Saturday, October 18, 2014

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was published in 2014 as a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize with the University of Arkansas Press. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012, and he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume. He is Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, a freelance editor, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.




SINGING 

What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it? No spider webs
snagged in the bluestem, no horseflies at rest
in cones of henbit, no slug trails penned
to the cooled hoods of cars. We are creatures all,
stillborn to the language of split pine rails
standing in their pickets, ice glazed to bone
in every rut, the stealth tracks of jays a sleepless
ideography in the snow. But we are not
entirely alone between the mountain ranges,
in these hours condemned to darkness
before the sun gyres open the face of February
and the red flare of Mars grows dim.
Just outside my door, the burr oak is wintered
full of grackles— hundreds of coin-
eyed scuttles ornamenting its branches. Here,
my breath plumes gray. In the distance,
brush catches fire. The wind, if you watch,
is calligraphy; the stars in winter,
a weightlessness. The grackles are doors,
rasping their flight plans limb to limb.
The grackles are doors, some limned with light,
others black. Rising, my arms have long
been open. Stepping across these thresholds,
I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

"Singing" is one of the only "intentional" poems in Ghost Gear. By “intentional” I mean it's one of the few poems I wrote in the book with a specific goal in mind. It's also the last poem I wrote for Ghost Gear even though it's the book's opening poem. 

I wrote "Singing" with the goal of announcing to the reader much of what Ghost Gear is about: that desire to know how the world functions while recognizing that this is probably impossible—thus this notion of only knowing God in the face of absence, thus the notion of stepping (as I step) from the human world to the animal world, from the world of the present to the world of the past, from the world in front of us to the world of the imagination, the world within. 

"Singing" also does the job of letting the reader know from page one the sort of poet I am. I love music. I love the image. I love metaphor. I love tension. I call poems like this "thesis poems." Whenever I say this aloud (or even now in the student center over a McDouble sans pickles), I instinctively duck, fearing some poet across the room will have slung a piece of rotting fruit in my direction. "Thesis poem?" Oxymoron. Heresy. Sacrilege! But why not? Ghost Gear is a book of poems, not a collection. Like a thesis in an essay, I wanted the first poem to let the reader know what they were in for and what to expect. 

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

I wrote "Singing" in fifty eight drafts over the winter of 2007/2008 when I was finishing up my first draft of Ghost Gear. After that, I revised it somewhere around fifty more times as I revised the book itself. The last significant edit to "Singing" looks to have been made in early 2012, right before the book was picked up by the University of Arkansas Press. And I of course made a few micro-edits to it before the book went to press. 

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

Well, I certainly believe in inspiration, but I really don't care much about inspiration either. I was definitely inspired to write the poem, and I was certainly inspired by the poems I was reading around the time of its creation (Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk, in particular), and I was certainly inspired by the weather and those damned noisy grackles, but blood, sweat, tears, and lots of throwing shit at the wall is what made the poem. I think that when we receive a line (I have no idea, for example, where the first 1.5 lines came from), it's the result of the hard work that has come before. When we revise a poem, we're not rewriting it, we're practicing to write what eventually becomes the final version. You really can't "receive" practice; you have to actually go out there, put on your sleeve, and shoot three pointers until, in a game, you receive the made shot you've been working so tirelessly toward. I'd say inspiration is the byproduct of getting out there, of the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It's a tool just like all the others. 

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

"Singing" was always in these short, somewhat enjambed lines, and it was always one page. This is for two reasons: 1) I wanted a shortish poem of shortish lines to open the book, and 2) I absolutely loved the rhythm created by the break after "winter" and the repetition in the rhythm of "but that each winter / I thank him for it" somewhat indebted to that break. Once I had the first line set, it made perfect sense to work toward making each line similar in length. It's a quiet poem. It's a poem in which structure is crucial yet subtle. And it's a poem I wanted as many readers as possible to be drawn to, so I tried to keep its shape as simple and elegant as possible in order to attract as many eyes as possible. 

If we were to dig deeper into the poem and the individual lines, we'd see that each line operates like a little form in and of itself. While the poem overall is definitely free verse, the lines themselves and the play from line to line pays much more attention to form. Sam Hamill recently informed me this is called "organic verse," verse that grows out of some sort of structure but isn't just plain ol’ "free." That's how much of Ghost Gear operates. In the book, there isn't a single poem written in received form (unless you want to call a fourteen-line poem with a volta near the end a sonnet), but the guts of the poems reside in the shadows of form.

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

Here's how I write a poem: I start with something about which I have very little understanding. Then I write, write, write, revise, revise, revise until I do know what the hell is going on. Then I'm done. This one, like all the others, worked just like that. The only unusual thing was that I knew what I wanted it to do, but how…that was as mysterious as every other damned poem I try to put together and, in this case, finished.

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

Man, that took forever, and I remember being really baffled (and still am) by this. I was baffled because it seemed to do all the things people typically say a poem should do: It's short. It's simple. It's got beautiful language. It's clear. It's minimalistic. Yadda yadda yadda—it seemed to do everything everyone always told me good poems did but no one wanted it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I agree with any of this, but there’s no doubt that these sorts of poems get published more often than longer, more immediately complex poems. 

Anyway, it was picked up by Ascent in the Winter of 2012 after well over one-hundred submissions, which I'm very proud of. Good things often come to those who wait or, in my case, those who wait while they submit it over and over and over to endless frustration. But why some poems strike editors right away and others take however long they take is almost as mysterious to me as poetry itself. Luckily, I don’t worry about that so much anymore. I just try to write poems that do the things I think good poems do. Eventually, I/the poem fools someone into agreeing with me/it!

