BACKSTORY of "BLUEFISH"
Often, I’ll write a poem to a prompt, but this was not the case here. Rather, it was a confluence of widely different thoughts and events that converged to become the headwaters of this poem: a recent workshop, an emotionally stirring poem, a rummaging in the den and reminiscing on a box of found fossils, an everpresent thought of food (because I was thinking about a collection connecting food and family), and finally, a conversation that made me think of bluefish. (I’ll mention a couple of these things in more detail below.)
The image of a bluefish is what triggered the memoir-like poem about my children. They lived in Maryland with their mother, and I would visit them whenever I could since I lived almost six hundred miles away in Tennessee. I rented a cottage (Matoaka Beach Cabins, St. Leonard, MD) for the weekend a couple of times on Calvert Cliffs, where I’d hunt for fossils when I was in my twenties. Believe me, I wanted to include a section of my children’s wide-eyed discovery of fossils, just as I had experienced, but I decided to stay focused and save that thought for another poem.
Most of the narrative is true, and not necessarily occuring in one visit to the cottage, so technically, the poem is fiction.
“Bluefish” was drafted in late February 2013 less than two weeks after I attended a poetry workshop in Grailville, OH led by Cathy Smith Bowers, a former poet laureate of North Carolina (2010-2012). She spoke of the “abiding image” as a way to mine the past for poems. She introduced me to Ellen Bass’ freshly published work, “What Did I Love” (The New Yorker, Feb 4, 2013) whose opening line might sound humorous (What did I love about killing chickens? Let me start) but quickly devolves into something serious, even holy, and closes with an image that has abided in me since then, influencing several poems, including this one. There was something holy about that whole experience with the bluefish and my children.
Who understands the workings of the creative mind? Nevertheless, I sense that there must be a complex interplay of thoughts, especially when juxtaposed, to make tangible associations grow from the subconscious. How else can we even start transforming that blank page into a piece of our heart?
My usual style, up to that point, was to write short poems that were highly lyrical and deeply imagistic. Wanting to write longer poems and broaden my style, I experimented with narrative forms. It is very difficult to sustain the lyric intensity in short poems and to avoid sounding prosy. But sometimes the text is prosy, and when it is, it must be lifted into poetry. That was my challenge, to keep the writing in the realm of poetry and not prose. (I eschew cut-up prose.) My remembering Elizabeth Bishop was encouraging. She was a master of the narrative poem. At least subconsciously, her poems, such as “The Fish” influenced this work. “Bluefish” has hints of Elizabeth Bishop’s aesthetics that are found in her poetry. The Poetry Foundation states, “Her verse is marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity, but her underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing.” I dare to say I share similar aesthetics, but I struggle to achieve her standard.
So, what crafting elements lift this work with its conversational tone into poetry? This work strives to achieve the following: impeccable rhythm, a structure with at least some good line breaks and gives breathing room for the detailed imagery, internal music and resonances, and deeply symbolic meanings. If I succeeded, it is clearly a poem.
More about my aesthetics is found in a May 2014 interview by Changming Yuan, editor of Poetry Pacific.