Former PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor sat down with Sandy Shreve, whose fifth poetry collection Waiting for the Albatross was published in Spring 2015. The book is a sequence of found poems drawn from Sandy’s father’s diary, written in 1936 while he was working on a freighter travelling between Montreal and Australia.
PRISM published one of Sandy’s poems in our Summer 2015 issue, and in 2001 Sandy won PRISM‘s Earle Birney Prize.
May Day – Sandy (and Jack) Shreve
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.
The “storm petrels” I saw yesterday lived up to their name
and we’re rolling all over the ocean.
We got that damned rice for dessert, and stewed prunes
but the officers got apple dumplings and fancy biscuits.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.
In the water alongside us, a huge shark was rolling back
and forth and every once in a while turned belly up
as we rolled all over the ocean.
Told steward about the maggots we found in our biscuits. “Fresh
meat” as they call it or no, I’d sooner starve than eat that filthy food.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.
We’ve been taking some pretty bad rolls. Got a snap
of the Bon Scot heeled right over and dipping her starboard rails
with her infernal tossing and rolling.
We’ve taken several seas and lots of spray; I got caught
in one and was washed to the side.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day
while we’re rolling all over the ocean.
(Oolichan Books, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
When I first interviewed you in Spring 2012, for the Villanelles anthology, you mentioned then that you’d written a number of villanelles as part of “a sequence of 22 found-poems I crafted using fragments from a journal my father kept while working on a freighter in 1936.” And now, three years later, here you are with Waiting for the Albatross, a book of 37 found poems from your father’s journal. Can you walk us through the journey from diary to sequence to book, and from 0 to 22 to 37? At what point in the process did Oolichan become involved?
I first got the idea for the found poems when I was transcribing the diary for what turned into a family project. I produced a typed-up version of the diary that included the photos from the trip and information about Dad’s life later on, as well as tons of annotations, which I added to explain passing references to things like ‘Daddy Neptune’ (a crossing-the-equator ‘ceremony’), a supposed ‘man-eating monster’ (actually giant tortoises – that are herbivores) of the Galapagos, and so on. This got to be pretty long, so I decided to divide it into chapters – and at some point it occurred to me it might be fun to start each one with a poem I’d write using words, phrases, etc., from that particular section. In the end, I had 11 chapters and 11 poems. I sent the finished product off to everyone in the family, they all loved it, and I thought I was done.
Until a few months later, when I started getting ideas for more found poems – and another 11 poured out. What to do? I’d already printed and distributed the annotated diary… So I made a little chapbook – just 30 copies – and gave it to friends and some family members who one way or another had helped me with the family project. Now, I was done!
Except. A few months later, still more poems came knocking. In the end I had another 10 (five of the pieces in Waiting for the Albatross are prose excerpts taken straight from Dad’s journal).
Then serendipity took over. I got to talking with Randal MacNair at Word on the Street [ed. note: since renamed WORD Vancouver] that year (2012), and he told me he was starting to publish books combining poetry and photos. When I told him about what I had, he asked me to send it to him. I did, he accepted it and Oolichan produced this beautiful book.
Yes, isn’t it inconveniently wonderful when the poems keep knocking? In reading Waiting for the Albatross I was struck by a sense that poems (or prose, in his case) kept knocking for your father, too. Throughout the book he always seems like the writer in the room, surrounded by drinking, womanizing, and drudgery – participating sometimes, but always right back into his room to record it all, often with a good deal of style. Were you doing the same at his age, filling notebooks with observations?
At his age – 21 – I was on the cusp of a five-year writer’s block! But up to then I’d always written poems – terrible, teen-aged angst poems for the most part, but I was devoted to poetry and bad as the poems were, I was learning a lot about the craft from those efforts. I was never a diarist, though I’ve always had notebooks in which I scribble random thoughts and ideas that might get used in poems at some point.
Did reading the diary change the way you thought about your dad, or your relationship with him?