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem? 

It totally depends on the poem. Poems often feel finished one day only to need tweaking or major revision a few days later. I really don’t consider a poem “done” until it’s published in a book. Once it’s in a book, that’s sacred, that’s the poem you put out in the world with your name on the cover. Everything else is a little more fluid and anything can happen to a poem before that time, so I only send out poems I would be proud to publish. If anything in me says, “This poem isn’t ready for human eyes,” I wait until that voice shuts up or, occasionally, says the opposite, “Yo, dumb poet, I’m ready.” 

Just because a poem gets picked up by a journal doesn’t mean it’s finished or even that it’s any good. At the same time, I don’t think you have to think, “This poem is one-million percent done!” “This is the best poem I’ve ever written!” before you seek an audience for it either.

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

I’m not sure fact has much place in poetry. Facts are mostly bullshit anyway. For how many years did we publish textbooks that said Pluto is a planet? That was a fact; now it’s…something else. 

Clinging to facts or trying to reproduce factual reality doesn’t make much sense to me, and I’m not sure facts speak nearly as well to human experience as fiction anyway. Much of my poetry is fictional. Sure, the whole idea, the whole story is based in fact (usually…) but the details….who knows? And honestly, who cares? I don’t read poetry for factual truth; I read poetry for emotional truth. Emotional truth is just as slippery and incalculable, but I think it has a little more humility. It recognizes and pays homage to its innate inaccuracy. And it’s certainly more interesting. 

As for “Singing,” it’s actually pretty factual. There really was a burr oak full of grackles in my front yard, and I really do like winter and the silence it brings. And I really do wonder about God—this thing I don’t believe in literally but often find myself speaking to for reasons unknown. But are grackles really like “coin-eyed scuttles”? Emotionally, sure. Factually? I’m not sure there’s any way to determine that.

Is this a narrative poem?

Depends on what you mean by narrative. I consider this poem what I call a lyric-narrative, a poem that utilizes elements of narrative (the character of the speaker, setting, speech itself, etc…) as well as lyric (assonance, alliteration, imagination, etc…). Judy Jordan introduced me to this notion my first semester of graduate school, though I think I came up with the actual term. She learned it from Greg Orr’s essay, “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry,” which argues that all poets have a basic instinct (temperament) when it comes to the types of poems they write:
Different poets are born with different temperaments, and the nature of their temperament is shown in the work. Needless to say, since the sense of wholeness is perhaps the most essential defining quality of a poem, this form-giving gift is more important than any other a poet might possess. (269)
The notion of lyric-narratives is nothing new but placing a hyphen between the two terms (thus turning it into one term) and removing thefrom “narratives” is a little different. It goes, more or less, like this: Sometimes, when we say “narrative poem,” we’re really saying “a poem that tells a story,” but narration doesn’t always tell a story. Narration is a mode of expression that uses narrative tools (characters, setting, conflict/resolution, other story-telling devices) and that tends to tell a story. In a lyric-narrative, a poet can deploy these tools to tell a story, but they can also use this stuff to meditate on, say, a blade of grass, without being purely lyrical. Adding narrative elements to a lyrical poem is a lot like writing a prose poem: most audiences recognize and are comfortable with prose. As a result, a prose poem is often more approachable. A lyric poem with zero narrative is, at least these days, pretty alien to most readers, even many poets. So adding narrative elements to a lyric poem can really open things up for the poet, the poem, and the reader.

Lyric-narrative works the other way as well, of course. A poet can take a straight narrative and utilize lyrical tools to make it resonate in a more visceral way, to get at that emotional truth we’ve been talking about in a way more similar to song, prayer. This is how many of the poems in Ghost Gear operate, and it’s what I think a large majority of really good poems do. They’re not 100% lyric or 100% narrative. They’re a cocktail of the two mixed just right.

This poem certainly doesn’t tell a story, but it uses narrative tools most readers recognize. Lyric-narrative, you could say, is a sort of little magic trick: the narrative tricks the reader into absorbing the lyric. This, above all else, I believe must be the primary mission of the poet: to get our lyrics down and to find a way for people to read them.

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

I always read while writing. I’m a bit of a method actor; if I can find some books to read that are in the mood/tone of what I’m writing, I’m all over it. In this case, I was reading Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk quite a bit. Both write about the natural world in lyric-narratives that are approachable yet mysterious and beautiful and meaningful at the same time. I was also reading Robert Wrigley, James Kimbrell, Judy Jordan, and Davis McCombs quite a bit, all poets who work a bit more in narrative like myself but are clearly in love with the short lyric as well. 

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

My ideal audience member is someone who thinks they hate poetry. I challenge every single poem I write to be clear and to be transformative. I want my poems to make basic, logical sense and to transport the reader from their subways, living rooms, classes. But I also challenge each poem to be, you know, an actual poem, not just a collection of easy-to-read lines that may or may not take the reader somewhere beyond themselves. It’s the complexity of the line and how each line works together that I think has the power to truly move and relocate the reader. But if the lines are too esoteric for the general reader to follow, I think you’ve lost the war before the battle’s even begun. What cracks me up about all of this is how often people say they don’t like poetry when they haven’t read a poem since sophomore year of high school. I’d hate poetry too if I stopped reading it at the age of sixteen. But it’s our job to thwart such beliefs. It’s our responsibility to, with our work, change minds. So it has to stand on its own, but it can’t just stand there. Am I doing that? Probably not. But I’d think myself a fraud if I didn’t try.

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?

Oh yeah, I workshopped this quite a bit with my peers and professors at Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I got my MFA. Judy Jordan was my primary mentor. Her fingerprints are all over Ghost Gear and “Singing,” but Rodney Jones and Allison Joseph and many of my peers (particularly Martin Call, Jenna Bazzell, Alexander Lumans, and Aaron Wheetley) helped me put this poem (and all the others in the book) together. 

I really believe that poetry is a collaboration with the world. The notion that we create this stuff in a vacuum is ridiculous. Could this poem have been written without me? Is “Singing” “my” poem? Sure. In a way. Some fool has to actually write down the words and make them work and such. But a poem doesn’t exist without a reader, and this poem wouldn’t have come to exist without SIUC’s MFA program and all the amazing people who fostered and supported me. So I rarely say a poem is mine. I much prefer to say a poem is ours. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s pretty short compared to most of the poetry I write but, otherwise, I’d say it’s pretty indicative of the Ghost Gear poems. I just finished the thirteenth draft of my second manuscript last Friday. It’s the first draft I’d really say is “complete” though I imagine it has quite a long way to go. Hell, it’s in all likelihood a total mess, but this draft is the first I’ve not felt queasy about. “Singing” really wouldn’t fit in this book, so I guess it’s different now that I’m working on a different book with a different tone and set of modes.

What is American about this poem? 

I couldn’t say. I’m an American writing in America about America, but I think this poem could take place anywhere. Sure, I imagine some of it is more American than, say, Lithuanian, but I’m no expert in either!

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 


Finished. I wouldn’t try to publish a poem I’d abandoned!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks. Her poems appear in Agni, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She's received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, U.S. Poets in Mexico, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, the prose editor of 32 Poems, and a staff member of the Sewanee Writers' Conference.





READING OVID AT THE PLASTIC SURGEON'S 


I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst

themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow

Jones down down down under
a profile of the marathon

bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race

of   peoples that do not please
him: What is past

remedy calls for the surgeon’s
knife. They will take a hunk of my

cheek (cancer) & though I can’t
see during the procedure, I imagine

the site as an apricot, bitten.
This is a survival mechanism —

romanticism. David says,
If you’re out

in public & you don’t want anyone
to talk to you, bring a book

of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of   the room, I avoid my reflection

in the window, for there, most
of all, I see myself as only I can,

as only the eye will have me —
as light, as light alone.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

I started the poem in June 2013, the same week I had the minor surgery referenced in the poem. While I was in the waiting room, the fraught juxtapositions (patients of cosmetic surgery with the marathon bombers with the rage of Jove with my own cancer) sent up a flare of meaningfulness. The first notes for the poem began with the line from the Metamorphoses. The first draft was only six or seven lines.

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

Two, and that's a rarity. I let the six or seven lines sit for a month. In July, I opened a new Word document and wrote the rest of the poem in one go.

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

"Inspiration" is a tricky word because it harbors mysticism, as if something external breathes an idea into us. 

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

The poem began in a single stanza and then moved into couplets. 

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

Well, other than the fact that it was written in so few drafts, no. 

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

Six 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? 

This poem didn't sit for very long. In fact, I sent it off later in July and Don Share accepted it within a couple of days.

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

Did I look at my reflection in the window? I'm not sure. It was a cloudy day and I looked out at some landscapers while I waited on the surgeon. I believe I invented that whole part about looking at my reflection in the window. But who knows?

The poem does leave out another incident that happened that day that I wrote into another poem I eventually scrapped. He injected lidocaine into my cheek and began to cut, but I could feel everything! He had to do two more injections before my face went numb. My mouth could barely move and yet he kept on talking to me. He asked me what subject I taught. I tried to say "poetry" but couldn't sound the "p" or "t." He couldn't understand me. I kept trying. Finally, when he understood, he burst out laughing, scalpel next to my cheek. Then he realized I was serious. "Oh," he said, "I didn't know anyone taught that anymore."

Is this a narrative poem?

It's narrative in the sense that there's a clear dramatic situation and there's a progression of moving from the waiting room to the exam room, but I think the poem's rooted in lyricism in that it shows how the mind works to create associations and reflects on oneself.

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

Besides Ovid? Otherwise, I don’t recall what I was reading.

David Wojahn is the “David” in the poem. 

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

Myself. (Is that navel gazing?) I guess I best know how I read and therefore try to address my own concerns and hope that appeals to others.

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?

It depends on how confident I am about any given poem. I tend to share things around when I feel less sure about the moves I'm making. I have several friends who are prompt and decisive readers with whom I share drafts. This poem wasn't shared until it was accepted for publication.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

I don't often write poems that overtly begin out of a reading experience. It's a subject that I fear others find boring, but this one seemed so charged because of its context that I couldn't help but write it.

What is American about this poem? 

Boob jobs, CNN, and a sample of a population that doesn't read? I doubt I would have this exact experience elsewhere.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I've always had difficulty with this distinction. I felt that I was done with the poem. Is that finishing it or abandoning it?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Jon Davis

Jon Davis, Director of the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). Two chapbooks, Thelonious Sphere (Q Ave. Press) and With (a collaborative poem) (Firewheel Editions) were released in 2013. He is also co-translator of Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan's book Dayplaces, which is forthcoming from Tebot Bach. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Lannan Literary Award, a G.E. Younger Writers Award, and a Lavan Prize. He is currently the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate.



GIRAFFE


When the midnight phone rang,
my friend’s voice kept trying
to say the word hysterectomy, that
one-word melody with ancestors
stalking the madhouses of nineteenth-
century England. I was, of course,
moved, more by the simple
failure of elocution than the illness —
which was a factoid in a slick
magazine. Like learning that a giraffe
has seven neck bones, that a bat
will eat a ton of mosquitoes
in an average year. Hysterectomy.
Abstract as a memo from the President
of Nocturnal Congestion. The dishes
shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator
hummed its cryogenic folksongs.
The budgerigar honked and chittered
in its night-shrouded cage. I wrapped
the phone cord around my finger
like a man wrapping a phone cord
around his finger. The voice
in the telephone. The voice in
the telephone. I kept hearing
appendectomy, lobotomy, laparoscopy.
The sadness soaking into the words
like hand cream. The words thick with it,
bloated. Seven neck bones. Imagine.
Like you. Like me. But the miraculous reach.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

This poem was composed around 1997. I don't remember too much about the actual composition, except that it began as a parody of a certain kind of poem of which I disapproved and thought too formulaic, too clever, too superficial. I had actually invented a persona, Chuck Calabreze, to compose such poems. (Though "invented" is too strong a word; Chuck shambled up the walkway one afternoon and offered his services.) "Giraffe" was composed, along with four similar poems, in one morning, in about an hour. I allotted myself (as Chuck) fifteen minutes for each poem. The poem started with the impulse to demonstrate how easy it is to write such poems, the formula for which is to enter into an associational state, indulge a kind of "household surrealism," and move quickly to an ending that seems both beside the point and to the point. 

To my surprise, two of the poems I wrote in that hour eventually appeared in Preliminary Report. (For those keeping score, "Black Spaniel & Drunk Parents" is the other.) I kept coming back to "Giraffe" because of the surprise of the ending and the sounds of the lines, "The dishes/ shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator/ hummed its cryogenic folksongs./ The budgerigar honked and chittered/ in its night-shrouded cage."

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

I changed nothing. This is the first draft. I allowed myself fifteen minutes from typing the first line, to finishing it, to affixing the title.

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

Although I'm typically a reviser, I'm mainly a tweaker and a tightener, a line-breaker and a refiner -- not an overhauler. I believe absolutely in inspiration. I suppose if I thought there was a problem with American poetry it's that beginning poets believe too much in inspiration and experienced poets believe too little in it.  This poem was entirely received. No sweat. No tears. No loss of bodily fluids at all. I think of Andre Breton speaking of surrealism: "The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him." And: "The ease of everything is priceless."

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

The technique was all in the twenty years of practice prior to the poem's arrival. For me, craft is learned on the practice court. The poem is the game. You catch the ball on the wing and you know you can hit the jumper, drive left or right, hit the runner or take it to the rack, or make the quick pass to the cutter. If you've been practicing, all the options are there, the skills sharp. Of course, no matter how well prepared you are, you make bad decisions, bad passes, or--you're open, your form is solid, but you still clang the rack rim. In those cases, luckily, in the slow-moving game of poetry, you can revise--and I typically do. The small adjustments usually continue for two or three years.

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

The fact that it began as parody and turned out to be a real poem was unusual, though it happens occasionally. The fact that I did not revise a word is highly unusual.

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

I think about four years. It appeared in the Iowa Review in 2001. For the longest time, I didn't know whether it was a "real" poem or not, so it just floated from stack of papers to stack of papers. I'd install it in a book manuscript, then remove it, then reinstall it. At some point, when I got enough distance from what I thought I'd done, I began to see what I'd actually done and accepted its poem-ness. 

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 a rule. I wait until the the poem is ready, and that varies from poem to poem. I don't feel a strong impulse to publish until I get close to having a finished book manuscript. I always have Donald Hall's curmudgeonly admonitions from Horace in the back of my head: "Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years." The opposite of Breton's permissiveness. And also necessary.

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

Giraffes indeed do have seven neck bones. Bats do, indeed, eat a ton of mosquitoes in an average year. Everything else is a fiction, though the fictions do have emotional correspondences in the real world. I've gotten all sorts of terrifying telephone calls, late night and otherwise, over the years.

Is this a narrative poem?

I suppose there is a deflected narrative at the center of it. My friend Dana Levin says I engage a "Poetics of Avoidance." I keep telling her it's a "Poetics of the Cautious Approach." I think Dana is correct. Dana is usually correct.

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

A group of poets who shall remain nameless, since the poem began in parody. The lesson I wound up relearning was to trust inspiration. To accept the gifts. To trust the associative imagination. To trust Breton's "incredible ease"--at least sometimes. My concern about the "incredible ease" became an embrace of the "incredible ease." Or at least a recognition of how often the poems I love best are the ones that occurred despite my intentions, not because of them. (It's interesting now to note that the line about the phone cord is a much diminished version of a famous Pablo Neruda line.)

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

An intelligent reader who finds 90% of what passes for "culture" to be too blustery and extroverted? That might be the reader I think of. Someone on a crowded bus staring into the pages of a book as if the real world could be found, could be somehow reignited, there. 

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 tend to work over my poems mostly in isolation. When I'm close to finishing a book manuscript, I usually run the whole manuscript past Arthur Sze, Greg Glazner, Dana Levin, and Santee Frazier

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

My poems are, to my ear and eye anyway, so various that there's no central style or form or voice to differ from. Some of my poems let the dog off the leash, let it romp a while, then clip the leash back on and head home. This is one of those poems. Not all of my poems are so permissive. Not all of them end up at the dog park. Not all of them romp in the wet grass.

What is American about this poem? 

The obsession with fact. The telephone call. The focus on individual, local tragedies, because we've been largely exempted from many of the concerns that other populations face everyday--trying to find enough food and clean water, trying not to be killed by another group of angry or hungry or fanatically religious people, etc.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

Chuck Calabreze left it on the doorstep. I discovered it. Gave it a good home. An education. A snappy outift. 


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rebecca Hazelton

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and winner of the “Discovery” / Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2011, and Best American Poetry 2013.


Book Of Memory

In my seeing there was a blank and he filled that blank
with words, there were words for darkness which made it lift,
there were words for cover which ripped them off,
there were legs that crossed and hearts that crossed,
promises red and read, and the pluck of banjo had a name
for that twang, and the way he called the world into notice,
that had a word, too. Once I saw I couldn't unsee
and the worst was that the light glaring from the letters
left blue haze under my eyelids. There are no photographs
of this time and I can only go by what others
tell me: I was blurred and erratic, I drew a circle
of white chalk around me and called myself inviolate,
I watched for horses on the horizon, my walls
were under siege from smaller men who called themselves
heroes. They say I reached over the balustrade and picked
up the tiny ships and threw them over the edge of the world.
I tore my hair, cut one breast from my body and plattered it
as around my fortifications one man pulled another man
behind his chariot. If they say that's how I was,
that's how I was. I have no words for the one in the mirror
who apes me every morning. She's not the one I remember
imagining as a young girl. There must be a way to unsee
how I tap the glass and she taps back, and which wall,
which Cassandra weeping—everything I saw I spoke to his ear,
and the wall crashed into place between us, the horse
had a bellyful of it, the blank was full of small soldiers,
and he turned from my beauty and said my name.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was composed during my fellowship year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when I was the Jay C. and Ruth Halls poetry fellow. I was overdue for a gathering and was trying to rush out the door when I got the idea. So half the poem was written standing over my desk.

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

This poem is a little unusual for me in that it didn't go through many drafts at all. The few changes it had were mostly in terms of punctuation, and a bit of compression here and there. Between the first draft and the final was a year, but you wouldn't see substantial changes between those drafts.

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

I don't believe in "inspiration" but I have had the experience, as with this poem, of having a poem arrive almost fully formed. But what looks like inspiration is entirely the result of sweat and tears—if I hadn't spent my time tearing apart other poems, revising, scrapping, recasting, then I wouldn't have the skills necessarily to write a successful poem in a go. Besides, that sort of occurrence is a rarity—if I sat around waiting for it to happen again, I wouldn't have much to show for myself.

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

It wasn't conscious at first, but eventually I knew I wanted the poem to function as a kind of avalanche, to overwhelm the reader with history and image. That's why the poem is long-lined, and one thick column—it's monolithic.

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

Not really—I spoke it aloud as I wrote, which is typical for me if the poem is sonically driven, as this one is.

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

I'm not certain—sixth months? It was picked up by AGNI fairly quickly after I sent it out, which was very happy for me, as I admire AGNI a great deal.

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 wouldn't say I have rules about this. When I write something I'm proud of, I'm very full of myself immediately afterwards, and I have on occasion let that feeling get the better of me, and sent out work that wasn't fully formed. But editors are smart—they reject that work. As I've gotten older, I do that sort of impulsive submissions less—both because I have a little less energy to throw at submitting, but also because I've come to recognize the value of polish and thought. Poems might sit several months, get a revision, and then get sent out, or, poems might sit for a year. Some poems don't go out, of course, because I never feel they are up to snuff.

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

It's a poem that is interested in myth, which are fictions we find useful in illuminating and explaining ourselves. The actions of the Trojan War have always fascinated me, but I've always wanted to know more about the women caught up in it—Helen, Cassandra, Briseis. Their untold stories could make the stories of "heroes" look small in comparison.

Is this a narrative poem?

Apparently not. I once met up with a poet I admire a great deal, and who tends to write along narrative lines, and this poem made the poet … uncomfortable? I'm not sure what the reaction was, exactly, because she was far too classy to let it really show, but this was not a poem that made her happy, nor did she really know how to respond to it. To me, it's narrative, but it's a very associative narrative, one that flits across memory and legend. A lot of the book is concerned with there not being a true story, and this poem hints at those concerns.

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

I was reading Richard Siken, Inger Christensen, D.A. Powell,  and Julianna Spahr, among others.

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

Sometimes I'm writing a poem to a particular person—especially if it's an intimate or emotional poem. But most of the time, I'm not thinking of anyone in particular. The poems in the latter camp typically turn out better.

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've been fortunate to have a number of generous readers—Matthew Guenette took at look at this, as did Nancy Reddy, Jacques Rancourt, and Brittany Cavallaro once it was in manuscript form.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

 It's designed to be a bit of a deluge—images stacking and stacking until it all breaks over or down. That's not my typical tactic with a poem, but something I do on occasion, especially when I'm interested in conveying a certain kind of simultaneity.

What is American about this poem?


An American wrote it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Jennifer Habel


Jennifer Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Blackbird, The Common, Gulf Coast, LIT, and other journals. Her chapbook In the Little House won the 2008 Copperdome Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, she’s the coordinator of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.




