Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Stefanie Wortman

Stefanie Wortman is the author of In the Permanent Collection, selected for the Vassar Miller Prize and published by the University of North Texas Press in 2014. Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Antioch Review, among other publications. In 2014, she was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She currently lives in Rhode Island.




MORTUARY ART

Again my mother makes me promise
never to have her cremated, as if I could
forget how different she and I are in our
senseless fears. I am so scared of burial,
that airless allotment of space the body 
doesn’t need. But maybe she’s right 
that grief should have a place to focus it. 
You watch three pounds of ash dissolve
in water and suddenly, he’s everywhere,
the dead father, in the rivulet rain makes
on your windshield. Instead, allow
the stone’s symbolism, the highway 
memorial cross’s ruthless precision, 
even if implicating the faded grass 
along the margin is almost, no is, 
too much to bear. Who knows how 
the dead feel about our solicitude.  
Whether we fold them, gently, lovingly,
or not, into a coffin, into a box, they are
not folded, are not there, are not.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I started the earliest version of this many years ago, not long after my father died. It began with an epigram that I long since discarded. It was a quote from a New York Times story about a crematorium in Georgia I think—I’ve forgotten the details now. For some reason, the people running it had not been cremating all the bodies they took on, and authorities found a large number of decomposing corpses in a shed. That story spurred the poem, but I decided it wasn’t necessary to keep a reminder of it, so I spared readers the gruesome details.

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

It went through countless revisions over probably ten years. Of course, I was not actively working on it all that time. It went through some long dormant periods.

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

I don’t necessarily believe in inspiration, but I do think that some poems arrive more whole than others. Most of the work this one required went into finding the right lines and balancing the rhetorical sense of the sentences with the rhythm of the lines.

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

I didn’t use any obvious formal constraints or techniques for this poem. I think it arrived at its final form when I was satisfied with the way the turns of mind fell. I needed to make the syntax of the poem convey its indecision—as in that long last sentence with its variations on not.

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

I’m a fairly slow writer, but even for me, the length of its gestation is unusual. I think that has everything to do with the subject matter. My father’s death was something that I felt a need to write about early on, but also that I had to learn to write about over time.

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

I’m not sure. It appeared in Smartish Pace in 2010 as a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize, and it’s possible I didn’t know it was truly finished until they accepted it. Sometimes I send things out that feel provisionally finished, and after they have spent a few months working their way through the submissions pile at a journal, I can see them again more clearly and make more adjustments.

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 quite a lot. With some poems it’s easier to feel when they have reached their conclusion. Again, I think in this case, the long writing and thinking process has a lot to do with the very emotional subject matter.

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

Well, as I’ve already revealed, the dead father I refer to generically is my dead father. The opinions of the mother are those of my real mother, as best I understood them. Where the poem goes beyond those autobiographical facts, it travels less into fiction, I think, than into the territory of the essay.

Is this a narrative poem?

No, I think it’s an argument poem. It argues with itself about how much it matters what we do to memorialize the dead.

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

The seeds of this poem are from a workshop I took on the ode. We were reading various kinds of odes, ancient and modern, and trying to write something public and grave, which felt somewhat foreign to the work of contemporary lyric poetry. I think that charge to write something that would feel important in a public sphere, not just in the one-to-one relationship of writer and reader, accounts for the move from my personal experience into these larger questions about proper mourning.

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

I write for a version of myself, I suppose. In some hypothetical scenario in which I didn’t write my own poems, I hope they would strike me as surprising and strange. When they’re at their best, they retain some strangeness for me, even though they are also familiar.

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?

The members of that initial workshop saw a nascent version, and because I was working on this poem relatively early in my writing life, it passed under the eyes of several teachers who were very influential on its and my development. These days, my first reader is usually my husband. He is a prose writer and an astute reader of poems.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

To me, it feels more earnest. Many of my poems have a bitter kind of humor or irony that is missing in this one.

What is American about this poem? 

Maybe there’s something particularly American in the sense that customs are very fluid—that there’s no clear guide for how to send off the dead, but various ways we have to negotiate for ourselves. It would be interesting to write a poem that wasn’t American. I don’t think I can escape it.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Even after such a long process, I would still say abandoned. Maybe this is a poem that was never going to feel entirely adequate to its impulse, but it felt important to write, to revise, and eventually to include in the book.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Robert Krut

Robert Krut is the author of This is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which received the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Award, as well as The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). His work has appeared widely in print and online, in journals like Cimarron Review, Blackbird, Smartish Pace, and more. In 2007, H_NGM_N released his chapbook Theory of the Walking Big Bang; subsequently, he began serving on the press/journal’s Editorial Board. He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lives in Los Angeles.


THE OCEAN

A mermaid circled by a ring of jellyfish,
light dotting the water, a prism shattered 
on the waves. I can nearly reach her.

Ovals of smudged soot for eyes—
around her neck, my heart on a string,
a leather pocket in suspended breath.

I inhale water, exhale black ink.

Opening her mouth, a whirlpool revealed,
a vacuumed riptide—
water pulls away in all directions.

I reach out to her, but cannot see.

Waking in the middle of the desert, slate rock
beneath my knees as I look up, blinded by sun,
seaweed draped across my shoulders.

There may be nothing for miles and miles,
but I have come from the bottom of the ocean,
and I am here to tell you about it.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

A few years ago, maybe five or six. I have two general ways a poem starts, ways that I suspect are similar to most writers. Sometimes it comes from noticing something specific: a person in a diner, an old store-sign, a stray cat in the yard. Other times, it is more of a gradual reveal of something hovering around inside my head. I'll have particular images that float around in my consciousness that I can't shake. For a few weeks before this particular poem, I kept drifting toward two images: a leather-skinned heart, hanging from a string, and a vial of ink in its place, inside a chest. I didn't know for sure that I wanted to work these images into poems, but at night, going to sleep, that's what I would see, and during the day, if I closed my eyes for more than a blink, that's what I saw: an image cloud working its way across my brain for a few weeks. Sometimes I try to harness images like that, sitting down at the computer to wrestle them onto the page, and other times, in a rush, they're released all at once. With this one, it was the latter—I sat down without a specific goal, and they were suddenly there (and wound up elsewhere, later, in other poems, as well).

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

It went through a lot of trimming, just trying to cut the language as close to the bone as felt possible.  I felt an urgency with this one, so it wasn't long between first and final drafts—I obsessed over it for about three weeks until it was in fighting shape.

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

The initial spark, and the "content" (however you define that) was definitely "received," but the crafting of that text into a poem was heavy-lifting of obsessive cuts, additions, and more cuts. I do believe in inspiration, but think it comes in two ways. There's that rare, wonderful sort of vision-based experience, where an image is revealed and won't disappear. That doesn't happen often, but when it does, it feels great. But there's also inspiration in simpler, more earth-bound sort of ways, like noticing someone's mannerisms, or an out of place bit of graffiti, or something along those lines, where daily life presents you with inspiration for a poem.

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

The form came somewhat organically for this one—Everything happened somewhat naturally. For example, the two single-line stanzas were there in the initial writing, not something I was consciously doing. Ultimately, I did edit it to get all of the others to three lines apiece—since it is what some might call surreal, I wanted the stanzas following a strict length. I felt like, in a poem like this, a more free-form framework might make the whole thing disappear.

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

I was heading up to work—I live in Los Angeles, but work in Santa Barbara—which is a drive alongside the Pacific Ocean. It was a day where I had a little extra time, so I pulled over to hang out at the beach for a bit. I wasn’t planning on writing, necessarily, but I had my notebook with me. I sat down at a picnic table looking at the cliffs and the water and wrote the whole piece right there—I saw the whole narrative of the piece and starting writing. Frequently, I jot down phrases or images when I’m in places like that, but it is rare that I write an entire draft. It was like those images mentioned earlier needed to be written in that particular place, in one rush.

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

Years—the first time it appeared was in the book. Prior to that, the closest it came to being published was in the form of a video-poem, in conjunction with the book’s release.

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? 

No rules, really, although I do try to wait at least a bit, as I know there is usually that endgame after you think you're done, sometimes weeks or months later, when you realize/admit it needs more work.

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

The quick response is that it takes what is fiction and tries to present it as straightforwardly as possible, to make it fact. The longer response is that—and I know how this will sound, but still—it is all fact to me here. Of course, the fact is that it didn't happen in the tangible world—but to me, it was all very real.

Is this a narrative poem?

To me, yes.

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

I had recently purchased Bed of Sphinxes by the great San Francisco Surrealist Philip Lamantia—at City Lights Bookstore, no less. Somehow I hadn't really read him before. I felt an immediate connection with him and his work. I know those poems were floating around in my head while I wrote this, and for a long time after.

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

I always hope someone out there will connect with something I write. I know that may be a slim margin of a sliver of a stream of the reading world, but I hope someone reads it and connects. So, I don’t really have an “ideal reader” in mind so much as someone just open to reading a poem.

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?

This was in a small group of poems that I could tell were the start of my second book. (My first, I felt, was done, even though it was a few months away from being accepted). It felt different. I sent the group of about eight poems to my friend Pete Miller, who, in addition to being one of my favorite poets, is a great reader. He offered up wonderful advice on what to keep and what to cut in the poem. As a bonus, he introduced me to a group of poets—all in different cities—who share a new poem each week in ten-week, seasonal bursts, offering suggestions to each other. That group, which has a bit of a revolving door (although certain people like Pete, Trish Murphy, Sarah Pape are there every round) made a huge impact on my writing for the second book.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

Before this one, “the ocean” as an image was sort of off limits—It felt a bit too loaded, too played-out, too overused. With this one, though, once it got moving, I realized I wanted to throw out the rules of what I could and couldn’t write about, or use in a poem. I knew it was a big, perhaps overripe image/concept, but I decided that I was going to embrace it fully, and hopefully make it unique.
What I hope is happening in this poem, and the book (where, clearly, the ocean plays a major role) is that combining that sort of potentially tricky image with the minutely personal surreal, something new happens.

What is American about this poem? 

The poem was written in and (for me) takes place on the California coast. I hope, though, that it is sort of borderless.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

While there is a big part of me likes the idea that no poem is ever finished, this one feels that way to me. That last line is almost a built-in stopping point, telling me it's time to go write new ones.



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Katy Didden

Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake, which won the 2012 Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize from Pleiades Press. She earned an MFA in poetry from The University of Maryland, and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her poems and reviews appear in many journals including Spoon River Poetry Review, Forklift: Ohio, The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Smartish Pace, Shenandoah, and Poetry. In 2011, she attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as the John Ciardi Scholar, and in 2013 she was a Walter E. Dakin fellow at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. A former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University (2013-2014), she is currently a Visiting Professor in the MFA program at Oregon University.


“EMBRACE THEM ALL” 
—Parc Georges Brassens, Paris
Most afternoons, I’d run laps through Parc Brassens
where grows the second smallest vineyard

I have ever seen, and where those silver,
pruned-back stalks looked blunt,

strung-out on wires, and mostly dead
all winter. That was how I saw them.

That’s all I expected. Even in the cold,
I’d see a guy my age there, once a week,

playing his guitar. He’d sit next to the bench
where I’d be stretching. He rarely spoke—

just to ask if I’d like a song—
until the week before I left for good.

I was sitting at the top of a hill
about a hundred feet away from where

if you stand tiptoe you can see the Eiffel Tower.
He sat too close to me. We spoke of many things.

Then he suggested we go at it right there, 
on the ground, under the sun. This is how

one lives who knows that she will die:
rolling in the arms of anyone she can—

rolling in the arms of a musician—aware 
that no one cares much what we do

in little knolls behind reedy forsythia,
in the middle of a Tuesday, in the middle

of living. And I would know now 
how he felt, and the ground against me,

and whether he was rough or sweet.
And what is possible would widen every hour.

Oh, but me, I thought I was immortal.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I composed this poem in the Fall of 2007, which was seven and half years after I lived in Paris. The previous summer, I spent several weeks working on another poem about France, "At Chartres," and I guess I still had some residual nostalgia, or that I had opened up those rooms in my memory, so I kept seeing more images from that time. I lived in France for just four months, but it was the only time I've lived anywhere where I had to speak in a different language, and I think that's the reason that my memories of that time are so vividI spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was happening by reading situations for context clues. On a more sombre note, I think my experience of disorientation from not knowing French in 1999 was rhyming with the disorientation I was feeling in 2007 while my father was dying, which could be why I wrote this poem when I did.  

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

This is one of the only poems I have written that arrived in one rush. I don't know how that happened. I wish I understood how that worked, so I could make it happen more often. I tinkered with minor revisions here and there, but overall it still reads pretty much the way I wrote it the first time.  

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

I do believe in inspiration, and also in genius, and all of that. I think there are some people whose inner constitutions are so suited to poetry that they can rattle off poems more easily than mostthat their thoughts just move through their brains like notes through flutes. This isn't usually how it works for memy thoughts are more like bewildered mice in mazesbut I also think that all hard-working poets can have fits of inspiration and stretches of genius, and I try my best to set the conditions for those to happen again.    

When I wrote this poem, I was taking a seminar on Visual Culture in the 19th century, and I was reading a lot of Blake and Keats. Keats's rhythms and cadences were definitely present while I wrote this, but the sound-gate that got me into the poem was Zodiac of Echoes by Khaled Mattawa. I know that I was reading and loving that book at the time. I just took it off my bookshelf to revisit it again, and I am remembering how much I liked Mattawa's honesty and musicality, and the way he mixes colloquial language with lyric riffs and gravitas. I think the couplets in my poem came from admiring "Echo and Elixir 4."  

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

Yes: the principle of "lop off the first few lines." I had started with "My veins regreen like April vines / I should not be afraid," but thankfully cut those lines. To my ear, those lines sound different in tone from the rest of the poem. I also had something about "tucking bus money in the pockets of my jeans." Maybe that was because I was also reading Sappho that semester to help me write an epithalamion, and I was trying out her way of naming metals and fabrics as a form of image. I don't know anymore, but again, I'm glad those lines didn't make it.

