David Holper has done a little bit of everything: taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. He has published a number of stories and poems, including two collections of poetry, The Bridge (Sequoia Song Publications, 2019) and 64 Questions (March Street Press, 2004, out of print). His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and he has recently won several poetry competitions, in spite of his contention that he never wins anything. He teaches English at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, California, far enough the madness of civilization that he can still see the stars at night and hear the Canada geese calling.
Fishbowl: So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started writing poetry.
DH:. I started writing when I was in sixth grade. That year I had an elderly teacher who was near to retirement who seemed not to like students or teaching anymore. However, about halfway through the year, we had a student teacher named Miss Merrill come into class. She was beautiful and charming, and I was entirely smitten with her. I recall she took us out to a stand of redwood trees near our classroom. She asked us to write poems about our experience. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing, but the next day, she read my poem to the class. In that moment, I decided I wanted to be a writer.
Since then, I have gone on to write and publish numerous short stories, poems, articles, reviews, but the bulk of my work has been in writing poetry. I have published two collections of poetry. I am currently the first Poet Laureate for the City of Eureka, California, serving from 2019-2020
Additionally, I have been a writing teacher for the last 30 years, teaching both high school and college. I have taught for the last 20 years at College of the Redwoods, a community college in Eureka, California.
Fishbowl: How would you describe your style of writing? Where does it come from?
DH: I enjoy telling stories, so I often rely on narrative poems to help tell stories about travel, adventure, history, and that is not surprising since my training in graduate school was in fiction. However, I also enjoy experimentation, and in the collection I am working on now, I used a series of 107 untranslatable words (mostly from other languages) to generate short poems that help to illuminate each word. In fact, there are several of these word poems following this interview. I had a lot of fun writing these poems. To generate them, I went with my youngest daughter to a café, and she would read while I would write. Many of these poems were written quickly and quite spontaneously, although I have been back through the collection now for numerous revisions, which has been a slower more thoughtful process. However, I tried in the revision process to make the poems more vivid, visceral, yet retain their spontaneity. Among these poems, I would say that only a very few are narrative: many delve into some aspect of life, where I offer a conception of the word coupled with an image or a brief moment of experience.
Fishbowl: What are you reading right now?
DH: I am reading a couple of books. I have been rereading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems. I like her range and voice as a poet, and I find I am learning so much about her politics, her personality, and her craft in going through these poems again.
I am also reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, which is looking both at the effects of global warming in the present and the effects in the coming, warming future. I teach an environmentally themed composition course, and I am always looking for a better book on global warming. There are many of these books, but unfortunately, most are too political, too scientific for a lay reader, or simply not well written. This book is an exception: the writing is clear, thoughtful, and insightful. It is not too technical, and it provides a wide-ranging examination of the issues that we are facing.
Fishbowl: So, shameless self-promotion time. What projects do you have going on right now?
DH: As the current Poet Laureate of Eureka, California, I am tasked with writing four poems this year about the city I live in. Just this week, the city returned Tuluwat Island to the Wiyot Tribe. This island had been the site of a massacre in 1860, in which whites murdered about 250 Wiyot, after which the whites seized the land. This is the first known transfer of land from a city to a tribe, and I want to write a poem that both memorializes this incident and speaks to the truth of the genocide that occurred.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, I am in the process of revising my new collection of untranslatable word poems. I also wrote a book about writing and publishing fiction several years ago while I was on sabbatical. As soon as I finish the book of untranslatable words, I am going to go back and start to revise the craft book on fiction.
Fishbowl: Any social media links you would like to share so our readers can connect and learn more about you and your work?
Fishbowl: So, tell us a bit about your featured poems.
DH: My featured poems center on the efforts we put ourselves just to get through the day, by fair means or foul. It stems from my own battles with depression and mental health.
Fishbowl: Let’s take a look at the pieces.
DH: Sounds good!
The first time she says okay, everyone
is human, everyone
The second time, she tolerates
your stupidity, but she gives you that look
as if to say, try me again and die
in my sight. Yes, you best heed
the warning before you figure out
she is speaking literally.
Ilunga (Bantu): “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time,” and – in the opinion of 1,000 linguists surveyed on the subject – the world’s most difficult word to translate.
In St. Petersburg one summer
long ago, the sun was damned
if it would set, so we walked
most of the night. We walked
past cathedrals and cemeteries,
shuttered shop windows and curtained apartments.
Ghostly we drifted along in the pale summer air.
Sometimes we glided past the other insomniacs,
looking for what? Not one of us could say:
it was only a pleasure found in our feet,
with sleep on holiday—and walking
the only way to while away the beauty
of those magical hours.
Flâner (French, verb): Perhaps one of the most Parisian
of all French words, the verb “flâner” was defined
in the 19th century by the Paris literary crowd.
It refers to the art of leisurely strolling the streets of
Paris without any goal or destination simply for the
pleasure of soaking up the city’s beauty. These aimless
pedestrians are known as “flâneurs.”
