Susan Tepper:  Joani, let’s talk about your poem Put Down Your Camera and Love Me.” Captivating poem.  Now that is a knockout title, if ever there was one.  I can hear a lot of voices yelling Yes !

Can you recall which came first, the title or the poem or part of the poem?

JP Reese: Thank you, Susan.  I’m glad you picked this particular poem, as it’s one I’ve written and revised for over a decade to get it where it is at this moment.  I may not be done with it yet.  The title was originally the final line of the poem. The working title back then was “Vacation.”  Ho-hum.  About a year ago, I reworked the last stanza and realized those lines were the title, not the concluding idea.  Sometimes, these sudden impulses toward a sort of poetic “rightness” just hit me.  Using this line as the title was one of those light bulb moments.

Susan: A light bulb moment that works so well for this poem!  It begins:

“The dead whale’s bones wash to white / on the beachhead in Puerto Peñasco.”

Life and death.  And death.  And death.  The poet’s favorite themes.  You offer us death with the bones washed to white but then you offer us life on the brimming beachhead.

JP: The poem is set in a real place, on the beach outside a house owned by my nephew in Mexico.  A whale washed up there some years before, and by the time I visited, it was simply great ivory rib bones rising from the sand.  My children would play inside them, embraced by the skeletal remains.  I don’t see the poem as particularly weighted toward death, but rather as a reminder to live one’s life clearly and joyously while there’s still time.  The whale bones are my nod to the late medieval and Early Renaissance habit of painters who placed a skull within a living scene as a reminder of the ultimate fate of all humankind, a memento mori.

Susan:  Would you say this is a love poem, then?  Particularly since the word Love is part of its title.

JP:  It is a request to be loved fully and without reservation by another human being.  The speaker realizes time is passing and the everyday, mundane activities suddenly no longer have enough value nor do they offer the life affirming spark of connection most of us seek in our relationships, at least early on, before familiarity sets in to dull the electric current in our bodies down to a manageable thrum.  The bones are her epiphany, if you will, a stark depiction of the finality of life and thus an impetus to act without reservation on her deepest desires before it’s too late.

Susan: The bones as epiphany.  How interesting.  Also what you wrote above about the Early Renaissance painters putting a skull within a living scene brought to mind Georgia O’Keefe, a modern painter who uses skulls and bones in her work.

I think this is a very sexy poem.  You write:

“Your mouth tastes of sea salt, / … / drink you into my mouth.”

JP: Yes, let’s just say one can interpret that allusion to physical activity in any way he or she pleases. I took out one of those mouths for the poem’s publication at Ramshackle Review, and I like the poem either way, but I wanted the physicality that using the word twice brings to the mind’s eye.  Physically, the mouth is a sexual locus.  I am sitting in my library at home surrounded by three O’Keefe reproductions as well as an enlargement of her photograph as an older, beautiful woman taken by her lover Alfred Steiglitz, so I appreciate the idea that my description of the aesthetics I had in mind while writing this poem made you think of her. She’s one of my heroes.

Susan: Oh, Joani, that’s so cool!  I can’t get over that I visualized O’Keefe from the poem and there you are surrounded by her paintings, as well as her photo (taken by her lover who, of course, is an incomparable and famous photographer).  I sensed a lot going on in this poem.

You write:  “The skeletal shadow sinks eastward / ”

What made you choose eastward, as opposed to another direction?

JP:  The literal answer is that at Playa Encanto, the beach on which the whale has draped his milky bones, the sun sets directly over the water, leaving figures and skeletons as elongated shadows flowing east up the dunes and over the patches of grasses that dot them.  On a metaphorical level, the eastward direction reaches out toward the next dawn, another chance. Death, the bones, their shadowy implication, reaches out toward life, a rising sun.  I like the idea that people, no matter their age or circumstance, can always choose to change.  Life is filled with renewal and possibility.  That is why the title uses the imperative. The speaker asks the “tourist,” observing his own life, to stop lurking behind the lens and become the picture, meet the speaker on a different psychological plane and join in the dance like the twinned dolphins streaking silver over the sea.

Read “Put Down Your Camera and Love Me” by JP Reese

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Gill Hoffs

    Fascinating! I do look forward to Monday chat. I love that this poem seems to be such a part of your life, JP, wrestling with it for over a decade speaks of your dedication to poetry, and your transitions as a writer. I’d love to see the timeline with each version, and see how it morphs and changes as you grow. Susan – great interview [as ever!]

