Friday, October 12, 2018

Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist (M.D.). He is the author of Godsong (2018), a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and three collections of poetry, most recently Dothead (2016). He writes and practices in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.


INVOCATION

The arms I sing. Forget the man, there is
no other epic. Sing the arms of kids,
the ones with pustules all along their veins

like runway track lights burning for a plane
that blew up hours ago with no survivors.
The ones with runes no parent can decipher,

one message, knifed and scarred and knifed again
in a mystic tongue forgotten who knows when.
The arms imprinted with a shadow grip

as if the dad who grabbed and crushed had dipped
his hand in black paint first. The arms with tight
arcs of perforation: human bites

that get infected faster than a dog’s.
The toddler’s arms with both hands scalded raw
all glisteny and hog-pink, swollen taut,

the tantrum over, the lesson taught,
two signal fires that call across the plain
the city is sacked and all the children slain.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I have little exact memory of when I composed this poem (other than that it was some time in 2013, since its publication date is in early 2014). I remember it started with the first line and wrote itself from there.

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

I usually just revise as I go, so each line may have been tweaked and redone and micro-revised a dozen times. I'd need a keystroke tracker program to figure out exactly what word or punctuation mark I changed when. So that aspect of the poem's genesis is lost.

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 don't believe in the poet's passivity in the inspired state. It only feels passive because of the muscle memory that comes from practice. I believe that sweat and tears, put in copiously early in the career, can make you likelier to "receive" poems from yourself, or the Muse, or the Gods, or the subconscious or whatever.

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

Initially I wrote it in couplets with spaces between the couplets. Then I rearranged the poem into tercets, and it looked better that way. The technical aspects are on the surface--heroic couplet, basically, which dovetails well with the theme of an Invocation to the Muse.

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

Not really. Just me in my study, at my iMac, tapping away.

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

About ten months or so.

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've gotten poems accepted within hours of writing them. I recently sold a novel to Penguin Random House India that I'd written in 2010. There are no rules. I write a lot, and some things I bury and discover later, other things I am very aggressive with sending out.

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


The poem conjures some memories of the time I spent as a medical student in an adolescent psychiatry unit. A lot of suicide attempts and people who engaged in self-harm. Cutters and drug abusers. I would go in each morning and interview these kids. I was told some things I will never forget. Images I can't shake, and it's been like sixteen years. Like the girl whose stepdad took her to the basement and tied a rope around her neck and tied the other end around a crossbeam and then raped her with her hanging there. He did it standing up with his hands behind his back. And she had to cling to him while he did it because she knew if she let go she would fall and hang herself. It turned him on, how she clung to him. She was ten when it happened. She was fourteen when I interviewed her. She had emptied a bottle of Tylenol into her body the night before. She attempted suicide annually. "One of these times," she told me, "I'll get this right."

Is this a narrative poem?


Not really. Only implicitly, obliquely. See above.

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

No, I don't remember who I was reading, but I know my influence when I write the heroic couplet is basically Alexander Pope.

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

No. My ideal readers were the old Elizabethans. They liked metaphor and emotion and serious play and wit.

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?

No and no.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It's not that often that I directly engage with the classical Mediterranean epic tradition in this overt a way.

What is American about this poem?

The runway tracklights. And the speaker.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Maryann Corbett

Maryann Corbett spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes at the Minnesota Legislature. She is the author of four books of poems and three chapbooks; her most recent book is Street View, which was a finalist for the 2016 Able Muse Book Prize. Her work has appeared in many journals, such as 32 Poems, Ecotone, Literary Imagination, Rattle, and Southwest Review, and in a variety of anthologies like Imago Dei and Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. She is a past winner of the Richard Wilbur Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. One of her poems will be included in Best American Poetry 2018.


FINDING THE LEGO

You find it when you’re tearing up your life,
trying to make some sense of the old messes,
moving dressers, peering under beds.
Almost lost in cat hair and in cobwebs,
in dust you vaguely know was once your skin,
it shows up, isolated, fragmentary.
A tidy little solid. Tractable.
Knobbed to be fitted in a lock-step pattern
with others. Plastic: red or blue or yellow.
Out of the dark, undamaged, there it is,
as bright and primary colored and foursquare
as the family with two parents and two children
who moved in twenty years ago in a dream.
It makes no allowances, concedes no failures,
admits no knowledge of a little girl
who glared through tears, rubbing her slapped cheek.
Rigidity is its essential trait.
Likely as not, you leave it where it was.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I needed my records to figure this out, because the poem is among my earliest. I came back to writing poetry, after some thirty years away from it, in late 2005 and started workshopping poems on discussion boards in 2006. I do recall that this poem was workshopped. My submission records say I first sent the poem out in late 2007, so its first drafts must have happened within that range.

At that time, a great many of my poems had to do with mothering, mostly because I was then the mother of college students and making the shift to mothering adults. The trigger experience of finding an old, stray Lego happened many, many times.

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

There were several changes during workshopping—probably in more than one online workshop, because during those years I was active in several at once. I recall the changes as small and having to do with smoother meter. I don’t remember making changes between magazine submissions. When I included the poem in my second book, which came out in 2013, I made another change during the proof stage; what had been “looking under beds” in the poem’s magazine publication became “peering under beds” for the book.

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 one is “hotter” some days than others, better attuned to really good choices. There’s something about intensity of emotional involvement that turns up the heat. The memories involved in this one had that effect. That may be why this poem felt “received”—that is to say,  close to finished after relatively few tweaks.

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

I write a great deal of blank verse, and during those years I would often begin by turning on the iambic pentameter spigot and letting it run. I allowed the memories and associations to be what they were. My iambics are often very loose in the first instance; they admit a great many substitutions. Revision quite often involves taking a hot iron to the wrinkles, and it did in this case.

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

At the time I wrote this, I was using my usual methods: letting the poem happen as it would and then subjecting it to critique.

Since then, some things have changed about the way I work: I hope that I’m now demanding enough to see on my own the flaws that workshopping helps one see. (But see my answer to the question about how long I let poems sit. Mea culpa.)

Another difference is that I worry more now about how a poem will come across in a reading. If I had worried about that in those days, the poem might never have been written. As it is, I don’t believe I’ve ever read it to an audience.

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

Quite a while, according to my submission records! It went to nine magazines over the course of three years before it was finally accepted by Think Journal in 2010. Then it was included, with one revision, in the final manuscript of my book Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, which appeared in 2013, and poems from that book were chosen for American Life in Poetry.

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 to admit that my worst poetic habit is not letting poems “steep” long enough. Fairly often I revise while a poem is still in submission, or after it’s come back, or after it’s appeared and I want to include it in a book.

I push myself to submit poems at regular intervals, a practice I regularly think I should change because it rushes the process
-->but I haven’t yet changed it, in twelve years of submitting.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?


This poem is cagey about fact. While it doesn’t deliberately fictionalize, it leaves the story vague and general. The vagueness allows people to see story elements that were not in my own mind when I was writing. I was asked once whether the poem was written out of the memory of the child or of the parent. I declined to answer, in part because I would rather not remember and in part because I think the poem is richer, and meaningful to more readers, if not nailed down.

Is this a narrative poem?

I would call it a lyric poem based on a recurring narrative that many readers will relate to.

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

In those years I was first coming into contact with the poetry of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Rhina Espaillat, Timothy Murphy, and Maz Griffiths, to name just a few. I was also reading the poetry that other participants posted on Eratosphere, The Gazebo, The Waters, and some other boards now long gone.

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

I think a poet always hopes for a reader who sees the world the way the poet sees it, so that the words chosen make an immediate connection. Apart from that, different poems need readers in different groups. Nearly all the time, my ideal reader needs at least to expect meter and to recogize it even when it isn’t ribbon-smooth. Often, too, my ideal reader needs to have an attitude to rhyme that’s like the one expressed in A. E. Stallings’s “Presto Manifesto!” At the time when this poem was written, my ideal reader would probably have been a parent. Not always, but rather often lately, my ideal reader is a believer of some kind, or at least knowledgeable about “churchy” matters and matters of the spirit.

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?

Yes, a fair number of people saw it, and a handful of people commented. Although I don’t workshop now, I owe a great deal to the group of poets who posted at Eratosphere in the late 2000s and who in some cases still post there.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it is. I was going to say that it’s more guarded and less revealed—much of what I write is quasi-confessional—but I haven’t taken a close look at twelve years' worth of poems. It may be a bit choppier—written more in fragments and less in sentences, which adds to its hesitant quality.

What is American about this poem?

Apart from being metrical (which is still not typical for an American poet), just about everything: the assumptions about family structure, family homes, and families’ private truths. And even though the Lego brand is manufactured by a Danish company, is there any better symbol of an American childhood?

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I believe it’s finished, but perhaps I only believe that because its current form is rather prominently fixed online. In the unlikely event that I publish a selected some day, I may yet think about it again!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Austin Allen

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016), was awarded the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Yale Review, The Missouri Review, The Sewanee Review, 32 Poems, and Verse Daily. He is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.









MARIS*
*Roger Maris, American baseball player, famous for breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs in 1961. Because Maris had a longer season than Ruth in which to accumulate his total, his feat generated fierce controversy, and one sportswriter suggested that an asterisk accompany his name in the record books. The commissioner of baseball agreed, but the mark was never added.

Asterisk, dark kiss, sign you were born under,
little appendix twinging in your gut,
making its clever point, its “Well yes but…”
Has someone carved it on your grave, I wonder?

It multiplies, becomes a flurry of flakes,
hardens to hail and pelts you as you run,
head lowered, one blast shy of sixty-one.
Litters its thistles, drives spikes through your spikes.

