Drunken sailors and kram: 2 or 3 questions for Shelagh Power-Chopra

Shelagh Power-Chopra is the author of "The Drunken Sailor"," and an authority on not only drunken sailors, but also nifty vintage kram. So it stands to reason that when we wanted to find out more about both subjects, she was the one we turned to. The results follow, in the first of a hopefully regular series of quickie author interviews, aka "2 or 3 questions."

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You run a nifty online store called Goot Dings! that sells stuff with a story - vintage objects about each of which you've crafted an absorbing mini-narrative. Might there be an actual thing - real or imagined - behind "Drunken Sailor?" If so, what's it used for?

I guess I’d have to go for the literal. Maybe one of those classic sailor dolls, made by Nora Wellings in the ‘30s. They sold them as souvenirs on ocean liners. They had blue velvet bodies, and these weird, androgynous faces with plump red lips like male film stars from silent movies. As far as use goes: there’s this couple who rent a shack in Maine every July, have so for years and years. They drink all day and fight all night and this doll is always there–playfully propped up on some shelf by the family that owns the place–and it becomes sort of a terrible talisman; a symbol of their drunken debauchery and hate. At one point the wife throws the doll at the man and he nearly looses an eye. Maybe he wanders off to the beach; half blind, drunk, clutching the doll, tossing it into the sea, only to swim after it and bring it back, crying and desperate. Wait, maybe that’s a Cheever story, it sort of sounds like one. You can still buy the dolls online–I’ve been thinking of picking up one.

In your story, you offer something of an explanation for why the sailor drinks - life at sea, no picnic, and so forth. But does the sailor drink because he sails, or sail because he drinks?

Well, I don’t believe he’s ever really been to sea, I think, or maybe he has, who knows? Maybe he sailed as a child; stole his uncle’s sailfish and grounded himself in a sandbank, sat there for most of the afternoon, tore the legs off crabs, built elaborate sand castles, ate a few raw clams because he was starving, chain smoked a dozen or so cigarettes because he only had one match until finally some fisherman dragged him home. But if he did really sail, he would certainly sail before he drinks because the sea’s full of poetry: big whales, albatrosses, marlins, etc. So, just by being there and seeing all that, who needs to drink? Excerpt, pirates of course, who get the doldrums and have to eat hard tack all day.

Pere Ubu, "Caligari's Mirror" - thoughts?

I’ve never heard that song before, just know the 19th century old sea shanty. Just listened to the Ubu one now and they certainly sounds drunk when they sing it–I like it. And that rhyme is brilliant: What do you do with a drunken sailor? Who do you see in Caligari's mirror? Of course I’ve seen the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari–a great, freaky film – there must be a short story in there somewhere. That’s really the reason I wrote the story, I’ve always loved that shanty and it kept popping into my head, like a good first line. I couldn’t get rid of it until a story was there.