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.