When I read the diary – the first time and every time after – I recognized my father. His handwriting. His voice – oh, that voice – I could hear him, absolutely, in every word and turn of phrase. But this was a much younger version of the man I knew. I recognized his argumentative, opinionated, side; the outdoorsman; the man who loved desserts and sweets; the smoker; the storyteller – absolutely, the storyteller! But I didn’t recognize the naïve and somewhat ‘green’, young guy who was so easily shocked by the behaviour of the crew, frightened by the rough side of life on the docks, intensely shy around women… (Speaking of women – I found it interesting that he almost always used the word ‘woman’, and rarely ‘girl’. Today it’s the other way round… a lot of men seem much more comfortable with ‘girl’ than ‘woman’…)
I know you know that losing a parent when you’re young can be tough (my Dad died when I was 14). For me, it’s been a lifelong journey, coming to terms with that loss. I’ve gone from rage at my Dad for dying – and thinking of him as an awful person – to embracing him as all but perfect. None of this is part of Waiting for the Albatross – but definitely, reading the journal did change how I thought about him. It helped me put him into perspective, get some kind of balanced view of who he really was (though I suspect I still lean toward over-admiration, toward being overly proud of him). I wrote about this aspect of the diary’s impact on me in a long poem, “Heartbeat”, in my 3rd book (Belonging, Sono Nis: 1997). That poem ends, “There is no villain here, and no saint // I touch my fingers to paper / feel at last the pulse of the ordinary human heart / of my father.”
That’s really beautiful. I’ll have to seek that poem out (speaking of 14, I was that age when “Heartbeat” was published. Far more “boy” than “man,” that’s for sure!). And yes, I agree, both about the lifelong journey and the inevitable leaning towards over-admiration. But I think we’re both in a good place when we can over-admire. Others aren’t so lucky.
Continuing on this theme of “looking back”, I’d like to talk for a moment about the “old” forms you use in Waiting for the Albatross. As mentioned above, the book features a number of villanelles, but also a great number of other forms, especially repetitive forms. In 2012 you noted “I wanted to use [forms featuring refrains] because they seemed to me to reflect the recurring routines of life on a freighter and thus, the repetitions in Dad’s journal.” The forms were certainly successful in this regard.
Beyond the mechanics of the forms themselves, though, I felt the use of traditional forms in itself reinforced the book’s project – to revive and restore a moment in history. Old forms brought forward into the present bearing old words brought forward into the present. Was this important to you?
Oh, bringing forward those ‘old’ words and expressions Dad used – some he made up, others very much of that era – is crucial. They’re a big part of what brings the story to life. Words like “bassackwards” and “geezly” and “paralyzed” (meaning drunk); expressions like “have a look-see” and “Blue Hades”; “absolutely daffy,” “dinky die” (from New Zealand) and “jumped right clear” (still very much a Maritimes turn of phrase) – it was pure joy to work with such vivid language.
I’d like to say something, too, about the mechanics of those forms. I wasn’t really conscious of this in the writing – but more than one reader, after finishing the book, has told me that all those refrains make the poems sound very colloquial; they are so like the way people tell their stories – with lots of repetition. I love it, that the forms strike readers that way!
Do you think similar impulses drive your interest in traditional forms and your interest in history, specifically your family history?
I’ve never made a connection between my interests – history and form poetry – so if there is a link, I’m not sure I could identify it. When I was young I almost always wrote rhymed and metred stanzas or sonnets. When I started writing poems again in the mid-70s, it was usually in free verse. My renewed interest in traditional forms didn’t really pick up again until the late 80s, when Kirsten Emmott brought a pantoum she’d written to a meeting of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union. From that moment on, I was hooked.
As to history, I’ve always been interested in it (it was my major in university), especially Canadian history. And I’ve always been drawn to what’s old; the older the better. So the minute I first picked up my Dad’s diary and letters, I loved holding them – the feel and smell of that fragile, sepia paper; the aqua and blue fountain-pen ink, the handwriting. Partly, of course, that’s because they were my Dad’s; but also, it was just their age…
As for family history – I’m probably no more or less drawn to this than the next person; like anyone, I get pretty excited when I run across a good family story! But I don’t think of this book as family history so much as I consider it oral history from a particular era – the ‘Dirty Thirties’. We generally hear more, I think, about the unemployed during those years than we do about the employed. So it feels to me like an important addition to the history of that time.
I completely agree – it certainly gave a lens to a time and place that were very unfamiliar to me.
As we’ve been exploring, this book is not just a suite of poems, but is also a history book and a memoir. Obviously, a book of poems can be all these things simultaneously, it doesn’t have to be one or another. Still, in the composition and editing process you must have faced any number of forks in the road (Do I keep something in for historical purposes, even if it clunks up the line a bit?), and now when you’re on the marketing end questions must abound about where and how to promote the book. Could you talk a bit about the push and pull between poetic and historical goals? Did it feel like a tug-of-war, or was it generally more harmonious?
A bit of both, actually, Rob. At first, I wanted to include every intriguing nugget in the poems. For example, Dad or one of the crew frequently would mention, in passing, something that led me to go research it (such as workers’ deaths during the construction of the Panama Canal or the League of Nations’ oil embargo on Italy in response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia). The historian in me wanted to include it all – but I just wasn’t able to make compelling poetry out of everything. And then, there was the question of focus for the book. I think partly the reason I wasn’t able to ‘mine’ every detail that fascinated me, was that to include everything would create too many tangents, start to turn the book into a bit of a hodgepodge. So, in the end I decided to focus on what the diary itself dives into most deeply – the work the men did, the conditions they lived in, and their often volatile relationships… as I’ve said elsewhere, it covers everything ‘from sing-alongs on the poop deck to fist-fights in the foc’sle.’ Beyond that, I included a few pieces that provide context (poems like “News,” “Cargo,” “Souvenirs,” and “Stamps” for instance).
Having made that decision, it became easier to decide what to include or not based on the amount of detail Dad did or didn’t give. I wanted the poems and stories to be all in his words, his voice. So if, to make sense of a reference to something, I’d have to add my own words to his in the poem – then it didn’t make the cut. On the other hand, if I could fill in the gap with a simple note to the poem, or with a glossary entry (both are at the back of the book), then I’d try to fit it in – but even then, I wasn’t always able to come up with a poem that was good enough to keep.
When you were young, did your father ever talk about any of the people he sailed with? “Wheeler” or “William” or the Bos’n? If he did, did it help shape an image of them in your mind, and did that image clash at all with the characters as you found described in the journal?
Really, all I remember was that he said he had this diary, and offered to let me read it. I wasn’t interested! In my fifties, when I finally did read it, I wished I’d taken him up on that offer. Had I read his diary when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have found ‘boys’ so alien and, frankly, terrifying.
Ha! I would have thought it would have had the opposite effect on you, reading about all those boys womanizing and boxing each other around the head. We all read things differently, I guess!
Speaking of which, in what ways do you think a reader’s sense of your father and his time on the Canadian Scottish would be different if they read his diary directly, instead of Waiting for the Albatross? In what ways do you think it would be the same?
I hope, essentially, there wouldn’t be a big difference. Mostly, reading the diary, readers would find out about all kinds of details, from the movies and monuments they saw while ashore to the novels they read at sea, that I couldn’t, or decided not to, include in this book. As to my father – I’m pretty sure the man you meet in Waiting for the Albatross is the same man you meet in the diary.
You’d be really bassackwards if you didn’t pick up a copy of Waiting for the Albatross. If you’re in Vancouver, the best way to do so will be at WORD Vancouver, where Sandy will be reading in the “Poetry Bus” at 12:30 and 4:30 PM. You can also get a copy of the book at your local bookstore, or, if you want that albatross hanging around your neck, from Amazon.