Craftsman Shifts Focus from Wood to Words

| April 16, 2009

Cauliflower popped and crackled in a hot pan on John Casteen’s end of the phone while he spoke of publishing his first book of poetry. He was sautéing vegetables for dinner, pausing occasionally to gently but firmly referee his son and daughter’s play.

“Free Union,” titled for his poem and the Albemarle County community near his Earlysville home, was published in February by the University of Georgia Press. It is the seventh book in the VQR Poetry Series, a project of the Virginia Quarterly Review where Casteen serves on the editorial staff. He also is a visiting professor at Sweet Briar, teaching English and poetry workshops.

That Casteen was balancing his home life with a conversation about his first book fits with where he finds himself these days. For years he wrote poetry when he wasn’t making fine furniture to earn a living for his family.

Although building things was what he wanted to do for a time, it is physically hard, dangerous and lonely besides, he said. After graduating from the University of Virginia, he went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for his Master of Fine Arts to be a better writer for himself, not because of ambitions to publish or teach. Ten years on, he knew he preferred the company of people to machines and was rethinking his calling.

“It seemed to me that I could do more good for more people in the classroom,” said Casteen, who’d also concluded, he could “either be a writer all of the time or not be one at all.”

He sold his company, Fern Hill Furniture Works, and jumped into teaching and writing with both feet — and with all of his fingers still intact. His arrival at Sweet Briar in 2007 coincided with finishing the manuscript for “Free Union.” Finding both professional and personal support at the College, he is now about halfway through writing a second volume of poetry, he said.

Casteen also found time to establish and direct the inaugural Sweet Briar Undergraduate Creative Writing Conference in March. Drawing about 60 students from nine Virginia colleges and universities, it was a success in attendance and in the quality of work that came out of it, Casteen said.

He was just 18 or 19 and a student at U.Va. when he wrote the oldest poem in his book, “The Night Pasture.” Several works in the volume have appeared in literary magazines, such as Shenandoah, The Southern Review and The Paris Review.

Charles Wright, Casteen’s teacher at U.Va., wrote in the 2003-2004 Winter Ploughshares that his former student always had a raw, edgy talent that he “smoothed and solidified” over time. “He has a real ear for the strong, Anglo-Saxon beat of words; he has a sure hand for keeping them in order and making them sing,” Wright said.

Casteen himself talks about a “music of language,” and says his penchant for “playing with words, thinking about where they come from and why they sound the way they do,” is among the several influences of his father. He is the son of John T. Casteen III, the president of U.Va. and a professor of English.

Casteen said he is always writing about landscape, no matter where he is. He attributes that in part to his father, too. “Most of the places and subjects that I write about are influenced by the things that he shared with me. Most of the places that I love, I love because he showed them to me.”

It may also derive from his approach to poetry, which starts with observing things and writing them down. If he decides there’s something there — a lucky circumstance, he says — he works on it.

“So it’s close observation, rendition of what’s concrete and real into the abstract of language, and refinement of the abstract to suit the thing that moved you to write the poem in the first place,” he said.

His poems rove from the furniture shop to Virginia farm fields to the Maine woods. They’re strewn with characters, places and things that will feel familiar to many, especially Central Virginians — “Like murmured things old women said at cards when I was small: ‘Good night,’ they said. ‘Great day in the morning.’ And, ‘Lord, Lord. Lord have mercy.’ ”

Casteen also is a hunter. It’s a pastime he says affords the solitude to think about things that he may write about, although the act itself is not a subject of his poems. Even “Night Hunting,” previously published in the Winter 2006-2007 Ploughshares, is not about taking an animal’s life, but rather whether it is moral to do so:

Night Hunting
Because we wanted things the way they were
in our minds’ black eyes we waited. The beaver
raising ripples in a vee behind his head
the thing we wanted. A weed is what might grow
where you don’t want it; a dahlia could be a weed,
or love, or other notions. The heart can’t choose
to find itself enchanted; the hand can’t choose
to change the shape of water. How strange, to hope
to see the signs of motion, to make an end
to Peter’s old refrain: He’ll be along, son of a bitch,
and then you best be ready. So sure, and so sure
that when he shines the light the thing will show
along the other shore. What next? Well,
you’ve killed animals before. Invited here
for company in the cold night, and because
ever handy with rifles. What next is wait
and see, what next may be the lone report, the ever-
widening circles, blood-blossom, the spirit rising slow
like oily smoke above still waters. We wanted
a pond to look like a pond: standing poplars,
shallows unsullied, fish and frogs and salamanders.
The gleaming back of fur and fat may not belong,
or may: God of varmints, God of will, forgive us
our trespasses. We know precisely what we do.

Casteen is wrapping up a book tour at a reading this month in San Francisco. “Free Union” is available in the Sweet Briar Book Shop and at Cochran Library.

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Creative Writing