Thursday, October 1, 2015

Firefighter/Poet Jonathan Travelstead's "HOW WE BURY OUR DEAD"

Christal Cooper

*Article With Excerpts – 2,214 Words
All excerpts have been given copyright privilege by Jonathan Travelstead and Cobalt Press

Jonathan Travelstead’s
A Meditation In Grief

O God 
Deliver me from the cramp of this water
and the terrifying things I see through it.
Put me back in the play of your torrents,
in Your limpid springs.
Let me no longer be a little goldfish  
in its prison of glass
but a living spark
in the gentleness of Your reeds.

                      -excerpt from Prayers from the Ark “The
                      Prayer of the Goldfish” by Carmen de
                      Gasztold, Public Domain

Jonathan Travelstead’s first poetry collection, How We Bury Our Dead, has been published by Cobalt Press (March 10, 2015).

       How We Bury Our Dead are intimately autobiographical poems based on Travelstead’s journey of meditation and grief over his mother’s cancer battles and death, his experiences as a firefighter overseas during the Iraq War and in his home state of Illinois, and his wandering through Alaska during the winter of 2008.

The most compelling poem for Travelstead, age 33, to write was “Prayer of the Motorcycle”, which he wrote in the style of French nun Carmen de Gasztold’s Prayers from the Ark.

Prayers from the Ark it is a collection of poems written from the point of view of a different insect, or animal, in which the speaker is thanking a higher power, and also requesting something.

I love motorcycles, and oratory language, and so my “Prayer of the Motorcycle” is one that I find myself flipping to.”

Prayer of the Motorcycle

                                                                            “I tell you,” he replied,  “if the
                                                                    disciples keep queit, the stones
                                                            will cry out” – Luke 19:40

Lord, cover my machined skeleton
with soft muscle rippling beneath skin.
Trade me an irregular beat
for the perfect timing in my finned chambers.
Powder-coated steel.  Ninety-two octane.
I too am a collection of precious dirts
plucked, fashioned from the earth’s heartbox.
I need sweat air, fluids.  Spark.  A master.
Give me hunger
beyond the bite into a curve’s pavement.
Lord, give me sight where I have a filament.
If I am their creation, I am yours,
so give me the freedom of a misfiring voice
and the tiny loping engines of cells
whose fuel is bread, meat.
Then let me ascend your highway
with the sputter of wings.

“My mother had overcome skin and breast cancers before, ultimately losing one breast. Witnessing four years of chemo treatments and radiation, there is a point that gets lost in the fog when after remission the doctors would find another, unrelated cancer.”

Travelstead’s response was to run away by volunteering for a tour in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a firefighter for the Air Force National Guard, only to experience another form of grief via the things he witnessed, his own struggles with mortality, and PTSD.

“If I suffered from PTSD- and I want to be clear that the condition is not confined to the military, or any certain occupation- then it was from separating myself from friends and family during a time I needed them most.”

He found temporary escapes via running the treadmill at the base gym and watching The Sopranos and The Wire religiously, but was not able to find escape in sleep, and ended up 20 pounds underweight.
“There was a period of a few weeks while I was overseas in which I was diagnosed with 'Battle Fatigue Syndrome'. I chuckle at that a bit today, as battle had nothing to do with it. I was an airport and structural firefighter, and so the worst hazards I had to deal with were extreme temperatures and hazardous atmospheres or fuel spills, not bullets.

The diagnosis came from my inability to get more than an hour or two of sleep, what I believe now was a repressed response to everything in my home life I was desperately trying to avoid.”

In 2007, he began the years long process of writing the first two poems from How We Bury Our Dead:  “Alaska” and “Moose.”

I name you Passage and Forgiveness
to a Cheechako’s camo coat
and for a brief moment
I believe again the prayer
my mother recites
in her hospital bed
where an invisible Jesus
carries the speaker
over sand primordial as glass.

                                                -excerpt, “Moose”

       One year after he began writing “Moose” and “Alaska” Travelstead decided to pursue his MFA in Creative Writing with a Focus in Poetry at the University of Southern Illinois Carbondale.

       “I never had any natural talent as I saw it for writing, and so I always thought I would have to work harder at it than others. I knew someone like myself would benefit from an MFA program, possibly more than the person of average interest in pursuing an MFA. I always knew I wanted to write- needed it- and because of that I joined the Air Force National Guard for the GI Bill so that when I was accepted I would be able to focus more completely on the craftsmanship of writing.

       I stretched a 3-year program into 5 years. Because I was already working fulltime in my firefighting career I could only take one class at a time, which was perfect because I loved working with my professors Rodney Jones, Judy Jordan, Allison Joseph, and Jon Tribble. In that I was able to give full attention to, say, blues poetry immediately post-prohibition, or working on my slant rhyme in a formal, Shakespearean sonnet.”