  2. Marcus Speh

    i love this poem which i only discovered through this interview (thanks!) — i love everything with white whale bones in it anyway, but this is a particularly captivating piece, really visual as discussed. tele-transported me elsehwere right away. lovely.

  3. James Lloyd Davis

    Transliterate in so many ways, this poem of place captures the essence of those concepts that, once written, become the sole property of the reader and a fertile point of departure for imagination. Life/death, life/vida, culture/cultura, beginning/ending … in the bones, the whitewashed bones and the salt of Puerto Peñasco/Rocky Point (more duality, magical place dry/wet simultaneously). As Marcus says, profoundly visual, as Susan suggests, insinuationally sensual, it’s the kind of poem you can revisit. Fascinating interview. I love knowing that it continued for a decade in construction, change.

  4. Sam Rasnake

    Wonderful poem as backdrop for this discussion. Enjoyed the exchange.

  5. Darryl Price

    Such a beautiful work of art–and this conversation shows how that art is made out of our memories and desires and our own courage to live and continue to wonder at the lives we lead. The questions and answers here perfectly form the circle made between us as we invest our minds in reading, consuming the creativity offered. Thanks to both of you for this candid look.

  6. Kathy Fish

    Fascinating interview, Joani and Susan. Thank you for leading me to the amazing poem I would have otherwise missed. A writer who continues to work on a piece even after it’s published, is a writer after my own heart.

  7. Bill Yarrow

    GREAT interview! Loved the probing questions and the insightful and eloquent responses. Well done!

  8. Meg Tuite

    That poem is exquisite! I loved your interview, Joani and Susan! Always love to hear how a piece comes together!!! And you’ll have to come out to Santa Fe to the O’Keefe museum and visit!!! Thank you for another outstanding chat!!!

  9. Robert Vaughan

    Your Monday chat serves a multi-fuction for all of us at Fictionaut. First of all, you often select works of art, like this poem that many might not have seen when JP first posted it. Also, the conversation is layered, and drops me into this discovery process of how subliminal and wondrous the power of creativity truly is. Ongoing, this poem might be, and all great writing is, morphing even as we read or discuss. Thanks a ton for this, Susan and Joani, bravo!

  10. susan tepper

    These are such wonderful responses! Thanking you all and to Joani for her amazing poem that inspired this chat!

  11. Cherise Wolas

    Wonderful to read this exchange. In this world of instantaneous, work that is labored over, and returned to, again and again, over a long period of time, is to be lauded and cherished. Thanks for this!

  12. Jane Hammons

    Thanks to Susan for bringing me (and it looks like some others) to this poem, which I hadn’t read. I love listening to Joani describe her process and how she uses the world around her. And I love Joani for saying that she’s worked for a decade or so on this poem. It’s hard to admit, I think (well, it is for me) how long we spend writing particular pieces. This poem is worth many decades.

  13. Christopher

    Loved this interview, Susan and Joani. I got goosepimples (and I don’t normally get pimples at all) at the Georgia O’Keefe part. Spooky.

  14. Linda Simoni-Wastila

    Wonderful chat! Joani, love the way you’ve lived with this poem all these years, reminds me (at least) to remember the good things in life take time. And the O’Keefe serendipity thing — oooh! Thanks for this, I loved getting a glimpse into you head and heart. Peace…

  15. JP Reese

    Thank you to everyone who read and commented on our Chat. I appreciate your kind replies, and thank you Susan for inviting me and especially for the Earl Grey tea and the petit fours–those with the pink and green frosting were the best.

  16. susan tepper

    Joani, it was so my pleasure to chat with you, I just adore this poem. And I agree that the pink and green frosted petit fours were by far the best!

  17. estelle bruno

    so short and wonderful.
    A really lovely chat Susan and Joan.

  18. Gloria Mindock

    This was a great chat. I always enjoy reading the chats!

  19. susan tepper

    Joani continues to pull in the readers. Thank you Estelle and Gloria for your sweet comments.

  20. MaryAnne Kolton

    Me. Late to the party, as usual. The poem is exquisite. Love things that are forever a work in progress. A history, of sorts, written in verse.
    Thank you Joani and Susan.

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