Thursday, December 6, 2012


"Never explain," Basil Bunting told his students, "the reader is as smart as you are."

This summer, Ted Kooser was kind enough to feature my poem, "The Silver Fish," in his column American Life in Poetry. 

None of my poems have enjoyed so much exposure. Which also means, none of my poems have received so much criticism.

Here's the poem.


I killed a great silver fish.
cut him open with a long

thin knife. The river carried
his heart away. I took his

dead eyes home. His red flesh
sang to me over the fire I built

in my backyard. His taste
was the lost memory of my

wildness. Behind amber clouds
of cedar smoke, Orion

drew his bow. A black moon rose
from the night's dark waters,

a sliver of its bright face
reflecting back into the universe. 

Being someone accustomed to toiling in obscurity, I was both grateful and perplexed by the responses my poem received. 

There is one exchange, in particular, I want to share, from Google Answers. I came across it by doing a Google search on "The Silver Fish."

I hope these comments bring you a smile, too. 

Here's the link:

KYLIE posted this: "I cannot understand 'The Silver Fish' by Shawn Pittard." 

I must say from the 5th stanza onward.

In response to KYLIE'S posting, PATRICK explicates the poem's meaning this way.

To me, one of the themes of the poem is the relation of living thing (the titular silver fish) to the four classical elements (water, earth, fire, air), and its eventual transcendence. The fish lives in the water and is taken from it, is killed by a metal from the earth, is burned on a fire, and rises into the air in the smoke. Compare the "silver fish" to the "sliver" of the moon reflecting back into the universe: 

A black moon rose
from the night’s dark waters,

a sliver of its bright face
reflecting back into the universe.

It makes sense, in this interpretation, that the poet invokes the Greek myth Orion, for the classical elements were a foundation of Greek science.

...Behind amber clouds / of cedar smoke, Orion / drew his bow...

So, what do the Greeks say about amber? Amber was the tears of the Heliades, the "children of the sun" - the daughters of Helios (the sun) and an Oceanid called Clymene (also called Merope, which means "with face-turned" - reference again the moon's "face reflecting"). One myth has it that the hunter Orion courted Merope, and was her lover, at some point.

When the Heliades' "brother Phaethon was struck from the chariot of the sun by Zeus, they gathered around his smoky grave on the banks of the River Eridanos and in their unrelenting grief were transformed into poplar-trees and their tears into golden amber." (see Heliades.html)

So, the poem is actually a multi-layered reverse allegory of the metamorphosis of the Heliades (they came from the fire and air (the sun in the sky), and metamorphosed into earth (trees) at the water (the River Eridanos), whereas the fish came from the water and earth, and metamorphosed into fire and air). Neat!

On the other hand, SYNOPSIS sees it like this:

Shawn Pittard has been fishing. He takes the fish home and cooks it in his back yard, and daydreams about being a famous ancient hunter (instead of an old guy in spectacles who makes his living teaching Creative Writing).

The amber smoke rising from the campfire (which Shawn has build in his backyard) reminds Shawn of all the savage hunters in the old days who used to cook fish they caught themselves on their campfires (out in the forest, surrounded by wild animals). As he daydreams about what a mighty hunter he is (with his $500 fishing-pole and his SUV) he looks up at the sky where he can see the constellation Orion. (In Greek mythology Orion was a mighty hunter who was turned into a constellation by the gods when he was stung to death by a scorpion).

A lot of contemporary US poetry is old fat guys (and old fat girls) daydreaming about how much cooler it would have been to be real people back in heroic times.

It's kind of sad - but then, most poetry is.

Friday, November 23, 2012


My niece was game for a 5:30 a.m. start on Thanksgiving Day, eager to chase the wild steelhead I've led her to believe are the Holy Grail of fly fishing. Like her brother, she is a delightful companion, easy-going and good-natured, and not afraid of a little cold water.

We eased into the river, marveling at the quiet, the egrets, and the sunlight sparkling in the morning fog. We made our way over and around the river bottom's Dali-esque clayheads, mossy rocks, and the debris common to our urban river, those ubiquitous chunks of concrete and rebar, golf balls and metal cans.

Once in casting range of our target run, we settled into the rhythm that makes swinging such a satisfying method of fly fishing. Taking turns with the spey rod, we took a morning walk down the middle of the river.

I found myself hoping we'd begun a Thanksgiving tradition.

This morning, there was an e-mail waiting in my in-box from Trout Unlimited. As is so often the case, it contained the right words to describe yesterday's experience. John Muir's words.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

We were home by mid-morning, frozen toes and all, and joined in the rhythm of the kitchen and the oven, the cutting board and the grill; greeted the aunties and the uncles and the grandparents bearing food and wine and good will. Tradition.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Thursday, October 11, 2012


Photo by Larry Baird

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


In this photo, my nephew celebrates an epic moment during an epic day at Lees Ferry with our guide, the owner of Marble Canyon Outfitters, Mick Lovett.

In addition to putting us on so many fish we lost count of how many we landed, Mick built confidence and skills--in both Riley and me--throughout the day via his understated, yet demonstrably effective, teaching methods.

