In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—David Melville
Your poem “Shelter” in Volume 25 focuses on the experience of two young boys who find a doe trapped in a coyote snare. What was the inspiration behind this poem? How did it come to be?
This poem describes a true event. I grew up in small town Nebraska, and was invited, on the spur of the moment, by another boy (whose identity is altered in the text) to drive out to check his coyote traps. Things happened much like in the poem with a few adjustments for clarity and pacing. As a country kid, he knew more of what would happen to her than I did. The choice was difficult, but it seemed the only humane one. The hardest part for me was when he let go, and I was holding her as he took up the rifle.
I imagine the experience of finding a vulnerable creature caught in danger to be very profound, perhaps traumatic, for a young person. These boys have to make a very quick and mature decision that impacts the livelihood of someone else. The way the speaker locks eyes with the doe continues to reverberate throughout the poem. How do you work to amplify the tension and emotion in your poems? With this poem in particular, what helped you to mine memory and place yourself back into the younger self?
This poem originated more than a decade ago when I was working with David Biespiel who was a superb mentor to me and many other poets. He devised tasks to challenge me, and one was building tension through a delayed ending. That early draft was the first thing of mine I’d shown him that caught his eye, but I didn’t have enough skill yet to finish it. So I put it away and let it sit in a pile with other rough drafts. A couple years ago, I remembered it was there, composting so to speak. When I took it up again, it came together fairly quickly.
The poem works by establishing the boy’s contact with the doe’s eyes. That contact was part of the experience itself. Brown and sensitive, they gave me this overriding sense of connection. Describing her eyes in the opening words was an intuitive choice, there from the beginning; it just felt right; but I can see now how it works on a technical level. The boys also have a physical connection with her through the silver wire. Our dilemma was the more poignant for it: this beautiful creature was caught, so close to us; not a carnivore like a coyote, but a gentle animal who was now literally connected to us. Once the stake popped loose, we understood there wasn’t much else we could do for her but this one thing. As we become adults, we learn, sooner or later, that hard choices can’t be avoided, not really; and we are called upon to do things we really don’t wish, and which affect other beings, choices which don’t seem ours by right to make, but we have to make them nonetheless.
At that age, the experience was profound. Growing up in a rural area, I was closer to the natural world back then, and this friend who was from the country more so. As the years go by and I’ve lived in a city, I’ve become increasingly aware of the distancing effect of modern urban life. Not being able to see the stars at night is part of it, but only part. For some years, I would do things like climb mountains or kayak or dive which resulted in a few hair-raising moments; yet it was I who had sought out the wilderness. For those who earn a living from the soil, it’s different. They have a relationship with animals and the elements I just don’t have. Our modern life removes us – and I am definitely included in this – from the sorts of choices they encounter more often, the kinds of decisions that our ancestors had to make.
One of the reasons these traps are used is to kill coyotes so the deer population will increase. These traps kind of “shelter” deer so there are more to hunt, and so it’s a kind of irony that in your poem “Shelter” the deer is the unintended victim of happenstance. Can you share with us about your intention in how you titled this poem? What did the word ‘shelter’ mean to you as a young boy out hunting with his cousin? What does that word mean to you now as the older poet?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of providing shelter for the deer through population control of their predators. I like that. It does fit nicely with the title’s intended resonance: the ways we try to create shelter, and the ways that our sense of shelter can suddenly vanish. We have all these internal buffers that keep us from facing reality, and in certain flashes, something can open us. When we drove out there, I had never seen a coyote trap before, and neither of us had an inkling what was about to happen. That often seems to be the case; we don’t know when we are about to be changed. Shelter is something we look for, and try to build, and sometimes we let ourselves sense how tenuous it can be.
Now that I’m years older and a city-dweller, I am sheltered from certain types of experiences like the one that happened with the doe. Living in the city, on the other hand, has offered other types of experiences I wouldn’t have had in a small town. It seems we grow, at least partly, through this kind of process, our sheltering and un-sheltering.
We had the honor of publishing your poem “45” back in Volume 23, and one thing that I noticed that both your poems consider is an idea of shared empathy. They both make reference to something I think feels philosophical, as if the speaker is breaking the 4th wall to say ‘you’re not alone in this scenario or in this world.’ What are your thoughts on this? Do you see these two poems in connection? Do you think “45” and “Shelter” speak to other subjects you write about?
I can see what you mean by the shared empathy in this poem and in “45,” now that you’ve mentioned it. Both poems do point towards connection within our isolation. Rather than a conscious intent, it comes more from my understanding of the world. We are all deeply interconnected, with each other and with everything around us – deer, the stars, the hills, the concrete, everything – in ways we don’t often see. It is more than a metaphor; it is how things actually are. Much of our pain comes from our loss of that sense of connectedness, which is the fundamental truth behind reality. Our human journey is that we lose that sense and have to grope our way back to it. Writing, at its most essential, for me anyway, points us back toward home. I believe the main reason we write, and read, is to know we are not alone.
I know you used to work as a lawyer; you’re actually not the first lawyer-turned-poet we’ve published, which I find so interesting! These two forms of writing seem like such polar opposites to me, but maybe I’m wrong! What drew you to poetry, both as a reader and a writer, while you were practicing law? Is there anything about your former career that seeps into your life now as a writer?
Law and poetry do seem polar opposites in many ways. The hidden link is an affinity for words. Lawyers spend their days wrangling over words and their meanings. A love of language – and the subtle shades words can have – is what drew me to poetry. It took a while to unlearn the kind of writing that works in the law. The legal practice, however, did underscore the importance of finding the right words, and taught me a certain amount of patience in going about that process.
It’s a well-kept secret that some great poets in history had legal backgrounds. Wallace Stevens practiced law for a while in New York. Chaucer studied at London’s Inns of Court. And the one I’d never have guessed is Petrarch. Yes, it’s true: the most love-struck troubadour of them all had gone to law school! Who says that deep down, when no one’s looking, lawyers aren’t tender at heart?
Who are some writers that you gravitate towards or return to, and for what reasons?
A.E. Stallings has long been a favorite; she’s so deft with poetic forms and I have a fondness for the classics, so her way of playing with ancient tropes appeals to me. Lately, for instance, I’ve been going back to the Romans like Ovid and Plutarch, and even managed to pick my way through the King James Bible. I also really admire George Kalogeris’ Dialogos, which pairs his excellent translations of everyone from Sappho to Cavafy so that poets of disparate times and temperaments speak to each other. Among contemporary fiction writers, John Crowley, who wrote Little, Big, both inspires and daunts me.
What projects are you working on now? I think I read in a bio of yours somewhere that you were working on a novel at some point; are you still pursuing that?
Yes, my main project right now is a fantasy novel, which I’m in the midst of writing. It started by accident. For a role-playing game, a friend asked me to write a few pages, and the beginning of this story came out. The two people who read it wanted more. Their enthusiasm clued me in that lurking in those pages was a tale worth telling. So I decided to follow the fire and am devoted to finishing it.
I’m still active in poetry too. I’ve been putting together a collection – organizing it, tinkering with the running order, and rounding it out with a few more poems.
David Melville’s recent poems have appeared in journals such as The Atlanta Review, RHINO, and Tipton Poetry Journal. This is his second appearance in Water~Stone Review. His poetry has also been anthologized in the college textbook Listening to Poetry: An Introduction for Readers and Writers (2019). For many years, he earned his living as a lawyer.