LET THERE BE LIT

BIG RIGS, POEMS AND A SHANTYBOAT

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Four years after Lynn’s first husband, Navy Lieutenant Daniel Glenn, was shot down in a North Vietnam rice paddy, lines from her poem “War Waste” appeared in the Dec. 7, 1970 issue of Time Magazine. Daniel was still a prisoner of war.

Lynn Skapyak Harlin was Lynn Glenn back then, not yet the author of poetry collections Press 1 for More Options and Real Women Drive Trucks, not yet the “trucker poet” who quit teaching at Florida Community College at Jacksonville in 1985 to drive a tractor trailer for three years, not the doyenne of the Shantyboat Writers workshops.

She was 25 years old, “half-married, half-widowed,” as Time said, studying English at Jacksonville University, hosting poetry readings in her Arlington apartment. In “War Waste,” she asked, “Where are the big brave warriors now? The SAM in the schoolyard/ shot him down./ They dragged him out of the paddy,/ moved him through the streets,/ filled his ears with taunts,/ banged his body with rocks/ tortured him with mind-bending/ flesh-racking, tired tormenting/ questions. Finished with him./ And now he sits, he waits./ He waits for the red, white and blue.”

Lifetimes later, in 1995, Jim Harlin and Lynn Skapyak were looking at “shantyboats” the state of Georgia demanded be cleared from the Altamaha River. The colonies of ragged redneck houseboats had been condemned as eyesores and health hazards.

Skapyak’s spent a lot of her life on the water, including years in her mid-20s when she went back and forth between Jacksonville and Dutch friends’ tjalks (pronounced “challuks”) in the North Sea.

Finally Lynn and Jim, soon to marry, came to Pig Farm Landing in Jesup, Georgia, and saw eight shantyboats, which Skapyak describes as “derelict little river cottages afloat on Styrofoam blocks or 55-gallon tanks.” She wanted the ugliest one.

In 1997, she published a poem called “Jesup” that reads like a Flannery O’Connor footnote-illumination: “It could have/ been Jesus,/ ’cept for the p,” and in 2001, she started offering on-board Shantyboat Writers Workshops at Seafarers Marina on the Trout River on Jacksonville’s Northside.

Skapyak has known Jacksonville’s writers since the late 1960s. She knew the Bukowski-like poet Allen Justiss, who spent time in the drunk tank with Bukowski and fell drunk into a pond at a 1970s University of Florida reading with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

She recalls local, internationally known, literary journals like Kalliope and State Street Review, now defunct, and readings at places like Buddy Ezell’s in Riverside, Midnight Expresso in Riverside and Arlington, and Shakespeare’s Cat at Chamblin Bookmine in the 1990s.

Sitting in Skapyak’s book-lined office in her Westside home, I’m reminded of Ginsberg’s experiential definition of poetry, in relation to her life experience: “The madman bum and angel beat in time with the absolute heart of the poem butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years,” poetry distilled from living fully. She’s 70. Cigarette fumes waft up through strands of her enormous wild white hair.

Skapyak has mixed emotions about today’s local literary culture. She’s happy the city’s colleges are producing scores of young writers, but worries that master of fine arts’ creative writing programs increasingly produce a “clique” of writers little concerned with writing outside their circle. “Writing needs to be ecumenical,” she says.

Likewise, she says Jacksonville is still too racially segregated and that its writing scene mirrors that segregation.

Writers who claim to represent Jacksonville, she says, need “deep interplay with the culture of writers here before them.”

I ask Lynn Skapyak why she calls herself a bitch. The word’s blatant misogyny means I never use it. “Because I truly am,” she says.

“When I read something, and it’s not good, and someone asks me how it is, I tell them. I see if they’re serious, or if they just want me to say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice, it reminds me of Scranton, Pennsylvania.’”

She conducts six to eight six-week workshops aboard the boat each year, and many workshops lead her to one-on-one relationships with writers. Recent workshops have included artist Jim Draper, poet Tonn Pastore, and artist and writer Oscar Senn. Senn, who’s written award-winning young adult novels, has painted portraits of Skapyak across the years.

Skapyak may be best known for coaching and editing Donna Hicken’s The Good Fight, about the local news anchor’s surviving breast cancer, and the follow-up book, as Donna Deegan, about forming a foundation and local marathon/fundraiser in her name.

“Oh, we fought and fought,” Skapyak says. “I once told her that if she didn’t have breast cancer, I’d kill her.” She calls writing a “bloodsport,” says, “Writing should never be about ejaculating onto the page.”

Lynn Skapyak Harlin would like to write her memoirs, “but living them was hard enough.” She has bookshelves full of journals dating back to when she was 12. She laughs and says she’ll burn them all before she dies. I tell her she’d better not. I’m not laughing.

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