Monday, March 29, 2010

Jake Adam York

Jake Adam York is a fifth-generation Alabamian, raised in and around Gadsden, in Etowah County. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver. His books include Murder Ballads, selected by Jane Satterfield for the 2005 Elixir Prize in Poetry, and A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry. He was the recipient of a 2002 Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and was the 2009 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Oxford American, and Cincinnati Review.

March 1890

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
—Henry IV, Part One

Schieffelin’s cages champ the morning air.
Forty hands on the latches wait for the sign.

Dawn invades, feathering trees he’s civilized
with sparrows, finches, a failure of nightingales,

and now the least of Shakespeare’s birds,
forty pairs of starlings for the New World’s nests.

Even he cannot know how they’ll explode,
how they’ll plume, then pair, then spread

to double, a hundred two hundred million
in a century, maybe more, how they’ll swallow

all the country’s wandering songs
then speak their horrors from the eaves.

A thousand miles away, in Arkansas,
six men pose beneath a tree. In the photograph,

the hanged man’s sweater’s buttoned tight,
his hat, his head raked to hide the noose.

One man stills the body with his cane.
Another moves to point, but his arm is blurred.

Trees burn quietly in the morning sun.
Their jaws are set. Just one thing’s in motion.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I drafted (by hand) the poem over a day (or two) in June 2006. I typed it a few days later, making minor changes, and continuing to make minor changes (a word here or there), finalizing it in the third week of August 2006.

The poem was composed with the idea that it might be the first poem for the book A Murmuration of Starlings, which, in the summer of 2006, I was trying to complete.

I had written three of the longer poems in the book—each of which involved the same image, of starlings in flight, gathering into a single seemingly solid mass then spreading to show the individual selves—and a few shorter poems. I didn’t want the image to seem a capricious overlay on the difficult history of the Civil Rights Movement—which is the book’s concern—regardless of the power or convenience of the figure. So I needed a poem that would frame this image.

Somehow—I can’t remember how—it occurred to me that the same year that starlings were introduced into North America, 1890, was also around the time that lynching statistics were starting to be kept at the Tuskeegee Institute, the time that Ida B. Wells discusses in her book, On Lynching, about the time that lynching became a visible phenomenon of white-on-black violence in America. It was also the date of a lynching photograph I knew from James Allen’s collection Without Sanctuary. The poem began with the recognition of this coincidence, and it was written, fairly simply, as an attempt to connect the two events — the release of the starlings in New York City and the lynching in the Arkansas photograph.

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

I’d call this a one-draft poem. I might have—I can’t say for sure, though it’s typical for me—thought about the poem for a few weeks before I sat down to the first draft. I can’t say that I had — or have — a single eureka moment and then went to writing. I usually mull a thought for a few days or weeks. If it stays and still seems interesting, then I start writing, though sometimes I won’t set pen to paper until I have a good idea of the poem’s arc. During that thinking time, you could say I’m drafting the poem already.

In this particular case, I wrote the draft in a day or two. In my recollection, I wrote a full draft one morning and, later that afternoon, made some changes to the first eight or ten lines. Then I let it sit, in manuscript, for a while, a few days probably, and then I typed it, making minor changes as I typed. This typing stage might be considered a draft, but if most elements are not in play, for me, this is a continuation of one draft. By the middle of August, it was done, and I didn’t make any further changes to the poem.

So, to answer more directly, I’d say the poem was pretty much done in the first two days, though the finishing stretched over another eight or nine weeks, which is pretty typical for me. I usually go through a stage of speculation—in which I’m preparing to write a poem, whether through meditation, cogitation, or research—, a drafting stage, which is usually pretty concentrated, and a finishing stage in which the poem is typed and tinkered with. The finishing stage can take a few months or a few years.

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 it’s either much more rare or much different than most people imagine. When I hear my students talk about inspiration, it’s like a lightning strike, in which the object of the electricity is fairly passive. I feel very active when writing (or even thinking about) a poem. Yes, ideas may arrive from no particular source, or an accident — something on the radio or the television, something someone says in the grocery store — will contribute to the conception of a poem, and maybe that’s inspiration. But usually work is going on — before, during, and after such moments. I’d prefer to call this “reception.” You’re working to be receptive, and sometimes you’re receptive early in the process and sometimes not until the end of some arduous course.

In this case, there are historical facts that inform (or form) the poem. In the sense that the matter is not invented, it is received. And yet, this poem isn’t working with the kind of information that one receives passively, through the media ubiquity: you have to be looking for this. So, the reception, or the conditions that enable the reception are, in my mind, kinds of invention, or products of invention, “sweat and tears.”

So, to give short answers:

Do I believe in inspiration? Yes, no, and maybe.

How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?


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

Over the last decade, I’ve come to a fairly stable formal vocabulary, in which certain line-lengths do certain things, and certain stanza shapes do certain things. Because of that, I knew early on I would be using (or trying to use) a five-beat line and a couplet grouping. The five-beat line, to me, has a fairly measured pace; it’s steady, and also not prone to break into cadences that are at home in more musical verse (which I wanted to avoid, so as to preserve a somber tone). The couplet helps me keep a rather tight control on a sentence; tercets and quatrains as well as longer stanzas or paragraphs are prone to running, to a broader cadence, while the couplet, in my ear, enforces a kind of solidity, keeping the sentence taut. I don’t say all this to myself when I’m finding the form of a poem, because I’ve had this discussion, in some definitive form before, and now these technical questions and answer arrive more by feel and instinct. At times, I test these choices after a draft is done. In this case, the appropriate form arrived fairly early in the process, and it passed the tests. I did not know how long this poem would be — I didn’t say it would be 20 lines or whatever — but I had some sense of what the proportion of the poem would be, how long the Arkansas episode would need to be in relation to the New York episode.

In a way, the poem is built the way a sharp metaphor or simile is built in a speech: loaded up front so the torque of the source qualities transferring to the target is a strong as possible. Again, this was not the product of a very explicit deliberation, (e.g., “I’m going to write this poem as a metaphor”), but due to long practice using such figures in speech and writing, the instinct seemed right, and I knew what to do once I was in motion.

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

About sixteen months. It first appeared in New South in late 2007.

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?

All my poems rest for a bit before going out, but there’s no strict rule. I tend to pack most of the resting in a laying-by period between handwriting the draft and typing the poem. Unless the poem is particularly ornery, I won’t type it until it’s nearly done, and then I’ll make minor changes when typing it.

I should say, too, though, that since I typically write poems in suites and streaks, I might have a near-final draft that sits around for months until I’m ready to complete the related poems. Once I have a small suite, then I send the poems out. For some poems, only a month might pass before the poem goes out, and for others it could be a year or more. In this particular case, it was six to eight months before I sent it out.

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

I’m going to echo here my response to the question of inspiration and reception. The poem is interested in facts—that starlings were introduced into North America in 1890, that this was happening as lynching was becoming popular and visible as a tool of repression whites used against blacks, and that there is a photographic record of the lynching and a biological record of the starling introduction. And the poem is interested in rendering these facts without distortion. But this doesn’t mean the poem does no work, that it invents nothing, that there is no fiction. The fiction of the poem is that you can see both events, one in New York and one in Arkansas. The fiction is the historical or poetic perspective. The fiction is the sentences. The fiction is the sound of this language. Fact and fiction overlay one another and coexist and there are no isobars between them.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, no, and maybe.

Sometimes I hear people making a hard distinction between lyric and narrative, as if you have to choose. Usually, such a distinction is predicated on some characterizations. Narrative is linear, more situational (social), more discursive or explanatory. Lyric is static or circular, more insular or abstract, more telegraphic or oblique or musical.

By these definitions, first, yes, the poem is narrative. It is somewhat linear. It is social or situational insofar as it concerns a specific point in historical time and as it involves more than one person. It is certainly discursive, using the sentence, and its ability to infold or unfold, fairly deliberately.

But the poem is also lyric. While the poem is linear, in terms of its disclosure of each particular geographic scene, the leap the poem makes, from New York to Arkansas, from the release of the birds to the lynching, requires a distant perspective which remains static, in both places at once — as well as in all the years between 1890 and today. And to the extent that the scope of the poem’s knowledge points to the writer’s consciousness, the poem implies a lyric shaper. That leap the poem makes is not extensively framed or explained—the poem works in part through juxtaposition—and that complicates the poem’s linearity, making it a little more telegraphic or oblique. I also feel that repetitions of syntax and sound create spaces within the poem and insulate it a bit from the language of the rest of our lives.

So, the poem’s lyric qualities may disqualify it from narrative, and vice verse. So maybe it’s narrative.

I’d prefer to call it a meditative poem, whether or not you need Leo Martz’s definition to make that meaningful: a poem of deliberate, if mobile, attention and an interest in creating crenellations that might induce a reader into a similar meditation.

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

When I’m writing a lot — and this poem was written during a particularly athletic run — I tend to read a lot as well, maybe a book a day, so I won’t remember everything I was reading. But I was spending a good deal of time with Joshua Poteat’s Ornithologies and Larry Levis’s Elegy, as well as with Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk and Maurice Manning’s Bucolics. I want to say, too, but this could be an imagination, that I was also consulting David Wojahn’s The Falling Hour. All books that, to me, show a skill in establishing and maintaining and modulating a tone, and this poem seemed to me one that required a strong control of tone.

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

My ideal reader is willing and even forgiving — not of mistakes, but of complication. Many of my poems are long, and most of my short poems are arranged in sequences that could be read as long poems, and for that I need a reader willing to be enveloped, even confused. I don’t always know who that reader is—it might be my father sometimes, a friend from college, or someone I don’t even know. I have a list of people whom I don’t want to disappoint or alienate, and sometimes my concern to connect with them shapes a poem as much as a singular vision of an ideal reader.

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 rarely show a draft of anything to anyone, unless I feel that I have a time constraint or I believe I have a serious problem. But there are a few readers I go to at those times, and I’ve learned how they think through my poems so well that I always hear them in my head when I’m editing a poem. That’s not “workshop” per se, but my revision process incorporates an imaginary version. I don’t know if others do this, but I have a strange collection of favored readers, and each searches for something different, so I tend to hand off poems to each individually when I feel I need a particular prod.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t write many poems of this length. I usually work in forms either much shorter and more elliptical or much longer, though at the same time this poem doesn’t seem that unusual to me. When I wrote it, the combination of the two scenes from different locales was new, a different approach. Since writing this poem, however, I’ve been working with simultaneity more. In a year or two, that feature of this poem won’t seem unusual at all.

What is American about this poem?

The history, the story. And, I hope, the drive to understand how the heterogeneity of America makes sense of itself.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


Friday, March 26, 2010

Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson has published four collections of poetry: Fire in the Conservatory (Dragon Gate 1982), The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (Houghton Mifflin 1996), Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin 2002), and Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin 2007). Her many honors include awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Poetry Society of America, the Modern Poetry Association, and the Kingsley Tufts endowment, and grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Humanities Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. Magnetic North was a finalist for the National Book Award. Gregerson is also the author of two volumes of criticism: The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge University Press 1995), and Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry (University of Michigan Press 2001). Her essays on lyric poetry and Renaissance literature appear in many journals and anthologies. She is currently the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, where she teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature.


said my mother when the buildings fell,

before, you understand, we knew a thing
about the reasons or the ways

and means,
while we were still dumbfounded, still

bereft of likely narratives, We cannot
continue to live in a world where we

have so much
and other people have so little.

Sweet, he said.
Your mother’s wrong but sweet, the world

has never self-corrected,
you Americans break my heart.

Our possum – she must be hungry or
she wouldn’t venture out in so

much daylight – has found
a way to maneuver on top of the snow.

Thin crust. Sometimes her foot breaks through.
The edge

of the woods for safety or
for safety’s hopeful lookalike. Di-

delphus, “double-wombed,” which is
to say, our one marsupial:

the shelter then
the early birth, then shelter perforce again.

Virginiana for the place. The place
for a queen

supposed to have her maidenhead.
He was clever.

He had moved among the powerful.
Our possum – possessed

of thirteen teats, or so
my book informs me, quite a ready-made

republic – guides
her blind and all-but-embryonic

young to their pouch
by licking a path from the birth canal.

Resourceful, no? Requiring
commendable limberness, as does

the part I’ve seen, the part
where she ferries the juveniles on her back.

Another pair of eyes above
her shoulder. Sweet. The place

construed as yet-to-be-written-upon-

And many lost. As when
their numbers exceed the sources of milk

or when the weaker ones fall
by the wayside. There are

principles at work, no doubt:
beholding a world of harm, the mind

will apprehend some bringer-of-harm,
some cause, or course,

that might have been otherwise, had we possessed
the wit to see.

Or ruthlessness. Or what? Or heart.
My mother’s mistake, if that’s

the best the world-as-we’ve-made-it
can make of her, hasn’t

much altered with better advice. It’s
wholly premise, rather like the crusted snow.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was written, I believe, in 2002, and began with a conversation over dinner. One of my colleagues was hosting a distinguished editor from the UK and invited me to join them for the evening. The talk turned, as talk invariably did back then, to the events of September 11, 2001. I took some liberty with the Englishman’s actual words.

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

I revise infinitely, as the poem unfolds. The first sentence here, which is to say, the first ten lines, endured some twenty or thirty false starts and at least that many revisions before I moved on to the next sentence. A good morning’s work for me might easily be a series of adjustments to the line breaks, leaving me at the end more or less where I began, but confident that the line breaks are right or, if not right, then the best I can do. And after sentence #2, I followed scores of false leads before our local possum appeared on the scene to rescue me. The poem had been percolating for some time before I began it. The period of active writing, which for me always includes felicitous disruptions for eating, sleeping, teaching, and other forms of busyness, was probably a week or two.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

“Inspiration” isn’t part of my natural vocabulary. I’m wary of anything that seems to mystify the writing process and tend to prefer the most matter-of-fact accounts of the writer’s work. That said, no exercise of will alone has ever produced a poem worth reading. The most difficult part of writing, I think, is contriving a way to be open to surprise. Not surprise in general, of course: that’s merely another kind of sameness. But the right surprise: the realignment of attention or the rip in consciousness that will advance the argument or the meditation. In the present poem, having set forth the two contesting voices, that of the mother and that of “him,” I found that the next thirty things I thought to say were either belaboring the obvious or moralizing or, worst of all, both. Hence the possum. A real animal living in the real woods behind my house – that part was important. It was only later that she came to be a sort of humble flag-bearer for a country struggling with an unfamiliar version of itself.

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

That first sentence was the formal key. Every poem begins for me with the double discovery of syntax and lineation. They fight it out together and finally propose a negotiated settlement. Finding the stanza form was part and parcel of building the sentence.

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

I actually don’t remember. A year, perhaps?

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?

Some inspire confidence pretty quickly after completion. Others, the majority, have to sit quite some time; I have to go away from them and come back a stranger.

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

Certainly it is important to the poem that readers recognize the historical reference in “when the buildings fell.” So its foundation is in fact. It’s also important that three different speakers exist in the poem: the mother, a second interlocutor who is not American, and the speaking persona. The important thing about the mother is that she is identified as someone close to the speaking persona, someone the persona would be expected to care about if not necessarily to agree with. In the present case, the words are the actual words of my actual mother.

I sometimes take liberties with details of attribution or reported speech, of course, as with other elements (sequencing, geographical place, etc.) that signal a basis in “fact”; I think all writers do. But, for me, there’s also a very important component that constrains invention: I think of it as the good-faith contract of expectation. If I introduce persons or circumstances in a poem that are meant to signal the speaker’s emotional or intellectual investment—if I say “my mother believes this,” or “my sister was harmed when she was a child,” or drop a hint to indicate I’ve had some direct experience of the pediatric neurology clinic that appears in my poem—I take it as a point of conscience to be telling the truth. One is making a particular claim on the reader’s attention in these instances; one is signaling that the stakes are personal, and high.

Is this a narrative poem?

It sketches the outlines of story: the mother speaking, the “he” speaking, the European settlers in America naming a state which in turn becomes the name of an indigenous animal. But no, I would not call it a narrative poem. It does its primary thinking by other means: by juxtaposing images, speech patterns, points of view.

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

I’m afraid I have no idea. I expect I was reading, as I always do, a mix of contemporary poetry, newspapers, student essays, and Renaissance literature. Some readers will recognize a touch of Midsummer Night’s Dream, much transposed of course, in the “bringer-of-harm” line. I’m never not thinking about that play.

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

I hope, as we all do, to earn the attention of a reader who cares about the world first and writing second. Deeply, but second.

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 is my first reader for everything.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, it includes my name for one thing. Which reminds me of something I had been reading shortly before I began the poem. In a very beautiful lyric called “At the Bay,” Sharon Olds describes the double leap of a dolphin, first from west to east and then from east to west. Her persona imagines that second leap as a second chance to pay attention, as though the earth were speaking to her, forgiving her (and, by implication, the rest of us) for a chronic lapse: “I will say it twice, Sharon.” Olds is not the first poet to use her name in a poem, of course, but I found this moment especially luminous. So I simply stole that bit, the direct address on the part of a benevolent, superior entity. The moment is explicit tribute to my mother and her goodness of soul and secret tribute to that earlier, lovely poem.

What is American about this poem?

Everything. Its subject matter. Its preference for inductive form. Its willingness to commute between different pitches of diction and multiple points of view. Its ambivalence about worldliness.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished, I’d say. Which isn’t the same as “finished off,” or “brought to the point of indubitable perfection.” I stayed with it until I’d discovered something I hadn’t known before.

[Note: Due to interface limitations, the formatting of "Sweet" has been altered; the first line of each couplet should be indented. Anyone wishing to cite the poem should refer to the correct version in Magnetic North.]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Alicia Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker’s thirteenth collection of poems, the Book of Seventy, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for Poetry. Her 1980 anti-war poem sequence The Mother/Child Papers was recently reprinted by the University of Pittsburgh Press. As a critic, Ostriker is the author of Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America and other books on poetry and on the Bible. She has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Guggenheim foundation, among others, and was twice a National Book Award finalist. Ostriker lives in Princeton, teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Poetry program of Drew University, and obsesses about poetry, religion, and politics.


—for David Lehman

Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

—William Wordsworth

Going into hell so many times tears it
Which explains poetry.

—Jack Spicer

The day the war against Iraq begins
I’m photographing the yellow daffodils
With their outstretched arms and ruffled cups
Blowing in the wind of Jesus Green

Edging the lush grassy moving river
Along with the swans and ducks
Under a soft March Cambridge sky
Embellishing the earth like a hand

Starting to illustrate a children’s book
Where people in light clothes come out
To play, to frisk and run about
With their lovers, friends, animals, and children

As down every stony backroad of history
They’ve always done in the peaceful springs
—Which in a sense is also hell because
The daffodils do look as if they dance

And make some of us in the park want to dance
And breathe deeply and I know that
Being able to eat and incorporate beauty like this
I am privileged and by that token can

Taste pain, roll it on my tongue, it’s good
The cruel wars are good the stupidity is good,
The primates hiding in their caves are very good,
They do their best, which explains poetry.

