CENTER STAGE

★ ★ ★ ★

DAVID CREWS

Image by Greg Becker

Song

When thick
sunlight falls hot
into air
hangs heavy
when salt slips
into serene sky
when sky
perfect blue rests
flat to the rise
when horizon
stretches endless
to humpback breach
in breath and water
the water deep
deep blue
when bowheads
never return when
hawksbills never
return when
waves cap bright
to petrel slide
in low groan
of tide and lion
become sea
when

previously published in This Broken Shore (2019)

The Mermaid

Into the cave
she leads, beckons me
and this sweet song

echoes the rocks
song of love, strange
and new   There is

a presence in this place
and no words
for the telling

of a song   Love,
as if you knew
how far we’ve come

The reflection in your eyes
their hold
how the colors shimmer

on water, seaglass
If only
I could have always

been here with you
To intrude, O muse
would ruin

all that came before
and what then
if she vanished into the sea

previously published in This Broken Shore (2020)

To Speak

It begins with a lake, pool
Do not think marred
disfigured It was an albatross
gliding endless open water
at night, hunting cuttlefish
squid Even the Anglo-Saxons

spoke mere, the sea
Mare liberum the armed men
would come, say gladius pilum
the open sea that holds a death
for each of us, where reflection
if in repose becomes itself
Narcissus

was a flower, and its toxins
healed though some said
the voice still hears far
in the word, muse of distance
and myth The ocean

carries those secrets
in margaric martyr
marcescent They were merely
searching as any of us might
ask for more than is given

how it all falls to mercy
how it never means to die

previously published in Journal of New Jersey Poets (2019)

Q&A with poet David Crews

Describe your “writer-self” in three words.

It’s been my mantra for the last few years: wilderness, preservation, nonviolence

What is the most challenging aspect about writing for you?

Finding the words. ​Getting to the point where the line has not one too many, when the language feels fresh and new and efficient. Then, breaking out of those lexicon patterns that arrive with any new project. I can very easily find myself lulled by certain words and phrases, it’s been happening since I was a kid, and then I want to use them again and again. My friends poke fun at me for how fond I am of retelling the same old stories—dare my poems follow suit.

Where, when and how are you inspired to write?

When I look back, I have mostly been inspired by place. For years, it was the Adirondacks. Then, I connected with the Northeast Wilderness Trust. They asked me to write an essay about a special plot of land called the Howland Research Forest, just north of the University of Maine Orono, where for over twenty years ecologists from the university and the U.S. forest service have been studying carbon storage and sequestration in mixed and some old growth woods. That project was incredibly inspiring and taught me so much. Most recently, I created work for a new project called Writing the Land, in which poets were paired with preserved public lands and asked to visit and write about their experiences. I have a sequence of poems for Northeast Wilderness Trust after visiting four of their wilderness preserves across New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. While up in Maine, at that same time, I also wrote a poem about the Kennebec river for the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust. All these places I have found connections to. Learning about a place for me becomes near obsession, and when I immerse myself in projects like these, I always feel invigorated and inspired to write. Once a project is near completion, I find another. It’s just my personal learning journey. My newest project is based on a mountain in southern New Hampshire called Mount Monadnock.

Interestingly enough, the poems shared here are from a project called Incantation that was first inspired by a painting. Once, for a period of time, I was entranced by The Siren—painted in 1900 by John William Waterhouse—now part of a private collection. It was only at that time I became aware of this painter and his work, and it didn’t happen right away, but isn’t that why we hang art on walls. Why we stack them on bookshelves, listen to their songs again and again. To be, over time, truly present with a voice longing for expression. Until one day, the art sings. It was the gaze between these two unlikely lovers that captured me. It was the hesitation and hold in this moment of their movement—fingers touching, hands gripping—and she was never a danger in my mind. Two castaways, one island. And after this chance meeting, I longed to retell their story.

What are you reading right now?

I am always diving in and out of many books. At the moment, I am studying intensely as Mônadenok develops. I have been reading a lot about how the ecology and land here in the Northeast have changed, especially since contact period with European settlers. Some thorough detail of this comes in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England published by William Cronon in 1983. I have also been trying to learn about the Indigenous peoples who have / and continue to inhabit the land where I now live. A recent book I finished was The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600-1800: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People by Colin G. Calloway, published in 1990. The two books that continue to develop my sensibilities for this project include Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and an incredible discovery of a book written and translated in 1884 by an Abenaki chief titled, New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. The name of that chief is Sozap Lolô, alias Joseph Laurent. Reading through and studying this book of words and grammars feels like stepping through a threshold. Excerpts and references are threaded throughout Mônadenok. For poems, I recently found a few lovely books in some used bookshops near me: one written in 1933 by Sylvia Hortense Bliss titled Sea Level, another written in 1993 by a Cree poet named Margaret Sam-Cromarty, and a small anthology published in 1996 titled, Native American Songs and Poems. At the moment, the two books in my car are Tao Te Ching and Everyday Tao (the second written by Ming-Dao Deng, a book that found me at a Goodwill near Bath, Maine last fall and that always seems to make me feel calm at times I don’t).

Best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

For this, I may have to return many years back to MFA and my semester working closely with Ross Gay. This was my first semester of study and Ross’s commitment to me as his mentee is still astounding—I have such love and respect for him—not only as a poet, but as a wonderful person. At one point in our time together he was talking about something he was calling “the poetic gesture”—when, as poets, we write into our poems lines of poetry that sound poetic. He used to caution me whenever it seemed I was doing this. I guess the idea behind it is if a person is writing stuff that sounds poetic, it most likely sounds like other poets, poets already read and studied, poets who are inhabiting our (sub)conscious. Even many years removed from it, I still think about this advice within my daily practice. If I am writing lines that sounds like I am trying to be poetic, I am most likely not sounding like myself. The ultimate goal is to get to the most honest and real voice that’s inside, the voice that’s most one’s own.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Ah, don’t be so quick to publish!  The amount of money I have spent sending out manuscripts to contests, or individual poems to contests, the number of times I let Submittable gobble up a reading fee, here and there—I could have traveled around the world (twice). Granted I was teaching public high school during this time and had a steady job, so perhaps there are worse ways to spend money. But for years I was just rashly sending out work to any journal that had an open reading period, and not really sitting down to investigate who was on the other end. What kinds of editors serve that publication?  What do they stand for, what kind of aesthetic do they care about? I wish I had given my publishing life a bit more temperament. Is that the correct use of the word? I wish I had given a bit more presence and care. (This is something Ross mentioned too.) Not only would I have saved a great deal of money, but I would have also saved myself a great deal of heartache. The amount of rejection over the years began to really catch up with me. In fact, these days, I submit very little work. In hindsight, to be honest: I had / and have a lot of ambition for my writing life. I care about poems and poetry, and at some point, the love gets so strong there arrives this deep need to also create and make. And I have to also say: all that rejection really pushed me, pushed me to make my poems better, to work harder, to seek out that beauty and essence in the line. So perhaps this is just my journey. Though a vacation sounds nice right about now.

Which poet or character from a book/movie would you invite to dinner and why?

Ah, interesting question. There is a book that sort of haunts me. It’s a short book of poetry published in 1969 by Robert Penn Warren. It’s titled, Audubon: A Vision. This book I have been diving in and out of ever since I found it. I got it used, online, shipped directly from the community library in Ketchum, Idaho. I am fascinated with books that inhabit and evoke other voices and lifetimes—thinking too of Jean Valentine’s little chapbook, Lucy, or some of the books I have on Japanese tanka translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Jane Hirshfield. Anyway, Warren’s book is doing such incredible things—in the voice and form of the poems, in the retelling, or rather, what I feel is the re-imagining of the life of a complicated historical figure—a person who in some ways very much embodies European colonial settlerism, but who also made some early and important contributions to ecology and the study of species. Part of me wishes to have Robert Penn Warren for dinner so I can ask all sorts of questions. What’s real in the book? What’s imagined? How long was he obsessed before the poems arrived? What birdsongs do you know by heart?  Then again, part of me doesn’t want to know. So that I might continue to return again and again to those poems. I’m willing to embrace the mystery.

Any advice for budding writers who are trying to get their work out into the world?

Really have something to say. Something you believe in, truly. Something that has come from a life lived, from real experiences. It’s okay to be bored, to sometimes feel boring. That will become something. If what you want to write doesn’t feel interesting enough, get out into the world and go live. There’s a great deal of noise these days. Honestly, I cannot imagine what it might be like to be a young adult. Or, a new writer. There are so many journals out there, so many writers writing good, good work. I bet it can feel quite overwhelming very quickly. And getting published takes a lot too. There’s a lot of rejection, and a lot of heartache. (That’s just part of it.) I’ve spent many nights sick with doubt, many nights alone, crying. It’s easy to think none of it really matters. But it does. It does when it’s honest and real. I believe the act of creating is something that connects us deeply to our primal and wild selves. It’s why more than thirty thousand years ago human beings put handprints on caverned walls. Creature and create come from the same root. I feel myself entering a new chapter of my writing life. It’s coming with age and experience, so I would say try too to be patient. But there’s this feeling I have—a feeling where I know, deep in my heart—I am writing poems I truly want to write. Poems I need to write. Maybe people might not really get them, maybe no one important will ever really care. They are abstract and lyrical and very easy to push aside. But they’re mine. And I know in their musics are many nights of longing and desire, many nights of study and curiosity. I know they are moving me closer to a deep presence of mind and body. And when I read them, the music makes me feel alive. Love your poems. Read them all the time. Read them again and again till you know them by heart.

David Crews is a writer, editor, and wilderness advocate who currently resides in southern Vermont / ancestral lands of Mohican and Abenaki peoples. He cares for work that engages a reconnection to land and place, wilderness, preservation, nonviolence. New poems from Mônadenok are forthcoming in Ecological Citizen (2021) and recent work can be found in Writing the Land (2021). Find David and his work at davidcrewspoetry.com.

Author photograph by Brett William.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.