'Times Beach' Gives Us Theater, Free-form Jazz, Art Cinema, and Southern Gothic Literature

Times Beach is less a collection of poetry as it is an anthology of performance art presented under the guise of poetry.

Times Beach

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Length: 144 pages
Author: John Shoptaw
Price: $24.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-02

There's much to like about Times Beach, even for the casual poetry fan. John Shoptaw’s strength is unhooking poetry from its past form – a strategic uncoupling of couplets – to turn the medium into its own monstrous and vital form of energy, all the while telling stories of great depth and enchanting readers with its realism. Think of the imagery of Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar’s 2012 film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but written in the free verse style of Amiri Baraka, with the verbal fecundity of detail of Kristy Bowen, and finally, with the humorous, but pointed footnote commentary of Junot Diaz, and you have a better idea of how innovative Shoptaw can be.

As the first poem in the collection, “Blues Haiku” admirably sets the tone, and begs the question why this paperback didn’t come with an accompanying CD of Shoptaw reading his work, because his writing begs to be heard aloud. How else do you explain a stanza like this?

What moving violation, unpaid citation, peccadillo,

drove you, bandido, from what Amarillo, what crime against nature, peccadillo,

so far to the north, oh nine-banded tire tread, armadillo?

Times Beach, winner of the 2015 Notre Dame Review Book Prize, is less a collection of poetry as it is an anthology of performance art presented under the guise of poetry. Over the course of 49 poems – including a set of triple sestinas and a 27-page poem/play – Shoptaw combines elements more in line with theater, free-form jazz, art cinema, and Southern Gothic literature, all the while predicated on Shoptaw’s own life in Missouri, as well as actual historical events and persona such as the 1811 and 1812 New Madrid earthquakes, Henry Schoolcraft, and the contamination and eventual dismantling of the town of Times Beach.

This collection reads like the best travelogue that never set out to be one. Nowhere is this more evident than in the very country poems “Castor Glands”, “Times Beach”, “Salome”, and “Tongues”.

This collection represents so many things, but to those readers like myself who are new to Shoptaw’s work, the two most surprising themes are his unbridled environmental activism, as well as his homage to Native American history and culture, and the concurrent commentary directed at the people who sought to displace those traditions. His own personal statement is summarized in one line and displayed at the top of his faculty page at the University of California, Berkeley: “If you're not a green poet, whatever other kind of poet you are, you're not paying attention.”

My favorite poems that addressed the themes of the environment and Native American history, sometimes at the same time, were “Such Was Lucy Jefferson Lewis’s Hold”, “Oh Well”, “Corn Maze”, “Every Creeping Thing”, “Ghost Squirrels”, and “Itasca”.

The last poem on that list, “Itasca”, was particularly moving as the sharpest social commentary possible by Shoptaw against Henry Schoolcraft and other “explorers” who renamed geographic landmarks that already had Native American names that held meaning, and replaced them with names that were often not even indigenous in origin, but were invented. Worse, these men used the principle of divide and conquer to create enmity between tribes that had not existed before. Writes Shoptaw,

Just the way that Henry Schoolcraft, he who founded Itasca Lake, who

married an Ojibway woman, Maiden-of-the-sound-the-stars-make,

pioneering Chippewa linguist, (thanks to her) Algonquin linguist,

chief ethnologist of his century, font of Native-American studies,

U.S. Indian Historian, far-flung tribal census-taker, who

bound the myths his wife had Englished, Jane, the unattributed author

(this anthology, Algic Researches, being the source for Hiawatha),

four years on, as Indian agent, in the capital, on his birthday,

negotiated a general treaty, Indian titles all extinguished,

played the Ojibwe off the Ottawa, turned the one against the other, a

cession of sixteen million acres, nearly half of Michigan, their

trading debts forgiven, payments, twenty years of cash annuities,

Chippeway, a fertile precinct, happy tilling grounds for hunters,

occupancy with an eye to their eventual removal.

So from winding lakes and forests Schoolcraft hacked out their salvation.

After reading and re-reading Times Beach, I'm less sure now that this is even poetry, at all because it consistently defies convention. Whatever it is, and however we try to box it, these works are brilliant. In “Floodplain”, Shoptaw etches this verse on to our minds: “Each and every one of us writhes with undercurrents. Maybe that’s why we write down our tales. They clear the fertile bottomlands of alternate courses we wouldn’t otherwise have known how to till.” Shoptaw's “undercurrents” run deep, and give us a taste of what true originality represents.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.