Conversations With Derick Burleson,
a Review of Never Night & An Interview with Derek
Derek Burleson’s new book Never Night is a page turner. That could be considered a pretty generic statement, but few poets succeed as well as Burleson in engaging the reader. His poems are conversations. Conversations with dead poets from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Bishop, to the very much alive poets Edward Hirsch and John Haines. But Burleson is in no way elitist: his poems are also directed to his father, who is a farmer in Oklahoma, and he even engages Star Trek in a kind of ars poetica “Enterprise.” In a recent conversation with me he said:
I [. . .] think of it as who I’m speaking to, and how would I speak to all of those people simultaneously. My teacher sitting alone with a lamp in a quiet dark room reading, you know finding rewarding, pleasurable layers in the poems. A crowd of people listening to the poem for the first time, and hearing it. My father with his arm twisted up behind his back, bent over my book, reading a poem that may be a poem like “Harvest” that has him in it.
His awareness of the many layers of readers, creates layered effects in the poems themselves. Thus, to say a book is a “page turner” is not to diminish its quality, it means that the reader (or listener) is not only propelled through the book, but is also compelled to return to the poems to examine their artifice, their craft. Consider the beginning of the poem “Alabaster Caverns”:
Our guide is a goddess
dressed all in olive and I’m in love.
She leads us down into the cave mouth.
It’s the end of 7th Grade, early May.
We pull on windbreakers, sniffing
guano, condensation, glinting
beneath ranks of bare bulbs.
Her flash light points out stalactites,
cascades of limestone, marl chutes (1-9).
On the most immediate level, the reader can relate to the experience of a school field trip, at a time a time of life when sexuality is awakening. The speaker’s assertion that “Our guide is goddess” is provocative and propels the reader into the next line. There is a quality of storytelling, and each line break works to tease the reader: in the same way that the speaker is led “down into the cave mouth” the reader is led (and tantalized) through the poem. Of this poem, Burleson says:
In “Alabaster Caverns”[. . .] Elizabeth Bishop is in my imagination She’s the guide. This is an event that really happened, we took a trip in my seventh grade and we went to the Alabaster Caverns. And yet, when I bring that back to me in imagination, the guide for me becomes Elizabeth Bishop. That’s one of the things I mean by layering. I don’t think that’s all obvious in the poem. That’s a very personal thing. But that’s one of the things that drives my process. I’m like, “what if Elizabeth Bishop led me down to that cave”? She did in many ways. In many ways, in the ways that I love her poetry.
The reader does not necessarily have to know that Bishop is the principal influence in this poem in order to appreciate it. In fact, there is nothing in the content of the poem that would cause the reader to surmise that Bishop is an actual character, for she is never named and the speaker never alludes to her. However, if the reader is a fan of Bishop, he or she might recognize a tonal similarity to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”:
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying. [26-31]
Though clearly the speaker in this poem is not falling in love, like Burleson, Bishop is describing a real event in surreal terms. Bishop remembers reading a National Geographic when she was seven, and Burleson’s images have a similar National Geographic quality. Also, both speakers have a newly developed awareness of sexuality. Finally, both poems turn memory into an immediate experience. I am not suggesting that Burleson modeled his poem off of Bishop, but that his poem is informed by Bishop’s craft. If Bishop were named, it would limit the scope of the poem, which would become narrowed to be about the speaker’s developing relationship with poetry. Instead, the poem is able to speak to all who undergo a kind of descent into the nether world of self during puberty, and the accompanying passions that arrive with that transformation.
“Alabaster Caverns” is in the first part of the book, which is primarily focused on Burleson’s youth. The second part of the book is focused on Burleson’s new-found in life in Alaska. The title poem speaks to the experience of light and dark in the far North, and is directed to Edward Hirsch. Burleson describes the process of writing the poem:
the poem started out I was thinking about Edward Hirsch, whose a famous insomniac, and when I used to teach in Houston I would finish my class, sort of in a house next door to where Ed lived. And as I was leaving class at 10:30 at night I would see Ed’s light go on in his study. [. . . ] And I thought that if anybody who would like the harshness between light and dark it would be Ed.
However, Edward Hirsch is not mentioned in the poem. By not mentioning Hirsch, Burleson creates a direct address that acts as an invitation to the reader:
You’d like it here where
it’s never night, where the sun
circles, rather, until it ends
up where it started from,
east or west, rises, sinks
but doesn’t ever set,
where in the summer
you never need to sleep [1-8].
The reader is being invited to partake in the celebration of unending summer light. Though the reader might not know the source of inspiration for the poem, the specificity of the descriptions establishes an intimacy between the reader and the speaker. And this specificity comes from the poet knowing the “you” he is addressing in his mind. Thus the friendship that exists between Hirsch and Burleson is extended to the reader. The generous tone that familiarity implies is further established by the monosyllabic and disyllabic diction which keeps the language light and playful. Most of the lines are enjambed, and this also reminds me of a friend sharing breathless excitement. In the last lines, the poem turns to celebrate unending night:
[. . .] You’d like that too, when
endless night falls and the moon
comes up, reads your book over
your shoulder, learns which dead
poet moves you tonight,
when any heat at all rises,
and becomes a visible thing. [25-31]
Interestingly, the speaker experiences human time under a seasonal frame work, controlled by the light (or lack thereof) of the sun. Consider this poem in layers. The poet addresses Hirsch, the speaker addresses the reader ( a kind of lost beloved), the sun never ends, night never ends, and underneath these stark realities is the impulse to celebrate, and moreover to share the excitement of the extreme seasons. There is also the layers of time: the poem occurs in the present tense, and yet the reader is swept from the long light filled summer, into the long dark winter, all in 31 lines. The shortness of the lines themselves speak to how quickly one season melds into the next. This last passage is compelling because the speaker moves from wild energy, the need to never sleep, to relaxing into a book of poetry— a meditative stillness where he is able to watch heat, a kind of remnant of life, rising. Also, it is fascinating that the moon becomes a conscious entity. I think this speaks to how the speaker’s sense of place manifests a cosmic awe within himself. Suddenly the poem is even more layered: life interacts with death, and the heat rising seems like a physical manifestation (ghost like) of the living poet interacting with the dead poets.
So far, the poet has engaged the reader by engaging other poets. In the final section of the book, the poet speaks through the voice of his daughter. Of this process, Burleson says:
. . . .one of the things I wanted to get in to this book, was seeing my daughter, Mirabel, who really is a real person, it’s not just the speaker, it’s me in this case and her. Watching her come into the world and encounter the world in a pre-language way. And to remember what it felt like to be that way myself. And to see things fresh and, utterly fresh without language for the first time. And how forceful that is in creating who it is that we are, and who it is that we become. So, I have thought it about it a lot since. One of the things I have always wanted to have in my poetry, we’ve talked about the playfulness, I think it’s at least part of the poets job to be an eternal child. To see things in a way before you had language, and then give that voice.
With the third section an arc is completed. The book begins with Burleson’s own childhood, and ends with his daughter childhood. While the first two sections are written in conversation with other poets, dead and alive, in this last section he returns to the initial poetic language-play that is unique to childhood. Consider the fifth part of the poem “Mirabel,” called “Big Plan”:
That sounds like a good idea. Can we kill a chicken?
I’s hungry. What’s you do? Is it dead? Look at it bleed!
Can I pluck it? Do chickens’ insides have names?
Do we have insides like chickens?
Can you take my insides out so I can see?
I like breast the best. Can we cook it up?
Though the poet has obviously chosen line breaks, it is interesting to me that his child’s voice so easily submits to these line breaks, as if she is unconsciously speaking in poems. The child-speaker is impelled by curiosity, and does not recognize the violence underpinning her questions. Her openness is something mature poets can struggle to achieve. Moreover, it is hard to ignore the speaker’s use of sound for expression: the rhyme of bleed/see, the “l” sounds of kill/bleed/ pluck, the repetition of “chicken,” and the “c” sounds of look/pluck/chicken/can/cook, and finally the rhyme breast/best. The poems throughout Never Night ring with pleasurable sounds, but what makes this poem special is that somehow the child is teaching the adult (the poet) how to relish in not only gore, but in language play. Burleson manages to capture the child’s natural love of language and tendency toward poetry. Moreover he manages to privilege the child’s point of view: the child’s enthusiasm for language is as respected as the craft of established poets. Burleson seems to be showing us that we can learn a different kind of language craft from young people who have not yet become self-conscious, and still allow themselves to play in a sincere, unregulated fashion.
Burleson’s poems are engaging because he reaches out to his audience, and the audience he imagines is as lively as any poet could hope to have. While certainly other poets “reach out,” the respect with which he gives his readers (and listeners) creates layers of meaning, and allows his audience to participate—by which, I mean, there is a feeling as if we are in conversation with the poet. I have not praised enough the technique with which his poems are written: we are pulled through his book by his intriguing and energetic language. But that’s only a small piece of what makes his poems function so well-- it is the piece, however, that makes the reader return for second, third and fourth helpings. It is at these later readings, that the reader fully begins to appreciate the poet’s skill in sound and form. Burleson does not write pretentiously, but he plays (and plays well) with a whole range of poetic devices. His poems are fun; which is in no way a reductive statement. As he says: “If I can’t play I get bored, and then my poems are no good.” This attitude is imparted in his poems, and acts as an invitation to the reader to join his language sand box.
Mercedes: I’m going to start by asking you questions that pertain directly to your book, and then I’m going to open it up to some broader questions.
Derick: Alright cool.
Mercedes: Many of your poems such as “Never Night” and “From Montana With Love” are directed toward the reader. Other poems like “Alabaster Caverns” or “Skipping School” have a kind of immediacy as if the speaker is in mid conversation with the reader. When you’re writing do you have a specific kind of reader in mind that you’re speaking to?
Derick: Yes, I do. I think of readers, but I also think of listeners, and I think that might account for the immediacy factor. Because sometimes I imagine myself in the middle of a poetry reading, as I’m writing. And the people that have gathered, a hundred or so usually in my imagination, are the audience. So as I’m writing I imagine myself standing there in front of them and how would I begin?
Mercedes: And so you imagine yourself directly relating to the people?
