The Self Is a Collaborative Thing: A Conversation with David Baker

October 3, 2022   •   By Daniel Shailer

Whale Fall

David Baker

IF A WHALE falls in the ocean, does it make a sound? What parasites, abyssal crustaceans, and scavenger hagfish will come to call it home? Will marine particles aggregate on its body “like snow,” forming “the merest blueprint of whale”?

At the center of David Baker’s new collection, Whale Fall, is the enormous carcass of a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) falling through the sea. Among other things, the title poem encompasses plastiglomerates and garbage patches bigger than Mexico; a blue whale caught in ghost nets and the diagnostics of spreading organ infection; a white-supremacist bombing and the ecopoetics of language extinction; 13 beached sperm whales and an 18-month-old child, up in the night. It gets ugly: “We might need to cover our heads. Hold hands / in the hallway. Look away from the blast.”

One of the collection’s many achievements, however, is that this density of reference never lands heavily. Whale Fall contains voices that fragment and shift pace, but never loses sight of a lyricism so reliable that it feels instinctual.

It’s his first collection since a selected retrospective, Swift (2019), and a turn from the animals, birds, and plains of his home in the American Midwest to the oceans. It is at the same time a glimpse inward, to unnumbered sleepless nights of chronic illness, and an outward refraction of scientific equations and news headlines. Love poems, pandemic poems, poems of family memory, and short poems circle the falling whale — like a radio funneling different found frequencies into one stream.

In 2001, David wrote of “the moral harmony of nature.” Whale Fall might be the collection that refines and refinds that harmony for the Anthropocene, in which acid rain and microplastics and handholding in a tree are all part of the same music.

It’s thought that whales can speak to one another from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, allowing for a delay of a few minutes for the sound to travel through the many miles of water. I called David from London the day before a record-breaking heatwave, with a fan on and a big glass of water.


DANIEL SHAILER: One of the things I particularly enjoyed while reading Whale Fall was how cohesively it presents itself. At the time your last book, Swift, was published, you spoke about the power of selection to create a collection that itself was a kind of poem. With that in mind, I wonder if you could share a little bit about how this collection formed or aggregated around its title poem, “Whale Fall.”

DAVID BAKER: Aggregation is a good word that has to do with the theory of aggregates and “Whale Fall.” I started working on the poems in this book long before Swift. Swift was kind of a step aside: a very tight collection, mostly of older poems, but finishing the book before that one, Scavenger Loop, is what triggered me into starting this one. That’s a book about the land and farming and pollution and chemicals. So now I wanted to write about the oceans and contaminations and pollution in the oceans.

I don’t know how I put books together; it takes me forever and I’m lost. All I’m trying to do any day is write a decent couple of lines, and then a decent poem, and hope that at some point poems that I’ve written over the course of a few years will naturally begin to cohere around something — because I wrote them. And then the task is trying to figure out what that thing is.

The poem “Whale Fall” came about a little later, but once I had that, I knew what the center of gravity would be. I knew the body around which all the other poems would orbit. One of my friends said, though, that I should finish the book with that poem, and that seemed wrong to me. I wanted there to be an afterlife. So at the center of a book with this big, elegiac poem, the task was then moving past that into something regenerative.

I think about the narrative of it, but I think less about that than about the motion of the music. I think about putting a book together as a kind of large symphony that’s got different instruments and different tones and different keys moving in a single direction. A lot of that’s intuitive, I guess.

“Echolocations” is a word used on the dust jacket to describe the relation between these poems. Is that a good word?

Echolocation is a tactic of whales and bats and any number of other animals who emit some sound or song that often travels across great distances. It’s a way for them to do two things: to locate where they are, by the bounce-back of that sonic information, and a way also to locate others like themselves who may respond. I think the latter’s a more interesting notion for the poems than anything else.

We write alone; we write in isolation. We send these songs out — who knows where, across great, empty distances — and every now and then one of those sounds or songs gets a response. Something bounces back. That’s kind of the strategy I was thinking about in those weird, little italicized poems at the end of each section. Those are the echo of that section, bouncing back or responding in some way.

It’s interesting to hear you speak about the poem as something solitary. You’re frequently described as a lyric poet, which at one point was the poetry of exclusively personal voice (“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” if you’ll forgive the classroom example). By contrast, though, this collection is full of disparate voices, both personal and impersonal: Wikipedia, news bulletins, scientists from around the world. How do you fit so much noise within a personal lyric voice?

The self is a collaborative thing. The very concept of a self is plural and multiple and described by its relationships to all of the others, whether those are other people or other lives, trees, rocks, or anything. To quote Whitman, the concept that we are an isolated, single, “singer solitary,” is a kind of useful fiction. We’ve survived as a species in part because of the fiction of the self, but we are nothing if we’re not part of a bigger thing.

The movement in the book is back and forth between that individualness and the big collective other. I’ve learned to think of the lyric poem as that same thing — never in a pure state but always described by what doesn’t seem to fit: language that doesn’t seem necessarily lyrical, like documentary evidence, or biology, etymology, letters, or news reports.

It was really in the writing of Scavenger Loop that I thought, It’s okay to try to bring all of that in, and selectively use all of that. In Whale Fall, it really does make sense for there to be many kinds of language that orbit around the body of that single gray whale descending in the water.

The scientific voice is a particularly striking thread of the polyphony you construct in this collection. I’m thinking of “the book” from which a lot of the scientific information seems to spout: Linnean titles and even equations on a few occasions. Is that something that you’ve always tried to integrate into your poetry?

Yes. I’ve tried to borrow idioms from all kinds of other manners of explaining the world. Poetry is not the opposite of science. Poetry is not the opposite of music. Poetry is not the opposite of the newspaper. It may be intensely distilled, but I am interested more and more in letting those things into the lyric voice and trying to find a form that is pliable enough to contain them all. I adore the language of physics and botany, biology, and oceanography. I love them — just the saying, just the knowing of the history of those words, the etymology of words — let alone how precise they are, you know? And there ought to be an equal precision in the purer lyric language as well.

If you don’t mind me pausing to ask a more practical question, was there something specific that inspired this turn to the oceanic? Moby Dick? Blue Planet? Was there a particular “book” that became a source or starting point?

Not particularly, it’s just a lifelong curiosity that’s become more of an intentionality over the last few years to gather bits and pieces, rather than a single source.

I walk around with notebooks full of just tidbits, you know, little bits of phrases, definitions, and articles from science journals or National Geographic, anything like that. I have a thick folder full of all the background just for “Whale Fall.” I have hundreds of pages of preparatory stuff for the little poem “Echolocation,” which is considerably shorter than “Whale Fall.”

Keats enters one of the poems (or at least Keats’s house), and he strikes me as a welcome parallel, as another writer on nature and sickness: his own illness. But you’d never find the equation for aggregate theory cropping up in Keats’s “Hyperion,” not least because it didn’t exist at the time. To your mind, is the scientific lexicon now a necessary part of the nature writer’s vernacular?

I kind of think so. I think the nature poem, the lyric poem itself, has to be able to come from a more ironic or multiple or complicated space. There isn’t such a thing as an intact, coherent, single, individual point of view, a self. Again, we’re made of all of these parts, and all of these pieces, and all of these languages. I think there’s such work to be done now in ecopoetry — not just nature poetry but nature poetry with a real cultural intentionality and purpose — that we need to be alert to the kinds of work that environmental scientists are doing and make that part of the poems we write now.

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken of a personal movement from a “nature poet toward a more alert ecopoet.” Is this collection a continuation of that journey? What’s the difference between the two?

I think there is a continuum that moves from the naïve notion of the pastoral, pretty nature poem (John Clare, by the way, I adore. I don’t think he’d be afraid of using a scientific formula, at least in one of his letters or essays, if not poems) to the environmental poem to the ecopoem.

[That continuum] describes a kind of amped-up or increasing alertness and compulsion — to name names, to include data and information, and to include something like cultural alarm. To begin to not only speak about the thing, but also communicate the essence of the thing, that’s the difference. The nature poem can’t satisfy itself with being merely descriptive, in other words.

You bring to mind a quotation from Whale Fall: “The common is / uncommon” (in the poem “Mullein”). It made me think of failing nature literacy. In naming names, did you ever imagine this collection performing as a kind of poetic classroom? Is there an educational dynamic at play?

Probably so. I don’t let myself think that too much, because it can turn into the didactic so quickly. And the ecopoem does have that temptation sometimes to become didactic. So, the poem is always instructive, but the ecopoem is maybe more, let’s not say “classroom,” but instructive. There’s information to be had in a poem. We typically don’t think we’re going to read a poem for data or for information, but rather for what? The overflow of powerful emotion, something like that? There’s more to it than that.

