Friday, May 22, 2009

Bill Coyle

Bill Coyle is a poet, translator and educator living in Boston, Massachusetts. His poetry and translations have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The New Republic, PN Review and Poetry, and his critical prose has been featured in Contemporary Poetry Review, and in the Swedish journals Aorta and Tvärsnitt. His first collection of poems, The God of This World to His Prophet, won the 6th annual New Criterion Poetry Prize and was published in 2006. He works in the Writing Center at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts.


It wasn’t always single malts for me.
I can remember one time in the navy
some of us were so desperate for a drink,
we broke into the ship’s infirmary,
took the rubbing alcohol, and mixed it
with grapefruit juice. Like greyhounds, but with very,
very bad vodka. Jesus, that was a party.
But we were careful. We filled all the bottles
with water, so you couldn’t tell from looking,
and even if you took the covers off
and sniffed them, they still smelled like alcohol.
Of course, the hangover was pretty vicious,
and even worse, next morning, bright and early
all of the crew were ordered up on deck.
At first we thought they’d found out what we’d done,
and as we stood there on the cruiser’s deck,
sweltering in the Pacific sun,
shaking, ready to puke, I tell you, I
was ready to confess and end the torture.
After a while, though, it was clear the captain
didn’t have a clue about our party.
No, he was going on about how the islands
where we were going were crawling with diseases,
and that we’d need to get inoculated.
And then I noticed the ship’s doctor there,
looking like a waiter with his tray
of vaccine, and a few syringes and—
Christ, I felt like crying—the same bottles
of alcohol we’d emptied and refilled.
What could we do? We stood there sweating, praying
nobody in the crew had anything
incurable, and took our shots from needles
the doctor wiped off once—quickly— with water
after he’d just stuck the guy beside us.
We lived. By which I mean we all survived
that little cock-up. I’m the only one,
Though, of the five of us that threw that party
who made it back alive from the Pacific.
Before that mess was over I saw men
more desperate for a drink than even we’d been,
guys who were in the first boats going in,
who knew as sure as they knew they were living
that they were going to die there on that beach
or somewhere in the water short of it:
Anything they could think of they would drink—
paint-thinner, aftershave, it didn’t matter,
so long as it would get them good and numb.
Guys would drink Aqua Velva from the bottle.
Remember those commercials they ran later?
There’s something about an Aqua Velva man?
The happiest day of my entire life,
Happier, even, than my wedding day,
happier than the days our kids were born,
The happiest day of my entire life
Was when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
I get these looks of shock from the young people
when I say things like that, but they don’t know.
It wasn’t always single malt for me.
Now it is, when I drink, which isn’t often—
it’s just, today I’ve got a wake to go to,
For Jimmy, Margaret’s brother. He was under
MacArthur, helped retake the Philippines.
Neither of us could stand wakes. We’d both seen
enough dead bodies in the war to last
a lifetime—that’s how Jimmy always put it—
and anytime that Margaret didn’t force us,
anytime it wasn’t someone close,
we would play cards or golf or see a movie.
And when we had to go, we‘d go together.
First, though, we’d stop off someplace for a drink.
Margaret’s not happy that I’m here, she thinks
I should be at the funeral home already,
not doing anything, just being there,
supporting her. And probably she’s right—
he was her only brother, and I’m her husband,
and husbands have a duty to be strong.
My only consolation is that Jimmy,
Jimmy would understand the way it hits me,
thinking about him lying in a coffin;
he’d understand I need a shot of courage.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote the poem four years ago, over the course of a few days during a summer vacation. It started as the latest in a series of attempts to get the events in this poem, which I hasten to add I heard about second hand, into verse.

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

It depends on how you define “drafts.” This poem was composed slowly and deliberately, with very few major changes after the fact. The earlier attempts to work with the same material were precursors of this poem, but they were so different that I’d hesitate to call them drafts. Maybe earlier incarnations?

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, of various degrees and kinds, but I don’t think it was really operating in this particular case—none of this poem was composed suddenly, or in a trance-like state, which is sometimes the case with me. On the other hand, the poem was certainly “received,” in that it’s essentially a found poem with a little bit of rhetorical and metrical window dressing from me.

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

Earlier versions of the poem were rhymed, but this didn’t seem to work, even in the cases where the rhymes in themselves seemed fluent and natural. Blank verse—and something like the kind of blank verse that Frost used—seemed the obvious solution.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 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 try to wait a year before sending anything out, though I’ll sometimes make exceptions if the poem has a particularly “finished” feel to it. I didn’t publish this poem in periodical form, but it came out in my first book about a year and a half after I wrote it.

