We sat down with UC Berkeley professor John Shoptaw to discuss his upcoming book, “Times Beach,” as well as some of the history that inspired it. A winner of the Notre Dame Book Review Prize — a prize that awards authors with a first volume of short stories or poetry — “Times Beach” is slated for publication in spring 2015.
Once a popular resort area owned by the St. Louis Times, Times Beach, Missouri, had fallen into disrepair by the ’70s. The town had lost most of its visitors, and the unpaved roads had become dusty and unkempt. Then, a man with a bright idea and the best intentions decided to clean up the dusty roads by hosing them down with waste oil. What the locals didn’t know was that the waste oil contained high concentrations of the chemical dioxin.
For some time, no one knew what was wrong. But then, disturbing signs began to appear: Birds began falling out of the sky, and residents became sick. After residents had been safely evacuated, the EPA bought the town and incinerated it. After it was incinerated, they began the process of systematically purging Times Beach from American record and memory: Its name was erased from guidebooks, maps, road signs — everything.
Times Beach is a fitting namesake for a book concerned with place and its relation to time. “Times Beach” is a collection of ecopoetry about the Mississippi River Basin, a region where Shoptaw grew up.
“It made sense for me to write about this strange place — a place that’s always in motion, a place that’s living,” Shoptaw said.
Shoptaw defined ecopoetry as “environmental poetry.” “I mean by that two things: To me, it’s a sense in which, in a poem, the humans or the lyric first person is not the be-all and end-all of the poem. There can be a larger circumference, and often it will be decentered; some other figure like a beaver or a river will be the center or will compete for the central position,” said Shoptaw.
The other way ecopoetry is “environmental,” Shoptaw maintained, is by being “environmentalist.” Like the environmental movement, ecopoetry has what Shoptaw called “a certain tendency toward preservation.” According to Shoptaw, he wants readers to “reimagine a relation to place which is not based on simply exploitation, impact, management.”
“Wahite,” one of the poems in the collection, takes place in Wahite Drainage Ditch, where he was baptized. These drainage ditches, according to Shoptaw, are “very much at the level of control.” To help us understand what he meant, Shoptaw showed us a map of Little River Drainage District. The map, which shows the Castor River as it passes through the drainage district, shows how dramatically humans have altered river courses.
“Here’s Castor River coming, and then it hits here and look what happens! Absolutely straight. We have all these sinuous, sultry curves. (Then) it’s like an afterlife, total rectitude and correctness,” Shoptaw said.
A Harvard graduate, Shoptaw himself underwent a kind of correction process.
“When you listen to me, you’re not hearing the local Missouri accent,” Shoptaw said. “I noticed that when I first got east, people would smile at me when I said things.”
As part of his research, Shoptaw interviewed people “just to hear their voices.” Shoptaw traveled up and down the Mississippi and ate the food he used to eat as a way of “reattaching” himself to his hometown.
He wrote “Blues Haiku,” the opening poem of his book, in a wildlife reserve, on a swamp “below the Ohio and the lower Mississippi.” On the subject of ecopoetry, Shoptaw said, “The form of ecopoetry is often imitative, so you imitate the sounds of the place, the rhythms of the place, the curvatures or rectitude of the place.” You can hear this “imitative” quality in Shoptaw’s reading of the poem:
According to Shoptaw, the purpose of this book is to help people “reimagine their relation to their places and including the non-human — the plant and animal life of their places and especially the water courses of their places.” He continued, “The thing that poetry can do that a science essay (or) a science book cannot is tell you how to feel about these places. I’m in some way trying to model responses that other people can take for their own places.”