From the Desk of Katharine Whitcomb: Our Real and Imagined Seascapes

The Backwaters Press is now accepting submissions for this year’s Backwaters Prize in Poetry contest. The winner and honorable mention will receive cash prizes and book publication with the University of Nebraska Press. The judge for the 2021 contest is Huascar Medina, Poet Laureate of Kansas. For more details on how to enter your manuscript, please visit the Backwaters Prize page.

Katharine Whitcomb was the winner of the 2014 Backwaters Prize in Poetry with her poetry collection The Daughter’s Almanac (Backwaters Press, 2014). She can be reached via Twitter or her website for more information on her books and work.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we reached out to several Backwaters Press poets to write about their work. In the essay below, Katharine Whitcomb discusses why she decided to write on familial relationships in The Daughter’s Almanac.

My second full-length collection, The Daughter’s Almanac, was chosen as the winner of the 2014 Backwaters Prize. The contest judge was the wondrous Patricia Smith, one of my literary idols. I was utterly elated that my book won this prize and that the physical book was designed so beautifully.

The poems in the collection are organized around the four seasons of the year following my mother’s death from brain cancer. The speaker evolves through the sections of the book from grief into the possibility of emerging as “steady green for a light-filled season.”

As poets, we often wander into unsettling family territory with our writing. The family audience is sometimes an audience that does not expect us to have created a world outside of our lived existence. With those who know us best, especially family, there is always the tendency to elide the poems and their speaker with the poet.

The Daughter’s Almanac begins with poems concerning my mother’s death and its aftermath. Her premature death from a brain tumor traumatized our family, most particularly my father.  I wrote one of the book’s poems, “Balfour,” after a vivid dream I had about my father after her death in which he and I rode in a little rowboat in the ocean, waves towering over us. In the dream he just looked at me while I manned the oars:

            “After my mother died, my father would not row our boat with me although I needed his help. We shivered out in the great water,

            my awful funeral dress stuffed into the too-small hotel wastebasket back on shore. He perched on the centerboard in his old striped shirt

            and watched me struggle. He never spoke though I could hear him thinking it was strange to be suddenly battling waves in an open vessel—”

There are plenty of “dream poems,” set up as “dreams” to the reader, but I chose to use the dream imagery ambiguously, asking that the reader inhabit the surreal seascape at face value. The dream presented me with a dramatic situation. As the poem continues, the speaker leaves the father in the boat because she can “last long enough to get somewhere else.” She kisses him goodbye and swims off into the “tooth-rattling, nerve-buzzing winter, winter sea.”

My father was an avid reader of my poetry. He combed through The Daughter’s Almanac with care, and we had talked a lot about the poems together. He was interested in the lens into my thinking that the book allowed him, though he quibbled sometimes about the “accuracy.” He asked me questions to clarify for himself the many literary allusions in the book.  But of “Balfour” he would only say, “that was made up” and he was right. The speaker leaves the father in a boat alone “like a dead warrior king.” I worried that the metaphor was harsh, yet at the same time, the energy of the poem seems caught there. I wrote out of my anguish at his failing health and at my distance from him, separated by half a continent, time and space, the “winter sea.”

I write about this delicate situation because I know the real life vs. imagined life dilemma can wreak havoc sometimes. My father and I met together in those discussions of my poems, inside of the metaphors. The associative leaps poets’ brains make while writing create their own new worlds, and sometimes this is hard to explain. My poems have always worked their way through emotionality by unspooling the interior life outward; I was so fortunate to have had, in my father, a close reader who understood that sometimes necessary movement.

I’m grateful always to the Backwaters Press for support of this book.

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