*
Babe Ruth ate the past. Which would have been
the present, back then. That huge son of a bitch
gobbled and guzzled, smoked and sinned so much,
what’s left for you? The wine is drained, the women

know the score. Father of modern sport
and giant baby, hopeless little shit
sent to reform school, where he learned to hit,
and grin, and trot around the bases toward—

*
Rip the game stitch from stitch, green blade from blade.
Spill all the ball’s yarn brains, the whole white mile
spooled to the core. You’re starting to taste bile—
retch and spit up your black tobacco cud,

spit seeds, spit bubblegum, spit it: one spiked
windpipe obstruction like a Cracker Jack toy
lodged back there, somehow, since you were a boy…
You don’t remember childhood much. You liked

baseball, liked summertime. Each place you lived
seemed colder than the last. Old tribal nations
under the fields, train platforms without stations.
Some years your parents quarreled and you moved.

You’re not star-crossed; you don’t believe in streaks;
statistically, things happen. Still, the team’s
away games always give you hard-luck dreams:
Ruth’s twenties roar, the cagefaced umpire blocks

your way, you can’t reach—even to start from—home—
somehow the fix is in—each word you shout
at those fat folded arms is asterisked out…
The grass mends. The crowd goes tame. The seams resume.

*
Although it comes late, you hit that final blast.
The asterisk needs an asterisk of its own.
Above your Little League diamond, diamonds shone
unqualified....The record for time past

is broken, is broken. The child defeats the father,
memorabilia gathers on the shelf,
but time had more time to surpass itself,
so I’m not buying any of it, either.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote the poem in 2011 and included it in my first book, Pleasures of the Game. I’d been fascinated by the Roger Maris story since childhood and had wanted to write about him for years. The asterisk beside his name in the record books is just an urban legend, but it spoke to something real: a lingering perception that he’d fallen short of Babe Ruth, that his record technically didn’t count. He knew many fans felt this way and was shaken by the controversy.

I think most of us can relate to the fear of the asterisk, which goes something like this:
YOU HAVE ACHIEVED INCREDIBLE SUCCESS*
*just kidding
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

The poem had a number of false starts. The earliest draft I can find is from March 2011, and the first one that resembles the finished poem is from October 2011. Then came a number of edits before I sent it out to journals. Two years later, I made another substantial change before my book came out: I tweaked the narrative framing so that the poem addresses Maris as “you,” from the perspective of an unnamed “I,” rather than speaking as Maris.

I did this after a friend suggested I’d made Maris sound too poet-like. Although I was never aiming for a literal imitation of his voice, I found the critique helpful, and I think the final version is better for the change.

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

Sometimes a poem will come together quickly, but not often. I sweated this one out. On the other hand, glancing at these old drafts, I see I made a sudden burst of progress around 10/30/11, so inspiration (whatever it is) played a part.

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

One conscious choice was the use of slant or imperfect rhymes: “flakes / spikes,” etc. These seemed appropriate for a poem that’s all about “close, but not quite.” They’re also sprinkled irregularly throughout the poem—I was trying to keep myself as well as the reader off balance.

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

These days it’s rare for me to revise a poem drastically several times over. I plan and prepare more, so that I have a better idea of what I want to do by the time I start writing. I still work slowly, but more of that time goes into fiddling with details.

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

About a year. It got picked up by Iron Horse Literary Review in 2012 and became one of my first journal publications.

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 varies quite a bit. Sometimes I send things out too soon. Everything about the current market encourages that impulse—you have to fight it. Better to let the poem breathe for a while.

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


“Maris” deals with well-known, real-life events, but still takes plenty of creative license. I was going more for psychological than biographical truth. I don’t know, for example, whether he actually resented Babe Ruth, a man he never met. But doesn’t it seem plausible?

Is this a narrative poem?

A fractured one, yes.

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

I forget who I was reading at the time, but Frost, Auden, and Marianne Moore all explored connections between games and writing (including, in Moore’s case, baseball and writing). Their influence shaped Pleasures of the Game in general and might have crept into “Maris.”

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

I tend to agree with Auden’s couplet: “Art, if it doesn’t start there, at least ends / In an attempt to entertain our friends.”

I also write with live performance in mind. At poetry readings there are always a few audience members who’ve been roped into attending and are skeptical of poetry. I try to write poems that will win them over.

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 MFA classmates saw a draft version of “Maris.” Outside of workshops, I generally show poem drafts to three or four friends. One friend has been my default first reader for about ten years now; we share and comment regularly on each other’s work. We don’t always take each other’s advice, but I never publish anything without getting her opinion first. (See Auden couplet above.)

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Structurally, it’s a little odder than most of my poems. It feels unsettled to me, unstable in its mix of fact and fantasy, and I hope it feels that way to the reader, too.

What is American about this poem?

Besides the baseball stuff? The neurotic attitude toward success.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.*

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sarah Rose Nordgren

Sarah Rose Nordgren is a poet, teacher, and multiform text artist. Her two books of poetry are Best Bones (2014), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and Darwin’s Mother (2017), both published in the Pitt Poetry Series through University of Pittsburgh Press. Among her awards are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences, as well as an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. Her poems and essays appear widely in periodicals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Copper Nickel, and American Poetry Review. Nordgren currently lives in Cincinnati and is an Associate Editor for 32 Poems


MATERIAL
Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots.
—Giulio Giorello
My soul rose up in me,
a colony I follow.
My soul has a trillion brittle wings,
a billion black bodies.
My soul formation is Stratus.
My soul’s parts know little
and don’t care whether I live or die.
Its components make a mind outside of me,
hovering over the driveway.
My soul is not waiting—
It cannot wait.
What is the sound of my soul?
Incessant clicking and chattering
like many sets of tiny, wind-up teeth.
It appears as a hurricane,
sandstorm, or soot billowing.
Its moveable parts can arrange themselves
to make a mechanical hand.
My soul pulls at my soul.
I am not responsible for my soul
for it acts independently.
I am in awe of its cities
and public works.
Its vast demolition projects.
Every seventeen years
my soul disperses after mating
and litters the road
with fat, crushed zeros.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started writing this poem while at a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the summer of 2013. I actually can’t believe it was that long ago, because this poem still feels pretty new to me, but I’m going to trust the date that the Word document says it was created.

The poem really grew from my encounter with that wonderful quote from Italian philosopher Giulio Giorello, which I came across in philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book, Freedom Evolves. It made my brain explode a little bit! The basic concept, of course, is that the soul’s existence relies on a process of emergence, so that’s what I was playing with here. 

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

This poem looked very much the same when I first wrote it as it does now, but I’d say it went through about three or four proper drafts in which I was mostly experimenting with different words and phrasings here and there. The first draft was in May 2013, and the last significant draft is dated August 2015, so there was about two years of fermentation.

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

I very much believe in inspiration—and it’s made of lots of tiny robots too, I think. In this poem—as in many of the poems from Darwin’s Mother—I had a very loose and open compositional process. The poems are pretty raw and fresh feeling, and a little lopsided at times too. They’re much less “wrought” than many poems from my first book, and I really enjoyed using a gentler handle on my own language. This poem came fairly quickly, and I’d say it felt about half-received and half-made.

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

As I mentioned, this poem was mostly born in its final form. Its structure relies, of course, on the anaphora of “My soul” which served as a generative device in the writing of the poem, but which I also hope creates a kind of incantatory effect in reading it.

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

The anaphora or listing structure of this poem is not usual for me at all. Also, the line lengths are more jagged than I’d generally write, but it came out of this jaggedy feeling of all of the insects swarming, and the lines do emerge into a kind of soul-shape when taken together.

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

I guess I’ll consider the poem “finished” in August 2015, and it was appeared in Narrative in June 2016, so about a year.

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 don’t have rules about this and it definitely varies. Like most poets I’m sure, I’ve definitely had the experience of being excited about a new poem and sending it out too early. Then it either doesn’t get taken—and you feel ashamed for having sent it in the first place because you begin to doubt it’s ready—or it does get taken and you realize it wasn’t ready, and you’re in the position of either letting it run or pulling it after the fact, which is also embarrassing.

The past few years I haven’t felt much of a rush, and I’m a poet who often thinks in books rather than in poems. I’ve just now started to send out some poems that I wrote two years ago for my next book, and it still feels pretty early since I don’t have a handle on that project yet.

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


It’s all fact!

Seriously though, I think this poem exists between the two poles, perhaps in the realm of “speculation.” Many of the poems in Darwin’s Mother are thinking through existential questions, and this is one of those.

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

I was reading a lot of evolutionary theory, philosophy, and nonfiction, hence the Dennett and Giorello. In terms of literary texts, I believe that summer I had on my desk Edith Södergran, Jean Valentine, Mary Ruefle, and Lydia Davis, some of my go-tos.

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 didn’t have a consistent feedback-system while writing Darwin’s Mother, as I was traveling through a number of “betweens” in my life during those years. I did have a monthly group with two other women in Cincinnati that met for awhile, but I don’t think I brought this poem there.

In summer 2015 I was a Fellow in Sidney Wade’s workshop at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and after the conference she asked to see the manuscript of Darwin’s Mother and gave me some great suggestions. And this is a big deal: the final line of “Material” was originally “fat, crushed nothings,” and she suggested the change to “zeros” which I think is much better, even though I was already using “zeros” elsewhere in the book.

What is American about this poem?

I recently read Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark in which she talks about “the stutter,” or “the sounding of uncertainty” as the most interesting quality in American literature. I think (I hope) this poem has a little of the stutter in it, in its attempt to characterize the ungraspable—the wilderness of the unknown. Or perhaps it’s like a scientific process of trial and error. Or perhaps it’s a wandering litany like Ginsberg’s “America.”

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Once your zeros are crushed, you’ve got to reincarnate somewhere else.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Erica Dawson

Erica Dawson is the author of two award-winning collections of poetry: The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014) and Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007). Her new book, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in Fall 2018. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Bennington Review, Harvard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She’s an associate professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa. She serves as director of UT’s low-residency MFA program.


LANGSTON HUGHES'S GRANDMA MARY WRITES A LOVE LETTER TO LEWIS LEARY YEARS AFTER HE DIES FIGHTING AT HARPER'S FERRY 

My dearest, sweetest Lew—

It’s like there’s permanence in West

Virginia, not the state, the sound—the rest

After the gin fools you

And the uh goes on like “Lee

And autumn 1859.

I’ve lost all semblance of “I’m fine.”

So I say damn the free

Water beneath the thick

Ice spots on the Cuyahoga and Lake

Erie. Damn rifles. Damn the ache

Of numbness. Snowflakes prick

Your tall Oberlin grave.

I try to scrape it clean with my

Frostbitten index finger. I

Marvel at how the cold can save

A tear, at how I sit

Under my chestnut tree and wait

For nuts, plate Charles’s dinner late,

Allow Louise’s fit

To last another hour.

Damn both my abolitionist

Husbands, their spot–on aim, fist–

in–the–air. Why don’t they glower

Like I do when I yell

Louder than any choir could,

Or, out back, take an ax to wood

And wonder if you fell

Like broken logs, without

Movement, your body dead already,

All solid like a Cleveland eddy

The young ones skate about.

They’re in love with being lovers.

The world’s all to themselves. No sword

Can pierce them when they huddle and hoard

Their weapons under covers.

I wish them ill; no right

To do so, yes, I know. I’m so

Tired of when thin white sheets glow

Dusk red in autumn light.

Damn all Octobers, sin,

Forgiveness. Dam the streams until

Oceans of buried brothers spill

Like grief beneath the skin

Of rivers. Best intentions

And kind regards, Lew, take this letter

As proof I am not getting better.

I am its two dimensions:

Two praying hands, my skirt

Pressed to my thighs pressed closed. Damn brass

Reverie and all the leaves of grass

So green the small blades hurt.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started the poem in mid to late 2010, I believe. I was very interested in American History when writing Blades; I became a little obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and then Walt Whitman, and then Langston Hughes. Researching Hughes lead me to the story of his grandmother. I was so struck by this woman who endured so much grief. I wanted to somehow connect with that kind of sadness. So I began writing.

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

I’ll revise until I’m blue in the face, if I let myself. It probably went through a solid ten drafts, which is actually a small number for me. The poem was always in the rhyming quatrains; but, at first, it wasn’t a persona poem. And, it wasn’t an epistle, either. I knew to connect with this amazing woman, I was going to have to try to live in her moments. And it seemed like a good idea to make the poem a kind of active moment where she addressed the love she lost.

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

I definitely believe in inspiration. I was certainly inspired by the life of this woman. I think this poem, though, was mostly a result of sweat and tears, trying different things out, breaking it apart and putting it together again.

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

Again, a lot of sweat and tears. As I said, the quatrains happened immediately. Sometimes my ideas for form and structure come first, after the initial idea for the poem; then, the content starts to become clearer. For me, form can be extremely generative. It took me a very long time to get to the ending of the poem, though. I wanted a strong monosyllabic rhyme for the first and fourth lines of the last stanza. I wanted a hard consonant: a K or a T. Something with punch. But, I had no idea how to bring it to a close, how to say something about this woman while saying something about our country and its history.

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

It was pretty standard procedure for me. Sometimes, though, the form comes to me after the content.

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

Not long at all. I was thrilled when Blackbird gave it a home.

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 varies. If I were to wait until I felt a poem was “ready” or “done,” I’d never send anything out. So I usually aim for some kind of moderate satisfaction with the poem before sending it out. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes only a few months, sometimes even just weeks.

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

The basic facts are true: Hughes’ grandmother lost two abolitionist husbands, the first in the battle at Harper’s Ferry. His grave is located in Ohio. And, it’s true that her second husband’s name was Charles and their daughter’s name was Louise. The rest is a product of my imagination—my ideas of what she’d say if she had the chance to communicate with her deceased husband.

Is this a narrative poem?

I’d say yes. I think it tells a kind of story. Not a complete story, of course: but, I think that place, scene, and a particular chain of events make the poem narrative, in some ways.

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

Whitman and Hughes were obviously the biggest influences. Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” was definitely an inspiration once I decided the poem needed to be a kind of epistle.

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

Not really. I’m pretty unaware of audience when I’m writing. In those early stages, my opinions and preferences are the only ones that matter. I’d get lost in anxiety if I thought too much about who would read my work or want to read my work. I do hope that my readers are interested in the ways traditional form and contemporary/timely content can work together without seeming old or stodgy.

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?

NO (caps necessary). I’m super protective of my work when I’m actively working on it. If I get seriously stuck, I may ask a really close writer friend for suggestions. But, usually, I keep things to myself.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

At the time, it was the only true persona poem I’d ever really written. That was new territory for me. And it really changed me as a writer: much of my new book involves taking on various voices that aren’t my own.

What is American about this poem?

I hope the whole thing is American. I wanted to tap into something that spoke to the connections between our collective histories and personal histories, and how we negotiate national and personal trauma and tragedy.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I was moderately satisfied. That’s as close to finished as I ever get.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Morri Creech

Morri Creech is the author of three collections of poetry, Paper Cathedrals (Kent State U P, 2001), Field Knowledge (Waywiser, 2006), which received the Anthony Hecht Poetry prize and was nominated for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Poet’s Prize, and The Sleep of Reason (Waywiser, March 2013), a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. His fourth collection, Blue Rooms, will be published by Waywiser in Fall of 2018. A recipient of NEA and Ruth Lilly Fellowships, as well as grants from the North Carolina and Louisiana Arts councils, he is the Writer in Residence at Queens University of Charlotte, where he teaches courses in both the undergraduate creative writing program and in the low-residency M.F.A. program. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with the novelist Sarah Creech and their two children.



AGE OF WONDERS
     January 2011       
          Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
        —Dante
Old decade done, the morning throws off its shawl
of frost and the hedges drip with thaw water.
Like some postmodern Narcissus I stare at the pool
in my bathroom sink and pat my cheeks with lather
to scrape the aging face brisk, smooth, and pale;
beyond my window a persistent clamor
of horns and engines—as early commuters rush
toward the shrines of commerce—drowns out Hardy’s thrush

with the hope of goods and fortunes. Past forty now,
I lace my shoes and hit the Nordic track,
munch spoonfuls of bran and diced fruit, watch the Dow
streak past a flat screen rich with bric-a-brac
and sleek, tanned prophets who proclaim the Tao
of global markets, who’s in, who’s out, who’s back
from jail, rehab or chemo, while the snows
recede on Everest and the deficit grows.

What good is my pessimism? The soul completes
its journey in the dark and out of sight
or sulks the days in its tent of sinew, greets
the last hour happier than the first; but night
finds poor body cold on the chartered streets—
no point refusing him some warmth and light.
In T-shirt and shorts I sniff the heated air;
my Reeboks shuffle down a winding stair.

Still, something in me bristles. Is it age
merely, a dunderheaded sense the past
was better somehow—that glimmering mirage
glimpsed from a rearview mirror as the mist
ahead parts to reveal the yawning ledge
where the road should be, all distance closing fast?
Is it like that grumble before the gray
dandruff of history smothered out Pompeii?

Behind the bleach white sepulchers and smiles,
the lifted tits, twelve second abs, celebs
and pop stars tricked out in outlandish styles,
it flashes like a model’s picket ribs
showing beneath her nightie where the aisles
crowd toward the check out and the bounty ebbs:
the sublime is out of joint, the ship has wrecked,
huge mounds of kitsch bury the intellect.

Not that one has much time to notice it,
fixed in some grimace of acceleration
(texting, say, on a highway late at night)
or savoring the popular elation
of Living in the Now—while skill and wit
go the old way of income, jobs, vacation,
savings accounts or the environment;
and nobody thinks to wonder where they went.

The shower steams up while the kettle shrieks.
When did the promise sour? I think of all
that didn’t happen: the poems, books, and bucks,
freedom from the tyranny of dull
offices, projects, and bosses, and whole weeks
in cerebrotonic thought of the Ideal.
The present’s proof (as has been said already)
that the future isn’t what it used to be.

Mid-journey, though one of history’s darlings still,
I pour my tea dregs down the drain and tie
the silk around my neck, mustering the will
to head for work. Trawling the squares of sky
trapped in my window frame, inevitable
for all their seeming randomness, clouds go by
like traffic, brushed and freaked with pewter flaws,
obeying—as all things do—time’s hidden laws.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started it in the middle of January, 2011, as the epigraph suggests. I have always wanted to write an “occasional” poem, and this one was inspired in many ways by Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” a New Year’s poem and a pessimistic meditation on the turn of the previous century. I was closing in on the end of my third book, The Sleep of Reason, and the last several poems of that collection came to me more or less in a white heat—I wrote two other, shorter poems and began this one all in the same week. As soon as I sat down, the first stanza tumbled out.

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

Like most of my poems, the first draft came rather quickly—I wrote all but the final stanza in a single sitting. But the final stanza was exceptionally difficult for some reason. It took me over a week to get that right. Once I got the final stanza nailed down, the poem probably went through twenty or thirty drafts—mostly small changes in phrasing. Generally speaking, my drafts appear pretty close to final form, and the revision process is more a tinkering with words and rhythms than a series of major overhauls.

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, definitely. For me, poems are a complicated pas de deux between surrender and will. Poems generally arise out of surrender—I stare off into space and try not to “think” too hard, until an image or a phrase surfaces—and then I consciously push it forward in an effort to contextualize it, to discover its narrative or meditative trajectory. But then at some point I get stuck, and I have to surrender to the poem again, submit to what it wants to do: so I just stare off into space until something reveals itself. I refer to those moments when I get stuck as the “seams” of the poem; when I re-read this piece, I can spot the junctures or seams where I hesitated and had to surrender my will in order to advance to the next line. Hopefully the seams are invisible to other readers, though.

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

I am a formal poet, and in this piece I employ ottava rima, an Italian stanza used by Byron in the nineteenth century as a vehicle for narration and wit, and then used by Yeats in the twentieth for the purposes of “serious” meditation. Though I have usually explored the form in the Yeatsian sense—I’ve been playing with ottava rima since my first book—here I’m decidedly more Byronic. The stanza is composed of eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc. I don’t know how I decided to use it for this poem—it just sort of happened that way. It’s a go-to stanza form, one that I enjoy due to both the difficulty of the triple-rhyming and the delight of the resolving couplet. It seemed to suit the witty pessimism I was striving for.    

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

When I completed the penultimate stanza, the poem just stalled. For several days I entertained the possibility that the poem didn’t need an additional stanza at all, but for some reason I just didn’t feel satisfied. I tried tacking on another eight lines, but when I shared it with a friend it became clear that the lines were terrible. I was pretty perplexed, but nothing spurs me on like discouragement and adversity. I rewrote and rewrote until things clicked into place. Now, the final stanza may be my favorite part of the poem.

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

It was published later in 2011, by The Southwest Review. So it was a matter of several months.

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 jump the gun on submitting. Though I should definitely be more principled about things, I have a childish need for instant gratification. Sometimes it leads to embarrassment, of course, but in this case things turned out all right. I think I let the poem sit around for about three weeks before sending it out.

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

For me, poetry is a fictive art, and there’s definitely a distance between the speaker and the poet here: for example, I don’t have a Nordic track and I don’t wear neckties. Having said that, the poem explores the difficulties and disappointments of middle age, and the spirit of that is true despite the questionable veracity of the details. 

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s a meditative poem framed around a narrative, but there is definitely an element of story. It begins with breakfast and exercise and ends with the speaker leaving for work. It covers narrative ground.

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

I was reading Lord Byron, James Merrill, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Claude McKay at the time. They’re all in there somewhere, quarreling with each other and calling me out, at times, on my comparative incompetence.

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

I try to please a handful of dead writers I admire, who cannot read my poems and would likely disapprove if they could. For this reason, my poetry career is a kind of ongoing existential disappointment.

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 wife, the novelist Sarah Creech, looks at everything I do, usually at the precise moment I am finished with the first draft. A smile or a wrinkle of the lip tells me most of what I need to know initially. I have two additional readers who are unsparing in their appraisals, but also generous in telling me when things are working. One is a former student, a friend, and a fellow poet; he looks at all my early drafts. Sometimes he tells me to put things away, and other times he encourages me to keep going, offering thoughtful suggestions and tactful objections. The other friend—also a fellow poet—reads things once they’re more polished and “finished.” If I didn’t have these three critics, my poems would be much worse.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There’s a grim, even bitter, sense of humor to it that I think sets it apart.

What is American about this poem?

Everything. It’s a critique of contemporary American culture—its obsession with appearance and material success, its pop-culture narcissism, its nihilism and decadence. There’s nothing more American than complaining bitterly in the midst of staggering abundance.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Old poems always strike me as alien and unfamiliar when I reread them. I finished this one years ago, but it has since abandoned me.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chloe Honum

Chloe Honum grew up in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is the author of The Tulip-Flame (2014), which was selected by Tracy K. Smith for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, named a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and won Foreword Reviews Poetry Book of the Year Award, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a Texas Institute of Letters Award. She is also the author of a chapbook, Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in The Paris ReviewOrionThe Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Baylor University.


SNOW WHITE

Queen, you were starlight
obsessing over an empty cradle,
then over the door to the cradle room,
then over the hallway to the door.

I too feel my life is moving backward.
I spend hours recalling
how I reeled, as if from dream
to dream, when you knocked,

how crows swooped and dived
like black fire behind you.
The prince tells me I moan
for you in my sleep—

good star, bad mother, lone tree
in a vast field on which the seasons hang
their sheets, wet and colored
with all the illnesses of beauty.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I think I wrote this poem in 2008, maybe early 2009. As with many of my poems from that time, it likely started as a line or an image that came to me as I walked to or from campus at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where I was an MFA student. I had lots of time to think while walking up and down the steep hills in Fayetteville.

