Rodger Martin teaches journalism at Keene State College. His latest volume of poetry, The Battlefield Guide, was chosen by Small Press Review as one of its bi-monthly picks of the year. He has been awarded an Appalachia award and has received fellowships to study T.S. Elliot and Thomas Hardy at Oxford University and John Milton at Duquesne University. He directs the Milton Ensemble and is currently serving as editor for Hobblebush books Granite State Poetry Series.
Amoskeag: Your narrator thinks about his/her father and reflects upon the different things he did for his children, regarding the father as a “shepherd”. How does the narrator get to that point in their life? Why do they see the world the way they do?
Rodger: The poem arcs back in time with the narrator as an adult looking back on a childhood memory. The narrator recognizes something as an adult he did not recognize as a child: That a father of six children without a mother had an almost Herculean task of trying to raise children alone in those mid-Twentieth Century years. As a child, the narrator saw the father as an entity who was always about but never really entered into a child’s world–akin to the Peanuts comic strip where the adult world is exists as unintelligible background sound while the children create their own make-believe worlds oblivious to the adult world that supports their pretending.
As to how the narrator found that perspective? He has become a father himself who raised children likely as part of a pair-bond and suddenly realized the weight that must have rested on his father’s shoulders trying to do it not for one or two children but for six and trying to do it solo.
For the narrator this realization of what his father accomplished, shepherding these children through to adulthood without losing any of them, and the strain that must have taken on his body and soul (The implication is the father is no longer present.) brings a great sadness because the narrator was able to tell his father he finally understood what he had done. The weight and constancy of that memory is evidenced in the relentlessness of the darkness, the weather, the constant motions of the train, and the ferry and probably the wit’s-end absurdity of putting children on a ferry to keep them entertained. The implication is that he has also taken them away from something they remain unaware. What that something is left to the listener.
This leads into the father and why he sees what he sees. Besides taking them away from something, he is also slumped against the cold, steel bow of the ferry. He can push whatever it is that weighs on him no further, he has reached his limits, he may have planned something further but cannot do it and so gathers his children and returns to the world he almost left and moves on. Again, whether he was contemplating something terrible, fleeing, or lost, matters little except that he pulls back to try again one more day.
Amoskeag: Your poem begins by listing various towns along the Thames. What is the significance? Why did you begin “there”?
Rodger:Your question has made me wonder exactly how I did begin the poem so I’ve pulled out my drafts to have a look. On the very first draft, which is hand-written and likely legible to no one but myself, I did begin with the towns. They are real towns in Kent along the railroad line between Charring Cross in London and the towns along the River Thames where I lived as a child. I liked the repetition of the names because their cadences paralleled the sound of the train’s journey. I edited towns out (Barnehurst) which didn’t add to that effect.
I was then and still am a lover of trains so it’s not surprising to me towns along a train track show up in my writing. Why do so many of the Harry Potter stories begin with a ride on Hogwart’s Express. The trains were a childhood’s symbolic escape from the home-land, someone else did the driving. You got on and went on an adventure.
Amoskeag: Did you see the ending coming, or did it suddenly surprise you? How did you prepare for it?
Rodger: I knew the end because the poem was based on a memory of an actual event. It had been a memory that always remained hidden from others in that I never spoke about it, but it remained clear to me, recurring regularly. I see a note at the top of my first draft indicating the sound of three Chinese bells. I’m going to guess I heard them and they reminded me of this trip and Chinese bells are bringing up that kind of memory, I needed to investigate. Poems are how I investigate those things.
Amoskeag: Is your character’s view of the world reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw and how they felt?
Rodger: The narrator’s view of the world is closely related to my own. But the character of the father is an imagining. I do not know what my father was thinking or doing. It was something I observed and took me decades growing-up before I could imagine the possibilities and the weights associated with those possibilities. Perhaps if I had asked my father, the answer might have been so mundane as to remove the need for the poem in the first place.
But the ambiguity of not knowing permits the poem to open into all the vast possibilities– past, present, and future–parents struggle with in ushering their children alive and safe into adulthood.
Amoskeag: You use words such as “pirated”, ”slopped”, and “sloshing”. How did you construct the language of the piece? How did you come to hear and record the feelings of your narrator?
Rodger: Part of that would be a child’s ability to imagine and pretend. We could easily make a pirate ship out of a ferry. The sensuousness of the sea sounds in “slopped” and “sloshing” I hope would bring the event alive in a listener’s imagination. You also have that with “flushed” and “salty,” and somewhat with “drizzle,” the s/z-sounds mimicing waves.
To record the feelings of the narrator came easily. It was a personal memory, and as I relive the memory I relive the feelings. The sounds come from experience, I’ve ridden trains, ships, planes all my life. I love to travel. I listen to those sounds, smell those smells, and try to find the language that echoes them.
Amoskeag: What is the significance of the last line, “We broached the far shore and simply, the way we came, returned.”?
Rodger: Literally, my mother died of cancer when I was seven. My father married her during World War II. We moved stateside and when she died, my father packed all five children (ages 9 to 3) up and moved back to England where he married my mother’s cousin who added a daughter and eventually a seventh child to the pack. Not surprisingly, it all fell apart and one day we were packed up again and returned to the USA. So in one sense the poem is about that family’s journey.
Symbolically, it is a tribute to any parent facing immense, relentless hardship who looks for an escape, reaches that “far shore” and then realizes the option, whatever that option, was wrong and turns back to the world again. It’s a tribute to parenting.
Amoskeag: How do you feel when a piece gets accepted and readers that you don’t know are now going to complete the poem that you worked so hard at to shape? What do you want the readers to feel and what do you hope to accomplish through your writing?
Rodger: I’m pleased when a poem gets accepted. I don’t worry too much about what the reader will do. I trust the readers and listeners to go wherever they need the poem to take them. I figure they will likely see things I didn’t imagine when I wrote the poem—like the final line of this poem. When I wrote it I was thinking only of that ferry ride. It has only been much later (like when you asked me the question ) that I realized it was also a family’s ride back-and-forth between two continents.
Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a poet/writer?
Rodger: I’ll keep writing the poems as they work their way out of me (which usually means six to twelve a year). I’ll continue my blog (OpenSalon.com, Monadnock Pastoral) where I have discovered I rarely have anything worth saying except about four times a year. I’m in awe of those prolific bloggers. I’m just not that interesting.
I’m toying with the idea of a train collection of poetry and perhaps a collaboration of place poems and photography with a photographer capturing the place of the poem in some special way. Hmm, maybe we’ll get to go to Tillbury, Kent, UK.