Please join us in congratulating DOECL Ph.D. candidate Colin Dekeersgieter on being awarded the 2023 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize for his poetry collection Opium and Ambergris! This annual prize awards the winner with $2,500 and publication of their first full-length book of poetry by the Kent State University Press. Dekeersgieter was selected by poet and author Marilyn Chin. Read the interview below for more information about Dekeersgieter’s experience composing this collection and being awarded this prize:
Could you tell us about Opium and Ambergris in your own words?
I began the work in 2012 after my brother suffered a traumatic brain injury while snowboarding in the Sierra Nevadas. He had been addicted to opiates for several years at that point and when he woke from his coma I placed all my hope in the fact that he would not only heal but, because he had essentially detoxed in his coma, he would get a new lease on life and find sobriety. He died of a heroin overdose in 2013. There was a lot of anger at him and his death in the early drafts of the collection. But as my writing shifted focus away from grief and toward some semblance of acceptance and empathy for him and my family, all the love sifted in. So as the manuscript developed I began equating “Opium” with death for obvious reasons and “Ambergris,” an ingredient used in perfumes, with love. The poems fell into those two categories for some time. Love and Death as distinct concepts.
After my marriage and the birth of my daughter, I thought my family’s history with trauma and mental illness was mostly behind me, behind us, but it was really just catching up to my mother. She fell into a major depression that has impacted us all deeply but has also brought us closer together in ways, strengthening our love since my brother’s death. Since then the words or concepts of “Opium” and “Ambergris” began to represent love and loss at once, the good in the bad and vice versa. Ambergris is the thing that stabilizes perfumes, makes the scents last longer, but it’s found inside the belly of dead whales. So there’s the whole idea right there. It’s not a new theme and the heart of the book is expressed by Melville in one of my epigraphs. He says, ‘Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?’ I think the collection tries to investigate that question. So I suppose what Opium and Ambergris is about is the shifting sentiments we feel about ourselves and for others — both in the moment and over time — in the face of trauma, loss, and love. The first poem in the manuscript (which is actually one of the last poems I wrote) ends with the lines ‘That’s / how life is with the mind: / a slow exchange of loss / for luminosity.’ I think that’s true. And I wanted the collection to be a kind of map of that exchange.
Could you tell us the most challenging and most rewarding parts of working on this project?
The most challenging thing, and I think many writers would agree with this, is how to do justice to suffering. Both our own suffering and the suffering of others. A writer never wants to feel like they’ve capitalized on suffering, especially the suffering of the living. As I said, some of the events that motivate moments in the collection took place over 10 years ago, but others took place within the last year and all of it involves family. So what becomes difficult is finding an appropriate artistic distance despite time frames — appropriate being either very close, very far, or somewhere in the middle distance. There’s no specific merit to any of those, you just have to hope you’re attuned to what the poem’s emotion requires and that it aligns with something moral. If you can get that, you’ve maybe done some justice and the poem might do some good by being in the world. I think I’m saying something obvious in a very convoluted way. I’m writing about actual people and I don’t want to hurt those people.
The most rewarding part is two-fold I think. I do think this whole process of beating this thing into something I can call a collection has taught me to be more observant and thoughtful. Poetry will do that generally. But again, there’s been a transition from anger, confusion, guilt, self-hatred, to who I am today, which I hope is accepting, forthright, and moral — or more moral than I once was at least. The second rewarding part, which is linked to this kind of growth, is collaboration. All the people who have had their eyes, ears, and hands on these poems from early drafts to the moment it was sent out have made the poems better and have made me better through extension. They’ve certainly made me more happy.
How has this project been different than others you have worked on?
I was going to say something about time commitment but I’ve been working on a novel for just as long as I’ve worked on this. I’ll say that compared to fiction or academic writing, trying to create a whole out of individual poems really feels like a plastic art. To me there’s something three-dimensional and bodily about it. The poems’ constituent parts have to all fit into some whole, some figure, and you have to do that over and over again and arrange everything so it links together into some grander or more comprehensive figure. It’s like attaching limbs to a clay torso and making sure, or hoping, they stay there. I felt like I was really getting my hands dirty, in a good way, when I wrote the collection.
What would you like readers to take away from this poetry collection?
That’s a difficult question. The poems deal with loss, addiction, and severe depression, so I would hope that anyone who has experienced or is familiar with those things would find some connection to the work, some solace. I suppose that’s what anyone wants from their work. If the connection or recognition leads to someone reaching out, either for help or for understanding, that would be really wonderful and would make all the time put in invaluable.
Could you tell us about how it felt to receive the 2023 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize?
I was doing my daily check-up on the books at the CommunityWorx thrift shop in Carrboro when I got the call from David Hassler, who directs the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State. I actually missed the call so it was a voicemail. I was completely taken aback and started to cry. But I had a pretty good haul of books so I checked out in tears with my heart racing and then I called my wife. I was so excited that I actually broke out in hives. I kept thinking, “Please let this be real.” I was beside myself. I was so grateful. I felt just so overwhelmed that Marilyn Chin saw the merit in this thing that I’ve poured a quarter of my life into and that it would finally see the world.