Creamery; Corpse Candles; Vernon
By: Christopher Watkins
Train cars with large windows
On small tracks
Told industrial stories
Of what the factories
Did and didn’t do for us
In our homeland.
We drank unpretty alcohol
And ate strong-smelling cheese
So light it was almost fluffy
In our hurting mouths
Full of broken fillings.
Only a saint from our country
Would leave his bones
With slope-dwellers whose church
Was like a staircase
To an abusive shore.
We went down to go west;
Coal under our broad fingernails—
No feeling either way
For whether God would care or not.
Our bible, after all,
Divine in its own right,
Would come to fame,
And so be named,
By its translation.
We grew up never moving to music.
Fluttered only in our throats.
Shoulders sold to the mines.
Where knuckles split,
Our voices found their blood.
Broad of back, willed to a saint;
The bones we trusted—
Over looms, we told his tales.
Walking barefoot over hills
Along the cold Atlantic shore;
We came in peace to find our dead
At Devil’s Backbone,
In a country where we’d strangely give our names
To former slaves.
We knew each other, once, by leeks we wore.
Today, our song is still of peace,
Despite the six sons that we buried
We sing, in song, of dim corpse candles
And wonder where we are.
We let everyone climb our mountains.
They left upon discovering
that being ruled meant nothing to us.
The copper we smelted died on the river,
Orphaned the coal,
Created poems that were willing to die.
Christopher Watkins is Senior Creative Writer at DataVisor. His poems have appeared or are appearing in The Massachusetts Review, Harpur Palate, Hayden's Ferry Review, and more. His debut poetry volume "Short Houses With Wide Porches" was published by Shady Lane Press (a program of The Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Project). He received his MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from the Stonecoast MFA Program at The University of Southern Maine. Watkins is additionally an award-winning songwriter with 11 albums released under the name Preacher Boy. His songs have appeared on dozens of albums, as well as in films, TV shows, and commercials.
All three of these poems emerged from a period of intensive investigation of—and engagement with—my Welsh ancestry. Immigrant and emigrant stories are in no short supply these days—for reasons both beautiful and terrible. Yet while the United States is rich with narrative in these regards, the story of the Welsh in America is not one often told. Numerically, Welsh-Americans are but a fraction of the population. This, combined with a seemingly foundational “get on with it” kind of attitude amongst my ancestors, has left the storytelling landscape a bit bare when it comes to those who came from Wales to find a new home in the new world. As I’ve come to realize this, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards what stories may lie in wait. All that said, “Creamery” is set mainly in contemporary Wales. The poem draws much of its initial imagery and narrative from an extended trip my missus and I took through the country. As the poem progresses, the lines begin to blur between a narrator in the present and one from the past. The intention here is to try and reenact that sensation of disappearing into history one feels while walking through ancient sites. “Corpse Candles,” by contrast, moves the opposite direction—from ancient Wales to a young America. The poem closes on imagery drawn from a legend that says the Welsh arrived some three centuries before Columbus—the proof, if it be so, being the bodies of six soldiers buried with breastplates bearing the Welsh coat of arms, that were disinterred in the 1700s. “Vernon,” the third of the trio of poems, takes its name from Vernon Watkins, the well-known Welsh poet—a friend to Dylan Thomas, and a man with whom I share a name—who once wrote that “the poem cannot live until it has been willing to die.”
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
If we can include song lyrics as a form of poetry, then nearly as long as I’ve been able to write. If early Super 8 family videos are to be believed, I wrote my first song somewhere around the age of three. I was fascinated by lyrics at a very early age, and used to keep myself occupied on long car drives by trying to work out the words of popular songs—I played cassettes on a portable tape recorder, and drove my parents crazy rewinding back across hard-to-decipher lines such as “Tell me why you want to lay there and revel in your abandon,” and “I'll give you black sensations up and down your spine” hundreds of times until I felt I’d transcribed them correctly. I can recall that I was somewhere around the age of 18 when I consciously tried to start writing “proper” poetry outside of song lyric form, but I don’t believe I began submitting poems for publishing consideration until I was somewhere past the age of 30—I was playing music and writing songs full-time throughout the years preceding.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Outside of song lyrics, I suspect the first poem that really caught my attention was “Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch” by Diane Wakoski. My father was an English professor for some five decades, and I grew up in university towns, and the various little houses we lived in were invariably full of visiting professors, authors, and grad students—many of whom had written books that found their way to our shelves. Diane Wakoski was a colleague of my father’s, and we had many of her books, including the volume of the same name as the afore-mentioned poem, and perhaps needless to say, the title was highly intriguing to a young kid with an early and abiding love for profanity! I read the poem, and found it to be not at all what I expected, but I quite loved it all the same, and was really moved by its strange anger and honesty:
You were a liar in a way that only I know:
You ride a broken motorcycle,
You speak a dead language
You are a bad plumber,
And you write with an inkless pen.
That said, can I say that I truly fell in love with poetry at that point? I’m not sure, but I certainly felt a thrill akin to the lovely derangement that romance provokes. Honestly, though, it was probably Dylan Thomas that really first captured my heart—I feel certain it was “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” that snared me for keeps:
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Well, as noted above, Dylan Thomas, certainly. His language is almost too beautiful to bear. I have always felt similarly about Rilke—his finest poems have such a desperate beauty to them. But as much as I love their emotional and linguistic excesses, I think my true favorites tend to be poets of restraint (by comparison, at least!). Han-Shan is unquestionably the poet whose works I have read and re-read most often over the years. I think David Hinton’s translations are likely the most effective in capturing what I imagine to be the real phrasing and cadence of the originals, and while I do appreciate the precision of Burton Watson’s translations, it was Gary Snyder’s renderings in “Rip-Rap and Cold Mountain Poems” that first put me all the way under the spell: Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
I consider the above to be just about the most powerful exhortation to live that I have ever encountered. All my life, I have felt challenged by this poem to somehow leap the world’s ties, if only to reassure myself that in Han-Shan’s eyes, I might be counted as worthy of the white clouds.
This spirit of restraint permeates much of the poetry I have most loved over the years—I find it in the works of everyone from Sharon Olds and James Wright to Charles Bukowski and Wislawa Szymborska. That said, if I had to choose but one poem to hold up as the symbol of everything I believe poetry to be capable of, I think I’d select The Locust Swarm, by Hsu Chao, as translated by Kenneth Rexroth, which closes with these lines:
She looked at his face, eaten
By the locusts, and tears of
Blood filled her eyes. Ever after
She would not let her children
Injure any insect which
Might have fed on the dead. she
Would lift her face to the sky
And say, "O locusts, if you
Are seeking a place to winter
You can find shelter in my heart."
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
No rituals per se. The nature of my life and career have been such that I’ve had to refine the art of slipping into the zone at a moment’s notice; trying to steal precious writing moments whenever and wherever I can. As to process, however, I’d say I rely quite heavily on the actual tools of the trade to help prod me along; what I mean by this, is that I believe different implements for writing produce very different effects, and accordingly, I will often switch tools if I find I am stuck. Just as sitting down to compose at a piano will lead you in one direction and sitting down to a banjo will lead you in another, writing in a Moleskine vs. typing on a manual typewriter will similarly take you down different roads. I think of Kerouac’s explanations for his “choruses,” and how he considered the limits of a pocket notebook page to be akin to the bar limit for a jazz musician’s solos—this is a perfect example of how one’s writing “instrument” can impact one’s output. In simplest form, consider that a Moleskine will likely force you to write shorter lines because of the small page size, whereas with a manual typewriter, you’ll likely go long of line so as to not have to keep banging the bell to advance your work. It always amazes me that e.e. cummings was so eccentric on the page, given that he was writing in a pre-laptop era. It’s so easy to move things around on the page with a word processor; so easy to format eccentrically, but to do what cummings did in the typewriter age strikes me as quite remarkable. Which reminds me, I can recall that a particular cummings poem was an early favorite, and it remains so today, and it is also a wonderful example of power within restraint:
Buffalo Bill ’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I’m generally a proponent of the notion that a good poem is self-aware, and that the job of the poet is simply to learn to listen. In other words, the poem knows what it wants to be, and it’s the poet’s job to recognize the signals it’s sending. That said, it’s often challenging to even know what—or where—the poem really is. Often, I find that my first drafts tend to largely consist of me just thinking out loud on the page—very little of my first passes prove to be poem in the end. It’s only as I near what I think is a completed piece that I start to realize what it is I’m actually trying to do—and then I really have to begin the work.
As an aside, a former poetry mentor used to have me write entirely new poems based only on the last line of what I thought had been my finished draft!
Anyhow, as to form following function vis-à-vis poems, there are always exceptions. If one is specifically trying to write in a form—haiku, sonnet, villanelle, what have you—then, of course, you’re going to begin with form. Even then, however, you may find that your words are better suited to alternative architecture. For myself, I tend to favor resolution in a poem, so I seek structures than empower a poem to complete its own circle. If it’s a form of some kind that gets me to those relievingly epiphanic moments, then so be it!
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Write. As with any serious craft, writing takes practice. Lots of it. You should exhaust yourself writing. What comes out after you’re too tired to be self-conscious is likely the beginning of who you’re actually going to become as a writer.
What is your editing process like?
It’s different every time, and with every poem. Sometimes it’s as simple as copying the poem over and over again until I can do so without getting irritated by a particular line and having to adjust it. In fact, that’s quite a good test for a poem. Handwrite it, then copy it over by hand. Can you do so without tripping up on anything? Can you do so without being bothered by a single word, line-break, or image? Then you may be done!
When do you know that a poem is finished?
When it’s accepted for publication!