Carrie Fountain was born and raised in Mesilla, New Mexico. She was a fellow at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, AGNI, and Southwestern American Literature, among others. Her debut collection, Burn Lake (Penguin Books, 2010), was a winner of a 2009 National Poetry Series Award. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at St. Edward’s University.
When I think of everything I’ve wanted
I feel sick. There was this one night in winter
when Jennifer Scanlon and I were driven out
to the desert to be the only girls there
when the boys got drunk and chose
the weakest among themselves to beat the living
shit out of again and again while the night
continued in its airy way to say nothing. Sure, I wanted
to believe violence was a little bell you could ring
and get what you wanted. It seemed to work for those
boys, who’d brought strict order to the evening
using nothing but a few enthusiastic muscles.
Even when he’d begun bleeding from his nose, the boy
stayed. It was an initiation. That’s what he believed.
Thank God time keeps erasing everything in this steady,
impeccable way. Now it’s like I never lived
that life, never had to, sitting on a tailgate
while Jennifer asked for advice on things she’d already done,
watching the stars ferment above, adoring whatever it was
that allowed those boys to throw themselves fists-first
at the world, yell every profanity ever made
into the open ear of the universe. I believed then
that if only they’d get quiet enough, we’d hear
the universe calling back, telling us what to do next.
Of course, if we’d been quiet, we would’ve heard
nothing. And that silence, too, would’ve ruined us.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I found the first draft of the poem on my computer: 2004. So it probably started in a notebook sometime around then. I take notes in a notebook but compose on a computer. That 2004 draft is very different. The two girls are more participant in the violence, not so much witnesses. That surprises me. I don’t remember that.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Loads. I fiddled with it right up until Burn Lake was published last year. (Although, now that I write that, I found the poem published online in 2005 and it’s pretty similar to the final version. Still, I know I was fiddling right up until the end, even if the changes aren’t significant.)
And really, I don’t know that the published version is the final version. I’m just looking at it now. There are still things I’d continue fiddling with. For example, now I think the first line should read, “When I think of everything I’ve ever wanted.” I chose in the final version to rest all that weight on the verb “wanted.” I liked the irony there, as if wanting is so straightforward a thing as to be enumerated. But I also like the charm of “everything I’ve ever wanted”—that worn-in phrase (cliché); I like the idea of playing with that brimming irony, too.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I like thinking about what William Stafford says: “Poetry happens in the corner of the eye.” I suppose I caught something in the corner of my eye: a line—maybe that “bell you could ring and get what you wanted”—or the image of the tailgate. Or maybe it began with thinking of the kinds of boys I grew up with—those wild packs of boys: pure piss and vinegar—and how I’d fear those boys if I came across them now and will surely fear them when my daughter is a teenager. The rest was working the poem up. That 2004 version was in long-lined tercets and was over two pages. It’s been whittled down. I don’t actually know how to produce sweat and tears, sadly.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I did not consciously employ any principles of technique. One thing I often do while I’m in the middle* of revising is put everything in tercets or quatrains. I bundle the lines like this. That somehow disappears the breaks for me and helps me focus on the body of the poem, the syntax and the tone. Then I rip it open again and break the lines in different ways, modulating the pace. This is not a technique in traditional sense, I suppose, as much as it is a maneuver: a way of levering up the poem to get to its underside.
*Of course, I never know that I’m in the middle and almost always think I’m at the end of revising, very close to being entirely finished. Self-deception: is that a technique?
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 have no rules about this. I tend to wait until I have batches of poems finished before I start sending them out. I probably err on the sides of both sitting too long on poems and not sending out enough work.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The negotiations seem unimportant to me, though they’re often troubling. To me, whether a poem is factual or autobiographical is unimportant because that condition usually has nothing to do with whether the poem is successful or not or whether the poem touches on some truth (which is of far greater importance than fact) or not. I mean: Jennifer Scanlon is a real person. That’s a fact. But the poem isn’t really about that.
I think the tendency to assume an autobiography while reading a poem has to do with the intimate nature of poetry, especially narrative poetry. The yielding voice. But it bothers me sometimes because assumptions like these can cheapen the craft. On the other hand, many of my poems are about my experience of the world. In this sense they are autobiographical. Still, material alone doesn’t make a poem.
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 remember reading a lot of Jane Kenyon at this time. This was written around the time I fell in love with Jane Kenyon’s poems, right as I was leaving the Michener Center. But I’m not sure I hear that in this poem. I hear Tony Hoagland here to a degree so embarrassing it makes me want to hold my breath for the next fifty or so years.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I went to see a weird play once with the poet Steve Gehrke. It was really far out, without context or motif or really any other navigational device. When we were talking about it afterward, Steve said, “When I see something like that, I ask myself, what would my mother think of that play? I think my mother would have liked the singing scarecrow.” (The play had a singing scarecrow.) That’s stuck with me. I would like to imagine writing poems someday that would appeal to different people on different levels and that might even have in them a certain delight that could appeal to a very broad audience.
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, Kirk Lynn, reads everything I write first. He’s a playwright and a novelist and he’s a tremendously keen reader and an honest critic. He’s also a tremendously talented writer. I have finished poems on his advice alone. I have some other writer friends. Steve Moore (also a playwright) is a close friend. He reads a lot of my poems. Lots of poet friends read Burn Lake when it was a manuscript. I’ll have lots of poet friends read The Talent of the Body (my next book) when it’s closer to being finished.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I think this poem is more pessimistic in tone than other poems of mine.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It is finished for now and thus it has been abandoned (for now).