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

There were two models for the speaker of the poem. The first was a butcher I worked with at a local supermarket when I was younger. It was he who told me the story of the party in the ship’s infirmary, and of its consequences, and I tried to recreate his voice as best I could. The second model was a great uncle who had also been in the Pacific. He never spoke to me or my sisters about the experience, but I do know that he seldom attended wakes, having “seen enough bodies.” He made an exception when his wife’s brother, my paternal grandfather, died, but he sat in the corner. He was a very cheerful, very physically fit man, so his obvious discomfort made a great impression on me.

Was this poem always a dramatic monologue, or did it begin in some other incarnation?

The only previous version that I have much memory of involved one speaker who attends a party and hears the story from another speaker, so I suppose I knew from the start that this was going to be a dramatic monologue of some sort. The rhyme went, as I noted above. The other speaker went as well, probably because I realized, albeit subconsciously, that his presence, along with the party setting, would be begging a comparison with “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”

Is this a narrative poem?


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

I was reading the Swedish poet Vilhelm Eklund at the time, and his poetry is nothing at all like “Pacific.” Poetic influences were largely unconscious, though I don’t know that I could write this kind of poem without Frost and Browning somewhere in my thoughts. I was probably negatively influenced by myself, in that I wanted to write a type of poem I hadn’t written before.

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

Two readers. One is my maternal grandmother, who, while she was keenly intelligent, taught grade school for years, and enjoyed poetry, was not an “expert.” The other is James Merrill, in my opinion the best American poet since World War II, certainly the wittiest and most sophisticated. I’d like most of my poems to be enjoyable by both.

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 generally don’t show my drafts to people unless they’re in a relatively advanced state, or unless I’ve fooled myself into thinking they are. Then I usually bring them to a group I’m a member of, the Powow River Poets, who meet in Newburyport, MA. It’s a very talented bunch, and the workshops have been invaluable.

Having said that, I don’t think I showed this particular poem to more than one or two people, and they made only minimal suggestions for changes.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Most of my other dramatic monologues have had fairly eccentric speakers: the head of a suicide cult, a medieval alchemist living in contemporary New England, Satan. The speaker here is much more of a regular guy, even if his personal experiences are, for Americans of my immediate generation, anyway, extraordinary.

What is American about this poem?

I’m not sure. Certainly, when I wrote the poem, I assumed the speaker was American, since the two models for him were, and since I am. Looking back on it now, I don’t see any reason—though this may be because I’m neither a linguist nor a historian—why he couldn’t just as easily be Australian, a New Zealander, a Canadian, a Brit…

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

With very few exceptions, I don’t publish anything I’ve abandoned. Which is not to say that I might not realize after publication that a particular poem would benefit from revision. Or excision.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mari L’Esperance

Born in Kobe, Japan and raised in California, Guam, and Japan, Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length collection The Darkened Temple was awarded the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection Begin Here was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. L'Esperance's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Many Mountains Moving, Poetry Kanto, Salamander, and elsewhere and have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, former New York Times Company Foundation Creative Writing Fellow, and recipient of residency fellowships from Hedgebrook and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, please visit her website.


Trees know the meaning of happenstance.
So does the sea and all that lives in her.
As a girl swimming in a pond buzzing
with horseflies, I felt a cool current
slide over me, then pass on. This
was the lesson, though I did not know it then.
The harbor is not our permanent home.
Think of love and its stages: rapture,
the wound, then the final parting.
Knowing from the start how it will end.
We breathe into our cupped hands, hoping
to keep it alive as long as we can.
Among shouts of laughter the carousel
slows its tune, then falls still, and a child
returns from that world to this.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I believe this poem was written in late 2005, but the seed of the poem had been planted many years earlier (not uncommon for me with poems). I’d come across a newspaper article about the myth of romantic love that is perpetuated in Western culture – you know, the clichéd ideal of finding one’s “soul mate” with whom one then lives “happily ever after,” etc. The writer suggested that such unrealistic expectations inevitably create disappointment and that happiness, rather than being predictable and permanent, is something more ephemeral that arrives and departs in waves, often without warning. When I sat down to write the poem years later, I was ruminating on the transitory nature of experience and about my own encounters with disappointment and those small, unexpected moments of joy, and then I remembered the article, which in turn called up particular images from memory and from my imagination and my internal responses to those images, the confluence of which then initiated the making of the poem itself.

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

The first draft was written in one sitting. The short lyric, to me, is a single breath, a moment captured in language and image, so I want to stay with the energy of the poem as it emerges in that first raw incarnation, or else risk losing it altogether. After that I can step away from it for a time and then return to it more objectively for revisions, of which I often do several. It’s been a while (and I generally don’t save drafts), but I believe this poem underwent about 5-7 versions between the initial draft and the final version over the span of a few days.

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 that rarefied and somewhat altered state can only sustain itself for so long; it must be corralled, brought down to earth, and channeled into language. I’m a slow and undisciplined writer and often allow long periods of time to pass between poems, so perhaps I rely too much on inspiration and not enough on “pot scrubbing,” as my friend Sage Cohen has called the largely messy, unglamorous, and plain old hard work of writing. This poem was about 50% received, 50% the result of “pot scrubbing”. But I didn’t wrestle with it much; it mostly seemed to have its legs out of the gate and I let it find its way, following it closely and guiding it as needed, and lightly.

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

No conscious employment of techniques, really. My whole person – heart, intuition, intellect, body – is engaged in the writing of any poem, if one wants to call that a “technique”. Ear and eye are critical allies: for this poem (and for all of my poems) I read each draft aloud to myself to ensure that I was satisfied with phrasing, line lengths, line breaks, word choice, syntax, etc. This is an important step, and a reminder for me that poetry is ultimately a spoken art.

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

It was published about two years later in Poetry Kanto, a wonderful Tokyo-based literary journal co-edited by Alan Botsford and Nishihara Katsumasa that features poems by poets writing in English as well as by contemporary Japanese poets (the latter featured in bi-lingual versions).

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 can’t say that I have any “rules” about this, but I do have some feelings about the practice of sending poems out for publication when they’re very new. Would we send our children out into the world to fend for themselves before they’re sufficiently developed? And why this rush to publish? Does doing so serve the poem, or does it serve the need of the poet to be acknowledged and affirmed by a reading public? To my mind, the needs of the poem must always come first. I personally like my poems to “season” for a while before I send them out, in case I decide to make further revisions, but also to give them the opportunity to fully inhabit themselves.

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

Most of my poems include elements of both. I’m often reluctant to explain too much about a poem because my wish is to recede behind the poem so that the reader can then project her/his own experience onto it without the perceived “me” interfering. In this particular poem, the “facts” (as in “this happened to me”) are minimal: as a girl I swam in a pond buzzing with horseflies. Period. I then make a series of subjective declarations that aren’t tied to any particular event in my life, but are related, nonetheless. There’s a carousel, but it’s a composite of the carousels in Berkeley’s Tilden Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and likely other carousels that I’ve encountered in life, books, and films.

Is this a narrative poem?

If I have to call it anything, I’d say it’s more a lyric than a narrative poem. Although the syntax is fairly linear in its sense making, the poem doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more a sequence of observations, an articulated rumination. I suppose some might call it a narrative poem. But I’m not much into labels.

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

At the time, possibly Jack Gilbert (which is pretty evident here) and Stanley Kunitz, whose poems are never far from me. Otherwise, I can’t recall. As for influences: the world. Memory and its digressions. Dreams. And the work of poets too numerous to mention. One creates on the shoulders of many.

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

Not consciously, although my hope is that my readers approach a poem – any poem – in order to be transformed in some way. Not dramatically, but to feel by the end of the poem as though something has shifted for them internally so that they then perceive themselves and the world a bit differently. That’s what I want as a reader: to be changed by 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?

At the time I was in a poetry group with 3-4 other poets, which lasted for about year – it was a good group while it lasted and helped me to return to poem making with a seriousness of focus following a long silence. I’m currently not in a group, but am talking with a couple of people about starting one. It’s very difficult for me to write regularly without the structure and contact that a group provides.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Not sure that I can say, so I’ll let my readers determine this for themselves!

What is American about this poem?

If the relentless pursuit of happiness is thought to be an inalienable American right, then this is a pretty un-American poem! I suppose the diction, the declarative “plain speech” of the poem, might be called “American”. But I’m also half Japanese and that culture’s traditional sensibility (quiet, understated, accepting, reflective, feeling, and holding a balance between inner and outer) is inevitably a part of any poem I write. And I think it is present in this poem.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

This poem is finished in that it is included in the The Darkened Temple. But its life continues to evolve beyond my involvement with it, in the way that it is received, experienced, and integrated (or not) by its readers.