THE AGE OF TONE

I can’t stop talking about the moon,
for example. Tipping the stroller to watch
them smile at the sickle.
How she wants to find dead butterflies
beneath the nonindigenous flowers
as Mosaics and Cloudless Sulfurs
dodge our camera phones.
Or the dozen piglets nursing from                 
their enormous mother, tugging                                 
and stomping as she snorts with pleasure.      
Some grandparents don’t see well,
I read aloud in the doctor’s office.
Or hear. Or walk. Or breathe.
She knows her toys aren’t alive. She thinks
when our dog dies he will become a toy.
I wanted to watch the piglets
so I found the disk in the unlocked safe. 
We filmed swarming chickens, insatiable goats,
a donkey with a dorsal cross.
No pigs, but a long afternoon
on our weedy lawn. Celestial
skin segmented by shade. 
Wanting a memory, I booked
a room in the strange chalet.
Tell your husband to lift the painting
and throw the breaker, the old Frau said.
Mold, the rain never stopped. In the painting
a chaise supports a woman’s arms
which support her forehead.     
I love Vermont! they screamed, jumping
on the bed. We ate cold fries,
held our books beneath the one lamp.
All night the heat clicked on. One woke,
woke the other, woke again.
No one in the whole invincible world knew
where we were.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Probably in 2009. The poem began unusually (for me) in that it began with an idea. Something to do with a way of characterizing a time of life—the time of being a parent to young children—and something to do with tone. I can’t remember more specifically. Tone felt like a problem to be solved in writing about motherhood.

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

There were a lot of drafts. I probably wrote it over the course of a few weeks, but was tinkering with it at least a year later.

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

The analogy of the writer to an in- or out-of-shape athlete works for me. When I’m writing regularly I have moments of what I think could be called inspiration. These are flashes or clearings that feel “received.” When I’m not working regularly those moments don’t occur.

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

I always felt the poem as a single stanza with lines of the length it has.

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

Nothing was unusual about the way I wrote it, but it did begin unusually (see what I said earlier about being prompted by some sort of an idea).

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

It appeared in my book, which was published in 2012. So about three years.

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. I’ve settled into not thinking about submissions during periods when I have time to write. I used to send things out sooner than I do now.

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

Much of what is described in this poem actually happened, but I don’t think that matters. The poem doesn’t seem to be gaining any energy or charge from the fact that its contents may be “true.” On the issue of fact and fiction in general, I like Louise Glück’s essay “Against Sincerity” in which she distinguishes between “the actual” and “the true.” The artist, she writes, “surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of the truth.”

Is this a narrative poem?

Not primarily, though it’s one of the most narrative poems I’ve written. I’d say there’s a story inside the poem—the story of a night away—but that the poem itself holds still.

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

Years ago I consciously tried to learn how to use fewer connectives in my poems. I remember studying single stanza poems in Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And HerSoul Out of Nothing and Jorie Graham’s Erosion in this regard. I wasn’t reading those poems when I wrote this one, but I think they influenced it in terms of movement and form.

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

This may sound weird, but my audience is myself. I’m trying to make the poem sound right to me, trying to make a poem that I can live with. When I’m done writing one, I’m also done being its audience. The poem recedes and eventually seems almost unrelated to me. I love that.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

My husband, Chris Bachelder, reads my poems. I needed, and got, help on my manuscript from poet friends, and I’ve learned certain things about my poems from certain people over the years. MariaHummel, for example, taught me about my openings, and Lisa Olstein taught me about my endings. Earlier versions of this poem had extraneous lines at both the beginning and the end. I credit Maria and Lisa with my knowing to lop those off.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s longer than many of them and, as I said before, more narrative. Those two qualities might not be unrelated.

What is American about this poem?

Looking at the poem now, I notice examples of commodified experiences in it. People paying to self-consciously experience something.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I’ve over-thought this one. I think the answer is “both.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

John Poch

John Poch is Professor of English in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. His collections of poems are: Dolls, (Orhises Press 2009; Two Men Fighting with a Knife (Story Line Press 2008), which won the Donald Justice Award; and Poems (Orchises Press 2004), a finalist for the PEN/Osterweil prize. The Essential Hockey Haiku (a poetry/fiction collaboration with Chad Davidson) was published by St. Martin’s Press in Fall 2006. He is a co-editor of the poetry anthology Old Flame: From the First Ten Years of 32 Poems Magazine.


TWO ROOMS

On the high tin ceiling in the temporary room,
if you are patient, you can see where the panels
come together and, at the curved fleur-de-lis border,
the overlapping edges strained by weather and time,
the arbitrary network of cracks in the layers
of paint just like the patterns of minuscule cracks
up close in an old Flemish painting in a museum
once you look past the still-life at the very medium.
Above the ceiling, you know there are wooden beams
to which the tin is nailed. If you could see them,
the pine would be crude, but you accept the purpose
holding it all together and up, as a soul holds the body.

This morning, in the next room, the two porn actors
are not acting. They are making love the best they know.
For a while she cries out a rhythm quietly
while he is silent. Before they woke I heard
five distinct birds outside in the eucalyptus understory,
a garbage truck, a stirring, and then this flesh.
I hate and love them and think I know the dark house
they are headed for, the numb odor of old ink,
the room of needles and no thread and no one
finally watching, late understanding, but they don’t
want my worry. They want to feel the black of space
and sharp stars and answer to no one with a visceral art
never done exactly this way, an art that you, the viewer,
become lost in and take for an interim heaven, and look
and look, art that is, in this counterfeit way, a kind of beauty.     


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem at Headlands Center for the Arts while I was an artist in residence there in May-June 2007. It began one morning when the couple in the room next door were having sexual relations at a very audible level. 

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

I probably revised various phrases and lines for a year or two, off and on, like most of my poems, but this poem found its way into its finished form in a fairly short amount of time. Maybe a month. I had written most of it by the end of that morning.

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

I believe in inspiration as the act of breathing in, preferably clean air with a good amount of oxygen; I don’t recommend it as an act for making poetry. It seems silly to me to think that if you take in air in any special way (deep breaths, eyes closed, legs crossed, etc) that poetry will come to you. Poetry comes in through the ear rather than the nose. This poem certainly came in through the ear via the sound of flesh and strange non-linguistic utterances. Under the door and into my ear. And I didn’t specifically desire to hear these noises. I wasn’t wanting them at all. I wanted silence, actually, so I could hear the muse. I don’t sweat much when I write, though I do ache from sitting in a chair because I have something wrong with my back. Nevertheless, I still sit myself down in a chair or sprawl out on the floor to get the work done. It is work to write a poem, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasure. I don’t cry tears over very much that I write, but I do sometimes tear up over other work I wish I had written, poems that move me.

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


By form, I suppose you mean these two rooms, these two stanzas and the length of the line. I usually write in a slightly shorter line. Iambic pentameter is a natural phrase length for me. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe I was writing about the room itself, the beautiful high ceilings and the space I was in, and the space beyond my walls, outside. Those birds and the garbage truck.

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

Not especially. But I’ll say I didn’t want to write about it. I’m certainly not eager to write about pornographers or sex because I feel like that would be something “intriguing” or “titillating” and I’m not out for those cheap thrills. I care about the art of poetry, and not the subject matter. But I bore witness to the event, and some phrases that I liked came to me, and these seemed like poetry, so I wrote them down to begin. 

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

It appeared in the Cincinnati Review in 2012.

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 try not to send anything off until a good first draft has set for at least three months. But there are exceptions. I have poems that I finish in one sitting (rare) and poems that I have been working on for fifteen years (rarer).

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

I used to write poems with a lot of fiction in them. I wanted to spice up the problems and the events because my life seemed dull. But I have found that I have plenty to write about now, and creating a fictional world or event for my poem usually isn’t necessary. And I write short fiction, as well, so I’d rather try and keep these two genres separate, though both still veer over into the other territory. The truth is imagined certainly, and the imagined is true in its own way. No?

Is this a narrative poem?

No. This is a lyric poem. My definition of narrative is movement through time and space from one point to another. This poem, I believe, operates in the lyric moment. It isn’t exclusively about the music (I don’t strum the lyre, ever), but I do highly value the sonic repetitions and variations.

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

I can’t remember, but looking at this now, I see hints of the descriptive nature of both Elizabeth Bishop (subtle) and Charlie Smith (outlandish). And maybe even some Yeatsian grandiloquence mixed with the flat matter-of-fact.

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

Like Auden claimed, my friends and the poets I admire are my audience. More importantly, God. By this, I mean that I want it to be true and beautiful, but not a sacrifice. God doesn’t demand a sacrifice but praise.

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. I have two or three other poets to whom I show my work. They are gracious and tough. I prefer tough, though it’s nice to hear a compliment. I have learned to wait until it is fairly well-formed, though. I used to bother people with very new and awfully flawed work. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s oddly abstract at the end. I’m not sure I’ve earned it. And it is very judgmental.

What is American about this poem?

Whitman and Dickinson. And Poe, the voyeur.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I believe every poem I’ve ever written could be better, but at some point I run out of ideas, and I need to move on to something else, or I will end up hating the poem and poetry. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lynne Knight

Lynne Knight’s fourth collection, Again, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2009. Her previous collections are Dissolving Borders (Quarterly Review of Literature), The Book of Common Betrayals (Bear Star Press), and Night in the Shape of a Mirror (David Robert Books), plus three award-winning chapbooks. A cycle of poems on Impressionist winter paintings, Snow Effects (Small Poetry Press), has been translated into French by Nicole Courtet. Knight’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2000, and her awards include a Theodore Roethke Award from Poetry Northwest, a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, an NEA grant, and the 2009 RATTLE Poetry Prize. She lives in Berkeley, California.


TO THE YOUNG MAN WHO CRIED OUT "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" WHEN I BACKED INTO HIS CAR

I was thinking No. No, oh no. Not one more thing.
I was thinking my mother, who sat rigid
in the passenger seat crying, How terrible!
as if we had hit a child not your front bumper,
would drive me mad, and then there would be
two of us mad, mother and daughter, and things
would be easier, they said things would be easier
once she went to the other side, into complete total
madness. I was thinking how young you looked,
how impossibly young, and trying to remember
myself young, my body, my voice, almost another
person, and I wanted to weep for all I had let
come and go so casually, lovers, cities, flowers,
and then I was thinking You little shit for the way
you stood outside my window with your superior air
as if I were a stupid old woman with a stupid old woman
beside her, stood shouting What were you thinking?
as if I were incapable of thought, as I nearly was,
exhausted as I’d become tending my mother,
whom I had just taken to the third doctor in so many
days, and you shouting your rhetorical question
then asking to see my license, your li-cense, slowly,
as if I would not understand the word, and the lover
who made me feel as if I never knew anything
appeared then, stepped right into your body saying
What were you thinking? after I had told him, sobbed
to him, that I thought he was, I thought he was,
I thought we would—and then my mother began
to cry, as if she had stepped into my body, only years
before, or was it after, and suddenly I saw the whole
human drama writ plain, a phrase I felt I had never
understood until then, an October afternoon in Berkeley,
California, warm, warm, two vehicles stopped in
heavy traffic on campus, a woman deciding to make way
for a car trying to cross Gayley, act of random kindness
she thought might bring her luck then immediately—
right before impact—knew would be bad luck,
if it came, being so impure in its motive,
and then the unraveling of the beautiful afternoon
into anger and distress that would pass unnoticed
by most of the world, would soon be forgotten by those
witnessing the event, and eventually those experiencing it
while the sun went on lowering itself toward the bay
and gingko trees shook their gold leaves loose
until a coed on the way home from class, unaware
a car had backed into another car, unaware of traffic,
stopped to watch the shower of gingko, thought of Zeus
descending on the sleeping Danaë in a shower of gold,
and smiled over all her own lover would do
in the bright timeless stasis before traffic resumed.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in 2009, long after the event, almost thirteen years after the event. It was triggered by my hearing Camille Dungy read a poem (not her own) about a pickup, I think an accident with a pickup, but I remember neither the poet nor the poem’s title. I didn’t feel anything particular when I heard Camille read the poem, beyond liking it; I mean, I didn’t feel any spark going off in me as sometimes happens when something triggers a poem. But the next morning, when I sat down at my desk as usual, this poem poured out.

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

I revised the ending a bit a month or so after writing it. I know Virginia Woolf said that writing is revision, and it’s something I always told my students, but I think different writers have different ways of revising. My “revision” usually takes the form of writing a bunch of bad poems before I get to the actual poem. There’s no formula; sometimes it takes five bad poems—they’re not poems, at all; I call them exercises—and sometimes it takes fifty or more. But I generally know if something is or isn’t a poem by the time I’ve finished writing it, and then my revision process usually consists of changing a word here or there, or cutting extraneous lines. With this poem, I changed some words toward the end.

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

I believe in inspiration, but I don’t think we should sit around waiting for it. If it happens, it’s a gift. But it can be a gift we’re not ready to accept if we haven’t been practicing to use it. I always resort to sports metaphors when I think about this subject. I think Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, just to take two of my all-time favorites, are both inspired athletes. But think what would happen if they just waited, without practicing at all, to feel “up” for a game or a meet. We wouldn’t even know their names. And the ones whose names few of us know, the lesser athletes—even they can’t play the game or swim the race without practicing.

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

I write in form quite often, so I always know when I set out—after the first line—whether I’m heading into a formal structure or free verse. When I’m working in free verse, I listen to the rhythm and the music—or listen for them, I guess is more accurate.

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

I wrote it as fast as I can type. But I’d written countless poems about my mother and her dementia by then (in fact, a whole book of them, and then more), so I think it’s fair to say that I wrote this poem in “real” time in twenty minutes or so, but in fact it took me thirteen years to write it.

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

I wrote the poem sometime in the spring, March, I think. I sent it out in June, and it was published in December. It won the 2009 RATTLE prize.

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 try to observe the rule I made up after having embarrassed myself by sending poems out that I’d written the day before or, gasp, the same day. I call it the Fast Track to Shame Rule. 

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

I don’t feel bound by fact when I write a poem. I believe all poets and fiction writers sometimes have to lie in order to tell the truth. But as it happens, this particular poem happened pretty much the way it says things happened.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. I know narrative poems have fallen into disfavor is some circles, but I happen to love narrative. I think it’s at the heart of all art—painting, music, fiction, poetry. I love story. I want to know where I am when I’m reading. That doesn’t mean it has to be someplace familiar. But I don’t want to feel as if I’m just adrift in words. I once heard a poet say, by way of introducing the poems about to be read (I’m avoiding telltale pronouns here), that we shouldn’t struggle for meaning; we should let the words wash over us like a warm bath. And I thought, I can take my own warm baths, thank you very much. I want to know what you think, what you see, what you dream. Not just the list of words that happened to drift by. I’m exaggerating to make a point.

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

I don’t remember whose poems I’d read at the time of writing this poem, apart from the poem Camille Dungy read, the one I can’t really remember. But in general, I can name my influences: Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Frost when I was in high school; Rilke when I was in college. Stevens, but not all of Stevens. I concede his genius, but sometimes I find his poems so abstruse I might as well be reading a code I can’t crack. Sylvia Plath. Any woman my age was influenced by Plath, and after her, Sexton. But the two that really insinuated their voices and music into my mind and body were Eliot and Rilke.

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

My sister’s a great reader, as were our parents. In fact, my mother wrote poems when she was young, and when we were young, she sang poems to us, poems she’d memorized and created her own melodies for, or poems she just made up as she went along. So, to get back to the question: I consider my sister my ideal reader. First of all, she actually does read my work. If she doesn’t understand it (and this happens more than I like), then I regard the failure as my own. I don’t want to write poems that an intelligent, well-read woman who happens to be a lawyer not another poet or writer doesn’t get, at all. I don’t want the response to my work to be, Huh? What the hell is she talking about?

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’ve been in the same poetry group for over twenty years. Our numbers have dwindled, but we meet once a month. It happened that I didn’t show them this poem, but I do regularly rely on them for criticism, which I trust, which is always useful.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, I think it’s more successful than many of them.

What is American about this poem?

I hope nothing. I really hope nothing. And it’s not because I don’t want to be identified as American. I just happen to think that good poetry transcends its country of origin. Even if a poem’s particulars identify it as being of a certain country, I think those borders dissolve when the poem does what it should do, or at least what I think it should do and what I work every day to make mine do—speak directly to the human heart.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I think Valéry was right: they’re all abandoned. Even a villanelle as seemingly perfect as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” was, I’m sure, abandoned. That’s what I love about writing: I always feel there’s more I could do, a higher level I could reach, even as I know I’ll never reach it. No matter how many villanelles I write, I’ll never get close to the perfection of “One Art.”

But it’s self-sabotaging to look at it that way. It’s silencing. The dreams I had of fame and fortune when I was eighteen are obviously not going to come true. They were foolish, anyway (fortune? poetry??!). What really matters is the writing. I feel really, really lucky to be able to get up every day, walk my dog, sweep the decks, and write.