The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: Ekphrastic poetry depends so much on the art which the poem is based upon. Could you discuss your decision to reference George Bellows’ 1923 lithograph as the basis of “Billy Sunday’s Tent Revival”?
David Salner: I am very interested in the way Bellows linked his artistic technique to the social setting. In addition to being a virtuoso painter, Bellows was a socialist and presented quite a vibrant picture of early 20th century America. He attended some of the rallies for Billy Sunday, a talented preacher of humble origins. Bellows was disturbed by the spectacle, hostile to the preaching. I tried to take the point of view of those in the tent.
RR: When did you begin writing, and what shapes your style and creative process?
DS: I rediscovered writing not so long ago. I’m now writing fiction as well as poetry. My concern in writing is with the setting that ordinary people face and the way history places a great panorama before us.
RR: Small details, such as the sawdust, are used to great effect in the poem. How do you decide on sensory details in your poetry?
DS: At first I left the sawdust out. Then I thought about the fact that Billy Sunday’s preaching circuit was known as The Sawdust Trail. His public, sinners as well as saved, would know about the sawdust and the feel of the sawdust.
RR: What about American Evangelism appeals to you, and why did you choose it as a subject for your poem?
DS: The people who are moved by evangelism are intriguing, their hopes and fears, but I don’t support evangelism or its rallies. Because I worked as a laborer for more than 25 years, more to my liking are those rallies that occurred yesterday, April 15, in cities all over the country, demanding “Black Lives Matter!” and “$15 dollars and a Union!”
RR: Much of your work deals with working class ideals. How do you feel that “Billy Sunday’s Tent Revival” speaks to these ideals and concepts?
DS: Having had so many great co-workers, people who get condescension (at best) rather than genuine respect—taught me a great deal about American society and how it is structured the opposite of how it should be. This experience has also informed the way I think out questions like—where to look for subject matter, where should the creative mind go in its search for beauty. Generally I look for beauty in unexpected places. It’s just more fun for me that way, and writing should be fun. That’s what I was doing in Billy Sunday’s Tent Revival. I may not have succeeded in the final result, but at least I had fun trying.
“Billy Sunday’s Tent Revival” appears in Rappahannock Review issue 2.2.
David Salner’s writing has appeared in Threepenny Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, River Styx, and many other magazines. His second book is Working Here (Rooster Hill Press), and his fourth chapbook will be out soon from Finishing Line Press. Salner is finishing a novel on the lives of the sandhogs who built the Holland Tunnel. He has worked as an iron ore miner, steelworker, teacher, librarian. His wife, Barbara Greenway, is a public school teacher.