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IWU Professor's New Poetry Collection Evokes Island Life

Poet James Plath says some contemporary poetry can seem overly academic, inaccessible and off-putting to readers. He wants none of that. 

The poems in his new collection, “Everything Shapes Itself to the Sea,” allow readers to vicariously hear the Caribbean's calypso rhythms and the various sing-song dialects of the locals. You can almost feel the hot sting of rum streaming down the throat, smell the island’s tropical flowers, and feel its warm sea breezes.

The short collection, known in poetry parlance as a chapbook, chronicles Plath's time as a Fulbright teaching fellow on the island of Barbados during six months in 1995. He says he writes so that his readers can enter the world his words evoke.

"That’s a reflection of my Midwest upbringing that you can understand (my poetry),” Plath said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “Many of my poems are stories mixed with lyricism.”

"Get out of your comfort zone. Situate yourself someplace where you feel out of place."

Plath served as a teaching fellow at the University of the West Indies. The school is the alma mater of one of Plath’s best-loved poets, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, which was one of the reasons that drew him there. 

Being in an unfamiliar culture, he said, was creatively stimulating.

“I found myself writing, writing, writing. I kept a journal, I wrote a ton of poetry, I wrote some short stories and I wrote literary criticism. I was on a roll,” Plath said.

“I always tell my students get out of your comfort zone. Situate yourself someplace where you feel out of place," he added.

His collection follows a long tradition in American literature of making a hero of the outsider.

“Going to a different culture and being an outsider, and seeing that culture for the first time, what you are seeing then is your own culture through that lens. There is a comparative aspect that’s unavoidable.”

Many of the poems are set in the island’s rum shops, which serve as a kind of counterpart to the corner tavern in many American cities. The poems record actual overheard conversations.

“The rum shops were the real social centers, it was kind of sexist because it was mostly men, only occasionally a woman would go there. I found myself drawn to them, because, let’s face it, I’m an academic, and after spending a whole day on campus, I don’t want to spend my night with academics, so I hung out at the rum shops,” he said.

In a poem titled “Sweet Fuh Days” (how islanders might say “sweet for days), Plath recorded the scene at a shop called Pearle's. "Sweet fuh days" is how the men would describe an almost ecstatic experience..

… Players slam

their cards with the force of light

that pries through the bars of this

rum shop’s windows and the

force of every bad hand that

anyone here has ever been dealt …

Ah tell ya, boy, me drink so much

And dance so much me ca hardly

Remember she name, me was so

Sweet, so sweet fuh days …

Credit Courtesty of James Plath
James Plath said he wrote the poems in his new collection over a period of 20 years.

Getting the book published in today’s highly competitive literary world wasn’t easy, Plath said.

Poets face an even tighter tighter market than writers of other genres. Plath said a trend among many modern poets is to come out with a themed collection.

“A lot of poets are calling these ‘project books.’ It can be an abstract unifying principle but more often than not it ends up being something like poems related to loss or poems related to my father, or a honeymoon or whatever."

Plath began writing the poems in 1995 on Barbados and has been working on them since. The oldest poems were written while he was there. The newest poem was written last year, he said.

Plath had recently married before he and his wife, the educator Zarina Mullan Plath, set out for a place called Paradise Villas on the island.

“Birdwatching, 8 a.m.” is one of the poems in the collection dedicated to his wife.

When I breathe in the way one raindrop smells before

The sky unzips itself, when the nut of morning cracks open

And trills pour in through the open louvers, each note

A kingbird’s plaintive cry, begging her mate to take off

And swoop in cat-stretch arc, to snatch food from mid-air

And tuck it into her grateful throat, red as last night’s sunset;

When I witness doves dancing on the patio through the vapors

Of our morning coffee, heads curling like tender vines, or recall

The easy passion of calypso that drifts from the port at night and

Laps against the shores of our sleep, I begin to think all I really need

Is to be with you, maybe help each other pry open this geode

World with the loving precision of a kingbird’s beak.

With themed poetry collections, Plath said, “You have to immerse yourself in them the way you would a novel, and that takes some time and takes some doing. For me it was more of an evolving process as opposed to I’m going to just sit down and write some Barbados poems.”

Credit Zarina Mullan Plath
James Plath teaches creative writing, American literature, journalism and film at Illinois Wesleyan,

Unknown and little-known writers have a more difficult time getting their collections published, he said. Many collections are published only after they win a contest, for which the poet must pay a reading fee to enter.

Bloomington-Normal was once an active center for poetry with well-known poets passing through to give frequent readings, annual poetry festivals and several small independent presses.

“This was a real happening place for publishing,” Plath said.

That has changed. “One of our biggest challenges is raising money. A lot of people got grants from the Illinois Arts Council. Those grants have pretty much dried up," he said.

A deeper issue is that poetry is perceived—wrongly, according to Plath—“as fluff, as something unnecessary … People want to be entertained these days more than they want to be provoked to into thought or reverie.”

He said songwriters who write their own lyrics often overshadow today's poets.

“We saw this with (singer-songwriter) Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize,” Plath said

Still, he said, when his students experience a classic poem such as Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” they know in a visceral way they have encountered something timeless and genuine.

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