It's in the Water

John Whalen honors Spokane poetry legend Tom Davis with a new book

It's in the Water
Matt Weigand
John Whalen just won the Floating Bridge Press chapbook competition with his book Above the Pear Trees.

Maybe there is something in the water.

Maybe Spokane's recent poetic renaissance can be explained by something as huge and life-affirming as the Spokane aquifer. Whatever the cause, the effects are obvious: poetry flourishes here, both in public performance and in publications: online and in magazines and books.

The latest evidence arrives in the form of recognition for the work of Spokane's John Whalen, who was recently announced as the winner of the Floating Bridge Press chapbook competition. Whalen's book Above the Pear Trees, dedicated to the late, great Spokane poet Tom Davis, will be published by the press this fall.

Kathleen Flenniken, former Washington state poet laureate and Floating Bridge editor, says that Whalen's ability to blend the "almost abstract" with the achingly concrete stood out for the judges.

"We were really impressed with John's ability to address the issue of loss, of losing someone close to you, and how that can become a kind of burden for the person left behind," Flenniken says.

The poems in Above the Pear Tree illustrate "the almost surreal way the world feels" after the death of a friend, Flenniken says. Several of the poems in Above the Pear Tree are directly addressed to Davis, who passed away in January of 2013.

"I had spent a year writing short stories, and I wanted to get back into writing poetry," says Whalen, whose story "The Great Laws and Harmonious Combinations and the Fluids of the Air" was one of three winners published in the Inlander's 2013 short fiction contest.

"Tom had moved to Seattle by then, so I decided to write a poem a day, for about two months, and sent them off to him in batches of five or six," Whalen says. "So the book stands as a kind of testament to Tom's ability to inspire poetry."

Flenniken says the judges were moved by Whalen's gift for joining the ordinary details of contemporary life to a specific kind of mystery that inhabits his poems.

"John is a master of the almost-abstract," she says. "You never quite know what's going to happen next: shoes might just start falling from the sky. But there is never any doubt that these are poems by someone who is trying to work through a lot of strong emotions — that's never obscured, that is always present."

Whalen agrees that this might be his most accessible work to date. His first full-length poetry collection, Caliban, was published in 2002, and In Honor of the Spigot won Gribble Press's chapbook competition in 2010.

"I had been writing in a certain form, what I called syllabic sonnets, for a long time," Whalen says. "These poems are looser. They're long, skinny poems that address emotions more directly than I ever had before."

That wasn't easy for the poet whose writing is usually more reclusive. "I am cautious, even fearful of sentimentality," he says.

Flenniken, noting all the success the region's writers have experienced as of late, isn't so sure there's some sort of poetic magic in the water.

"Like John, many of these writers are coming out of Eastern Washington University's MFA creative writing program, and there are a lot of fine writers who teach there," she says.

In any case, it can't hurt to drink deeply from Spokane's poetic waters. ♦

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