Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Tim Peeler reads “Shadows” & “On the Eve of My Becoming a Father” by Leo Connellan.
Thank you for joining us Tim. When you sent in your recordings, you mentioned that Connellan was your earliest influence. How did you come across his work and what was reading that first poem like? Do you remember which one it was?
Tim Peeler: Thanks for having me. When I was at East Carolina University doing undergrad in the late seventies, even though I was an English major, I hung out mostly with artists. A friend named Michael Loderstedt loaned me a book of poems entitled simply Selected Poems by Leo Connellan. Loderstedt, who is now a well-known artist and photographer in the Cleveland area and Kent State prof, had grown up on the North Carolina coast at a place called Emerald Isle. He had been drawn to the book because so much of it is about the lobster fishermen of Maine and their life near and on the water. The first poem in the book is a long one called “Lobster Claw.” It is written in a concise yet powerful language, and when I read it, and later the other poems, I realized that it was possible to write about blue collar people and experiences in ways that didn’t romanticize their plight or attempt to manipulate the readers’ sense of nostalgia. I looked for the book over the weekend and failed to locate it, and I can only hope that some interested person stole it from me as I did from Michael.
Sundress: It’s interesting that you mention that Connellan doesn’t romanticize the plight of the blue collar class. Can you elaborate on why this is important (and it looks like surprising at the time)?
Tim Peeler: It’s important because his honest treatment of the working class raises their existence to the level of art and it also helped establish his niche in the poetry world, something he achieved for most of his years, without a university affiliation or academic standing. So the first line I read of his was the opening line of “Lobster Claw” which is “Morning and I must kill,” which is probably one of the greatest first lines I’ve ever encountered.
Sundress: Full disclosure: after listening to the poems you sent in, I searched for more online (although to my chagrin I could not find “Lobster Claw”) and read what I could. I was impressed to see that while he had attended the University of Maine, he was a salesman. That’s about as blue collar, everyman as an individual can be.
In our ‘publish or perish’, MFA-filled poetry environment, there seems to be a premium placed on university affiliation or academic standing. I’ve heard whispers of a dark Literati, playing gatekeeper to success. Universities are the Free Masons, MFA programs are the initiating handshake. On the other hand, I have heard compelling arguments against grad school. Do you feel that Connellan’s ability to raise the working class’s “existence to the level of art” was dependent on his view as a poet outside of academia?
Tim Peeler: I think that not just his poetry but his self-concept depended on his status as an outsider. Even after he became the Connecticut poet laureate and the writer-in-residence for the University of Connecticut, and had garnered the support of writers like Richard Wilbur and Karl Shapiro, he still felt like he was the kid that didn’t fit in because he wasn’t good at sports, that could never please his father who thought that writing poetry meant he was a sissy. Connellan identified with the underdog status of the working class, and he approached the process in a very working class manner, waking at 4 AM every morning to write till 6 AM when he had to leave for whatever job, whether it be typewriter ribbon salesman, fry cook, janitor, or whatever. So by raising the level of their existence to art, he raised his own as well.
Sundress: What immediately struck me with this first poem, “On the Eve of My Becoming a Father,” was its title. I expected a more joyous piece, but what followed was more melancholy in tone. I would have never linked this poem to fatherhood without the author’s direction. And, like it was a cliffhanger, I kept waiting on a direct reference to a newborn as I expect in a poem about impending fatherhood. A poem whose meaning changes or becomes suddenly clear only when presented with the title displays a smart economy of language. What attracted you to this poem?
Tim Peeler: When I first read that poem, I had no idea what fatherhood was about or what a profound change having children causes in one’s life. But I did know what it was like to run wild and fail at various things in my life because I couldn’t get out of my own way, and this is what I identified with. Now when I read it, I know exactly what he’s talking about, and unlike then, I hear his nasal voice with all its sadness and hope and its yearning for love and acceptance. The poem, like most of his, is auto-biographical. Connellan traveled extensively around the United States, mostly hitchhiking, working whatever jobs he could find until he reached his thirties. When his daughter was born, he settled down in the northeast, mostly ended his bout with alcoholism, and set about telling the story of who he was and what he had done. And yes I appreciate the economy of language and I’m probably a sucker for that melancholy tone. But when I first read it, before I got to know him or to know anything much about poetic technique or poetry in general, I just knew that I liked it.