What explains poetry is that life is hard
But better than the alternatives,
The no and the nothing. Look at this light
And color, a splash of brilliant yellow

Punctuating an emerald text, white swans
And mottled brown ducks floating quietly along
Whole and alive, like an untorn language
That lacks nothing, that excludes

Nothing. Period. Don’t you think
It is our business to defend it
Even the day our masters start a war?
To defend the day we see the daffodils?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The situation is that my husband and I were living in Cambridge, on Carlyle Road, just a few steps from Jesus Green across the Cam River, in spring 2003. Just as it says, the poem essentially begins the very day we started bombing Iraq. Shock and awe—that is what the bombing campaign was called. I’d been demonstrating against the war (along with multitudes of English people), hoping right up to the last minute that it would not happen. So I was depressed, and went to photograph the daffodils to cheer myself up. Cambridge in general, and this bit of river and riverbank, and bridge, and park, in particular, is ravishingly lovely in springtime. So I took the photographs, went home, and my laptop has three versions of the poem dated March 19, 2003.

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

July 31, 2003 is the date of the sixth draft. And I’m sure there were more when it went into manuscript form. I fiddle with poems a great deal, but I don’t necessarily keep records of all the fiddling. The poem started out in triplets and at some point went into quatrains, which for me feel more stable, less angular than triplets. I wanted some amplitude to convey the pastoral quality of the green. But the basic shape of the poem, the pastoral description followed by the abrupt turn to “this is hell,” then “taste pain,” and the following twists on down to “what explains poetry,” was there right from the start. After “this is hell,” the composition really ripped along. Most of the revisions are in the opening part. I’d been reading David Lehman’s The Evening Sun, and learned from it that David at one time lived very close to where I was living—hence the dedication. I’d also been reading Jack Spicer, which accounts for the bitter epigraph and the turn to bitterness in the poem.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration, but I tend to associate it with more spiritual poems than this one is. Some sense of coming from a realm that is other than physical. So, though I roughed this poem out quickly, I wouldn’t call it “inspired.” It was so close to just being a record of what I was experiencing and feeling. The “sweat and tears” part was important also—getting the phrasing right, the cadences right.

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

Often I have to struggle to find a metaphor or simile that I think a poem needs. In this case it was that hand illustrating the children’s book. Making that first line into a neat pentameter—the neatness almost mocking, given what it says—“The day the war against Iraq begins”—was intuitive. So was the movement into enjambment and abrupt caesurae, at the end, where I needed to fuse the feeling of pastoral with the feeling of anger and pain. That complicated synthesis. And the turn toward the reader near the end was a way to push the poem into a rude intimacy, to involve the reader more fully in the pastoral and the pain. But most of what I do in revision is listen to the music, the cadences, the assonances and so on, until what sounds somehow “off” sounds “right.”

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

I have no clue. My record keeping is pathetic.

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?

Oh, it varies.

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

This one is 100 percent fact; it just translates my brainwaves on March 13, 2003 into English.

Is this a narrative poem?

Not really. It’s not exactly a lyric either, though it has elements of both narrative and lyric. I see it as a meditation.

At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?

I’m not sure what a “specter” of morality would be. Is it something we should be afraid of? Does morality jump out of a closet and say boo to us? Does it wear a white hood? I hope this poem is not preachy. Its theme is not “right and wrong,” its theme is happiness and pain. Part of this of course is the gap between peaceful pleasures and the stupid and cruel wars—both evidently part of the human condition.

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

Besides Lehman and Spicer, there’s Bob Dylan, obviously there’s Wordsworth. The “hell” intervention comes out of Spicer by way of Marlowe’s play “Dr. Faustus.” When Faust is surprised that Mephistopheles is not in hell, Mephistopheles replies, famously, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” A great line. But there’s also Whitman describing a shipwreck saying “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, / I am the man. I suffered. I was there.” What can it mean to say that one tastes suffering and pain and that it tastes good? That is a deep mystery, a deep gift Whitman offers, this acceptance of experience no matter what.

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

I like to think that some readers will catch the quotations and allusions, but I also like to think that readers who don’t get that aspect of a poem—its conversation with the past—can still resonate with the poem as a whole.

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 have some friends to whom I show work, but nobody giving consistently reliable advice. My husband reads my prose, and I take more than half his suggestions, but alas, he doesn’t feel capable of critiquing poetry.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Could we skip this question? I wouldn’t know how to answer it.

What is American about this poem?

Well, its author is American, to start with. And perhaps it is enthralled with the English springtime scene the way only an American can be—though British poets have historically been fairly gaga about their pastoral past, they are probably mostly ironic about it now. But obviously the poem is American in its critique of America. Adrienne Rich in “Atlas of a Difficult World” writes:

A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country (gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall) as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying to wake from the burnt-out dream of innocence.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was finished.

Monday, March 15, 2010

William Carpenter

William Carpenter has published three books of poetry, including Rain, which won the 1985 Morse Prize, and two novels. He has taught at the University of Chicago and the College of the Atlantic, where he is currently on the faculty of literature and writing. For more information, please visit his website.


A man stood in the rain outside his house.
Pretty soon, the rain soaked through
his jacket and shirt. He might have
gone in, but he wanted to be wet, to be
really wet, so that it finally got through
his skin and began raining on the rooftops
of the small city that the man always carried
inside him, a city where it hadn’t rained
for thirty years, only now the sky darkened
and tremendous drops fell in the thick dust
of the streets. The man’s wife knocked
on the window, trying to call him in.
She twirled one finger around her ear
to sign that he was crazy, that he’d
get sick again, standing in street clothes
in a downpour. She put the finger in her mouth
like a thermometer. She formed the word idiot
with her lips, and, always, when she said that
he would give in. But now he stood there.
His whole life he’d wanted to give something,
to sacrifice. At times he’d felt like coming up
to people on the street, offering his blood.
Here, you look like you need blood. Take mine.
Now he could feel the people of his city
waking as if from a long drought. He could feel
them leaving their houses and jobs, standing
with their heads up and their mouths open,
and the little kids taking their clothes off
and lying on their bellies in the streams
and puddles formed by the new rain that the man
made himself, not by doing anything, but standing
there while the rain soaked through his clothes.
He could see his wife and his own kids
staring from the window, the younger kid
laughing at his crazy father, the older one
sad, almost in tears, and the dog, Ossian—
but the man wanted to drown the city in rain.
He wanted the small crowded apartments
and the sleazy taverns to empty their people
into the streets. He wanted a single man with
an umbrella to break out dancing the same way
Gene Kelly danced in Singing in the Rain,
then another man, and more, until the whole
city was doing turns and pirouettes with their
canes or umbrellas, first alone, then taking
each other by the arm and waist, forming a larger
and larger circle in the square, and not
to any music but to the percussion of the rain
on the roof of his own house. And if there were
a woman among the dancers, a woman in a flowery
print skirt, a woman wetter and happier and more
beautiful than the rest, may this man be
forgiven for falling in love on a spring
morning in the democracy of the rain, may
he be forgiven for letting his family think
that is just what to expect from someone who
is every day older and more eccentric, may he
be forgiven for evading his responsibilities,
for growing simple in the middle of his life, for
ruining his best pants and his one decent tie.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem more than twenty years ago, when I had recently separated from my family and was starting a new life in a new home. The new house (where I still live) has a large wrap-around roofed porch where I often go out and “immerse myself” in a rain or snow storm while still keeping my head dry. I was standing out there in a spring downpour when I got the original idea.

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

I wrote the first draft at home, then took it unfinished to Yaddo, where I worked on drafts. Stephen Dunn was there at the time and we traded off poems we were revising. As I recall, it “came out” pretty much whole, then underwent numerous versions to get the line breaks right.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe that much of the work of any poem is unconscious, and what seems like inspiration is the result of long interior preparatory labor quite unknown to the writer. So the first draft seemed to arrive pretty much whole out of nowhere, but there was probably a lot of work in this poem that had been done without my knowledge. This was written at a difficult, transitional stage of life, and a lot of inner material that may have been blocked for some time was opening up. I don’t want to interpret the poem, but in some sense it now strikes me as a rain of tears, the character’s own and his family’s, in which the guy does his irresponsible but guilty song and dance. But it meant a lot to me to be able to transform that time’s unhappiness to art and humor, and at the same time to make it public, get it out into the open, which I guess is the performance aspect of the song and dance, and of the poem. As would be the case with any serious family disintegration, much was clandestine at the time, hence the desire to disclose the “inner city” to oneself and to the public.

Reading it now, I think of myself as reaching back from that dark time to a day which I have always considered the happiest of my life. It was the last day of school in the sixth grade, and I was walking home with a pal in the pouring rain (no buses at the time!). We had seen a matinee of “Singing in the Rain” with Gene Kelly the weekend before, and as we walked back the long way, via another pal’s house, we just allowed ourselves to get soaking wet, pretended to carry umbrellas, sang the theme song at the top of our lungs and danced our shoes off in the puddles of our little town. Perhaps I was thinking of that childhood afternoon, its total freedom and irresponsibility, as I dealt with the real guilt and sadness of breaking a family up. By the time I wrote the poem I had seen “Clockwork Orange” with Malcolm McDowell’s sinister appropriation of that theme, and I imagine both the light and dark sides of that song lay behind the poem. Some readers have thought the Gene Kelly reference too corny but for that personal reason I voted to keep it in.

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

It’s a poem with longish lines and long sentences very run-on so the grammar tries to keep the reader moving through the poem, not getting stuck at line-breaks. I spent a lot of time, much of that Yaddo summer—when we weren’t at the horses or the mudbaths or the swimming pool—working on the counterpoint of line breaks and grammatical units. Who knows how many drafts I went through trying to get the rhythms right? Each change of a word or line required going through the whole thing again, everything being interdependent.

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

I believe I sent it right to APR after completing it and it was accepted. A few years ago, this poem was given a beautiful setting by the NY composer Tom Cipullo, and I was able to relax and hear it performed professionally in the Weill recital room of Carnegie Hall, so it had a second life. Tom was amazing in transforming and developing the rhythms and humor of the poem in his score and in finding ideas and layers I had never recognized in writing it.

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?

It certainly sat patiently while I was working on it that summer, but when I felt it was done I sent it right away. That made a kind of closure so I could go on to something else.

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

This poem is way over on the fiction side (that decision is made in line one, choosing the 3rd person POV), though the emotional situation it originated from was certainly factual. I tried to transform some pretty difficult inner material at the time into a completely different form. I mean, in fact I was on a covered porch, and my family was in a distant place; but I transformed it to standing in the drenching rain, and placed them in my new house watching me. By the time the poem gets through, I think I’ve ventured into surreal or dream territory. As a poet I used a lot of the classical dream mechanisms, such as “displacement” and “condensation.” I put the old family in the new house. I gave us a dog, though I’ve never had one. Maybe the tipoff is that I named the dog “Ossian,” after the fake 18th century poet—though again that just sprang into mind and I certainly had no conscious reason for that name.

For me, poetry begins at the point where the facts of the world begin to transform into something else. Yet if the facts aren’t always in there, under the surface, the poem loses touch with reality. There were some fairly hard facts behind this piece which a reader might never know, but I hope the poem is able to convey that. Otherwise it would just be a moment of silliness.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, it tells a little story that takes place in linear time. My narrative poems got longer and longer till they outgrew anything that could be called poetry and I turned to fiction.

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

I was very much under the spell of Pavese at the time. “Hard Labor” contained several such longer, narrative poems, based in earthly facts but full of provocative spaces and intimations.

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

Now, as a fiction writer mainly, I write for my agent, taking her to be not only an expert reader but the representative of a wider public audience. At that time I thought of poetry more in terms of readings, and as I wrote I imagined the poem read aloud before an audience, perhaps including the man in the rain. I first read it in one of the informal after-supper readings at Yaddo.

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 don’t usually share work till the first draft is done, thinking of that as a somewhat womblike period. In this case, I did share it around at Yaddo when I was working it through its drafts. Now, with fiction, after the first draft is finished I show it to my trusted domestic partner, Donna, then to my agent Alison.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It is much the same in length and format as all the poems in that volume, of which “Rain” is the title poem. In that period I wrote a number of fantasy narratives like “Rain.”

What is American about this poem?

There is a tip of the hat to Hollywood, but, as I mentioned, I was reading Pavese at the time so I’m sure it has some European DNA. I probably imagined the wet dancers as being in a peasant village in central Europe, or under the umbrellas of Cherbourg, more than in the US. I think even when this was written poetry was pretty much globalized. Yet I would have wanted the speech rhythms to be regular American English. I was trying to keep a casual conversational rhythm even while the material got quite metaphoric and intense.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was finished. It got to that asymptotic point where any more work on it isn’t worth the effort, then I sent it off. As an interesting footnote on the poem, I just now see from Google that Stephen Dunn wrote an essay on it, which I hadn’t known. That takes me back to Yaddo and the days we were reading each other’s poems. I will have to go and read that.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Christine Rhein

Christine Rhein’s collection of poems, Wild Flight, is the 2008 winner of the Walt McDonald First Book Prize (Texas Tech University Press). Her work has appeared widely in literary journals including The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, where she was awarded the 2006 Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize. Christine’s poems have also been selected for the Best New Poets 2007 anthology, the Poetry Daily website, and The Writer’s Almanac. Christine has a degree in mechanical engineering from Kettering University and worked for fifteen years in the auto industry before becoming a stay-at-home mother and writer. She lives in Brighton, Michigan with her husband and two sons. For more information, please visit her website.


a 78-year-old writes from New Orleans

Dear Mr. President of the Stearns and Foster Company,
I thank you for making a mattress that floats.
For eight days, I sailed around my bedroom in nothing
but underclothes. My muumuu, like everything, got soaked
that first day at breakfast—I’d eaten two spoonfuls of cereal—
when the water started flowing in. Five minutes later
it was five feet deep. All my furniture, including the bed
and mattress in the guest room, sank. Without
my Stearns and Foster (the extra firm model I only bought
last April), I would have sat all those days and nights
clinging to my ladder. Instead, I climbed the rungs
to a queen-sized island. Each morning, I had
a handful of raisins, a bite of cheese, and one estimated
glass of water I sipped slowly from the jug. The rest
of the time I didn’t let myself think about food, a trick
I remember trying when I was a girl and very poor.
But you see, at 17, I went north, worked for forty-two years
before moving back, filling a ten-room ranch—just me
and my stuff. I owned silk pajamas (never worn!),
two full-length mink coats, six TVs. I loved my TVs.
So I was surprised when I didn’t miss them, not once.
I just kept on floating, thinking about all kinds of things,
especially colors. I watched the pink paint on my walls
change to rose with the setting sun, my legs gleam
in the dawn, the water shining black or gray-green
or black again. Even the hours seemed tinted—mostly orange,
like the wings of a moth that came to visit one afternoon.
The prettiest, palest shade of orange I’ve ever seen.
Oh sure, sometimes I talked to myself: “Well, Louann,
now you look at that ceiling, the dust and cobweb
you didn’t sweep away.” My ceiling looked different
up close. I’d never noticed a tiny mark shaped almost
like a star. “Twinkle, twinkle,” I started singing, amazed
that my throat still knew how, that I could be older
than kind Miss Hawkins was, back when she taught me
that song. I wondered what happened to the other kids,
if Annie Jones and the slow boy, Tom, might somehow
be in the city yet, maybe floating on a mattress just like me.
I wasn’t scared, Sir. Just thought you’d like to know.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I heard Louann Mims tell her story on the public radio show This American Life. Afterward, I found myself thinking of her whenever New Orleans was in the news. I listened to the interview again later that fall via the Internet. Near the end of the ten-minute segment, Ira Glass mentioned that Ms. Mims’ daughter planned to write a thank-you letter to the Stearns & Foster Company. I suddenly realized that I, too, could compose a letter—a letter-poem, that is.

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

Thanks to the great details Ms. Mims shared in the radio interview, most of this poem came together over a couple of days with much of my revising done line-by-line as I went along. After that initial rush, I struggled with the close of the poem, revisiting it every so often over a period of months. I was very satisfied with the last line, which remained unchanged, but not with the few lines preceding it.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration and also curiosity. I was inspired by Ms. Mims’ fearless spirit, by the can-do way she set about waiting to be rescued, but it was curiosity that propelled me to delve deeper into her story. The first half of the poem was received—or “found”—through the facts of the interview. The hard work of discovery came in the second half, when I imagined where Ms. Mims’ thoughts might have wandered during those eight days alone. I sweated over the closing lines because I was trying to force a moment of epiphany into her thoughts. Eventually, I realized that small reminiscences and reflections felt “truer” to Ms. Mims and to the poignancy of her experience.

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

The demarcation point in this poem is clear. Everything up to the six television sets that weren’t missed is fact, as relayed by Ms. Mims herself. She also mentioned that, during her ordeal, she had given much thought to redecorating her house and choosing new colors for the walls. Colors brought about a turning in the poem, where I veered into imagination, although I did “fact-check” the fictional moth, making sure orange specimens exist in Louisiana.

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

This poem appeared in print for the first time in my book, Wild Flight.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, a narrative poem in which I hope I conveyed some of Ms. Mims’ storytelling talents.

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

Rather than an ideal reader, I tend to envision a skeptical one, someone who is testing every line and phrase for a reason to stop reading the poem. When I write, I strive to keep that skeptic glued to the page. Of course, it’s really me who wants to stay glued. Robert Frost’s quote—"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."—is not only true about emotion and discovery, but also, on the flipside, about boredom.

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 belong to a terrific group of writers who have been meeting for over ten years now in an ongoing series of workshops led by poet Mary Jo Firth Gillett. We meet for three, six-week sessions a year. I greatly value the feedback and camaraderie of the group, as well as Mary Jo’s suggested writing starts and the motivation that a weekly deadline brings.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

When I wrote this poem, I had written only a couple of other persona poems. Lately, I’ve written several more. There is a wonderful freedom in pretending to be someone else, in imagining experiences and perspectives quite different from my own—or at least, they feel that way at first. It’s interesting, how looking through the lens of someone else can lead to seeing something new in myself.

What is American about this poem?

Well, the tragedy of Katrina feels all too American. And although Ms. Mims achieved a great deal in her life through education and a career in nursing, she also had to navigate what she called “a white world and a black world” in the process. Still, this poem isn’t meant to be political in the usual sense (barring the “Dear Mr. President” opening). Perhaps this poem is American in its attempt to honor one individual’s strength and optimism. When asked if she was frightened during the flooding, Ms. Mims answered, “Not really... I was just thinking of all practical things.”

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished (or so I like to believe).