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Haunting obsessions: Michael Shewmaker reflects on the craft of poetry

 

One Saturday morning about 20 years ago, Texas teenager Michael Shewmaker lay on his bed staring up at the fan, when he was struck with the thought: " Everything I believe, I believe because someone has told me to believe that thing."

After that moment, Mr. Shewmaker says, he was never the same.

Today, at 36, Mr. Shewmaker says he's still haunted by that moment, and he continues to grapple with concepts of faith, doubt and death in the form of poetic expression. Now he is a Ph.D.-carrying poet who teaches in Stanford's Creative Writing department, and has just published his first book of poetry, "Penumbra," which won the Hollis Summers Prize.

Riddles

Though this may be Mr. Shewmaker's first published book of poetry, he discovered the magic of language from an early age. Mr. Shewmaker says he grew up in a Texas home full of the poetry of music and the Bible. His dad played keyboards in bands of various genres. His family switched from Catholicism to a charismatic nondenominational church during his childhood, and many of his friends were Baptist, so he was exposed to varied communities within the Christian tradition.

One formative experience for him, he says, was that his grandfather often gave him riddles that he was left to puzzle over.

"It was my first exposure to language saying one thing, but meaning something slightly different at the same time," he says.

At around age 10, he says, he discovered Robert Frost's poetry collection "Mountain Interval" on that grandfather's bookshelf, and experienced a similar sensation when he read "The Telephone."

"There was something about the language that was musical and more exciting to me," he says. "From that moment, I was interested in exploring the musicality of language in a way that I hadn't before."

Robert Frost is still one of his favorite poets. To round out his top poets list today, he says he'd add W.B. Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Mr. Shewmaker would later go on to pursue a master of fine arts degree from McNeese State University and a doctorate from Texas Tech University in creative writing. He found his way to Stanford in 2015 as a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellow. He and his wife, Emily, currently live in Menlo Park.

'Penumbra'

Personal experience, history and the imagination are blended within the rhythmic lines of the poems of "Penumbra," according to Mr. Shewmaker.

For instance, he says, he became inspired to write what later became "The Orchard" one morning when he woke up with the question "Where has all the windfall gone?" stuck in his head. His grandmother had recently died from dementia, so to develop the poem he fused his experiences of her illness with the phrase and a narrative of what might cause someone to ask that question.

Usually, his ideas for poems typically come from noticing or feeling some sort of juxtaposition.

In his poem "The Curlew," his inspiration came from a biography he read about John James Audubon. The famous avian naturalist apparently used to shoot the birds and then arrange them in a flight position to depict them as if they were alive. To fund his work, he would paint portraits on commission. One such commission came from the father of a girl who had died two weeks previously and was already buried. They dug up the girl's body and Mr. Audubon was tasked with depicting her as if alive.

Later, while reviewing Audubon bird drawings, he noticed that the only bird that was actually shown as dead was the Eskimo Curlew. That juxtaposition inspired him to write a poem to explore the tensions Audubon's work raised about art, nature and death.

Obsession

As a creative writing professor, Mr. Shewmaker says that there are a few pieces of advice he gives his students:

First, he wants them to forget the conventional advice they may have received to "Find your voice."

"'Find your voice' is a terrible thing to tell young writers," he says. Better advice, he suggested, is to "find the voice of the poem." Focusing too much on refining one's authorial voice, he says, shifts the writer's mindset to the self, rather than the work of crafting a poem.

Another misconception he finds among his students is that one can be "done" writing about a topic after a poem or two. Historically, he said, some thought that poetry should be written only about three things, or their absence: love, death and God. While he says he doesn't entirely agree, he argues that writers shouldn't be afraid of grappling with their "obsessions" throughout the body of their work, even if it may feel repetitive. Rather than finding lots of new topics to write about, he suggested, poets should seek instead to treat a familiar topic from different vantage points.

If artists run from their obsessions, "then there's a real chance they're running away from what could be their most compelling work," he says.

Another thing he's learned is that inspiration can't be sparked on command.

"When I was young, I used to feel like I had to go on quests for those sparks because I was so eager and I wanted to be writing all the time," he says. Trying too hard to force poems into existence wasn't effective for him, he says. "It was like I was strangling the things before I would even let them come alive."

"The things that came alive for me on the page were the things that I couldn't overlook even if I wanted to. They happen to you, and then they haunt you, whether you want them to or not."

When asked whether he's worked out answers to the questions that roiled up for him while staring at that fan, he says, "I think that if I had worked these things out, I wouldn't be writing poems about them anymore."

"Penumbra" (Ohio University Press, 2017) is available for purchase on Amazon or via Ohio University Press.

Mr. Shewmaker will be performing a reading of his poems at Stanford on April 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall.

--

Two poems from Michael Shewmaker's 'Penumbra'

--

The Orchard

Where has all the windfall gone?

she asks in my recurring dream.

I lead her by the arm. Her gown,

lined in a bronze light, glides above

-

the lawn. Her feet are wet with dew.

I want to answer with the truth,

but know that she is hungry – and

afraid. Instead, I clench my teeth.

-

She's forgotten the fruit's name,

and thinks that I'm my father – last

of her two sons and daughter. Time

is relative among these trees

-

that stretch as far as we can see,

smoldering like Eden in the sun.

Before I wake, she asks again,

Where has all the windfall gone?

--

Ink

Is there a canvas crueler than the body?

The ink is permanent. The skin is not.

I have no patience for the lover's gaudy

heart – swollen, pierced – a hackneyed blot

-

beating against the odds. I've seen them all:

straddled by seraphim, or torn apart –

on women, men, the lesser parlor's wall –

hallmarked MOM, or skewered by a dart

from Cupid's quiver.

-

But enough of love.

I work in monochrome. I deal in skulls.

Behind each piece, a brief, familiar story.

It ends in bones – the sort of plot that dulls

the point. My needle's steadiest above

a stinging script that reads:

Memento Mori.

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