When you see the pictures of people in Reykjavík,
it causes a wellspring of longing for a place
you’ve yet to set foot. How can you be homesick,
you wonder, for a place
you’ve never cast a shadow on? No matter.
Some geographies are only mapped in the heart.
Fernweh (German, noun): a longing to travel, missing
a place you’ve never been. Literally “farsickness” or
“longing for far-off places”
It gathers everywhere: on the leaves
of house plants, on the table
where we sip a cup of coffee; on our faces as we sleep;
It makes no difference
if it came from the first parchment
on which a poem was written or the remains of some saint.
Sitting in my chair at sunset watching the motes float golden,
I see it clearly: If we breathe in
the remnants of stars,
what of it?
someone will do the same
Dustsceawung (Old English, noun): contemplation of the fact that dust used to be other things – the walls of a city, the chief of the guards, a book, a great tree: dust is always the ultimate destination. Such contemplation may loosen the grip of our worldly desires.
When the spirit seizes you,
there is no such word as no.
Your body belongs to something
so much greater than yourself: your soul,
this something that pokes out
through your skin, so every witness feels
their heart quicken
as the whirling dervish of passion
unleashes itself—and the only response
Duende (Spanish, noun): Duende or tener duende (“having duende”)
loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion,
The artistic and especially musical term was derived from the
duende, an elf or goblin-like magic creature in Spanish mythology.
Fishbowl: I think the concept of creating poetic pieces around words that are heavily abstract in their meaning and difficult to translate is brilliant. Where did this inspiration of yours come from?
DH: I had been using a prompt with my poetry students that involved these words. I would have a basket of these words and their definitions, and students would draw a word and do a quick write poem based on the words. Students really enjoyed discovering these words and writing poems about the concepts, often which were familiar to them, but they had no word to describe it.
When I started to do research on these words, I discovered there were a huge number of such interesting words that people have catalogued on the Internet. I decided that I wanted to create a compendium of 109 of these words to imitate the Japa Mala, the prayer beads that Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs use in their spiritual walk, and in this same sense, the book would become a spiritual exploration of language through the poems.
Fishbowl: I was immediately drawn to “Duende” for many reasons. Most of all, however, I feel like you captured the concept of duende perfectly in the line “…so every witness feels/their hear quicken/as the whirling dervish of passion/unleashes itself—and the only response/is wonder.” Such a powerful manifestation of the abstract and a sublime last line. ‘Duende’ is a main focus of mine, currently, in terms of poetic work: a rather new obsession (thanks to Mr. Lorca). In looking at your creations, how do YOU do ‘duende”?
DH: I think I have always understood what duende is—or what it feels like, whether I am witness to someone else expressing it or I am the channel through which such a force manifests itself. Two summers ago, my wife and I visited Spain for the first time, and while we were in Barcelona, we went to go see a dinner show of Flamenco dancers. The dancers were all quite good, but one female dancer, in particular, had this quality to her dancing—and it was mesmerizing watching her. Later, when I was writing the poem, I thought of her and the way in which the auditorium was riveted by dancing, her passion, her nuance. It’s as if she had cast a magic spell upon the lot of us, and she simply led us where her art would go.
Fishbowl: I am utterly fascinated by the concept around your book Language Lessons: A Linguistic Hegira, where these works come from. Can you speak to the varied influences that had a hand in putting this publication together and how the layers interconnect?
DH: As I mentioned earlier, there are numerous lists of such words on the Internet. In addition, there are several artistic interpretations of these words, such as Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders or Other-Wordly: words both strange and lovely from around the world byYee-Lum Mak (Author), Kelsey Garrity-Riley (Illustrator). In considering hundreds of these types of words, there were words that I decided I would avoid or that didn’t fit with the overall concept of the book. Ultimately, it came down to the words seemed to naturally belong in the collection.
Fishbowl: What is next for David Holper?
DH: I will be retiring from teaching in a couple of years, and I plan to go hike the Camino in Spain from the St Jean Pied de Port, a town on the French border to Muxia on the western coast of Spain, which is a hike of 780 kilometers (roughly 500 miles). Although I do not know what writing will come out of the journey, I know I will keep a daily journal of my experience. I will have to see whether it turns out to be a book of poems, a nonfiction account, or something else. Regardless, I know that the book will address the spiritual aspect of this pilgrimage, which people have been walking for about 1000 years.
Fishbowl: Great, David! Any parting thoughts? Advice for aspiring writers out there?
DH: Yes, I would strongly encourage aspiring writers to go read Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I particularly like her chapters on shitty first drafts, perfectionism, and KFKD radio. I love her wit, her humor, her experience, and her sage advice on how to approach the blank page. For me, one of the things about writing that I have learned over the years is that to get anything done, I have to be disciplined about creating a time and a place to write. I cannot let my family, my work obligations, my phone, or any other distractions pull me away from that time and place. If I had to offer any advice, it would be this: schedule yourself time to write—and then honor that commitment to yourself. I have never regretted taking the time to write. Never.
Fishbowl: Last question… What would you want the epitaph on your gravestone to say?
DH: It might be that last line from Theodore Roethke’s well-known villanelle “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.”