Monday, July 30, 2012

Andrew Mulvania

Andrew Mulvania is the author of one book of poems, Also In Arcadia, published by The Backwaters Press in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2008. Recent poems and reviews have appeared in the Southwest Review, Hudson Review, and The Missouri Review. He was the recipient of a 2008 Individual Creative Artists Fellowship in Poetry from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and was a poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers' Center in the summer of 2011. "Robert Frost, The Derry Farm, New Hampshire, 1906," appears in the anthology A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry just published this year by The University of Akron Press. He teaches at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, where he is Associate Professor of English.

“I am sure that anyone standing in my place tonight, charged with the happy office of greeting Mr. Frost on his birthday, on his massive, his Sophoclean birthday, would be bound to feel, as I do indeed feel, a considerable measure of diffidence.”--Lionel Trilling, March 26th, 1959, Waldorf-Astoria, in celebration of Robert Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday.
He sat reflecting in his cane back chair
on the bitter wisdom of old Sophocles
in the Oedipus at Colonus: Never to have been born
is best, / But if we must see the light,
the next best is quickly returning whence we came.
That would surely have been true for poor Elliot
and he had—hadn’t he?—taken the poet’s advice,
returning from the arms of Frost and Elinor
to wherever “whence we came” from was—if anywhere.
The other children—the four left—were at play
out in the pasture down by Hyla Brook.
He’d written about that once in a little poem
he’d called “The Trial By Existence”—the thought that all of us
come “trailing clouds of glory,” as Wordsworth had it,
from some prior life of which we have no memory
and that whatever pain or joy befalls us
is ours by rights as what we somehow chose.
But had the children chosen this country life
of isolation?—for lately he’d noticed they’d grown strange
from having only one another for playfellows.
It was fine for him, misanthrope that he was,
but the strain had been too much for Elinor
and, after Elliot died, something within her
died with him and a wall went up between them.
It couldn’t be true that Elliot had chosen to die,
to be ensouled for only four short years
and then go back. No, Sophocles was right—
this whole business of living was for the birds,
those goddamn chickens squawking to be fed
even now in the chicken coops behind the house.
Still, there were days like this one: children at play
in the near pasture, April sun warming the fields
and the back of his neck where he sat in the chair.
Yes, maybe it wasn’t so terrible after all.
White wings burst briefly upward in the air.

When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I wrote "Robert Frost, The Derry Farm, New Hampshire, 1906" over a series of days and weeks in the summer of 2009, starting with a draft and then re-writing it over again from the beginning, picking up things along the way that I'd left out and letting go of some things I should have left out in the first place (my typical process). Though I suppose I really began "writing" the poem several months earlier while reading Brian Hall's wonderful novel of Frost's life, The Fall of Frost, which juxtaposes scenes from different periods in Frost's life, much as does the epigraph and text of my poem. Hall's novel suggested much of the tone and imagery of my poem--I must have gotten the voice of Frost in my head while reading that novel and couldn't get it out. I guess I was interested in exploring Lionel Trilling's controversial statement--made at the poet's 85th birthday celebration--that Frost was a "terrifying" and "Sophoclean" (or tragic) poet in the context of some of the losses in Frost's life (of which there would be many), in particular the death of his first son, Elliott, in 1900, when the boy was not quite four years old. At the time, my own son was just two years old--perfectly healthy, as he continues to be, thank God--and my own anxieties as a new-ish father had on occasion taken the shape of worrying about what I would possibly do if something ever happened to him. In addition, I was also interested in just what it had meant for Frost to have lived with his young family on the Derry, New Hampshire, farm in those years from 1900-1911 when he was writing many of the poems for which we now remember and, quite rightly, celebrate him. I grew up on an 80-acre farm in central Missouri to which my father had moved his own young family from the St. Louis suburbs in the early 1970's (I came along after my parents had moved out to the country, in 1974), and I suppose I was thinking about what it means for a father to choose that fairly isolated, rural life for his family. All of these things were swirling around in my head when the first line of the poem came to me, along with the idea to have Frost thinking about the passage from Sophocles' Oedipus play. Was I myself feeling particularly self-pitying and tragic that summer, ridiculously comparing my own trivial problems to those of Oedipus or--for that matter--Frost, meditating on the value of life when weighing the suffering of existence against the possibility of non-being, and somehow using the voice of Frost to articulate those anxieties? Perhaps. But this answer is already getting far too long.

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

Probably around 5-6 drafts, over a couple of weeks.

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, as my first answer would suggest, I think it requires preparing yourself to receive it and working yourself up into the proper state to be able to write the poem (for the best description of that state of mind--once the writing begins--I've ever read, I highly recommend section 6 of A.R. Ammons's long poem Garbage, too long to quote here). I think it's a mysterious process that ultimately leads from whatever experience "inspired" a poem to when you actually sit down to write that poem and what form it will take. I mean, not to sound too self-aggrandizing or to elevate this one poem to any more importance than it actually has, but didn't I have to have been born on a farm in the 1970's, have a life-long love and admiration for the work of Robert Frost, happen across a review of Brian Hall's The Fall of Frost, buy a copy of the book and read it, in order to write the poem? In a way, I guess that's "sweat," but really, for a poet, it's just living your life. 

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

I knew the poem would be a kind of interior monologue in what a critic like James Wood would call "free indirect style"--using the third person but still capturing the sense of Frost's own speaking (or thinking) voice. I also use a not-terribly-strict blank verse, which is a traditional line for the dramatic monologue form going back to Browning, Tennyson, and others. That line, as well as the long, single stanza, seemed to make sense for this poem.

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

No, not particularly. 

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

I sent the poem off in the fall of 2009, and Willard Spiegelman and the good people who work at the Southwest Review accepted it for publication in February 2010. It appeared in print in the first issue of Southwest Review for 2011.

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 tend to let poems sit for a long time, probably longer than most people, maybe waiting for them to really feel "done," or maybe just being lazy. To quote Charles Simic quoting William Dean Howells, "For a lazy man I'm extremely industrious." I should probably send stuff out more and sooner than I do, though I'm sure the world would continue to go around just fine whether or not I sent out my little poetic missives more swiftly or with greater frequency. 

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

I think the poem draws heavily on the facts of Frost's life while still allowing itself enough license to invent or embellish on those facts to suit the dramatic situation of the poem.

Is this a narrative poem? 

Yes, in the sense that it tells a story that focuses on a specific moment in time and has a beginning, middle, and end, and comes to some sort of climax or "crisis moment."

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

Pretty much disclosed 'em all up top, didn't I?--I'm sure more than anyone wanted to know.

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

Myself first, then anyone who would be interested in reading the poem. The hope that my parents wouldn't be too embarrassed or disown me or anything is, I'm sure, always mixed in there somewhere.

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 let the excellent poet, Steve Gehrke--il miglior fabbro--see drafts of this poem in the summer of 2009, and he is the individual with whom I regularly share work. Or perhaps I should say he is the individual who regularly suffers or tolerates the flurry of drafts with which I, in my insecurity, inundate him with all-too-great regularity, and who, in return, graciously allows me to read some of his own fine work from time to time.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I have a number of poems in my new manuscript in the voice of--or in dialogue with--various poets and writers at difficult moments in their lives, personally and artistically, so I suppose it's not that different from those poems, though it is different from the more traditional lyric and pastoral poems in my first book, Also In Arcadia (though one could argue for pastoral elements in this poem about Frost as well).

What is American about this poem? 

Certainly, the subject of the poem--Robert Frost--is about as American as they come, both as one of our most well-known and best-loved poets and as someone who, himself, meditated on the nature of "American-ness" in many of his poems. I'd say the landscape in this poem is also American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

It was finished, but, judging by how much I've rambled on about it here, I still clearly have not completely let it go.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. Among her honors are an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Colgate University's Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship. Shara is a recipient of the "Discovery" / The Nation prize. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review, among others. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan, and records her experiences in the Middle East at her blog.


Learn Arabic—your husband won’t have time.

At Carrefour Express, aisle one is the tax-free line.

For poultry, go to Sweifieh (the Palestinian 

chicken man’s shop); pig, on the other hand,
is impossible to find (frozen pork sometimes
turns up at the co-op). Basha  ____________ ’s 

wife is pregnant with twins; expect to host 

a spa date or two for his mistress. Never make 

eye contact with local men. Read Married 

to a Bedouin, the Expert Expat’s Guide. (Skip 

Queen Noor’s book—she’s from the Midwest.)
During Ramadan Crumbs’ breakfast is the best;
everything else is closed. Never ride 

in the front of a taxi with an Arab. If you’re 

near the Embassy, avoid hailing a cab (security says 

we’re sitting ducks). Help in Amman 

runs cheap: hire a driver, a maid, a cook.

Mansef is made with lamb or goat, and stewed 

in a hearty jameed. When dining with royalty, 

keep conversation neutral. At private parties 

be prepared to be the only woman in the room, 

save the staff. Look the part, but don’t 

show cleavage. Lipstick is fine. Laugh hard
(but not too hard) at Colonel ________’s
dick jokes. Know how to properly cut and light
a cigar. When talk turns to politics, smile 

and nod, then say something obscure
in Arabic—your husband will give you the cue 

(the Jords will think it cute). Never ask 

a woman how long her hair is 

under the hijab. Don’t call anyone

but your husband habibi. Explore the souks; 

steer clear of the mosques. All Arabs hate dogs—

walk yours after dark; comb your yard
for poison and traps. Close your drapes

(Western women are common victims 

of peeping toms). When moving among crowds, 

expect children and strangers to stop
to stroke your hair. Always carry your passport. 

The number one reason a man’s relieved

from his post? His wife’s unhappy. Avoid this 

from the get-go—get a hobby! Play tennis,
take a class, or find a job. (The field’s leveled 

for spouses: here, education and experience

equal nada.) The workweek runs Sunday to
Thursday; your husband will clock in Saturdays, 

Fridays, too. Pack at least four ball gowns; 

stock up on shirts with sleeves. Gunfire means
graduation, or congratulations—a wedding’s 

just taken place. Don’t be disturbed by
the armed guards outside your apartment 

(their assault rifles don’t have bullets, 

rumor has it). “Little America” runs perpendicular 

to Ring Six (aka: Cholesterol Circle)—Popeye’s,
Burger King, Hardee’s—you’ll find everything 

you need. McDonald’s Playland spans three
upstairs levels. Ship a year’s worth of ketchup, 

mayonnaise. Blondes are often mistaken 

for hookers; consider dying your hair. 

By September or October you’ll learn to

tune out the call to prayer.

When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I began writing "Advice from the Predecessor's Wife" on a very snowy day at the Amy Clampitt House where I was visiting then-fellow Bruce Snider. My husband and I had relocated to the Middle East six months earlier and the journey to Lenox was my first trip back to the states. In restaurants, nail salons, and libraries, I found myself answering questions about life overseas: Why in the world did I move to Jordan? Where was Jordan? Was I afraid to live in a Muslim country? Was I forced to wear a burka? Did I have a car there, or television? Such questions revealed a mixture of fear, disbelief, and curiosity that I found far more interesting than any of my answers regarding Middle Eastern geography, weather, or the overseas availability of satellite dishes.

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

Considering that some of my poems have taken years to write, the drafting process for "Advice..." progressed rather quickly. I credit this to storing observations and sound bites for nine or more months before trying to shape them into verse. As soon as my husband and I announced that we were moving to the Middle East, I was bombarded with advice—including recommendations from people who'd never even been there! Once we arrived in Amman, I also received tips from other expats, as well as the assistance of locals. Like any new resident, I tried to acquaint myself with the foreign surroundings and customs. I ventured out to find the best butchers and falafel stands, quickly learned which traffic circles to avoid during particular times of day, discovered the appropriate (or, rather inappropriate) protocol for interacting with armed guards, and which routes were best for walking our dog. For many months, I took notes in my head rather than on the page. Details about life in Amman accumulated over time, equipping me with plenty of material to mine once I was ready to write. 

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

Truth told, "inspiration" is one of my least favorite words. I'll take hard work and discipline any day, especially if the alternative is to wait for some proverbial cloud to part or a poem to fall out of the sky. Granted, some of "Advice..." was received: an American who'd once lived in Jordan told me the bit about skipping Queen Noor's book and dying my hair so as not to be mistaken for a prostitute. Although no one recommended I ship bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise with our household effects, I often hear expats complain about the quality of condiments in Amman. (Many are happy, however, with McDonald's 24-7 delivery policy!) What's interesting is that for all I was informed about packing ball gowns and how to hail a cab, I heard very little about Jordanian generosity and warmth. In fact, I was told almost nothing about what I would learn from the good people of Amman.

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

At times I don't know whether I feel more overpowered by the experience of living in the Middle East (its distinct energy, diction, unique social customs, political tensions, religious practices, sounds, terrain, textures, the enormity of its scale), or by the American myth of the Middle East—those popular beliefs and misconceptions about the region's people ("they're a bunch of terrorists!"), leaders ("they're all dictators!"), penchant for violence, and misunderstanding about Islam. Thus, my gut-feeling from the get-go was that a single block stanza best suited the subject. My hope is that this form not only helps build momentum, but that it also overwhelms the reader with information—some of it practical, some outright absurd. By juxtaposing sensible tips (pork is available at the co-op) with suggestions that reveal paranoia and deep-seated prejudices ("All Arabs hate dogs—/walk yours after dark" and " Never ask a woman how long her hair is / under the hijab..."), the poem challenges readers to distinguish sound advice from stereotypes.

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

Until "Advice...," I don't think I'd ever written anything with a satirical undertone.

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

I completed "Advice..." in February or March of 2011. It turned up about six months later in The Missouri Review's Fall Issue and was republished by Poetry Daily in November.

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?

Typically, I let poems rest a lot longer before sending them out. There are certainly ones in print I wish I'd withheld. "Advice from the Predecessor's Wife" was different. The poem is from my second manuscript-in-progress, which is tentatively titled The Explosive Expert's Wife. Its subjects—stateside bombings by culprits like Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski, spouses of terrorists and counter-terrorists, the difficulty of learning Arabic, the many beauties of Amman and its people, the FBI crime lab—seem more urgent, timely. Perhaps that's why I haven't waited as long to pursue publication. Knock on wood—it's going well thus far...

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

The poem's unsaid tension is our lack of incentive to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps it's due to laziness. Or, apathy. Perhaps it's easier to simply accept what we're told. Or maybe I'm mistaken—it's possible that the poem's real claim is that our framing of "fact" is always fictive to a certain extent. What I can say without hesitation in regards to the poem and my experience of living in Amman is that when it comes to popular conceptions of this region, Americans often get it wrong. I know this because many of my own assumptions have been disproven. Since moving to the Middle East, my ideas about my own country and others have been challenged in the best possible sense.

Is this a narrative poem?

I don't know. Is it? I'm curious so see what readers think...

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

Clampitt, Clampitt, Clampitt (poems, letters, essays, and interviews)—not that she shows herself in any way as an influence in this particular case. I also remember rereading a few novels by Clampitt's nearby neighbor, Edith Wharton. I guess I was in a Massachusetts state of mind. Oh, and the Mayo Clinic's Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. While visiting Lenox, I was late in my first trimester of pregnancy.

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

The (half-)honest answer is no, which I think is mostly true, although during the revision process I occasionally hear my mentors whisper wrong move, or misstep! red flag, red flag, red flag! Most often, the voice is Eavan Boland's, although others turn up as well. In the case of "Advice...," it's the less-than-ideal reader I most fear—that person who mistakes the poem's meaning and reads it as some gross caricature of Arab culture.

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?

Bruce Snider is my primary reader, the person who suffers through almost every draft of what I write. In this case, he helped excise and rearrange some of the details in order to help me locate the poem's ending. I'm also indebted to David Roderick, with whom I regularly exchange work and ideas. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable to drop names here—there are so many wonderful people in my life. Even without regularly reading or commenting directly on my drafts, theirs is a profound and lasting influence.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

"Advice..." is less lyrical, more conversational. Serious as its subject matter is, the drafting process felt like play.

What is American about this poem?

Its ugliness and enthusiasm. The residue of capitalism. Its combination of curiosity and fear. I think the poem's humor, its sense of entitlement and privilege are very American, as is its strange amalgamation of knowingness and naiveté. 

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Each day I spend in Jordan, I live this poem. I consider it ongoing.