“We often think of writing as a solitary act, but I think (read: hope) these poems bring people together, bring them into place and community.”
Aristotle’s Lantern (Seven Kitchens Press, 2017)
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I worked on a commercial fishing boat in Southeast Alaska for eight summers. The second summer on the boat, I was twenty years old and wrote a poem about why fishermen curse. Since then, fishing has been my muse. I’ve written dozens and dozens of poems about fishing, so this chapbook is, in some ways, the best of those poems and, in other ways, just the poems that fit nicely together.
What’s your chapbook about?
On the most literal level, it’s about fishing and fishermen and place, but with what aim I’m not always sure. I have moments of thinking of the book as an homage, paean, elegy, bildungsroman, and ode. Maybe the chapbook as a whole acts more like a catalogue of all the various elements that make fishing what it is. Killing small animals. Growing up. Longing. Nets. Knots. Phone calls. Sex. Love. Destruction. Lots and lots of scales. Family. Stars.
After I started trying to arrange the poems, I was also struck by how much they are about the ways we touch one another, both physically and metaphorically. We often think of writing as a solitary act, but I think (read: hope) these poems bring people together, bring them into place and community.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I found the term Aristotle’s Lantern while researching sea urchins for the poem “Growing Up,” which appears in the chapbook. That was in 2012, I think, and I never could think of a better title than that.
For the arrangement, I spent a lot of time with poems spread across my floor, bed, and walls. I think my favorite way to look at them is taping them to my walls. I haven’t necessarily been satisfied by this process, but at least printing and taping means I can see everything at once.
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Shuttles flick through diamond-shaped windows.
Just fingers flash, bending the twine in stair steps up and down cut edges.
Their pockets full of hooks and flagging tape, men mend the net.
Jim recalls branding cattle as a kid in North Dakota, winter cold just lifted,
calves struggling in mud before the prairie bloomed, withered in summer heat.
Playing cowboy now, he says he shot coyotes and Indians off his dad’s land.
Face deadly straight, you only know he’s lying when his fingers stutter,
stick, the tiny knot coming up slack. Just one unraveled compromises the delicate
lift and pull of meshes under stress. I’ve seen whole seams split from end to end.
He knows love knots pull tighter under pressure, stronger than the lines used to tie them.
He starts talking about his grandmother with Alzheimer’s. Each winter she thinks
every day for a week is Christmas. Last year she fell in two feet of snow.
Feeding the horses, hay in her hands, the wind at ten below, she lay crying
until Jim’s grandfather found her. She didn’t recognize him,
but knew love when it grabbed her, pushing back the terror.
Jim joins two lines with overhand knots, sliding them one on top of the other,
pulling for tension. Sometimes the line snaps in his swollen fingers. His hands ache.
He cracks his knuckles, asks the boys if they’re ready for a beer, remembering his first.
At fifteen he drank Rainier, bittersweet scent biting his nose while he sipped,
making him crave pancakes all night. He didn’t know why until he remembered hunting trips when he was five and six, Brown Betty, the old flat top stove at his uncle’s cabin.
Uncle Joe would tinker the diesel flame into smothering heat, sizzle of bacon
while Jim’s dad poured Hamm’s in the pancake batter, saying, Our little secret.
Holding a burnt handled spatula, he’d flip white beer cakes mid-air.
Outside the web locker, Jim’s crew chuckles, calls it a day, each popping a beer tab.
At home their fingers twitch all night, tie imaginary hitches, sheet bends,
loop knots, a bowline on a bight. Jim dreams of the whole net flexing,
all the pearl-sized knots shrunk and snug, rippling in the current.
Why did you choose this poem ?
This poem appeared as the first poem in many earlier versions of Aristotle’s Lantern. It’s also a poem that I often use to open readings. There’s something about it that both draws listeners/ readers in and feels like a gateway to another world. In some ways, it’s a bit unwieldy and prosy—and it’s definitely not the roughest/ toughest representation of fishing culture in the book—but when I read it, I often get that strange tingly sensation that goes along with an audience connecting with a poem. Hopefully it’s having that effect right now.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I don’t think there’s one poem in the chapbook (as it’s published) that really catalyzed things, but I feel somewhat compelled to refer (again) to the poem about fishermen cussing. I don’t even remember what it was called, but writing it and workshopping it certainly motivated me to write and to write about fishing. The poem also had a lot of curse words in it—so it was a funny thing to watch the faces in the workshop when it was read aloud. Keep in mind that I was a student at Gonzaga, a small, private, Catholic university.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
All but one of the poems in Aristotle’s Lantern are tightly connected through their setting in Southeast Alaska. “Light Boat” really takes place in Southern California. I like to think it still fits into the collection because it ties into the themes and fishing imagery of the other poems, but someone who really knows the fisheries might catch on that it’s an oddball. I also think “Triangulation” stands out stylistically.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The poem I most recently revised significantly in this collection is “Triangulation,” but “finishing it” didn’t necessarily make me feel as though the chapbook were complete. Most poets have heard Valery’s idea that poems aren’t finished but abandoned. I feel that way about many of my poems—and this chapbook.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Ron Mohring, the editor at Seven Kitchens Press, was very open to suggestions for the cover image. (Thank you!) In the end, I worked closely with Chelsea Stephen of Left Pebble Studio to adapt one of her original images for the cover (another big thank you!). I’ve known Chelsea for several years because she was instrumental in putting together an anthology for the FisherPoets Gathering. When it came time for my own cover art, I knew I wanted to look at what she had. When I saw “Love has a Tide,” I knew it was the image I wanted. Chelsea would laugh and say I had others picked out as well—it’s true—but that was the one that I really felt deep down was perfect for the book.
What are you working on now?
The full-length collection!
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I can dance a little bit… I even dance a fair bit of tango… but I cannot sing at all. If I had a fairy wand to set myself up with a successful artistic career as a singer, I would totally do it. I’m fascinated by what I imagine is the emotional/ spiritual release of making music inside the body.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Sierra Golden received her MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University. Winner of the Rane Arroyo Chapbook Prize, Golden’s work appears in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Permafrost, and Ploughshares. She has also been awarded residencies by Hedgebrook, the Island Institute, and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Although she calls Washington State home, Golden has spent many summers in Alaska, working as a commercial fisherman. She was a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House Fellow and now works in communications at Casa Latina, a nonprofit organization empowering Latino immigrants through employment, education, and community organizing. Author photo by Shelley Rose Photography.