Mercedes: So does that mean you write out loud, that you’re talking out loud while you write?
Derick: Ummm.. . not necessarily. But in my imagination, I always am. So there’s definitely that speech factor involved. Poetry is an oral art form, and always has been. I believe that strongly and I try to incorporate that to my writing practice. The other people I imagine. . .I imagine my teachers, Edward Hirsch or Richard Howard, sitting alone in a room holding my book. Or Robert Wrigley or Patricia Goddaca (whose now dead), Adam Zagaweski. . . and I want them to be able to sit alone with my book quietly, and find the pleasures there that come from reading, and that come from layering, that come from engaging other poets. Dead poets. Elizabeth Bishop most notably for me in this book. The final segment of the audience that I imagine is my father, who is a farmer. And he’s been a farmer most of his life. He reads farm magazines. He keeps a daily journal in which he notes down the things he does on the farm. He has a high school education, so I want my poems to be directed at him too. I want him to be able to assess them on his level, while at the same time I want my teachers to be able to assess them on their level.
Mercedes: Do you ever find that that creates a kind of censorship as your writing? Maybe a necessary censorship that’s molding your craft?
Derick: Hmmm. Maybe, I hadn’t considered that. I don’t think of it as censorship. I just think of it as who I’m speaking to, and how would I speak to all of those people simultaneously. My teacher sitting alone with a lamp in a quiet dark room reading, you know finding rewarding, pleasurable layers in the poems. A crowd of people listening to the poem for the first time, and hearing it. My father with his arm twisted up behind his back, bent over my book, reading a poem that may be a poem like “Harvest” that has him in it. That he’s a character in.
Mercedes: I’m thinking of how. . .(pause) there is a tension that is created by the contrast of your conversational tone, and I think, um, that might reference back to thinking of speaking to your father, and um, there’s also what I want to call a light diction. You use a lot of monosyllabic and disyllabic words that keep, um, the poems moving pretty quickly. But there’s also a lot of um, highly sculpted sound work, and, um, I think that the first poem in your collection, um, is a good example of this. You start out with an iambic pentameter line, and then you have “howling, “ plow,” the repetition of “whispering, whispering,” and then when the sentence closes you have another iambic pentameter, or a five foot line, I’m not sure if it’s a full iamb. . . but anyways, um, there’s this tension created by language that is accessible but is layered with all the meaning of sound, and, um, form in a lot of cases. Is this an intentional element brought about by those different voices you’re writing for?
Derick: Yes, and, maybe I should mention Elizabeth Bishop too. I think she and perhaps her disciple Mark Doty might be the tutelary spirits of this book. They’re the two poets that I probably most wanted to engage in conversation through the poetry itself. And the particular poem you mention, I did have the iambic line very much in mind. I wanted to weave in and out of that, and I did sculpt that. Hmmm, at the same time I wanted to seem off hand and conversational. Much like Bishop.
Derick: Her poems are very carefully sculpted, and she’d sculpt them through twenty drafts, over a very long time to create that kind of off handedness. I think of it in terms of the Renaissnce notion of spresatera. You stay up all night laboring over your sonnet, and when you’re in court the next day, you pass it off to your friends as if it just occurred to you on the spur of the moment.
Mercedes: That’s very much the affect your poems have. Are there any poems in here that are directly modeled off of a Bishop poem? Maybe the moose poem?
Derick: Hmmm. (quiet). Let me see. You know, I don’t think so. I don’t think that I was trying to engage her in that way, but I definitely wanted to reference her. She was the poet I most thought of as I made this book, I would say. At least in its final stages. Maybe not in the initial stages, but as I was sort of sculpting the poem. I draft a lot too.
Mercedes: How many drafts do you think?
Derick: Some of these poems have twenty drafts on them. Some of these poems have been around for quite some time actually. From an initial draft until now. Some of them, that first poem that you mention is probably twenty years old.
Mercedes: Really? Did you go through twenty years of drafts, or did you put it aside and then come back and look at it?
Derick: This one was a rescued poem. It. . a . . . I write a lot to get what small amount (both laugh) I get over a long period of time. And so this one was put into a file and considered a failed poem. And on occasion when nothing else seems there I go through my computers and go on a little scavenger hunt, and I found this one. And the first thing I noticed was that it was very iambic. I’m like “hmm. that doesn’t seem as failed as it once did.” And I pulled it up, and, I don’t know, through a series of ten more drafts it came to be the first poem in the book.
Mercedes: Do you think sometimes, um, that a writer, um, starts writing a poem that they’re not ready to write, but they can put it away like you did, and then return to it a decade, two decades later and be able to complete it?
Derick: That’s been the case for me. In this book, yes, that definitely been the case. And sometimes there was a line in one of those failed poems that stayed, and stayed and became a new poem over the years. So yeah, so many of the poems, especially in the first part of the book have been around for quite some time. I think the second half of the book tends to be newer, and sort of working on newer experiences over the last seven years that I’ve lived in Alaska.
