Poet Kent Shaw is the next in our series of wanderers. Kent’s peripatetic nature has led him out to sea and back again. Landlubbers in West Virginia have got him now, and here’s what he has to say about it.
Where do you originally come from?
I want to say St. Louis. Because it makes me proud to say I’m from the Midwest. I understand for some people Midwesterners are dull. But what’s really dull is Oklahoma, where I spent at least half of my childhood. Everything in Oklahoma is flat. The oldest mountain range in the United States, the Arbuckles, are in Oklahoma, and before the state could be accepted into the union, it had to agree to push the mountains into the earth so that the whole state would be an undying, uniform flatness. There is nothing mythic in Oklahoma. I think I might have broken my fingers in Oklahoma trying to dig up red clay. That’s the most remarkable part of Oklahoma.
But I am from St. Louis. Because the eight years I lived in Oklahoma, I wished I could live in St. Louis. And when I was discharged from the Navy I returned to St. Louis. And, honestly, my wife and I have established a careful account for my emotional immaturity where you have to subtract 8 years from my age to find my Actual Human Maturity. In Actual Human Maturity terms, my years from 24-35 were still formative, like they were on the edge of my childhood. And since I was living in St. Louis during those years, it is undeniably proven that I am of St. Louis stock.
What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?
I like oceans. I am writing poems for a third book right now, and there are oceans everywhere. Moving in. Imposing themselves. Employing financial derivatives. Posing for sculptures. The title to my second book (in manuscript) is Gigantic. The title to my first book (published) is Calenture. And these are both codes for OCEANS EVERYWHERE, MOTHER FUCKERS!! The first time I saw the ocean at sea was in the middle of the North Atlantic. We were steaming to the Persian Gulf. I had followed some friends up to the top of the Tower to look out at the ocean. And there aren’t words for what I saw. The ocean is gigantic. It is blue. But not the blue you’re thinking. It’s a deep blue. The darkest blue. The blue that you reach for from 10-stories at the top of the Tower on the U.S.S Eisenhower, but I assure you that’s still not the blue that you’re thinking. I will be in love with that blue for the rest of my life.
Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?
I live in West Virginia now. And I don’t belong here. And this isn’t an I’m-supposed-to-be-from-the-Midwest kind of non-belonging. West Virginia feels like a foreign country. And I don’t know why that is. But I am not of these people. I felt the same way when I lived in Houston. I am not, will not be, cannot be, have no wish to be Texan. Even a Houston, Texan. I could comfortably spectate on Texans. They are fascinatingly arrogant. But there is something about West Virginians, and I haven’t learned how I am supposed to fit among them.
I am frightened by the poverty in this state. It is insidious. It is unrelenting. I looked up the median income for Huntington, where I live, and it’s a third of the national average. This is no joke. The people who have money live in the mountains so that they are looking down on the city. I used to mock that “noble steed” they put at the doorway for P. F. Chang’s. I thought it was a piece of suburban kitsch. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I took a day trip to Lexington, and I thought the horse aesthetically pleasing.
How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?
The geography of the state is gorgeous. I drive 45 minutes to work. The sunrise over the mountains is beautiful. The trees, bare of leaves, standing in formation at either side of the highway are beautiful. Last year leaving a Starbucks, I saw a herd of 20 deer leaping along the edge of a mountain, and I felt a rush of life. I don’t understand mountains, which is to say I feel humbled and troubled and awed being among them.
Before we moved here, there were mountains in my poems, but they were the Rocky Mountains. My mother lives in Denver. Coming here the fall of last year, the mountains started showing up everywhere in my writing. I suppose mountains and oceans are the primary population of my poems. Essentially I put anything that’s bigger than me in my poems. And since I’m not really that tall, that usually includes most people I meet. And a lot of these people are from West Virginia. And I keep trying to figure out what they’re doing there. And what they think of me.
About the Author
Kent Shaw’s first book Calenture was published by University of Tampa Press. His poems have since appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. He is currently an Assistant Professor at West Virginia State University.
Read Kent’s review of Murder Ballad by Jane Springer at The Rumpus here: