Names of Birds, Sherman Asher Publishing, 2011
(Buy the book)
I recently met Tom Crawford while working at the Institute for American Indian Arts where Tom is now teaching. We’ve had some great conversations, early in the morning before his class begins, regarding living as a poet in the world today, the value of MFA degrees and the factoids of famous poets. I was immediately interested in his latest book, The Names of Birds. Here we get to see a poet explore the many facets of one subject. And although birders will love this book for obvious reasons, anyone seeking the spirit, the quiet or the mystery and majesty of nature will find soul food here as well.
Rarely do I remember how a book of poetry ends. Tom Crawford’s final words in this book lingered in my mind long after I finished reading them and they surely capture the heart and ethos of his book.
Beside the still waters
cranes put the seal of their long toes
in the mud
and dying is just swinging out
over the big river,
then letting go.
Let’s do it.
Mary: I love how The Names of Birds gives itself the space to pour over a single subject with your full attention. Were there pleasures and challenges in producing an entire collection on one subject?
Tom: Both of course, but mostly pleasures since I knew from the get-go I was on to more than just another collection of disparate poems, however good.
Mary: In speaking about birds, you get the full sense of delicate sounds and movements of birds, the silence surrounding birds, all in a way that brings out a tone of sacredness in them, similar to how you describe the effect of a cello: “where one note can turn over in us/the deepest soil.” You also reference the gospels so that birding itself takes on something like a religious practice. How do your spiritual leanings and ways of watching birds intersect?
Tom: The practice, you might say spiritual practice, is the meditation on birds. I don’t separate them out which I think puts me in the realm of mysticism. Birds, prayer, one and the same.
Mary: Often in the book, bird stories become life lessons and in some cases serve as ars poetica (where birds themselves can teach us something about the art of poetry). We’ve talked about how unpleasant it can be to over-talk craft. Can you get at it more easily with a poem like “To Make an Owl Make a Poem” where you can discuss the process like pinching a pot or creating a clay bird?
Tom: “To Make an Owl Make a Poem,” again only now clay, but for me inseparable whether process or product. I work in clay, too. Love it. It was a fine moment when the two came together so naturally. And yes, for sure the poem is a metaphor or ars poetica.
Mary: The book is full of precise tactile images (almost like bird paraphernalia), the disembodied wing, seeds in the snow, a lot of mud imagery I loved: mud in the habitats of birds, mud flats, “mud deep here in love.” Are there certain images you gravitate toward? Any one of the senses you feel you pay attention to more than the others?
Tom: I think for all writers, perhaps poets more, particular words or images keep coming up. I think of William Carlos Williams and “no ideas but in things;” and my things like water, trees and yes, mud (it’s a long list by now) then become connotatively rich in their subtext.
Mary: The poem “Bobcat Bite” attracted my attention immediately (because I live near that restaurant and have had my own unique experience there). How long have you lived in Santa Fe and how has living here affected your work? Have other places affected your work?
Tom: I’ve lived in Santa Fe for seven years. Places always affect my work, in a real sense become the raw material for the poems. Birds come to our feeder here that we don’t see, say in Portland, Oregon or New York. A place with a name like “Bobcat Bite” delights me. All by itself, it’s poetry. But then, inside at the counter facing east, you get to watch the bird action because there are a couple of feeders right in front of you. I’ve discovered over the years that poets, the good ones anyway, pay attention to the so-called ordinary. They don’t so much elevate consciousness as celebrate what’s right there. About place again. When I lived in China I wrote about China, a ‘little book’ called China Dancing. Six years in South Korea I wrote The Temple on Monday.
Mary: I feel a big theme of the book is mulling over life’s purpose, for example when you talk about the wren in “Family: Troglodytidae” where he “just wants to make more/wrens and leave it at that” and later in the poem, “It’s my job, though,/in a loud world. To be quiet.” Has bird watching or writing about birds clarified this topic for you in any way?
Tom: “Life’s purpose” is as good as any way of talking about what sits me down to the blank sheet of paper. When I’m not suffering with ‘monkey-mind’ I’m mulling over something that has about it the promise of poetry. I was twenty years at it before it occurred to me that was my work, my purpose. I was here to write poetry. And I do. I have seven books of poetry and counting. Years ago Marvin Bell when asked about why he writes poetry answered “I write poetry everyday to find out who I am.” Good poetry is always exploration, revelation. I don’t think I can improve on that answer.
Mary: Companion to the idea of life’s purpose is the idea of loyalty. I read a strong undertone, almost emotion, of loyalty in the poems. In particular you talk about loyalty in “Crop Circles” where the Blue Swallow sticks by his injured mate. Does this theme reflect back to your life experiences with loved ones, friends or your sense of community?
Tom: Poetry is the life blood of community. It’s story-telling at its most magical. It’s Paleolithic. It evolved out of song, chant and dance. It’s the ancient art of cultural transmission without which America is in deep do-do. And we are. Some years ago I was in the University of California bookstore looking for a particular poet. I found so little poetry on the shelves I finally ask an employee for help. To my query she shook her head, “Sorry, we don’t carry much poetry, it doesn’t move fast enough.”
Mary: I was moved by your depictions of our relationships with birds, all the poems about the putting out of seeds. This made me consider my own, often tumultuous, experiences with birds around our house, the mother-bird ambush (if I ignorantly walk too near a nest in our backyard) that frazzles my nerves (exactly as in the poem “Harriet” where “beauty…shakes the heart/out of its sleep”) and more particularly your idea of a bird in us (not exactly our inner-bird but an actual bird in us). In “Redwing” the bird is “inside my mouth.” In “The Chinese Might Say, There is No Tea in You,” you add “or no bird.” In “Gray Lodge” the birds “come inside./They fly right through you.” In “Arrhythmia” you talk about “No bird…/that does not build its secret nest in us/out of old string and dead feathers.” Is this a sense of a bird as a kind of soul?
Tom: Fossilized bird skeletons tell us they preceded us by hundreds of thousands of years. So, how can we not live in a state of wonder having them right in our back yards. A covey of tiny Bushtits at the suet and I’m transported. The gift of them, their community, excitement at the feeder…yes, I feel deeply connected, more, empowered.
Mary: The book is also about death, the idea of slowing down, the failure of our survival strategies (often involving words). The most poignant, visceral example of this was in the poem “Ownership” were we witness the Barn Owl, “dead,/still tumbling through the air/out of a palm tree…the sound it made hitting the ground/at my feet.” Could you have written this book when you were younger?
Tom: No. Grief too is a source of beauty. It has to be earned.
Mary: Can you talk about what inspired you to write the book?
Tom: I got the idea for The Names of Birds after reading a scientific piece in the New York Times. The language was so stilled, lifeless. Birds are anything but lifeless. I just felt I could do a better job. Science, just the facts you know, does not make a story. Human beings are moved by stories. It’s deep in the DNA.
Mary: Do you plan trips around bird watching; and if so, can you describe your most amazing experience?
Tom: Almost any time, quiet time spent with a bird or birds is amazing. I don’t know that one bird encounter is greater than another; however, once many years ago at Tejon Ranch in the mountains south of Bakersfield, I walked within 20 feet of a Great Condor. The bird was immense. Perched on precipice so it could just fall forward and that’s what it did. Then the wings open, tip-to-tip eight feet, and it soared straight out from me.
Mary: There is a plethora of amazing birds and bird names in your book. I started to write them down: hawk, sparrow, suet, crow, warbler, quail, grackle (what an awesome word!), nuthatch. What is your favorite bird and what is your least favorite bird?
Tom: I don’t think I have a favorite or least favorite. Yes, a bird like the Western Tanager will knock your socks off, but a bevy of ordinary sparrows taking a community bath in our courtyard…that’s sweet, very sweet.
Mary: Can you talk about how you create poems? From notes? An outline? Do you do free-association? Do you work towards something or out from something?
Tom: No notes, outlines or free-association. A hunch is closer…I get a hunch, a ‘feel’ or what Frost liked to call a “fresh idea.” Then the waiting begins. I’m the hunter at the breathing hole. There’s anticipation, patience, and most of all, the belief that the seal will come.
Mary: Can you describe what a good ending feels like?
Tom: Lines that do two things: that surprise me for their originality and at the same time resolve the poem, usually in some way I could not have imagined before they appear.
Mary: How do you approach a title?
Mary: How do you go about organizing your poems for a collection? Do you organize chronologically or by theme or tone?
Tom: I get help. I’m not good at it.
Mary: Who are the writers who had the most influence on your work?
Tom: How much time do you have? I’ll give you five but that’s only the tip of the iceberg: Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roethke, James Wright, e. e. cummings.
Mary: We talked about this a bit the other day, but can you talk about your ideas about the tensions between the pursuit of art and science?
Tom: The short answer: there are none. Art/science—different mediums, same struggle—what’s it all about Al-ee?
Mary: What books are you reading now, poetry and non-poetry?
Tom: Tess Gallagher’s New and Selected Poems. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. I’m always reading the mystics. One of my on-going favorites, The Gita.
Tom has five previous books of poetry: If It Weren’t For Trees (1987), Lauds (1993), China Dancing (1996), The Temple on Monday (2001) and Wu Wei (2006).
To buy Tom’s books and to find out more information about him, visit www.tomcrawfordpoetry.com.