Getting back to Bishop. Are there any poems that are modeled on her? I don’t think so. But I am speaking to her. In “Alabaster Caverns”: “Our guide is a Goddess dressed all in olive, and I am in love” that’s Elizabeth Bishop in my imagination She’s the guide. This is an event that really happened, we took a trip in my seventh grade and we went to the Alabaster Caverns. And yet, when I bring that back to me in imagination, the guide for me becomes Elizabeth Bishop. That’s one of the things I mean by layering. I don’t think that’s all obvious in the poem. That’s a very personal thing. But that’s one of the things that drives my process. I’m like, “what if Elizabeth Bishop led me down to that cave”? She did in many ways. In many ways, in the ways that I love her poetry.
Mercedes: Did you read Elizabeth Bishop back then, in seventh grade?
Derick: Once again that’s kind of the layering of experience, and, I don’t know, part of the complexity that makes poetry so rich. It’s part of the layering of experience, and you can hold all those things simultaneously in the imagination and in the memory.
Mercedes: And how maybe when we look back we experience different layers of time at the same moment.
Derick: That’s one of the things I love most about poetry. I mean you can super impose all those things—at least in your imagination.
Mercedes: Changing gears a little bit, would you consider “Enterprise” to be a kind of aars poetica?
Derick: (chuckles) Yes, it is. Very much so. I think of it as an “ars poetica” for the late twentieth century. Umm. The first line is a line is a line from Shakespeare: “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” the last line is a line from Milton, “When I consider how my light is spent”. Both sort of famous sonnets, and I wanted to frame my sonnet about television and startrek by taking a line from each of their sonnets and having it be very much out of context. When Shakespeare says “When in the chronicle of wasted time” he means “time passed,” time that’s fallen to ruin, time that’s gone to waste. I contextualize it in watching tv, spending hours watching the narrative of start trek as it unfolds across five generations of the show. A show that I did watch very much when I was a kid. I used to run home from school in Cherokee, Oklahoma as fast as I could to arrive at in time for Captain Kirk.
Mercedes: So do you think Captain Kirk in, um, the tv show influences your writing as an adult at all? I mean, I know that’s kind of a funny question, but. . .
Derick: Undoubtedly. I mean I think everything that you consume as a human being, everything that you experience, everything that you breath, taste, read, see, and touch becomes a part of the complex entity you are. And I consciously try to put that into my poems.
Mercedes: One of the reasons I like this poem is because I’m always cursing television for the reason people don’t have the imagination to read poetry as they once did. And I liked this poem a lot because it really challenged that notion, that criticism of mine.
Derick: I had a lot of fun. “Form warps the whole argument”[. . .] Once again this was a very fun poem for me to write. Once again play at many levels. If I can’t play I get bored, and then my poems are no good.
Mercedes: All of your poems or most of your poems seem full of play, language play and just kind of an enthusiasm for life. Um. . .and the result is that it really thrusts the reader through the book. I love poetry but I don’t usually think of poetry as necessarily a page turner. But this is definitely. For me at any rate.
Derick: That’s funny. Mark Doty said that about my first book. He said “wow, that’s really a page turner.” I took that as a high compliment. So thank you.
Mercedes: Staying on the concept of humor for awhile, you use humor and irony to address environmental concerns in the poems “Two Headed Moose” and “From Montana With Love” a kind of hyperbole is created. Did these start out being funny/mocking poems? Um. Or was it a kind of transformed frustration? How do you establish humor in a poem?
Derick: Just what you said. By hyperbole. When I find something tremendously appalling in certain contexts as I do the current threats to the planet that we all inhabit and that we ourselves have very much created, which I’ve sensed I think for more than a decade now. As I’ve watched it sort of happening around me. Especially now. The new work tha tI’m working on right now is quite obsessed with it. It’s obsessed with the idea of melting. Because we’re melting here. And you can see it happening in Alaska and this Northern climate maybe more than anywhere else. So, yes, it’s part of my obsession. I lived in Houston, Texas for five years and fished down on the gulf coast in the midst of Dow chemical and sort of all this industrialization down there. And it was this. . . One of the poems takes a line from Mark Doty and says “it’s a strange juxtaposition.” It’s a strange juxtaposition to be in the midst of wild nature in some ways and at the same time there’s this boundary of the most intense industrialization that you can see. So, that’s what I was going for in “From Montana With Love” for example.
Mercedes: I have to ask is the “Two headed Moose” real?
Derick: The three headed moose is real. It’s in quotes because it came from the. . .it was a story thatI read in the newspaper here.
Derick: They really found a two-headed moose. And some of the languages sort of very close to the news report.
Mercedes: Wow. Do you think living in Alaska makes you more aware of the immediacy of the climatic changes? I know in Homer, I can look across the bay and I can see the glaciers retreating. Since I was a child. It was a real physical element, and um you talk about living in Houston and fishing, and yet here, Fairbanks gets forty below and we’re cozy in this nice office, and um, so even in Alaska that’s very much true even though we don’t think about it that way very often.
