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Meet the author:
J.D. Isip
J.D. Isip.jpg

Thank you for sharing this powerfully evocative poem with us. The narrative voice oscillates between eliciting a sense of fear and foreboding in the face of danger, and a sense of freedom from the constraints of fear. Can you speak to your motivations for writing the poem and the kinds of experiences you’re speaking to?

Thank you! It really began with the epigraph, which is a line Demi Moore’s character, Jules, says at this critical moment in the 1985 film, St Elmo’s Fire. A friend of mine had posted about how this movie couldn’t ‘speak to brown people’ (whole cast is white, of course), and I rejected that statement out of hand because I grew up adoring this movie. So, I’d been toying with what messages are universal in the film and can I try to capture that. Of course, as poems tend to do, it veered far from this impetus (Georgetown, the film’s setting, is a long way from the California coast, not a single swimming scene in the movie, etc). At its heart, though, St Elmo’s Fire is a movie about ‘swimming away’ from the known into the unknown, growing up, trying to prove yourself. When you get old enough, you realise the only one you are trying to outswim is you.

Your poem uses vivid imagery and evocative language to illustrate the narrator's relationship with water. Can you tell us about the symbolism of the ocean in this piece?

A long time ago, pre-internet, there were these ‘personality tests’ in magazines like Cosmopolitan (maybe they’re still there, been a while since I picked up an issue), and I remembered one where there was a question about ‘the ocean’ and you had to come up with a word to describe it. I said ‘scary’, and all of my friends laughed because it was supposed to reveal how you feel about sex. Well, not only do I stand by scary about both the ocean and sex, but I know a thing or two about it, growing up in Long Beach, California. I am describing moments that actually happened to me (though they didn’t all happen at once as they do in the poem), but I am definitely aiming for more metaphorical weight. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ocean and I am a pretty good swimmer (and dolphins are cute and playful), but I respect things that can kill me.

The strength of the poem’s narrative storytelling and voice both draws the reader in, and leaves room for interpretation. Can you speak to your decisions around the narrator’s point of view or other elements of craft that helped you to locate the reader within the narrative in such an immersive way?

I appreciate you picking up on this; it’s incredibly important for me as a poet to bring the reader into the experience. That shouldn’t be unique, but I think all writers (I am certainly guilty of it) can miss the mark when we forget we have an audience, our writing isn't ‘just for us’. As I tell my students, ‘If you want to write for yourself, keep a journal... then burn it’. I consciously switch perspective from first person to second person in the second stanza. It’s a risk to go second person and one I’d maybe suggest avoiding in a workshop (which is why folks should always take workshop feedback with a grain of salt, by the way... everyone’s mostly guessing), but – forgive me, I know this sounds so, well – it felt right. I also pulled back on ocean-specific imagery because it should be apparent to any reader that this isn’t just about the ocean, if it is about the ocean at all.

How does your poem speak to the possibility of an otherwise and what do you hope the reader will take away from this poem?

Going back to St Elmo’s Fire and my friend’s commentary, I think I began wanting to say something about ‘limiting our perspective’ – when we start saying ‘this or that doesn’t speak to me because the characters don’t look like me, it’s not in my timeline, whatever’ we really cut off a lot of possibilities in our lives. What I end up saying, I think (or hope) is a choice about how you live your life. Do you keep trying to show folks how far out you can go, or do you accept that maybe the only person you have to impress is you? Honestly, I don't know if I necessarily believe that, mind you, but I think it’s a great ‘goal’. I know there is definitely a Dao influence in this (because of the water metaphor) because I believe deeply that you can never ‘conquer’ the ocean, but you can learn from it, flow with it, which is a good way to live. ‘Otherwise’ it’s all upstream and it is exhausting.


J.D. Isip’s full-length poetry collections include Kissing the Wound (Moon Tide Press, 2023) and Pocketing Feathers (Sadie Girl Press, 2015). His third collection, tentatively titled Reluctant Prophets, will be released by Moon Tide Press in early 2025. J.D. lives in Texas with his dogs, Ivy and Bucky.

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Read J.D. Isip's poem Lost in the Pacific

in the Ruptures issue

This interview was conducted by Otherwise creative non-fiction and memoir editor Laura Moran.

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