Contributor Spotlight: David Epstein

David Epstein’s poem “The Rain The Last” is featured in Issue 75 of the Bellingham Review

What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?

The opening image actually came from a dream. The kind of dream where you awaken saying “What was THAT about?” The title and scene within the poem are indeed from my memory of something that happened in third grade in Tel Aviv. “The Rain The Last” goes toward memory and nostalgia, but at the moment when events lodge, long before they become the subjects of nostalgia. The out-takes from the earlier drafts are concerned with old letters, with being overbalanced by losses. That losses themselves retain value and meaning suggests that one ought to be able to notice when certain things or happenings initially attain significance. There’s probably a shrink writing extensively about the encoding of significance in memory. Then you get to a point in your life where the signals of events, phones ringing, have Dorothy Parker’s line ricocheting in your head: “What fresh hell can this be?” The work of the poem is to posit a state of awareness that readers will find themselves familiar with. That state might be called readiness, it might be called dread. Whatever one calls it, it is uniquely human, coming as it does, at the crux, the chiasmus of memory and anticipation.

Tell us about your writing life.

I’ve been writing almost all my life. I have submitted very little, and as a result, have a backlog of around twelve-hundred unpublished poems. It’s not that I decided not to publish, I just have a busy life and it’s more important to me to get the poems written than to send them out. I worked largely on my own, until I fell in with the Brickwalk Poetry group here in Connecticut. That was about ten years ago. Having a community of poets to critique one’s work is vital. It is true, however, that individual personalities tend to focus one’s own editorial stances on those individuals’ concerns. But the point is to see your work as a reader does, and to use that objectivity to improve. For example, Gray Jacobik once remarked about the necessity of a narrator evincing some vulnerability. That’s one of those comments that feeds one’s critical development for a long time. As far as my own work, I find it significant that I almost never write about politics. I would LIKE to do so, but it’s like a swimming stroke that I’m just not proficient in. So I tend not to do it. When I try to write about politics, it’s like that: a lot of splashing around, but not much progress. So, historically, I tend to find my route in through the natural world: rain, moonlight, storms, wind. If I’m really struggling, I’ll go toward a form, or a rhyme scheme. I have a fifteen-line form that I go back to over and over again. It’s really a Petrarchan sonnet with a septet instead of a sestet. While I’m not obsessed with it, I do go for it regularly. I have a longer commentary about the fifteener on my website. Kenneth Boulding wrote that a form raises the bar on the worthiness of what can be said, like the silence of a Quaker meeting. I must have read that thirty-five years ago, but it’s stuck with me.

Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?

On one hand, I went to graduate school for literature. On the other hand, the three years I spent working in construction after college have had a far greater influence on my life than the six or seven years I spent getting my Ph.D. I didn’t go into academia, but I made a conscious decision to always work on poetry. I do this, but I rarely send things out. This means I have a huge backlog that very few people even know about. Of course, there’s bound to be a bit of chaff in there. And if you look back at your earlier work and you don’t cringe, you’re probably not progressing as an artist. I still work in construction, and I’m often influenced by the metaphors that come from it: demolition, re-wiring, load-bearing. I’m also fascinated by current physics and cosmology: Dark matter, dark energy, that sort of thing. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m often intrigued by Old Testament liturgy. The preparation for prayer requiring one to imagine oneself in the circle of angels ministering to the deity. If you really conjure that, it’s powerful. Overall, I’d say just remaining open to being inspired to write, remaining open at all times, in all places, to all people, will give one an abundance of influences.

What writing advice has stayed with you?

Before you walk away from the desk, make a note about where you’re going to begin when you next approach the page. Being ready to write at all times is also key. Always have a notebook with you. Be prepared to pull off the road, sit down on the stage-plank, ignore the phone.

What is your favorite book (or essay, poem, short story)? Favorite writer(s)?

It is too limiting to choose a favorite writer or work. Nor does my sieve of a memory permit it. I go back to Dickinson over and over. In my immediate circle, I endlessly admire the talent of Clare Rossini and Ben Grossberg. Look at Brent Terry, Charles Fort, and Alison Moncrief Bromage. But there are so many fine poets about, and life is short. You can’t read it all. A.E. Stallings; George Herbert or John Donne; there’s Whitman, of course, and Wallace Stevens. And websites like Poetry Daily are putting different poets on my radar all the time: Andrea Cohen, for instance. Rachel Zucker’s wonderful podcast “Commonplace” is putting a bunch of poets in or back into my awareness. She’s doing lengthy interviews with many different poets. Zucker is the Terry Gross of the poetry world.

What are you reading right now?

I’m actually going back through my old professor’s double-tome The Sighted Singer. It’s a two part volume by the late Allen Grossman. The first half is the incredibly dense series of interviews, conversations really, that Mark Halliday held with Grossman. The second half is Grossman’s almost impossibly detailed “Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics.” Part two is like reading about the arcana of sail-design. Part one, most people don’t realize, is a faithful rendering of how Grossman actually spoke extemporaneously. I doubt it’s much edited.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

I’m getting toward the end of a series of about thirty poems about one character. The poems explore the narrator’s involvement with Meryl, a ceramicist who struggles with crippling anxiety. Meryl is entirely fictional. Yet, writing about her has brought a sense of connection with some people I know whose lives are similarly afflicted. In terms of poetry, it’s about trying to bring forth the experiences of a person whose life periodically derails because of hereditary brain chemistry. Writing about Meryl is a humbling exploration of so many vivid challenges faced by so many people: questions about pity, self-harm, compassion, empathy. In recent years I’ve realized that I’m interested in voices, in dialogue and monologue. So I’ve been doing more with it. My voice can be sort of pedantic and preachy, but my characters are unpretentious. And they’re not always human. In some recent poems, animals speak. Makes me feel like Dr. Doolittle. On my website, you can see, for example, “The Cartographer’s Rant,” which is a monologue. That’s another thing: I’m a spatial savant. My world, my brain, is heavily geographical. I might not remember a person’s name, but I’ll remember where they live. So I have a number of poems about maps, and they’re not always maps of places. See, for example, “The Map of Night,” which is also on the website. Ken Jennings’ book Maphead, was great: you know when your people are speaking to you.

Anything else our readers might want to know about you?

I’m a little weirded out by even this attention. My poetry life has mostly been about being awake in the middle of the night writing and following out conceits. My friends might know that I’m a poet, and I have read locally now and then, but I’m mostly just plugging away at my art. I have this hoard of stuff that I only sometimes look at. Some people know about it and have been urging me to do something with it. So I started sending out a piece every now and then. Tip of the iceberg. The fact of my website I owe to the advice and help of a dear friend who keeps turning my corpus so it doesn’t get bedsores. I race small sailboats. I write humorous articles about those races. My website even has a link to one of those articles. I stayed home raising the children for twelve years. I thank my wife for making those years possible. I will never be one of those dads who says “wish I’d spent more time with my kids when they were young.” I love running trails. I’m a hophead. I’m writing this on an elevated dining-room table of Ambrosia Maple that I made from lumber that used to be a tree in my back yard. I’ve built about six small boats in my life. I have a floating shack that we use as a play-place in the summers. A few weeks ago I spent the night on it in a thick fog in flat calm. Whenever I slow down, time speeds up.

Where can our readers connect with you online? (Note the middle initial.)

DAVID A. EPSTEIN supplemented his teaching habit with construction stints in residential, light commercial, exhibit manufacturing, and theater. But less and less he taught school, finding the job was such deskstitution. He married, and, a couple years later, stayed home and raised the kids while his wife supported the whole show. There wasn’t a day in those ten or twelve years when he didn’t feel like the luckiest man on the planet. Through it all, he wrote poems. They piled up, dragging along with him like an unseen Linus’ blanket. Rarely, he sent things out, and published a half-dozen poems in places like in PoesiaPoetic HoursThe LyricBlue Collar ReviewShofar, and The Rat’s Ass Review. He is on the board of the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens ( Epstein treasures his hours gleaned from the middle of the night, where he can write. It’s like stepping through the wardrobe, arriving in Oz, switching on the light in the rainbow factory. He’s still a long way from Salingeresque, but he enjoys those times when he can turn away from the screens-world and follow the line of words across the page, into their nest. Sometimes he gets to meet their queen. 

Featured Image: “map” by Séamus McGuire