Chris Dombrowski says his passions and work once felt fragmented.
For 21 years, he's been a professional fly fishing guide, and he's also an outfitter.
He's also a writer, of poetry and nonfiction, and has taught at workshops and the University of Montana.
Now, he says, the disparate parts seem to have come together. A good example might be a recent appearance on the MeatEater podcast, hosted by Steve Rinella, a hunting TV show host and fellow graduate of the University of Montana's Creative Writing Program.
They talked about Dombrowski's book, "Body of Water," on the bonefishing industry in the Bahamas. Rinella also took the opportunity to discuss poetry, probably not a common subject on a hunting podcast, but Dombrowksi recently published a new collection, "Ragged Anthem," on Wayne State University Press. Thankfully, he has hunting poems, like "To the First of the Getting-Longer Days," where the narrator takes his car "up what the Salish called the Road to the Buffalo" with a false sense of valiance in comparison to the Native hunters — he's listening to NPR as he readies himself to hunt pheasants.
Poems are far more accessible than we think, Dombrowski said, so he also gave some advice on the podcast.
"The first thing we have to do is remove ourselves from the way we were taught to read them, whether it was in high school or college," he said. Don't worry about what a poem "means."
"I don't know if you drink wine, or scotch, right, or beer, but you wouldn't take a sip of wine after a long day of work and go, 'What does this glass of wine mean?' Right?" he said.
It's more important to experience a poem: the images, the juxtapositions, the sound. He's concerned with writing with clarity and honesty and "rigorously constructed language."
If someone asks what they're "about," he has answers. He wrote poems that contemplate nature and the creatures in it, our tangled relationship to the world, and our own animal nature.
"The book tries its hardest to put its characters in situations that are feral and kind of creaturely, if you will," he said.
The book is filled with family — he has a wife and children. Some of the titles are taken from lyrics by Tom Waits, Gillian Welch, Elton John, as a way of "somehow expressing my debt to contemporary songwriting," he said.
There's humor, too. His "Lunar Calendar" lists new phases for modern Montana life, such as "The Moon of Everybody But Me Flies to a Beach Town and Drinks Free Margaritas."
A native of East Lansing, Michigan, Dombrowski grew up playing sports and "tip-toed" into writing. He said he was self-conscious about being "artsy," but thankfully found a similar-minded mentor in college, Jack Ridl.
He had started fishing in his teens, worked as a professional fly tier, and headed out West and enrolled at UM, where he's been guiding and writing since.
The idea of a poet-fishing guide might conjure images of someone writing poems on the river, like Adam Driver's bus driver-poet protagonist in the movie "Paterson."
It's not necessarily true for him.
"You come home and it's like get the boat cleaned out, get the cooler cleaned out, try to have some dinner, have a glass of wine or two and conk out," he said.
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He does keep a notebook with him to scrawl down phrases or fragments. He's too busy for much more.
"Sometimes it's in the car, sometimes it's in the little hatch of the boat or something, and certainly when I'm hunting, absolutely, I've got a notebook and images strike me, or even a phrase. Most often it's an image or maybe a single line," he said.
Naturally, the time outside does show itself in his work later, when he settles in after the June to October guiding season is over.
"The mind's net never stops picking things up," he said. Those "images, those lines they have a life of their own, they want to be reborn or reconstituted in a work of art," he said.
His poems have a reverence for nature, like these lines from "Cottonwoods": "He made this stand his bookmark. Some frigid nights/You can almost hear the dusty spine unfolding."
He said his prior work was pastoral, but nowadays he's not searching for any kind of transcendence.
"I might have, some time ago, aspired to that. I think now, what they aspire to is some level of deeper immersion, right? So not transcending it, but becoming more fully immersed in it," he said.
As he gets older, he wants a more engaged relationship to nature, "our basic alphabet."
In "Another Rapture Rescheduled," he writes, "wrongly I read the earth/As a text that has been penned rather than something that is being/written."
The idea of interconnectedness is planted throughout the book, too.
"We can't escape it," he said. "We are each of us, collectively complicit in everything that is going on in the country, in the world, we can't escape from it, so the poems shouldn't attempt to either. We know enough about physics to know that you and I are breathing the same air right now, and that what I do to you will affect people beyond you and vice versa," he said, adding that "if anything, these poems are attempting to embrace what is, instead of trying to escape from it."
It's similar to what Richard Hugo said about Charlie Russell in "Pishkun," that the painter "forgot/the world has garbage." In Dombrowski's poems, that might mean that nature imagery might collide with real-world news of a school shooting; or the way a texting exchange might interrupt a hike.
Dombrowski found his widest "momentum" yet thanks to fishing and a work of nonfiction, "Body of Water." He traveled to the Bahamas with clients to try to catch bonefish, a difficult-to-net creature that apparently isn't all that tasty, based on the reviews of the book. His initial plan to write a concise travel piece for Outside magazine grew into a full project, with an elderly and ill bonefishing pioneer as a protagonist.
The Los Angeles Review of Books said Dombrowski's prose "torques and twists and glistens into view much like the bonefish itself. One can’t help but hear echoes of Dombrowski’s teacher and friend, James Galvin, whose prose is often rooted in the earth. Yet Dombrowski’s writing also echoes the sea: powerful, unrelenting, and controlled."
It was plugged in the New York Times "By the Book" feature by the late novelist and poet Jim Harrison, a favorite author of his who became a friend and mentor. Dombrowski said he admires Harrison's "strident and stubborn" insistence on focusing on the work above all else, and said Harrison wanted his tombstone to say, "he got his work done" — the work being more than 30 books. He said that work ethic and his generosity have lingered with him more than nuts-and-bolts writing advice.
Dombrowski's writing another nonfiction book, which requires switching modes from the density of poetry to the steady dispersal of information. While writing "Body of Water," it took him some time to realize a sentence should be "about" something instead of a concentrated phrase.
His friend, the author David James Duncan, read the first draft, and gave him writing advice about nonfiction.
Throughout the pages, he wrote in the margins, "Poet: Write Prose!"