Act of creation
When a fish falls from the sky, South Deerfield poet James Heflin knows what to do with it. Drawn to “what’s unusual,” Heflin said that when he began writing his poem “Sage” he had been thinking about an unusual phenomenon called “fish rain,” a scientifically observed event in which large numbers of fish are taken up into the atmosphere and then fall back down.
“It happens with some regularity,” Heflin insists. “They think it may have to do with cyclones in the water.”
Heflin chuckles as he continues, “So, I always wondered, say you have this crazy event and there’s fish falling from the sky. I never hear a follow-up. And so, I just sort of put myself in that circumstance and asked, ‘OK, what would I do?’”
Get out the iron skillet, apparently, snip some rosemary and sage. The poem’s speaker accepts the fish, all of its mystery intact, and sets about to cook and enjoy it.
The exultant nature of the poem may be why “Sage” was chosen by Northampton Poet Laureate Rich Michelson to be included in his “Eat Local/Read Local” project that placed poems in Northampton area restaurants from mid-April through mid-May. Heflin’s poem is displayed at Joe’s Cafe on Market Street.
Heflin was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in poetry for 2012, the second time he has received the honor. (His first fellowship was in 2004.) Heflin says he plans to use some of the $7,500 award money to publish a small book of 20 prose poems, a sequence that makes up part of a full-length manuscript he is currently sending to publishers.
Heflin’s mention of prose poems brings up the sticky question of just how these differ from other poems. The simplest place to begin is to talk about line breaks. “Sage,” like most prose poems, looks like a paragraph. Heflin wrote the poem in long lines that he says could be broken other than they are and not adversely affect the poem’s meaning.
“This can be a sentence and however it breaks on the page, fine, because it has its own clear grammar,” Heflin says, pointing to one line. “There’s no ambiguous grammar or punctuation or whatever: it’s like a sentence of prose.”
Shorter line breaks more clearly guide a reader, Heflin says, and can end up “almost micromanaging” how a reader receives the poem, whereas a long-lined poem like “Sage” begins to have more of a “prose-like quality.”
How a prose poem differs then from straight-up prose, in particular from a similarly sized piece of “flash fiction,” is another sticky matter we don’t quite resolve. Characteristics that might be attributed to fiction such as dialogue or plot can just as readily appear in poetry. And not all fiction has either dialogue or plot.
“The definitions are slippery. It’s almost like, ‘You know it when you see it,’” Heflin finally allows.
Heflin is familiar with many genres. As arts editor at The Advocate, Heflin writes nonfiction features on music and the arts and wrote the first draft of a novel in intervals of time when his infant daughter, now 4 years old, was napping. He’s now at work on the novel’s second draft.
“I’ve got a hand in every genre at present and I don’t know what’s going to pop first,” Heflin says.
Looking back over his poem “Sage,” Heflin remarks on the “antiquarian” feel of its language, saying that he is often drawn to the rhythms and vocabulary of an earlier time. He likes the comedic affect that can occur when “old-fashioned language” meets everyday subject matter.
“There’s something that really appeals to me about the epic drama of something that’s really small and domestic,” Heflin said. “I’m not drawn too much to observational poetry where you just see the moment and describe it. I feel that that’s sort of reportorial and a different job than I want to do in poetry.”
“To me, writing is an act of creation,” Heflin continues. “And I think that’s the fun of it ... You’re able to create whatever you want, so, might as well push it as far as you can.”
“And,” he admits, “I like that sort of tingly thing that happens in your brain when you try to think about things in a different way, try to think about what could be rather than what is.”
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. One of the founders of Slate Roof, a member-run press publishing western Massachusetts poets, her chapbook “Walk through Paradise Backwards” was published by the press in 2004. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, journals and Ted Kooser’s national column, “An American Life in Poetry.” Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.