Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Though I have never met him, I count Scott Whitaker as part of my literary community. He has written outstanding reviews of two of my books and honed in on what I was trying to do in each. For these kind, generous and intelligent critiques, I also count him as a friend.
Now it’s time for my readers to encounter Scott Whitaker the creative writer.
His poems have appeared in dozens of journals and literary magazines. He is the winner of the Dogfish Head Brewery Poetry Prize and the Delaware Press Association Award for Field Recordings, and has been a recipient of a NEA grant for transforming Romeo and Juliet into a rock musical for teenagers. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Whitman Prize for poetry, among others. He is the literary review editor for The Broadkill Review and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
His chapbooks of poetry include The Barleyhouse Letters from Finishing Line Press, Field Recordings, and News from the Front by the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. His YA novel, Seven Days on the Mountain, and short story collection, Toxic Tourism, are available at Amazon.com.
His newest chapbook of poems is The Black Narrows. After I read a few of the chapbook’s poems that were published in The Broadkill Review, I wanted to feature Scott and his poems on this blog.
The Black Narrows is a cycle of poems about a black-market community which existed on a saltwater marsh off Virginia’s the Eastern Shore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here commercial waterman policed their oyster beds, killing those who would try to rob them. “I like the idea that on the edge of the America there existed this place where you could be anything you wanted to be, live a life that you wanted, if you chose to live by the very harsh rules of the environment,” Scott said in a June 2013 interview in The Daily Fig.
And he takes the images, voices and stories of that marsh community and weaves them into poems in the same tradition as Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Here are monologues and elegies as well as nature poems. In the Daily Fig interview, Scott mentioned that The Black Narrows is peopled with “a baker who buries his victims in the marsh, a tavern mistress who runs the opium market, kids dealing with their alcoholic parents….” This is akin to theater — about people and relationships.
Here are three poems from The Black Narrows by Scott Whitaker:
BREAK IN THE SAWGRASS. SALT BAKER.
Skiff skinny. Narrow as his favorite gal's thighs.
Enough to cover his own body, no more;
bare and tight and long. Copper kettle drum,
screwed to a frame of drift and shark bone,
brings enough steam to troll for bait fish,
red drum, an occasional shark for parts and oil.
He chugs chugs chugs, squat paddle wheel
pushing through four foot seas or a channel's icy chop.
Outlanders pay extra for salt goods, sea salt, saline
drip, byproducts of the little engine that puffs
puffs as he jags into the bay beyond the break
in the sawgrass. He breaks his fast with beer,
raw clams, little nicks, and grinds the meal
between his teeth, sucking their butter
sweet into his dry mouth. It is the only prayer
he can manage, except those quiet nights
at his bakery when he is in love with a new recipe.
Narrows noise goes round round round
that big skull of his, but in marsh,
building-deep and tall, he is loose, a single
voice among sandpiper song, loon call.
The dead buried there bother him not, a thief
or two, his ex lover's bully, somewhere socked
in the channel mud below his prow, the very silt
of his fattest oysters, bedded on the backside
of a murder rich mudbank. He bakes them with a wine
sour bread and upon them feeds, feeds, feeds.
ALLY ON THE DAISY
Up into the gale she climbs, reaches to her thigh
for her rum flask and cigar. She goes up and up
and up oh Ally, Ally eye. The gusts are strong
enough to raise her up as if she were her own sail,
shirt, a billowing romance of wrinkles, her tattoos
peeking out and holding on for dear life. Oh Ally,
Ally eye. She is and she isn't, and always is always,
and howls in rain, the skein of the wind bearing down,
Ally, Ally eye. Fish and fowl and bending pine,
all is rushing out, all is blowing back on Ally, Ally eye.
STEAM CITY. SUNDAY MORNING.
Elizabeth’s river cuts close to the balloon factory
where great airships bubble up like an engineers’
cartoon thoughts. Two great gears rise out of breaks
in the brick as they turn amidst steam releasing locks.
For those whose house is not a home there is work,
Sunday pay, and then penny pitchers as Harkers empties
the weekend kegs, clears the storehouse shelves,
oysters, clams, great sides of venison from smoke hooks.
There is a clear ring in the air, for only sail stretchers
are employed, their vices and straps compose soapy music
to accompany the thrum of river water turbine. Some
of the girls who work the dyes sing of the old country,
and in the wide halls of the factory, songs of love,
but only on Sunday, when the skeleton crew unlocks
broad notes, and unscrews the valves of pressure.
To order the chapbook from The Broadkill Press, click here.
To read interview (with writing advice), click here.