In March of 2008, Travelstead learned his mother was dying due to terminal cancer.  Travelstead dedicated How We Bury Our Dead to his mother Jean Ann Travelstead.

After returning home from Kuwait for a few months, he watched his mother endure cancer treatments at St. Louis’s Barnes-Jewish Hospital and he went through a broken romance.  His response was to runaway and hitchhike through the Alaskan wilderness in the winter of 2008.   

The sky scrimmed by the Holgate’s sapphire
holds you beneath it all-
It is easier to remain in motion than to stop.

Nothing in even the deadfall
you can point to and say is yours,
nothing you can say you are of.

                                                -excerpt, “Alaska”

While in Alaska, he encountered true friends along the way who showed him compassion and welcomed him into their homes.  He came to the conclusion the reason why he felt so disconnected was due to the walls he himself built.

"Our seeming lack of connection whenever we're going through anything is completely false," Travelstead told journalist Chris Hottensen in an interview for The Southern Illinoisan in March of 2015.  "It's our own walls we put up between us and everyone else. Everyone I met, whether they picked me up or whether I met them in a hostel, were welcoming to me. The only thing that separates us is the fear of other people."

       He returned in time to spend one more year with his mother, Jean Ann Travelstead, who died from complications with a form of rhabdomyosarcoma on June 27th of 2009 at 9:37 a.m. at home with family.

       The year that Travelstead graduated with his Masters, in 2013, was the same year he wrote his last poem from How We Bury our Dead, “DuPont Paint Factory.”

“I wrote most of “DuPont Paint Factory” in a whirlwind blur of about six months, in now what I see as a need to process its autobiographical content. In it, my partner and I are called out to an abandoned factory where we witness a protracted electrocution in which we are completely unable to help.”

Entering the cavernous room,
I can smell it for the first time the way I always will
(here on forever and forever amen)
the first few moments of each time the tones drop
in the middle of the night-
rancid meat, bone’s charred power,
fear in a bundle of thick-wristed copper wires.

                                                -excerpt, “DuPont Paint Factory”

“On a side note, this piece won the Gwendolyn Brooks Emerging Writer Contest, and I was invited to have lunch with the Secretary of State Jesse White and Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stine in Springfield, Illinois. This piece is available in audio and print online for the Google-savvy.”

Sweat is a cold layer of rubber coating my body.
I hear a whine like the yipping of a trapped coyote
and think an animal has made this place its home.
But then I realize in the center of the room, a substation,
inside it, whoever is stick, still alive.  Crying...

Sam, talking softly where she points her flashlight,
then turns to us.  Thirty minutes, she says.
Thirty minutes electricity has been churning through him,
leaving a blackened trail like wildfire behind it.

                                    -excerpt, “DuPont Paint Factory”

       During the five years it took for him to earn his Master’s he encountered numerous poets- in person, or through their works- that had a huge influence on him and the writing of How We Bury Our Dead:  Judy Jordon, Allison Joseph, Rodney Jones, Jay Meek, Philip Levine, David Bottoms, James Tate, and Larry Levis.

       Travelstead decided to turn his poems into a poetry collection when he noticed that all of the poems had one theme in common – grief.
“When I saw the repetition of a tone of grief, and my mother showing up in poems and lines dealing with things I thought had nothing to do with her. But that's how it is, isn't it, that what occupies our unconscious comes up and finds a way of relating itself in strange, sometimes grotesque ways to everything we're doing, from drinking a glass of orange juice, to trying to be intimate with our significant other?”

The book of poetry is divided into four distinct sections attached to their own geography:  Kuwait, Alaska, and Travelstead’s work as a fireman at Murpysboro Fire Department in Southern Illinois. 

       “I wanted to arrange the poems chronologically, but in a way that challenged a reader's expectation that the speaker is experiencing grief in any by-the-numbers way somehow tied to the passage of time. I want readers to have the sense of how individual the process of grieving is.”

       The next step was the publication process, which he described as a time of exhaustion.  His manuscript was rejected by 22 publishers, but was finally accepted by Cobalt Press when Travelstead’s poem “Trucker” won the 2013 Cobalt Poetry Prize.  “Trucker” is one of six smaller poems that makeup the powerhouse of a poem “Alaska”.

Steel, diamond-plate steps rise into his big rig, into his world of flannel,
Old Spice cured into split vinyl seams and cracked upholstery,
the green glow of radios for light.  His gorilla palm claps my shoulder
and I believe it when he Jake brakes twenty tons of chained snowplows
to a stop, says That’s what it sounds like to motorboat

a fat woman’s tits.  Eighteen wheels of tractor-trailer unclasp
with an air horn blast, shocking the heart.  Beating it back to life.
He’s copied his favorite Robert Frost poems by hand onto a legal pad
and scotch-taped them to crumbling headliner with every pine tree
air freshener he ever bought, each poem dated in red felt-tip.

