Talking About On Shifting Shoals with Poet Joanne Durham

On Shifting Shoals, poems by Joanne Durham (Kelsay Books, 2023). Chapbook, $17.00.

I recently had the pleasure of reading another poetry collection by Joanne Durham: On Shifting Shoals, her new chapbook published by Kelsay Books. Joanne agreed to have a conversation about the work for One Minnesota Crone. Here is that conversation, with OMC standing for One Minnesota Crone, and JD standing for Joanne Durham. I think this is a perfect kick-off to National Poetry Month. Enjoy hearing from a poet that I hope you come to love as much as I do.

OMC: I noticed that this collection contains little shells of poems, short shimmering pieces that hold large thoughts with few words. You’ve indeed chosen your words wisely, a topic of one of your poems, “Word Matter: Choose Wisely.” In your 2022 book, To Drink from a Wider Bowl, the poems were longer, the scope evolved from family ties. On Shifting Shoals has a more environmentally-based focus, centered on the coastal area where you now live, and it offers all of us those deep waters and oceanic currents that push and pull.

As I read your work while sitting at my dining room table here in Minnesota, it rained a cold March rain that chilled to the bone. That rain eventually turned to snow. We are far from the ocean, and yet you brought it to me in this chapbook. I could feel the pull, hear the waves, see the far-off horizon. Being on the coast offers a long view, an understanding of how tides change and cleanse. It shares eternal and universal metaphors for poets to work with.

What do these feelings from someone like me, a reader who lives in the middle of the continent, tell you about the reach your coastal poems have? 

JD: First, thanks for talking with me again, and for your thoughtful considerations about the poems. I think the ocean has an almost universal effect on people. I watch the tourists who come for a week, and they relax and play and laugh and move in ways I’m sure they don’t do most of the time at home. So many poets have written about the ocean, and yet we don’t really get tired of it. Its expansiveness, its constancy and yet its constant changes, its power and its beauty draw something inside us to the surface. I felt that I just had to watch, listen, and record – the poetry was already there. 

OMC: Tell me a little about the creation of these pieces. Were they largely a result of pandemic isolation or was there a broader timeline in their creation? Was there one spark or many?

JD: My husband and I moved to the beach a decade ago. I started walking on the beach most every day, and riding my bike around our small town, and I just quite naturally started taking pictures of things I saw – weddings on the beach, young girls dressed up as mermaids, the way kids run to the ocean the moment they get to the beach, and things in town – the carnival, the boardwalk, the butterflies that all of a sudden swarm one day, dragonflies another. The photos helped me to write the details that I might not have noticed otherwise. And then, of course, the changes with the weather, dealing with the annual threat of hurricanes, the strangeness of the snow that fell at high tide and left a path of sand to walk through. Living at the beach is an immersion in the natural world and it has an impact on everyone who is here. So, I also found the relationships between the people and the landscape fascinating. Really most of the poems in the book are about how people interact with this environment, for better or worse. There are new sparks of that every day. 

OMC: I noticed the title was pulled from the poem, The Hunt. Do you consider that piece the anchor of this collection? Can you expand on your answer a bit?

JD: Yes, I think “The Hunt” holds strands of most of the themes of the book, both human relationships and our relationships with nature.  On Shifting Shoals to me expresses the complexity, the mystery, the changes and destruction that are all so much a part of the ocean, and of us as human beings. “The Hunt” was one of the first poems in the book that I wrote, when I was still quite new to living at the beach. I think it captures some of the awe of the novice that I still feel, and suspect I always will, next to an ocean that’s been around for about 180 million years. 

THE HUNT by Joanne Durham

Walking along the shoreline
in January's cold clarity, my friend Sandy
spies a shark tooth, coveted treasure
of every beachcomber. Its smooth shine
catches her practiced eye.

She gives it to me, a novice
at these things, though my students
and I have read plenty about sharks,
how they occasionally mistake
a wave-riding human
for a creature of the sea, while we stalk
and slaughter millions of them, cut
prized fins from live bodies, toss
butchered remains into bloodied waves.

I tell her how eight-year-old Elmer cried,
That's not fair! No wonder they attack us!

Sandy thanks me for this shard of child sense
that hunts for justice through shifting shoals.
She tucks his words into her mind's pocket,
as I roll the hard edge of my fossil
between the warm fingers of my gloves.

OMC: Where can readers find copies of On Shifting Shoals

JD: I’m selling signed copies from my website, The book is available from the publisher, Kelsay Books at, and on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My local bookstore in Wilmington, NC, Pomegranate Books, carries it as well. 

OMC: Any final words on the inspirations you take from the ocean/coastal habitat? 

JD: I’ve always loved the ocean, been drawn to it on the east and west coasts of this country, and everywhere else I’ve travelled I always gravitate to the sea. But living here has allowed the ocean to settle inside me. I hear it as I go to sleep and awaken to how sunrise over it surprises into a new day. It bathes me in gratitude for its generosity, while I’m fully aware of its potential treachery and how we might find our home washed away in the next hurricane. Permanence and change, immensity and smallness, safety and fear all mingle together here and make contradiction such a clear reality. Life lessons just wash up on the shore every day. 

OMC: I love your answer here. “Life lessons just wash up on the shore every day.” This is a thoughtful collection of work and I sense that you have many more books that will emerge from your proximity to and interaction with this constantly changing coastal place. 

And now for something completely different – what are your plans for National Poetry Month?

JD: I’m going to get new ways of seeing from National Poetry Month – I am having cataract surgery on April 3! So I hope it will bring new insights and out-sights. I’m not someone who can or really wants to write a poem a day; in fact, I think I will slow down a little in April, go back among my journal entries and try to turn some of the things I’ve jotted down into poems. When I was a teacher, my students and I shared poetry every day, so Poetry Month wasn’t really any different. Now that I’m retired and live by the ocean, I’m so lucky that every day can be poetry day all year long. 

OMC: That is spoken like a practicing poet. Yes, poetry is all around us every day if we just take time to notice it. Thank you so much for being in conversation with me about On Shifting Shoals and its conception. And, good luck with the cataract surgery. I look forward to learning what you see differently.

Published by Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson is a Minnesota-based writer who has published work in journals in the US, UK, and Canada.

2 thoughts on “Talking About On Shifting Shoals with Poet Joanne Durham

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: