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Poet Joanie DiMartino to board historic whaleship for 38th voyage

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published May 18. 2014 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Mystic poet Joanie DiMartino stands at the helm of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan on May 12 at the Mystic Seaport's H.B. duPont Preservation Shipyard.

The restoration and subsequent 38th voyage of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan is nothing less than inspired - and, as such, that a poet will be one of the passengers is particularly appropriate. After all, among the many literary inspirations in the natural world, few resonate more vibrantly than "the sea."

Joanie DiMartino, a Mystic poet and former employee at Mystic Seaport, was chosen for the Morgan voyage and says she is looking forward to the sensorial experiences and what they might trigger in terms of the Muse.

DiMartino's poetry has appeared in numerous national publications, and her first collection, "Strange Girls" - about women in sideshows, circuses and carnivals at the turn of the 20th century - was published in 2010 by New London's Little Red Tree Publishing. A poem from that book, "A Treatise on Handling Snakes," was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Among many of DiMartino's other ongoing projects is a series of poems she started in 2007 about the Morgan and the whaling industry. One of those pieces is called "lost at sea," about a tragic event in 1881 when Morgan sailor John Howland went overboard. (See poem above.)

In the summer of 2013, DiMartino worked with Mystic Seaport exhibits researcher Elysa Engelman and other staffers to install a "Poetry of the Wild" box on-site. It was part of a community-wide project wherein weather-resistant boxes were erected throughout the city - each supplied with notepads and a pencil. Any citizen so moved was thus encouraged to write and contribute poetry. When DiMartino contributed "lost at sea," a shipwright who worked on the Morgan restoration, Jon Day, created the box that housed the poem at the Seaport.

By email, DiMartino, who also has an M.A. in public history from Rutgers, recently answered six questions about her upcoming trip on the Morgan.

Q. What was your reason for wanting to be part of the Morgan voyage?

A. As a former employee at Mystic Seaport, it wasn't long before I became creatively interested in the Morgan and her story.

As a new supervisor of interpretation, I was invited to spend a day shadowing the demonstration squad. As the work day came to a close, we were on the deck of the Morgan, (and) I brought out a pad and pencil and quickly wrote a poem, "Chimney's Afire." After that, I continued to write poems about the whaling industry and the Morgan.

I want to briefly experience in some small way what it physically felt like to be aboard the Morgan. While poetry pares language down to its essential elements, it also involves the senses in fresh ways to engage the reader and audience. This is vital in all poetry, but in particular when the poet is attempting to capture an aspect of the world or a culture that no longer exists.

An experiential component to writing my whaling collection will allow me to best imagine the world inhabited by first mate James C. Osborn or Charlotte Church, the captain's wife and assistant navigator. That way, I can continue to tell their stories - and others connected to this vessel - in poetry, or to revise previously written poems with a deeper understanding and richer description through this intimate experience.

Q. How did you get involved in the voyage?

A. I first learned of the 38th Voyager opportunity when Elysa Engleman emailed me the proposal toward the end of last year. I, of course, was aware of the 38th Voyage, but not of the voyager opportunity until that time. I think it was through the "Poetry in the Wild" connection that Elysa thought I might want to develop a proposal and apply to be a voyager.

Q. Will you actively write poetry during the various voyages?

A. Throughout my leg of the voyage I intend to capture as much sensory detail as possible, so I will be journaling a lot. While I hope to have another spontaneous moment (or many!) where the poems just flow, I realize those moments are few and far between - gifts from the Muses, if you will - and that most of the poems will be written over the rest of the summer and autumn.

Q. Is it hard to go into an experience like the 38th voyage knowing in advance you need to feed off it and create something?

A. I love the idea. It causes all the senses to be more alert and to take nothing for granted. I think it's important to completely give myself over to the experience, whether it's the smell of salt air, assisting in hauling line (if asked or required) or even a sense of seasickness!

The creative mind needs to take in all the information possible, and then have it accessible to the subconscious at a later time. I've said in the past that Herman Melville didn't write "Moby-Dick" on the deck of the "Acushnet" under a blanket of whale blubber; instead, it was years later on a quiet farm in New York that the experience and the writing came together as a novel for him.

Q. There's a huge tradition of sea-related poetry. How aware of that tradition were you as you evolved as a poet?

A. When I was in college, I spent time between classes in the library, poring over Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in particular, and I loved Doré's enchanting illustrations. And John Masefield, too, of course - but it was (and still is!) always Coleridge and his Mariner who captivated me. I return to that poem often.

When I came to this area for the Seaport job, I became much more aware of sea literature, not only "Moby-Dick," which I had already read, but Poe's "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" and sea poems by other poets such as William Meredith's "The Wreck of the Thresher" or children's books like Anderson's "The Serpent Came to Gloucester" and "Heart of the Samurai" by Margi Preus.

Q. How do those experiences translate in the context of whaling?

A. Many poets were inspired by or featured "Moby-Dick." Laurie Roberts-Lorant, Dan Beachy-Quick and Anthony Caleshu have all, respectively, published collections of poems inspired by Melville and his fictional characters.

Yet, as a historian and a poet, I was finding my inspiration more in the Charles W. Morgan's logbooks than in Ishmael's musings. Not that I don't appreciate "Moby-Dick"; I oversaw the Melville Marathon at Mystic Seaport for two years and loved doing so. It was simply that my own unique combination of interests - history and poetry - enabled me to seek out the poetry within the actual history of the vessel's previous voyages.

As I found myself fascinated and creatively challenged by the whaling industry, I realized that the poems I wanted to write were inspired by the stories found within the logs of the Morgan herself; that the unique perspective I could bring to the rising trend of whaling in the literary arts would be a poetry collection based on the history of an actual whaling vessel.

 

MORE

'Lost at Sea' by Joanie DiMartino

"Mr. Howland overboard Oars were thrown then and waste boat

cleared away... he went down before we could get to him."

- Logbook, 12/1/1881, Charles W. Morgan

the beige smooth of driftwood

outstretched as though reaching still

toward fractured waves curling

onto a fog-laden

shore cold light

reflects off the small glass

bud vase rose-less

in this winter's dusk

the whaleman's cup

long empty a dented tin haven

brimmed with gossamer

cobwebs tilted on its side handle

to the splintered table top like an ear

listening for the cries of gulls

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