Eric Paul Shaffer’s next big thing

Eric Paul Shaffer 2005 Van der Tuin L

Eric Paul Shaffer

This week I’m pleased to host Eric Paul Shaffer’s “next big thing.”

What is your working title of your book (or story, or project)? RattleSnake Rider: Redux is the title.

What genre does your book fall under? RattleSnake Rider is a book of poems.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? RattleSnake Rider: Redux is a second edition of poems composed in New Mexico, California, and the American West between 1980 and 1990 when I was reading and writing poems at a feverish rate as I studied literature.

The volume consists of three books: “Simply Speaking,” single poems of praise and occasion; “Earth Works,” a long sequence of short poems depicting moments of insight and contact with the planet; and “RattleSnake Rider,” my answer to Lew Welch’s “Rider Riddle” and a culmination of my reading, writing, and travel in those years.

What about your book will pique the reader’s interest? Lew Welch, from whom I have learned more about writing poetry than from any other poet, wrote a poem called “The Rider Riddle” in the late sixties.

Essentially, Welch’s poem encourages readers to re-connect with the places they inhabit and the planet.  Readers are enjoined to make observations close enough to determine which “animal, plant, insect, reptile, or any of the Numberless Forms” of life is the one that the readers “ride,” or, in other words, which will be his or her guide.  In effect, Welch asks us to climb “the Mountain,” look around, and recognize which one has the most to teach us about who, what, and where we are.  (You can find the poem online if you search “Rider Riddle Welch.)

I was fortunate enough to live near Mt. Tamalpais, the mountain sacred to Welch, the one to which he refers in his poem, and the one he himself climbed to answer his own riddle.

When I climbed Mt. Tamalpais, I saw a rattlesnake.  As I found myself suddenly alone on the way up, a rattlesnake crossed the broad gravel path to the peak only a few feet before me, heading downslope, and sliding directly through the shadow of my head.

At that moment, I wasn’t entranced by the idea that I might “ride” RattleSnake, but I would have had to be willful and stupid not to recognize the opportunity in that encounter.  I climbed to the peak and sat for more than an hour, contemplating the meeting.  As I did, turkey buzzards (Cathártes áura), which was Welch’s choice of his own “ride,” wheeled over the peak, reminding me of him and his majestic poem to the vulture, “Song of the Turkey Buzzard,” his own answer to his riddle.  (I recommend without reservation that all writers read his poem.)

Descending from the peak, I was still unsure, and I met a park ranger at the foot of the trail.  Idly, I asked him how often he saw rattlesnakes on Mt. Tamalpais.  His reply was, “I’ve never seen a rattlesnake here.”  Whether he meant to quell fears, to get on with his own day, or to speak the truth, right then, I decided that I must accept RattleSnake.

In the days that followed, I sought and found more occasions to observe rattlesnakes in the wild and to read and research these remarkable animals.  My travels, reading, thinking, and writing led to the extended poem that constitutes my own answer to Welch’s riddle and closes the book, entitled “RattleSnake Rider.”

Shorter and generally, RattleSnake Rider: Redux contains poems with primarily an ecological and environmental focus and subject matter.  As the poems were composed, I was coming to terms with my literary environment as well so the poems are about finding and learning about my place both as a writer and an inhabitant of Earth.

Where did the idea come from for the book? I wanted to practice the craft of writing poems, celebrate the times and places in which I lived, and speak of what was significant to me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? The accurate and glib answer is “all my life,” but the actual composition and revision process covered the years of my education from 1980 to 1990.

What other poetry books would you compare RattleSnake Rider: Redux? I aspire to emulate and complement the work of Lew Welch in Ring of Bone; Jim Harrison, particularly Returning to Earth and The Theory and Practice of Rivers; Gary Snyder, particularly Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Turtle Island, and Axe Handles; and many other poets I admire, including Antler, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, Greg Keeler, Ted Kooser, Alden Nowlan, William Stafford, Clemens Starck, J.D. Whitney, and all of the writers of poems I met and shared work with in that decade, collectively known as the Ancient Order of the Fire Gigglers (after a poem by Lew Welch).

Who or what inspired you to write this book? Other fine poets and their work inspired me to write this book.  I learned from other fine writers that writers are made, not born.  We become writers because we want to join the literary conversation of our ancestors and contemporaries.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? RattleSnake Rider: Redux will be re-issued by Turkey Buzzard Press, a poetry publishing collective of which I am a member.  The book should be available in late 2013.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Poems rarely become movies unless we count Poe’s “The Raven.”  Has anyone made Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” into a film yet?  However, in Fantasyland, I would choose John Lithgow, Kevin Spacey, Kate Blanchett, Morgan Freeman, Emma Thompson, and, of course, Lew Welch, but no “bad boys” or Hollywood Ryans because these poems are already unshaven.

Eric Paul Shaffer is author of five books of poetry, including Lāhaina Noon (2005); Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen (2001); Portable Planet (2000); RattleSnake Rider (1990); and Kindling: Poems from Two Poets (1988; with James Taylor III). His poetry appears in more than three hundred local, national, and international reviews and in the anthologies 100 Poets Against the War, The Soul Unearthed, Fishtrap Anthology 2006, and Witnessing Earth. Shaffer received the 2002 Elliot Cades Award for Literature and a 2006 Ka Palapala Po‘okela Book Award for Lāhaina Noon. He won a 2006 Fellowship to the Summer Fishtrap Writers Workshop in Oregon and the 2009 James M. Vaughan Award for Poetry. Burn & Learn, his first novel, was published in Fall 2009. He teaches at Honolulu Community College.

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