Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “No Boats on the Still Grey Bay” highlights the significance of location and our interaction with scenery. In this piece, how did you approach writing the imagery to capture the physical place?
Cal Freeman: I wrote this poem about Lake Erie Metropark in Brownstown Township, MI. My wife and I visit this park often, and we decided that throughout 2017 we’d do a project where on the final day of every month she’d take a photo at the park, and I’d write a poem inspired by a visit to the park. This park is situated in an important place in the world, both ecologically and commercially. It’s on the northwestern shore of Lake Erie right where the Detroit River pours into the lake, and because of this freighters often pass by the park on their way to deliver materials to factories in Dearborn, River Rouge, and Detroit. In writing this piece I pored over some of the photographs my wife had taken, and I began to notice all these tensions in the images between aesthetic beauty and ecological peril; nature and industry. I have trouble, as a poet, allowing images to be themselves; I think I’m always interpreting them according to the tensions in their idea lives, and I’m unable to divorce them from the socio-cultural realm that frames them. Evoking setting immediately should evoke a politic. If it doesn’t, we aren’t, as writers, fully conscious of the place we’re writing about.
RR: The speaker notes how the lake and shoreline have changed over time. Have you been to the bay described in this piece? If so, has it changed?
CF: Yes, I visit Gibraltar Bay regularly, at least every couple months, more often than that in the summer. If you visit any riparian zone repeatedly, you quickly realize that the shore changes daily, that the famous Hericlitean apothegm applies to land as well as water. The park encompasses a large area of marshland that often gets inundated by the lake itself on days when the seiche winds blow from the southwest, banking the north end of the lake high. Then certain observation decks and trails are inaccessible. I’ll also occasionally notice swaths of lyngbia, a toxic cyanobacteria caused by agricultural run-off, in the waters on summer afternoons. Lyngbia has a certain aesthetic beauty, like textured swirls of acrylic on canvas. The Wayne County Parks Department also frequently makes changes to the park, cutting down shoreline trees and dumping rabble stone in various spots along the shore to curb erosion. Lake Erie has been through many changes in the last half-century or so; in the 50s and 60s it was apparently one giant algal bloom from Cleveland to Gibraltar. The Clean Water Act is largely responsible for saving the lake from this eutrophic period. The history of the lake and its changes is highlighted extensively in a book called The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis.
RR: The poem has a nostalgic but hopeful tone to it. It hints at sobriety as well, which comes in through the word “sober” at the end. Can you talk about that final image and how you arrived at it in the poem?
CF: The day I was writing about had an unusual, almost anachronistic look and feel to it given the time of year. I was also taking one of my periodic breaks from drinking alcohol and was projecting ideas of sobriety onto the gun-metal color of the lake. I think a lot about alcohol and substance abuse, specifically because I have so many friends in the arts, mainly poetry and music, and alcohol helps in terms of putting yourself out there and performing without inhibitions. I also love taking wine to this park and sipping on it while reading a book at a picnic table next to the bay, so I do associate alcohol with this place.
RR: We understand in addition to poetry you also write nonfiction. Do you find that in your nonfiction that you include your poetic voice in the prose? Alternatively, a prose voice in your poetry?
CF: I’d say there are definitely poetic voicings in my prose but very few prosaic elements in my poetry. My prose also pretty directly addresses elements of poetics, engaging with my reading life. The last essay I had published is called “Hepato-Poetics: A Brief Polemic Against the Moon and Heart.” I’d describe it as poetic memoir, and there I write about poets as disparate as Ted Hughes and Kaveh Akbar. For me, sentence acoustics in prose and the way the ideas are performed, not simply expressed, but performed, are way more important than plot or information.
RR: You included in your bio that you’re a music editor for the Museum of Americana: A Literary Review. Does music influence your poetry? If so, what artists?
CF: Music definitely influences my writing, and I’m fascinated by the singer-songwriter tradition. Guy Clark’s catalogue is frequently on repeat in my house. I’m a big fan of certain Joni Mitchell records; during the winter months I listen to Blue a ton. I’m also heavily influenced by a group of Downriver-Detroit singer-songwriters, namely Don Duprie, Alison Lewis, and Ryan Dillaha, among others. They write about working class themes and industrial towns like River Rouge, MI. Visiting with these musicians in the places they write about typically yields songs and poems for me. I’m a big fan of songs that utilize resonant proper nouns: “The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68…” or “Back in the summer of ’49 old Everet Belcher was runnin’ shine, from the hills of Kentucky to the mills of Great Lakes Steel.” Usually when I’m deciding whether I like an artist or not I’m asking a single question in my head: Where are you from and what does it mean?
Cal Freeman’s work in Issue 6.1: