Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stuart Dischell

Stuart Dischell is the author of four books of poetry: Backwards Days (Penguin, 2007), Dig Safe (Penguin, 2003), Evenings & Avenues (Penguin, 1996), and Good Hope Road, a National Poetry Series Selection (Viking, 1993). His poems have appeared widely in periodicals, including The Atlantic, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Slate and in anthologies such as Hammer and Blaze, The Pushcart Prize: the Best of the Small Presses, Good Poems, and Essential Pleasures. He has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the North Carolina Arts Council. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro


When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me, friend
To waiters and bartenders, hearty
Laugher and name rememberer,
Proud me, handsome and hirsute
In soccer shoes and shorts
On the ball fields behind MIT,
Strong me in a weightbelt at the gym,
Mutual sweat dripper in and out
Of the sauna, furtive observer
Of the coeducated and scantily clad,
Speedy me, cyclist of rivers,
Goose and peregrine falcon
Counter, all season venturer,
Chatterer-up of corner cops,
Groundskeepers, mothers with strollers,
Outwitter of panhandlers and bill
Collectors, avoider of levies, excises,
Me in a taxi in the rain,
Pressing my luck all the way home.

That's me at the dice table, baby,
Betting come, little Joe, and yo,
Blowing the coals, laying thunder,
My foot on top a fifty dollar chip
Some drunk spilled on the floor,
Dishonest me, evener of scores,
Eager accepter of the extra change,
Hotel towel pilferer, coffee spoon
Lifter, fervent retailer of others'
Humor, blackhearted gossiper,
Poisoner at the well, dweller
In unsavory detail, delighted sayer
Of the vulgar, off course belier
Of the true me, empiric builder
Newly haircutted, stickerer-up
For pals, jam unpriser, medic
To the self-inflicted, attorney
To the self-indicted, petty accountant
And keeper of the double books,
Great divider of the universe
And all its forms of existence
Into its relationship to me,
Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

"Days of Me" was written in 1996. It was provoked by a telephone interchange with David Rivard several years, after I moved from Boston to Greensboro. David had said, "We miss you here" and I responded "I miss me too." Some months later, that banter came back to me, so I began a draft with it, and I was lucky and the poem just took off from there.

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

This one did not go through many revisions. When I wrote it, I wrote it all the way through to the ending. I remember encouraging myself not to stop. The revisions were minimal: punctuation, syntax.

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

You prepare yourself by "laboring" as Yeats remarked. When you labor well, you are in good shape for when a poem comes to you. If you are out of shape and have not done your laboring, you can easily lose the poem.

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

The poem is comprised of forty-eight lines. The first stanza is twenty-three and the second twenty-five. I stuck with the line length as I had originally composed it.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I was still working on a typewriter and I remember having to use a second sheet of paper.

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

It appeared about a year later in Slate on November 6, 1997.

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 depends on the poem. Ideally, it sits until its characteristics become more evident. Sometimes, though, I just have to get the poem out of the house for awhile.

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

I might get in too much trouble in regard to this one.

Is this a narrative poem?

Nope. A lyric. Its movement in large part is incremental.

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

Nicanor Parra.

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

Sometimes it’s someone I am in love with. Other times it’s Donald Justice and Jon Anderson, my dead teachers.

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?

Steven Cramer, Stephen Dobyns, Marie Howe, Thomas Lux, Robert Pinsky, Tony Hoagland, David Rivard, Alan Shapiro, and Tom Sleigh have suffered through my drafts over the years. I’m not sure which ones saw "Days of Me" in manuscript.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it does.

What is American about this poem?

Its details and use of enumeration.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sarah Arvio

Sarah Arvio, a poet and translator, has lived in Mexico, Paris, Caracas, Rome and New York. Her first two books, Sono: cantos and Visits from the Seventh (Knopf 2002 and 2006), won her the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. A third book, Night Thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis, is forthcoming from Knopf in January 2013. Poems have been published in The New York Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and many other journals; several have been set to music. New works include translations of poems by Antonella Anedda in Chicago Review’s special Italian issue and in the forthcoming FSG Book of 20th Century Italian Poetry. For many years a translator for the United Nations in New York and Switzerland, she has also recently taught poetry at Princeton.


I am very nervous in myself I
was always nervous as an animal
angling for its home and then homing in

toward a home but never finding it I
was that sort of lost animal although
animals are rarely lost we are lost

as they are not we are the burrowers
in our own dark mud when oh the light and
so on not to be dark or obtuse when

the light is wonderful this wonder that
we should be so dark and lost and the world
was designed to be a home for us or

were we merely its bad accident oh
this we came to its great beauty to mar
and obscure or this we came randomly

without meaning or message brought along
by hunger viciousness oh the beauty
that we never saw or that the vicious

never saw but speaking of myself I
tried to live in beauty but found it hard
even harrowing we are made to drive

at joy but not to strike and when we strike
we miss I am nervous as I said I
wanted all I struck at it and didn’t

hit or battered wildly and got a hit
only enough to make me hit again
lost hunter sad animal homing so

Author Statement:

I swear by inspiration, and my poems have often come to me in a breath. "Animal" was both "received" and the result of tears—but not sweat. I wrote it in a moment of pain and anger, suddenly, around midnight one night, in about ten minutes.

After the first sweep of writing, I wrote some notes in the margin and then changed the lines as follows:

tried to live beautifully but found it hard [change "beautifully" to "in beauty"]

hit or battered wildly and got a strike [change "strike" to "hit"]
only enough to make me strike again [change "strike" to "hit"]
lost hunter sad animal stricken soul [change "stricken to "homing"]

About two weeks later I typed the poem again, changing

was so designed to be a home for us or
were we merely its bad accident oh


was designed to be a home for us or
were we merely its bad accident oh

Then it was done.

I feel that I run a risk by confessing that I write poems this way: someone might answer: well, you should have tried harder. For years I worked on poems endlessly, the same ones over and over. The Lowell/Bishop mode was an ideal—sensible, classical. But my labored-over poems did not come to life. One day I heard some words and began writing fast as though I were taking dictation: there was a poem. Since then, I’ve worked this way, concentrated on not trying.

Sometimes I’ve been too rushed to pick up a pen when I’ve heard lines on their way, and regretted the loss endlessly afterward.

Sometimes months or even years go by and I’ve written nothing. Then I’ll have a splurge. Or sometimes I try and try anyway, and nothing comes of it.

Like most of my poems, "Animal" is written in ten-syllable lines. Long ago, I taught myself to hear lines of ten, avoiding the regular beat of pentameter—and my poems fall into that shape—a sound shape. I’ve noticed that the stress often falls on the first and last syllables of the line. And sometimes the stress seems to be caused by the line break, as in "its bad accident oh."

"Animal" was part of a splurge of poems I wrote in the winter of ‘08, among them "Small War," "Shrew," "Gosling," "Rat Idyll," "Neck" and "Sage."

I’ve shared my poems over the years with friends who are poets; these I showed only to editors. I sent them out right away, and two were taken for publication. Several months later, I saw a notice about the Boston Review annual poetry contest, which was offering $1500. I had never before entered such a contest but—short on cash—I decided to try it. I sent five poems; they were published later that year.

The judge, John Koethe, wrote a short introduction. In it, he said my poems are not autobiographical. This delighted and liberated me but isn’t true: every word I write is autobiographical, meaning that the feelings, images, stories and words come from my own experience—which includes what I know of the culture.

Writing "Animal," I was upset about the complicated destructiveness of people; I was wondering how we could be so different from the animals, so different from the marvelous natural world. But this is a sort of Rilkean myth: the real truth is that animals are as vicious and warlike and desperate as humans and we have no way of knowing how complex their thoughts are; we don’t know what they think or do not think as they run up a tree or lope across a field—despite scientific efforts to determine that.

But one thing is true: animals live in harmony with the environment, generally not destroying it, whereas most extant human cultures are wreaking havoc on the natural world, the habitat of animals. The poem is about longing for a home and wrecking our home.

I think I mean this both environmentally and psychologically: how many of us have self-destructive and life-destructive tendencies, wrecking the comforts of the home of the self and the comforts of the home. What drives us? Hunger, viciousness? I notice I didn’t say "desire": and yet, hunger is a kind of desire.

I’m baffled by the difficult complexity of the mind—or the soul—not sure what to call this—as a condition of life.

Evoking the beauty of the world, I lament that living here, in the world, and in beauty, has been hard. Then the poem turns away from beauty toward joy—which are equivalents, beauty in the seen world being what joy is in the world of the heart.

And then I return to that sense of myself as a lost sad animal searching for a home—though of course I have already negated that animals are lost. So that seems to be the circle or paradox of the poem.

I want people to read my poems—people who are readers, even people who are not necessarily readers of poetry— to read them and feel moved. Since I want to feel moved when I read a poem, this is what I hope for in my readers: a kind of inner shapeshifting.

Yes, American—this poem and "Wood" may be the most American poems I’ve written. American in that they make no allusions or references to other cultures—except that the language carries references—words carry their origins.

I came to live in Maryland not long before I wrote "Animal," after many years in New York and Europe. I’m near the creeks of the Chesapeake, and surrounded by woods and fields and animals: just yesterday I saw a red-tailed fox crossing a field.

The poem is not written in American plain speech. Despite the spoken-word spontaneity, there are many Latinate words—animal, nervous, design, obtuse, randomly, viciousness, beauty, message—suggesting that the poem is conceptual—as well as being concretely heartbroken.
Animal is from anima, meaning breath, soul. The poem is about that. It is about me—my breath—my presence as an animal on this earth.

It strikes me that the poem is breathless, barely giving you a pause to take a breath.
The poem might be called a lament—with lyrical and narrative elements. Music and talking or telling. Talking in a musical way? A lament is also a monologue.

The narrative is spare, a few remarks about my sense of my self in the world. I am nervous and looking for a home; I am a lost animal; animals are not lost, we are lost. The world is wonderful, why do we destroy it, what drives us to destroy it? I tried to live in beauty and joy but found it hard; I am a lost animal looking for a home.

Since it is so spare, the emphasis falls on the lyrical aspects.
I’m analyzing my poem as though I were a newcomer to it; these are not thoughts I have as I write.

How does this poem differ from others of mine?

It feels rougher and more abandoned—in the sense of uninhibited. I may be using this word because I glimpse the word "abandoned," with its other and wholly different meaning, in the next question.

I do abandon poems, but those are usually not the ones I publish. Every now and then I come across an abandoned poem in my files and rescue it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leslie Harrison

Leslie Harrison's first book, Displacement, won the Bakeless Prize in poetry in 2008 and was published in 2009 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a 2011 recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the Roth Resident in Poetry at Bucknell University in 2010. She has poems published recently or forthcoming from West Branch, Memorious, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, FIELD, Antioch Review and elsewhere. She lives in a tiny house in a tiny town in rural western Massachusetts.


Their friends looked shocked—said not
, said how sad. The trees carried on
with their treeish lives—stately except when
they shed their silly dandruff of birds. And
the ocean did what oceans mostly do—
suspended almost everything, dropped one
small ship, or two. The day beauty divorced
meaning, someone picked a flower, a fight,
a flight. Someone got on a boat.
A closet lost its suitcases. Someone
was snowed in, someone else on. The sun
went down and all it was, was night.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My notes say I started this poem in 2004. I began drafting it while living in Irvine, CA. Most of my poems seem to start in some strange matrix of interests and obsessions, and this one was no different.

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

Though poems often start with an idea or a few lines scrawled in a journal, I move them pretty quickly to the computer. I'm a much faster typist than I am when I'm writing by hand, and some poems come very quickly. Even on the keyboard I struggle to get it all down before it fades away. My pattern, once it is on the computer, is to write until I stall, then re-read, and then want to change something. I select all, copy, and paste above the (now) previous version, make the change and go on from there. This happens sometimes dozens of times in the space of a single working session.

I work on it like that until it feels like I have something. Then I'll let it sit, and come back to the document a number of times until the poem on the page comes as close as I can get it.

I workshopped this poem at Irvine, but it seemed mostly done at that point, with four revisions in the file. I remember one more round of revision before I sent it out for publication, so probably a year or so elapsed between the first "public" draft and the "finished" poem.

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. I have had the experience of sitting down at the computer and walking away some time later and not knowing how much time has elapsed or even where/when I was. And then I read what I wrote and it seems like it didn't even come from me, like I'm reading something someone else wrote, something I don't even understand. My friends and I have joked for years that when I write something in this kind of thrall, I usually have to flee the scene—literally leave the room (and sometimes the house) because this process, this happening, is both magical and frightening.

This poem began in that kind of moment—I looked back at the original file and the bones of the published poem are there from the very first draft on the computer.

But always both before and beyond the inspiration is the craft, the practice. And I did revise, as I do most of the poems I write.

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

During the revision process, I remember thinking that it seemed to want to be a sonnet, and trying to inch it in that direction. I also remember that there were a ton of slant and straight rhymes, and wanting to make them fall at the ends of lines and in regular (sort of) patterns. But in the end, I had the courage to let the poem be what it wanted to be—something not quite anything other than itself. When Eavan Boland wrote the preface to Displacement, I was shocked that she saw the old sonnet bones in the poem. Delighted, but weirdly discomfited, as if I'd been caught in revealing clothing in public.

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

This poem was part of a packet I sent to POOL. It is memorable because it was one of the very rare instances in which the first journal to get the poem accepted it. It appeared in 2006, so I would say at most a few months elapsed between when it was finished and when it was accepted.
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. Some poems I'm more sure of than others—more sure they've reached their final form, more sure that an editor might look kindly upon them, more sure they might survive on their own in the vasty world. These get sent out whenever I get a submission together. Other poems I've never sent out, or have waited years to send.

Which is not to say anything leaps from the laptop to the submission pile. I am, maybe, the world's worst submitter. On average, I manage one or two submissions a year, and some years, not a single poem goes out the door. When you understand that most submissions end in failure, in disappointment, you begin to develop an aversion reaction to actually doing submissions. And when you regularly work 2-5 jobs, the precious poetry time is more often taken up with writing itself rather than with the business of writing.

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

This poem seems to work the way a lot of my poems do—as a kind of fiction masquerading as fact. Fiction dressed up as fact for the costume ball with its sequined mask and slinky dress, so it can sneak in the door and dance with all the true things poems always wants to dance with. But isn't this what metaphor is, in a way, fiction masquerading as fact seducing truth?

Is this a narrative poem?

I guess if you mean does it tell a "real world" story in some kind of order then, umm, nope. I'm never sure what is meant by "narrative" though, and I think all my poems are narrative, and in this case, the book as a whole is also a narrative. It has always been my hope that one of the things poetry does well is find new ways of arriving at and traveling through narrative. I love poems that pretend they are not narratives and when you get to the end you realize you have, in fact, been told a story.

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

Oh, this is going to be a long answer. I think I said earlier that poems often form in a mash-up of whatever the current obsessions are. I know I was reading Heidegger, specifically his Poetry, Language, Thought, which talks a lot about beauty and truth. And I was also reading a copy of the journal Gulf Coast, in which, in an essay, someone linked the ideas of beauty and meaning. Usually we see beauty and truth together, courtesy of both Keats and Heidegger, but I remember thinking, "huh," about the pairing of beauty and meaning. That pairing interested me a lot.

This is what I loved best about grad school. People would constantly recommend reading, and I had the time and the access to a great library, so I would get and read pretty much whatever anyone suggested. I'd be reading several books at once, and so much swirls round in the foggy nebula when that happens. I think I was also reading some theory book about representation that Jim McMichael recommended, probably either The Nature of Representation, or maybe Rural Scenes and National Representation.

How those pieces accumulated or are present in the poem is a trickier question. I think I wanted to write some theoretical or at least thoughtful philosophical poem about beauty and meaning, and, well, this poem happened.

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

In the past I would have said I write for the absent beloved, and he was my ideal reader—generous and inclined to warmly receive, but with mad skills of his own, so able to point out flaws and areas of concern. But there is no longer any such person (that was another country/ and besides...). Now I think I write poems as little messages folded into boat-like shapes, tossed off sinking ships meant to come as treasure and comfort to distant shores. Now my poems are tiny ambassadors, love letters in the sense of Frost's lover's quarrel with the world. And it is into the world I send them, but not, I think, for the world I write them.

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?

There used to be a group of people with whom I shared work, and in this case, it was shared with my workshop at Irvine, as well as a couple of other trusted readers, but lately I do not share poems in that way. It seems that if, as I did, you go through a creative writing program, you are taught to write your first book. We have mentors, and classmates and friends and we are all learning and reading at a furious rate and we are all being taught because we don't know much. We learn a little bit about the tiny engines that are poems, and we begin to write poems. But after the first book, for me, it has felt like I had to start all over again and teach myself how to write, which is to say I had to teach myself how to write my poems. And that is something you can get a little help with, but mostly you're on your own.

I still count on friends and mentors to talk about poetry and recommend books, and when they do see a draft and have input, I find it useful, but that is more rare now, as it feels like I'm on my own path and most of my friends are on their own journeys too. My pattern for the last couple of years is to put a draft up on my blog, which is by invitation only, and leave it up for a day or so. I think that serves one of the key functions of trusted readers—it moves the poem somehow from its interior space of creation a little into the public and that adds just enough distance to let me see it a bit more clinically and clearly.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There is something gently tongue-in-cheek about this poem, which is highly unusual for me. By which I mean I was writing this poem after a real-world divorce, and the opening lines of the poem come directly from that experience. I've always found this poem hilarious because of that little private joke. I don't think I've done anything similar before or since.

What is American about this poem?

Well, everything I suppose. I've lived abroad a couple of times, but I have mostly lived here, and my education is/was here and the contemporary poetry I read is predominantly American, so it seems very American to me. But that is not to say it is only American. I hope.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Until it isn't.

I have this fantasy of someday taking a bunch of old poems from a bunch of previous books (that is my favorite part, the part where I have a bunch of previous books), and rewriting them all for a "new" book. I also have this fantasy of finding one poem and rewriting and including it in all subsequent books. I love the idea of poems evolving as the craft evolves, as I get better at it, as my preoccupations change—poems as mutable objects.