We appreciate your time, Justin. To begin with, I’m particularly interested in how you came realize you wanted to write this particular book. You begin to move toward an answer in the third section but, as in all good poetry, nothing is spelled out too explicitly. My sense is that it was an “artistic calling,” but maybe I’m creating that metaphor myself because it fits with the experience of the original settlers of Springville?
Well, first, I had just finished writing a manuscript of poems which was entirely unlike anything I had written before. This was about 2009. I began writing again in the two voices I normally find myself composing (that of more contemporary and humorous themes, and the more contemplative, landscape meditations found in the book). I am not a prolific writer by any stretch of the imagination, so most of the poems I write end up in my manuscripts. It’s almost as if I am always writing with a manuscript in mind—even from the beginning.
I see myself as a poet of place. Not necessarily the whole American Poetry is poetry of place (re: Eliot’s “Four Quartets”) but a poet of place because I love very specific places. Springville, Utah, is chief among them because it’s where I spent 12 years of my childhood and it’s where my family had lived since its settlement in 1850.
While writing these more reflective poems, I was envisioning a manuscript to be a follow-up to my first full length book, Town for the Trees. I have always envisioned a set of three full length collections about Springville, Utah, but I had no real structure for me to create the second book. But ever since I was in college, when I began writing my first poems about Springville, I have felt a calling to draw attention to my home town. First I pictured a book which was a hybrid between the longer narrative poems I admired from David Lee’s work regarding Utah, and the poems I had written for my first full length book. I wanted to incorporate the stories I had been told by people in my family and other people who had lived in Springvillle for large portions of their lives.
I started by writing the shorter, lyric poems for the book while waiting for the correct context and form for the narrative poems to come to me. I knew I could imitate David Lee’s long narratives but that’s all they would be—imitations. I also knew I just couldn’t wait for the answer to hit me because the process is always a part of the answers I need to my writing problems. What ended up happening was more and more of these lyric poems came out of me but no real narratives.
I had been told by poets I admired that I had the ability to write shorter poems in the lyric form which had narrative elements, so I stuck to my strengths and dug my heels in, finding ways to make my strengths work for me. At first I tried writing the stories I originally wanted to tell, but what I wrote was awful and not worth the struggle. I was frustrated until I realized the book I wanted to write was not the book which needed to be written. It was then I saw a real purpose for the book, the “calling” you mentioned. I saw the book in three sections.
I immediately knew I wanted to do with poetry what Tim O’Brien had done with In the Lake of the Woods, blurring the ability of the audience to perceive the difference between fact and fiction. I saw Achilles Blanchard ready to be used in the second section. I resurrected an early conceit I had had for writing about my home town in the form of a walking tour to incorporate into my third section. Everything started to fall together and I knew I had zoned in on what had to be done.
Can you talk a little about your research process? You mention the stories you’d been told. How else did you obtain information? Did you spend time at the local historical society, digging through old photographs and news clippings?
I am lucky in that research comes easy for me. I majored in history when I was in college, and I had some wonderful teachers who helped their students think of creative methodology and uncommon locations for information. I also have some amazing contacts. One being a life-long friend, Ben Smith, who sent me a copy of a book written on the first fifty years of Springville’s history. That book was written by Don Carlos Johnson, the son of the city’s spiritual and financial leader, Aaron Johnson. The other was my sister, Corey Howard, who is a genius when it comes to genealogy. She gave me the Rell G. Francis book on the photographs of G.E. Anderson.
My reading of those books lead me to do other research and to find records of diaries, newspaper articles, literary journals, and financial records— getting a flavor of the sort of language used in what was contemporary writing to the time periods I wanted to emulate. Pictures I found, specifically those of Ether Blanchard and his family, pointed me towards Achilles Blanchard, whom I would later realize needed to be a large part of my book. The Internet is a marvelous resource because so many primary sources have been converted into .pdf documents. I found people who had written about early Mormon history from an outsider perspective. I wasn’t trying to make a statement by doing that, but rather, I wanted to avoid the personal family histories often written by the descendants of Utah pioneers. Those histories, while informative, tell only a very selective sliver of the story, and it often has a spiritual aspect which tend to sentimentalize the narrative.
