we only talked about surprises once, but admit it, I got you...

Through it all we never managed to discuss his clear and abundant love of bird shirts. But then some questions should be left for the second book. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Derek in one of his many bird shirts (see example #2 below).

Rob: Many of the poems in Through the Second Skin, including "Lucky", contain a surprise - a slip-up, a misunderstanding, or, in this case, an unexpected revelation. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the role surprise plays in your writing. Do you construct surprises consciously or do they... well... surprise you as you write them?

Derek: You’ve just touched upon one of the chief delights of poetry for me. I tell my students that poets don’t just sneeze and out comes a poem. The process we each find for ourselves is crucial and highly individualistic. I think this is partly what Roland Barthes is getting at when he writes, “It is language which speaks, not the author.” The inductive nature of writing poetry is the link to a numinous aspect of language and humanity.

Pattiann Rogers writes about this in her book, The Dream of the Marsh Wren, where she coins the term, “reciprocal creation.” And I recently read “The Marsh” by Rick Bass on Terrain.org in which he likens the writing process to mining. You never know what you’ll find. Or, as Rogers might put it, what will find you.

Rob: One of my favourite "finds" in Through the Second Skin, "A Good Fish", hinges on a particular kind of surprise - the speaker surprising him or herself while in the act of speaking. An unintended word slipping out and opening up the poem to new meaning. Thinking more about this, I realised that a number of my favourite poems use this same technique - Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art", for example, or Raymond Carver's "Fear".

Why do you think we are drawn to poems like these? What does our attraction to poems like these say about the relationship we desire with the speaker/poet?

Derek: William Zinsser, in his classic text, On Writing Well, says that you are the ultimate topic in anything you write. These poems make that more overt than others. These poets let the flashlight of the reader’s attention shine momentarily on their particular humanity.

We may be drawn to poems like these because they exhibit the full spectrum of our shared humanity, our mastery mixed with our fallibility, our strength our frailty. This is what we love about biographies. And this is why Satan is a more compelling character than God in Paradise Lost.

We receive similar rewards when we attend readings or read interviews — like this one right here — where the poet confesses to misspelling a word as he was writing a poem and realized, upon reading it, that accident can indeed govern in a thing so small.

Carver and Bishop are important to me, too. You might also like Carver’s “Your Dog Dies” and “Prosser.” The first furthers the moves made in “Fear” and the second is a hymn to place.

Rob: You are an avid birder, and many poems in Through the Second Skin reference birds and birding. What similarities and differences do you see in how you take in and record the world while birding and while writing poems?

Derek: Birding and writing both rely on watching and listening. And both rely more on listening than watching. Many people don’t realize that much birding is done by ear alone. And even when the eyes are involved, the ears have more often than not alerted them. I am never disappointed when I go birding. Someone always appears, bearing his spark of wildness, her croak of otherness, whether it be Western Tanager, Cassin’s Vireo, or Great Blue Heron. Likewise, the act of writing always yields some reward: a word, a line, a realization. Roethke writes about “a poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.”

The listening that goes into poems happens all the time, of course. Not just hearing the language as you work with it, but paying attention to the soundtrack of your life. I am almost never without a little notebook that is stuffed with scraps of talk. My daughters (ages eight and five) appear in these pages more than anyone.

I think a special connection exists between poetry and birds. The first ornithologists, in fact, were poets like John Clare who recorded different behaviors in verse and tried to evoke warbles and trills in language. This makes sense. Poets are keenly attuned to the textures of language, and I think this sensitivity applies also to bird-speak. Robert Bringhurst gives us another way to think about it when he writes, “Sentences move like living creatures through the forest of the body and the mountains of the mind.” Birds aspire and so do poets. They use feathers and we syllables.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” writes Dickinson. I think even T.S. Eliot would agree that making art is intrinsically optimistic.

What’s more, you can see poets and avians in the city (where most humans live), and they both manifest wildness (think Ginsberg and Stellar’s jay). In a poem about his father called “Listening,” William Stafford writes,

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.

In birding and writing, when you are still and quiet, marvelous things happen. The world opens itself to you where you did not even guess there was a door.

Rob: Continuing with that, do the two practices function symbiotically for you? Does one encourage the other? I'm thinking here of writers who go for walks to "sort out" poems in their heads, and how the mechanics and rhythms of walking facilitate that. Is part of why you go birding to write poems? Is part of why you write poems to capture the experience of birding in a new or different way?

Derek: Yes, these two practices are symbiotic, and I like what you say about walking. I do think the mechanics involved with walking instigate the physicality of language. The rhythm of our feet meeting the ground can jog the poetic brain. In fact, enough of my earlier poems relied on walking references that I remember Linda Bierds made mention of it when I was working with her at the University of Washington and living a fifteen-minute walk from campus.

In the way that poetry and ornithology are symbiotic, I believe art and life should be symbiotic. I love what Christian Wiman says about the alternative in Ambition and Survival: “If life is art’s price, if imaginative creation is contingent upon, or even just coincident with, the destruction of reality... or the exploitation of reality..., then art, even the greatest art, just isn’t worth it.” Art should add to life in the same way that life nourishes art. I don’t mean positive subjects or anything so simplistic. I mean something like what Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss: “There is a fluidity between art and life, then, in the same way that there is, in the best lives, a fluidity between mind and matter, self and soul, life and death.” Now that I think about it, this must be the kind of fluidity that appears in “Bye-bye.”

Rob: Many of the poems in Through the Second Skin focus on words and how they can and cannot contain the meaning of the natural world they attempt to define. I'm thinking here of fish/fist in "A Good Fish", or course, but also apple tree in "Alice", far in "Another Word", etc. In reading these poems I got the sense that you were mapping out and exploring a triangular relationship between "nature", "us", and the words that we've set up - like middle-men - to help us navigate between them. Does that ring true? If so, was it a conscious concern of yours while writing the book?

Derek: Yes and yes. How language, consciousness, and physical reality form the dust devil of existence is one of my concerns as a poet. A word is an abstraction, but I believe onomatopoeia is more than just a fun word. David Abram’s work is fascinating on the subject of how language has affected Homo sapiens.

I’m also interested in nomenclature and how our language affects how we treat the non-human world. For example, when we bird, we say, “There’s someone in that cottonwood,” or, “His plumage is still vibrant.”

I wonder how our language for the natural world affects our behavior. We use the word “nature” in a way that excludes our species, but I find myself trying to break that habit. I think it might encourage our dangerous misconception that we are not part of the complex system of relationships that have evolved on this planet.

And, of course, there is quantum physics and Brian Greene’s wonderful work.

Rob: I was surprised, in reading your bio, that you live only a few hours south of Vancouver, in central Washington State. Here I am living just across a border from you, ignorant to the fact that you are in the neighbourhood, while at the same time being able to tell you which poets live in Toronto and which live in Montreal, three time-zones from here. After learning about your whereabouts, I went and picked up my copy of Alive at the Center, a "Cascadia" focused anthology with poems from Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and there you were!

Alive at the Center is one of many recent initiatives, such as Cascadia Review, that aims to draw together poets on either side of the 49th parallel. I was wondering if these initiatives have been having any effect on you - do you identify with being a "Cascadian poet"? And how does that compare to being an "American poet"? Or would you rather leave the tagging to the scholarsand bureaucrats (and birders)?

Derek reading in HJ Andrews
Experimental Forest in Oregon.
This photo features Robert
Michael Pyle and Bird Shirt #2.
Photo by Bill Yake.
Derek: Your poem in Alive, “The Wailing Machines,” reminds me in the best way of “The Twittering Machines” by Olympia, Washington, poet Bill Yake. They are different poems, but make similar moves to great effect.

Nomenclature and taxonomy can be a tricky business. What are the gains at being categorized? The losses? At the least, a name is a hook upon which to hang attributes, and a category a bowl in which to keep like things.

Richard Hugo and other so-called “Northwest Poets” often struggled with this tag which perhaps implied that only fellow residents could appreciate their work. They also felt there was a bias in favor of east coast writers since that’s where the big publishing houses are. As for me, I don’t mind the term, perhaps because the landscape becomes almost a character in my writing. This is also true of other writers in these parts, such as Allen Braden. The dry farm country of eastern Washington keeps cropping up in his poems in surprising and beautiful ways. I’m just getting to know the work of Rick Barot, but I noticed the same thing happening in his poem in the anthology, “On Whidbey Island,” which fairly drips with the Puget Sound.

I do like the term, “Cascadia,” and how it emphasizes bioregion over country or state, and I appreciate how Ooligan used the bioregion to organize Alive at the Center. I think the border does get in the way and we need to acknowledge that and encourage more such projects. ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) is also very good at getting American writers and thinkers together with their like-minded colleagues in Canada.

Rob: You've been writing the poems in Through the Second Skin for the past decade, and many of them were previously picked up by leading American literary publications. "A Good Fish", for instance, was published in Poetry back in 2008. I suspect, then, that you've had opportunities to publish your collection earlier. What caused you to wait until now? And since you've waited so long, why now and not later?

Derek: I had a couple opportunities, but mostly, I had a bad case of the runner-ups (Emily Dickinson First Book Award) and an even worse case of the finalisms (Walt Whitman Award, Brittingham, Beatrice Hawley, etc.).

The opportunities I had I was grateful for, but I didn’t pursue them because the presses didn’t feel like the right place for my work.

Right before the book landed, I had two very encouraging notes, one from Don Share at Poetry, and another from Jonathan Galassi at FSG. Their words helped me stay optimistic enough to keep the manuscript in the mail.

When Roger Lathbury accepted Through the Second Skin for Orchises, I felt like it had found the right home. And now, with the book out since January, I know that it did.

What also helped me bide my time and prepare me for the full-length book was publishing two chapbooks: A Mouthpiece of Thumbs (Blue Begonia, 2000), and A Revised Account of the West (Flyway/Iowa State U., 2008), which won the Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award judged by Debra Marquart.

Although I wasn’t trying to wait, I’m glad now that I published Second Skin when I did. It is a much richer collection for the extra years that went into its making.

You can buy a copy of Derek Sheffield's Through the Second Skin from your local bookstore, or from Amazon. And while you're at it, why not check out these Derek Sheffield approved bird shirts.*

*Bird shirts not actually approved by Derek Sheffield.

1 comment:

Chara said...

This is great!