Courtney Cherico, Poetry Editor, Rappahannock Review: Your poem “The Heron Rookery” employs a unique form. How do you decide what form a poem should take? How early in the drafting process does a poem’s form become clear to you?
Timothy Shea: That’s an excellent question. I should begin by disclosing my tumultuous relationship with form. When I began studying poetry seriously at Mary Washington, I was fortunate enough to work with Claudia Emerson, who focused a great deal on the traditional forms and formal poetic elements in our discussions. As a result, that’s how I initially engaged with poetry. In graduate school, I was exposed to many different styles, and so found myself pulled toward the other end of the spectrum. This dichotomy relates to your question because I always feel as though tradition and comfort are pulling me in opposite directions—or at least sitting on my shoulders, chirping at me while I write. Some days C.K. Williams’ long, conversational sentences chirp the loudest; other days, Ted Hughes’ Anglo-Saxon pounding drowns him out.
As for deciding on a form, I’m not sure how much deciding I do. I think that every poem is different and should be listened to with great care. In other words, I think that forms reveal themselves and are rarely imposed. For me the language has to come first—sound, rhythm. Those two elements generally guide most everything that follows. Lengthy, incantatory sentences, for example, lend themselves to the long lines I like a lot, whereas sparse, clipped, hard sounds tend to work for me in shorter lines. As I type this, I suppose I think about line and sentence length a fair bit, but every poem is a complete mystery to me, and form is something I wrestle with every time. Sometimes the form becomes clear early on and sometimes years after I’ve scribbled the sentences.
CC: I’m sure readers would love to know more about your manuscript—as would I. What themes does it explore? More specifically, tell me about the section entitled “The Rappahannock River.”
TS: I assume that my manuscript, Calling the Elements by Name, is like many of the others that float around the different publishing opportunities and return unloved—but I like it and am confident I’ve made a good thing. It’s organized around the themes of place, a weird mash-up of life/death/mortality/transcendence, and memory.
The river section came about because of my time working on the Rappahannock and studying the way writers write about places. I spent a year making a map of the river from City Docks in Fredericksburg, upstream to Ely’s Ford. Documenting the river’s features was an inch-by-inch process. Most of the time I felt like a hound dog, my nose to the ground, ignorant of the larger systems at play. I wrote about the river outside of the map-making process, but it never amounted to much because I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t until friends and teachers turned me on to work like Richard Hugo’s poems about Montana, Seamus Heaney’s North, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, that I saw how writers used fragmented, often disparate puzzle pieces to create a sense of a place.
As I read more, and as I got farther away from my experiences, I saw that the small moments rose to the top of my memory, and that those poems were the best of the lot. I guess I learned that I was really writing about people, history, animals, memories, etc., and that the place isn’t the subject, but the thing that holds everything together.
CC: Are there any specific images or concepts that you find yourself continuously revisiting in your writing? What do you consider to be your primary themes or interests as an author?
TS: I think light and darkness show up a bit, and stars as well—seeing things is important to me. I’m sure if I used one of those word bubble programs the word ‘water’ would be among the larger words. I think I write many different flavors of elegy, which is a way of saying memory and loss are important to me. I’m also interested in place and places, and writers who write about places. But place shouldn’t be confused with landscape. There are a lot of great city poets. Sinead Morrissey and Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson have all devoured the city of Belfast. Larry Levis did a great job offering blips of a developing California too.
CC: As an online journal, we’re committed to the idea that literature can transcend the printed page. As a writer in the 21st century, how do you negotiate the perceived competition between technology and the (traditional) book?
TS: I think the competition is for the business people to sort out. I’ll keep writing poems. My wife likes the metaphor of how the painters and visual artists must have felt when photography came to be (and photographers when film came about), and how they coexist now. I agree with her. My preference is to read a book, but I don’t object to online stuff. I’ve been in online-only journals before, my day job is to write for a website, and when I hear about a new poet I Google them before trying to find a book. That might make me part of the problem, if there’s a problem. It also might make me a cutting-edge revolutionary, which sounds more exciting.
CC: What books are you currently reading? Who are your literary influences?
TS: Right now I’m reading a novel by Richard Ford called Canada. So far it’s about a cattle-theft operation and bank robbery gone wrong, and the protagonist’s life is about to get crazy—my guess is that I’m in for another couple hundred pages of instinct and cunning. As for influences, the people I go back to most often are Larry Levis and Seamus Heaney. James Wright and Richard Hugo and Elizabeth Bishop are right up there too. Of course I love Claudia Emerson because she’s my poetry mama, and my graduate school teacher Rodney Jones deserves earth-sized portions of love too. Also, the Scottish poet, John Burnside, is a marvel.
Timothy Shea holds degrees from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has also studied at the National University of Ireland Galway, and at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. His work has appeared in Poetry London, Third Coast, Southern Humanities Review, and Poetry Ireland Review, amongst others. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Timothy Shea’s work in Issue 1.1: