Sea Creatures of the Deep
O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder
O red Irish lord O spiny lumpsucker
Dear threespine stickleback, sweet broken-backed shrimp-
hear the dreadful voices from the balcony. You're the blind
taking the bull by the horns. You're snow on a stick,
a stuck jukebox, a ribbon-swamped trike. O gum boot,
O lemon peel nudibranch-do not fear the leafy horn-mouth;
dogwinkle and moon snail walk the floor and burn their bridges.
Lonely whitecap limpet, days are not true. You stand on one foot,
and we brush past. To live a life is not to walk across a field.
Pity the ghost shrimp, heart on his sleeve, or the glassy sea squirt,
run through with tears. O to have gathered no moss, to know a clam's
muddy joy. You shut with a snap, you blur with silt, you poke
among barnacles. A bunch of one-trick ponies, even brave wolf-eel.
Cornered, the plainfin midshipman sings when afraid.
They say it fears only the elusive cloud sponge.
Our church was all brick, no name on it
and no stained glass. Every few years
a new preacher took over and tried to make us sing.
One told us Wile E. Coyote's lifelong quest
for the Road Runner was like us hungering for Jesus.
He said we all know Coyote never gets
the Road Runner. We said that's right. But no.
No, my friends: one time, Coyote
gets exactly what he prayed for. That skippety
Road Runner gets fat on radioactive birdseed
and this seed is the seed of Godliness, our Road Runner
big as a skyscraper. And Wile E. Coyote's dedication,
his constant prayers for this one thing, his need
to hold the baby Jesus in his own hands,
to not have to take it on faith-he gets what he wants.
That's right. Wile E. Coyote catches up
with the Road Runner, who's now a thousand times
his size. He grabs hold of the Road Runner's leg
with his tiny little hand. He's caught him.
Coyote never thought this would happen. He's built
his whole life around this one goal. Put himself
out of work is what he's done, my friends.
Our Coyote holds up a little sign
saying "now what?" We waited.
Then one Sunday the preacher's gone, a stranger
in his place, wearing his robes. The fan
on high, lilies asea. One of you, he shouts, is free.
One of you will not have to pay the piper.
One of you will walk this earth and you shall not
stumble and you shall not thirst. One of you
is lost and you shall not be found. We left,
each one of us. Some did come back. Some
only went as far as the laundry line before missing
the feel of slippers on carpet. Some watched the sky
that night and took comfort in the blinking radio tower.
Some flew. There was so much to be undone.
Seven Year Acrostic
Applecart, I signed my letters, and help,
Love, Dana. That wasn't my name. None were.
Every year I tried to O the
X. Syllables fell on me like pelts
And soon I was the gewurtztramminer
No one orders in restaurants. Enough
Dear. Henry buries matchsticks for practice,
Eulogizes their not-fires, not-help, not-
Redburning beds. In Harlem I watched
A rooster panic in a traffic circle,
Not a hazard yet, not yet. I was
Doing my job, an inspector for the City,
Terrified of the empty page.
Hours later he was still alive, safe from my report.
Eventually I left him there, unrecorded,
To find my way home: borrowed sofa,
Endive, unreachable green in the lot behind me.
Renters, all of us, in our inward-facing
Rooms where we waited for the view to open up.
I papered the walls with poems,
Bills, applications, all of them
Late. Here is the X of that year, mistakes
Everywhere let live; here is my record.
How I painted shut the windows, green-gridded
Over my anger. What
Rooster? I could have stayed there,
Radio-fed and off the clock, barely there.
Ira upstairs in Maps, forgive me.
Barely where. Today the postmaster asks for my best
Letterman story and I give him the rooster.
Everyone in line behind me, sorry about that.
Noon and my actual days get lost in plot. What's the purpose
Of God, Henry asks his dying matchsticks.
God will letter your red days, read your letters
O redheaded dead. The matchyard spreads
Out towards the neighbor's peonies, family
Dinner on the patio not-burning. They wave.
Virgin wood, there's the wreck you could become,
Eating through the curtains, the manicured land.
Rest please, says Henry. Under this earth all
Your talking goes. All your these and those.
Bed by bed he tucks the whalebones in
And washes them with a hose.
Don't you think they might want up?
Down, says Henry, down God.
All right. Here's a rock for their heads.
You bury their names in what you said.
-from The Forest of Sure Things
BIO: Megan Snyder-Camp grew up in Baltimore and received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Washington. She has worked as a New York City Parks Inspector, a secretary for a surgical robotics lab as well as for Teach For America-Los Angeles, an EMT, a Quaker meetinghouse caretaker, and a freelance writer. Her first collection, The Forest of Sure Things, won the 2008 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award.
