There are so many great things about this beautiful, historical area we live in; easy access to multiple trails, towpaths, the canal, and larger cities are just a hop and skip away. One thing in particular that ties not only this community together, but surrounding communities as well, is the Lehigh River; a very special subject to one man in particular—a poet named Paul Martin. Floating on the Lehigh, winner of the Grayson Books Chapbook Prize, is Martin’s most recently published collection of poems, focusing on his relationship with the Lehigh River as both a child and an adult.
Martin grew up on Canal Street in Walnutport.
“It was a great place to live,” he says. “I think of it as a great childhood; beautiful. I get nostalgic.” Almost anyone who grew up in this area can probably feel some tie to the river.
“We spent almost all summer swimming in the Lehigh or the canal; those are some of my earliest impressions. When I think of my early life, it’s always connected to the river and Canal Street.”
When Martin was a sophomore in high school, he made his way up the river and moved to Palmerton. Despite having moved around and finally settled in Ironton where he currently resides, he still thinks of Walnutport as his home.
“Slatington and Walnutport, they’re pretty gritty towns, but I love them. We had the railroad tracks and the canal, those are really strong memories for me.”
Having such a strong connection to the river, it’s no surprise the poems in Floating on the Lehigh came easily to Martin.
“They came from a place in me that was deeper than I could imagine. I wasn’t aware of them; they surprised me.” Martin feels it’s important for the writer to be surprised, that if a writer knows what they’re writing ahead of time, it’s not going to be a very good poem, but the writer isn’t the only one who should be surprised.
“I think the reader should be surprised by the poem; the poem should take turns and twists. It’s a meaning of discovery. That’s the great delight in poetry.”
Poetry may sometimes be easy to write (if you’re lucky), however getting published is a different story.
“To get published, it’s incredibly difficult. During a reading period, a press may get 1,000 to 2,000 manuscripts. Typically, they’ll take one. One out of a 1,000. A lot of really good writers get rejected,” says Martin. Martin just so happened to be that one when he entered his poems into the 2015 Chapbook Competition advertised by Grayson Books.
Unfortunately, being a writer and getting rejected constantly go hand in hand. Martin started writing poetry around the age of 25, writing “really bad, terrible stuff.”
Martin says, “I didn’t understand the rejection. I’m glad they did reject me, I wouldn’t want to see my name attached to it.” Martin even burned a lot of his early poetry, for fear of anyone “discovering how bad it was.” So how does one go from writing poetry that’s burn-worthy to getting published numerous times, selected as that one out of 1,000?
First, one must discover who they are as a writer, mostly through writing lots of terrible stuff. Carl Sandberg wrote poems about working class people, which caught Martin’s attention.
“I didn’t know you could do that. I tend to like poets who write about their sweat and the earth, the smell of the earth and sweat and blood. I’m not a poet who cares much for a lot of abstraction.” Other things that go hand in hand with writing are inspiration and writer’s block.
“I can’t wait for inspiration; it might come once in a blue moon. I have to be in the [writing] room when it strikes, I have to be ready for it there. Some days you get nothing, absolutely nothing. I think you have to have faith that even though that’s happening, something is happening, it just hasn’t surfaced yet. If you keep on, it will surface.”
Martin’s advice to young, aspiring writers out there is to “write and read your heart out and persevere. Ultimately, the only reason to write is because you love writing, you can’t help but do it, you need to do it. Write like crazy, get a good reader, read an awful lot, continue, and persevere.”
Floating on the Lehigh by Paul Martin can be purchased for $10 at the Palmerton Library, Slatington Library, Parkland Library, and will also be available in the fall at Moravian Bookstore. It can be purchased through Grayson Books as well.
Paul Martin’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is the author of Closing Distances and five chapbooks: Green Tomatoes, Walking Away Waving, Morning on Canal Street, Rooms of the Living and Floating on the Lehigh.
Here’s a snippet of the poem “The River Remembers” taken from Floating on the Lehigh:
A time before towns crowded
Its banks and dams held back its flow,
The black poison of coal silt and mine run-offs
When it was owned by Lehigh Coal and Navigation.
It remembers the kingfisher, the wood thrush,
The wading heron Audubon painted.
It remembers the light canoes of the Leni Lenape
Who lived here ten thousand years ago and gave it a name.
It remembers a time when it had no name.
It remembers the jagged stone it broke and rolled smooth.
The one I bend down and put in my pocket
The June morning, the mist above the water so thick
Nothing beyond its wooded banks exists.