Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jerry Williams

Jerry Williams lives in New York City and teaches at Marymount Manhattan College. In 2003, Carnegie Mellon University Press published his collection of poems, Casino of the Sun, which was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A new collection, Admission, is just out from Carnegie Mellon. His anthology of breakup and divorce poetry for Overlook Press, called It’s Not You, It’s Me, was published on Valentines Day, 2010. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House, Crazyhorse, New Ohio Review, Witness, and many other journals.


It was two in the afternoon
and I was playing chess
with my sister's live-in boyfriend.
We were both out of work.
He'd been laid off by General Motors
and had three weeks' unemployment left.
I had forty dollars to get me
through the rest of the summer.

"Is it my move?" I said.
"Yeah," he said, draining his beer.
He was a male stripper
before moving in with my sister.
I felt ill at ease around him.
He was always getting rough with me:
wrestling holds and quasi-martial arts stuff.
I'm not sure what he did at GM;
probably he worked on the line.

"We gotta finish this game," he said,
"before your sister gets home."
He was winning again.
I had a rook and a few pawns left.
He had his queen, a knight,
both rooks, a bishop ― it was a slaughter.
I borrowed a beer from the fridge
and braced myself for the end.
He wouldn't checkmate my king
until he captured every piece I had.
It was the only decent thing in his life.

A week later my sister broke it off with him,
and he moved back in with his folks.
She didn't like the way
he treated her daughter
and didn't much like him anymore either.
After a few days he returned
wearing a brand new suit
and asked if they could start over;
she stood her ground and told him no.

"Then I'm going to kill myself," he said
and instructed her as to where
and didn't stop her from picking up
the telephone as he marched out.

The police found his body in the park
across from the station.
He'd been a gymnast in high school,
so he stood between the parallel bars
and shot himself not once but twice
in the temple with a .32-caliber pistol.
That's determination.
To be wearing a new suit
in your final moments,
just like Mayakovsky,
without ever having heard of Mayakovsky,
even though you're a laid-off auto worker,
woman gone, no victories left in you at 26,
only half in this world now,
birds scattering,
the blue sky in knots above you.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in the early 1990s. I was beginning to find some sort of voice in my mid-twenties, and I felt I could start handling larger themes with a bit more aplomb. I've never had much contact with members of my family, but I spoke to my sister on the telephone around that time, and she told me that her ex-boyfriend--the subject of this poem--that his younger brother had later also committed suicide (handgun). I thought, Jesus, two brothers from the same family suicided--how absolutely awful. I knew I wouldn't be able to touch that theme with a ten-foot metaphor, but maybe I could deal with the ex-boyfriend's self-murder. The conversation with my sister triggered the poem, but the story about the breakup and suicide had built up over the past few years. The realities that inspired the poem happened in the late-1980s. After this phone call from my sister, I wrote everything I remembered about the ex-boyfriend and the chain of events leading up to the suicide. Straight reporting. Not too many frills.

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

I write poems in two different ways. Sometimes they come out as a blast of writing that appears nearly fully formed (probably because I've been composing in my head surreptitiously). I'll do some revision work, change some words, tighten, read the poem out loud a number of times, and if it sounds right and rings true, I will call it finished. The other way I write poems is to compose a line or two and then make sure those lines work and then write those same two lines over again and add another line or two and then revise those four lines within an inch of their lives and then write everything again, add another line or two and revise all those lines, reading them out loud along the way, and then I'll start at the beginning again and continue in this manner for half a composition notebook, just putting pen to paper in order to feel the experience in my hand and eradicate the space between thought and text. So it would take a mathematician weeks to figure out exactly how many revisions a poem has endured. Every syllable gets revised again and again until I come to the end and then I'll work the ending like it's a heavy bag, reading out loud to hear the notes and cadences. "New Suit" came about using both of these methods. Like that Hemingway quotation. How did you go bankrupt? Gradually and then suddenly--except maybe it was the other way around. I would say the whole process took about six months, but what I had when I called the poem finished was not the final draft, as it turned out.