She has received a 2010 Individual Artist Award from Washington’s 4Culture Foundation, as well as scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Espy Foundation, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest's Long Term Ecological Reflections program. Her poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Field, ZYZZYVA, the Sonora Review, the Cincinnati Review, 88, and on the PBS NewsHour, and have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has taught at the University of Washington and the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, where she lives with her family. She is the Advisory Board Chair of Seattle's chapter of the national literacy nonprofit First Book.
An Interview with Megan Snyder-Camp by Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Kecthum: I rarely encounter a contemporary poem that pulls off using the "O" in an evocative rather than trite way. What was your decision in using the "O" and what purpose(s) do you think it fulfills "Sea Creatures of the Deep"?
Megan Snyder-Camp: That night I was caught between a field guide to northwestern marine life and a Bread & Puppets calendar of aphorisms. I'd just arrived in the Pacific Northwest for the first time and already knew I wanted to live here forever; the calendar was from a holiday trip with an ex I'd exhausted myself reaching for. I felt expansive and strung-two years of a graduate writing program laid out ahead of me, a whole new poetry community to wrap my mind around-and just couldn't help myself. I was giddy at the beauty I didn't yet know, and too in love with this place to restrain myself. I was young enough, too, to just go for it, without worrying how it might look.
JB & AMK: The "you" is used in this lyric poem to directly address the sea creatures mentioned in the poem. Once the "you" is used, however, the poem trails away vastly from the sea creatures of the deep to more human moments like "you're snow on a stick, / a stuck jukebox, a ribbon-swamped trike." What is the purpose of veering away from the deep-sea like images and putting it into a human world setting?
MSC: This new universe delighted me and yet I couldn't help trying to make sense of it. I didn't even know how to pronounce the names of these creatures, had never seen them, loved them, and so crowded them into my own diorama.
JB & AMK: I just love these couplets with their long, lyric lines. How did you come to using such long lines in this way? What can you tell us about the long line, the couplet?
MSC: I was reading Marie Howe, C.K. Williams, and Linda Gregerson, and found that a long-lined couplet was the clearest place I could find sense: sense made from the chafe of one line against the other, but with leash enough to run. Those couplets taught me how to revise. I think they let you get conversational, settle into whatever it is you need, while still reminding you to make the turns that will get you somewhere.
JB & AMK: By comparing the cartoon/fictionalized story of Wile E. Coyote to the progression of new preachers in the poem "Church," you expose an under layer, possibly a person's "hungering for Jesus," but you also suggest a certain level of absurdity. What's up with that?
MSC: I did mean for it to be a little bit funny, but this poem, like Sea Creatures, was one that sewed itself without much from me. I was thinking about James Baldwin, and the girl preacher in his novel Just Above My Head. And then there was the mind-blowing Looney Toons episode where Wile E. Coyote got what he wanted. I never read anything where it ends with someone truly getting what they want-especially not in any of my Baldwin novels-and so was trying to see if I could make it possible in a poem. Initially this poem started out as paragraph in a short story. I tried to hunt up a copy of the story, but all I can remember from it is the feedback I got from a fellow student, which was "You need to learn to walk before you can run." I hated that advice, and it encouraged me to see if I could go even further out on a limb. But she was right that my narrative abilities are slim.
Back to faith: my husband grew up Methodist in the rural South, where they get a new pastor each year as part of an established circuit. Each one would be about four years away from retirement. This contrasted with my own journey: my family skipped church, and after high school I fell in with the Quakers. Faith is a funny, manufactured landscape to me, even as it plays a central role in my life. (Speaking of which, did you know that when churches take over abandoned big box stores, they usually put the pulpit in what was the produce section?)
JB & AMK: In the poem "Church," you repeat the word "Some" to represent the church members but also to create a level of distinction between those members. Why use such a vague, non-descript word in this case, particularly given your obvious love of detailed language and diction?
MSC: I was trying to catch the cadence of preaching, which often builds on a refrain. I didn't want the focus to be on the faces of the congregation, if I could help it. I was after the intricate losses and turns they'd find themselves pushed towards. If everything had been in focus, I'd worry you wouldn't know where to look.
JB & AMK: I am always amazed when someone can pull off a formal poem that doesn't become distracting or obviously labored... form for forms sake. For the poem "Seven Year Acrostic," you used the acrostic "Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day." What made you want to use this as your acrostic and how do you think it reflects the content of the poem, if any?
MSC: Alexander was one of my favorite books as a kid. I loved how bleak it was, how it didn't end well. And my poems often get kinda bleak, no matter how cheery my intentions. I also wanted a title long enough that I could settle into the form and try to let it go somewhere. My days were full of children's books, and only children's books-I had just had a baby and we read a lot of children's books inside these sage-colored walls. Things got a little fierce in terms of poetry. I wanted my own books so badly. But I had this new experience of reading a small book again and again and again, and was trying to build myself something closer to a ladder than a cage from that experience.
JB & AMK: Speaking of acrostics... are you at all worried some readers might find this form a bit dated or childish. I'm not suggesting this at all, but I must admit when I first encountered your acrostic poems I was pretty skeptical. Then I read them and was like "woah, I gotta write me one of these!" It seems like a huge risk to me.
MSC: When I took the acrostics on, everything felt hugely risky anyhow. I mean, a baby! Gone were all my usual writing habits, the long afternoons and unbroken nights, the tinkering, one thought making way for the next. The acrostic was a suggestion a poet-friend sent out on our life-raft of a listserv, and that's what I did during my son's first winter (at least until I found the Welsh cynghanedd form, which uses strict consonantal repetition, and which I work out a version of using Scrabble tiles as my son and I wandered the house). Until then I had been skittish of form because I have such an awful ear for stress, and I generally veer into incoherence so easily that using a formal shell to build a poem can turn me loopy. But when I tried these two forms out, I learned what it was to write one line at a time, and to work within the unit of the line. I picked out what sense I could, but these forms also saved me from the poems I was afraid to write (about me and the baby and the walls). The acrostic gave me a running start as well as a placeholder when I needed it.
JB & AMK: There does not seem to be a clear-cut linear narrative in "Seven Year Acrostic." The consistent characters of this poem are Henry (who plays with matchsticks and) the unnamed I. While Henry figures largely in the poem's opening, the poem does not return to him until the end. So, in a way, he acts as a sort of frame for the poem. What effect are you going for here? I'm assuming this is intentional.
MSC: The poem does ramble. I had been trying to make sense of former lives of mine that didn't much make sense. I wanted to know why I was trying to make sense. I wanted to know what could be buried, and stay buried. I had read a stunning obituary in the New York Times a decade or so earlier, of a preacher who as a boy had practiced burying matchsticks. Again I wanted to know what the cadence could carry, if the cadence could spark faith. And to be honest my poems are often driven more by songs than stories. Here I had been listening to Roberta Flack's "I Told Jesus"-a song about changing your name and becoming unrecognizable to your family. I had changed my own name, I was working a strange little government job that I loved living in New York, a city I couldn't get my hands around. In this poem, I went ahead and let all that layer up, alongside my new son, Henry, who was just starting to say his first words.
I was also learning, in my job as a parks inspector, how planner Frederick Law Olmstead had intended Central Park's Ramble, a tiny faux-wilderness with many short, interlocking, curving trails, to give visitors the chance to wander for quite a long time within a very small space.
JB & AMK: This poem utilizes a lot of very short sentences and sentence fragments that leap from one idea to the next in an almost frantic way. Despite this, it's a pretty easy poem to follow and is fun to read in a way that's unusual in poetry. How did you arrive at this approach? Do you have fun when you write poems like this?
MSC: It's funny, the three poems you have brought up here were all written pretty much as-is, which is unusual for me. Most of my poems take years and dozens of drafts, but I think that is all practice for those few lucky flights. This poem was a lot of fun to write, and pretty much just spun itself out from the form.
JB & AMK: Within the same poem, it is not until the second page, the last page of the poem, when you use the second person "you." What are you going for here? What affect does it have ON the poem and how does it serve the poem's purposes?
MSC: The "you" shifts, which is something my college teacher, Martha Collins, warned me about, but is a habit I can't quite shake. I like to use it as a loop overlaying odd things. In this poem, at first I am talking partly to myself, partly to an imagined reader. Then it's my son Henry talking, and then me talking to Henry. I mean it to be a way to create intimacy, to let the reader in closer and closer to this quiet conversation, and to set it in relief against the imagery of New York and its illegal roosters. What is the biggest thing we can bury? How tall is that mound, and what's the view from it? The "you" is a measuring stick.
JB & AMK: How much time would you say you spend on a poem in general. They are so playful and unexpected that they kind of feel like they "fell out of the sky." At the same time, however, they're controlled in a way that I don't often achieve very quickly.
MSC: These three did fall out of the sky, and I never thought about that as accounting for their playfulness but I guess you're right. Generally I spend a few years on a poem, with anywhere from ten to forty drafts, and more often than not at the end the poem gets thrown out. But often on their way to the trash they manage to drop a seed somewhere, and a later poem takes up whatever I wrecked before. I'm not afraid of losing a poem, or a line-I figure if it's needed, it'll come back, one way or another. The best thing I can do is make room.
A Review of Megan Snyder-Camp's Featured Poems by Contributing Editor Zach Macholz
Megan Snyder-Camp's debut collection, The Forest of Sure Things (Tupelo Press, 2010) is an intriguing and ambitious debut collection. The book is a "layered sequence," alternating between poems that imagine or borrow from a specific, real-life family tragedy belonging to someone else and poems that draw on the poet's own experiences.
These poems explore themes drawn from the borrowed material, such as motherhood, family, fear of loss, and grief. Snyder-Camp is not afraid to take chances in this book, and she does some very interesting things with language. If you are the kind of reader who tends to demand that poems effortlessly "make sense," in some sort of literal way the first time you read them, set your predisposition toward instant comprehensibility aside and prepare to enjoy poems that entice you into multiple readings and which operate- much like the collection as a whole- on multiple layers of language and meaning.
"Sea Creatures of the Deep," the collection's opening poem, is the kind of poem that is perhaps best viewed through the lens of Pinsky's assertion that poetry is vocal, and therefore a "bodily art."
This is a poem that demands to be read out loud. Sections of this poem are joyous celebrations of particular phonemes or letters of the alphabet. That isn't to say that the poem doesn't have virtues that exist on the page- quite the opposite.
The poem layers images of one sea species after another via the exploration of similes and metaphors describing those creatures. The effect is to make the world of undersea creatures come alive around us, even if we might not know what a "spiny lumpsucker," for example, is.
The poem creates visual context. It makes effective use of the couplet form and generally breaks lines in accordance with syntax, creating a breathing space between the consonant-dense names of species listed. Still, the poem's chief virtue remains its thorough exploration of certain consonants and vowels throughout. The first three lines, in particular, are begging to be read aloud again and again.
"Church," is a poem that explores the effect a church sermon can have on peoples' faith, particularly an extended metaphor a new preacher used one Sunday in a sermon regarding Wile E. Coyote and his constant chasing of the Road Runner as an act of faith.
The poem begins in the past tense, and captures perfectly the speech mannerisms of the preacher with colloquialisms like "That's right" and the repetition of the preacher's repeated homey references to the congregation as "my friends."
When this preacher is replaced by a new preacher- one of the more fire-and-brimstone variety-the poem quickly shifts into present tense, the new preacher's proclamation that "One of you / is lost and shall not be found." The poem says that "Some did come back," while others "only went as far as the laundry line before missing / the feel of slippers on carpet. Some watched the sky / that night and took comfort in the blinking radio tower. / Some flew. There was so much to be undone."
More traditionally narrative and straightforward than some poems in the book, "Church" demonstrates the wide range of poetic sensibilities Snyder-Camp is able to inhabit in her first collection.
Our third featured poem demonstrates Snyder-Camp's mastery of a poetic form given to an entirely different sensibility. "Seven Year Acrostic," is what the title indicates- an acrostic poem. The poet uses the title of the famous children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, as her foundation. With this lengthy title, the acrostic "effect" is somewhat minimized. Were it not for the title and the capitalization of the first letter of every line, I doubt most readers would have picked up on the form.
The poem makes use of internal rhyme throughout and end rhyme in the final lines. A narrative composed of lyric moments, the poem covers a seven year period during which the speaker (presumably the poet) lived in New York and worked as an inspector for the city, struggling to write and stay on top of bills and find meaning in a bureaucratic job. At the same time, this poem manages to incorporate God and the role faith plays in the speaker's reality.
Despite what one might assume to be the limits of the acrostic form, Snyder-Camp captures the sense of stagnation, frustration, and confusion of living in the city perfectly. Most poets and readers might think working in such a form a bit unusual, but who can argue against Snyder-Camp when she does it so well?
Megan Snyder-Camp's poems from this week's feature display a wide range of poetic abilities. The mix of historical and personal subject matter makes for an intriguing combination of source material, and her attention to heightened language- as well as her ability to write a thoroughly poetic, subtle acrostic poem- are just a few reasons her poems and the collection are worth reading.