Allamanda by Biswarup Ganguly, via Wikimedia Commons. “The garden flower, Allamanda cathartica, also known as yellow bell, golden trumpet, buttercup flower or har-kakra in Bengali.” Photograph taken in mid-monsoon at Kolkata.
I became acquainted with poet Earl B. Frederick and his work when I reached out to readers this summer on my Greenwoman newsletter. I told readers I wanted to make a deeper connection, asked them to share their work, their feedback, and I even put out an invitation to get together for a drink or garden tour if they were in town. Earl was generous enough to share his link on allpoetry.com and his website, Rock Bottom Imagineering. What a treasure trove! I learned that Earl was not only a wonderful poet, but that he had a background at NASA, that he created his own outdoor brick oven, that he gardened and grew apple trees (he even has an apple press). In turn, I told US Represented editor Eric Stephenson about Earl’s work (I have a weekly Greenwoman column there), and Eric, an English professor at one of our local colleges, really liked it, too. Two of Earl’s poems have been published on USR so far, “Tree of Life,” and, this week, “Circle“. Today I’m finally sharing this poetry with you, interspersed with an interview about Earl’s work. But first, a poem!
Unimaginable, for me:
a year without the harsh changes
of seasons, the cold, the heat,
the brown the green,
a time to sow,
a time to reap.
a year-long season with the glossy
leaves, the on-fire blossoms;
Allamanda, santan, caryota,
I know six months of life then death,
You know life forever.
Flora’s Forum: I read in your bio that you’ve been writing poetry since your teens. What inspired you to start? When was the first time your work was published?
Earl Frederick: Doesn’t every teenager try to write poetry? Bottom line is probably “hormones” and the unrequited loves of the teenage years. So much romantic tragedy in your life. Also, I was a teenager in the 1960’s; there were so many role models for indignation regarding a wide range of social issues. And you can express anything in a poem.
Those years though, I was the closet poet, a “Dear Diary” kind of compilation. It wasn’t until my mid to late 20’s (1970’s) until I ever dared offering my work up for publication. I submitted some work to the poetry column of the Delaware State News edited by a E.A.Barrell (god bless him!). He was very kind to publish a few pieces, but was kindest in his encouragement to continue writing. I never met Mr. Barrell, but still think of him fondly. He knew that eventually a writer will find their voice. Time, and the continued reading of other writers, will guide you, but persistence and practice are the keys.
Flora’s Forum: Your bio says you were educated in earth sciences at college and worked for NASA. Can you tell us a little about that? Did you write poetry during your career?
Earl Frederick: Ha ha, I never let work get in the way of anything! Yes, my college education consisted of a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in geology and meteorology, mostly. Both are sciences that emphasize observation. From 2007 until early this year, I had been posting poems to, of all places, a free blog site hosted by Weatherunderground.com.
I always felt obliged to keep some element of nature in my contributions, so that for the past 8-ish years, focus was fortuitously pointed in the nature direction . . . what a gift! How many poems have been written about snow? About summer rain? Like shooting fish in a barrel. I put myself on a poem-per-fortnight (I always wanted to use that word in a sentence!) regimen. WUnderground removes your blog from active status after 14 days, so I tried to keep my blog visible by keeping to a schedule.
My 37-year- (and counting, I still work for a contractor to NASA part-time) career was conducive to writing, affording me travel to “exotic” places: Morocco, Chile, Greenland (22 visits), and even Antarctica, and my work afforded me hours of solitude while tending equipment on the ground while my colleagues were flying about mapping the earth (since 1991, primarily ice caps in support of NASA’s climate change initiative).
Flora’s Forum: Your work at NASA’s a great segue into your next poem, one I especially loved.
Alexander Jamieson, Celestial Atlas, Plate 2, via Wikimedia Commons.
New to the Night
“We never see this many stars”,
As Venus, Jupiter, Antares winked down.
A hint of the Summer’s Milky Way
Still lay in mystery
Even after my hand waved across the sky
Tracing the path.
And then, finding Polaris/North seemed a miracle
To someone unfamiliar with dark nights.
A few days later…home,
I felt at ease in the ocean of distant light
Where two bears stood beside
A milky river of stars
Eternally waiting for a fish to jump.
The scorpion’s heart throbbed red,
Two sister planets had yet to rise.
Dark was the night,
But empty it was not.
The wailing sirens
Are now happily replaced
By screeching owls.
Flora’s Forum: What do you enjoy most about your art?
Earl Frederick: I love words! Etymology, sound, their malleability (make up your word if none exists . . . the hyphen is an amazing tool!). I always have something I want to say in a poem, but it might only be a two-word phrase that I read or heard. The fun begins when something more rises from so little.
Flora’s Forum: What is the most difficult thing about writing poetry?
Earl Frederick: I somehow don’t find anything difficult about writing, it’s like if there is an idea, there will eventually be a poem. I wonder at times who exactly is writing, it’s like I’m holding the pen, facilitating the real poet. I’ll leave you to figure that one out, I sure can’t. Maybe that method of just waiting is the most difficult part: being patient, trusting.
Flora’s Forum: Do you have a Muse?
Earl Frederick: The easy answer is yes, Erato, the classic muse of poetry. If you mean a living muse, I’d say, not really. Was it Dante who had Beatrice as his muse or object of affection? The corniest answer would be yes, Mother Nature; things natural have given me most of my poems.
Flora’s Forum: You know I don’t find that corny at all! Do you have a favorite time and/or place to write?
Earl Frederick: I have written most poems in the evening. That said, my editing, the 2nd, 3rd etc. writes, are done at any time. As to place, even though I write in the evening, my ideas come anywhere and anytime.
Flora’s Forum: What’s your favorite season to write about, and why?
Earl Frederick: I’m not a particular fan of summer (except for home-grown tomatoes) so I’d say my favorite season is the 9 months around summer. If you scan through my summer poems you will find a recurring theme bad-mouthing cicadas, the summer ear scourge.
Flora’s Forum: What’s your favorite poem/poet?
Earl Frederick: Early on I was captivated by Shakespeare’s sonnets and the poems of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and still keep copies of their works handy. I tried writing like them, but never could or would master their styles. Realizing that was important, I had to search for a style that I was comfortable with, settling on the much easier free verse form. No rules! No restrictions! Then, I discovered haiku, and fell in love (Basho is probably my favorite). Nature-themed, succinct, but still with the 17 syllable (17 English syllables, anyway) challenge. Another favorite poet is Laura Crozier.
My favorite poem? Though not my favorite poet, Robert Frost hit a homer with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Who can compete with:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,….”
A close second is Mary Oliver’s “Red”; it makes me cry.
Flora’s Forum: Yes, the one about the foxes, and death. It’s poignant indeed. Who are your favorite prose writers?
Earl B. Frederick, photo by Thomas Overly.
Earl Frederick: My favorite prose poets: Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Jose Saramago.
Flora’s Forum: I can see the economy of many of your favorites in your work. I’m going to switch gears now, to gardening. You live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Tell us about that, and when you started gardening. Who taught you? What do you like to grow? Do you grow vegetables?
Earl Frederick: The Eastern Shore (of Virginia) consists of two Virginia counties separated by the Chesapeake Bay from the rest of Virginia. I live about 5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the east and 10 miles from the Chesapeake to the west. It is rural in its nature with most of the economy depending on agriculture (animal feed grains or chicken production). To the north is the tourist island of Chincoteague (think “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry) and The NASA base at Wallops Island. Two hours to the south, and across a 16-mile-long bridge/tunnel spanning the mouth of the Chesapeake, is Norfolk, VA.
I was very close to my mom’s parents, spending summers with them in the coal region of Pennsylvania (Shenandoah). My grandfather was responsible for so much that I am and do. He let me help him in his garden and greenhouse and thus got me interested in growing plants. His stories prompted me to learn apple tree grafting long after he had died. He was a carpenter in the mines and always let me work in his shop, encouraging me mostly to fear nothing new, to always try, to ask questions.
My parents, too, liked gardening, even though they (we) lived in a row house in a small city (Lancaster, PA , self-proclaimed “Garden Spot of the world”). Their postage-stamp-sized back yard was bordered by tomato plants, onions, peppers or whatever struck my Mom’s fancy, even a flower or two!
I like to think that I am a good gardener (though this year in particular has me wondering about the “good” part) and grower of perennials, especially under-utilized native species. I dabble in bonsai (I have a 55-year-old grapefruit tree that my grandmother started from a seed!) or at least the Chinese version that doesn’t use wiring the branches to attain form.
Flora’s Forum: That’s a great history, and I have to say “Wow” on that 55-year-old grapefruit tree from your grandmother. That is cool! What inspires you in the art of gardening?
Earl Frederick: I see a general lack of interest in gardening, especially growing vegetables. My parents told me about the Victory Gardens that people were encouraged to grow during the second World War. There was a resurgence during the 1970’s with the back-to-the-earth movement. I’m hoping that we are just in the middle of one of the low-interest periods, but I see a growing trend toward hybrid species and a disinterest in the “heirloom”/open-pollinated varieties. I bet a lot of people in the past worried about the next generation, but my concern is a general loss in the need for independence . . . I don’t mean cut the wires, grab your gun kind of independence, just the kind that doesn’t let simple skills slip from our repertoire.
Flora’s Forum: Maybe you’re not seeing it, but there has been a renewed interest in these skills in the last decade. A lot of people trying to go “off the grid,” and learning how to grow food, be more self-sufficient. On my urban street, we have two people raising chickens and one also has honeybees. These are people in their early 30s. Community gardens, which were big in the WWII area out of necessity, are coming on strong. So, don’t give up hope! We’ll keep those arts alive. Now, you mentioned that you might have a book project in the works. Tell us about that.
Earl Frederick: I thought that the book project was a secret.
Flora’s Forum: Nope, you mentioned it in an email. Cat’s out of the bag.
Earl Frederick: There is nothing definite afoot, though recently I attended a small book fancier’s gathering that featured a brief talk by a small, local publisher about the joys of self-publishing. I know that it would be a vanity publication, but will probably give it a try. Heck, next step is being named poet-laureate, right?
Flora’s Forum: I hope you do put your work in book form, and it is a joy to self-publish! I feel a tone of kidding around with the poet-laureate comment, but I can see it. You’re too humble. Thank you for sharing your work with us, Earl. It’s been great fun!