Kim Jernighan, former Editor and current Special Projects editor, interviews Aaron Schneider, the third prize winners in the 2021 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse contest for his poem “Surfing Near Tofino”.
Kim Jernigan: The judges of The New Quarterly’s Occasional Verse Contest work from a fairly loose definition of occasional verse, but your prize-winner, “Surfing Near Tofino”, fits neatly into the category of the occasional poem known as an epithalamion (for those, like me, who don’t remember from their school days, an epithalamion is a song or poem celebrating a marriage (epi means “upon” and thalamos means “bed chamber.”) The wedding depicted in your poem is an unconventional one—the bride and bridegroom arrive at the celebration riding a wave on a surf board (!), having waited for “the best wave and the right moment…” Occasional poems are most often addressed. What’s not revealed in “Surfing near Tofino” is who is addressing this young couple? Are you, the poet, the father of the groom? the Best Man? Was the poem read at the ceremony or written after? Did the couple meet on the break?
Aaron Schneider: I, the father of the groom, read the poem at the wedding ceremony. My son had asked me to write a poem for his wedding.
Kim Jernigan: I have a surfer in the family as well, and I confess I have mixed feelings about it, think about the various dangers lurking below the wave, dangers you evoke with the lines “Rolling deep below,/ a teeming world feeds on itself. Plankton becomes leviathan.” The metaphor acknowledges the need to navigate “the swells and stormy breakers” that marriage sometimes presents. It’s a little like inviting the fairy godmother to the wedding lest she be offended and curse the couple. When did the form of the poem come to you? Have you tried your hand at surfing as well?
Aaron Schneider: I have tried but not pursued surfing although I have wind surfed for years. The couple had also windsurfed avidly so the metaphor was an obvious one; also I recalled a poem by William Stafford about skiers at an airport. Something about wishing everyone smooth boards to slide through life. Something like that.
Kim Jernigan: The line “as you wait”, set to the right and followed by a space, is the pivot on which the poem turns. How did you find your way to it? You also capture the soundscape of ocean with the repeated ‘s’ sounds in the poem. I guess I’m asking here about your poetic process, different, I’m sure, for each poem, but how did you find your way in this poem?
Aaron Schneider: When I write, things take their own way if I’m lucky. All that you mention above just come directly from a subconscious collection of images and impressions stored somewhere, accessible once I start to write the poem. There was, I recall, a strong momentum at the start and then things happened.
Kim Jernigan: What other occasions have you addressed in verse down the years?
Aaron Schneider: The loss of friends, of course.
Kim Jernigan: Are you the only poet in your family or is versifying a family occupation?
Aaron Schneider: I am the only committed poet in my family but my sons show either interest or promise.
Kim Jernigan: What poetic projects are you working on now?
Aaron Schneider: I am trying to put together a new collection (selection) of poems written over the past several years.
Kim Jernigan: If you’re willing, a last question that might give you some more scope: Who are the poets to whom you return? Can you also send us a photo of you (or the newlyweds!) to run alongside?
And an aside: My surfer son, who learned to surf on the west coast where he did a degree in environmental studies at Victoria) and then taught surfing at a resort in Nicaragua, now lives in New York City which, it turns out, has a surf break. Who knew! Alas, he arrived home for the holiday with a bad case of swimmer’s ear, an occupational hazard for surfers I’m told.
Aaron Schneider: Their wedding was at the Victoria Art Museum in the garden. Group of 7 exhibit was the apres wedding treat.
With regard to the poets I return to, there are many including William Stafford, James Dicky, Galway Kinnell, Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Al Purdy, Philip Levine, Earl Birney, Peter Everwine, Michael Crummy, Sharron Olds, Margaret Atwood.
I hope you son’s ear is better. Coincidentally I lived in New York (Brooklyn and Queens) as a child and my second degree was in environmental studies. I loved the beaches on L.I. but knew nothing of surfing then.
Aaron Schneider lives in Cape Breton. His poems have been published in North America and Europe, and read on CBC Radio. His collection, Wild Honey, was published by Breton Books.