Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The images in “Ellis Island 1899” poignantly capture the plight of immigrants coming into the United States at that time. What were the sources of inspiration for the specific images and story in the poem?

Carl Boon: The slice of history depicted in the poem is familiar to many Americans. My ancestors—the ones on my mother’s side of the family—immigrated from modern-day Slovakia around the turn of the century (I believe it was called the Austro-Hungarian Empire back then). My great-grandfather came first, found work in the West Virginia coal mines, and established himself prior to the arrival of his wife and (some of their) children. I believe some of the older children stayed behind. I’ve always been intrigued at the thought of my great-grandmother and her little ones making that journey alone with not much money, limited English, and very little certainty concerning the future. The journey must have been extremely difficult, for they had to get to Le Havre in France by train before even stepping foot on a ship. Their arrival itself must have been bewildering and frightening. The poem tries to capture that sense of bewilderment that her family and many similar ones must have felt. Chaos, too, and a loss of identity, which is why the poem begins with their names being shortened.

RR: We were struck by the absence of names in this poem. What do you see as the significance of naming or leaving persons nameless in your work?

CB: This is an interesting observation, given that so many of my poems feature actual names. Places & Names (The Nasiona Press, 2019) is the title of my first book, and it contains a multitude of names. The Recreateds will be published later this year by the same press, and many if not all of its poems are imaginative biographies, so names abound in it, as well. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to leave out names in “Ellis Island 1899,” but I’m glad I did because the poem presents such a typical American story and also deals with the loss of names. In the case of my Slovak ancestors, I believe the surname “Bordacci” was shortened to “Bordac” by the immigration officers.

RR: What role does research play in your writing process? At what stage does it come in?

CB: I think poets and fiction writers conduct research all day every day in whatever they’re doing, in their daily routines. As for myself, whether I’m reading, teaching, cooking, walking the dog, or watching a documentary, I’m always thinking about potential material for a poem. As for research, once I have the wider narrative in mind (the story, the situation, the place, or some idea of the figures who will populate the poem), I like to look for details to make the work seem realistic. They add depth and color. I love details: names of cities and streets, radio stations, restaurants and bars, currency, dates—and I try to be accurate in the matching of such details to the poem’s wider narrative. I do make things up at times, but I suspect most readers enjoy the sense of reading or experiencing something with an air of truth to it, even if it’s mere “truthiness.”

RR: What sparked your desire to start depicting history through poetry?

CB: I’ve always been interested in history, especially American history. In fact, I teach American history alongside my lit classes here at the university. I had a wonderful history teacher in high school, Fred Puderbaugh, who made it a point to teach history from the “bottom up”; in other words, to focus on stories of individuals, especially the “little folks,” as he called them. I also had several excellent history professors at Denison. Every discipline is somewhat a historical discipline, a history class—be it mathematics, cinema, biology, or psychology. And though I was educated mostly in the New Critical tradition of reading texts, there’s no doubt that poems, plays, and novels have much to teach us about history.
Writing poems that depict history is simply a natural extension of my interest in history and my love of poetry. I love taking a historical event—the Ellis Island experience, the War in Vietnam, or some catastrophic event like Chernobyl or a paralyzing blizzard—and building a story out of it, giving voice to individuals of my own imagination who lived through those events. I have published quite a few historical narrative poems that function as the lived experiences of fictional characters. I’m much better at that than the personal, private lyrics that came to dominate the American poetry landscape in the 1970s.

RR: Out of all the places you have traveled, which location had the biggest impact on your writing?

CB: I lived in Istanbul for eight years. That city—for all of its commotion, noise, crowds, traffic, and the daily-life logistical challenges it presents—offers the perfect backdrop for creating because it also exudes a sense of melancholy, a mood of sorrow that the Turks call hüzün. Orhan Pamuk’s novels and essays are permeated with this sense. You can feel it, especially in November, when you walk the back streets of Kadıköy or Taksim. It’s in the pubs and coffee shops, the cafes, the ferryboats that cross the Bosphorus. It’s almost palpable. Much like London, in Istanbul history is all around you—the old mosques, the Ottoman palaces, the cemeteries. It’s part of the city’s very architecture and spirit. I wrote a bunch of poems when I lived there, and also a bunch of poems that deal with the city specifically. I probably should say that I discovered my poetic voice there, my tone.

Carl Boon’s work in Issue 8.2:

“Ellis Island 1899”