Under Dark Waters — the Self-Interview

A Titanic Undertaking?

This book is obviously about the Titanic disaster, but it is also quite clearly about your mother’s death. How did that juxtaposition come about?

My mother died on April 5th, 2015. As the anniversary approached in 2016, my Facebook feed filled up with Titanic-related memes and articles, because of course Titanic sank on April 14th, 1912. I started thinking about that disaster, which has always captivated my imagination, and saw similarities, despite the vast difference of scale. Then the poems started coming…

And boy, did they come! There seems to be a poem in every well-known form. There’s a sestina, a triolet, a couple of villanelles, a ghazal, and even a paradelle. And of course, multiple sonnets. Was that deliberate?

Yes. Anyone who knows me knows I love sonnets, but this material called for variety. I tried very hard to fit the vehicles to the content. For example, one of the villanelles is called “Life Cycle of the Iceberg,” and the cyclical nature is evident in the repetends. Similarly, the paradelle is about the pointlessness of the tragedy. The crown of sonnets, though, was an inspiration!

About that sonnet crown. Rumor has it you wrote it in a day?

I did! Once again, I was fortunate enough to be on a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the summer of 2016. I decided to write a crown, never having written one before. For the uninitiated, a crown of sonnets is 15 sonnets, each beginning with the last line of the previous sonnet, and the fifteenth sonnet is all the last lines. They aren’t easy! I started after breakfast, about 8.30 a.m., took lunch back to my studio, and just kept going. When I finished, about 5 p.m. I was on a total and utter sonnet high. (The crown is called “A Wreath for Rosie Gray,” and it’s online at Mezzo Cammin.)

How did the book come to be published?

This is also a good story. I submitted it to the Able Muse Book Award in around March 2017, and promptly forgot about it because of my political efforts. (I ran for Hainesport Township Committee in 2016 and 2017.) I found out in early November that it was selected as one of two runners up for the prize by Charles Martin, but I was too busy to make much of that because it was literally the week before the election. The day after the election I woke up feeling pretty bleak, and there was an email from Alex Pepple offering to publish the book. Most serendipitous timing!

That’s a pretty quick turnaround! You have copies already?

Alex is awesome! I asked if we could get it out as quickly as possible, because I had various plans afoot. I have applied for a Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer, and I’ll also be reading in various venues beginning in March. Plus I’m giving a Faculty reading for the first time at Poetry by the Sea, which I’m psyched about. Anyway, Alex worked with me to achieve my schedule. He really is incredibly efficient!

Which are your favorite poems from the book?

The crown is the one I’m proudest of. But the book really hangs together in a way I love. There are a few special poems though, like the villanelle called “On Visiting the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas with My Teenage Daughters.” It’s a great family memory that became an important part of the book because I am a mother as well as a daughter. I think my girls like that they are in the book too! Then there’s a monorhyme called “My Father and I, and Our Wine,” which I love not only for the content, but also because I modeled it on a poem by Dick Davis called “Monorhyme for the Shower.” Then Dick loved the book and ended up writing a superb foreword for it.

I almost forgot to ask: where can I get a copy?

Ha! Indeed! You can buy a copy right now from Able Muse Press, or pre-order from Amazon. Or come by the Poetry by the Sea table at AWP and I’ll sign one for you! My first local reading is on March 24th at the Regency Cafe in Lansdowne, PA. I’ll have copies there too!

Finally, both the subjects of the book are pretty depressing. Is the book depressing?

I don’t think so. Of course, some of the individual poems are, like “I Made Mistakes but More Could Have Been Done.” That one makes me cry. But the book is really about survival. Alex’s first editorial comment on the manuscript, which was originally just called Under Dark Waters, was that he wanted Titanic in the title. So after some thought I added the subtitle, Surviving the Titanic. Most of the Titanic poems are either about who survived the shipwreck, or what survives by way of legend. The sonnet crown is about dealing with loss. My mother was very stoic. I think she would have approved.

Read the Sisters & Courtesans Self-Interview.

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