An Interview with Rebecca Lawton on Her New Book of Poetry
by Sharon Hester
In this post we interview retired AzRA guide Rebecca (Becca) Lawton. Becca began guiding for Arizona Raft Adventures (AzRA) in 1976. She started out her career with American River Touring Association in California in 1973, as well as Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. In 1976, she began rowing 22 foot long, 2+ ton snout boats for ARTA Southwest in the Grand Canyon, continuing with smaller boats for AzRA and later for the U.S. National Park Service. Retiring from the river in 1987, she began working in science journalism at Penn State University, starting her life as a professional writer. She continued writing while working as a fluvial geologist from 1990 to 2015, publishing eight books on water, rivers, and the environment. We asked her about her ninth book, Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems released in September 2021 by Finishing Line Press, 2021.
AzRA: Greetings and thanks for joining us. We were interested to learn that your first book of poetry, Swimming Grand Canyon, is a chapbook, no more than thirty pages.
Becca: Yes, chapbooks are like tiny houses, very compact but with everything they need. They’re part of a long literary tradition, especially for poetry. They’re usually on a single theme and meant to be read again and again. Perfect for carrying in a dry bag or an ammo box in the Canyon!
I used to keep a very small hardbound copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets in my library box and never tired of opening that up to read at nights on the river. Not that I claim to be Shakespeare, but Swimming Grand Canyon does resemble The Sonnets in that both are works of poetry written over many years.
AzRA: What theme would you say Swimming Grand Canyon explores? You’ve told us that it isn’t all about swimming, or just about the Canyon. By our count, roughly half the poems take place on the Colorado and other rivers.
Becca: Right, and the others explore creeks, oceans, and lakes, or water as a driving force in our lives. The poems in Swimming Grand Canyon are all water powered, but you could say that about everything on Earth. To me, the collection is about immersion—not just in water, but in nature, science, or our work. Some poems submerge more into imagination related to place, say in “Delicate Arch” and “Cinderella.”
The experience of falling in the water, intentionally or not, is something that’s part of river running. In literature swimming is great metaphor for full immersion. Anyone who has run the Canyon knows that landing in the Colorado is a whole-body experience. Whether done by chance or by design, swimming there can be intense, frightening, exhilarating—many different things. Certainly cold. Wet. But never boring.
AzRA: Some of our favorite poems in your collection relate closely to work as a Grand Canyon guide, like “Boatwomen” and the title poem, “Swimming Grand Canyon.”
Becca: Thank you, I like those, too, in part because they’re true stories. Actually there’s not a poem in the book that isn’t inspired by an actual event. But the two you mention come straight from direct experience, one at Lee’s Ferry, one from some casual, on-river interviews I did of boatwomen on a private trip in 2006.
“Swimming Grand Canyon” pulls snippets from printed interviews with pioneer woman guide Georgie White Clark. The rest of the poem draws from my encounters with her over the years. Back then, Georgie was roughly the age I am now. She seemed ancient to me, but now I know she was as young as any of us, at least in her heart. This sample below comes from time I spent with Georgie and her lead boatman at Lee’s Ferry.
A can of beer in both hands
clinging at six in the morning
at Lee’s Ferry, she said it again
Having a boat flip
in the rapids is a way of life for me
and an enjoyable one at that
She stood with her lead boatman
smiling, a burly man naked
from the waist up
Behind them swampers
had been rigging boats
since before dawn
Their joie de vivre impressed me. So did the hard work going on behind them, out of their lines of sight, but very much in mine. Their boatmen were toiling like ants in the background, as I’d just finished doing myself.
In the poem below, “Boatwomen,” the subjects are former commercial women guides. Both worked in the Canyon in the 1980s. I asked them a few questions, jotted answers in my journal, and wrote it up years after the trip ended.
The boatwomen are fifty-three
and fifty-five now
They guided for a living
years ago, their skin like hide
hair torn by wind
Both say rowing rapids
is easier than before
despite their ruined backs
they can relax
they don’t care
what people think
They know their limits
how to be out of control
AzRA: Sounds so familiar! We know about skin like hide and ruined hair. Which is your favorite poem in the book?
Becca: Great question. It seems to vary with the day. Every one means a lot to me—not just because of the experience that inspired it, but because getting it onto paper was an adventure.
The hardest one to complete was the poem excerpted below, “Some Say,” about our late friend Wesley Smith (who guided for AZRA from the 1970s to the 1990s). Writing about him was a process—as elusive, I’d say, as I sometimes found him.
Dear Wesley, singing his tuneless song
rowed late to camp and the group grew calm
peaceful and forgiving
Everyone smiled until dark
when he wailed on in his boat
People whispered together
Young girls made faces
We others moved camp away
Knowing his pain rose up
a beast awakened whenever
his lost squad parted the veil…
AzRA: We love remembering Wesley, an incredibly kind person and compassionate guide. And, as Rob Elliott, the previous owner of AzRA, used to say, Wesley was the best we had in case of helicopter evacuation.
Becca: Yes, he was the best in a lot of areas. He and the other Vietnam veterans we worked with in the Canyon really knew their stuff about many amazing things.
AzRA: Your Acknowledgments page in Swimming Grand Canyon mentions the magazines that published some of these poems over the years. We noticed a few were part of another book of Canyon poetry, Going Down Grand.
Becca: Such a terrific book! And another perfect fit for the river ammo box. Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa put it together for Lithic Press, a very fine small press in Fruita, just outside Grand Junction, Colorado. Going Down Grand has so many moving, fun, and thought-provoking poems in it, by people who know the Canyon well. Flagstaff author and Canyon scholar Don Lago did a nice review of it for Boatman’s Quarterly Review. Some of the verses are by poets with little experience of the Colorado (like Chana Bloch, who was a professor of mine at Mills College, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko), and the result is a rich dive into a place we love so well.
AzRA: Last question—we’re looking forward to your next book. What are you working on?
Becca: I’m at work on memoir about becoming one of the first women Grand Canyon guides. Not to make the experience about me, but to establish that journey for women more strongly in the written record. And, of course, some mornings I devote to poetry when other forms of writing just can’t capture all the beauty and power in water.
AzRA: Thanks for your time and doing this interview Becca, your experience, knowledge and time in and love of the canyon are clear in your writings and prose! We look forward to seeing more of your work and think our guides and guests will enjoy reading your poems.
Find Becca’s book, Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021) at your local bookseller, online at Bookshop or Amazon, or from other fine vendors. Visit her website to read more of her work.