MHR: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for MockingHeart Review, Tyler. I really enjoyed First Breaths of Arrival, your chapbook from Oil Hill Press. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the chapbook? How long was it in the making? How did you envision the collection?
TS: Hi, Clare and MockingHeart, thanks for having me! My chapbook began as a desire to collect my Plains poetry–my poems of place–into a cohesive unit with a large underlying narrative. I wanted to tell the story of my upbringing, and of my observations of Kansas–how it shapes the way I think, and my interactions with nature and individuals. Since around 2012, I’d been drafting and revising poetry along these lines, trying to be respectful of my place in the Midwest and my heritage there. I’d grown up around Kansas poets (my father, William Sheldon, is one, and so were several family friends), and so when I began in poetry it was both the most natural and most urgent direction to take.
I started First Breaths of Arrival while working on my Master of Arts in English at Emporia State University, and I knew I wanted it to be a shorter collection. It grew in tandem with my MA thesis, which focused on Kansas poetry (specifically that of William Stafford, Harley Elliott, and Steven Hind). As my collection grew more cohesive, I approached Oil Hill Press; editor John Jenkinson worked with me as I pared it down, replacing some poems with ones that fit better. Oil Hill released the chapbook to the world in May 2016, the day I graduated with my MA.
MHR: Landscape, place, specifically Kansas is featured strongly throughout and your treatment of it is done with a deft hand. The poems tell us much about Kansas in what is said of it, in descriptions. Can you speak to the poem, “In Kansas,” and tell us a few things that are not said? Maybe lines or images you cut out of the poem? There are also “ghosts” and ancient people in this landscape. Can you speak to this how you drew them in as a poet?
TS: I’m glad to know the treatment of landscape and place is done well! Poems throughout First Breaths deal with the state and its landscape in various ways–“For Kansas Poets” links the landscape to its residents in behavior and thought. “In Kansas” deals specifically with unique Kansas imagery: the Hutchinson salt mine, for instance, is now a museum housing such artifacts as the costumes from Star Wars and Gone With the Wind. As you mention, there are several unsaid pieces of that poem, including Kansas’s influence on poetry at large, and how I learned to be (somewhat) adult while living there.
The line “throw clove cigarette butts into the street” speaks to a pastime I shared with my wife, whom I met in Kansas and was then dating. We’d go for late-night cruises in my Nissan or her Ford coupe, smoking clove cigars and sometimes stopping for take-out. More than that, though, this line hints at possibility; the disparate activities in the poem are examples, suggesting that in Kansas, much more opportunity for exploring oneself can be had. In a way, then, the whole poem is about unsaid truths or opportunities.
The “ancient people” of the Kansas landscape are integral–I’ve long been fascinated with Kansas history and its people. My father collects Native American and Paleolithic artifacts on the Arkansas River as a sort of compelled hobby, so I had early exposure to the evidence people leave of their lives. Former Kansas poet laureate Denise Low discusses her own Native ancestry in several collections of her work, and her explorations fed my fascination with the ghosts of our state. Addressing these through writing felt like both the best fit and a way to contribute to what is very much a place-centered poetic tradition.
MHR: Throughout the collection. there are the interrelationships of men and boys, specifically the speaker of the poems and his elders–father, grandfather. The relationships are drawn very realistically and finely. The notes of coming into manhood are struck purely. I especially loved the poem “Mountains.” Not that it matters to the poem’s truth, but how much of your family history plays into this poem’s narrative? It’s quite colorful. Also, can you speak to the metaphor of “mountains” as you employ it in this poem?
TS: Thanks for noticing the relationship focus! It’s there on several levels–for example, “My Father Teaches Me to Shave” is a true account, and if altered at all from factual happening it would be by my fallible memory rather than any poetic license. My father and I wrote “For Kansas Poets” together over a period of about two weeks, comparing drafts and working them gradually together into their current sonnet form.
“Mountains” is interesting in this regard, as during the time when my grandfather was telling me stories of his father, my own dad was there in the Suburban with us as we drove into the Rockies. So, in a way, four generations of the Sheldon family were present for Grandpa Bob’s stories. His father Hubert Sheldon really was a surprisingly good boxer, a baseball player, and a liquor store owner. And with him, people really did know not to mess around.
In the poem, itself, those mountains work on a surface level–they provide scenery, and context for the conversation that’s the backbone of the poem. They’re also metaphors, I suppose–as we went deeper into the mountains, up to Grandpa’s mountain cabin, we went deeper into family history, with its complexities and intrigue. Another trip to the Rockies is probably due at some point, as I’m sure I still have a lot to learn.
MHR: I think we really covered a great number of interesting points about your eloquent collection. Thank you! The only follow-up question I would ask is if you would speak to the metaphor of a mountain as it relates to a man as a figure/a mountain in a boy’s or young man’s life.
TS: I suppose that mountains have a certain place in boyhood, and probably manhood, as structures that inspire awe. To say, “I’ve been up there,” and certainly to say “I’ve been up there with my father and grandfather” is a point of pride for me–those visits to the mountains gained status as a tradition over time and influenced me. The mountains became a symbol of proving oneself in nature, though in my situation they were a sort of middle-landscape. I wasn’t roughing it, out there in a tent hunting for sustenance, but I did learn a bit from my grandfather about building powder rifles, and how to shoot properly, throw knives with accuracy, cut firewood, tend a stove, and so on.
I’d say those activities are inextricable from being in the Rockies, at least for me–I’m being a bit glib, but you can’t necessarily practice target shooting when you’re in a suburban neighborhood, for example. So yes, mountains have a place in my boyhood and very young adulthood, and one that I remain proud of.
Tyler Sheldon is an MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. He earned his MA in English at Emporia State University, where he taught Composition and received the 2016 Charles E. Walton Essay Award. Sheldon’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in journals throughout the US and in Canada, such as Quiddity International Literary Journal, The Dos Passos Review, Coal City Review, The Prairie Journal, and others. His chapbook First Breaths of Arrival is from Oil Hill Press (May 2016).