Monday, May 25, 2009

Poet Jeffrey Thomson: Birdwatching in Wartime

Poet Jeffrey Thomson: Multi-Layered Poems from the Multi-Layered Rainforest

Jeffrey Thomson lives and works in Maine, but he has a great interest in the very Southern climes of the tropical rainforest. His latest collection of poetry is “Birdwatching in Wartime,” that deals with his trips to the tropics.

Jeffrey Thomson’s third book of poems, Renovation, was part of the Carnegie Mellon University Press (CMU) poetry series in 2005. His second collection of poems, The Country of Lost Sons, inaugurated a new poetry series from Parlor Press at Purdue University in February 2004, and his first book, The Halo Brace, was brought out in a limited edition letterpress version from Birch Brook Press in 1998. Winner of recent fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maine, Farmington. He was an editor for From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great 2009 from Persea Books, 2009), along with Camille T. Dungy and Matt O'Donnell. I spoke with him on my TV show “Poet to Poet Writer to Writer” on Somerville Community Access TV.

Doug Holder: First off you quote the poet Elizabeth Bishop more than once. Is she a major influence?

Jeffrey Thomson: Absolutely. I was writing this book about the tropics, South America, and Central America. You can’t skip Elizabeth Bishop if you are doing that. But she has always been a focus of mine. I love her poems, the textural detail in her work, the way she builds the poem slowly with the accumulation of detail; the precision of language. There are two poems in here that have epigraphs from Bishop. One concerns her time in Brazil, in a sort of exile with her lover.

DH: Obviously your travels to the rainforest have informed many of the poems in your collection. Tell us about your experience there.

JT: In 2001 I took students down on a trip to Costa Rica. I was teaching at a private women’s college in Pennsylvania at that point. I took the students on a January trip when I didn’t know much about the country. I had been there only once. So when I took them there I hooked up with this guide, and I was just blown away. It is an amazing country in terms of what you can see. It is a country the size of West Virginia, and 25% of its land is in private reserve. This experience gave me the incentive to write these poems. One of the things about going into the rainforest is the multi- layered quality—it is so rich, there are so many plants, there are so many species, that there is always something behind what you are seeing. I have gone back six or seven times and continue to learn things.

DH: In the poem “Underwhelmed” you write of a presence, perhaps divine: “ under the splay- handed palms, under drinks glowering dark in/globes of glass, under the tender/humidity, the phosphorescent surf…” You seem to imply that the presence of God is under the trappings of the material world. If you closely observe nature, if you live close to it, is it not impossible to feel his or her presence?

Are you a religious person?

JT: I was raised in a very religious household, but I am not a believer anymore. I am an atheist. No, I don’t go out in the world and feel God’s presence. I feel the presence of the natural world. The natural world is so complex it is not understandable. There is always another layer…there is always something behind it.

DH: There are a lot of birds in this book. Do they give to, pardon the pun, “the flight of the imagination?”

JT: Birds are really interesting. I am a bird watcher. I especially like to watch them in the tropics.

DH: Woody Allen said that nature to him was “ birds eating worms, worms eating worms, it’s like a big restaurant. Do you feel that nature is a battlefield, like it is implied in the title poem: “Birdwatching in Wartime?"

JT: There is a level where nature is a battlefield. I didn’t want these poems to be the standard: I’m out in the world; I’m out in the wilderness, and then the epiphany. I’m not interested in that soft and cuddly type of nature. I don’t think nature is that way, particularly in the tropics. Everything seems poisonous, the trees have thorns, the insects have poison so the birds can’t eat them. There is this level where everything is at war with everything else. There is another level of war in “Birdwatching…” I was in Costa Rica in 2003, right before we were going to go to war in Iraq. I played up this tension of being out in the woods with birds, while very serious matters of life and death were going to happen out in the greater world. There is a level where the language of nature becomes corrupted by the language of war.

DH: Can you talk about the anthology “From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great” that you co-edited?

JT: There is this website that was started by my friend Matt O’Donnell. He wanted to feature emerging poets, and poets whose work sounded good when read out loud. There are a lot of young poets working in this genre. Since O’Donnell started this website there are almost 2,000 poems up. We define emerging poets as having a 2nd book or less before submission. Some of our poets have moved on and have made names for themselves like Tracy Smith and Major Jackson. For the print anthology we took the best from the website. The poems are not organized by poets, but by their sonic qualities.


Under the catastrophic dark,
the comet splintering the sky
with its ancient grief,
under the splay-handed palms,
under drinks glowering dark in
globes of glass, under the tender
humidity, the phosphorescent surf,
under the calls of night jars
chuckling up from the ground,
under the ticking aloe under the moon’s
absence, under, under, under.
Under the blinking stripes jets
write across the sky, under
stillness, the cabin pressure holding
steady, under the coned light
blanking out pages of gloss, under
the plunge of my love’s hair, under
her sadness and her eyes
startling as stars, under our lives,
the miscarried child left in the bowl,
underground, underwater, understory,
under the bougainvillea’s whorish musk,
under the coral’s forest of horn, under
God, undertow, underdog, under
everything there is a season,
under the absence of twilight,
under the beach’s grittle and bone,
under the words, startle, startle,
under the luxury of the table
so whitely laid, under
the candle’s light shaped
like a hanging blade, we tear
apart the body of the fish and leave
glistening ladders of bone.
---Jeffrey Thomson

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