Q&A with Dave Eberhardt, 2020 poetry contest winner

Many congratulations to Dave Eberhardt, the winner of the 2020 Enoch Pratt Free Library/ Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest! Dave’s winning poem, “After ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Anton Webern ‘Piano Variations’- Op 27 / Ruhig, fliessend,” will be published in the Summer 2020 issue of LPR (out soon!).

Dave retired in 2010 from 33 years of work in the criminal INjustice system. As a peace protester, he was incarcerated at Lewisburg Federal Prison for pouring blood on draft files. His action took place in 1967 with Father Phil Berrigan and two others to protest the Vietnam War. He has published three books of poetry and a peace movement memoir.

Dave was kind enough to answer some questions about his winning poem and his work in general. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: First of all, congratulations on winning the Enoch Pratt Free Poetry Contest this year! Your winning poem combines many interesting threads: Blade Runner 2049, Anton Webern’s “Piano Variations”- Op 27, and Emily Dickinson. How did you come up with the connection between those things?

To answer those who have found this poem challenging: I referenced the Webern Opus 27 for that reason—the opus is difficult and recondite if not obfuscating. I do not understand it, but as a “pianist” (my spelling in that I find practicing a pain) the piece still draws me in. 

Poetry should try—as in abstract painting and much “modern”art—to broaden our eyes and ears. One of our great American composers, Charles Ives, advised us not to listen from our armchairs comfortably. He wanted to disturb us. And so most of his disturbing pieces, as with Anton Webern, are not performed.

My poem is influenced by such sci-fi movies as “The Ghost in the Shell”—movies with pretty boys and girls (perhaps replicants) who may have their faces peeled off or have torsos of glowing, blue wiring, where giant hologram ads play across the sides of skyscrapers and cars fly around at different layers. The poem is set in 2049, after all.

You said in an interview with the Pratt Library that your brain works “like a crow builds its next—many disparate bits—shiny objects.” It seems like at least some of those disparate bits in this poem are sounds—there’s a lot of alliteration and playing with rhythm (for instance, the line “Dial me a veritable woman, a vertebrate woman…”). What role does sound play in your writing process?

Much of the poetry I see around is very prosy. I want poetry that startles and amazes. I want more magic, music, and mystery…majesty. I generally want atmosphere, I want “deep.” Emily Dickinson, my go-to poet, has it all! 

As far as the sounds in my poem, I’d like to say something like, “these alliterations and resonances keep appearing in my brain—I can’t stop” as if I were an idiot savant. Alas I tend more toward the idiot.

I like such alluring and exotic prose bits as the following, from which I have a title to an as-yet unpublished manuscript of poems:  “MELANGE”

“Melange: heavy powder which smells like cinnamon and glows blue: highly addictive, and long-term users acquire blue within blue colored eyes. Ingested to lengthen life span and heighten awareness. It can unlock prescience in some humans, making safe and accurate interstellar travel possible. Withdrawal is fatal.

Often referred to simply as ‘the spice’—the name of the fictional drug central to the Dune science fiction novels by Frank Herbert.” 

You mentioned that you’re writing more short poetry inspired by films right now. What kind of films inspire you?

I offer as exhibits two recent short poems (writing a prose memoir has taken me away from longer poems). The first is from the movie Mad Max Fury Road, where they are fighting over water. Titled “The Green Place,” the poem goes “To the west/beyond the mountains”.

Or, from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing where Radio Raheem is ordering a slice of pizza from Sal of “Sal’s Famous Pizza: “Yo!/ Put some mozzarella/ on that shit!”

Your history with the Little Patuxent Review actually goes back quite far. How did you first get involved with the journal?

My first involvement with the earlier Little Patuxent Review came about through my ex-wife, Louise, who worked for the Columbia Cooperative Ministry as Columbia got off the ground as the “next America.” I met poet Judd Jerome, who was with the branch of Antioch College in the Kittamaqundi mansion.

My wife (ex) read some of my poems in Columbia as I was heading off to prison. The room in which the Review has held launches is the same room where her memorial service took place. She was stunning and powerful, a key mentor for me along with the Berrigan brothers—Dan and Phil. She was a founding member of the feminist movement and I got to write the intro for her book A Woman’s Journey.

In addition to being a poet, you’re also a long-time activist. How do the two intersect for you?

I started writing seriously at Oberlin College in 1960. I joined in the action called the “Baltimore 4”. We (myself, Father Phil Berrigan, and two others) poured blood on draft files to protest the Vietnam War in 1967, partly out of a desire to have something to write about (besides disgust with the war and a desire to take part in history).

….drama, lights, camera, action. My 21 months at Lewisburg Federal Prison gave me plenty more about which to write, more in the stories than poetry department!

My political poetry is quite plain, like Bertold Brecht’s, the German communist. Agitprop, sloganistic.  E.g

“To the bosses:
What you call profit?
I call exploitation!
Society without exploitation?>
You would have to work too!
The boss speaks of liberty!
It’s for him- NOT YOU!”

The Baltimore poetry scene is important for you. Can you talk about your long involvement with Baltimore poets? 

Fellow Baltimore poet Dan Cuddy and I wrote a history of poetry in Baltimore for the Loch Raven Review. It spanned the period from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Anybody want to pen an update?

Those upon whose shoulders I have rubbed or stood upon in Baltimore, going back to the 1960s with influence of African-American poets like Sam Cornish, Olu Butterfly and going up to present such slam poets as Slangston Hughes….

Going back: Lizette Reese, Richard Hart from the Pratt, Josephine Jacobsen.

Oscar Wilde once lectured here in the Mt. Vernon area.

I hung out with founding and sustaining poet mother Clarinda Harriss, father Daniel Mark Epstein, Michael Fallon, David Beaudouin, Chris Mason of the immortal “Tinklers” and the magazines published such as the Cultured Pearl, Loch Raven Review, and the gang at the website “Poetry in Baltimore,” especially the late Dino Pantazonis.

I have organized readings at the Ivy Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Minas on 36th St…the current scene with reading series like slam series, the Hot l Baltimore at the Bird in Hand, Ivy Bookstore, and at the Pratt Library. 

I am currently excited about Michael Salcman’s work and am reviewing his latest book, Shades and Graces.

Our city has been a true “hotbed,” and I imagine others like us (Detroit, Cleveland) also. 

It’s hard to think beyond the current pandemic. How has this situation affected your creative process, if at all? What do you think the value of poetry is in a moment like this?

At 79 I already consider death daily, like the old masters who painted skulls. I will have drugs ready. If you want an understanding of death, read Baltimore poet Michael Salcman’s latest, Shades and Graces. Retired after 33 years at the Baltimore City Jail, I’m indoors a lot already. Guess what? Watching movies.

What are you working on now? Where can people find more of your writing?

I am adding to my prose memoir, For All the Saints, a Protest Primer, a chapter on the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. They have just been sentenced in the federal court in the charming town of Brunswick, Georgia (home to the racist murderers of Amaud Arbery)  for their non-violent direct action protest against the trident missile submarines (a launch of its D 5 missiles would end life as we know it!). Poets, like other artists, can connect the dots!

In addition to his memoir, Dave has published three books of poetry: The Tree CalendarBlue Running Lights, and Poems from the Website, Poetry in Baltimore.

You can catch Dave at the Pratt Library’s virtual reading on August 18. LPR Editor Steven Leyva and last year’s poetry contest winner, Jalynn Harris, will also be participating.

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