We Were Explorers Once
Music to a poet's ear 031815 AE 3 For the CCW We Were Explorers Once

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Jeremy Pataky

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Story last updated at 3/18/2015 - 6:54 pm

Music to a poet's ear

We Were Explorers Once

Ice breaks up each spring-
the ocean and rivers grow teeth

and lose them, place them
under pillows of fog

lose them to drifts of warmth
in the coldest, killingest depths

where small, edible whales
move like clots through a bloodstream,

where their shadows in the shallow seas
are vaguely alive, and vaguely something else,

the shape of old ships, the footprints of old explorers
tromping crabwise through some imagination.

To what end did we venture
out of the old world

to the endcaps of earth,
shelterless, wearing comely myths

we couldn't dream would become truths
up at the globe's neckline?

If our wants are trivial
our best wars are tussles,

our worst weather is rime on road signs,
breath off the water in the morning.

- From "Overwinter," by Jeremy Pataky, published by the University of Alaska Press

Jeremy Pataky says he's not a musician.

"I feel like I've put a lot of the energy that might have gone into music into poems," he said.

But his poetic sensibility is informed by his experience with music. You can hear that, when you read his poems, like the one above, aloud. He hopes you will. If you're like me, you may also go running to the dictionary. I now have a new favorite word, "rime," which is a kind of frost, and comes in both hard and soft varieties.

Jeremy and I first met last fall, when I joined the board of 49 Writers, an organization that supports writers, writing, and lovers of literature statewide. Here are some excerpts from our recent conversation about his new book, "Overwinter," just released from University of Alaska press.

Jeremy will be in Juneau, Haines and Skagway for readings, classes, and book signings, March 18 24.

AOH: In Juneau, you're teaching a class called "A Readers Approach to Poetry," what made you want to offer that class?

JP: Typically, most of the classes that 49 Writers offers are writing classes, and I started thinking that many of the people who attend the classes aren't necessarily writers, they're readers. I think that there's been a lot of harm done in certain people's reading lives early on when it comes to poetry, unhelpful paradigms are taught, like thinking of poems as puzzles that are there to be solved. Ultimately, those teachings alienate people, and maybe it's time to try to offer a short class on reading poems geared toward both writers of poetry as well as non-writers.

AOH: Can you tell me a little about your philosophy of reading poems?

JP: I really like Edward Hirsh's metaphor of the poem as a message in a bottle. That might be an idea that we'll explore in the class. I think a reader of poetry could do themselves a big service by approaching a poem more like they approach a piece of music. You know, people give themselves permission to like or dislike music. We all have tastes, we all have preferences, and those are OK. So empowering people to abandon the sense of being right or wrong in their reaction to a poem can be liberating or helpful, and I think there's a lot of ways to start going about that. One of the ways is to look beyond the surface of the linguistic meanings of the words. In other words, not get hung up on the "what does the poem mean?" but to look at it from a "how does it mean." To begin with a basic reaction, whatever that is, and go from there instead of assuming whatever you're thinking or feeling is wrong, and you must be missing something.

AOH: Are you a musician?

JP: I think the short answer is no. But my dad is a pianist, and I grew up playing the piano, and then I played saxophone through high school, and I play guitar poorly and privately. I feel like I've put a lot of the energy that might have gone into music into poems. I do think having a musical background affects my relationship with language and with poem writing. I think the sense of time in a poem is similar to the way time works in a piece of music. And so you're constantly aware of the rhythm and all the things it can do. I'm hopeful that when people see a poem, that they will hear it as well, because its best to read out loud when you can. I even write out loud.

AOH: When you pick up a book of poems that's not your own, one that you haven't read before, do you usually read from the beginning?

