Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jenny Molberg


Jenny Molberg’s debut collection of poetry, Marvels of theInvisible, won the 2014 Berkshire Prize (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Copper Nickel, Boulevard, Poetry International, Best New Poets, and other publications. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri and Co-editor of Pleiades.



 

CHRYSALIS

I want to see, somewhere,
the hot, cocooned unfolding
of metamorphosis. The caterpillars
are flown in from El Salvador,
or New Guinea, and inside
the dewed glass, shadows
of men in white coats cloak
the tic of emergent wings—
What of the future do you hold
inside yourself? See: if you take a scalpel
and puncture the chrysalis,
it will explode—yellow goo
of cells, burst cells, amino acids,
proteins, here a bit of gut,
here a bit of brain.

A thing builds a shell around itself,
dissolves, becomes another thing.
The way, when you are wrecked
with love, you take only what you need,
you, liquid version of yourself,
all heart cells and skin cells—
here a trough of heart,
here, gutter of liver, channel
of hearing or touch. What remains,
as with the caterpillar, is memory.
See, we melt entirely.

I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
The oldest scientist asks, If we are all
creatures of transformation,
if we are never quite the same,
what are we
when we arrive at the moment of death?
It is easier to think in death
that I am me, but dying. See: 1668.
The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam
dissects a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici.
And though we now think
everything ends,
turns to soup, to river, to ash
and what’s passed is past, he unfolds
the white sides of the insect and reveals
two wing-buds, tucked
tight inside the skin.

Now, as I watch the knife
pierce the chrysalis,
a river of cells swelling through
and out, I remember
what my father once said,
that what you see is only a fraction
of what you can believe,
and against the edge of the chrysalis,
embryonic half-wings twitch
without a body, waiting
for their slow decay, and then
for the next body
that opens itself
to the risk of flight.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was composed in 2013. I was writing a collection of poems that responded to scientific texts and letters from the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The anecdote about Cosimo de Medici visiting Jan Swammerdam’s curiosity cabinet is taken from Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe, edited by J.V. Field and Frank A.J.L. James. I also discovered a webcam from the Florida Museum of Natural History, where you could follow rain-forest butterflies during their process of metamorphosis.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

This was not a poem that fell from the sky; I am sure I drafted the poem at least twenty times. I wrote the first draft in 2013 and the final draft sometime before it was first published in 2015.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I absolutely believe in inspiration. Actually, sometimes I have to learn to tame my inspiration urge, so as not to constantly write poems on subjects that are inherently “poetic.” I believe it is important to write to my cultural moment and my own personal experience, and I like to put pressure on myself to invent. One thing I love about the scientific texts I explore is their language. Centuries-old science that now may seem outdated to us was filled with moments of shock and wonder for scientists then. I love to mine these texts for diction that I may not have otherwise used, so I would say that I did “receive” the gift of their language and astonishment. I do feel I have “received” poems from the poetry gods before, but this is not one of them. Yes—sweat and tears galore, with this poem and so many others. But I live for that outpouring.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Often, I’ll give myself rules for a poem that refuses to be contained. With this one, I didn’t though—pardon the awful pun—I just let it fly.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Perhaps this is unusual: the lines in the poem that use a first-person pronoun came from dreams, the kind of dreams that are so powerful that they change the way you see yourself. As I was doing this research and watching the butterflies slowly emerging from their cocoons, I was dreaming of being a woman who had lived forever, who kept melting into different bodies of water and growing back into another woman again. This reminded me of something my father, who is a pathologist, said, that “what you see is only a fraction of what you can believe.” I am so struck by that word “can,” because it extends the ability of the imagination much further than the senses or any scientific fact. I think that poets and scientists share this quality, to be able to imagine possibilities so beyond logical proof that they allow for discovery.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

The poem appeared in a feature at The Missouri Review in 2015, so about two years.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

This is probably a fault of mine—I often get excited about new work and send it out too early when left to my own devices. I seek out workshops with friends to try to prevent this. I’d love to have the patience many poets have, to let the poems marinate awhile—with some I do, with others, I get impatient. It’s my hope that I have good judgement about this, but who knows.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

“Fact” is an interesting word in the context of this poem, because facts often change. In many ways, this is what the poem is about—there was the belief that the caterpillar turned completely to goo in the chrysalis, then Swammerdam showed us that this is not entirely true, as the tracheal tubes stay put and these things called “imaginal discs” are there inside the caterpillar, waiting to become parts like wings and eyes and antennae. This idea, I think, could be applied to human experience: the “fact” of me as a person can evolve. In terms of fiction: I think some people get tripped up on adhering to the literal, factual truth in poems, and one of the greatest lessons I learned from my teachers was that I could tell little lies to get to truer versions of the truth. My students think it’s hilarious when I tell them to lie, but I mean it! In a way, metaphors are lies, because (to take an example from the poem) I am obviously not a river. But the truer version of the truth is that I am.

Is this a narrative poem?


Can I be a pest and say yes and no? I think many of my poems have a narrative arc, but that may not make them necessarily “narrative poems.” Moments of lyricism seem important, too—asides and questions and wordplay and music-making are the most fun part of poems. Most of my favorite poems straddle this line.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Absolutely! Charlotte Smith and John Donne were a couple of my fascinations during the time I wrote this poem, but also Brigit Pegeen Kelly (always), Bruce Bond, B.H. Fairchild, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Carl Phillips, and Aracelis Girmay were teaching me about poetry through their words. They all still teach me, and many more.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Honestly, no, not while I write my first drafts. As I start to think about final drafts and publishing, though, I’d say that Kathryn Nuernberger is my ideal reader. She’s the Moore to my Bishop, as we like to joke. If I can make her laugh or cry (preferably both), I think I’ve done my job.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?


Yes, I often share my work with my dear friend and amazing poet Caitlin Pryor, as well as my always-teacher and good friend David Keplinger. I’ve recently started sharing poems with the poet Caridad Moro-Gronlier, whose work I admire. Bruce Bond and a handful of North Texas-affiliated poets have an annual poetry thread, where we write poems in a dialogue for about a month, and that is always fascinating and productive.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Ha! I’m not sure that it does—I think you picked a pretty emblematic one.

What is American about this poem?


What an interesting question. Perhaps the speaker of the poem is what is most American about the poem, as she watches the metamorphosis through a webcam in Florida, instead of doing first-hand research. Seems pretty lazy to me, speaker. Is that American? Probably.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


I’d say the poem was finished, or at least I think it is.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan’s latest collection is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017). She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft (Dutton, 1985), the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE (Univ. of North Texas, 1999), The Charm (Zoo, 2002), and Lip (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2009). Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, Slate, FIELD, Narrative, and The New Republic, among other literary magazines, and is widely anthologized. Fagan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from, among others, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Frost Place, and the Ohio Arts Council. This year, she was awarded Ohio Poet of the Year for Sycamore. Director of Creative Writing and the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, she is currently Professor of English, Poetry Editor of OSU Press, and Advisor to The Journal.


ELEVEN-SIDED POEM
after Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Seven-Sided Poem”
When I was dead, one of the whiter
sycamores who live on the river said,
Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?

To which the oak added, That’s not an accusation;
that’s a sympathetic question.

Little sumac said, Don’t step on me, even your spectral form!
The beech asked, Could we be cousins?
And the fig, Why did you never properly learn
to braid your hair?

When sequoia called to say,
You broke your vows, the birches said,
Take us with you; the birds went with her.

Magnolia, redbud, and cottonwood said,
Our hearts bleed, the way the rain.
But willow could say only, Garland, Tinsel.
As if I alone had been responsible for Christmas.

So I said, Listen, you trees
(though I could not speak),
I remember dying
to grow up. Standing
on tiptoe to pull my own baby
teeth. Crushing my pelvis
to kill any unborn hunched
in the warm center. I sometimes stayed
there myself. I sometimes left
for a long time and was late to return.

But I learned again, knees small and high, teeth
showing when I smiled,
clock after clock until quarter after clock,
sugar everywhere, loose and in cubes.
Açúcar it’s called, where I was conceived.

A man came round with his paint
roller to re-frost the scuffed bits.
(Men are whitewashing both sides of the equator.)
Someone brought his bird to the pool,
arranged a chaise for each of them.
Mothers with children in water wings.

I stepped into water as warm as my body was before I forgot it.
And the cold air after—
I had forgotten that, too.

Oh, but the meringue of the clouds was sweet
that second time. Copious
reasons for squinting, skin
wet or dry, one large hand untangling my hair.

You trees, I assure you, I was in full
possession of my body when I died,
all four of our blue eyes licked
and all the candles blown.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I’ve been lucky enough to tag along on a few international research trips with my husband, a physical chemist. I wrote the first draft of this poem in the office of a friend, a scientist-collaborator of my husband’s in fact, on a trip to Brazil in 2012. The building may have been standard issue suburban academic, circa mid-20th century, but outside the office window were several trees I could not immediately identify, filled with parrots—a pandemonium! I had also recently been to Miami—a greatly diverse and sophisticated city—which also happened to have been the location of my parents’ honeymoon many decades before. My parents were working-class people from New York City, my mom was first-generation American, and it was family legend I’d been conceived on this trip. The conflation of these circumstances got the poem going, but it was re-reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade (translated by Bishop, herself an ex-pat living in Brazil and learning Portuguese), specifically his “Seven-Sided Poem,” that gave it momentum.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Still writing in longhand, it’s hard to know exactly without some laborious digging into my files, but it’s typical for me to work a draft over at least a dozen times in longhand before keyboarding it in to Word, and then fairly typical to fool with another dozen or so drafts on screen before a poem is close to “done.”

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I’ve actually sweat and cried at various jobs I’ve had, but rarely has that happened when writing poems. Reading poems, but not writing them. Nor do I think of myself as “inspired” or plugged in to some larger creative construct. I’m old enough to know how my poems get made: I take lots of notes, some continue to seem interesting, some join together, musical/syntactical arrangements begin to work themselves out, an image/observation joins another image/observation, and then a full draft gets born, revisions happen, etc. That said, I used to believe in that old workshop saw: Write what you know. Now I write what I want to know. The photographer, Diane Arbus, said her mentor told her to take pictures of everything she’d never seen before. I think my impulse is similar. Freshness and surprise allow a poet to re-access and re-assess information—autobiography, history, art, politics—in extremely productive ways.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously apply any principles of technique?

After a few drafts, it occurred to me I was modeling the Drummond de Andrade poem. At that point I became conscious, not of his lineation so much, but of his stanza. I decided I wanted eleven “sides,” or stanzas, to homage Drummond de Andrade’s seven.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Well, aside from the de Andrade/Bishop influence, which was a one-off for me, though I admire both poets enormously, the most unusual thing about this poem is that I had a sense, a prescient sense really, that this poem of conception would become the final poem in the manuscript I was working on. I had most of the poems written for Sycamore, but not all, nor had I yet submitted it for publication. But suddenly I was allowing trees—many different kinds of trees—to address me directly, using my given name. I became willing—eager even—for a mythology of sorts to emerge between the trees and me, to become a character in my own book. I had long before crafted (I say crafted because to use the verb “write” doesn’t seem quite correct) the frontispiece to Sycamore, a “family tree,” chart or legend, “Platanaceae Family Tree,” and I felt a loose, intuitive connection to it as I worked on “Eleven-Sided....” I rarely write to a poetry project (though I have), nor do I trust much in happy accident (though I have), but in this case the results of both were generative enough to result in the opening and closing moments of the book.

How long after you finished this poem did it appear in print?

It appeared in Miramar, a small indie print journal from California, in 2014.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It varies poem to poem, but because I’m not as conscientious a submitter as I wish I were—I often put off submitting poems or don’t simultaneously submit; I understand this is true of many women poets—it’s usually at least six months to a year before I attempt to make work public.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

That’s an interesting question because when I write poems I rarely consider notions of fact, fiction and negotiating the two. Re-reading the poem now, I see that quite obviously I was fictionalizing my own death. And of course, trees don’t talk—at least not in language we humans hear. There are few “facts” in this poem, but its emotional truths feel very direct to me, as direct as any in Sycamore.

Is this a narrative poem?


If one thinks that the strategies of lyrical memoir can also be narrative, then yes. It does tell a story.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

As I mentioned, I was reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade in translation. I was also reading what I could find in translation of the indigenous Guarani poet, Susy Delgado, in addition to prose by Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector. I’m logically drawn, when I travel, to writers of the region—and often it’s the tension between their point of view and some history of my own that merges to form the beginnings of a poem for me.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?


I think I must be my own ideal reader now. Yes, I can’t help but speak to poets before and, hopefully, to poets to come, and those poets who are my contemporaries. But I’m no longer ashamed to admit that I began writing poems to keep myself company—the same reason I read books as a child. I was reading a book of poems the other day, for professional reasons, in a crowded, noisy restaurant, and the lines were so completely lyrically enthralling that the outer world dropped away, leaving me with the words, the music, and the meaning of her lines only—the writer and I lived in some space between us and our experiences, bridging them, enhancing them. If I can write lines like that, lines that keep me and another reader company, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something like art.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Milkweed gave me a poetry editor, a poet-editor, for Sycamore. I haven’t had that level of attention on my work since I was in grad school, if ever. I wish I had people with whom to share work on a regular basis. As it is, I’m extremely grateful for one or two readers to whom I send work—one just to drop it in his inbox so it feels like I’ve taken a step from inside my head to someone else’s, another who is different enough from me that I feel I’m taking a risk sending the work to her. They’re terrific poets, both, and generous friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This poem feels a little more engaged in magical thinking than other poems of mine, and perhaps even more nakedly autobiographical than other poems in Sycamore.

What is American about this poem?

South American, strictly speaking. It’s also entirely self-mythologizing, which seems characteristically both North and South American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Because it felt to me, as I mentioned earlier, somehow connected to the prefatory legend in the book, and because I knew the poem would complete the book, “Eleven-Sided…” is more finished than abandoned. Or more resolved. As if certain notes were hit that were inevitable. The homage aspect of the poem also helped allow the poem to be a discrete and finished thing.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Richie Hofmann

Richie Hofmann is the author of a poetry collection, Second Empire (2015), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is the recipient of a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and his poems appear in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, The New Criterion, New England Review, and Poetry. Co-founder of Lightbox Poetry, an online educational resource for creative writing, and a book reviews editor for Kenyon Review, he is currently a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.


MIRROR

You’d expect a certain view from such a mirror—
clearer
than one that hangs in the entry and decays.
I gaze
past my reflection toward other things:
bat wings,
burnt gold upon blue, which decorate the wall
and all
those objects collected from travels, now seen
between
its great, gold frame, diminished with age:
a stage
where, still, the supernatural corps de ballet
displays
its masquerade in the reflected light.
At night,
I thought I’d see the faces of the dead.
Instead,
the faces of the ghosted silver sea
saw me.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote “Mirror” on August 6, 2010. I had just spent time at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, and that gorgeous, ghostly apartment inspired the poem. The gold-framed mirror—too ornate, too large for the parlor—is a focal point of the residence. You catch yourself in it every time you cross the room to the study. I was twenty-three years old and obsessed with James Merrill; he had been the subject of my undergraduate thesis. The mirror features prominently in Merrill’s poetry and serves as a portal, in a sense, to the spirit world of The Changing Light at Sandover. The ghosts, I imagined, were watching us through the mirror, and I wanted to write about that. I felt so much energy after that stay in Stonington, I wrote three poems that same week: “First Night in Stonington,” “Illustration from Parsifal,” and “Mirror.” These poems are the earliest poems I wrote that appear in my first collection, Second Empire.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Unlike so many poems, this poem’s first draft was, essentially, also its final draft. I did switch back and forth between having the poem appear as a singular block of text and to separate the rhyming units into couplets. I struck “much” from the second line. And I replaced “I imagined seeing faces of the dead” with “I thought I’d see the faces of the dead” for a more elegant meter.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I absolutely do. I feel like we’re in constant collaboration with the world around us (literary, artistic, and otherwise)—and that our poems have minds of their own and co-write themselves. I think, in a sense, it’s what “Mirror” is about. I would have to say the entirety of the poem was received.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?


I’d read Randall Mann’s poem, “Straight Razor,” a few months before writing this poem (in Poetry Magazine). It’s a sexy, scary poem, and so brilliant and original in its deployment of rhyming couplets with these uneven meters (alternating tetrameter/pentameter lines with lines with a single beat). The proximity of those rhymes is so tantalizing in the poem. I’d had the form of the poem in my head since I read it (I don’t remember, but he might have read it, too, on the Poetry podcast, which I listened to every month in those days…) and I knew I wanted to try my hand at that form. I love rhymes, and these quick, deceptive, surprising rhymes felt so much to me like the experience of catching oneself in the mirror of another life.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Only the speed with which it emerged. I would struggle to write this poem today, because I don’t have the same energy. I also trust myself less than I did when I was young and just starting to write poems.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?


It was published in January 2013 in The New Criterion.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I sent this poem out fairly quickly, because it had been finished quickly and had no significant revisions. According to my records, I sent it to twenty-two magazines before David Yezzi accepted it for TNC. My practice varies with each poem, in terms of when it’s ready to send out—you just know, I think. And I’m fairly liberal with publishing in magazines, knowing that (for me) many more poems will be published in magazines than will be collected in a current book project.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The poem is about imagination and performance and how real-world objects (fact?) reflect and create connections with other worlds (fiction?).

Is this a narrative poem?

I would say “Mirror” is not a narrative poem, but I know that’s a difficult and slippery term with many meanings and associations. I wouldn’t say many of my poems are narrative poems. Often, I feel like I’m striving in poems to achieve a transformation within a stillness or a silence. To enact the sensuousness of nothing happening.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Merrill and Mann, of course, as I stated already. Rachel Hadas, too, and Jorie Graham and Henri Cole and Eavan Boland and J. D. McClatchy and Natasha Trethewey. I hadn’t yet read Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poems. That summer, I was discovering Cavafy, who has a poem called, “Mirror in the Front Hall,” which I love and which I think of as a great grandfather to this poem.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

My teachers, living and dead. I would love to write a poem someday that the poets I love might admire or enjoy.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I’m certain I showed the poem to Emily Leithauser, one of my closest friends and a favorite writer and reader of poems.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s much more guided by its structure and by the meaning of its structure than other poems of mine. I love to rhyme, and I often find rhyming is a way of collaborating with the English language when I write a poem, relinquishing some responsibility for writing the poem to the poem itself. But I don’t think I’ll write a poem in this specific form, with alternating rhythms line to line, ever again.

What is American about this poem?

I struggle with this question. I am American and the locale the poem describes is American. Maybe the way the poem struggles with one’s place in history, with one’s relationship with the self and with the past reflects an American problem of identity and tradition? I don’t know.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.

Friday, September 8, 2017

LaWanda Walters


LaWanda Walters earned her M.F.A. from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her first book of poems, Light Is the Odalisque, was published in 2016 by Press 53 in its Silver Concho Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Antioch Review, Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and several anthologies, including Obsession:Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century and Best American Poetry 2015.  lives in Cincinnati with her husband, poet John Philip Drury.


HOW A POEM CAN STAUNCH A WOUND

Writing it, finding some music or metaphor
which, on its own, takes surprisingly off—
the concept distracting like a balsa-wood frame
that can lift from the earth for a while, glide through
insect territory, blue-green wings netted like tutus,
the tremulous fireflies’ lemony bulbs, wavering,
near-sighted in the arbitrary, tall, dangerous air
which also carries a radio-control tower’s terrifying
signals, the sand in the eye, the body preoccupied
by flight, the dark speed outside an oval window,
the passengers’ comfort, pillows for their necks
and the necessary, whistling air pressure—
I can feel, sometimes, elated.

But for a time the old master, Walt Whitman,
did the impossible, walked on the ground,
muddy, in Washington, let go, completely,
his tissue-paper poems. His mind got soaked
with the bright blood on the grass everywhere,
too many for the hospital so they set up tents,
a young soldier’s face turned away not to look
at the stump, the free-spirited poet with his sleeves
rolled up to swab out the “offensive” matter.
Those young men who’d fallen as oddly as Icarus—
they sometimes kissed his bearded lips
and called him, gratefully, “Mother.”


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote and typed up the first draft on November 2, 2008.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

The final draft is dated December 12, 2012, so it took a little over four years for the poem to settle into its ultimate form. 

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I definitely believe in inspiration. Inspiration is an idea, like a musical idea, like a physicist’s idea. There has to be some kind of context—noticing something and then making connections that seem fascinating, and wanting to express what that connection is. Inspiration has to come from involvement—from thinking or practicing or writing or being in the practice of writing.

I think that inspiration, in the case of this poem, was in thinking of the toy plane’s success in leaving the ground—how it was a device that could somehow “trick” gravity, and therefore fly for a while. I think I was feeling in some kind of emotional pain at the time, and playing with my children distracted me from my pain in the same way that the balsa wood could “distract” gravity—sneak on up into the air while the magnetic earth was looking elsewhere.

I knew I was writing a kind of “ars poetica,” but during that temporary flight of my imagining I knew, too, the emptiness of the device. It got me up in the air a bit, but then I wasn’t sure that it mattered. I had been tooling along on my little device that “distracted” me from gravity but I was running out of aero-dynamic time. I was up in the “high, dangerous” air and was about to crash.

But there were clues about where I was going even before I knew it. My husband, John Drury, is a great source of stories about poets as well as knowledge of poetry, and he had told me, at some point, about this time in Walt Whitman’s life when he was a nurse to wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. I had been struck by the man’s wholehearted generosity, how this poet who wrote in sweeping lines and might be thought of as simply a brilliant romantic could be so courageous and humane, able to handle the gory, “offensive matter” without being repulsed, in his desire to help another human being.

I don’t know if Whitman was in my conscious mind at the beginning of my writing. But my memory of the story John had told me about Whitman being able to hold men and care for them in such difficult circumstances—that his soaring voice and spirit included the fact of death as much as it did life—well, Whitman saved this poem from its own suicide.

I wasn’t sure if my poem mattered and didn’t know where it was going until I thought of Whitman, there on the bloody earth, swabbing the stumps of injured men and bandaging them, the young men who had fallen as “oddly as Icarus.” That idea reminded me of the sweet and shocking fact that more than one dying soldier kissed Whitman’s lips and called him “Mother.” The father, Daedalus, had built the dangerous design. The connection between a falling boy and Whitman as “mother” was like finding the form that made the poem work. 

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

In the first draft, the opening stanza ended with “and the necessary, whistling air pressure—” Then it simply jumped into the second stanza’s “but for a time the old master, Walt Whitman.” It wasn’t until nearly a year later, on October 31, 2009, that I inserted a line after that dash (“I can feel, sometimes, elated”) and made the opening stanza one complete sentence, with the flight of imagery and associations happening between the dashes, parenthetically, and then leveling out to a feeling of elation.    

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Maybe the dangerous volta, which almost breaks the poem in half but actually makes the poem work. First there’s the aria about suspending oneself from one’s disbelief, and then I find my real focus: air and earth, ego and truth, a necessary struggle.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Roughly seven and a half years. It never appeared in a magazine, so its first publication was in my book, Light Is the Odalisque.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I don’t have any rules, except that I know that my first blush of happiness after I have written what I know is a poem can be misleading—that I cannot just send the poem out that raw. Fortunately, I have my in-house editor, John Drury, so he is usually the first person to touch the poem while it is a little too hot and euphoric. So I guess I do know that there must be a cooling-off period, and that I can be wiser about what works after a few hours or days.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

My poems are always rooted in an experience which includes both some immediate fact and my feeling about the fact. In this case, I was playing with one of those old toys—the kit that includes the pattern for a plane’s wings and body—with my kids, outside in the grass at dusk when there were fireflies around, and I was thinking how amazing it was that the toy plane worked, and worked, really, like the ones we fly in. The fiction in this poem is in the little aria of  following the toy plane through the “leaves of grass” and the world of insects that sing at night or glow, as fireflies do, and in my linking this “flight” to the flights of planes, to all the things that are present in the air. I think it’s amazing that it’s all the same substance—the air through which a toy plane flies and the air through which a Boeing airplane travels. Toy planes traverse the territory of the adult world, and that playing is not separate from reality, since there’s danger everywhere.
 
Is this a narrative poem?

I’d call it a meditative poem that includes some narrative about Walt Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was thinking about “music or metaphor,” so I was certainly influenced by Bach, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and what the painter Henri Matisse calls “essential lines.” Writing the poem revealed how much Whitman himself was influencing my imaginative flight.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I write for people who, like myself, find both order and honesty in poems in this chaotic world.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

As I mentioned, my husband John is my in-house editor. And I’m his first critic, as well.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it does. It finds images and the ways they connect in order to explore the mystery of being in this reality we do not really know. I really like Yeats’s statement that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”

What is American about this poem?

I guess I get to say Walt Whitman here.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Thanks to Whitman as my muse, it found its ending.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ellery Akers

Ellery Akers’s collection, Practicing the Truth, won the 2014 Autumn House Poetry Prize, the 2015 IPPY Silver Medal Award for Poetry, and the 2015 San Francisco Book Festival Award. Her previous collection, Knocking on the Earth, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News. She is also the author of a children’s novel, Sarah’s Waterfall. She has taught writing at Cabrillo College and at conferences and currently teaches private poetry workshops in Marin County, California. An award-winning visual artist as well, Akers exhibits her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums nationally.



HOOK

One year a general
packs the dead arithmetic in a drawer—
all the subtractions, divisions.
The next year, vines cover the bunkers.
The brain resumes its starbursts of rehearsal.
The heart leaps under the defibrillator.
The bone eases into its socket.
Skin grows back. Scars fade. Eyes clear.
Look at the trees at the burn, six years later.
Look at the sprout on a hay bale
on a truck. Look at the woman who was raped,
had her hands cut off in a creek:
She’s getting married.
The choir sings. The bride smiles.
The groom slips a ring on her hook.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This was a 9/11 poem. I wrote it in September of 2001, after hiking in an area in the Marin hills that had been burnt in a fire. I’d been thinking about war, and noticed that the hills, which had been scorched and black, had turned green again, and that made me feel more hopeful about healing, regeneration, and the possibility of peace. Other elements entered into the poem; I noticed a green shoot growing out of a hay bale. I read several magazine articles, one about 9/11 medical crews, and one about the wedding of Mary Vincent, the woman I refer to in the poem.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

About eight revisions. I brought it to my writing group four times, and after six months, I felt it was finished. This version was called “ Healing” and had two lines that mentioned healing. I sent it out, but no one accepted it, and I put it a drawer for ten years. In 2011, I took it out again, realized that explicitness was not serving the poem, cut the lines about healing, and sent it to Poetry, who took it. Christian Wiman, the editor at the time, wisely suggested changing the title to Hook, and I agreed. I’d been attached to the idea of healing—that some things can be healed, while others can never be healed and can only be mourned—but the word itself was not serving the poem.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

If inspiration means taking dictation from the muse, and ending up with a perfect draft, then I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in quantity. This poem was a result of forty two pages of free-writes. I looked them over and circled the good lines and stuck them together. I usually get about 1 out of forty pages of junky free-writes that has energy, or sometimes, just a couple of lines. I feel my job is to fail, and to enjoy failing, and pile up masses of material. I see it all as play. I like to trick myself with the same exercises I give my students; I find the concept of “exercises” is a freeing one for me that liberates me from trying to write well. I often “mistranslate” from the Swedish, or put ten strong verbs on the top of my page and try to include them in the poem. In this case the verbs  “pack” and “slip” made it into the final draft. 

However, I did I experience inspiration once: I wrote a long poem that was “given” and had a hard time writing fast enough to keep up with the outpouring. But again, that was after writing thirty pages of junk: the gift happened on page thirty one. I’m also a visual artist, and have the same low average in painting. My hunch is this is fairly normal. I love what Eavan Boland says: “ I always think of myself as working on a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal…. Unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.”

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I tried to get the creek, truck and hook slant rhymes close together in the poem. And I had a hard time with the beginning. Nothing worked until I leafed through my old notebooks—I never throw anything away—and found an old free-write on healing that had never coalesced into a poem, but had some good lines. I inserted them into "Hook" and was able to make the beginning work.

Was there anything unusual about how you wrote this poem?

I don’t often use old material in a new poem.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About five months.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem.

It varies, though I never send anything out without my writing group looking at it. Sometimes a poem, like this one, will sit in a drawer for years before I’m able to look at it with a cold eye. Sometimes I’ll send it out within a few months.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates between the two?

Except for the first four lines, almost everything else is factual, though I imagined myself into the wedding scene and added a few fictional details.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading a lot of classical Chinese poems about war, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s “ I lived in the first century of world wars,” Blas de Otero’s poem, "Fidelity," and magazine articles about 9/11 and Mary Vincent.

William Stafford had a big influence on me—I was lucky enough to work with him briefly—especially when he said, “Inspiration doesn’t lead to writing, writing leads to inspiration” and “lower your standards.” I love his books about writing, Writing the Australian Crawl, and Getting the Knack.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don’t write with anyone in mind. However, I like to feel my poems are accessible enough that anyone could understand them. I’d be pleased if someone who didn’t ordinarily read poetry chanced on a poem of mine and enjoyed it.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Yes, my writing group of forty years. I’m grateful to these wonderful writers, and if they tell me to cut something, I take it out. Sometimes, though, I have to add something to make a poem work and then I read Stafford again, who says, “You have to learn to say welcome.” He made me realize that well of creativity never runs dry; one can always get more.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I write a lot of poems about war or climate change, subjects I care passionately about, but often they’re too high-pitched to work as poems. 

What is American about this poem?

It was inspired by 9/11, by an American wildfire, and by Mary Vincent, an American hero of mine.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Brian Patrick Heston

Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, the Lanier Library Association, and River Styx. His first book, If You Find Yourself, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. He is also the author of the chapbook Latchkey Kids, which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction has appeared in such publications as West Branch, North American Review, Harpur Palate, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.

OVERTIME

Gulls circle the Delaware, a fractured
creeping glacier since February.
Last week, beneath this illusion of land,
that boy was found lodged in water weeds,
the one who disappeared from his cold
crowded schoolyard pen in West Philly.
A cataract moon shimmered him just enough
to be glimpsed by some dock worker
drunk with exhaustion after a double shift.
The worker called 911 to report what
he thought it was, but couldn’t be sure
of what he saw. The dispatcher asked him
to look again and describe it, but he said, “no.”
A car was promised anyway, and the worker
waited a ways off, shoving his chin
into his coat collar to protect against the chill.
But there was nothing to protect against
that silence where the dark place beckoned:
You must see what you think you saw.
So he returned to the river’s edge
where his boot-prints led down a steep slope
towards the shore. He stumbled carefully,
aiming his heels for the luminous places.
Then he stopped, and after trying not to see,
prepared to open his shut eyes and be sure.]


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was composed in 2014. It began as a scene that came to me in two lines “The gulls circle the Delaware’s dull mirror of ice. / Across that deadly illusion of land…” Both lines obviously went through some revision. Also part of the making of this poem has to do with my grandfather, who was a longshoreman along the Delaware for many years. He was retired by the time I became cognizant of what a longshoreman actually was. For this reason, I think I’ve always in some way mythologized that fact about him, especially since it’s become mostly a dying profession. I also once heard him at a barbecue talking about the bodies he would sometimes come across in the water. At the time, I thought he was just kidding everyone, which he often did when drinking. When I got older, though, I realized he probably was being serious. He worked on the Delaware River for over fifty years, so the odds of running into a body once or twice are probably very good.  

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Not many, which surprises me. I think three at the most. It started out with a different title and a more open form, which is the case with most of my poems. However, it seemed to take its true form very quickly, and the title became fairly obvious to me after someone telling me the original title was confusing. The biggest bit of revision came with the final line. At the time when it was being written, I was taking a workshop at Georgia State with Leon Stokesbury. He basically suggested some tweaking of the poem, especially the last line, which helped it arrive at its final form.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I only believe in inspired ideas. The actual writing down of an idea into a poem is something else entirely. Most of my poems and stories come through sweat and tears. I work, many times, for months and months on things. This poem is very much an outlier in that regard. It came out mostly fully formed in the first draft and became what it is now by a second. The third draft, which was mostly tweaking, became the final draft. So I guess you can say it was inspired. However, I think what is more the case is that I was trying for a long time to write about my grandfather working on the Delaware River. Words and lines had been percolating in my mind for a long time, and 2014 just happened to be the year that it came together.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

As I said, it began in a more open form, which is the way with most of my poems. What is also true of most of my poems, is that I always seem to gravitate toward a more consistent and uniform line. Many times I like a longer line closer to a prose sentence, which sounds much clearer to my ear. However, more open forms don’t tend to suit me. Seeing lines of varying lengths and breadths running down a page messes with my inner-obsessive compulsive too much. In this poem, meter is a little more pronounced, I think, and the line tends to remain closer to five beats. None of this, though, was consciously attempted. All I was really thinking about while writing it is making the situation dramatic and giving the language some music.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Nothing unusual, I don’t think. I usually write first drafts in a notebook, and then I type that draft on a computer. I then print the draft out and mark it up on paper. This process will be repeated until I feel the poem is ready. 

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It ended up in print faster, I think, than any poem I ever wrote. I started submitting it in April 2014 and it ended up finishing second for the River Styx International Poetry Prize. It appears in the January 2015 issue. 

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I don’t have any hard and fast rules on this, though I should. It all depends on the poem and its progress. If I really like something, I may send it off earlier than I should. Usually, though, I go through a bunch of revisions, which keeps the poem sitting for a few months before I feel ready to release into the wild.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I have very strong feelings about the notion of “fact” in poetry. I feel the beauty of poetry, or any art for that matter, is the ability to invent dramatic situations of either language or narrative. Now, the facts, if there are any, would be that my grandfather was a longshoreman and that he talked once about seeing dead bodies in the river. However, the poem itself is pure invention. I am not, obviously, a longshoreman, and I was very young when my grandfather actually worked on the river. I have visited the Delaware waterfront many times, but never the industrialized waterfront that my grandfather would have known. The poem is a fiction, and I proudly own that designation because I believe it allowed me to get much closer to emotional truth than if I had tried to stick to only real-life personages and events that actually happened.  

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, without a doubt. It has a main character. It has a dramatic situation in which a character wants something. The character takes action to achieve this want, which then changes him psychologically.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I am always reading something. Though, I can’t recall who I was specifically reading when I wrote the poem. Philip Levine and Elizabeth Bishop are always at work somewhere in my subconscious that’s for sure, as are Etheridge Knight, Jack Gilbert, and Raymond Carver.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I think people like those who I grew up with and people in my family. People who would be considered blue-collar workers. I know it’s probably a little idealistic to think people who don’t normally read poetry would be interested in my poetry, but those are the voices that inhabit me and probably will inhabit me until the poetry gods decide that I've said enough.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

My workshop at Georgia State saw this poem and were helpful as was Leon Stokesbury, the teacher of the workshop. My best reader, though, is Brian Brodeur, who I have shared drafts with for years. He’s pretty good with poetry but not with much else. Oh, he’s also good with beards. He’s a master of the beard. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t think it does differ. It tells a very definite story, which most of my poems do. It also has a certain formalism, which is also usually true of most of my poems.

What is American about this poem?

The rhythms of the language, the dramatic situation, and the landscape depicted. I think only an American working-class culture could produce such a poem.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished, I would say. So many others, though, are hopelessly abandoned.