M. Kei volunteers on the skipjack, Martha Lewis, a wooden workboat that specializes in dredging oysters, on Chesapeake Bay. M. Kei is no stranger to Poet Hound. His chapbook, from Lilliput Review, Bridge of Bones, was reviewed back in December and as a result of the review I was able to establish contact with him.
His wonderful, perfect bound book, Slow Motion The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, is available from Modern English Tanka Press through Lulu.com. This collection includes brief journal entries of his travels across the waterways along with countless little gems of poems detailing the tiny events such as spiders sharing his pillow, to the large as skipjack boats race across the water, to breathtaking and tongue-in-cheek moments revolving around this historical vessel. Given my predilection for short poems and already being a fan of M. Kei’s brand of poetry I had to ask him to consent to an interview. Here is what transpired:
1. Before we get too deep into your adventurous book of poems, may I ask when you first fell in love with poetry?
I can't say as I ever 'fell in love with poetry,' but I have loved language ever since I fell in love with reading. When I was a child I read for entertainment and later read with an appreciation for the words themselves. It was at the same time that I started attempting to write poetry. I can't say what motivated me, but I do recollect what demotivated me. My family discouraged me from a young ambition of being a writer and told me I needed an education and a practical job. Yet I continued to love reading and continued writing. To me it is simply one of those things that is part of life. You might as well fall in love with breathing.
2. Which poets inspire you the most and why?
Kamo no Chomei (1155 - 1216 AD) was a medieval Japanese poet. Originally a member of the Imperial court in Kyoto, he was part of the elite culture that composed tanka poetry. Japan, and especially Kyoto, suffered terribly during natural disasters and civil war. However, the poets of the day excluded such things from their poetry. They heard bad news around them all the time and they didn't want it in their poetry. They wrote some of the most beautiful--and insulated--poetry the world has ever seen. Chomei, who was a Buddhist monk and a dilettante, began to get serious about his world and his religion. At one point Kyoto was afflicted with a famine that caused the rich as well as the poor to suffer, and people resorted to breaking up their own houses to get firewood. He counted more than forty-three thousand dead within the city limits. Kyoto was also afflicted with a tornado, a conflagration, an earthquake, and a plague, and civil war. None of this appears in the poetry of his contemporaries, not even the great poet Saigyo, who also was a monk and lived at Kyoto during this time. It was Chomei that made me realize that it is not enough for poetry to be beautiful, poetry must bear witness.
3. Your poems, as far as the two collections I’ve now read, are very short and follow the Eastern style of writing poems. Is there any particular reason you prefer this style?
I prefer tanka poetry, the form that originated in Japan more than fourteen hundred years ago because its brevity forces a poet to get to the point. I have read far too much bad poetry to be willing to put up with it. In a short form like the tanka the poet's competence is immediately tested and displayed. Either it's there or it isn't, and you don't have to waste your time with it if it's not. Further, tanka is capable of great feats of poetry despite its short form. Although it is often described as a 'five line poem,' that's not strictly true. It is a 'five part poem,' and the five poetic phrases that make it up provide a structure that can be manipulated in almost infinite ways. The poet must use every piece of it to good effect, and if he or she does, they create something that looms much larger than the mere words printed on the page. Good tanka harnesses what the classical Japanese called 'yugen' (mystery and depth) which we modern poets working in English call 'dreaming room.' Each poem is complete as a pebble tossed into a pond is complete, and yet the ripples that radiate out from it expand endlessly.
4. Your experiences as a crew member on the skipjack are detailed throughout the poems. For Slow Motion, could you give a brief explanation of what you do as a crew member and a brief description of the vessel you work on for the readers of this interview?
The Skipjack Martha Lewis is a historic wooden sailboat used to fish for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay. She is on the National Register of Historic Places. The skipjack is technically a 'two sail bateau', which is to say, a shallow-draft vessel with a simple but powerful rig used to pull a pair of dredges over reefs to bring up the oysters. Once upon a time the Chesapeake Bay provided forty percent of the world's oyster harvest, but no longer. Martha is now owned and operated by a small non-profit organization as a museum on the water. We keep her working to keep the heritage alive. In summer we take tourists out for cruises and their ticket money helps keep the boat afloat. During the winter we oyster for a short season -- only 1% of the Bay's oysters remain, so nobody makes a living dredging for oysters with a skipjack. Her meager catch is sold to local restaurants, making her the last vessel in America to fish commercially under sail.