Sundress: When you say that most of his work is autobiographical, is it always obvious and is he known for writing without a persona? In a climate where many poems are not autobiographical—and should not be taken as such—what does it mean to you knowing his poems aren’t just a persona?
Tim Peeler: There’s always some distance between an author and his or her autobiographical self, because no one can be totally self-aware or have completely accurate memories. Yet even in Connellan’s most ambitious work, the trilogy entitled The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country, the persona, Boppledock faces dilemmas similar to those that Connellan experienced: loss of mother in childhood, addiction and rehab, and a father’s non-acceptance. But the beauty of the work is that you don’t have to know Connellan’s personal story to experience the power of his work. I don’t know what he would have thought of today’s emphasis on communicating through a persona or for that matter what he would have thought of the proliferation of Internet poetry or MFA programs. I have often thought that the 2000 presidential election killed him, and that he died just in the nick of time.
Sundress: Was “Shadows” another poem which you read earlier in life and came back to with new meaning?
Tim Peeler: I do look at “Shadows” differently as an older person. When I first read it, I was a religious person, so not being one any more in the traditional sense changes my perspective on that punchline ending.
Sundress: Both of the endings have a similar punch for me—a sense of disconnection. In the first, the moon is beyond him; in the second, God seems to be the unattainable. If you had to hazard a guess, what would you say Connellan intended us to take away from the last line of “Shadows”?
Tim Peeler: These are both kind of punchline poems, especially “Shadows.” And I can tell you exactly what he wanted us to take away from that one. He once described to me how he was inspired to write the last line in “Shadows.” He was in traffic in New York City on a bridge, feeling sorry for himself and wishing his life had turned out better. In fact, the adult Connellan who fully realized that the Catholic church and his parochial schooling had contributed to his many problems was talking to God when it occurred to him that on this same bridge there might be someone who has “real” problems, who is in much greater need of help. So in the line, God looks right through him to see someone else who needs Him more.
Sundress: Do you have any last thoughts about Connellan to leave us with? Perhaps any additional poems or interviews we should read?
Tim Peeler: I would say check out his books, especially the trilogy, the selected poems from Pitt Press and Crossing America, both the written version and the version he recorded with numerous musicians from different parts of the country a few years before his death.
Regarding the earlier comment about Leo’s death—he was tremendously upset over the outcome of the Bush-Gore presidential race and how it had played out. Connellan was a staunch New England liberal who cared very much for the “common man,” and he felt this country, which he had traveled extensively as a youth and written about his whole adult life was headed in a bad direction. So maybe this did aggravate him to point that it caused a massive stroke. Who’s to say.
In closing, I would say that Leo was a really good guy and an underrated talent. I talked to him many times during the last ten or twelve years of his life, and like many aging artists he desperately wanted to be remembered and wanted his poetry to be read by future generations. I would hope that some folks discover his work through this interview, and I thank you for giving me this opportunity.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
A past winner of the Jim Harrison Award for contributions to baseball literature, Tim Peeler has also been a Casey Award Finalist (baseball book of the year) and a finalist for the SIBA Award. He lives with his wife, Penny in Hickory, North Carolina, where he directs the academic assistance programs at Catawba Valley Community College. He has written thirteen books and three chapbooks.
Leo Connellan, author of 13 collections, was an American poet born and educated in Maine, whose lobster and fishing industries provided the backdrop for much of his work. At the time of his death in 2001, he was poet-in-residence for the Connecticut State University System, having served since 1987. Connellan’s work has been featured in anthologies such as The Maine Poets: An Anthology of Verse (Edited by Wesley McNair, 2003) and Poetry like bread (Curbstone Press, 2000).