I think of yellow-jackets and stringers, amphetamines. Vats of
burnt coffee swilled down the iced macadam, and when he says It’s cold
as a fart in a dead Eskimo, it moves through my gut as true as this
landscape’s breath.  The doggerel he recites.  Carnal.  Kind as
the diesel’s throb.  Limericks of the North Slopes, clubbing seals,

rhyming the Alyeska pipeline with you betcha.  Slushing past
the weigh station and the cop hidden there, a warning squelches too late
for salvation from his CB:  Watch out, Big Ben-wolf’s in the chicken coop.
My bones begin to hum, then resonate, as the radio’s copper-wound crystal
into the lambent night, and I feel like a pinpoint aperture

widening just enough to let this burly-shouldered, bearded light through
a light once corporeal and distant as aurora borealis from the smell
of Illinois pollen.  The truth is I can’t remember exactly like it was
or what he said.  Maybe it was that the Prudhoe Bay freezes hard enough
to cross in winter.  Maybe that like the song that is always playing somewhere,

someone has to drive it all night long.   

                                    -excerpt, “Alaska”

The editors Andrew Keating and Stacie Keating inquired if Travelstead had a book manuscript and the rest is history.
“What I love about the editors Andrew Keating and Stacie Keating is that they choose work they personally love for publication, rather than any other reason.

I was included at every step of the publication process, to include even layout and cover design- something authors don't often expect, as publishers' role tends to be handling the business side of creative works.

On another note, they also happen to be fantastic hosts. I only just returned from staying with them in Baltimore for a Cobalt Press first book event in which Cobalt Press authors read to a packed house.”

Travelstead now resides in Murphysboro, Illinois, 6 miles west of Carbondale and two hours southeast of St. Louis, where he works as a firefighter, writes poetry at least 90 minutes per day, and lives with his fiancé Heidi Kocher, and their two pets: dog, Nora, and cat, Whisky.

       He can be reached via email and Facebook at  

Photograph Description and Copyright Information

Photos 1 (Murphysboro Firefighter courtesy of Charlie Nance,
6 (in Kuwait),
8 (Murphysboro Fire Department), 22 (in Kuwait), 26,
28 (giving a poetry reading on May 29, 2015),
32 (SIUC graduation party May 19, 2013 attributed to Cassandra Ponath Stephens
36 (giving a poetry reading October 12, 2013),
47 (Murphysboro Firefighter),
48 (with box of books March of 2015), and
50 (giving a poetry reading in Chicago)
Jonathan Travelstead.
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photos 2,
17 (book on engine attributed to Lance Liggett),
18 (book on humvee attributed to Lance Liggett
19, 20, 27, 33, 34, 49
Jacket covers and web logos  of How We Bury Our Dead

Photos 3 and 10
Jacket cover of Prayers from the Ark by Carmen de Gasztold

Photo 4 and 53
Web logo for Cobalt Press

Photo 5
Jean Ann Travelstead in 2002
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 7
Denali, the highest peak in North America
Alaska National Park Service
Public Domain

Photo 9.
Bordeaux France French Nun
Public Domain

Photo 11
Phaedrus Travelstead the Motorcycle
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 12
Jean Ann Travelstead on motorcycle
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 13
Jean Ann Travelstead
May 24, 2009
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 14
Joseph Martinez and Jonathan Travelstead in Kuwait
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 15
How We Bury Our Dead Poster
Attributed to Caitlin Stoskopf

Photo 21
Web logo for Southern Illinois University of Carbondale
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 23 and 37
Judy Jordan
Copyright granted by Judy Jordan

Photo 25
Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble at the SIUC Creative Writing Gala
Copyright granted by Allison Joseph

Photo 29
Web logo for the The Southern Illinoisan
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 30
Travelstead Family – Jennifer, Van, Jean, Vanessa, Jonathan, and Jarred (sitting)
May 30, 3009
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 31
Jean Ann Travelstead’s gravesite
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 35
Standing:  Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Jonathan Travelstead, Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein.
Sitting Pablo Otavolo and Richard Holinger
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travlestead  

Photo 38
Allison Joseph
Copyright granted by Allison Joseph

Photo 39
Rodney Jones
Attributed to Jonathan Travelstead
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 40
Jay Meek
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 41
Philip Levine
Attributed to Dave Shankbone

Photo 42
David Bottoms
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 43
James Tate
Public Domain

Photo 44
Larry Levis
Web logo photo
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photos 46. (in San Francisco May 31, 2015) and
54. (May 17, 2012)
Jonathan Travelstead and fiancé Heidi
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 51
Andrew Keating
Copyright granted by Andrew Keating

Photo 52
Stacie Keating
Copyright granted by Stacie Keating

Photo 55
Dog Nora
Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

Photo 56
Cat Whisky with jacket cover of How We Bury Our Dead

Copyright granted by Jonathan Travelstead

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