I’d like to start by congratulating you on Shellback, which is your first full-length collection of poetry. As a poet who seldom writes so intimately about my personal life, I’m curious to know how you shaped your lived experiences and your father’s wartime memories into such a sharp, multifaceted, character-driven collection of poetry like Shellback. When did you know that these poems would form a book-length project? Did they come to you individually or in groups?
Thanks for your kind words, Eric, and a great question.
My father served in the Navy during World War II, but it wasn’t until he was in his mid-nineties—not many years ago—that he told me he’d fought in the Battle of Okinawa, and that he’d survived a kamikaze attack. I’d just started writing poetry at that time, and was inspired to write a short poem about his revelation. I took it to a workshop and was encouraged by the teacher (Grace Schulman) that I was on to something and to “keep going” with more poems on this topic. And so I did.
When my father told me about the attack, he was in assisted living. I was visiting him a few times a year, from New York City to Everett, Washington, and these visits inspired poems also. We talked about old times, the other residents, how Everett had changed, things we did together when I was a child, and how he felt about facing the end of life. I kept a notebook and started many of the poems after these talks.
I’d been writing my “dad poems”—along with others—for over a year, when my father passed away. I was with him his last week of life and was moved to write poems about that as well. It was around then (to finally answer your question!) that I thought of doing a collection. I had about 60 pages of material which I organized as best I could, and sent it to my poetry teacher, Matthew Lippman, who told me I was closer to a collection than I thought.
This collection quite seamlessly blends family history with military history; what kind of research, if any, did you do in preparation for the poems? Did the balance between your personal experiences and your father’s maritime legacy come naturally, or was it something you considered as you put the manuscript together?
No preparation! I simply start with some notion or bit of narrative from my notebook, and go from there. And I never know where I’m going at that point. Once I think I know, I often do go online and research, to perhaps find some nugget or image that might enhance a poem. In the case of the war poems, I also wanted to make sure any details conveyed were accurate.
In the poem, “Fukuryu,” about Japanese suicide swimmers, my dad had only briefly mentioned that two young Japanese were caught trying to attach a bomb to the outside of his ship. I wanted to know more about this tactic and through research, learned how they went about it. This resulted in some specific images I could use in the poem.
Another resource was a TV series from the ‘50s called Victory at Sea which chronicles the battles of the Pacific theater. It’s all live footage and an astonishing piece of work. One installment shows the flaming kamikaze crash on the deck of the USS Nevada, my father’s ship. So I could see, at least on film, what he saw.
This is a bit off-topic, but in writing Shellback, I often asked myself, “Who am I to write about these battles? I wasn’t there!” But listening to my father’s personal account was an event in itself. I realized he’d been holding these memories in for over 70 years, and there I was, a witness to that. I couldn’t let these memories be lost. I had to write them.
As I learned more about what my father had been through, I began to wonder how it might have affected him. I mean, how could it not? He was quiet and reserved, and as a dad, well, let me just say he commanded a lot of respect! So, did the war make him this way—at least in part? As to my personal experiences, Shellback isn’t about my father as much as it’s about my relationship with him. So yes, the war legacy and my experiences with him came together naturally. They are, in fact, the theme of the collection.
Many poems in this collection, like “So Wonderful, So Terrible” (p. 61), do the brave work of letting us into a moment and staying in it without editorializing or heavy-handedly inserting a point of view. Was this an approach that you settled on consciously, or did the poems find their way there on their own?
The poem you mention describes a real moment with my father—his asking if he could sing a song for me as he lay dying. I simply wrote down what happened hoping the reader would be as moved as I was. So yes, it was a conscious approach, and I’m always careful not to “tell the reader how to feel.” But now, to editorialize, I saw that this was one more thing he’d held in—a desire to sing. Then, with barely a breath left, he let it out that song.
While Shellback paints a vivid portrait of your father and your relationship with your father, I’m curious about the role that place plays in the collection, from World War II’s Pacific theater to life on a besieged battleship or in your hometown of Everett, Washington. Was place something you thought about during the process of writing these poems and ordering them into a collection? Did you see the concept of place intersecting with the stories you had to tell in Shellback?
Place is very important in Shellback—both the Pacific theater of WW2 and the Pacific Northwest. For the war poems, that would be obvious. For the poems about my father and me, I referred to local settings as much as possible. All those places—the Stillaguamish River, the bikini expresso shacks in South Everett, my dad’s assisted living place, the old Everett city dump—are rife with imagery and make the poems more vivid. And Shellback’s are mostly narrative poems so I just naturally included the setting.
One of Shellback’s great strengths, for me, is the strength and confidence with which it approaches difficult subject matter, whether that subject is caring for an aging loved one or reliving the horrors of war. Were there any challenges handling some of the more macabre imagery in the collection, as with, say, the suicide attack in the second section?
I wanted the reader to experience some of what these men endured. I met the challenge by being aware of what I left out—nothing too visceral—and through my tone—nothing sensationalist or bombastic. Simply laying out clearly what happened and letting the reader draw their own conclusions is far more powerful, I think.
A bigger challenge was the poem about my father’s surgery—the repair of his urethra. I really wanted to write that poem simply because of the challenge it presented, as in “can I make a poem out of something this personal?” Using stage directions, as if I were writing a play, allowed for some distance and subtle humor.
Another of Shellback’s strengths, for me, is the depth that the poems give to their characters, whether they’re illustrating moments in the life of your father, his fellow sailors, the poems’ speaker, or even enemy kamikaze pilots. Do you have any advice for poets looking to write similarly nuanced, character-driven poems?
Read other poets. I must have read Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water about his father’s last days a dozen times while writing Shellback. And I wore out the pages of Kevin Young’s Book of Hours, which has poems about his father’s untimely death. I liken this to how art students sit in museums and copy the old masters. I didn’t copy, of course, but by steeping myself in these two poets’ spare but powerful language, and the way they nuanced any aspect of their loss, inspired me to try to tell my stories with some of their grace and elegance.
We’ve talked a lot about the way your personal life and your relationship with your father inform the poems in Shellback—Was there anything that came up in the creation of Shellback that surprised you, or was your vision for the work clear from the start?
No vision—it was poem by poem, and Shellback took two years to write. But working in all the areas I mentioned above—my dad’s war experiences, my childhood with him, my visits to assisted living, and finally, his last week of life—I started to see a consistency in the way I portrayed him. He was definitely the strong and silent type! And I wondered if some of his reticence wasn’t brought on by what he’d been through in the war, and what he’d repressed. That was an “aha” moment for me—so yes, a surprise.
You’ve already published a chapbook, There’s a Hum (Finishing Line Press, 2018), and have now published your debut collection with Shellback. Do you have plans for future projects?
The future is now! During those endless days of sheltering in place, I pulled together a chapbook with poems about my experiences in a Catholic girlhood, work, love, and finally, a pandemic. Rather than the poems being united by one subject, as was Shellback, they’re united by the speaker’s tone which I hope conveys optimism and humor in surviving all life throws her way.I’m grateful to NOR for publishing the title poem, All Animals Want the Same Things. The collection won the Slipstream 34th Annual Poetry Chapbook Contest and it’s due out this September.
Note: A share of the proceeds from Shellback goes to veterans with PTSD. You can find more of Jeanne-Marie Osterman’s work on her website, ostermanpoetry.com. You can purchase her new chapbook, All Animals Want the Same Things from Slipstream now.
Eric Stiefel is a poet living in Athens Ohio. He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, Prism Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.