A Q&A by Kevin Hudson
PY: How did you come across the engravings that led you to write your poetry? Could you tell us a little more about the engravings?
JD: While many of my poems are related to the Charles W. Morgan’s voyages, not all of them are. A significant amount of them are about whaling history in general, and so I research as I write. Also, I founded and directed the Hidden Treasures Poetry Series at the Courtyard Gallery in downtown Mystic, and I’ve worked with visual artists in the past on ekphrasis projects, so it’s not surprising that I found myself drawn to the book Whale Ships and Whaling: A Pictorial History by George Francis Dow, a Dover reprint edition of the 1925 original. [This book is where DiMartino found the engravings that inspired “Capture of a Whale Off St. Annaland, Holland, Oct. 7, 1682” and “View of New Bedford from Fair Haven in 1853”.] I decided to write a series of vignettes, or small/short poems, about the older images in Whale Ships and Whaling. I have about 30 vignette poems inspired by early whaling artwork now. I found myself particularly interested in the very early artistic interpretations of whales and whaling, such as the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century engravings. They’re fascinating—whales with whiskers or double blowholes like pipe horns protruding from their heads, often drawn by artists who had never seen a whale!
I also discovered The Whale Book: Whales and Other Marine Animals as Described by Adriaen Coenen in 1585 in reprint as well. Coenen, a Dutch artist, also wrote text for his illustrations, which he often based on whales that had washed ashore, well before science was a standardized, professional field.
Writing poems about these images and the ones in Dow’s book allowed me to explore the relationship between humans and whales through changes in our understanding of science, art, and history. That relationship and connection to whales evolved over time, and these long-forgotten engravings shed light on that evolution. Keeping the poems short forced me to be concise, and often I only focused on one aspect to highlight in a particular illustration. For example, in the poem “The Capture of a Whale Off St. Annaland, Holland, Oct. 7, 1682,” it was the second of four blocks that caught my attention because of the comparison between the laborers both on land and sea, the farmers interested in the whaler sailing by, and the many interpretations of the pitchfork held by a man on land.
I’m not certain if these engravings are now in a museum, but when Dow first published his book in 1925, most of the images were in private hands.
PY: Do you have a particular interest in the sea? Do you find it more poetic than other landscapes?
JD: I wouldn’t say I find the sea more poetic than other landscapes; I think for poets any landscape or setting can be poetic if you can connect the setting to the human experience, distill some truth from it that’s reflective of our lives.
I think the idea of the sea as a poetic landscape goes back at least to the Romantic poets, if not further, the idea of nature as inspiration, and the sea, of course, is awe-inspiring. The challenge is that the sea has been written about for so long by poets, in so many ways, from so many different perspectives (I recommend Poems of the Sea, an anthology selected & edited by J.D. McClatchy) that it’s difficult to write about it in fresh ways. I consider keeping the language fresh and innovative to be part of the challenges with this collection.
I’ve always loved the sea. I was raised in South Jersey, about an hour from the beach. When I was much younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist. As I grew older, I found myself more interested in history than science, but the sea as a landscape is breathtaking, centering, and humbling. It makes for a great canvas to write about the human condition.
PY: I’ve read some of your other whaling poems and their layouts differ. Can you give one or two examples of how you use the format of your poems to express meaning?
JD: When I write a poem, I like the poem to surprise me; if I’m bored writing it, then I know readers will be bored reading it. So I give the poem freedom to be what it wants to be in relation to form and sometimes language. Some topics are difficult to write about, however, and that’s when I tend to approach the form of a poem more seriously.
For example, with this collection, I knew I was going to have to address some unsavory aspects of life aboard a whaler, such as the brutality of discipline. The thirtieth voyage contained a crew that troubled the captain even before he set sail, and he kept a secret, separate “discipline log,” along with the first mate, in accordance with maritime law. The poems that I wrote inspired by this separate log resulted in a villanelle, a triolet, a sonnet, and a pantoum; the latter was titled “Discipline Triptych, III.” “Discipline Triptych, III” was a partially found poem as well; I realized the poem was in the actual text of the event described, and while I changed the order of the words, I altered very little of the language. The poem uses excerpts from the Morgan’s 1905 discipline log, written by the American Consul in Tahiti, who presided over the accusations listed within:
I called for listening favorable to Koch, but
he had been somewhat affected by liquor.
Hater, he again broke forth while in irons,
and tried to smite the mate with a large hammer
(he had been somewhat affected by liquor),
who he claimed had kicked him. He attempted to break loose
and tried to smite the mate with a large hammer
while in irons, locked in the Dry Room.
—from “Discipline Triptych, III”
The repetition of lines in a pantoum serve to naturally heighten the tension of a disturbing action (the carpenter Koch physically attacking the first mate) that occurred in a small room on a fairly small vessel out to sea. The terse, four-lined stanzas with chant-like, repeating lines heighten for the reader the claustrophobia whalers experienced on board that resulted in a bizarre sequence of events, which began with a surly carpenter refusing work and ended with his brief incarceration on an island, until the Morgan sailed safely out of sight.
I’ve also written haiku about whaling and experimented with other styles of found poetry, which has given me different perspectives on using primary source materials in poetry.
PY: Before you wrote your poem “Mrs. Tinkham’s Cabin,” were you able to see her cabin in person? How was that experience influential?
JD: Sailing on the Charles W. Morgan as a passenger–I’m not a sailor–was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience! I went aboard with the intent to observe and participate in as much as I could, to learn about what life may have been like on the vessel, to then bring those sensory perceptions to the blank page. As I said, I’m not a sailor, and the one experience I didn’t anticipate has left me with the dubious distinction of being the first person to be seasick on the Charles W. Morgan in about one hundred years! It also resulted in my having a strong sense of connection to a woman historically involved with the Morgan who also suffered seasickness.
Mrs. Clara Tinkham, wife of Captain Tinkham, joined her husband at sea on the Morgan’s tenth voyage in 1875. Her seasickness was so severe that she left the vessel mid-voyage toward the end of 1876 and took a steamer home. Resting in the captain’s quarters would only have increased her discomfort, as being below deck makes seasickness worse. The cabin was built on-deck for Mrs. Tinkham and is very small; it consists of a gimbaled bed and a tiny window, so she could lie down in privacy. Hopefully, it afforded her a measure of relief!
The poem “Mrs. Tinkham’s Cabin” was the first poem I wrote after my 24-hour leg of the journey, which ran from New London, CT to Newport, RI. The poem itself was written rather quickly—it just flowed—and I attribute that to the sensory detail of the 38th voyage. My own seasickness influenced my choice to write about Mrs. Tinkham and her constant illness, and the experience showed me how much she must have valued that small cabin.
Also, having a Captain’s wife on board led the vessel to be termed a “hen frigate.” Whether or not that term was perceived as derogatory depended on who said it and in what tone, but that phrase worked itself into the poem as well.
PY: Your website describes your interest in history and states that you are the director of the Smith-Harris House museum in Niantic, Connecticut. How do history and poetry connect for you?
JD: The Nine Muses of Greek mythology were considered inspiration for both poetry (Calliope) and history (Clio). There are similarities between both art forms; both offer the opportunity to speak truth, bear witness, and serve as our cultural identity. History sheds light on who we are now, but also we perceive the historical record through the lens of who we are today—it’s a delicious paradox and one that is ripe to be explored in poetry; thus, my two interests tend to blend.
Poetry that features history as a topic done well (and by done well I mean both well-researched and well-written) can sharpen the focus on our shared past and also bring to light marginalized people or lesser-known events. The reality is that most people find history “boring”—tired memorization of dates and stuffy lectures—but when offered alternative ways to engage in history through different art forms, from historical novels, TV and film period dramas, visual art, music, poetry, to even cooking, the richness of the past becomes accessible and engaging, and I find most people are surprised by what they discover there, whether it’s in a museum program or a poem because ultimately, in these experiences, people find themselves.
PY: I understand you are in the process of writing a collection of poems about the Charles M. Morgan whaling ship. Can you tell us a little about that?
JD: I’m a former interpretation supervisor at Mystic Seaport, and it wasn’t long after working on-site before I became creatively interested in the Charles W. Morgan and her story. I noticed that other poets were also taking an interest in whaling as a topic. However, many were inspired by or featured Herman Melville’s great classic, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Of course, I appreciate Moby-Dick; I oversaw the “Moby-Dick Marathon” at Mystic Seaport for two years and loved doing so. Yet I, as a historian (I have an M.A. in public history from Rutgers University) and a poet, found my inspiration more in the Charles W. Morgan‘s logbooks than in Ishmael’s musings. As I found myself fascinated and creatively challenged by what I learned about the whaling industry, I realized that the poems I wanted to write were inspired by the stories found within the logs of the Charles W. Morgan herself, that the unique perspective that I could bring to the rising trend of whaling in the literary arts would be a poetry collection based on the history of an actual whaling vessel. I have been researching the historical documents to discover the realities of life on board the Charles W. Morgan, and I find those stories more captivating and inspiring than any fictional narrative, and I believe these stories need to be told. Simply put, my own unique combination of interests–history and poetry–enabled me to seek out the poetry within the actual history of the vessel’s previous voyages.
I applied to be a part of the 38th voyage opportunity back in 2014 to briefly experience in some small way what it physically felt like to be aboard the Charles W. Morgan. While poetry pares language down to its essential elements, it also involves the senses in fresh ways to engage the reader and audience. This is vital in all poetry but in particular when the poet is attempting to capture an aspect of the world or a culture that no longer exists. I felt that an experiential component to writing this collection, now titled “Wood to Skin,” would allow me to best imagine the world inhabited by whalers and others connected to this vessel and provide my work with a deeper understanding and richer description through this intimate experience.
The title of my manuscript “Wood to Skin” is taken from the name of a dangerous and rare maneuver where whalers would steer the whaleboat right up to a harpooned whale to deliver the final blow with a lance. For me, the phrase also reflects the humanness of the whalers, their relationship to each other, and to the vessel on which they spent years of their lives sailing around the world.
PY: You’ve written two collections of poetry and have been published in journals and magazines. What is your writing process? When and where do you write?
JD: I’m up very early in the morning to write and read poetry (ideally I’m at my writing desk by 5:30 AM). I have a family and I oversee a small, historic house museum, so my day is pretty full! That early-morning time is wonderful, because I can give my complete attention to the poems before responsibilities begin, and the obligations of the day haven’t yet imposed on the creative mind. I try to revise, submit, and research throughout the week when I can, and I also try to attend readings and gather with other poets and artists when possible. I’ve given up on the idea of balance; rather, I prioritize what is important to me, and since poetry is one of those priorities, I make time for it. I have a small studio in my home where I write, most often by computer, and I keep a notebook for ideas, since often they can be lost if not captured.
I prefer tea to coffee and enjoy cooking historic recipes, perusing used bookstores, and long walks on old battlefields. Rain optional.