Derick: I’ve seen in changes in the seven years I’ve been here. I don’t know the news we read is full of changes. The people that we meet are expressing how things have changed within their lifetime and within recent history. So I feel that very much we’re kind of getting the news earlier than other people in a very sort of visceral way that’s becoming a part of our bodies. Here. So yeah. But I felt that a little bit everywhere I’ve lived. And on the farm maybe most intensely of all. Because of all the chemicals that you use to produce food. That’s sort of the back story behind a poem like “Harvest.” It’s not necessarily in the poem. But there’s this background of failed poems behind that poem that sort of take on how much chemicals we use to make that wheat, that stream of gold that pours into the truck threatening the boy.
Mercedes: Does your family still farm?
Derick: Yeah my father still farms, on the same place in Oklahoma where I grew up.
Mercedes: I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and my Mom brokered agricultural goods. Because it was a valley there was a lot of smog and pollution that was trapped. A lot of chemicals.
Derick: That was very much the case in Missoula. They get bad inversions there. And there were pulp mills when I lived there, which I think comes up in a poem. Just a very visceral walk out the door, slap you in the face kind of smell. So yeah, you’re surrounded by five valleys and beautiful mountains and all of this. I mean maybe. . . Glacier National Park for example, talk about glacial retreats, it’s intense there. So yeah, I’ve very much had those in mind. And the way that I wanted to get at that was through hyperbole. Because I do love those places. I loved wade fishing right beside Dow chemical. It was incredibly beautiful. And the ocean is an incredibly beautiful place, still rich and full of life, though degraded and decesimated. And you turn around and Dow chemical is also very beautiful. It’s got all these pipes and strange lights and all of these things that are human made. And they both coexist.
Mercedes: And in a way, we’ve made it so that those chemicals are necessary to how we live.
Derick: Yes. Very much so. And, there I was sort of positioned in that zone. And I felt like I had been there my entire life.
Mercedes: Do you find writing from up here, in such a great distance from where you lived in Texas and Oklahoma that you can see your life clearer, looking backward. Be it just from the sheer distance?
Derick: I’ve travelled a lot since I left Oklahoma, but I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Including Kansas, Montana, Rwanda, Houston. . . So I’ve actually been here longer than I was in any of those places, (I realized with a shock this year), other than where I grew up. So I think that, in this book especially, it’s really framed by the two place sI’ve lived the longest. And yes, I think being here and working on my book as crystallized the childhood experience. In very much a new way.
Mercedes: Your book is framed, the way I see it, between your childhood experience, and then the speaker’s daughter and her childhood experiences. And in the middle there is a section on living in the North. Um. I kind of see it as an arc, and I’m wondering if you experienced a similar arc when you wrote the book? Or maybe you didn’t write it sequentially like that.
Derick: I didn’t write it sequentially like that. And when Ilya and I worked together on the book we actually set out to try to destroy that arc. Which was in it by the time he had first seen the manuscript. Umm. I owe him a great debt. He edited this book in a sort of very caring, kind and gentle way that helped to make it a better book. Since the very first moment that I met him we’ve been engaged in this ongoing conversation about poetry, that I think informs this book. We set out to, as I said, to take that arc away, and we weren’t finally able to do so. So the arc was there. I think that was the point that arc became conscious for me. I thought about it quite a bit since. And I think about the Wordsworth poem “Intimations of Immortality,” he says “we come into the world, trailing clouds of glory.” It’s one of the things I wanted to get in to this book, was seeing my daughter, Mirabel, who really is a real person, it’s not just the speaker, it’s me in this case and her. Watching her come into the world and encounter the world in a pre-language way. And to remember what it felt like to be that way myself. And to see things fresh and, utterly fresh without language for the first time. And how forceful that is in creating who it is that we are, and who it is that we become. So, I have thought it about it a lot since. One of the things I have always wanted to have in my poetry, we’ve talked about the playfulness, I think it’s at least part of the poets job to be an eternal child. To see things in a way before you had language, and then give that voice.
Mercedes: Are you thinking that there’s a pre-verbal element to poetry? Something that we’re trying to put words to that doesn’t have words?
Derick: I do. I think the image is preverbal. In a lot of ways. That’s why it’s so powerful for us in poetry. And you can’t.. . The correspondence is never exact, because language is a symbolic system. But as close as you can get to trying to bring that vision to life through a symbolic system that is language, and through its beauties and intricacies. Yeah, I think that’s a great poetic challenge. One that I realize now I was thinking about the whole time that I made this book, over many years.
Mercedes: Do you think that’s easier to attempt to do that in poetry rather than prose?
Derick: It seems more immediate to me, yes. Just for me and my process.
Mercedes: Well, especially if you’re talking about [. . .] and the imagination.
Derick: Being able to do quicker leaps and juxtapositions and line breaks, the turn, that finally differentiates poetry from prose more than anything else. A lot can happen in your mind between the end of one line and the beginning of the next.
Mercedes: There is a high emphasis placed on sound and form throughout your book, and then near the end you write in the voice of your daughter, and this is equally poetic but also a kind of release from adult, mature concepts of language. Although, there is still a lot of sound work embedded, a lot of repetition. Did you want to try to capture the child’s innate love of language and natural tendency toward poetry?
