Poetry is like second nature

The cover of the book "A Mark of Permanence" by Justin Watkins.
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Fans of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, even Richard Brautigan or Ernest Hemingway may find a familiar and comforting voice in that of Rochester poet Justin Watkins.

Watkins, a 42-year-old watershed manager with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has published "A Mark of Permanence," a collection of nearly 80 poems and prose-poems, many of them drawn from his personal reflections jotted down in a notebook in the field, whether on the job or out hunting or fishing.

This, for instance, from a moment watching the sunrise:

This is as close as a man can get

To feeling the Earth move beneath him


That is my contention

As the land turns to the waiting sun

His view on nature and man’s relationship to it is exemplified in a verse describing catching and eating fish.

No heavy hand has made them more sacred

Than the flow that falls from stone

Indeed to bite the bones of this scaled vessel

Of the ancient water is the undying way

To bind oneself to it


"It’s hard to think of a poet who does not draw inspiration from the natural world, but few poets confront nature’s impartiality quite the way Justin does," said Tom Driscoll, managing editor of Shipwreckt Books, which published "A Mark of Permanence." "Like nature, Justin’s work leaves its mark."

Watkins’ work likewise has won praise from Minnesota poets Larry Gavin, who says "Justin Watkins’ poems always surprise, and I have long admired them," and Jim Johnson, the former poet laureate of Duluth.

For Watkins’ part, his poems often serve for him as one-page portraits of moments he wants to remember. "I don’t know about you," he said, "but I’m starting to forget some stuff. Plus, because it’s something that I’ve been working on for a few years, it’s a nice sense of completion."

He answered questions recently about his writing and other interests.

How long have you been writing poetry?

Here and there since the early 2000s. I started to get a little focused in around 2010, 2012, started getting an interest in building a manuscript and finding somewhere to have it published.

Did somebody encourage you to get published?

Yeah, we had a little online group of 4-5 people in this area where we would write things and share with each other. We didn’t see each other in person all that often, but we would help read and review each other’s poems.


Why poetry?

It just struck me as a really good medium for just capturing (moments). I get to do so many cool and interesting things — I always carry a little notebook and make notes about things that I see or that I’m thinking about. It’s a really nice way to make something permanent so you can return to it later, or share it with others who might appreciate it.

A lot of your work is, for lack of a better word, violent. Have you had any negative reactions to your poems?

I haven’t. A lot of the people who have read it are the kinds of people I would expect to like it.

I’ve got a numbers summary. There are 76 component pieces in that book. Forty-nine percent have, to your point, some description or some link to a death. It wasn’t by design. I’m not setting out to write some abstract stuff about death. So many memorable things happen during or right around the time of something like that happening.

That’s where a lot of my brothers’ memories, where a lot of my memories are situated. … Catching a fish or shooting a deer can help you think about how do you or these different beings kind of exist within the same framework.

Who are you writing these poems for, ultimately?

I was telling my friend, it’s poems about outdoors stuff, but not like shoot-em-up outdoors stuff. It’s not Outdoors magazine, with deer and big guns. So he said, ‘What you’re saying is, you’re writing outdoors poetry that most of the outdoor world won’t want to read.’ But really, I guess my hope is there are a lot of people who appreciate the Midwest, who appreciate rural life, who appreciate outdoors, who will want to read it. And then I think there will be a percentage of people who appreciate literature and poetry generally speaking who will want to read it.

Watkins will read and sign copies of "A Mark of Permanence" at events across the area, including these:

• Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at Cafe Steam, Rochester, part of a book launch event involving three other authors, Steve Schild, John Weiss and Ken Flies.

• Jan. 19, time TBA, Paperbacks & Pieces Winona.

• Feb. 9, time TBA, Med Provisions, Minneapolis.

• March 2, noon to 3 p.m., Fair Trade Books, Red Wing.

• April 4, 7:30 p.m., Northfield Laureate Series, Northfield.

"A Mark of Permanance" is available online through Amazon and and in independent bookstores in Southeast Minnesota.

Related Topics: POEMPOETRY
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