Friday, February 1, 2019

Lana K. W. Austin


Lana K. W. Austin’s poems, short stories, and reviews have recently been featured in Mid-AmericanReview, Sou’wester, Columbia Journal, Zone 3, AppalachianHeritage, The Colorado Review, The Pinch, and others. Winner of the 2018 Words & Music Poetry Award, Austin has been a finalist and semi-finalist in multiple other competitions, including the James Wright Poetry Award, the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award, the Zone 3 Book Award, the American Short Fiction Award, the Still: The Journal Fiction Award, and the Machigonne Fiction Award. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, Austin studied creative writing at both Hollins University and the University of Mary Washington as an undergraduate and has an MFA from George Mason University (2008). Her full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018) and her chapbook, InSearch of the Wild Dulcimer, is from Finishing Line Press (2016). Austin has lived in England, Italy, and Washington, DC, but currently resides in Alabama, where she is an adjunct instructor in the English department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.


PRESERVED

Don’t worry if you bruise the fruit,
my mother said, when you’re cutting off

the tops and chopping the rest up--the brown
fleshy parts make the sweetest preserves.

Move your fingers quickly, like your father’s
combine, separating and harvesting

the crop—make your fingers the machine
and after a while they’ll do it on their own—

like the muscle memory the organist
at church says lets her fingers play

“How Great Thou Art” without thinking.
And while I’d never been able to do two things

at once before, I’d waited long enough
to learn this trick of turning bitter fruit

into jeweled jars of sugar-thickened jam,
a process that left a smell in the house so rich

you felt the air around you might drop
to the ground, heavy. I’d also waited to learn

what the special ingredient was—the secret
all my grandmothers, aunts and older sisters

had kept like monogrammed handkerchiefs
saved a whole generation for a new bride.

Now everything was joining, an arc
of constant movement between my two hands,

the knife, the fruit, the bowl— the rhythm
I’d anticipated for so long, a song whose cadence

meant I was a woman now, old enough
to preserve things using knives and hot paraffin

to seal it all in. It took half an hour to notice
I’d cut myself, but when I told my mother,

as I started to throw out the ruined fruit,
she laid one juice-slickened hand on mine

to stop me, holding my finger up. That’s deep
enough, she said, without going down

to the bone, to make this year’s batch the best yet.
She told me to keep on working

as the bubbling water, ready to melt the wax,
was the only sound.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem is years old, but I’m so glad that you picked it, because it brings me deep joy to remember beloved Claudia Emerson, who helped bring it, like so much of Blood Harmony, to life. It was composed as one of the last pieces for my Honors Thesis, which Claudia directed. It most definitely started with her because she was the catalyst for my turning back to Kentucky, my home, as the central focus of much of my writing. Before that I’d been, sorry to be blunt, chickenshit when it came to writing about my life in Kentucky. I could politely say I had “immense trepidations.” No. I’d been chickenshit.

She, ever so forthrightly, made me believe that I didn’t have to be afraid anymore to be as agrarian as I wanted, which, to be perfectly honest, had always deterred me before. I was the foster care/orphan girl finally adopted as an older kid from a no-stoplight town in Kentucky. I didn’t want to play into the stereotype, to perpetuate something negative, though. Maybe, too, I, always wanting to choose joy as much as possible, just didn’t want to remember the hard times. But, that’s ridiculous. Life can be hard, no matter how positive we are. So at her urging, I realized I was missing many opportunities to mine rich ore and I course-corrected. She wanted me to write the poems that I wanted and needed to write, and if they were about Kentucky, they were about Kentucky. And this, a true story, came out.

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

This went through several drafts as I recall. Certainly numerous small tweaks because, to this day, I can’t seem to strip my language down to where it’s lean enough, certainly not in the early drafts. I always start too big and have to refine everything. Claudia took me through at least two edits with it, too, that I remember, and I believe there were about four months between the very first draft and the final version I turned in for publication.

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

Oh, I believe one hundred percent in both inspiration, a gorgeous muse that comes and kisses you hard on the mouth when you least expect it, and also sweat and tears pig-headed stubborn tenacity to birth a poem. Both are integral. Much of the original part of the poem was “received,” just this gift of language, of the narrative percolating up and out of me intuitively, but there were oodles of stray bits that needed to be trimmed, too, and that took time and dogged resolve. Maybe not literal sweat and tears, but certainly massively humbling moments when I’d think, “How can I ever get this right?”

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

This poem arrived at its final form through the aforementioned convergence of Claudia’s urging me to write what I wanted to write without fear, that gift of original inspiration, and the pigheaded stubbornness that allowed me to keep at it as I made dozens of edits. As far as technique, I tried very much so to be sensitive to sound even though this is, in essence, a micro story that’s lineated. This is a narrative poem, but pays some homage to lyricism, too, which is indebted to those sonic moments that I purposefully embedded. I love a good yarn, but I love beauty, too, oral and aural splendor. Not that I’m saying that there’s splendor here in what I wrote, but I tried to hear this poem like a reader would, to be sensitive to that, to hope for a moment or two that would caress someone’s ear.

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

Only that it was one of the first pieces where I started to let go of my profound self-consciousness and insecurity about being the foster care/orphan girl from Kentucky. Claudia truly did help me realize it was okay to be exactly who I was, on the page, and in life. There was a wild freedom in that, a gift I’m still trying to repay.

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

This is really anomalous, but as a poet this was my first non-student publication in print and the easiest by far. And please note that after this I waited over TEN YEARS to begin submitting my poems again on my own because I needed to finish my MFA, and I had babies, and I worked multiple jobs, had multiple surgeries, and moved back and forth overseas, too. It sounds crazy and surreal, but I didn’t even have to submit this poem. Claudia was guest editing a small, but lovely literary journal called Visions International, and she asked to include this piece specifically. Yes, how remarkably generous of her. I think I might have to go cry now after typing that last sentence, remembering her shining benevolence.

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?

Oh, this varies with every poem for me. Since I finally started pretty regularly (well, it still ebbs and flows since I’m writing so much fiction and teaching at UAH, too) submitting poems for publication four years ago, there’s been a diversity in terms of how long I let a poem sit. One poem, “For Emmylou,” I wrote and started submitting just a few weeks later after having edited/revised it only a few times and it got picked up only a few months later by The Pinch, I believe. Some I wait much longer in terms of gestating time. Honestly, I go by gut instinct or sometimes ADD tendencies with what’s humming along right in front of me at the moment.

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

I’d like to say that this poem is totally fact, or compressed fact because I condensed some elements from different parts of my family. But memory is a prism, through which the truth/history/our past is poured and refracted, which means that our truth, even when we can pass a lie detector test and say that we’re absolutely conveying the story as accurately as we remember it, is somewhat malleable or tenuous and it splinters into facets. I think there have to be fragments of fiction in this, even though my heart believes I’ve told the honest-to-goodness truth. I believe this poem is a dance, yes a dance, of fact and fiction, like so many things are.

Is this a narrative poem?

Most certainly this is narrative, but with tiny bursts of what I hope to be lyrical light because I was a musician for a long time and the sonorous aesthetics of language move me. Beautiful sounds folding over and into themselves make love to my ears and I try to incorporate them into every poem a tiny bit--even when I have a specific story I need to convey. At least that’s my hope, even if I can’t always bring it to fruition.

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

Oh my heavens, there isn’t enough time to list everyone I was reading. I’ve long been an insomniac and thus a voracious reader, but these were my touchstones then and still are. I know specifically because I discussed these writers at length with Claudia (and she’s the one who first got me gobsmacked about Betty Adcock!) as I proceeded with my Honors Thesis, what would grow to be my MFA Thesis, and finally into Blood Harmony: Robert Penn Warren, Natasha Trethewey, Steve Scafidi, Betty Adcock, Dave Smith, James Wright, Ted Kooser, Muriel Rukeyser, and though they are prose writers, they nonetheless influenced my poetry beyond description and I was flitting between them, too, at the time: Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, Jill McCorkle, and William Faulkner.

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

I am greedy and want a dichotomy, please, when it comes to this question; I envision two readers! I long for the poet who will desire the spondees that I’m madly in love with as well as the references to Eugenio Montale, or anyone with knowledge of prosody and who has read and loved widely in poetry, but I’d concurrently love to have a reader who doesn’t know a thing about poetry technically. It’d be my dream, my honor, to write a poem, the same poem, that would engage both kinds of readers deeply, to make them think and feel and dream, to sense all that a poem can be, and maybe even a little offering of mine could do that one day, or at least I aspire to write something that could do 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?

Only Claudia and maybe one or two in our small Senior Seminar workshop saw this poem. For more recent poems, however, over the years I’ve been grateful to have had the finest creative writing professors (not only Claudia, but Jen Atkinson, Eric Pankey, Jeanne Larsen, Peter Klappert, etc.) and fellow workshop poets in my undergrad and MFA programs. And recently I’ve also worked with not only some gifted UAH professor-poets, but some amazingly talented and inspiring poets in a group lovingly brought together by Jeff Hardin, whom he calls the Fellowship. I’m intensely grateful to this summer/fall’s Fellowship group, as I believe they have helped me grow tremendously. I send them the roughest of rough drafts all the time and they still speak to me afterwards! Additionally, there have been some powerhouse poets, people who are leaps and bounds beyond me, who have generously helped me and encouraged me with individual poems even though they have never formally been my professors, people like Steve Scafidi, Dave Smith, and R. T. Smith. Their advice has been gold, pure gold, I tell you.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s more literal. Many of my other poems “go someplace else” as I like to describe it…some kind of otherworldly breaking through, with a moment of magic or mystery or just some tiny bit of the “other” touching the mundane. This one is exactly what it says it is, though.

What is American about this poem?

The bleeding of the women as they have to just keep on working. Wait, that’s not American, that’s everywhere. Sad, but true. Maybe the combine, the organist playing the church hymn, those feel as if they are classic Southern/Americana images.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

As much as I could possibly endeavor to do so, I humbly proffer that this poem was finished.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

William Brewer

William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind (2017), a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Oxyana. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry ReviewThe Nation, New England Review, The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Sewanee Review, and other journals. Formerly a Stegner Fellow, he is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.


STRAYS

It was only after waking for the first time in years
beside a stranger, in that gray valley
where morning hasn’t yet taken responsibility,
that I thought I understood at last
why the man from the bar who never spoke
but drank quietly every day at the same seat
for the same hours, and whom I was once
paid to follow home, would sit in his small
living room and call the pound on speakerphone
and ask about a dog that didn’t exist
so that when the receptionist
went walking through the kennels
holding the cordless receiver
looking for the dog-that-wasn’t
you could hear all hell rattling in the cages,
thrashing the chains, could almost sense,
even from where I was standing
outside his window looking through a break
in the curtains, the drool shining on the teeth
bared in the black, dank holes, how
enough abandoned things screaming
could make a sound large enough to find
a rhythm in it, which is to say, something dependable—
I woke next to no one and when she woke
I was no one for a minute, too.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was composed sometime in February of 2017. I was due to visit a mentor’s house and bring some poems, which I did every week. I had nothing new to show her and had spent the previous day toiling over some terrifically bad thing that I knew I couldn’t bring. Then, that morning, in what was maybe a flash of panic about showing up empty handed, I wrote this poem over maybe an hour and a half? But in truth, I think it had been brewing in my head for maybe a year, and I had to slog through the mud of that bad poem to finally break through into the more interesting thing. My imagination is sometimes very earnest and tries to gives pieces a chance that don’t really deserve one.

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

After I showed it to my mentor, she had me bring it into workshop, and after that I tinkered a bit more, so maybe four drafts total? This is very rare. But again, I think this was a poem that incubated in the brain and was born almost fully formed.

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

I of course believe in inspiration, though I think that the more interesting occurrences of inspiration are often engendered through a lot of sweat and tears. The hardest work is getting your imagination to completely overpower your humdrum mind and make something you had no idea was buzzing around inside your skull. This poem happened in a flash that, in truth, came only after I banged my forehead into an oak desktop for twenty four hours.

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

I’d like to think that at this point I’ve internalized technique so that when it’s being deployed, it’s happening through instinct, which of course just means that I hope my instincts have become more elegant expressions because of my study of technique.

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

It doesn’t usually happen that quickly.

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

About sixteen 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?

No rules about this. I send poems once I think they’re done.

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

I think the question of fact and fiction in poetry is tremendously boring and is a symptom of our current age, when the people that run our world operate through a system of blatant, unending lies. I believe that we, as a literary culture, have allowed our desperate—though completely understandable—desire for facts to infect how we engage with literature, especially poetry. We’re asking for the facts from an art form that is in service to truths. Facts aren’t poetry’s job. This poem is 100% true and 100% false.

Is this a narrative poem?

The more I hear this phrase, the less I’m sure what it means. There’s a narrative in the sense that something happens, but I’m inclined to describe this as essentially lyrical. Or maybe it’s an act of cinema. Yeah, that’s what it is—I think.

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

I can’t remember who I was reading at the time but there’s a pretty strong chance that a book by one or more of the following writers was present on my desk: W.G. Sebald, Carl Phillips, Solmaz Sharif, Margaret Ross, Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo.

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

My wife, my mentors, my friends—I try not to look like an idiot in front of them, though I often do, and that’s okay.

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?

Wife, mentors, friends, and this one was also seen by my Stegner Workshop, which was really generous and great.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s part of what will be my second book, which is different than my first book in a million different ways, though if I think about what those differences are I’ll lose a sense of creative freedom and naivety, so I can’t say.

What is American about this poem?

I wrote it.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It abandoned me.

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.