Ronald Wallace is the author of twelve books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, including, most recently, Long for this World: New and Selected Poems and For a Limited Time Only, both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. He co-directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as Poetry Editor for the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series (Brittingham and Felix Pollak prizes). He is married, with two grown daughters and four grandchildren.
THE FACTS OF LIFE
She wonders how people get babies.
Suddenly vague and distracted,
we talk about "making love."
She’s six and unsatisfied, finds
our limp answers unpersuasive.
Embarrassed, we stiffen, and try again,
this time exposing the stark naked words:
penis, vagina, sperm, womb and egg.
She thinks we’re pulling her leg.
We decide that it’s time
to get passionate and insist.
But she’s angry, disgusted.
Why do we always make fun of her?
Why do we lie?
We sigh, try cabbages, storks.
She smiles. That’s more like it.
We talk on into the night, trying
magic seeds, good fairies, God . . .
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
When my daughter was six years old (she’s now thirty-nine and has a daughter of her own), sitting in the back seat of our VW Squareback as we pulled into our driveway one evening, she asked the inevitable question, "where do babies come from?" My wife had just been reading an article in a popular magazine addressing that very question, and arguing that, when your child brought it up, you should give them all the glorious details. We did. As it turned out, that wasn’t what she wanted to hear, and the poem was the result.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
If by "revision" you mean every slight change of syntax or punctuation mark, maybe a dozen. If you mean more substantial revision—lines, line breaks, word choices, tone, structure, etc.—very few. It’s very close to the original draft, which is not necessarily typical of my writing practice.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I hate it when poets say that a poem "wrote itself." Or when fiction writers insist that they just sit back and let their characters take over. It makes writing into a mystical activity, reserved for the mythical writers who work themselves up into some kind of trance state and just let the spirit flow through them, and it seems to me to discourage new writers from even trying to write. For most of us, writing is hard work and requires a lifetime of determination and practice and trial and error. That said (he admits sheepishly), "The Facts of Life" did seem to write itself. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, but I know how much work it takes to get oneself to the point that one can experience this kind of creative surge. I could say that the poem took less than an hour to write, or I could (more honestly) respond that it took years of reading and writing and living and struggling, followed by an hour of drafting and a few more of minor revision.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poems in my first book, Plums, Stones, Kisses & Hooks, were largely lyrical and "serious" in tone, focusing the things of this world with an emphasis on the sensory and musical. For my second book, I consciously attempted more humor, having, for years, appreciated the distinctive humor of American poetry, from Whitman and Dickinson through Frost, Stevens, and Berryman, and on to Wagoner, Kumin, and Collins. I wasn’t necessarily trying to be funny; I was just trying to be more open to the essential humor of things. The use of sexual double entendre, of internal rhyme, of shifting dactylic and anapestic meters, contributed to that end, and though I didn’t consciously impose those comic devices on the poem, they naturally flowed from the tone of the speaker, and the light-hearted subject matter. The exact rhyme of "egg" and "leg" halfway through the poem always draws gratifying laughter from an audience when read aloud. My scholarly research on American Humor provided a (somewhat unconscious at the time) underpinning for the poem.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Not really, though the poems in my first book were written almost entirely on three-by-five note cards (a carry-over from my PhD years), and I had switched to yellow legal pads for the poems in my second book, in an effort to expand their freedom and length. I continue to write on legal pads today, not entering anything into the computer until it is pretty close to being finished.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
The poem was written in 1978 and first published in Poet Lore, one of my favorite magazines, in 1983, the same year that it appeared in my second book, Tunes for Bears to Dance to (University of Pittsburgh Press).
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 submissions, other than to wait until I think a poem is ready to go out into the world. In some cases this is many years and many revisions later; in many cases, it is never. I used to be more eager to get things into print fast; now I let them simmer much longer, on the whole.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I have had a number of impassioned discussions with my poetry colleagues at the University of Wisconsin about whether a poem should be "true" or not. I seem to be the lone voice arguing that, if a poem is not obviously a persona poem, it should reflect, pretty literally, the poet’s own experience. I feel betrayed if a poet claims, for example (as a recent visitor to the Wisconsin campus did), in the undifferentiated first person, to have survived cancer, if, in fact, he or she has not. "The Facts of Life" tries to capture the facts of an experience I really had. My poems are thus quite autobiographical, and I make no apologies for that. Of course, I realize that the "truth" of an experience is colored by the observer, and that to convey that "truth" you must sometimes manipulate (or even invent) "facts." My head says you can say anything you want to in a poem; my heart says you can’t. So, generally, you can be pretty sure that if I say something happened to me in a poem, it happened to me in real life.
Is this a narrative poem?
Well, almost all mainstream poems these days are lyric poems, often with narrative elements. I guess mine is one of those.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, John Berryman, David Wagoner, Maxine Kumin, Carl Dennis, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, the list goes on and on. I was reading everybody I could, going through the University of Wisconsin library’s massive poetry collection a book at a time, and reading everything in Poetry and Poetry Northwest.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I think my audience is poetry itself. I try to get into a dialogue with the poem: "Look here, poem, what I can do!" To which the poem answers, "Oh, yeah, well watch this!" Or maybe I’m my own ideal audience, or my audience is those poets whose work I admire. Ideally, I’d love for my poems to be enjoyed by anyone who reads. But I don’t really think about audience at all while I’m writing. Instead, I try to make something beautiful, to capture the freshness and vividness of life, to be perfectly articulate, to confer a kind of immortality on my experience.
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 almost never show unfinished work to anyone. That said, my wife is a good reader of poetry, and she has occasionally let me know that a particular poem I thought was finished, wasn’t. My editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester, has done the same, and has been an absolutely essential reader and supportive critic of my individual poems and my books for thirty years. I am very lucky to have had the relationship with him that I have.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I like to think I write a range of poems, and this lies in that range.
What is American about this poem?
Well, that’s hard to say, since I value world poets (Neruda, Vallejo, Transtromer, Holub, Popa, Szymborska, many others) and try not to limit myself to any one kind of work. Perhaps the humor is "American?" Perhaps the tendency to use the plain style, everyday speech? Perhaps not?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I often quote this Valery statement to my students, usually when they won’t let a poem go, and risk tinkering it out of existence. And it’s certainly often true in relationship to my work. But some poems actually do seem perfect (and thus "finished") to me (much of Frost and Dickinson come immediately to mind) and, though this may be ridiculously vain and self-satisfied, I remain delighted with this particular poem of mine, and feel that the finish has not worn off with time.