NOTE: Poem reprinted from The Darkened Temple by Mari L'Esperance by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2008 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800.755.1105 and on the web at Please do not duplicate elsewhere without permission.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis is the author of Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He is also the author of several other books of poetry including A House of My Own (George Braziller, l974), Climbing Down (George Braziller, l976), Signs and Wonders (Princeton University Press, l979), The Near World (William Morrow, l985), The Outskirts of Troy (William Morrow, l988), Meetings with Time (Viking Penguin, l992), and Ranking the Wishes (Penguin, l997). A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2000 he was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Modern Poetry Assocation for his contribution to American poetry. He teaches in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and is a sometime member of the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College.


I guess I have to begin by admitting
I'm thankful today I don't reside in a country
My country has chosen to liberate,
That Bridgeport's my home, not Baghdad.
Thankful my chances are good, when I leave
For the Super Duper, that I'll be returning.
And I'm thankful my TV set is still broken.
No point in wasting energy feeling shame
For the havoc inflicted on others in my name
When I need all the strength I can muster
To teach my eighth-grade class in the low-rent district.
There, at least, I don't feel powerless.
There my choices can make some difference.

This month I'd like to believe I've widened
My students' choice of vocation, though the odds
My history lessons on working the land
Will inspire any of them to farm
Are almost as small as the odds
One will become a monk or nun
Trained in the Buddhist practice
We studied last month in the unit on India.
The point is to get them suspecting the world
They know first hand isn't the only world.

As for the calling of soldier, if it comes up in class,
It's not because I feel obliged to include it,
As you, as a writer, may feel obliged.
A student may happen to introduce it,
As a girl did yesterday when she read her essay
About her older brother, Ramon,
Listed as "missing in action" three years ago,
And about her dad, who won't agree with her mom
And the social worker on how small the odds are
That Ramon's alive, a prisoner in the mountains.

I didn't allow the discussion that followed
More time than I allowed for the other essays.
And I wouldn't take sides: not with the group
That thought the father, having grieved enough,
Ought to move on to the life still left him;
Not with the group that was glad he hadn't made do
With the next-to-nothing the world's provided,
That instead he's invested his trust in a story
That saves the world from shameful failure.

Let me know of any recent attempts on your part
To save our fellow-citizens from themselves.
In the meantime, if you want to borrow Ramon
For a narrative of your own, remember that any scene
Where he appears under guard in a mountain village
Should be confined to the realm of longing. There
His captors may leave him when they move on.
There his wounds may be healed,
His health restored. A total recovery
Except for a lingering fog of forgetfulness
A father dreams he can burn away.

Author Statment:

“Thanksgiving Letter from Harry” resulted from the fusion of two failed poems that I wrote and set aside in 2004. One was a poem called “Therapist,” which dealt with a woman who had to struggle in her practice with the conflict between her wish to have her clients face the facts of their lives and her wish to have them resist hopelessness. The poem focused on her respect for a father’s refusal to believe that her soldier son, missing in action, was dead. I set the poem aside because I could never ground it convincingly in the ordinary world. The therapist remained shadowy, a character with only one idea, and the son, missing in an unspecified war, seemed more of an illustration than an actual person.

In the other poem, entitled “Thanksgiving, 2004,” the poet used the occasion of the holiday to talk about his feelings about the war, but after the first stanza, in which he admits to being glad he doesn’t live in Bagdad, he turns to other, more serious reasons for being glad, in particular that he is free to write what he pleases, and compares his situation with the fate of Ovid, the poet of Imperial Rome who is banished to the edge of the Empire because of a poem that Augustus found offensive. This poem failed because the poet finally seemed to betray its initial impulse to deal with his disgust with living in a country that has betrayed its values. In focusing on the way in which other writers might suffer more, he seemed to accept his situation rather than protest against it. It succeeded in avoiding a certain kind of polemical rhetoric, but at the price of a disturbing passivity.

I began my revision by giving the Thanksgiving Day poem to a friend, Harry, who had a legitimate reason, as a school teacher, for not wanting to focus too much on the war in Iraq. Then it seemed that I needed a way for the war to return naturally to the poem, and it struck me that I could use some of the material about the lost soldier if I made one of Harry’s students bring up the story herself. When the notion of a student paper about a brother occurred to me, I realized I had the plot of the new poem.

As for what is American about the poem, I give two answers: l) its beginning with the sense of shame that many Americans feel about the behavior of our government abroad; 2) its creating one from many, or at least from two, if not an unum e pluribus then an unum e duobus.