Mark Simpson

Pine Row Issue No. 6 Winter 2022-23 - Featured Poet

Grief is Best

Chair-back anti-macassars grandmother used to soak

up hair oil and pomades from travelers we found

in the top drawer of the guest-room bureau, unlaundered,

weeks after she had died.

Like most of what we found, we placed them in plastic bags,

twist-tied, secure. The rest we sorted—this for Jane, that for Mike,

a pile for Harriet and her kids. It's a good feeling to be done

with The Disposal of Effects.

After the minister's final prayer, the last handful of dirt

thrown on the grave, the fear of who-might-be-next

becomes an itch, a chafe, a prick. Sorting

of the effects makes you realize that you, too,

will go like that. It doesn't help to think you could have

years yet to undo the mistakes you know you've made

and won't make again. You vow to change your will:

"Children," you will write,

"after you dispose of me, burn the house.

Grief is best when unencumbered by sorted things."

They, of course, will think you've told another joke and bag

the things, then throw them out.

Interview with Mark Simpson

How did you get started writing poetry?

I began writing when I was a kid because I started reading (and listening to) poetry then. Two instances, in particular: Bob Dylan, c. 1967, rural Nebraska. It was a random pick, that LP with the defiant-looking, cigarette-smoking guy on the front. I was a defiant 16-year-old, so that record seemed a good choice—even thought I had never heard of Dylan.

But that album--I don’t remember which one it was, but post-Newport Folk Festival—I listened. And listened. I was bowled over. By the language. Hard to separate from the music, I know, but the language…I had never encountered language that rich in image and drama and emotion. I wanted that language. And I wanted to make something like it.

About the same time, I discovered Poetry magazine. In our high school--a fine example of the rural/provincial high-school zeitgeist of the time—study hall was in what we euphemistically called the library.

I loved libraries. I spent my time browsing—including the magazine rack, which had maybe two dozen publications, and there, next to Time, Life, and Modern Farming magazines, I found Poetry magazine—looking a bit forlorn next to the cover of Life and the others—but also austere, scholarly--and inviting. So I dipped into it. Another Dylnaesque experience. The language again. The explosions and complications and exaltations—I wanted that, too. I probably didn’t understand half of what I read, but I wanted that language.

Who has had the biggest impact on you as a poet?

Teachers, mentors, poet-colleagues. And of course other poets, though not one particular author. It depends on the poet I’m reading at the time. That said, I’ve had poet-periods. An Elizabeth Bishop Period. A Mark Strand Period. A Jorie Graham Period. A Charles Wright Period.

I do think it is important for poets to read others than Those Writing Now. For me, recently, Moore and Stevens and the 17th century—Donne and Herbert in particular.

I would like to express my gratitude to all the above. I have borrowed much and mercilessly. No anxieties about it.

What inspires your poetry?

Words. The possibilities of language. Landscape. Negative space and the experience of looking in, the problem of entering it. And, of course, other poets.

What is next for you?

Tomorrow morning I plan to open my spiral-bound notebook of white lined paper and begin writing.

Anything else you'd like to share?

I’ve published the chapbook, Fat Chance, Finishing Line Press, 2013.

Mark Simpson has worked as a researcher, teacher, technical writer, and instructional designer. He and his family farmed for many years in the Snohomish River Valley, Washington, where they raised blueberries and other fruit. He now farms several acres on Whidbey Island, Washington, raising what the land allows. He has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition Studies from Purdue University.

Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sleet (Pushcart Prize nominee), Broad River Review (Rash Award Finalist), Columbia Journal (Online), Third Wednesday, Backchannels Review, Flyway, and Cold Mountain Review.