This discussion of a tightrope between the didactic and the pastoral in ecopoetry today reminds me of a British poet who straddled nature poetry and more alert ecopoetry, Ted Hughes. Like Whale Fall, his most watery collection, River, aggregates around a central poem, but the poems are wholly less comforting (for lack of a better word). You both eschew the comfortable pastoral, but in many ways the afterlife you give us after “Whale Fall” isn’t forbidding or dark.

Our lifespan as a species may be pretty short. But that doesn’t mean life on earth, or life in the solar system, or life in the universe will stop. We will, but things undoubtedly will go on without us. The remarkable discovery that I made in putting this book together was that, in fact, the death of that whale or the peril that we’re in isn’t the end of things at all. The carcass of that whale, as it descends, becomes this tremendously vibrant, orbiting universe of other lives; it gets resuscitated by bacteria, by crabs, by the millions of things that eventually end up inhabiting what used to be its body. That’s an interesting, hopeful thing.

Even as that natural decomposition is threaded through with all of the unnatural whale deaths you document from past decades.

Yeah, I mean, their bodies are full of lawn chairs and auto parts and billions of tiny pieces of plastics.

Is it going too far to wonder if the poem in a way is placing some of these more personal narratives of illness within the body of a whale?

Yes, within the body of the whale that is [also] the body of the book. I share that body with the whale in some way, as I share the organic body with all other organic matter. One of the things about this book is this bifocal lens: there’s a Greek elegiac couplet in here, the shortest poem I’ve ever published, and then the [16-page, seven-part] whale poem.

And there is, to me anyway, a remarkably exposed personal intimacy in illness poems, love poems, the poems for my daughter, for my partner, or members of my family on one hand — and [on the other] this huge desire to speak on behalf of or about the global. I hope there is a kind of vibrating rhythm of those bifocal [changes]. (That’s a mess of metaphor, don’t examine that!)

That energy: The hummingbird and the whale.

It’s an energy that follows in the finest tradition of whale writing, Moby Dick, going from the tiniest detail of a whale to the grandest dimensions of human emotion.

All of existential being, right!

Is it a comforting parallel for you, then, to place illness in proximity with the natural processes you’ve discovered like the afterlife and regeneration?

It’s not comforting. It is encouraging, as in, a thing that provides sustained courage. It is about acceptance and understanding rather than comfort.

The irony doesn’t escape me that we’re speaking at a time when the weather is making itself more tragically prominent than we’re used to, at least in the Western world. So, I thought it was timely that in a lot of this collection, weather appears as premonition. You write that “Turner paints the clouds as though they are thoughts […] of what’s to come” and elsewhere that “[w]e might hear rain before the rain.” Has poetic weather evolved from the pathetic fallacy of Romantic Nature to a kind of ecoprophecy?

Yeah, that’s a great question and a great manner of attention that you’re paying to the poems. It’s a way of taking the temperature, quite literally, of not just the climate, but of the interior landscape as well. I won’t go so far as to call myself a Romantic in the old school where the inner life is a picture of the outer life, but in some ways that’s true.

I’d love to finish speaking about those hyperfragmented, almost aleatoric poems that end each section. Is complete fragmentation a fair way of describing them? Are they meant to be read in the order they’re written?

It’s not complete, I think. There are other cases [of partial fragmentation], like the COVID-19 poem, “19 Spikes,” which is made of couplets that are fairly transferable, and no lines that ever finish in terminal punctuation. There’s something about moving to the next thing and waiting for its response, again, using linear tactics as ways to suggest something like the echolocation as well: this thing emitted and not finished, which leaves us waiting for an answer.

I have poetry buddies who are annoyed at the way I end some of these lines, or don’t end some of these lines. I think they’ll get over it. That’s okay. Every gesture that one makes in a book like this, everything that happens, I have thought about. I have been intentional about where a poem has a period or where a poem has a dash at the end, where it doesn’t have anything at all. Without trying to be melodramatic about that, or, you know, act like I’m 15 years old and just discovered E. E. Cummings [and thought], oh, look, we can do all this cool stuff!

Some of the hyphenated ends of lines did strike me as quite Emily Dickinson.

There’s quite a lot of Dickinson. She’s one of my specialties. I adore Dickinson.

David, thank you for sharing such a thoughtful, thought-provoking collection of poems.

I’m very grateful for your attention and your precision, Dan, thank you. Nice to make the connection.

Like an echolocation, I suppose.

Absolutely. We found the answering voice for a minute.


Daniel Shailer has written for English National Opera, the National Trust, Business Insider, Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, Inkcap Journal, Sentient Media, and WhatsOnStage, among many other publications.