Nothing could have made Mick and I happier than hearing Riley say, "When we come back next year ..."

My handy Trout Unlimited calendar provides me with better words than my own to describe my days kicking around in the outside world with my inquisitive and good-natured nephew. These come from the month of October, and Rachel Carlson:

 "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Sunday, June 10, 2012


 Fisher-Poet Danyen Powell brings yet another wild Rainbow to hand.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Sunday, April 22, 2012


Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Robinson Jeffers' iconic Tor House needs a new roof and the Tor House Foundation would like our help raising the funds. If you follow the link in the previous sentence you'll learn how you can help and see my photo of the Tor House at the top of their page.

Ginger Mayerson spotted my photo in a blog posting here at These Rivers, Footsteps of the Masters, and asked permission to use it. I was honored to grant permission, and pleased to see myself credited for the photo and described as "poet and photographer."

It's been years--no, decades--since I've thought of myself as a photographer but there was a time photography was my art. I majored in Studio Art at Arizona State University (and geography, but that's another story, sort of) and came to love everything about cameras and how they helped me see the world.

Minor White described it this way, "...innocence of eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgment of the wonder; it also means to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child - with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder."

ASU had especially good photographers on its faculty but there is one to whom I'll be forever grateful for helping me discover that poetry was, in fact, my art. That photographer was Jack Stuler.

I'd been writing since I was a boy and, because it came naturally, I didn't appreciate that it was an art that required the same amount of discipline and intention as arts newer to me, like photography, did.

Things changed---after many semesters spent walking Tempe, Arizona's desert edges with a 4x5 view camera on my shoulder---when I came inside to create in the studio, aka my studio apartment, and started constructing scenes to be photographed. It started with objects I'd found during those desert walks and brought home. A seed pod. Cactus thorn. An abandoned doll's eye.

Then came the words. And more words. And then to showing my latest efforts to Jack in his office one afternoon, and Jack's observation, over his unlit pipe that, maybe, I was writing poetry.

Jack offered me several (actually, many) hours of independent study credit during the last semester of my senior year to explore poetry. I was tasked to read it, write it, every day, and drop in during office hours once a week to chat with him about whatever was on our creative minds. It was simple and informal.

You see, Jack was a working artist. He taught, and led, by example. He treated his students as working artists, too. We rose to his expectations. And I became a working poet.

Friday, April 6, 2012


It's spring break at Toby Johnson Middle School and there are spring-run steelhead in our river. My nephew and I took advantage of this coincidence to wake up even earlier than he would on a school day. He's been eyeing my 6 weight spey rod for a while now so spring break seemed like an excellent time to focus on his fly-fishing education.

I can sum up our day, in part, with the words of Roderick Haig-Brown: "I have fished through fishless days that I remember happily without regret." And with a minor variation on the words of Professor Higgins: "By Jove, I think he's got it."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


It had been a long time since I'd connected with a steelhead and I found myself, once again, wondering if I might never catch another one of those beautiful, wild creatures. The same feeling comes over me when I haven't written a new poem in a while. Be grateful for the fish and poems you landed, I tell myself. Count your blessings. At a certain point, though, there's no consolation. I need to write a poem, catch a steelhead.

Last week, I went back to square one: the sketch book en plein air. Drawing always gets me seeing again which starts me writing again. Once I'm seeing and writing I start hearing and tasting and feeling, intensely, again. My senses renewed, I wrote a new poem. I needed that poem even more than I thought I did.

This morning, at first light, I went back to square one for a steelhead: spey rod rigged with a Scandi head and floating polyleader, a soft-hackle fly swung down and across on my local waters. Once I find the rhythm of casting, swinging, and stepping downstream, I start reading the water again, seeing and feeling those soft spots that hold steelhead. Once again, I learn to trust the process.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


"I have not forgotten the confused feelings of fascination and revulsion that Panero's poetry--at once violent and vile, beautiful and lyrical, insane and cogent--produced in me. I felt not a little disturbed by the fact that I could be drawn so powerfully by his starkly brutal imagery and raving expressions of tortured misery.

"I knew almost immediately that I had to translate him into English."

--Arturo Mantecon, from the Translator's Note.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Jim DenBoer is the managing editor at Swan Scythe Press, a fine poet, and a friend of mine. We've had lots of fun figuring out how to make short videos using a Flip camera and iMovie software to promote books of poems newly-released from Swan Scythe. We've managed to create yet another one (our first featured poet was Burlee Vang and his book The Dead I Know).

This video features Patricia Killelea reading from her book, Other Suns, and introduces original music by my friend Clemon Charles. This is my second collaboration with Clemon, an extremely talented singer, songwriter, and acoustic guitarist.

To celebrate the release of my new chapbook of poems last fall, Clemon and I put together a set of songs, poems and acoustical transitions that we performed at the Urban Hive in Midtown Sacramento. It was an absolute delight to collaborate and perform with Clemon. Out of that collaboration came many original, musical phrasings. One of which we tapped for use as the theme music for our poetry videos.


Sunday, January 1, 2012