Featured Poem: “Whales at Sunset”

WHALES AT SUNSET by Eric Paul Shaffer

At sunset, we sit on sand and watch whales leap from the sea.
The dying sun sets their breath aflame. The plumes gleam
for a moment before becoming a wind that blows ashore,
casting sand in our eyes. Kaho’olawe marks the horizon.

Behind us, Haleakala rises like a wave surging to shore.
On sand surely the only testament of time, we linger over legends
as light wanes. Centuries ago, the sea seethed
with the play of whales. Now, the ocean blackens with night.

Never has a day felt more final, and darkness comes
faster than light fades. As the sun sinks, shadow swells.
Every wave scales the shore
with the same determined hiss of triumph, loses strength,

and wanders back as the sea recalls the tide. Venus burns,
then dives after day. There is nothing
to distinguish this dusk from any other. Yet there is
an end in this evening for which I am not prepared.

The tourboats are returning, black against dark waves,
points of light pale, but piercing twilight, gathering shadows
as foil for their narrow glow.
Free of us, the whales seek peace in the night below night.

As they winter in these waters, we hunt them, gawking,
pointing and screaming with delight, from groaning boats
belching exhaust and dumping excrement
into the sea whales fill with song. I do nothing but watch.

I’m only human. I no longer wonder at myself and my kind
who kill and call killing a living. As surf sighs
under stars scattered on the island’s edge, I am resigned.
We are everywhere now. May night come swiftly.

May the whales never hate us as much as we love ourselves.
And by the shore of this restless black sea,
these blue stars, and the waning crescent yet to rise,
may we kill ourselves before we kill the last of them.

Yet who am I to abandon humanity, one truth about all of us
none of us can change? I am no more than any one of us,
no more right, no more wise, no more blind,
and my petty resignation is my own, a fate awful and just.

For athwart the stem at the whaleboat’s bow,
I would have held the harpoon myself,
and in the killing thrill of my kind, thrust the barbed iron
point deep into black and barnacled hide,

then crouched beneath peaked oars and gunwales,
full of fear and glee, while the struck whale ran
and flying line sang through the bounding craft
and plunged smoking into the sea.

I, too, would have cast the blood of kin on cold waves,
and seeking the heart, driven the long lance into lungs,
dyeing the sea with the hot, red rush,
darkening even the turquoise waters of paradise,

and after, I would have carved scenes of sailing ships
at sunset on their teeth and seasoned bones,
and written poetry in the warm golden light of oil
rendered from their sacred, slaughtered flesh.

Harsh Poetry and the Purpose of Publishing

I received a submission recently from Eric Paul Shaffer, who included a poem called “Whales at Sunset” and who introduced the poem like this in his cover letter:

Because some editors have said that the ecological implications of ‘Whales at Sunset’ are too harsh, after reading ALBATROSS (#18), I particularly wanted you to see the poem. It was included in my recent book LAHAINA NOON, but has never been published elsewhere. I read your guidelines carefully, but I saw no mention of a policy on previously published work, so I thought I would include it, in hopes you might find it of interest.

Now I was pleased that he thought to send it to me, and pleased also at the thought that we publish poetry that is “too harsh.” Harsh poetry is the kind that needs to be given voice, given the state of the planet these days. When I read the poem, I thought it was perfect, but I did not accept it because it had already been published. I’ll try to explain my rationale.

My understanding of the purpose of publishing individual poems in journals is to build a record of publication to demonstrate that one’s work has been recognized and featured by other editors. Once one had enough credits, one could prepare a chapbook or book manuscript with the hope of finding a publisher for a longer collection of work. The hoped-for end result is to have a book published. If the poem is already published in a book, then there is no reason to then publish it in a journal, in my mind. This is why I didn’t see the need of mentioning this in the writer’s guidelines; it just seemed self-evident to me.

I can understand the desire to increase the audience for a poem, but once the poem has been published, it has its audience–the book.

There are a couple of other more selfish reasons for not accepting it, much as I liked it. First, I only have so much “real-estate” (i.e. pages) and so I guard it jealously. I often wrestle with a poem, reading a submission two or three times over a period of two to three months before accepting or rejecting, because the space is so scarce. Second, I hope that my poets will go on and publish a chapbook or book so that ALBATROSS can be listed among the credits. This gives the journal more exposure and demonstrates the good taste of the editor (after all, s/he accepted a poem by someone who published a chap/book!).

These are also reasons I am so adamantly opposed to receiving simultaneous submissions, because of this mechanics of publishing. If you have published the same poem in two journals and then publish a book, who will you credit? If you publish a poem in one or two journals, why stop there–why not publish it in 5 or 10? And then who gets the credit?

In my next post I will publish the poem in its entirety (I have permission of the author), so you can see how harsh a harsh poem can be…

Albatross #19 now available

I just posted Albatross #19 at the main site.  The print issue is forthcoming in a week or so (finalized the files and delivered to the printer today, giving him the go-ahead to print 100 copies).

It’s always a bit of a relief to get another issue out there.  I know it’s a relief for the poets, who have sometimes waited a year or two to see their poem in print.  It’s always up in the air, too, until the poem is actually in print, since the journal might fold up shop in the meantime.

I’ve always tried to keep Albatross small so that it never outgrew itself.  I’ve seen journals start out as quarterlies only to see them burn out after a few years.  Albatross is published about once per year and has been doing so for 23 years, a not unremarkable feat for a poetry journal I’m proud to say!

Why Another Poetry Blog?

I have made the decision to enter the blogosphere as editor of the poetry journal Albatross. I thought that there might be some interest in hearing how an editor makes his or her decisions. I could also feature poems that I didn’t accept but that I thought merited recognition nonetheless. This forum could also provide a way for a community to evolve around the journal, if it is not too much to hope for such a thing to happen. And it might steer traffic toward the website itself and increase readership of the poetry.

In short, I’m not sure where this will lead, but how can we know without trying it out? I just regret that I don’t have the time to enter the network of the blogosphere in the way that I should in order to make the Albatross fly as high as it can go….

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