“Some say sharks are the ocean’s anger at us for being in its future,” writes Rob Carney. I say poems are sharks’ way of forgiving us for the soup, the necklaces, the movies, and the mascots. And, let’s not even mention climate change. Rob Carney’s trenchant, probing poems circle around the self, not so much sensing blood but, perhaps even more dangerously, searching for understanding. Part confession, part documentation, part meditation, these smartly crafted lyrics explore how and why we have and have not allowed sharks (metaphors for so many things) to swim into our lives. This is a major effort from a talented poet. —Dean Rader
The following highlights are from a conversation with Rob Carney about his collection of poetry, "The Book of Sharks." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: What is your relationship to sharks?
Rob Carney: I grew up at a time before Jurassic Park, so people weren’t completely nuts about dinosaurs. That movie, apparently, is credited with causing whole generations of people to go into the field of paleontology, because they grew up impressed by that movie. For me, I liked sharks because they were still alive. I liked dinosaurs, but dinosaurs weren’t going to be around—all you’d ever see are their skeletons. Sharks, they would appear on TV—Jacques Cousteau, you know. So that became my fascination, especially Great Whites. But there are so many, and they’re all so cool. I mean I liked sports and I paid attention plenty to that, but in the animal world, sharks were it for me. Not bears, not mountain lions. Sharks.
When I got to this line, I just stopped dead in my tracks:
“their purpose the same as the ocean’s purpose:
to move, to arrive, to be full.”
Rob, what makes you full?
What makes me full, probably is not work. I think that a lot of people would go to work first. It’s what I have to do and I think I do it well. Students are interesting people to spend your time with, but I don’t want to live at work. One of the advantages to having a job when you’re a professor is that you are not there all day every day, like my dad was as a high school teacher or like my wife is as an elementary school teacher. Fullness for me is enough space and enough quiet to hear what I think instead of being crowded out all the time by tasks. Right now, it’s weed season. That’s not what fills me up. Pulling weeds stinks. But you have to do it. And you do that because you want your yard to be nice, and you want your yard to be nice because then you can settle down, and then you can start to hear and discover and hopefully write something.
There are places in the book where you push back against culture and against this Western notion of "being". . .
When I was in Australia—I got lucky enough to go as a teen. I was on a team that was doing a basketball jaunt; we played exhibition games against other Australian teenagers. They did not ask “What do you do?” as in what do you do for money. They asked, “What do you do for fun?” Even the grown-ups asked the other grown-ups “What do you do for fun?” It was a completely different question and I think that stuck with me. You hear it only one way your whole life. What do you do? What do you do? What do you for a living? . . .
What’s the role of mythology for you, in your writing and in your life?
I think one of the things that’s troubling to me is that myth really is important. It is archetypal, it is primal, but most of the myths we know came to us from one religious scripture or another. For me, it was the Bible. For somebody else, it’s a different thing. In Utah, largely, it’s the Book of Mormon, the Bible just kind of rides along. Other people have their own creation stories, and this is global, everybody throughout time in all locations. But I don’t think we get up each day and feel governed by: What was the central lesson in that grasshopper ant fable? I should live my life according to that today. Or even a famous Bible verse, or a particularly fond one.
We don’t think about it. But if somebody comes along and uses the shape, the form, and puts new words in the old familiar form, well now people are going to listen, because the form is familiar, and you’re giving them new information within the familiar thing that they don’t know yet. So they will be patient enough to wait that minute or two and see where it takes them. And they may go thinking about that for a while. Eventually it becomes something that they read once and don’t think about anymore. But the nice thing is, other people come along and give them new creations, new myths, new fables all the time.
About the Book:
The Book of Sharks is an accomplishment at the micro and macro level. Rob Carney has crafted lines that you’ll want to save for your next tattoo inside of efficient poems that touch on creation myth, forgotten industries, and slices of life in villages he manufactures with a creator’s divine spark. All of this works on its own inside of a larger, complex quilt that he has woven into an intricate pattern that revisits themes, finishes stories, and reminds you that The Book of Sharks is a larger poem that is greater than just its sharpened teeth. —Jesse Parent
In precise, sharp lines, Rob Carney’s The Book of Sharks builds and interrogates myth and myth-makers, turning to sharks to also turn inward and outward, exploring one’s purpose and place and the stories one tells to make meaning. Here, poems wash out and return like the tides they describe, inviting the reader to feel their weight, as if “to disappear under the stories / as though they were waves.” In the end, whether in water, sky, or story, Carney invites us to consider the essential motivation of “moving, arriving, being full,” what it means to seek. —Callista Buchen
In his ambitious collection, The Book of Sharks, Rob Carney reimagines the human world and facets of contemporary society by creating a mythology and origin story that correct the erroneous legend of sharks. In building a new lens through which to view the sea and its most vilified species, Carney opens up a new way to conceive of art, life, storytelling, and the connections among living creatures in the sea, on land, and among the stars. “Some say sharks are the ocean’s anger,” he repeats in two poems, and later—as the collection evolves—they become “the ocean’s blueprint.” In this collection, comprised of seven sections, containing seven poems each, Carney weds structure and symbolism to reinforce his creation myth; correction and etymology to reconfigure historical facts; and repetition of images and phrases to place these poems—all without titles, bleeding poignantly into one another as part of an ongoing narrative or interconnected species—in the epic tradition. Here we are offered a sympathetic view of sharks, an alternative way to see constellations and their corresponding myths, and a new foundation from which to begin our lives and our stories. Carney’s speaker demands that we reexamine what is actually dangerous versus what’s been stereotyped so, and most of all he begs us to see ourselves new, “to bear in mind / we aren’t the measure of Creation. Just a part.” —Lisa Fay Coutley
About the Author:
Rob Carney is the author of five books of poems, most recently 'The Book of Sharks' (Black Lawrence Press, Aug. 2018) and '88 Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2015), which was named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in Cave Wall, Columbia Journal, The Dark Mountain Project, and many others, and he writes a featured series called “Old Roads, New Stories” for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. He is a Professor of English at UVU and lives in Salt Lake City.