JP: Well, it depends. I know that that's how it's meant to be read. I often start by sort of sampling around a little bit, but ultimately, any book of poems that I'm going to spend any real attention on at all, I'll read cover to cover, straight through. I treat every book of poems, unless it's an anthology, like a concept album. You know, start at the beginning, read it straight through, and understand it that way. Maybe thereafter, it makes sense to listen to your favorite track on repeat for months. But part of your experience of it is built on the fact that you've listened to the whole album.

AOH: Do you have an audience in mind when you're writing, or when you are putting together your manuscript?

JP: I don't think I have a singular idealized audience in mind when I'm writing poems. Of course, you're always aware of an audience, but I think that's a moving target for me, which makes it interesting to then create a collection of poems, because suddenly all of the poems exist not unto themselves, but in relationship with each other. If anything, the audience is one that I'm imagining is reading the entire book. That's not always going to be the case, of course, but when making decisions about the book, it's at least meant for an audience that will read it cover to cover.

AOH: How did you come up with the structure of "Overwinter"?

JP: I think that I decided early on that the long poem, "Fata Morgana," deserves to be the structural middle of the book, and I would say a lot of the decisions behind the sections were instinctive. I also felt that the readers experience of the "you" in the book, the addressee, would be informed by how the book was structured and what order the poems came in. So that was one of the guiding principals. But there are also just moments of pause or moments of transition. The sections are like a movement in a piece of music.

AOH: How do you expect the reader to engage with a the addressee in your poems?

JP: Well, I hope they'll engage with it from the inside, I hope the experience of reading the poems has more to do with inhabiting a space that the poems make than it has to do with observing an exchange between a speaker and an addressee.

AOH: How did you come up with the title, "Overwinter"?

JP: The other day, for the first time ever I looked up "over" in the dictionary, because I wanted to see a list of words that have "over-" as a prefix. I have this huge dictionary on a dictionary stand, so it's got all these words, but not "Overwinter."

AOH: I guess I think of overwinter as a gardening term.

JP: It is a gardening term, but it's also applied to people and animals, you know, some waterfowl actually overwinter instead of migrating, people do the same, and so I'm coming at it from that angle. The word "overwinter" never appears in the book.

AOH: The first poem is named "Five Parts," and there are five parts in your collection, which made me wonder, was this poem written as an introduction? And more generally, how does a poem get to be the first poem in a book?

JP: In this case, I would say two ways. I thought that it establishes a framework for some of the issues and geographies that the book then parses, and also, more than one reader flagged it as a potential first poem. I decided they were right.

AOH: I love the second to last stanza:

The structures that are shelters now,

are warmed by fires fed

with wood reclaimed from piles

of structures that have fallen.

It made me think of poems being born of the fires of other poems, and it made me wonder about your influences, and what you read while you are writing.

JP: I read really widely. I read all the genres, and I would say I'm sort of a haphazard and wide-ranging reader. I'll get obsessed, and I'll spend time in some particular place, and I'll move on, but then other times I'll be jumping around and I'll be reading a book of poems, a novel, a magazine or three, and some crazy stuff I printed off the internet.

AOH: Do you ever want to turn off the writer part of your brain when you're reading?

JP: No, quite the contrary. I feel like the ability to read with a writerly eye only deepens my experience of the text. It doesn't intellectualize it to death. It does the opposite. It gives me more layers to indulge in and appreciate and respond to.

AOH: Is that ability to read with a writerly eye something you want to share with the people coming to the class?

JP: Well it's certainly one of the reasons that I hope writers as well as readers will attend. I think the best readers read a lot and have something of a writerly eye even if they don't write themselves.


Jeremy Pataky's Southeast Tour


• Reading and book signing with Emily Wall, 6 p.m., Thursday, March 19, Heritage Coffee Roasting Co., 130 Front St.

• 49 Writers class, "A Readers Approach to Poetry," 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, Juneau Arts and Humanities Center. Register at:


Reading in the Round and book signing, 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 20, Haines Borough Public Library.


Craft talk, reading, and signing, 3 p.m., Sunday, March 22, at Skagway Public Library