A short short interview with John Shoptaw
A SHORT SHORT INTERVIEW WITH John Shoptaw, the second winner of the Notre Dame Review Book Prize.
Could you please describe Times Beach for us, the way you see it?
It’s my first book of poems, and the poems circulate around the Mississippi River watershed, from its headwaters in Lake Itasca to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, and from the ancestral Mississippian mounds to the present-day dams and levees. Times Beach (named for a dioxin-laced Missouri town eradicated by the EPA) is a cultural and environmental history of the river, and also of my life in its floodplain, especially in Little River (now Morehouse) in the southeast Missouri Bootheel. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 (New Madrid was my home county) and the 1927 Mississippi flood are climactic events in the book.
Is there a mixture of the personal and the public in Times Beach?
I also explore some episodes in my personal history: my working in my town’s lumber mill, my being baptized in a local drainage ditch, and my traveling downriver to the delta after the unnatural floods of 2010 (which rose to my childhood home’s sandbagged front door).
Are there any themes that occupy you in the volume?
Throughout the book I am thinking about the ramifications of “correction.” My ticket out of “Swampeast Misery” (as my corner of the state is unaffectionately known) was my education, a long process of learning how to talk and read and write correctly, which I associate with the straightening of the river by the Army Corps of Engineers. The book is accordingly marked by some ambivalence. While informed by my education, the poems regularly erode and merge their conventional forms. For example, “Blues Haiku” crosses the syllabic haiku with the accentual blues tercet; “Itasca” parodies Longfellow’s learned “Hiawatha”; “Shuffle” is an outsized variation on the sestina; and “Heebie Jeebies,” set in New Orleans during the 1927 flood, is a jazzed rendition of a Miltonic masque.
Can you say anything about its overall import?
If the book takes a hard look at the managed watershed, it also gazes with affection and respect at a river brimming with might. What is a river? As I see it in “Floodplain,” my homage to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a river is more than a line on a map. It’s also its floodplain, anywhere the river has flowed or overflowed before and might very well again. If time is a river, life is a floodplain. With the unruly Mississippi as my guide, Times Beach is also a hymn to possibility.