by Tim Gilmore, 2/12/2016
Lynn Skapyak Harlin smiles up at me from far below. I’ve walked the weathered dock out past a dense township of houseboats and crippled, crooked-mast sailboats.
The temperature’s in the low 40s and dropping. The sun’s going down. The wind belts sails and jibs and whips from underneath decks and across the dock in a ceaseless whistling roar.
The last time I came, I wrote a long poem called “Preparations for Missing You” and imagined this boat some mystical non-place.
“I ask them what they think / could possibly await them here. / They don’t know whether to think of me / as private detective, priest, / fortune teller, or shrink.”
That was eight years ago.
Lynn’s conducted writers’ workshops here for 15 years. She calls herself a bitch, but calls her writers her babies.
“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.’”
Rick Jones, who’s attended Lynn’s workshops for years, tells me, “This is a brutal place, but it’s a loving brutality.”
* * *
In 1995, Jim Harlin and Lynn Skapyak were looking at “shantyboats” the State of Georgia demanded cleared from the Altamaha River. The colonies of ragged redneck houseboats had been condemned as health hazards and eyesores.
Lynn’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 Lynn 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 on the Trout River on the Northside.
Three years later, the Atlantic Hurricane Season spawned nine hurricanes, four of which raged across Florida, three over Jacksonville as tropical storms, and one shredding the dock and ripping the back off the Shantyboat. The back of the boat wrapped around a pylon and landed ashore on Main Street.
* * *
The tide tonight is low. The gangplank descends steeply. “Grab hold of the board above your head,” Lynn says. I don’t see the board. She says, “Grab that rope.” I grab a thick rope, scoot down 240 pounds on my ass and collect a well-earned splinter.
But a magical location must have a notable threshold.
I can imagine no better place for:
- contacting the dead
- writing your first poem or your first prayer at five or 87 years old
- breaking your heart to put it back together
- conducting a writers’ workshop
Step down. The tide’s dropped lower than Lynn’s ever seen it. Brace yourself. Face the elements. This tiny woman with white curls larger than her head receives you, offers black coffee. Water laps the back porch boards, but fails to encroach on the kitchen. This one small room, dropped from the dock to river level, rocks with the winds and tides. Its panelboard walls, splintered blond, keep the world out, like a 1970s suburban den, but what protects you, down level with the river, is the Shantyboat’s otherworldly distance from everything else you know.
* * *
Charles Pickard, a Spanish translator who lived in Cuba during the Revolution, has run Pickard International for 35 years, with offices in Jacksonville and Mexico City. He says he’s come to the Shantyboat workshops to get his feelings hurt for about 10 years.
Lynn says he pouts, sticks out his bottom lip, and folds his arms. “He’s my baby.”
Charles writes Creative Nonfiction based in his life experiences. He sells kidnapping insurance in Mexico, says the average policy is $40,000 a year.
“Everybody with money, they have to have it.” He himself is insured for $10 million and says policies must pay out what ransom might be demanded.
Susan Chappelear, who’s been coming to Shantyboat workshops for three years, has brought out large portions of her Young Adult novel and a nonfiction story, “Bridges from My Balcony,” to be published in the upcoming issue of Chris Bodor’s St. Augustine literary journal AC PAPA.
Filmmaker Tony Sarte is here tonight, and Shelby Kraut, who’s writing a series of stories about “thoroughbred horses who inspire people after the September 11th attacks.”
Rick Jones made his living for 35 years as a writer, working in advertising and public relations, but comes to the Shantyboat, he says, because he finally decided to do “real writing.”
Lynn’s particularly proud of the proofs she shows of the next issue of AC PAPA. Ten of her “babies” from the last several years have pieces in the publication and Jim Draper’s art graces the cover.
* * *
“I remember my first time. All pulse and prickles. Would she like me? Could I perform? Stress gurgled and popped in my bowels.”
So begins a personal account by Jim Draper, one of Jacksonville’s best-known visual artists, whose work has adorned downtown building exteriors, airport murals, and many a gallery and museum wall.
If Jim’s story starts like the loss of virginity, it’s no less fraught when it becomes clear he’s describing his first trip aboard the Shantyboat.
“‘Be careful.’ The voice bellowed from under a khaki hat. Tight white curls framed her face, a Renaissance painting. A patron, an angel, a saint. Pack of cigarettes in one hand and a burning smoke in the other. The image chronicled some Medieval ritual. A scene not of this world. A Myth. Lore. Biblical.”
He writes of descending the gangplank “death trap.”
“The papers rattled. I looked down. Now’s your chance. The thought of accidentally dropping my musings cut through my mind. Drown them. Run. Bad idea.”
There have always been more people who want to be writers than who actually want to write. Writing is an opening up and sharing of your innermost vulnerability. No wonder writers have such bad stereotypes. Clearly, something’s badly wrong with someone who’d do such a thing.
“Gulped when I recognized the clip on my manuscript. A story that had been going through my mind for years. About a deaf girl drowned by a preacher. A baptism gone bad. Mississippi. I thought it was what I wanted to say. A book? The title was Irony Springs.
“The response from the group was brutal. The kind of hurt that felt good. One by one they shredded my work.
“Lynn sighed. Made instructive gestures with every muscle in her body. ‘Info dump,’ she shook the manuscript toward me.
“Shit. I felt awkward enjoying the process so much. Glanced around the table. Do they know how much I like this? Was hooked. Masochist. Like they say it is with crack cocaine. First hit and you are hooked for life. I became a Shantyboat addict that night. Knew my first time wouldn’t be my last.”
* * *
Lynn’s first husband Danny’s arriving later tonight.
Danny was shot down in a Vietnamese rice paddy 50 years ago, and four years later, lines from Lynn’s poem “War Waste” appeared in the December 7, 1970 issue of Time Magazine. Danny was still a Prisoner of War.
Lynn 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 asks, “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.”
Now Danny and his sister Jane Anne are flying to Jacksonville from California to meet with Lynn and talk about collaborating on a book.
Jim Harlin seems to have stood smoking on the dockside stern from time immemorial, tall black standard poodle at his side, always the patient cool man with the thin face and the long gray beard, from whom Lynn Skapyak would take the name “Harlin.”
Jim’s the end of Lynn’s “serial monogamy” and he’s the archetypal guardian of the Shantyboat oracle. He’s the keeper of the watch, the gentle voice at the gangplank threshold, the birth of the cool in the cold river sundown.
* * *
The Shantyboat’s not hard to find for those who diligently seek it, but if your desire’s half-hearted, the Shantyboat stays hidden.
I’m purposely employing the kind of trope Joseph Campbell used in works like The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where he charts an archetypal universality of hero quests like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and Arthurian legends.
The Shantyboat’s not on a map, can’t be found with GPS. The road’s not charted, departs from land. Nonterritory. Surely fugitives live here on the water. This is a Jacksonville that’s not Jacksonville.
To get to the Shantyboat, you take a turn you’d never noticed that takes you deeper into a place than you’ve been, so deep inside that you leave it altogether. That’s when you arrive.