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

I’m not sure of the number of revisions, but it was written during a period in which I was working hard on a single poem at a time. My MFA was a four-year program, and by the second year I’d developed a steady rhythm of finishing one poem a month. I started other poems, too, and brought them as drafts to workshop, but I concentrated on and finished one at a time. It seemed like a slow pace compared to some writers, but I was happy with it. I’d work on my one poem every day, often first thing in the morning and last thing at night, often for hours at a time, and by the end of the month it would be finished.

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 both inspiration and sweat. I remember that much of this poem was written in intense concentration and toil. But the ending came almost fully formed, in a burst.

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

Several of the poems in my first book, The Tulip-Flame, share this poem’s form. Four quatrains of fairly short and uniform lines. Four little boxes. There was a wildness in those poems that craved something orderly and sturdy to lean on. A bit like ballet, which is a theme in the book, the form allowed me to be meticulous and precise while remaining present with my most untamable subject matter.

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

During the phase in which I wrote this, I’d draft poems in mechanical pencil, on enormous sketch pads. There was a satisfaction in striking things out, penciling in alternatives, drawing big swooping arrows to switch things around. I felt the construction of the lines differently than I did when drafting on a keyboard and screen. I was also in the habit of working on poems in the middle of the night. I’d wake at three or so in the morning, go downstairs in my drafty house in Fayetteville, and work on my poem-in-progress for a while before going back to sleep. Again, these were my MFA days, when I had lots of time completely to myself. In the later stages, after I’d typed up the poem, I’d print it out, attach it to a clipboard, and carry it around the house with me as I got ready for class, prepared food, or did housework! It was a strange and beautiful time.

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

About five years. I first sent it out in 2010. It was rejected from quite a few journals. It has a strange opening that I liked and refused to change, but that several people said they didn’t “get.” Anna Leahy accepted it for publication in the February 2014 issue of Tab and later nominated it for a Pushcart. It was republished in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology, which then led to my being a guest poetry editor for the 2017 anthology, a thrilling honor. I owe this poem—and Anna—a lot, and I’m grateful for its slower path toward publication.

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 that. My practice has varied a lot.

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

My mother died from suicide when I was seventeen. We were physically far away from one another at the time. She was at home in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where I was raised, and I was in California, where I’d recently moved to live with my paternal grandmother. It was mid-winter in New Zealand, mid-summer in the U.S. It’s a disorienting grief I carry, and I long for her in my every breath. That is the fact beneath the poem. The fiction is obvious in that it’s written in the voice of Snow White, speaking from her life after the known story has ended. I’d like to be clear, though, that I don’t mean to conflate my mother with the queen in the poem. Not at all. It’s just that the persona offered a different way in. Through that voice—and the big fiction of it—I was able to say something about early trauma and the constant nature of my own longing.

Is this a narrative poem?

Not really, though it does lean on the narrative of the fairytale.

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

In stepping into the fairytale character persona, I was guided by “Gretel, from a Sudden Clearing,” by Marie Howe, my first poetry teacher. As with so much of her work, that poem stayed with me from the moment I read it.

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


In the midst of writing a poem, I often have a longing to reach someone. There’s often a “you” involved, whether or not that person is addressed on the page. And the “you” often brings up a kind of desire and distance; some have died, some are unreachable for other reasons. After about the first draft, I imagine a wider audience—strangers, friends, past teachers, or whoever else. So the idea of audience changes as I push on. I don’t think about this as I’m writing, and it doesn’t happen in neat stages, but I can feel the pattern. Often, there’s an intensely personal and urgent “you” for whom the poem begins to live. And then there’s a necessary widening out from that original desire, and a giving over to craft to make the actual thing.

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 share my drafts with my partner, who is also a poet, and sometimes with a very close friend who is a sister-poet to me.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

In terms of style, it shares important elements with other poems in my first book. It differs quite a bit from my newer work, though. Looking at this poem now is like glimpsing my younger self, seeing her fierce precision and stubbornness. I chiseled the poems in my first book with a kind of obsessiveness that, though I’m grateful to have experienced, I can’t quite imagine repeating. My newer poems breathe differently and move differently. They’re a bit less lonely, thank goodness. They’re not constantly standing on a cliff’s edge. They can walk through the world a bit, put their hands to the ground.

What is American about this poem?


I’m not entirely sure. I wrote it in Arkansas, using a persona from a German fairytale, while deeply homesick for Aotearoa/New Zealand. In terms of programs and degrees, my study of poetry has been in America. But learning to read and write in Aotearoa—land of the long white cloud, land of my heart—will always be as important to my aesthetic awareness, and in many ways more so, as anything I learned in college.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


Finished.