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 believe you need to put the vessel in the right place at the right time so the vessel can receive the inspiration, meaning that I try to stick to a writing schedule and I would advise everyone to do the same, but I'm always failing of my ambitions. In the case of "New Suit" the inspired aspect of the poem revolved around finding the connection between two disparate concerns: a suicidal, laid-off American auto worker and a disillusioned, suicidal Russian socialist über-poet. The sweat and tears resulted from heating up the language in the appropriate places in order that the poem didn't sound like a pretentious campfire story broken into lines.

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

At the time, I was very much under the spell of that 1980s redemptive swoosh thing that poets utilized at the end of their poems. I liked the way it sounded and I liked the attempted forgiveness and resolution, but it just wasn't in my nature to stay married to that brand. But I was definitely writing what I termed "Roy Orbison Poems" where you have the predicament, some action, a relevant objective correlative, a compelling double plotline and various forms of doubling throughout the piece--and then this massive collision of sound and story upsurges at poem's end. That's pretty much how "New Suit" turned out. I guess we're calling that organic form these days. It felt so natural to start with this idea that both Mayakovsky and my sister's ex-boyfriend got snubbed by women and killed themselves wearing new suits, to pile on the details in as mellifluous a way as I could manage, and then to plunder a big theme towards the end. Of course, I didn't know, really, what in the world I was doing at the time. That takes us back to inspiration. Maybe inspiration is simply the waking dream of uncovering the sense and sound of a poem, where it resides, a few feet below the dirt surface of your consciousness. I ended up employing a few other techniques as well, including various forms of irony and contextual symbolism.

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

I would say it took a year or so to get the poem published. I sent it to Sycamore Review, and it appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of that magazine. At the time, I was publishing under my dreaded proper name, Gerald Williams, so I've actually revised my own sobriquet since then. I literally possess the worst given name in the world. My middle name is Wayne (see News of the Weird's exhaustive list of homicidal maniacs with the middle name Wayne). Around the same time, I sent a book manuscript that I ominously entitled Swimming Away from the Ark to manic d press, and they rejected the book but wanted to publish "New Suit, Just Like Mayakovsky" in an anthology called Signs of Life: Channel Surfing Through 90s Culture, which was nice. Then, of course, I included the poem in my first book, Casino of the Sun in 2003: the final poem in the collection.

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 with every poem. I don't have any rules about how long something sits around, nothing official anyway. But I'm sure I wait at least six months without thinking about it. I do sometimes send stuff out too early. I always feel like I'm behind, running late. This is probably why no magazine ever accepts more than one of my poems at a time. Or maybe they find out what my middle name is.

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

Like most writers, I feel perfunctorily obligated to state that I hate this question; therefore, I hate this question. That said, this is possibly the most essential question one could ask about "New Suit, Just Like Mayakovsky." Pretty much every detail in the poem is utterly factual. However, I'm not quite sure if the ex-boyfriend got off two rounds or not. None of the gun nuts I've known throughout my life ever disputed this achievement, so I certainly think it's physically attainable. I remember hearing this two-shot theory somewhere along the way--though it could simply have been the voices of poiesis rendering a concrete action that represented the ex-boyfriend's sense of purpose--thus I left it in. Also, the anecdote about Vladimir Mayakovsky donning a new suit before he shot himself is true, according to Ann and Samuel Charters beautiful biography, I Love, which I had read some time before writing the poem. On the other hand, I left two fairly important details out of the poem: (1) During the autopsy--again, if memory serves--the ME discovered that my sister's ex-boyfriend had tuberculosis and (2) before we started a game of chess we sometimes smoked a joint, which seems hilariously counter-intuitive, oxymoronic, and just plain self-defeating, like taking four or five Ambien and forcing yourself to stay awake.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. With benefits.