I spent no time at the local historical society. I know several members of the society and talked to them directly. If I felt I needed to go deeper, I went to the Internet. I live 160 miles away from Springville, and I could not simply skip on down to town to look at things. My grandmother is a member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, but I never consulted her in matters beyond specific anecdotes because I wanted to avoid making this about ‘my’ family. It’s another reason why I chose Achilles Blanchard as narrator for the second section of my book. He was a contemporary of my great-grandfather, and his experiences must have been very similar. I needed to be able to manipulate truth as I saw fit. I could not do that if I had a personal stake in the stories being told.
An example of my research affecting my writing is learning there was a evangelical revival of Mormonism in Utah during the mid to late 1850’s. They had come to what they thought the promised land in Utah, and after a short while they began to see a need to get serious about being Mormons, and that in itself colored their perspective and informed my deeper research into what was known as The Mormon Murders, which happened in Springville. The book Don Carlos Johnson wrote mentions nothing of the revival, but when you know about that, you have a new way of looking at the events surrounding the murders and perhaps why what he said about them was so cryptic.
What are your personal feelings about those early settlers? I feel like there’s an undertone of admiration in the book, particularly having to do with their concern for future generations, their need to establish a lasting legacy. Do you see it this way?
I think if you are from Utah and your ancestors are Mormon pioneers, there is almost an inbred admiration built into your DNA. You learn from a very young age all of the hardships they went through. You don’t hear any of the details of such hardships unless the story ends with prosperity or spiritual gain, but you hear the standard Mormon history and learn to conflate that history with the history of your family.
When I write in “Hobble Creek Almanac” and later “Hobble Creek Almanac(Revision)” about what you know because of a family name is frighteningly true. When I was a senior in high school, the class of 1967 was planning their 20 year high school reunion school assembly, and I was on the Stage Tech crew. My father had graduated in 1965, and when these people found out who my father was, I was literally introduced to the entire group as they trickled in over the next hour.
I grew up knowing I was part of the Patrick family and part of the Hulet and Evans families before that. They weren’t wealthy, but they had a reputation (and still do) for being hard working, dependable, and having integrity. You better believe that was an expectation as much as it was family history.
I also have a love for the people from my past because my great-grandfather lived to be 104, dying when I was 15, and I had what felt like was a direct link to them. I knew him and we talked every week for quite a while when mowing his lawn became my responsibility. I do feel a desire and a responsibility to live up to the work my ancestors did on my behalf.
One of the things we’re interested in at the museum of americana is the disintegration of the small town. It’s happening all over the Midwest. What does the future hold for Springville? In a sense I’m asking if there was a fourth section to your book, what would that future contain?
Springville has turned into a sleeper, or commuter community. Most of the farms in and around Springville are gone, and there are very few pastures remaining within the town limits. As this happens, the town loses it’s character, one new housing development at a time. Strangely enough, my first full length book is a sort of eulogy for the town, but one where I take responsibility for my part in the loss of the town. I left the town as much as the town left me. I am afraid in ten years or so Springville will just be a generic name for the houses between the town north and south of the city limits. The name Hobble Creek with simply be the name of the small waterway, running through the center of town and nothing else.
If there was a fourth section to my current book, I am certain I would walk towards the realm of mythologizing the town, perhaps try to tell the stories of those contemporaries of mine who never left—what it is to raise a family there
Thanks again for taking a minute to talk to us, Justin. Just one last question. Where do you go from here? You talked about writing specifically for manuscripts. Do you have a next project in mind?
I have absolutely nothing in mind. I mean that, unfortunately. I have not written a poem in over a year worth revising, and I am for the first time in a long while feeling okay with that. I would normally feel panicked about not writing, but I am content, waiting to re-fuel my brain and my heart. I am certain I will return to writing eventually because I want to and because I always have, but I am not in any hurry. When I start writing again, I will know two things: I was correct in waiting for writing to find me instead of trying to force it; and somewhere beneath my conscious mind I have a project in mind and I am feeling it out.
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