UC Berkeley lecturer, John Shoptaw, releases first poetry collection

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John Shoptaw’s first poetry collection, “Times Beach,” intertwines narrative with landscape to memorialize the Mississippi River watershed. Awarded the 2015 Notre Dame Review Book Prize, Shoptaw’s complex volume is undeniably a tribute to place. His lush language blends strangers’ accounts, literary history and his Mississippi River Basin childhood to trace an expansive map of the river’s ecosystem.

Blue eyed, mild mannered and sporting an easy grin, Shoptaw speaks with a literary ease. This makes sense, given that Shoptaw is a continuing lecturer in the campus’s English department. “Times Beach” is the product of 12 years spent writing ecopoetry, which he described as poetry with a concern for place and environmentalism.

“I wanted to put the (Mississippi) River at the center,” Shoptaw said. “Place is fundamental, like a main character. If this were a narrative, the environment is the protagonist.”

The centrality of the river in his poems also surfaces at the level of form. Shoptaw considers matters of form analogous to the river itself — an idea that the poem “Floodplain” sums up best: Shoptaw’s river, like his meandering range of expressive forms, is “not a line— / not even a crooked one— / but a whole floodplain of possibilities.” Each formally distinct poem is structured to reflect what Shoptaw called a unique “genetic code responding to the poem.”

In atmospheric vignettes, Shoptaw evokes a reverence for recorded — as well as forgotten — history. The title poem invites readers to remember the city of Times Beach, which became a ghost town after it was evacuated and disincorporated because of dioxin contamination. Like an investigative reporter tracking down primary sources, Shoptaw collected true-to-life anecdotes from past residents of Times Beach. He then etched their narratives — along with his own and those of his childhood companions — into a nostalgic design suffused with pictorial scenes: a birthday dinner of “brown bread Johnny’d stuck his thumb into / working the night shift at Hart’s Bakery,” a systematized fishing ritual, and an afternoon spent gazing at shoe store paraphernalia.

Shoptaw’s acute observations recall a bird watcher’s sharp eye, coupled with a scholar’s skill in abstraction. He minutely examines his chosen locale, crafting a sense of place through his storytelling. Shoptaw draws from oral history, factoids about dates of importance (the 1811 New Madrid earthquake, baseball player Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, the Hiroshima bombing), and commonplace tongue-in-cheek amusements. By pulling the poems’ focus away from a navel-gazing monologue and toward shared history, Shoptaw unifies a chorus of voices, from the Mississippi’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. The effect of so many memories manipulated by the poet’s imagination is like that of a multiple-exposure photograph, in which moments are made to overlap across and coalesce over time.

The book reflects an unmistakable regional twist: Nowhere does Shoptaw’s language become more authentic than when he includes Mississippi dialect in the wider lexicon of his poems. At his reading for “Times Beach” at the Albany Library last week, he spoke to the “re-education of his tongue,” or the work he put into shedding his Mississippi accent while attending graduate school at Harvard University. Though it is now long gone from his speech, this linguistic flavoring, along with other aspects of identity that he had tried to erase from his writing, were later folded back into poems, such as “Blues Haiku,” with aplomb.

At a certain point, it becomes clear that Shoptaw is keen on preservation. Some memories he curates are everyday realities — such as the innocent joy of evenings on a porch swing — but the ones that truly jolt the reader into awareness are cautionary tales such as “Corn Maze,” a historicized account of the indigenous inhabitants of Cahokia and their eventual demise.

As Shoptaw explained, ecopoetry is more than simply poems about nature, but work that explores the toxic consequences of disturbance of the environment. Socially minded and literary, “Times Beach” is stamped with this sort of exploration, and with a mind bent on immortalizing the essence of a place, Shoptaw helps his audience come to know and understand the world from which he comes.

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].