By Jesse DiMeglio, JAC Intern
Recently, JAC had the chance to ask JAC network artist Sean J. White a few questions about his recent publication through Alien Buddha Press, a chapbook of poetry titled, “The River is a Lake”. Sean is a profound poet and visual artist working primarily in figuration and mosaic collage. Sean has been incarcerated for the past twenty-five years. In that time, he has had his poetry published in various literary journals competing against the work of writers who have MFAs and PhDs.
Jesse: The book has something of a narrative feel. Did you originally write each poem in the order they were presented in?
Sean: No. I wrote them as they came, mostly a few lines at a time. Once I had about a dozen of them, and saw an opportunity for something narrative, I started to position them, as well as plan out the rest of the book.
J: Do you remember which poem was the first you wrote? Which came last?
S: Well, I wrote this from–I’d say–2016 to 2018, so I don’t remember specifically the first and the last. Vaguely, “sand castles,” “something akin to flight,” and “the millpond” appeared early. Knowing myself, I’d guess everything built from “overboard.” The interludes probably came last, but I don’t recall exactly.
J: Is there emphasis and meaning behind the couplet stanza choice, or was that just a stylistic decision?
S: Any meaning that does exist stems from the bricks of haiku and renga that form part of my poetic foundation. That is to say, the Zen concepts are fundamental in those poetic methods: distilling an idea (from image) into a single breath’s worth of words.
J: Do you care to expand on the metaphor,”the river is a lake”? What does it mean in your mind? What does it mean in relation to death and loss and suffering?
S: There’s a lot to unpack there. First,”the river is a lake” is a dialectic–two things that are different, and yet equally true. How is death and loss and suffering anything but a transition, at least for the living? If life is a river, and humans are social beings, then loss, of any kind, alters the course and shape of that river, making it perhaps a shallow, stagnant lake for a part of its distance. Yet it can remain a stretch of river, a portion of a watershed.
J: In “the rapids” I almost pick up on a sense of temptation as if to give in to the water, and that feels further elaborated in “overboard,” when you write “semi-precious turquoise/how do I breathe”, which shows the beauty and temptation and potential for harm. If this ultimately ends in suicide, is that known from the start? Is that what the journey was set and based upon? Or is this a progression leading up to that final decision?
S: [a pause] Well, do you think a severely depressed person would make a snap, impulsive decision like that? Put it this way: Does a person make a snap decision on what to eat for lunch? You might say,”sure, sometimes,” but really a number of factors play out consciously and unconsciously. You don’t swerve through traffic the moment you see a towering Burger King sign. It could be “I didn’t make it to the gym, I’ve gotta eat light,” or “I had burgers yesterday.” Even a simple decision is a contemplative journey. Is that the narrative of the book? Yes. Does the narrator know what will happen? Do any of us ever really know what will happen until it does?
J: If you’re comfortable sharing, would you like to speak on how much of this is in relation to your own experiences of mental health? What was the experience like of sitting and writing these out?
S: At the time I was writing these, it was discovered I suffered hypothyroidism. The thyroid regulates so much of our bodies, and mine, being out of whack, sent some really bad messages to me. As an incarcerated person I don’t have the same range of options I wrote about in a long poem called “Contemplation” (The Florida Review, winter/spring 2018, but I was practicing my bowlines and looking for a good anchor. My long incarceration has also played a role in my continued depression. Life feels as if I have nothing to offer it, and, coupled with the hopelessness of my circumstances, I often wish things would end.
[a pause] As it relates to the experience of writing these ideas out, well, it’s kind of cathartic in a way. When I write, I often dig deep into myself to what it is I really think and feel, to contemplate the rivers of thought as they meander.
J: Along with being a clearly profound poet, you’re also a visual artist. Have you ever tried to visually depict what you’ve created here?
S: As a visual artist, my focus has always lain toward figuration. I am not well-practiced at landscape, and don’t feel much inclined to render it on a surface. Nevertheless, inasmuch as it translates to figurative depictions of those same ideas, I would say that I do. Perhaps people could discern connections between the book and images such as, say, “Out of the Frying Pan and into the Hellfire.”
J: That’s in your JAC portfolio, isn’t it?
J: “if wishes were dry land” feels particularly resonant to me. Almost like it encapsulates my experiences and feelings with every other poem in those lines. Do you have a poem or line from the book that does that for you?
S: Hmm. Well, the cheap answer is every poem encapsulates my thoughts and feelings. [Laughter] However, a couple of my favorites are “the rapids,” and “the language of water.” I think, really, those two define the theme of the book–expression of thought, and the inevitability of fate (even if we, perhaps, have some control of that fate).
J: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers regarding this book, or anything else in general?
S: Touching back on the fate comment, I’d like to think of it in terms of the multiverse philosophy. In that, multiple threads, and thus universes, veer from each decision each of us makes. Thus, the narrator would both follow through with suicide as well as continue living–another dialectic.
In fact, science seems to lend credence to that theory. If you look at quantum experiments, scientists can seemingly pull something from nowhere. Plus, there’s always the tired mention of the Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment, a thing simultaneously alive and dead, further suggesting divergent universes in which each event occurs.
You can find more of Sean’s art through his personal blog and website, and his portfolio on JAC’s website. A few of the poems from his book, The River is a Lake can be seen on Alien Buddha Press’ website and you can purchase your own copy of the book here.
One thought on “Artist Spotlight: Sean White’s The River is a Lake”
Indeed, the river is a lake but you’ll have to read the interview to find out exactly why. Thank you for bringing this important poet and artist to our attention.