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Vermont Poet Plumbs Lake Champlain for Inspiration

State of the Arts


Published January 28, 2009 at 6:50 a.m.

Lake Champlain is so picturesque that its effect on viewers can defy description. But that doesn’t stop any number of writers from trying. To that number add Daniel Lusk. Since last spring, the poet and University of Vermont English lecturer has been reading maritime lit and visiting shipwrecks with guides from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes. With financial support from the Vermont Community Foundation, Lusk plans to translate his experience and knowledge into a collection of poems tentatively called “Lake Studies: Meditations on Lake Champlain.”

That working title is sort of misleading. For starters, Lusk says his project mostly explores what’s under the lake’s surface. One of the half-dozen poems he’s completed is about “Champ,” the alleged lake monster. Another, which he read to an audience at UVM’s Fleming Museum in December, is a hypothetical narrative of what happened aboard a sinking schooner in 1886.

“It’s not like I’m going to go diving,” explains Lusk, who saw the 19th-century shipwreck via remotely operated research vessel. “But by interviewing divers . . . I’m hoping to recreate what I’m learning about what’s under the water in ways that other people can experience . . . through the literature I’m writing.”

Lusk adds that his Champlain poems aren’t “studies” in a scientific or journalistic sense; rather, they’re poetic meanderings on a series of aquatic themes. If the subject matter is new to the landlocked Jonesville resident, the approach is not. For a decade, Lusk has written poems about the black bears and bobcats that roam his woods. Scientific and historical sources offer useful material for crafting naturalistic poems, he explains — but, more importantly, they fuel his muse.

Eloise Beil, director of collections and exhibits at the Maritime Museum, says she doesn’t mind if Lusk uses his imagination as a primary source. In fact, she notes, poetry broadens our collective understanding of human nature in ways that straight reportage cannot. “The thing with poetry is, it gets to the heart and soul of a story,” Beil says. “It’s what resonates as an archetype, as opposed to ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’”

Lusk says he is hoping to finish his poetry cycle by the end of 2009 — just in time for the conclusion of the 400th anniversary of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s arrival at the lake that now bears his name. Meanwhile, the poet will be watching videos of underwater explorations, reading maritime ballads, and — during a sabbatical this fall — exploring the lake’s islands on friends’ sailboats.

Lusk is also sharing his project with the academic community. At an arts and humanities conference in Hawaii a few weeks ago, he presented video footage of a “big fish” he had taped at Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center. His colleagues were intrigued with the process, Lusk reports. All this research will help him better understand the lake, he speculates. Problem is, he’s not sure when to stop. “Since I don’t know what I don’t know,” Lusk offers modestly, “it’s difficult to know how long this will take.”