Derick: Yes. I think that we all have a natural tendency toward poetry, which is why it’s one of our oldest art forms. We’ve had it since we invented language. Poetry was right there with it. I think that we engage in those things as we acquire language. Metaphor is one of the first things that you realize exists, linguistically. And it was very, I don’t know. . . it impressed me a lot to see that happen through the process of my daughter learning language, through her continuing process of learning language. She’s going to be five next month. So, this continues in the way that she plays in language. And the way that she experiences literature.
Mercedes: Does it go too far to say that in some ways your daughter is now teaching you the craft, and teaching you things about poetry while she’s still, um, unconscious, or before she’s self-concious? Because I think once we become self-concious we lose that spotanaeity. We have to work to regain it.
Derick: I think so too. Once you engage language you become jaded. A tree is just a tree now. Right? You have a label for it, it’s no longer. . .or you have to work hard to go back to that moment when it was an intricate mass of light and shadow and color and sound. And all of those things that make a tree a living entity that inhabits a planet with us. So yeah, she taught me a lot about poetry. And our sort of, I don’t know, immediate and eternal love of it. It’s there embedded within us.
Mercedes: Does she like poetry being read to her? I’m curious.
Derick: Not so much, not unless there are pictures.
Derick: She’s more of a prose kind of gal. We’ve been reading Treasure Island. I’ve come to appreciate find childrens’ literature, that rewards the adult reader as well. I mean, that’s a great book. The characters are very undecidable in that book, and she’s sort of fully engaged in that. When she meets another child, that has had that same literary experience, they very much engage that. That sort of ambiguous relationship between all those people.
Mercedes: Do you need to get that?
Derick: Nah. I’ll let it ring through.
Mercedes: I was in a bookstore yesterday and I saw this ten year old grab a book about cars and he ran up to his Dad said, “I love being ten because you get to read books like this!” I thought that was such, I mean, he’s right. At no other point in his life will he enjoy that book as much as he did right at that moment.
Derick: Yeah. She does like my poems. We have a horse now, so she asked me to write a poem for our horse, which I did.
Mercedes: Ilya told me about your horse. Your horse has a really nice name. . .
Derick: Magic. Which is the title of the poem.
Derick: She was pleased. Mirabel was. Not the horse. I don’t know, I haven’t read the poem to the horse.
Mercedes: My dog has a reaction to me when he doesn’t like the poems I’ve written.
Mercedes: Yeah, well, he likes . .
Derick: You read out loud to him and. . .
Mercedes: Well I read out loud as I’m writing in my office, and if I’m writing in meter or trying to, um, the dog likes it. And if I start veering off the dog just goes downstairs.
Derick: It goes somewhere else? That’s funny.
Mercedes: Yeah. . ummm.
Derick: We all respond to rhythm. How can we not? We’re rhythmic creatures, every mammal is a rhythmic creature. I would argue that every creature is a rhythmic creature. The planet is a rhythmic place. And, I don’t know, Wallace Stevens maybe gets at that maybe more than anyone else. This idea for order that we need to impose. I’m not sure we’re imposing it. I think that it’s a part of our bodies. It’s a biological fact.
Mercedes: Sometimes I think in poetry we’re trying to capture the forms that already exist in nature, you know the DNA imprint, we’re trying to create it with words. Isn’t the heart beat an iamb?
Derick: Dadum. Dadum.
Mercedes: How has living in Alaska informed your craft?
Derick: I would say the single most important fact of life here, on the first day of spring, as we talk, is the light. People think that cold. . . I think people outside think that the cold is the single biggest factor. It’s not at all for me. You can put on plenty of cloths to stay warm at minus forty in almost any circumstances. You cannot change the light. Soo. . . I think that life here is very much governed by light. Which puts me in an odd place. I don’t like to write about light and dark. Especially not using those words. So, I really struggled in this book to not say “light” and “dark.” I don’t know if I did. . . one time I’d have to do a search on it to see if I did. I struggled against that, while at the same time trying to engage the fact that that’s the single most crucial thing. In Fairbanks we have three hours and forty minutes of possible light on winter solstice. And the sun just barely skims the horizon. The light comes at this very short angle. And yet there’s all this other light that comes to fill in. The light of the moon, and the light of the stars, and the snow. . . this reflected light. The Northern Lights. All of this is incredibly beautiful, incredibly enchanting, and incredibly extreme. Right now we’re gaining six and a half minutes of light a day here.
Mercedes: Isn’t that amazing?
Derick: It’s amazing. I mean, I left class last night at nine-o-clock on March 20th, no March 19th, and there was still light in the sky at nine thirty. It’s incredible
Mercedes: Do you ever have the sense though, that like in Fall, you go outside and all of a sudden it’s dark, and you haven’t seen darkness in months, or in the summer that all of a sudden spring is. . . of course it happens gradually as you say, but it seems the awareness hits at once.
Derick: Hmmm. I don’t know if I’ve noticed that so much. I engage the change. I do feel the change. I feel that seven minutes a day. Which adds up to, you know, basically an hour a week. Close to an hour a week. I very much feel that. Towards solstice on both ends, of course that change slows down. And I feel that too. Soo. . . yeah, I’ve been engaged by the light and what the light means here. I garden, and there’s a couple gardening poems in this book. It’s the most incredible gardening, because of the incredible light that we have here. You can watch the peas grow up the fence.
Derick: And, I don’t know, I grew up with a garden as a child and farming and the business of making food. So I’ve always been engaged in that my entire life. And here it’s really, truly incredible. To sort of watch the effect that light has on plants, on people, on everything that lives here.
Mercedes: In “Never Night” you observe the passage of human time by the passage of seasonal time, and um. . .
Derick: I did? That’s cool.
Mercedes: Yeah, I actually didn’t notice that at first either. I was showing your poem to my teacher Carol Frost, and she noticed it.
Derick: Oh, I love her work. Your teacher is Carol Frost?
Derrick: Really? She’s one of my favorites.
Mercedes: Really? She’s a terrific teacher. And a terrific poet.
Derick: That’s great. She lives in Florida right?
Mercedes: She lives in Florida and upstate New York.
Derick: And upstate New York? That’s so cool. I love her poems about the Keys, where she lives. They’re incredible.
Mercedes: I think she might be moving to the West Coast. She got a position at Reed College.
Derick: Oh, very nice. Congratulations to her. Please pass on my admiration the next time you speak with her.
Mercedes: I will, it’s interesting I’m passing on all these different notes. She had a something she wanted me to pass on to John Haines. But anyways, I didn’t notice it in “Never Night” the measure of human time by seasonal time because maybe living here that’s maybe an innate part of what we’re doing. . . we don’t even realize that we’re. . . she called it a trope. . . that we’re creating that. um. Looking. . shoot now I forget what I was going to ask. Well I guess, could you speak to that at all?
Derick: hmmm… Well I don’t know. How do you mean? How do you see that, or how did she see that happening in the poem?
Mercedes: Um. . “You’d like it here where it’s never night/ Where the sun circles rather until it ends up where it started from” and then at the end, well not at the end at your third sentence “You’d like that too when the night falls/ and the moon comes up over your shoulder” The speaker is experiencing these moments under a seasonal framework.
Mercedes: And in essence these moments couldn’t exist without that seasonal framework. And that becomes embedded in the structure of the poem.
Derick: I see what you’re saying now, and thank you.
Derick: I’m glad to know that about the poem. This poem was one of those poems I’d call a gift poem. It came very quickly and remained essentially the same. From the moment in which it came. Sort of despite my poking at it and attempting to engage my usual twenty drafts. Sometimes a poem will resist that, and this is one of the poems that did. And it came sort of very unconsciously, all in a burst and this is a direct address “you,” in which I have a very specific “you” in mind.
Mercedes: Who is that specific “you”?
Derick: Actually the poem started out I was thinking about Edward Hirsch, whose a famous insomniac, and when I used to teach in Houston I would finish my class, sort of in a house next door to where Ed lived. And as I was leaving class at 10:30 at night I would see Ed’s light go on in his study. I would know that he would be sitting there in front of that window, which is featured in his new book Special Orders, that very place that I’m thinking of, writing his poems all night long, and engaging poetry. And I thought that if anybody who would like the harshness between light and dark it would be Ed. I think this poem also addresses a beloved, and a missing beloved. But Ed was the person that I thought of. He was my teacher alone in a room reading a book was the initial impulse that got this poem going.
Mercedes: I like knowing that about that poem a lot. Edward Hirsch is one of my favorite poets.
Derick: Of course Ed would like endless night, he would stay up all through it. He wouldn’t sleep in the winter.
Mercedes: This could be directed to all insomniacs.
Derick: Yeah. Where in summer you never need to sleep.
Mercedes: Now that you’ve lived here seven years would you consider yourself an Alaska poet?
Derick: No, by no stretch of the imagination would I exert any claim to that at all.
Derick: And, I don’t know, if I think back on this book now, it’s very much the poems of a person who’s just arrived. And I remain stunned by everything about Alaska. And I guess one of the few people that I know that moved here at the same time that I did that still gets a rush every time he sees a moose. I’ve eaten lots of moose now, you know I’ve engaged moose in all sorts of ways, but I still find them incredibly impressive animals. And I don’t know, it takes me to Elizabeth Bishop and one of my favorite poems of all times, “The Moose.” So I think of that constantly. I’m still, I’m. . . I don’t know. I approach Alaska with this childlike awe, after seven years. I’ve travelled around now quite a bit. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this incredible place, and the richness that’s here. You could spend a lifetime here, and not experience one millionth.
Mercedes: Yeah, it’s huge. I think people forget how spread out all the communities are. from each other. I mean we’re like the size of five states.
Derick: I know we’re neighbors from Homer, a six hundred mile drive.
Mercedes: Yeah, absolutely. Um. No, I can relate to what you say about still being inspired by the landscape here. And I think whether someone calls themself an Alaskan poet or not, I think one of the things that marks poetry coming out of Alaska is a celebration of being here. And I don’t think. . . and I don’t see that by poets other places. There’s just an awareness of being here that I don’t think a lot of other people ever have an awareness that they exist anywhere at all. That’s kind of a tangent.
Derick: Maybe so. . .
Mercedes: Um, do you see. . .