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

The poets I admire rant and rage. They can barely manage to contain their exuberance, their disenfranchisement, their association with various –isms, their love, their moral outrage, their addiction to language, their need to shriek, their solipsism, their humor(s), their pleasure, and their pain. But they do manage, and what ends up on the page vibrates across time and space. These poets have something they need to say, and they say it in an innovative yet lucid manner because they desperately want to communicate (no one who uses words writes simply for herself). Their poems can best be described as breathless, scornful, socially-conscious, bold, self-limiting, self-aggrandizing, apocalyptic, funny, hyperbolic, risky, antagonistic, complaining, aggressive, ironic, anaphoristic, apostrophic, vivid, despairing, triumphant, testimonial, collectively-voiced, individualistically-voiced, transforming, morally just, morally questionable, courageous, blasphemous, investigative, and generally hard-hitting. As far as direct influences go, at the time, I would have been reading Matthew Arnold; the French Surrealists, mainly Jean Arp and Guillaume Apollinaire; Charles Baudelaire; Elizabeth Bishop; Richard Shelton; Vladimir Mayakovsky, of course; James Wright; Sharon Olds; Anna Akhmatova; Sylvia Plath; Charles Bukowski; the poet Ai; and Pablo Neruda.

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

I would love for the seasoned poetry reader to appreciate the layers and language in my work, and I love it when people who have never read a poem in their entire lives read something like "New Suit, Just Like Mayakovsky" and feel gut-shot, suddenly curious about poetry, and suspicious of their own preconceived notions about the form.

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 usually keep a few trusted readers around who serve specific purposes; I send drafts to each person and consider their reactions accordingly. I've got my irony guy, my title gal, my have-I-gone-too-far-here? guy, my last-line gal, and so forth. Afterwards, I engage in some serious internal bartering. "New Suit, Just Like Mayakovsky" actually has a rather dramatic revision history. In the mid-1990s, I asked one of my graduate school professors at the University of Arizona, Richard Shelton, to critique the Sycamore Review version of the poem. I had begun to realize that my poems were not as aurally inevitable as I needed them to be. In minutes, Professor Shelton taught me the most important lesson I would ever learn about my own poetry. He said, "You're an accentual poet, so if you ever write a line that doesn't contain at least two or three hard stresses, then the line should be cut or thoroughly revised because it probably wasn't that necessary to begin with." The Sycamore Review draft of "New Suit" consisted of 4 stanzas, 68 lines, and 410 words. The final composition that ended up in my first book consisted of 5 stanzas, 57 lines, and 358 words. Quite an overhaul. I cut lines like "We were pretty broke" and "House rules" and made the speaker get out of the way of the narrative. The finished product is sleeker and, I hope, more devastating and artistic.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

"New Suit" sits right up in the wheelhouse of what I've wanted to accomplish in poetry up to this point. As a result of an ongoing apprenticeship, I have tried to consolidate the major free verse prosodic techniques and fixations to craft a darkly humorous, high-stakes, sardonic, narrative-lyric hybrid grounded in accessibility. I start off with the personal yet I resist the temptation to stop at the check-point of mere self-reflexivity. I feel no shame in announcing that my poetry is post-confessional in nature. As a post-confessional poet, I do realize that I attempt to go so deep within that I create a kind of authentically fictionalized Self which I can stand beside and comment on and learn from and try to repair. I believe the psychiatricals call it depersonalization.

What is American about this poem?

Live-in boyfriends, laid-off auto workers, dragging out unemployment benefits, cheap beer, poverty, the desire to vanquish one's opponent, strippers, breakups, guns, preoccupation with martial arts and wrestling, depression, single mothers, threats, cops, nostalgia, ruinous determination, straightforward lineation and stanzaics, colloquial speech, declarative sentences, and the progressive Left's romanticizing of all things Russian.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

This poem was, without a doubt, finibandoned.

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