“I never was much good at blow jobs,” she says, driving.
“Couldn’t get the right amount of pressure. Or maybe
it was him. He just didn’t like them. He said so:
‘maybe it’s me,’ he said. After awhile I just
stopped worrying about it, and here we are.” I’m
sitting in the back to keep an eye on her baby.
I nod, thinking what I know, what I don’t know. Old
music. Turn off that old radio music. The
baby’s crying. More night inside the car than out.
The baby’s crying despite she pulled over at the
rest stop to feed it just ten, twenty miles back. I keep
on pushing its rubber nipple at its mouth; it takes
it a moment then goes on crying. Finally,
entering the bridge, she reaches her arm back over
the seat, finds the baby’s mouth with her finger. It
knows her skin by taste. Mouths that finger, sucks it,
chews it, falls asleep. “Whatever works,” she says,
and keeps on driving fast and crooked around that way.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote it before my first book, She Didn't Mean to Do It (where “Whatever Works” appears) was published. So, in the late 90s. A friend of mine had had a baby. She and her husband and tiny baby, and I and my not-yet-husband, went on a daytrip from Philly to Baltimore, which was the early occasion for the poem, though the location other than car and highway and the men were later ejected as extraneous (to the poem, not to life). I was thinking about what seemed to me then the huge difference between her life and mine.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t remember. I almost always have pages and pages of drafts before I finish a poem, including both radical revision and comma-fiddling.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Work gets you to inspiration. It’s necessary to work regularly whether or not you feel inspired, so you’re ready when inspiration comes. It’s like doing scales on a piano—you have to keep limber for the real music. It feels like magic when something does come out of all that work, but to get there there’s a lot of unmagical, though often pleasurable, slog. (I also believe in not-working. Poets need a lot of time for daydreaming.)
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
This poem started out as a two-page travelogue, including a stop in Havre de Grace (complete with a boring little mini-lyric about a windsock) as well as an account of eating pit steaks at a Go-cart course on some local, non-interstate, route into Baltimore, which might have been fun reading but didn’t achieve poem-ness. I think I had to write through all of that to get to the final image of the mom driving with her finger in the baby’s mouth. I don’t remember whether the first line of the poem was from the travelogue draft, whether I added it after I cut the poem down to its essentials, or whether it came from another (failed) poem altogether
If by “principles of technique” you mean some explicit formal plan, prompt or strategy, no, but I think we absorb technique by reading and writing, so we’re always employing some sort of technique—though we may not realize it.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Not sure. Maybe about a year?
How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world?
It totally depends. Sometimes I’m sure something is done and send it off immediately. Sometimes it is done, but other times I see what needs to change when it comes back to me again. So sending poems out can be part of a revision process, though I never send a poem out unless I believe at that moment that it really is done. Other times I put something away because I think it’s no good and realize months or years later it is good and send it out. It also depends on practical stuff. Like, do I have enough good poems to make a packet to send? For example, I might finish a poem and feel impatient to send it out, but everything else I have that I’m not embarrassed to show people is already out and then I write nothing but duds for the next four months. Do I send out the one poem? Usually not. So it waits at home till I write some more.
Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
No rules, I just try to do what seems sensible.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
All of my poems are fiction, regardless of whether what “I” says happened really happened. Ron Silliman wrote at his blog something like that my poems are in the persona of myself. Which seems right, though I had never thought of it that way explicitly before. I am aware that the appearance of autobiography makes people want to know if it’s true. Obviously I’m willing to exploit that desire in my poems. I think I may be more involved than many poets in using fictional techniques—the kinds of things that novel and short-story writers think about. But fact or fiction, telling what happened is not the point of my poems. I use story, and the word “I,” as strategies toward getting the poems to a place of what I hope is interesting uncertainty.
Is this a narrative poem?
Sure. I mean, many many poems are at least a little narrative, including those which go to great lengths to pretend they’re not. But yes, this explicitly says “this happened, then this happened. She said this, I thought this, I did this, she did this.” In a sequence. Which is pretty much what narrative is, isn’t it?
Can you address the difficult balance this poem achieves between humor and poignancy? Was this always a funny poem?
Well, I don’t think this was a poem at all until it got pretty close to the form in which you read it. But yes, it’s hard for me to achieve a sense of reality—emotional reality, journalistic reality—if I don’t have funny and serious together.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
No, I’m sorry, I don’t remember. I read then and read now a lot of different poetry, old and new.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I try to write poems I would like to read.
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 husband reads everything I write (and vice versa; he’s a fiction writer.) He’s brutally honest, and I often sulk afterwards, but it’s incredibly useful. I sometimes show a troublesome poem which I think has something to it to one or another poet-friend, and they’ll often make really helpful comments. I value even (maybe especially) comments I think are off-base, because they help me figure out what I want the poem to do, and sometimes why I did do what I did. Which is helpful for future poems. We’re always working on all the poems we’re going to write, not just the one in front of us.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t have a method for writing poetry; I’m not sure I know how to write a poem. It seems like each time I sit down to write I have to figure it out all over again. As to whether that shows in the finished product, I can’t say.
What is American about this poem?
Oh, well, it doesn’t invade other countries on false pretexts or gather capital in the hands of a tiny number of superrich robber barons so it’s probably not very American. Then again, it does enjoy the right to free speech. It appreciates but does not use its right to carry a firearm. Possibly it’s kind of lonely, which might make it American, and it takes place in a car—what could be more American than that?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Same difference. But that’s the point of this question, isn’t it.