Bruce Snider is the author of The Year We Studied Women, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in poetry from the University of Wisconsin Press. His poetry and non-fiction have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and PN Review, among other journals. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University, he lives in San Francisco.
THE CERTAINTY OF NUMBERS
It’s not the numbers you dislike—
the 3s or 5s or 7s—but the way
the answers leave no room for you,
the way 4 plus 2 is always 6
never 9 or 10 or Florida,
the way 3 divided by 1
is never an essay about spelunking
or poached salmon, which is why
you never seemed to get the answer right
when the Algebra teacher asked,
If a man floating down a river in a canoe
has traveled three miles of a twelve mile canyon
in five minutes, how long will it take him
to complete the race? Which of course depends
on if the wind resistance is 13 miles an hour
and he’s traveling upstream
against a 2 mile an hour current
and his arms are tired and he’s thinking
about the first time he ever saw Florida,
which was in seventh grade
right after his parents’ divorce
and he felt overshadowed
by the palm trees, neon sun visors,
and cheap postcards swimming
with alligators. Nothing is ever simple,
except for the way the 3 looks like two shells
washed up on last night’s shore,
but then sometimes it looks like a bird
gently crushed on its side.
And the 1—once so certain
you could lean up against it
like a gray fence post—has grown weary,
fascinated by the perpetual
itch of its own body.
Even the Algebra teacher
waving his formulas like baseball bats,
pauses occasionally when he tells you
that a 9 and a 2 are traveling in a canoe
on a river in a canyon. How long
will it take them to complete their journey?
That is if they don’t lose their oars
and panic and strike the rocks,
shattering the canoe. Nothing is ever certain.
We had no plan, the numbers would tell us,
at the moment of our deaths.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote the earliest draft of this poem sometime in the fall of 1997. I had been writing a number of poems about my middle school and high school experiences, and so this subject was a natural outgrowth of those. If I remember correctly, I started with the opening line, “It’s not the numbers you dislike,” and just went from there to figure out what I meant by that.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem came much more quickly than most. I think I wrote the first draft in two days. Then I tinkered with it a bit over the next couple of months. For the most part, though, it arrived mostly as it is, with only minor edits. Usually poems come to me in fragments and require more labor to weave together. This was just one of those poems that showed up one day.
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, but I also think it generally requires a lot of help, which often means sweat and tears. Or at the very least it means showing up and making yourself available. I’m not generally someone who’s struck with lines, images, or ideas while walking down the street. Not much happens for me unless I’m sitting in front of an empty page or at the computer. I wrote this poem, for example, during a time that I was keeping a pretty strict writing schedule, getting up early in the morning before work, writing in coffee shops on the weekend, etc. The poem wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I wasn’t thinking much about technique when I wrote this poem. It was all pretty instinctive.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I started it in the fall of 1997 and it eventually appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Third Coast, so not quite three 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?
I don’t have any strict rules about this, though I do try to let poems sit for a few months until I can see them more clearly.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem came out of my own resistances to math as a kid, so in that way the poem has its roots in autobiography, though certainly not all of the details refer to my life.
Is this a narrative poem?
No. It’s more rhetorical and digressive in its structure, but as with most poems, there’s certainly an implied narrative, or at least elements of narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I’d been reading the New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. Both were a huge influence on me at the time. In part, I think their work accounts for the poem’s playfulness as well as its discursiveness and use of conversational speech.
I was also influenced by Naomi Shihab Nye’s early work, some of which treats language as a physical object in the landscape, animating it as a quasi-character or concrete force in the poem. I just applied that same strategy to numbers, which, because I’d always had an antagonistic relationship with math, provided me with a natural tension for the poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Like many writers I mostly write what I’d like to read. I’m not sure that makes me my own audience exactly, but it does shape the direction of my work. Of course, my own tastes are always changing, so hopefully the poems are changing, too.
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 showed it to a couple of friends and former teachers for feedback.
I have a good friend, who tends to be my first reader. Her instincts are quite different from my own, so she’s a good counter to my own excesses. I also usually share my work with my partner, who is a fiction writer. In my experience, fiction writers often have better bullshit detectors, so I’m always grateful to get that perspective.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Its tone and strategies are similar to a number of the poems I was writing at that time, though more recently my poems have become less playful and more interested in experimenting with elements of form, meter, internal rhyme, line and stanza, etc.
What is American about this poem?
The ironies and idiomatic speech of the New York School poets strike me as very American, so to the extent that this poem bears their influence, it is as well.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. Or maybe abandoned. I don’t know. I just decided it was done, or at least I was, which may be the same thing.