I visit Scott McVay in his art-filled home, nestled in the woods, to talk about his new book of poetry, Whales Sing and Other Exuberances. He and his wife Hella immediately take off talking about bats.
Excitedly, they take me to a landing between two floors to see a wall of bat photographs, including one with the winged mammal hovering over water, its tongue hanging out as if sipping from its reflection below. They drop names like noted bat ecologist Merlin Tuttle.
McVay, who served on the board of Bat Conservation International, founded by Tuttle, recounts when, in the 1980s, Austin, Texas, was trying to eradicate millions of Mexican free-tailed bats from under Congress Avenue Bridge. “Now the bats are a major tourist attraction,” he says. In another picture from Venezuela, Hella is holding a boa constrictor that would dwarf Barney the Friendly Dinosaur.
From bats, the conversation turns to elephants, dolphins and whales – well, a dolphin is actually a small whale, says McVay. Back in 1968, McVay discovered and documented the six-octave song of the humpback whale. “That became the anthem for whale conservation,” he says. “In 1974 Carl Sagan put the songs on Voyager I and II.”
McVay led two expeditions to the Alaskan Arctic to study the rare Bowhead whale and
has given lectures on whales in the Galapagos. And while Scott and Hella have traveled to more than 25 countries, they call themselves New Jersey chauvinists. Together, they helped make the state something worth being chauvinistic about.
McVay founded the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and started a poetry initiative that let to the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival. This year it will be held in Newark Oct. 11-14. Two years ago, the McVays established a Poetry Trail at Greenway Meadows Park in Princeton. Here, walkers can commune with nature and the words of major poets on hand-crafted signs.
Can we talk about his poetry now? McVay, who majored in English at Princeton University, Class of 1955 (Moby Dick scholar Lawrence Thompson instructed him not to “skip the whale stuff”), has been writing poetry for as along as he can remember. Sadly, many of his poems were lost in a house fire in 1981.
“It’s not the silver or the furniture you miss, but the little notes your kids write and the poetry,” says Hella.
Whales Sing and other Exuberances includes poems going back to the 1960s, such as one that had been published in a report to the New York Zoological Society, and there are many about whales and bats, as well as friends, family, artists, travels to such places as Nepal and Borneo, and growing old.
There’s even a poem on what makes a poet: “I’m no less poet/ than you–/ it’s just a matter/ of allowing some intensely private part of you/ to go public for a moment– / then running, blushing, / for the underbrush.”
Or “Robert Bly once said/ if you know fifteen words/ really know those fifteen words/ you can write great poetry.”
McVay says Hella selected the poems for this volume. “I’d been collecting them in a big box and just went like this and that,” she says, gesturing as if tossing the rejects over her shoulders. Many were written on paper napkins over dinner while traveling. “I love nines, and there are 99 poems in nine sections,” says Hella.
The book’s dedication reads: without Hella nothing/ with Hella everything
“Our lives are intertwined,” McVay says of his wife, a mathematician, educator, founder of Princeton’s Whole Earth Center and longtime board member, D&R Greenway Land Trust. “We hardly know which of us does what anymore.”
McVay’s previous publications are not what you’d expect from the typical poet: articles in Scientific American, Natural History, American Scientist, an essay in Mind in the Waters (a 1975 compilation on the consciousness of whales and dolphins) and Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times about porpoises killed in tuna nets.
Whales Sing and Other Exuberances is self-published. Dorothea von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books in Princeton, assured the father of the largest poetry event in North America that this is the way to go in today’s publishing world. “We didn’t want to go through an endless stream of editors,” says Hella.
On the cover is a painting by Princeton artist Tom George, whom McVay has known since 1979. George offered the gouache, “Aurora Borealis,” as a gift to thank McVay for driving him up the Poetry Trail in his Prius, when George, 94, could not walk. As they stopped to read a poem by Robert Frost, a walker chastised McVay for driving his car on a trail that was meant for walkers.
Whales Sing and Other Exuberances can be ordered from the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.