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

I suppose that confluence of influences is unusual: Keats, Blake, Mattawa, and Sappho! Plus the ghost of Georges Brassens, the folk singer for whom the park is named. I used one of his song titles for the title of the poem, and the song is actually a good counterpoint to the poem, though I hadn't heard it until after I wrote this.   

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

This poem first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine. So about eighteen 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? 

I sit with poems until they feel finished, and that time varies from poem to poem. I have some poems I've been whittling for years, and some poems I send to journals a month after the first draft. I think the main rule that governs my sense of whether the poem is "finished" is how it sounds. I can hear when lines are off and there can't be more than one or two moments like that in a poem. I'd prefer there weren't any moments like that, but then maybe the poems would be boring in a different way. It has to sound good at the line level, and also the whole poem has to have a coherent sonic sweep, some kind of rhythmic gesture.

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

This poem pretends to be just a reporting of events, and it is mostly factual. To be honest I can't remember if you can see the Eiffel Tower from Parc Brassens or if I was conflating that park with Greenlake in Seattle where there's one spot where you can stand and see the Space Needle. In my mind both parks have views of monuments, and in similar locations. I've never gone back to Parc Brassens to check. The second half of the poem relies on fiction, because that is when the speaker introduces the fantasy of an imaginary self, and plays out a different scenario in her mind. The presence of that contrast is crucial to the poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. Until fiction makes it lyric.  

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

One of my good friends is really funny, and even though he works as an illustrator, he's constantly playing with language and putting on voices when I talk to him or making puns out of everything people say. Another one of my good friends is a poet who is also really funny, and constantly saying outrageous and irreverent things that catch me off guard. In some of my best poems I've imagined I'm writing to one or the other or both of these friends, because I think that keeps the poem from getting too highfalutin or sentimental. Trying to amuse funny people is a good muse for me.

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 love a good workshop. In fact, I wrote this poem for a workshop at the University of Missouri. There were a lot of poets I admire in that group, which was good incentive to write well.  That group saw an earlier version of this poem, and their response to it confirmed my decision to lop off the first few lines. The same funny friend I mentioned above who is a poet is also cursed with exceptional editing skills, and I am always showing her my poems and getting her invaluable feedback, though I don't think I showed her this one since I had a workshop then. Generally, though, I feel lucky when I get to talk about my work with her. More recently, I joined a workshop when I lived in St. Louis, which was in fact one of the hardest things to leave behind when I moved. I like hanging out with people and talking poems, and workshops help make that happen. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I would say the narrative in this poem is more straightforward than in other poems in my book (even though half of the people who read this think the speaker slept with the guy in the park, and half think she did not). Only one person ever asked me about the smallest vineyard I've ever seen. I also use the first person hereI thought that was rare in the book, but I guess it wasn't. I used to find it hard to write in first person. I'm writing poems now that are more like this one, but longer.

What is American about this poem? 

I never felt more American than when I lived in Paris. Especially while I was jogging. Maybe I amped-up the conversational tone as a kind of subconscious rebellion against all the orderly parks and super-stylish people, but overall I still feel a great affection for that city and for my friends there.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I think that more than most of the poems I write, this one felt finished in its own flawed way! I let it be.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Hugh Martin

Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013) and So, How Was the War (Kent State UP, 2010). His work has appeared recently in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times’ "At War" blog. Martin was born in Ohio and graduated from Muskingum University. He teaches at Gettysburg College.


WAYS OF LOOKING AT AN IED 
Notice that in both photographs of the artillery shells there is a wire leading from the bag. Also notice that the plastic bag had sand thrown on top of it to make it look more like roadside trash.1st Infantry Division Soldier’s Handbook to Iraq
1.
Beside the field of potato rows,
Sumey sees an alarm clock 

taped to a two-liter bottle. We create
a perimeter, back up the trucks, flatten

the potatoes under tires.  
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team 

isn’t sure; when they’re not sure,
they blow it up.  


2.
Why don’t you walk over there, Spoon says,
and get yourself a Purple Heart.  


3.
With a broom, a woman beats a rug
draped over a clothesline. LT waves her away. Bomb, 

bomb, he says, but she shakes her head,
turns her hips to swing again.


4.
Spoon is awarded 
the Purple Heart in June

when the shrapnel misses his head,
but the bricks that hide the bomb 

knock him unconscious.


5.  
When the shell detonates beside our truck,
the sound is too loud to hear; the wind wraps us 

with shrapnel, bricks, smoke; the ballistic windshield
shatters; glass on Kenson’s cheek—

blood like smeared lipstick.


6.
For three hours we clear the neighborhood
because of a black plastic bag.

The staff sergeant in the bomb suit 
orders everyone to back the fuck up even further.

In the bag he finds six ripe tomatoes.


7.
Sergeant Sumey says he almost vomits
turning in the turret

to see our truck vanish
inside smoke. Thought you were all dead.


8.
We avoid trash, disturbed soil, animal carcasses.  
We arrest men

who dig beside the road.  
We hate the ground.


9.
Outside the city: rocks stacked
like children’s building blocks.  

Sergeant Kenson won’t wait for EOD. It’s nothing
he yells, and no one can stop him 

when he starts to walk; 
even LT tries to restrain him, but he walks,

and all four of us in the truck shout, 
but it’s no use. When he lifts his leg 

to kick the pile, 
we look down. We close our eyes.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

About three years or four years ago. It began because I wanted to do a sort of catalogue of IEDs (an obsession of mine after returning from Iraq). Some of them are based very much on my own platoon’s experiences. I really just started thinking about the images of the “improvised explosive device” and how these actually appeared—and exploded or didn’t—for us in Iraq.  

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

I save all my old drafts and this one had five. The earlier drafts just have longer stanzas with more (too much) language and unnecessary information. I was still tweaking this poem as far as line length and word choice until my book went to the printer last winter. If I wrote it now, I wouldn’t use “lipstick” to describe the blood. It makes sense visually but not as far as the connotations of that word. I think it’s a mistake.

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

Maybe I can say it was “received” because the insurgents/anti-Iraqi Forces/Al-Qaeda/whatever we’d like to call the “enemy” was very productive as far as setting these things up for us in the towns we patrolled and spent time in. So the poem is simply “inspired” from something that I (and many soldiers and civilians in Iraq) were very, very concerned about on a daily basis.

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

Well, the title is taken from this older lawyer-guy who worked for an insurance company. I’ve always enjoyed, maybe from Whitman’s longer work, writing in numeric sections about Iraq. This allows me to offer quick portraits or images of landscapes, soldiers, whatever, and then move on to, sometimes, an entirely different scene. It’s sort of like presenting images in a film and then just cutting to the next—I like to see what the overall effect can be and how it can feel to the reader. I hoped that this poem would serve to give the reader the experience of confronting IEDs and how they’re frequently deadly or just completely harmless duds or fakes (a bag of tomatoes, etc.)—essentially, it’s supposed to be scary and bizarre and hilarious. Who knows if that worked out.

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

I’d argue most of my poems are similar to this one. Understated and image-heavy. Bits of dialogue here and there.  

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

The poem was actually in the manuscript unpublished when my book was taken and then Blackbird accepted it soon after.

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 obviously a question most writers think about a lot. I’ve found for me, and most writers, it just varies. It’s more instinctual and intuitive. On average, I’d say 80% of the stuff I write I won’t even think about sending out for six months or a year. But I’ve been sort of writing and juggling new poems in the air since I was about twenty two, so I always have work that’s been developing, changing, and feels—sometimes and sometimes not—ready to go out. Some writers write a poem and send it out that week; others don’t send it out until years after. I have no answer for this.

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

This is something I’ve been dealing with since I began writing about Iraq. I’ve always had trouble writing about something I wasn’t specifically involved in while deployed—basically, there’s this soldier’s mentality where you don’t embellish or “make up stuff” about your time over there and this has carried over to my writing. Over the years, I’ve always just tried to do what’s best for the poem and what’s best for the poem’s needs. At first, I had trouble leaving out certain details or people in a poem because the memory had them there. Now, I try my best to decide what’s just there from memory and what’s there because it needs to be part of the poem. 

For this one, I really will say that all of these sections are very much “true” experiences I had while over there. Some of the details have been changed and, of course, the contexts have been mostly removed since there is always so much I remember before and after a bomb is found. Finding bombs is actually boring because once you do have one, you just sort of move into a perimeter and wait, sometimes hours, for EOD (to make this more clear: the guys from The Hurt Locker) to come with their robots and bomb-suits and take care of the thing. If you’re in a bad area waiting around there’s obviously other problems. So, with this one, I tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to say—I just focused on some of the more intense or meaningful or humorous moments of “looking” at IEDs.

Is this a narrative poem?

You could argue that each section serves as a little narrative and overall, the poem is a longer narrative about finding bombs. However, I don’t want to put my poems in one camp or the next—I just write them and don’t give a shit about lyric or narrative.

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

Don’t remember who exactly I was reading but my influences have always been veteran-writers like Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl, Ed Micus, Yusef Komunyakaa.  Something related to this poem (or I’d like to say it’s related) is my admiration for haiku masters like Basho, Buson, Issa. Some of their work I find incredibly stunning (though some pieces baffle me). I took a haiku class during my MFA and I also studied some of these poems in undergrad. Today, especially, brevity is important since everyone has to check their email or Facebook. Haiku is good for that. I could stretch the argument that some of the scenes strive to be “haiku-like” with their quickness and precision. Maybe just striving—that’s all.

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

Not really. I will try to think about my poems from a civilian perspective—this has changed the way I use military jargon and acronyms. I still use them but I try to provide more context sometimes.

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 was doing the whole MFA-thing when I wrote this, so, yes, I am sure I workshopped it and got feedback. I do remember specific comments from a few friends and teachers. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I’d say, content-wise, it’s not much different. Aesthetically, it resists the typical story-like narrative that many of my poems take. If anything, the sections interrupt the narrative and move the reader from place to place against their will (though, I hope they are willing to go for the ride).

What is American about this poem? 

Well, it’s based on one of our wars. More specifically, it’s based on people wanting to kill me because I’m in their country and I have a little American flag on the right shoulder of my DCU (but, mostly, because I’m in their country).

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 


It’s in my first book and I can never change how it looks. So I’m finished with it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

William Wright

William Wright is author of seven collections of poetry, including Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press, forthcoming in spring 2015), Night Field Anecdote (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011), and Bledsoe (Texas Review Press, 2011). Wright is Series Editor and Volume Co-editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, a multivolume series celebrating contemporary writing of the American South. Additionally, Wright serves as Assistant Editor for Shenandoah, translates German poetry, and is editing three volumes, including Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (with Daniel Cross Turner). Wright won the 2012 Porter Fleming Prize in Literature, and has recently published in The Kenyon Review, Oxford American, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review.


BARN GOTHIC

Red as a cardinal in winter, it leans ruined
in the gray field, form falling against a sycamore,
its older, wiser wife.

Closer in, a fox den
in the hay tunnel light where green eyes haunt
the nearby woods and stars cast silver

glyphs on the rotting floor:
Rain has felled the structure’s roof.
Here horses pitched and leaned

into chaff, awaiting work,
this room still alive in smells of oil, dung,
and cedar-heart. Swallows twig

warped boards, black widows
float, wait
in corners to wrap and gore what passes.

Wasps caulk the loft’s cracked seams,
and mice hide from owls, eyes,
their lives the barn’s heart

beating behind the walls.

What to name it but beauty
this world craves, but will never allow,
not wholly,

the horsemint scent that finds
the barn’s chinks. Moonflower
gripping, twining

the rusted scythe and the burled
yawn of the caved-in door. Or the beauty earth
sculpts of us without consent,

remnants hallowed, restored.
Autumns, when the air shucks
summer rain to hollow starriness,

the moon strikes the barn just right:
White moths hoard here where hanging
lanterns have long been snuffed,

where the only fires are the moths themselves,
their flock  come to love this place and perhaps
the stars, too, all pure, radiant, dying.


When was this poem composed? 

The final draft of the poem was completed on 8/10/2012.

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

About fourteen drafts – approximately a month.

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

I do believe that something inexplicable lies at the center of our creative selves, though I believe mostly that to write good poetry is difficult; I feel the same about any good writing. Nonetheless, parts of me during the process seem to fade: I liken it to staring at something for so long that it takes on an otherworldly luminosity—the world that surrounds it seems to diminish.

But in order for the poem as a whole to glow, I have to go back and stare at it—and every word that makes it—until it seems complete.  

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

I am a huge fan of sonic lushness—of even excessive explorations of sound. I am also haunted by the fact that a poem is only as good as its weakest line. So even in short-lined poems such as “Barn Gothic,” I’m perhaps overly conscious of imbuing each line with sonic dynamism. The result is often that my poems, relative to other the work of others now being published, appear (or sound) antiquated. 

One fellow poet recently wrote to another fellow poet that I was a poet of “old traditions.” I’m not sure what this means, other than to suggest that I am conscious of form to the degree that my work sounds “old” not in its lack of originality (I hope), but in its prolixity or its ornamentation.

I don’t subscribe to any notion that I’ve found my “voice,” if one ever finds such a thing, but in “Barn Gothic,” as in most of my work, I do think of each line as its own micro-poem. I want the lines to be more than coherent units of syntactic meaning—I want them to be evocative in and of themselves. This isn’t anything groundbreaking or original, but it is the current center of my technical application.

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

My process involves symptoms of very real neuroses—part of which include pacing around and biting my nails, nodding my head, and uttering to myself. “Barn Gothic” involved a lot of this, as I remember.

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

Eight months in journal form. The poem will appear in Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press), which will be out in spring of 2015, about three years after I wrote “Barn Gothic.”

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? 

My practice varies, but with “Barn Gothic,” I revised every day. Often with poems, though, I let them sit for months and even years. Some I come back to and think, “I wrote this? I’m impressed with a self that no longer exists!” Most of the time I come back and think, “I wrote this? Wow, I was a really bad writer! Perhaps I still am!” Then I ball the latter poems up and throw them in the ever-overflowing wastebasket.

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

The factual element of the poem lies in its sensory images: There are old, rain-warped barns in the middle of a fallow fields in Edgefield County, South Carolina. I used to take walks at night there, and I came upon one that seemed especially spectral. 

During clear nights in autumn and winter, when the atmosphere is dry and the sky is strewn with stars, these barns are illuminated with an intensity that resembles bioluminescence—or, more threateningly—the glow we associate with intense radioactivity. I was once (and only once) brave enough to walk into such a place, and I heard things—scrapes and squeals behind the walls. 

The factual begins to decay in this poem, though, when the imagination implants the horses and the sensorial engagements with another time: the oil, the manure, the cedar tang in the air. The scrapes and squeals and little pops and tics of the structure falling slowly, slowly, but inevitably, led to the imagined work that took place in the barn a century earlier—the metal scrapings and all the agrarian sounds associated with another time. 

Is this a narrative poem?

I would say so, yes—or at least it could be argued that the narrative element plays as important a role as the language that renders it. It’s a story about time—or Time with a capital T, if I might borrow the motif from Robert Penn Warren—and the characters—the barn, the sycamore, the horses who are no more, and the creatures that inhabit the abandoned structure now, as well as the moths, all play important roles in the story, of course, but the presiding character that acts just behind the perception is Time—the character that introduces and is the beginning and the end.

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

I was listening, every night, to a relatively rare reading of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, one of the few novels I’ve read more than twice. During this time, I was revisiting poems from Earth Elegy by Margaret Gibson, as well as James Wright’s Above the River: The Complete Poems. Finally, I was engaged in translating Ernst Stadler’s poetry, a German contemporary of the Austrian Expressionist Georg Trakl. Stadler’s poetry, like Trakl’s, is often populated with dark imagery; however, unlike Trakl’s dreamlike image clusters, Stadler’s work is far denser, with more explicitly emotional resonances. He’s not quite the poet Trakl is, but he has a baroque quality that’s nonetheless very interesting. Something of these elements must have combined to create a bit of “Barn Gothic.” I’m not sure.

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

I want an openminded and openhearted reader. I want a reader who understands that contemporary poetry need not necessarily be completely free of ornament. Most readers of poetry are ideal—at least those I’ve encountered. There are lots of kind people out there.

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 work with three other poets during “marathons” of writing—which take place three or four months every year. During these months the four of us write poems every day, and to be accountable, we send the daily poem to the other three. None of us are obliged to send comments about each other’s work—just the work itself. “Barn Gothic”—at least its first draft—came during one of these.

To be honest, I don’t get much feedback on my poems at all, but I do share the poems with a small group of folks who are self-destructive enough to write poems every day during 1/3 of the year. 

During the months between these marathons we all revise at our own paces. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I think it’s a bit more kempt than other poems. The lines are meant to be a bit “quicker,” and I want the end words to be evocative such that they are a smaller poem within the bigger form. This is a bad answer, though, as the latter point is something I strive for in every poem. 

What is American about this poem? 

The poem attempts to capture another time in American life—one (on the surface) perhaps partially indistinguishable from other agrarian cultures.

 “Barn Gothic” attempts to acknowledge our history, but it’s an ideal history if only read in that interstitial way. It’s more concerned with the elemental. It attempts to capture and re-awaken something of the past while acknowledging that all moments—moments long to come—will be re-scripted as history. And that the notion of the past itself will be consumed. 

Is that American? I don’t know. 

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I’m one of those guys—for better or worse—who believes a poem is never finished, and so, alas, “Barn Gothic” is constantly being abandoned.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson is the author of three collections of poetry, This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013) and The Accounts (2013), which won the Rilke Prize from University of North Texas. She has taught at Bennington College, Deep Springs College, and Tufts University. She is currently teaching courses on Jane Austen and Homer at Deep Springs College. She starts teaching at UC Davis in January of 2015. 


CONFESSION

A stripe of asphalt keeps the pond,
at the municipal park
in the capital of the state, in check. I went
there, going and coming
from your dying, to watch the ducks. 

I mean I went there
to see a friend. On the way
to him I stopped at an orchard
and pistachios the color of oranges
are what I bought.

Kindness to those who keep
the sweetest secrets and long
life. Now that you
are dead, I can tell you
he was not a friend. 

When we met, I could forget
you would not be.
Elsewhere the orders
kept their orders through the fall. 
I rose from the bed, the spring dismantled, he and I met

in secret and we spoke of how we wanted
to die like it was work. 
Awake, I said, yes, driving him
on a road through green fields.
Painlessly, he said. 


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

Looking over the poem, I hear my friend Kayla’s voice saying “those pistachios are the color of oranges!” She drove with me from my parents’ house in Menlo Park, California, to Deep Springs College in Inyo County where I was teaching. The drive crosses the Central Valley (where I live and work now, interestingly) where abundant fruit and nut stands dot the highways. What she said stuck in my head for obscure reasons. Years later, I think it was Spring of 2010, I wrote this poem in Cambridge, Massachusetts, staring at the orange house behind mine on Walden Street. That detail came first and that experience. I had a sense it could be used in some story, almost like Persephone’s pomegranate seeds - a fairy tale detail, a ticket. When I began working with the detail, the memory, and a poem, leapt up around it. 

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

In my head the poem still undergoes revision. I question the efficacy of the third stanza. My trusted readers advocated for its removal (and I agreed and yet left it in, both of and against my will somehow). The third stanza has nothing to do with the narrative of the poem. But the speaker addresses the “you” and tells that person “you are dead.” “Now that you are dead,” the speaker says. How can she say this? How dare she? How is it possible? How can one address someone who isn’t there? It is the only moment in the book where the speaker admits the “you” is dead. To say it more contextually, it is the only moment in the book where I call my mother “dead.” But the poem taken apart from the book, it doesn’t matter who the “you” is, it feels like some demented love triangle out of context. In a sense this is the most important stanza in the whole book. How casual and callous the speaker is, “now that you are dead.” How dare she. 

I think it got written rather quickly in 2010 and then the tinkering took hold. That’s how I think about revisions of syntax, like tiny semi-incompetent elves with outdated tools trying to beat gravity back into the top or straightness back into the train track. But I always print the poem out again and do revisions in pen, even if it’s just one phrase or a comma, it’s such a waste of paper, but I have to see myself correcting myself to hear myself correcting myself. I remember pulling out some prepositional phrases and putting some back in. And then, at the end, the problem of this stanza in the middle, which kept me from shutting down the poem into final form for one long week in the Fall of 2012. Some friends weighed in, I think, about this stanza problem. I remember that we agreed to cut it, and then we agreed to disobey ourselves and leave it in. 

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

I wonder if now when we think of “sweat and tears” in poetry what we mean by that is diligent crafting. But there is another form of this – the experience that went into the poem in the first place, the sweat and tears of everyday living. And the sweat and tears of that which you need not search for, life experience, which seems to find you, wreck and ruin you, and then expect you to get up in the morning. And so many people are simply at the mercy of the way the world makes them feel, they don’t need deaths or love affairs to feel a little wrecked. I fear I am starting to sound Romantic and maybe I am. But a tiny poem cannot hope to measure up to the depth of life for the poet. It may be true for the reader in a different context, the way the right song can be a balm on experience, the way the right poem can become like a prayer. But for the poet – the sweat and tears of experience can feel greater than the slim volume in front of you. My friend Katie Ford reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s thought in her recent Prayer Journal, that many writers wish for the writing that would come from suffering, but not as many wish for the suffering. I would substitute the word “experience,” I suppose, and maybe not assume suffering to always be the current of it, but this sense of things feels true to me. 

As for inspiration, it’s never meant much to me in terms of the account I myself make of writing poems, maybe because it’s a religious word and I’m essentially still a religious person (I was raised Catholic and continue to practice, if haphazardly). I relate more to the sense that poems can occur like dreams, sometimes, with their coordinates born in some place your imagination has outsourced its labor to, so it doesn’t feel like yours, and there’s some lovely and strange ease about that. This poem’s details don’t belong together in real life and never did, but they found themselves together here. 

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

At the time I was working on poems with at least two currents of voice, poems I called “arguments” because they had two sides (there are several of these in The Accounts). But they were not necessarily two sides of the same argument. The compulsively self-correcting, authentically evading movements of the poem have some kinship with this. I like using stanzas because they imply containment, they feel natural to me, like paragraphs, but the containment usually doesn’t exist, as it doesn’t here. 

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

I remember I was sleeping with someone who slept late. For whatever reason it enraged me that he did that. Those hours of my resentment turned into this golden writing time, between the time I woke up and the time he woke up. Funny how something so upsetting at the time feels now like a gift. 

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

I finished it as I finished the manuscript, though clearly I am not finished with it (see question #2 above). I published it in the book but not in any journal, at least I don’t think so. Chicago took the book pretty quickly. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have sent it out to a journal. My feelings about self-disclosure had such defense and tenderness then, which I feel like I’ve gotten over, though who knows. 

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? 

As long as possible? Is that an answer? I should probably send out more work, I’m working on it, it’s a resolution. It’s really not something to do with not wanting a final form or not wanting to commit, it’s more to do with sending things out interfering with the state of writing which is for me a state of private pleasure and meaningful freedom. I have been honored this year that people have asked me for work (Maureen McLane at GREY, Elisabyth Hiscox at Third Coast, James Allen Hall at Cherry Tree, Robin Ekiss at Zyzzyva) and I think I feel accountable to people, and desirous of making them happy, and in need of their respect because they are really good poets, all the people I mentioned, so it made me happy to send them work, and further delighted me that they actually took it. I don’t have any rules about this, I go into it haphazardly with a complicated mixture of desire for privacy and desire for recognition. It confuses and bothers me. 

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

After New Issues published my first book, I was having dinner with my parents and they wanted to talk about the poems. In one of the poems my mother is asleep and as I remember I say “I very well may have been happy then.” It was one of my earliest memories, my mother being asleep on a green quilt in the yard and me being awake. My parents both insisted on questioning the truth of the facts in several of the poems, including that one. Finally, my mother said to me, “You know that poem where I was asleep? I wasn’t asleep in that poem.” I considered this a victory; she realized she had to battle me inside my poem as opposed to outside of it. 

Is this a narrative poem?

I often write poems where I try to tell a story and fail. I suspect this poem falls into that category. One of my favorite poems is “Directive” by Robert Frost – I admire the way that poem keeps saying it’s going forward (progress! American productivity! history marching on! joyfully moving forward into a better world!) while psychologically going backward, staying unhelpfully put, until its conclusion is gorgeously complete and chastened and strange: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” I am aware of a philosophical position in which lyric poetry must somehow resist or fight against narrative. But a fragment of a story has always seemed to me the most resonant and romantic thing, like a love letter or a lock of 19th century hair or a trapped butterfly or something. In fiction the story itself has the meaning. In poetry the story gets schooled by music, and the predicament is whether the story can stand up to music, make music, whether the story squares with language’s own story. Often it doesn’t. It’s the struggle between the mind and the body in a sense, the struggle between narrative and form, or maybe more truly, the struggle between will and reality, thinking and matter. Narrative poems tend to ask us to live in ruins and they foreground memory not just as a requirement of the poem but as an anxious concern. Another way of explaining this is that I love stories but I hate plots. 

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

I was on the same fellowship as Jericho Brown when I wrote this poem, and his sense of melody based on repeated syntactical patterning, and the correction of errors by the self or by others may have schooled my ear here. 

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

This question is so difficult, it makes me feel like kind of a difficult person to answer it the way I want to. But don’t you think the reader is obsolete to the poet? Not to the poem, of course, surely not. But to the poet? This poem is addressed to my dead mother and concerns a love affair, but is that the point of the poem? Is my dead mother my reader because I have addressed her? Surely not. And yet she’s addressed. So what do I want from my reader regarding this poem besides his or her prurient curiosity, that overhearing of something? I am reading Spring and All this fall with some good friends out here at Deep Springs, and Williams writes, “I love my fellow creature. Jesus, how I love him: endways, sideways, frontways, and all the other ways – but he doesn’t exist! Neither does she. I do, in a bastardly sort of way,” and he goes on, “To whom am I addressed? To the imagination.” I’ve been thinking lately about poems where the reader is kind of obsolete, kind of not relevant, but that still includes the reader somehow, not as his or her self but as a more capacious and intimate imagination of whom he or she could be. I think of Dickinson who seemed to have an imagination of a past for her poems and of a future as well but not necessarily, and not always, a present for general readers other than her correspondents, or herself. And now, her poems have such an electric present, a constant and real present tense. The poet and critic Walt Hunter and I were talking about this and Walt speculated that maybe, right now specifically, 2014, we’re so invested in an idea of our own contemporaneousness, we like too much the idea of a reader right in front of us in time we forget that sometimes we make the possibility of a reader present, instead, in the space of the poem, in history or in the future. I hope for readers for my poems after I am dead; I adore the thought of people who are long dead (like Dickinson, or my mother) participating in my poems somehow even though they’re gone. When someone who is alive and present responds to one of my poems it seems like a lucky break, like fortune, a sudden and even random correspondence. 

I heard Louise Gluck once say that she imagined her reader as an individual, reading her book in one sitting. I think this is a beautiful idea and reveals more about her poems than it does about reading poetry books. In her work, there is a sense of companionship in solitude, the private life, what is invisible. There is something that feels disappearing to me in this vision of having the time and space to read an entire book in solitude. But poems have the ability to preserve forms of attention in this way, and to remind us they’re endangered. 

I suspect I must think about the reader under the radar of my imagination. I suspect I have a notion of providing for another person’s secrecy and solitude, of preserving a space for that provision within the poem. But it’s done selfishly, as a way of preserving a form of my own. 

I know there are other traditions of how you relate to a reader but this is mine. It comes from prayer and has one foot in silence. Saying who my reader is exactly feels to me like breaking the anonymity of someone in program, or outing someone, or telling someone else’s secret. If they want to just overhear the poems without telling me they’re reading them, if they don’t want to admit to anyone they’re reading them, if they’re ashamed of reading poetry at all, that’s all right also. To be included is a form of being addressed, and for many of us being included is far better than being broadcasted. 

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?

About this poem, I can’t totally recall. But first, I showed many of the poems in this book to Eli Schmitt, who took great care with their emotional content while also pushing me towards a better version of their music. Good friends Walt Hunter and Lindsay Turner, without whom I cannot imagine continuing to write, are often my first readers, and, in the case of this poem, my last. The playwright Brighde Mullins, luminous in her intelligence. And brilliant Sandra Lim, who held my hand through some last minute edits of individual poems. Now that I am in California these are all long distance relationships (though many of them were before). 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I don’t know, but it might be more “confessional.” Though the title kind of keeps that from being true. If you call a poem “Confession” it can hardly be confessional. 

What is American about this poem? 

It’s about various lost places in the American landscape, and I am now noticing that it tries to fit a lot of landscapes in. It doesn’t really make sense that this is all one country but it’s what we’re stuck with unless various wacky splinter groups have their way and break us up. There’s some notion in the poem about bringing all the landscapes together. For a small poem, there’s a lot of space in it, an appetite for space. 

There’s a candor in the voice I think of as American but the candor is fake and faked and maybe that’s American too, the tone of talking like you’re only interested in the bottom line but you refuse to see the bottom line actually. A bluntness in the voice (and even the rhymes are blunt) I call the Californian accent, the vowels dropped and the consonants clipped. 

The lovers believe they can hide in the landscape somehow. They also believe they can orchestrate their own deaths like “work,” like something produced and effective and focused. And they are not even the ones dying. They are so dead to the world, luxuriating in each other and pistachios while someone dies. I did not write this as a fable about America but now, as the poem’s obsolete and irrelevant reader, rather than as its creator, I see how their affair happens in a ruined and beautiful place and they don’t care. Their desire is for secrecy not recognition. This may be our current political failing – we are always preserving individual rights at the expense of national needs, or at least, it seems so to me – but love is ruthless, and maybe American love is the most ruthless of all. 

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Definitely abandoned, though as the one who did the breaking up, I prefer to lie, and say it was mutual and amicable, our parting.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was published in 2014 as a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize with the University of Arkansas Press. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012, and he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume. He is Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, a freelance editor, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.




SINGING 

What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it? No spider webs
snagged in the bluestem, no horseflies at rest
in cones of henbit, no slug trails penned
to the cooled hoods of cars. We are creatures all,
stillborn to the language of split pine rails
standing in their pickets, ice glazed to bone
in every rut, the stealth tracks of jays a sleepless
ideography in the snow. But we are not
entirely alone between the mountain ranges,
in these hours condemned to darkness
before the sun gyres open the face of February
and the red flare of Mars grows dim.
Just outside my door, the burr oak is wintered
full of grackles— hundreds of coin-
eyed scuttles ornamenting its branches. Here,
my breath plumes gray. In the distance,
brush catches fire. The wind, if you watch,
is calligraphy; the stars in winter,
a weightlessness. The grackles are doors,
rasping their flight plans limb to limb.
The grackles are doors, some limned with light,
others black. Rising, my arms have long
been open. Stepping across these thresholds,
I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

"Singing" is one of the only "intentional" poems in Ghost Gear. By “intentional” I mean it's one of the few poems I wrote in the book with a specific goal in mind. It's also the last poem I wrote for Ghost Gear even though it's the book's opening poem. 

I wrote "Singing" with the goal of announcing to the reader much of what Ghost Gear is about: that desire to know how the world functions while recognizing that this is probably impossible—thus this notion of only knowing God in the face of absence, thus the notion of stepping (as I step) from the human world to the animal world, from the world of the present to the world of the past, from the world in front of us to the world of the imagination, the world within. 

"Singing" also does the job of letting the reader know from page one the sort of poet I am. I love music. I love the image. I love metaphor. I love tension. I call poems like this "thesis poems." Whenever I say this aloud (or even now in the student center over a McDouble sans pickles), I instinctively duck, fearing some poet across the room will have slung a piece of rotting fruit in my direction. "Thesis poem?" Oxymoron. Heresy. Sacrilege! But why not? Ghost Gear is a book of poems, not a collection. Like a thesis in an essay, I wanted the first poem to let the reader know what they were in for and what to expect. 

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

I wrote "Singing" in fifty eight drafts over the winter of 2007/2008 when I was finishing up my first draft of Ghost Gear. After that, I revised it somewhere around fifty more times as I revised the book itself. The last significant edit to "Singing" looks to have been made in early 2012, right before the book was picked up by the University of Arkansas Press. And I of course made a few micro-edits to it before the book went to press. 

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

Well, I certainly believe in inspiration, but I really don't care much about inspiration either. I was definitely inspired to write the poem, and I was certainly inspired by the poems I was reading around the time of its creation (Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk, in particular), and I was certainly inspired by the weather and those damned noisy grackles, but blood, sweat, tears, and lots of throwing shit at the wall is what made the poem. I think that when we receive a line (I have no idea, for example, where the first 1.5 lines came from), it's the result of the hard work that has come before. When we revise a poem, we're not rewriting it, we're practicing to write what eventually becomes the final version. You really can't "receive" practice; you have to actually go out there, put on your sleeve, and shoot three pointers until, in a game, you receive the made shot you've been working so tirelessly toward. I'd say inspiration is the byproduct of getting out there, of the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It's a tool just like all the others. 

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

"Singing" was always in these short, somewhat enjambed lines, and it was always one page. This is for two reasons: 1) I wanted a shortish poem of shortish lines to open the book, and 2) I absolutely loved the rhythm created by the break after "winter" and the repetition in the rhythm of "but that each winter / I thank him for it" somewhat indebted to that break. Once I had the first line set, it made perfect sense to work toward making each line similar in length. It's a quiet poem. It's a poem in which structure is crucial yet subtle. And it's a poem I wanted as many readers as possible to be drawn to, so I tried to keep its shape as simple and elegant as possible in order to attract as many eyes as possible. 

If we were to dig deeper into the poem and the individual lines, we'd see that each line operates like a little form in and of itself. While the poem overall is definitely free verse, the lines themselves and the play from line to line pays much more attention to form. Sam Hamill recently informed me this is called "organic verse," verse that grows out of some sort of structure but isn't just plain ol’ "free." That's how much of Ghost Gear operates. In the book, there isn't a single poem written in received form (unless you want to call a fourteen-line poem with a volta near the end a sonnet), but the guts of the poems reside in the shadows of form.

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

Here's how I write a poem: I start with something about which I have very little understanding. Then I write, write, write, revise, revise, revise until I do know what the hell is going on. Then I'm done. This one, like all the others, worked just like that. The only unusual thing was that I knew what I wanted it to do, but how…that was as mysterious as every other damned poem I try to put together and, in this case, finished.

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

Man, that took forever, and I remember being really baffled (and still am) by this. I was baffled because it seemed to do all the things people typically say a poem should do: It's short. It's simple. It's got beautiful language. It's clear. It's minimalistic. Yadda yadda yadda—it seemed to do everything everyone always told me good poems did but no one wanted it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I agree with any of this, but there’s no doubt that these sorts of poems get published more often than longer, more immediately complex poems. 

Anyway, it was picked up by Ascent in the Winter of 2012 after well over one-hundred submissions, which I'm very proud of. Good things often come to those who wait or, in my case, those who wait while they submit it over and over and over to endless frustration. But why some poems strike editors right away and others take however long they take is almost as mysterious to me as poetry itself. Luckily, I don’t worry about that so much anymore. I just try to write poems that do the things I think good poems do. Eventually, I/the poem fools someone into agreeing with me/it!

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 totally depends on the poem. Poems often feel finished one day only to need tweaking or major revision a few days later. I really don’t consider a poem “done” until it’s published in a book. Once it’s in a book, that’s sacred, that’s the poem you put out in the world with your name on the cover. Everything else is a little more fluid and anything can happen to a poem before that time, so I only send out poems I would be proud to publish. If anything in me says, “This poem isn’t ready for human eyes,” I wait until that voice shuts up or, occasionally, says the opposite, “Yo, dumb poet, I’m ready.” 

Just because a poem gets picked up by a journal doesn’t mean it’s finished or even that it’s any good. At the same time, I don’t think you have to think, “This poem is one-million percent done!” “This is the best poem I’ve ever written!” before you seek an audience for it either.

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

I’m not sure fact has much place in poetry. Facts are mostly bullshit anyway. For how many years did we publish textbooks that said Pluto is a planet? That was a fact; now it’s…something else. 

Clinging to facts or trying to reproduce factual reality doesn’t make much sense to me, and I’m not sure facts speak nearly as well to human experience as fiction anyway. Much of my poetry is fictional. Sure, the whole idea, the whole story is based in fact (usually…) but the details….who knows? And honestly, who cares? I don’t read poetry for factual truth; I read poetry for emotional truth. Emotional truth is just as slippery and incalculable, but I think it has a little more humility. It recognizes and pays homage to its innate inaccuracy. And it’s certainly more interesting. 

As for “Singing,” it’s actually pretty factual. There really was a burr oak full of grackles in my front yard, and I really do like winter and the silence it brings. And I really do wonder about God—this thing I don’t believe in literally but often find myself speaking to for reasons unknown. But are grackles really like “coin-eyed scuttles”? Emotionally, sure. Factually? I’m not sure there’s any way to determine that.

Is this a narrative poem?

Depends on what you mean by narrative. I consider this poem what I call a lyric-narrative, a poem that utilizes elements of narrative (the character of the speaker, setting, speech itself, etc…) as well as lyric (assonance, alliteration, imagination, etc…). Judy Jordan introduced me to this notion my first semester of graduate school, though I think I came up with the actual term. She learned it from Greg Orr’s essay, “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry,” which argues that all poets have a basic instinct (temperament) when it comes to the types of poems they write:
Different poets are born with different temperaments, and the nature of their temperament is shown in the work. Needless to say, since the sense of wholeness is perhaps the most essential defining quality of a poem, this form-giving gift is more important than any other a poet might possess. (269)
The notion of lyric-narratives is nothing new but placing a hyphen between the two terms (thus turning it into one term) and removing thefrom “narratives” is a little different. It goes, more or less, like this: Sometimes, when we say “narrative poem,” we’re really saying “a poem that tells a story,” but narration doesn’t always tell a story. Narration is a mode of expression that uses narrative tools (characters, setting, conflict/resolution, other story-telling devices) and that tends to tell a story. In a lyric-narrative, a poet can deploy these tools to tell a story, but they can also use this stuff to meditate on, say, a blade of grass, without being purely lyrical. Adding narrative elements to a lyrical poem is a lot like writing a prose poem: most audiences recognize and are comfortable with prose. As a result, a prose poem is often more approachable. A lyric poem with zero narrative is, at least these days, pretty alien to most readers, even many poets. So adding narrative elements to a lyric poem can really open things up for the poet, the poem, and the reader.

Lyric-narrative works the other way as well, of course. A poet can take a straight narrative and utilize lyrical tools to make it resonate in a more visceral way, to get at that emotional truth we’ve been talking about in a way more similar to song, prayer. This is how many of the poems in Ghost Gear operate, and it’s what I think a large majority of really good poems do. They’re not 100% lyric or 100% narrative. They’re a cocktail of the two mixed just right.

This poem certainly doesn’t tell a story, but it uses narrative tools most readers recognize. Lyric-narrative, you could say, is a sort of little magic trick: the narrative tricks the reader into absorbing the lyric. This, above all else, I believe must be the primary mission of the poet: to get our lyrics down and to find a way for people to read them.

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

I always read while writing. I’m a bit of a method actor; if I can find some books to read that are in the mood/tone of what I’m writing, I’m all over it. In this case, I was reading Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk quite a bit. Both write about the natural world in lyric-narratives that are approachable yet mysterious and beautiful and meaningful at the same time. I was also reading Robert Wrigley, James Kimbrell, Judy Jordan, and Davis McCombs quite a bit, all poets who work a bit more in narrative like myself but are clearly in love with the short lyric as well. 

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

My ideal audience member is someone who thinks they hate poetry. I challenge every single poem I write to be clear and to be transformative. I want my poems to make basic, logical sense and to transport the reader from their subways, living rooms, classes. But I also challenge each poem to be, you know, an actual poem, not just a collection of easy-to-read lines that may or may not take the reader somewhere beyond themselves. It’s the complexity of the line and how each line works together that I think has the power to truly move and relocate the reader. But if the lines are too esoteric for the general reader to follow, I think you’ve lost the war before the battle’s even begun. What cracks me up about all of this is how often people say they don’t like poetry when they haven’t read a poem since sophomore year of high school. I’d hate poetry too if I stopped reading it at the age of sixteen. But it’s our job to thwart such beliefs. It’s our responsibility to, with our work, change minds. So it has to stand on its own, but it can’t just stand there. Am I doing that? Probably not. But I’d think myself a fraud if I didn’t try.

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?

Oh yeah, I workshopped this quite a bit with my peers and professors at Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I got my MFA. Judy Jordan was my primary mentor. Her fingerprints are all over Ghost Gear and “Singing,” but Rodney Jones and Allison Joseph and many of my peers (particularly Martin Call, Jenna Bazzell, Alexander Lumans, and Aaron Wheetley) helped me put this poem (and all the others in the book) together. 

I really believe that poetry is a collaboration with the world. The notion that we create this stuff in a vacuum is ridiculous. Could this poem have been written without me? Is “Singing” “my” poem? Sure. In a way. Some fool has to actually write down the words and make them work and such. But a poem doesn’t exist without a reader, and this poem wouldn’t have come to exist without SIUC’s MFA program and all the amazing people who fostered and supported me. So I rarely say a poem is mine. I much prefer to say a poem is ours. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s pretty short compared to most of the poetry I write but, otherwise, I’d say it’s pretty indicative of the Ghost Gear poems. I just finished the thirteenth draft of my second manuscript last Friday. It’s the first draft I’d really say is “complete” though I imagine it has quite a long way to go. Hell, it’s in all likelihood a total mess, but this draft is the first I’ve not felt queasy about. “Singing” really wouldn’t fit in this book, so I guess it’s different now that I’m working on a different book with a different tone and set of modes.

What is American about this poem? 

I couldn’t say. I’m an American writing in America about America, but I think this poem could take place anywhere. Sure, I imagine some of it is more American than, say, Lithuanian, but I’m no expert in either!

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 


Finished. I wouldn’t try to publish a poem I’d abandoned!