5. Some of the poems I read make me grin or laugh such as the ones that follow. May I ask how you and the crew keep a sense of humor and how it gets reflected in these poems?
five days on a skipjack—
more Jimmy Buffet
than I can stand.
Deal Harbor Island
at the end of
but I can see it
the new guy
a crab stretcher
Traditional culture is earthy and humorous. It has to be. This is dangerous work, even when done with the greatest of safety. Imagine getting up around two am on a winter morning so that you can leave harbor while it's still dark in order to be on the fishing grounds and working at dawn. Lunch is 7 am. If you work close to home, you can motor home with the morning's catch and eat in a warm place, otherwise you stay out all day, even if it's raining, and work intense manual labor in an open boat.
And the things you see. Some of them are tragic, and they all happen much more slowly on the water. You can't simply whiz past in your car and forget about them. One day I spent eight hours working the boat in February. It was so cold my hot chocolate was tepid before it reached my lips. Another dredge was working--a police dredge. They were dredging under the Francis Scott Key Bridge for the body of a three year old who had been dropped off the bridge by her father. It took forty-five minutes to pass that boat. You spend forty-five minutes staring at the dark hulk of a police boat crawling over the iron grey water with no one else around and it brings it home to you in a way that a sound bite on a news show never can.
So you have to laugh. You have to joke. If you can't stand the cold and the work and the weather and the poverty, you have to leave. And many do.
6. Other poems are insightful and wise in their scope such as the ones that follow. Can you explain how or why you are able to write them in such short and powerful lines?
but the sea,
a crab float…
how we cling to
off Worton Creek
they want to
get away from it all,
bring it all with them
It's a matter of paying attention to the world around you. Poetry is everywhere. A poet is simply somebody who notices and puts it down without letting the words get in the way. The water makes a person wonderfully observant. If they're not observant, they won't survive. The sea is a harsh mistress; she forgives nothing. Let me tell you, if you go up to the top of the mast in a bosun's chair, you notice if the halyard holding you up is frayed! You think about what could happen. That's the kind of detail and meaning that meshes perfectly with tanka poetry: the objective reality and the subjective response, melded into a single brief moment.
7. There are so many intriguing, small moments such as spiders living among you, hot chocolate that gets cold too fast, the experiences of racing other skipjacks and the hospitality of each port the skipjack enters. I couldn’t possibly pick among my favorites to post here. Please share with me a few of your favorite poems that I haven’t included yet and explain why you pick these particular moments/poems:
I wrote them all, so it's hard to pick favorites. Nearly at random, here are a few:
the size of a moth
The Calvert Cliffs are red and nearly as tall as the White Cliffs of Dover, but not nearly as famous, not even locally. Sure, we all know about them and talk about them, but if you're a landlubber, they just don't mean the same. Spend hour after hour passing them in a wooden sailboat, knowing that there is only one harbor in all that expanse of cliff, and remembering how many vessels have wrecked on them when the weather turned foul; they aren't just a site of natural beauty, they're a reminder of the mortality of men and the fragility of these thin wooden shells we call 'boats.'
asparagus fresh from the garden,
eggs and bacon
served on broad china plates
in an old plantation house
We spent five days aboard the boat going down to Deal Island and back, and another five going down to Crisfield and back. We slept on the deck in autumn. It was chilly, but we had a harbor cover (awning) over the boat to keep the dew off. But you're talking about a bunch of middle-aged to old guys (with a few exceptions), sleeping on the hard planks of an open boat. To be sure, you see things at night if you have an old boat, like the night heron perching on the piling in the berth next to yours, but you also get to listen to the bumper board squeaking all night long. To be invited to spend the night on the sofas of an old plantation house (and hot showers!) was a great luxury. The house itself dates to the early 1700s. Like all the old houses, it sits on a creek that leads to the Chesapeake Bay, and faces the water.
surrenders to dawn,
a slim mast
emerges from the mist
of Red Cap Creek
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more beautiful to me than the magic way that boat slowly materialized in the dawn. And what a boat! A log sailing canoe with a skipjack rig. Built in 1895 and loving restored, she was exactly where she was supposed to be: tied up at the dock of an old plantation, waiting to go to sea. Her owner took several of us out on her and we all got a turn at the tiller. A skipjack has a low freeboard, but the freeboard of a log sailing canoe is measured in inches. A thirty foot boat has as much freeboard as a kayak.
