Amplifying Carpe Diem: An Interview with Dogfish Head Poetry Prize Winner D.L. Pearlman

D.L. Pearlman is a native of Norfolk, VA. He is the 2019 winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Prize from the Poetry Society of Virginia. His work has appeared in Cedar Creek Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Light, The Meadow, Poetry Quarterly and Poetry Virginia. Poet, professor, musician, and chronicler of decay, D.L Pearlman writes poetry that anchors readers in the natural world while leading them on a sensory tour of landscapes filled with both glory and decline. Pearlman’s collection Normal They Napalm the Cottonfields is the winner of the 2019 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize.

Broadkill Review: Congratulations on being named the winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize 2019! What was your reaction when you were notified? Can you talk about your experience, some of the highpoints, and maybe something readers might not know about it?

D.L. Pearlman : I was just happy to be listed as a finalist, but when I was notified of winning, I told Linda I didn't believe it and asked was it real. When publisher Jamie Brown got involved, we ironed the manuscript like a shirt, going back and forth with layout structure, fonts, design and, embarrassingly, a few typos. I can't thank Linda, Jamie and Dogfish Head enough for their dedication and kindness.

BKR: Putting together a collection of poems is often a chore that can feel defeating to even the strongest of poets. What is your strategy when putting together a collection? What did you learn from putting together your first manuscript A Bird in the Hand is a Very Dumb Bird that helped you with the second? And what advice would you give poets putting together collections for contests like Dogfish Head?

DLP: My first book, A Bird in the Hand Is A Dumb Bird, features the subtitle "Selected Poems." It came from my first 20 years of writing and shows a lot of different range, structure and style. Normal They Napalm the Cottonfields is much more focused on the slow, subtle disappearance of Virginia and North Carolina's farmland and nature from the point of view of a traveling musician and photographer. As for manuscript construction, I used to try to build a logical framework, usually based on time/season. For Normal They Napalm the Cottonfields, I went much more on feel, just instinct of how poems should be ordered.

BKR: Your book’s title, Normal They Napalm the Cottonfields, comes from the poem “Cottonballs.” Can you discuss what it means and why you chose it as the title?

DLP: Yes, "Cottonballs" is the title poem. It's dedicated to my friend and common partner in exploration and hiking, Keith, who informed me of the fact that some farmers use actual napalm to make harvest easier. In October and November, you can drive by the cottonfields and smell the napalm choking the local air. The poem shows the irony of the beauty of the cotton and the farms but also the brutality of convenience and the false superiority of technology and so-called progress.

BKR: As Grace Cavalieri points out, your poems are “large with social conscience and awareness.” In your poem “Fort Story Shoreline Fenced Off For Homeland Insecurity” the reader is left with the image of the ocean as it “drags that barbed wire/ out to sea.” The speaker shares a secret laugh with the Cape Henry lighthouses as nature triumphs over politics. Do you think poetry can be a vehicle for social change? What else do you think socially conscious poems can “do”?

DLP: "Fort Story Shoreline Fenced Off for Homeland Insecurity" is a 100% true story. After decades of access, seemingly all of a sudden, we citizens and taxpayers were stopped from walking the tip of the North End of Virginia Beach in 2018. Why? No explanation. It's not security; it's paranoia "evolving" into oppression. As an artist, I feel obligated to speak out and up, especially for the voiceless, from nature to justice. I have no doubt poetry and other art forms push social change. Two favorite examples are Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion" and Gwendolyn Brooks' "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon."