Thursday, September 8, 2016

Writers' Obsessions: Carl Little

I've been MIA for the past three weeks traveling in Newfoundland (more on that later). I'm continuing my series on writers' obsessions sent to me by some of my writing buddies. This one is Maine poet and art critic Carl Little. (Be sure to check out some of the previous ones, too).

Flax Pond

From age one to age 18, I spent most of every summer by a pond in Water Mill, New York, on the South Fork of Long Island. Flax Pond, as I later came to learn was its name, was one of a group of bodies of water that inspired the name of our road, Lower Seven Ponds Road.
The pond was utterly alive, full of fish: pickerel, bass, catfish, eels, sunfish and perch. Snapping and painted turtles frequented its waters. Swans, ducks, geese and heron took up residence or fished in the reeds.
The pond represented a means of escape for me—a place of retreat from my family, from New York City where I went to school. At the same time, it meant family: fishing and swimming with my sisters and brothers and parents. It was a glorious place.
One of my first published poems, chosen by Robert Farnsworth for Columbia Magazine in 1980, was based on memories of a summer of drought when the edge of the pond receded a good 15 feet. At that time, I found myself in an in-between place, dealing with adolescence and family. I began exploring the edge of the pond, digging with my feet in the mud for remnants of past lives lived nearby, mainly antique bottles, milk and various medications. Unmarked bottles may have been from the potato mash still that had been set up at the back of our property. The poem, “Water Lily,” evokes the place and my mood. Here is the second stanza:

Deep in the pond’s mud shallows
my toe touches a bottle
but I pull up a water lily root.
It bobs at my knees,
it won’t stay planted.

I wrote about the pond’s denizens, including the snapping turtle:
Its beak is mean
even in the mud,
snaps at beauty like a man
who erases the eyes of models
in a magazine.    

The pond kept appearing in my poems, a constant presence even though my last visit was around 1990. A few years back, reading a book of poems by Russell Libby that featured several lovely poems about trees, I was inspired to write about the stand of pepperidge that formed a special space next to what I called “the perfect pond.”  In another poem I paid homage to the pickerel weed. Here are the opening lines:
I know these, too, from the pond
I skirted as a child, the green
cake knives clustered along the shore
doubling in shallows….

I was reminded of that place again when my son James and I went fishing on Somes Pond here on Mount Desert Island earlier this summer. His life-long friend Sargent Pepper, who is now a certified fly-fishing instructor, had taught us how to cast on the lawn in the morning and then took us out trolling around 6:00 p.m., dusk, a beautiful time of day. I felt my senses revive even as calm came over me.  
I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop had a fear of repetition in her poetry. With the help of her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, she began to consider each poem as part of “one long poem” as “they go on into each other or overlap.” I’m grateful for that insight and feel reassured—and ready to revisit the pond again and again.

Carl Little is the author most recently of Art of Acadia, co-written with his brother David. He lives in Somesville on Mount Desert Island.