By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of E. Martin Pedersen.
E. Martin Pedersen, originally from San Francisco, has lived for over 40 years in eastern Sicily, where he taught English at the local university. His poetry appeared most recently on Ginosko, Metaworker, Triggerfish, Unlikely Stories Mark V, and Grey Sparrow Review, among others. Martin is an alumnus of the Community of Writers. He has published two collections of haiku, Bitter Pills and Smart Pills, and a chapbook, Exile's Choice, just out from Kelsay Books. A full collection, Method & Madness, is forthcoming from Odyssey Press. To read more, visit his blog here.
We reached out to Martin to ask him about his work and inspirations.
AN: You mentioned that your parents were pioneers in Seward, Alaska. Can you tell us a little bit about your grandparents and their adventures there? Was this before the WWII military fortifications were set up on the island to spot incoming enemy incursions or after the war? Barwell Island is only populated by birds today, correct? Have you yourself ever visited this island or did your grandparents inform you about it?
MP: My great-grandfather was one of the founders of Seward, Alaska. He was there as a missionary in the 1910s. He kept his family in a snow-covered tent the first year, then built them a log house. He also built the first school and his own Methodist church, which is now a coffeehouse/bookstore. The Pedersen Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is named for Louis H. Pedersen. I was close to my grandfather, Ralph, who often told me stories of growing up in the small, wild port town.
Rockwell Kent was already a successful painter when he escaped from New York to Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. He and his son lived in a shed and barely had enough to eat or wood to keep warm. Kent painted or drew when he could. Some extraordinary work. He was coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage. For the full story, see his book Wilderness.
One minor point that inspired the poem was that Kent would row to Barwell Island to collect gull eggs to eat.
I visited Seward in 2003 and flew over the islands in Resurrection Bay that I'd seen in a Rockwell Kent print.
AN: We are always curious to know what led a poet to write a particular poem. In this case it's "How to Make Love: A Manual." What moments in thought triggered your creating this poetic manual?
MP: When I said that this poem was a manual, I was being facetious. Who am I to write such a work? Make love to the world, maybe. I think the relay runner trope is meant to expose the expandable mental time frame we use to judge our reality. By this I mean, when I get angry or worried about what's happening today or yesterday (as portrayed by the media) and believe the world's going to pot, as I do, I can ask myself "compared to when?" A century ago, the Middle Ages? Are we better off today than in the prehistoric era? I'm not sure "yes" is the answer, but the question helps me take a different look at myself in society and the definition of progress.
So we carry our torches and pass them on (or not), and we've done our best, and that's enough. Right? Right?
AN: First of all, I loved your title "I read Dante's Inferno, I liked it—." Please tell us more about The Limbo Reports. Is this a manuscript you completed last year during the pandemic?
MP: When I read Dante's Inferno, I enjoyed imagining all the people in my life who had done me wrong burning in one of the nine circles of Hell. With the exception of the part about Sodomites, I could fill in names for each category of sinner and get my virtual revenge. Probably that's a completely wrong reading, but . . . I liked it.
My poem plays with religion and social concerns and ends with the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign. The inspiration of hope and public service that seems so repressed these days.
The Limbo Reports is a collection of 50 poems I wrote in between quarantines last year and am publishing separately for now.
AN: In conclusion, Martin, how do you describe your poetry? Does it fall into a particular category such as narrative, lyrical, confessional?
MP: I write a lot and a lot of different types of poems. I'm not sure how to categorize them. Maybe poetry of confusion. I express what I think, what I think is right, always with a pinch of doubt and an admission of inadequacy.
My grandparents were pioneers in Seward, Alaska, at the same time that painter Rockwell Kent was there with his son on a sort of spiritual retreat.
It seems that we have both together by chance turned out of the beaten, crowded way and come to stand face to face with that infinite and unfathomable thing which is the wilderness; and here we have found OURSELVES -- for the wilderness is nothing else. (Rockwell Kent)
If you're living in a goat shack
for an adventure of the spirit
thinking of two women and
death a hundred times a day
on Fox Island, Resurrection Bay
between Bay Harbour and
near what is today Kenai
Fjords National Park
just you and your son of nine
thirteen miles from Seward
at the open end of the Bay
painting like one possessed
cooking playing flute cutting wood
and motor-boating the area round
on rare hours of decent weather
temperatures above zero °F
no incessant wind storms, drenching rain
squalls of hail or snow, you're hungry
in need of a pick-up
tired of fishing or corn-meal mush
try Barwell Island, many
gulls breed there, their eggs
How to Make Love
When your dog is dying in the same room
When your Dad is dying in the same room
When your God is dying in the same room
They pass you the torch, all the way back through human history
And what do you do?
You got to run
You run with the torch and in the crowd
Lining the streets you think you see
Familiar faces blurred
The crowd thins out
As you reach the outskirts of town
So you welcome the solitude of the runner
Until somewheres out in the suburbs,
You realize you don’t know which way to go anymore
You run nonetheless
They gave you the torch, right?
You can’t very well just stop
Even though no one is looking
You can’t very well just sit on the curb
Flag down the Ford Explorer full of soccer kids
That flashes by
The Taurus, the Lynx, all the sedans and wagons
You hitch and hitch, but get no rides
You stick out your torch
Hey, it’s me!
Maybe they don’t pick you up because they all have their own torches
To carry to destination
To pass to the next runner
Sit there and weep.
The masterpiece of Italian literature. The Limbo Reports is an unpublished collection written last year.
I read Dante's Inferno, I liked it —*
all those sinners getting their due
but I didn't read Purgatorio, maybe I should
to get context, historical and emotional
-- expect a miracle, God will protect --
I don't know how believers do it
this current scourge picking us off
like flicking dead flies
off the dinner table
-- do not gather, do not congregate --
yet they are protected unless they aren't
loads of Christians in ICUs choking
to death, accompanied by pastors
pastoring: all prayer all the time
-- it's not the results, it's the feeling --
the peace that passeth all understanding
as you drift away or the guilt or anger
why do I deserve this
after the sacrifices I've made
-- one righteous brother, one all drugs & whores --
and which got rich ... both
so which one life to live ... neither
when we obsess over our debts
we play the 'Me' game
-- get out of the graveyard, get out of yourself --
can we volunteer down at the COVID ward?
no, you're not qualified
can we elect reps who will provide
who will act, who will be helpers?
YES, WE CAN. YES, WE CAN.
don't live in Dante's Inferno
*number 36 of The Limbo Reports
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.
Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!
FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.
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