Derick: I would add to that before we go on that I’m very much a poet of place. Everything I’ve ever written has come out of the place that I lived in one way or another. Or living in another place thinking back on a place where I did live. I would say that almost all of my poems begin there, and I don’t necessarily like that, but I’ve come to accept it as a fact of who I am and how I write.
Mercedes: John Haines yesterday was saying that he thinks all poems have to begin in place, and I’m not sure if that’s. . . if I agree with that one hundred percent or not, but I do think. . .
Derick: I don’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s the same for everyone at all. There are definitely poets that begin with ideas, for example. Or that find these large ideas sort of embedded in with their work that poets with poets that begin with literature. I think that you can begin in all sorts of ways. Our imaginations all work very differently. But for me it’s true.
Mercedes: Do you sense a kind of poetic community in Fairbanks or in the broader Alaska?
Derick: Yes, definitely. I mean there’s so few of us.
Derick: There are few people here anyways. So I think the poets really stand out. I’m very much in conversation with John Haines in this book. I’ve read. . .
Mercedes: Are you?
Derick: You know, I knew John Haines’ poetry, but it didn’t become crucial to me until I moved here. So very much Winter News and The Stone Harp, his first two books definitely had an influence on the Alaska poems in this book. And his sort of way of seeing. John Morgan whose another poet here is another influence, and a friend. And these guys. . . that’s why I would not call myself an Alaska poet. These. . . they are my elders, who exert a much greater claim to that than I do as a newcomer.[. . .] But I can’t help but engage the place that I am, and this is an incredible place to engage.
Mercedes: So would you say that the poetic community exists mostly in Fairbanks or. . . I think of like Jerah Chadwick out in Unalaska, I think of Anne Coray in Lake Clark, there’s that new poet Emily Wall in Juneau. . . I mean we’re just all so spread out from each other. I think sometimes. . .
Derick: I haven’t gotten Emily’s book yet. I need to. Well, I don’t know. We are, but we run into each other fairly frequently. Tracy Philpot lives in Seldovia, which is only reachable by boat or plane, and, I don’t know, I was on an Alaskan airlines flight, I think I was coming into Anchorage. And I was reading a manuscript of poems, and the person across the aisle said “excuse me is that a manuscript of poems that you’re reading?” And it was Tracy Philpot, and we began this sort of ongoing conversation then. So, I don’t know, we keep in touch it seems. So I think, yeah, there is a community. We’re all not gathering at parties or at the coffee shops, or even necessarily at readings. But we do see each other quite a bit.
Mercedes: Um. . I think my last question for you then is um, what. .as you were speaking you were talking about being a newcomer to Alaska and that being an element present in your poetry. And it is also in Emily Wall’s book Freshly Rooted coming from that same perspective. Anne Coray is writing from this perspective of growing up here her whole life.
Derick: Right. . .
Mercedes: There’s also, um, the Native perspective and their poetry of being displaced. But all of it seems to me to be speaking to this larger theme of making home, and coming into a place. Um, what would you see. . . If there is such a thing as an “Alaskan literature” and an Alaska poetics, what trademarks do you see coming out of the writers here. Do you see any kind of unifying element?
Derick: I would say the one unifying element is food.
Derick: It’s one of the unifying elements, I would say. Because, I don’t know, maybe more than any other place we eat locally here. We eat fish from Homer, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We eat salmon and halibut and berries, and. . . you know even in small ways, even if we’re. . . I’ve become very much sort of into trying to catch, grow, and capture, gather as much as what I can eat as possible, since I’ve moved here. That’s definitely a part of who I’ve become since I lived here. So maybe I’m sensitive to that in other people’s work as well. One of the things you think when you see a moose is “yum.”
Derick: One of the things I think, one of the things most of my friends think, we think “wow, what a large, impressive animal that’s very good to eat.”
Mercedes: I think, “my god, that’s a lot of work.”
Derick: Yes, that too.
Derick: That brings the hesitation to the. . . yeah it is a lot of work. We go to Chitna and catch salmon every year, and it’s an incredible amount of work. And yet the rewards are also incredible. I’ve got a freezer full of Copper River red salmon that sells for twenty dollars a pound, if not more in Seattle, let alone New York. And I get to eat that every day if I like.
Derick: And I do like. So I have a big garden, and very much a part of our life is gathering food. Growing food and gathering food. And trading with others for food. Somebody raised a pig that year. Well there’s a little a piece of pig for everyone, and somebody gets a moose and there’s some of that too. Some of my students just went caribou hunting and got some, so looking forward to a little taste of caribou.
Mercedes: That’s terrific.
Derick: So, if I notice one unifying factor, it might be that. I’m trying to think of whether Olena Kalytiak Davis gets there. She’s one of my favorite Alaska poets. Her books are marvelous. And I think even she does. She’s more experimental than many Alaska poets.
Mercedes: Well Tracy Philpot. . .
Derick: Tracy Philpot is experimental too.
Derick: She studied with Donald Revell.
Mercedes: I enjoy both their work a lot, in part because it challenges my borders of what poetry is, which is terrific.
Derick: Yeah, me too.
Mercedes: Well thank you.
Derick: Thank you, that was great.
Mercedes: That was really fun.
Derick: It was fun.