Orion and his hounds
leading the way
to the western sea
Orion is a hunter with a pair of hounds. That too is part of the watermen's culture on Maryland's Eastern Shore--gunning for ducks and other fowl are as integral to the area as sailing is. Even our huntdogs are water dogs. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever breed originated in a pair of dogs shipwrecked on the Bay in the early 1800s. Our Bay Retrievers have an oily undercoat that helps protect against the cold and wet, so they will willingly go into the water even when it’s cold. Everything entwines. Sea, sky, shore, life.
8. Your journal/log entries help immensely in preparing me, and any reader, for the poems that follow. Was this part of an original journal you kept with poems included or did you end up combining entries and poems from separate notebooks to produce this particular volume of poems?
The log is the poetry. The prose parts are later additions for the benefit of the reader.
The bulk of the material is from the two voyages previously mentioned. The 'interludes' are the shorter sections that happened in between and around the longer voyages. In each case, the vast majority of the poems were written on the spot. I carry writing materials with me, so when the spray of the paddlewheeler hit my face, I reached into my cargo pants and pulled out paper and pen and wrote it down. The poems occur in the order they were written, too, but not every poem made it in. Some of the poems in the log simply weren't very good and others were redundant.
The two long sequences, about the five day trip to Deal Island, and the second five day trip to Crisfield, had problems from an editorial point of view. The route is fundamentally the same, although we stopped in different places and approached things from a different angle, the weather varied, and the incidents were different. I had to pick poems that would weave together the commonalities while at the same time varying it enough to maintain the readers' interest.
The lighthouses serve as aids to navigation both on the water and in the poetry . . . . Turkey Point Light will always be 'almost home' to me, but Holland Island Bar Light is the place where the Chesapeake is widest and the world as landlubbers know it vanishes. Sharp Island Shoals Light is the place where an entire island has vanished, and it reminds us that global warming is affecting the Chesapeake Bay twice as fast as the average for the rest of the world. In 100 years, huge swaths of our past and present will be gone. The lighthouses are like nails, pinning the past to the present.
9. Of course, I wait until the end to ask this, but what does “M.” stand for in M Kei and why did you decide to shorten it when publishing your poems?
It doesn't stand for anything. 'M. Kei' is a pen name.
10. What, if anything, are you working on these days poetically and as a skipjack volunteer?
At the moment I have been enjoying writing nautical fiction for myself and my friends. I am a fan of the likes of Frank Mildmay, Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, and Lord Ramage, but I got tired of not having gay characters in the stories. We always hope to find a hero like ourselves in the tales we read, so I started writing a tale of a gay eighteenth century British officer for my own amusement. It grew into a novel, and my friends have enjoyed it. I queried a publisher and they have asked to see sample chapters. The draft is free online for anyone who cares to look at it: http://www.fictionpress.com/~mkei
My major poetic project of the moment is putting the finishing touches on the anthology I am editing, Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka. I and my editorial team have read over fourteen thousand poems to select the best from the field of tanka to publish in the anthology. It comes out at the end of April.
As for the skipjack, she's been hauled out and getting major repairs done. Her mast and bowsprit were removed to make way for repairs to her bow. She also needs a new suit of sails -- the five patches mentioned in the book have grown to six and more patches. She also needs to be completely re-rigged with new lines. Anyone who would like to see pictures of Martha or perhaps make a donation to support her can visit: http://skipjackmarthalewis.org/
M. Kei, thanks so much for allowing me to interview you, I am fond of your poems and your ability to express so much in short words and lines. Please let us know of any work you publish in the future so interested people such as myself can find it.
Thanks to everyone for reading, please stop by tomorrow for another featured site…