Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: We’re interested in the concept of multiple histories happening at once through the image of the ocean. Did you have that idea in mind when writing the poem?
William Doreski: Multiple histories overlaid are intrinsic to the modern-postmodern aesthetic as I see it developing through Pound, Crane, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner and Ashbery. As Faulkner famously wrote in The Nun’s Story, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This has aesthetic as well as social consequences. The Indian Ocean is a stew of histories, liberally salted with sunken ships and even sunken airliners. It’s a vast, wild, and ferocious place. Melville’s “Maldive Shark” the “Pale ravener of horrible meat,” suggested the opening image, I believe. And Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” is there somehow. But so many images and motifs rattle around in my head that I can’t be sure of what I’m thinking when I write a particular poem, or whether I’m thinking anything at all. Usually I have no plan: I just write, and whatever comes out comes out. Although in revising I might impose an order that makes the poem look more calculated than it originally was.
RR: How did you approach the formal structure of the poem? Did you intend to write a prose poem piece or did you come to that form later?
WD: In the last few years I’ve been writing prose poems to loosen up my associative faculty and to get away from the sometimes-overdetermined strictures and structures of verse. I haven’t stopped writing in verse, but I note that my prose poems are freer and seem more impromptu. My verse poems sometimes seem a little stiff in comparison. I wrote “The Indian Ocean” as a prose poem I think because I really had nothing in particular to say about the subject and felt like giving myself permission to freebase as recklessly as possible. This doesn’t always work out. If I wrote about the Indian Ocean in verse I would have come up with something different, but whether better or worse I can’t say. I would probably have begun a verse poem in an assertive rather than interrogative mode. Clearly that would have taken the poem somewhere else
RR: We were drawn in by the beautiful and descriptive imagery used in “The Indian Ocean”. Have you been to the Indian Ocean? Did you have to research the area in order to evoke such a vivid landscape?
WD: I have been to the Indian Ocean, have waded in it and flown over it. In memory, it is an ordinary sprawl of blue water bordered by white beach, much like the Caribbean. But in the poem, it is more an event than a place. Imagination doesn’t rely on memory alone, fortunately, or poems would never get off the ground. I didn’t do any research, but mingled memory and years of reading and most importantly a sense of what the Indian Ocean should be like, whether it really is or isn’t. Recently a young American missionary went to the Andaman Islands where a very cranky and isolated tribe killed him. Sad event, certainly, but if I were to write another Indian Ocean poem that poor fellow might crop up in it, another item in my mental India Ocean file drawer.
RR: You’ve taught writing and literature classes at a number of universities. Has guiding and grading the creative work of your students affected your own writing?
WD: Teaching creative writing is a dubious venture. So many student poems are similar and share the same problems that in discussing and grading them one gets into a very deep rut. Of course some students write well, even with flashes of brilliance; but still the task is mostly routine, and sometimes it made me wonder why I bothered with my own work when the world was already so full of mediocre writing. Why add to it? But then there were moments when I was able to take pride in my teaching. One of my first students, at Emerson College, was Thomas Lux, who went on to a fine career, even winning the Lily Prize. He died last winter after editing a perceptive selection of Bill Knott’s poetry. Several of my students from Keene State have gone on to publish their work, and even, in a couple of instances, to teach creative writing themselves. I guess I was a bad influence.
RR: As a creative writing teacher, what advice would you give to young writers?
WD: Read, read, read, then read some more. Read widely and keep an open mind. Read poetry, fiction, history, science. You need to know a lot to be a poet. And when it comes to your own work, listen to what other people have to say about it, consider their criticism or suggestions, accept what’s useful, but remember that in the end your work is your responsibility and you have to trust your own judgment. Some hints: read your work aloud to yourself, use specific details, avoid the passive voice, be careful with modifiers, make every word count.
William Doreski’s work in Issue 6.1: